I come back home after a long day at school. It’s still early since I didn’t get to make plans today, and I’m also running low on cash to hit the bar anytime soon. In exchange I get to spend a few hours studying math and history, the scribbling on the paper being the only sound in my quiet, lonely apartment. I eat instant ramen and head outside to the balcony. Time passes, and now the only lights come from the lightpost on the street, and the tip of my cigarette. There goes another night in The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa.
All of this took only a couple of minutes, but I had already started to feel the weight of each hour. Once you get used to a new life, even one locked within a virtual clock, time starts to pass slower. Routines in games grant us opportunities to get into a virtual world through a different perspective, witnessing the often overlooked moments in everyday activities.
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Stepping Into a New Life
Getting into the shoes of characters living their own lives isn’t something new in video games, but some experiences understand the importance of building your own routine. And by doing so, the path is more engaging, and personal, even if there’s usually a linear storyline getting in the way.
In The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa, the main goal is to finish your last semester in high school. You can be a bookworm who gets good grades and understands the importance of going to bed early. You can follow a rebel path, taking part in fistfights in train stations to show other gangs who rules in town. Or you can ignore this yakuza influence and roam around, bumping into friends during random events and staying up until 4 AM drinking beer and playing pool.
Day and night are yours to tackle how you see fit. In fact, the game is so open that it becomes daunting at times to figure out what to do. But slowly, you start learning your way around each street. After a few in-game weeks, you’ll probably know all your friends’ names and what they’re struggling with.
Being able to shape Ringo’s life in so many tiny ways is refreshing. I’ve never been a person who would feel comfortable skipping classes, let alone getting into fights with rival gangs, but it’s easy to resonate with his loneliness and struggles. In most games, you would only see the in betweens. But when you’re part of a routine, you get to not only see, but shape the big picture.
The Friends You Make Along the Way
The Persona series started to divide gameplay into calendar days with Persona 3. In these games, attending classes and making friends is equally important as fighting demons.
Establishing bonds, in particular, is a core aspect of the series. Hanging out and leveling up social links allows both you and your partners to become stronger together.
Here we see a routine that’s much more tied to the story. But you’re the one calling the shots each day after class, whether it’s going back to the dungeon to keep making progress towards the last floor, or spending your afternoon eating junk food and talking about life with whoever was available that day. Everything counts toward the end goal, but this goal is simultaneously intertwined.
Persona 4, for example, has a distinct condition to keep you focused on the main path. You’re free to procrastinate all you want, but once it starts raining in Inaba, it means time is running out. An urban legend involving a midnight TV channel and a murderer on the loose preaches that a new victim will be taken once the fog sets in. Some moments are beyond your reach, of course, but the responsibility is clear and set on your shoulders from the beginning. It’s you who always gets to see the day after and try to find the best way to carry on.
However, this is still a calendar, which not only carries events and holidays, but also a long routine throughout months of in game time that relies on you. You can forget to give back that movie you rented early in the year, or start a part-time job for some extra income.
Summer vacations, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, they’re all here too, always tailored to what you did or didn’t during the past few months. This can lead to all sorts of situations, such as missing an opportunity to have a special moment with someone you fancy during a school trip.
There’s a linear story that you must follow no matter what, but the appeal of emergent situations like this is probably the most unique aspect, and something that Persona has exceeded in. Taking part in everyday conversations helps to build relationships with the game’s cast beyond the need for progression.
Making Other Plans
Routines can get rather messy, and no one is exempt from missing a deadline. It’s even worse when you have an entire micro world to look after, with townsfolk expecting you to visit them pretty much on a daily basis.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf was the first game I played for my Nintendo 3DS, and while I had already heard the stories of how engaging it could become, I wasn’t expecting its routine to be mixed up with mine in such a methodic and terrifying way. It only took a single element to add a new layer of complexity, which is the fact that the game tracks your local time and date, for it to invade my life.
At first, no one in my town paid attention to me. Conversations were short and to the point, and I spent a few days just going back and forth between them, looking for something to happen. As time passed, though, I was burying treasures on the town’s beach per request. Curt, a massive bear that had probably the strongest voice between my townsfolk, started calling me “fuzzball” soon after. I was proud to finally be earning my place.
It became a regular routine to check on my anthropomorphic friends once a day right before bed. By the time I got home from college, after spending most of my time in a full time job, shops in my town were already closed. But this didn’t stop me from checking on Gloria and Cookie.
Some even proposed scheduled hangouts, in which I got to choose the time I was going to be present. One day I came rushing from classes, only to find out villagers can also be delayed as I sat by myself for half an hour in my home. But hey, it happens to everyone. And as soon as I heard “fuzzball”, I knew I couldn’t get mad.
Embracing a new routine can lead to different outcomes depending on how organized you are, and some games might even let you have one that’s available at your own pace, experiencing a different life altogether. When you’re tied to a routine, it gives you a much closer perspective to moments that are often told through cutscenes, or even skipped altogether.
The experiences you get are often personal, and so is the emotion you take away from each day. Video games are great at presenting new worlds filled with lore and places to explore. But once mundane activities get in the way, and elements like following an agenda or your own time of day intertwine, the result is far more rich.
Living Ringo’s last autumn before graduation let me experience school in ways I never had the chance nor the courage to, breaking the rules and focusing on friends first and foremost, even if at first his life seemed as isolated as mine. With Persona, I saw this even more, having a group on which I could rely on when the odds were against us. And in Animal Crossing, I always had someone waiting for me after a long day at work, and I was constantly thinking about my townsfolk when I was away, taking notes of ongoing tasks and upcoming birthdays.
More games should let us live in unique worlds day by day, inviting us to make mistakes and learn from them as we go. Even when the ending might already be set in stone from the start, we get to build our own memories as we get there. Staying up late, missing deadlines, and living lives we’ve never had can be just as engaging as fighting demons or finding treasure — and the incorporation of the former often makes the latter that much sweeter.