Like most people who use an alarm clock, I have an unhealthy relationship with stress. It hits me in the chest, disrupts my digestion, and wakes me up at all hours of the night — but it's also the reason I'm going to meet my deadline for this column. Life brings stress, but stress is also a self-inflicted wound, like we're suffering a blow that may never come.
Not many people would call stress "fun," and yet video games can be stressful. We sometimes willingly pay money to be more stressed. This year gave us a bumper crop of stressful games, and the other day as I was tossing and turning at 5:00 am., I decided to rank them on the inside wall of my cranium. Lucas Pope's recent Papers, Please made it onto the list, and so did Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life. But I started with Nintendo's Pikmin 3.
You're probably a skilled enough gamer that Pikmin 3, an adorable and kid-friendly strategy game, didn't give you too much trouble. But if it didn't stress you out, that's probably because you've already internalized one of the greatest pressures in modern life: managing time on your own.
This year gave us a bumper crop of stressful games
Every day, you and your obedient pikmin go off in all directions to explore new areas, solve new puzzles, and dig up new resources. The sun marches mercilessly across the top of the screen until you get a warning — "Hurry up!" — and you have to round everyone up and get home. Stray pikmin get killed, but worse yet, every project you started has to be abandoned. If you just killed a boss and it's getting to be dusk, you have to run home without collecting your spoils.
Pikmin 3 would be a different game without that time pressure. The cycle is gentle. You can always pick up a project the next day, you can even come back to a boss fight and your progress will be saved — but your first reaction is to feel hemmed in. You want to do everything, and you can't. The world isn't fair, and you're not ready to accept it. Pikmin 3 was inspired by a garden but its scheduling mechanic is straight out of recess time, or play dates, or any situation where some adult can say, "Five more minutes!"
Now, I expected Papers, Please to be even more stressful than Pikmin 3. Instead, it just ground me down. The best game I've ever played about proofreading, it casts you as a border guard for an authoritarian 1980's Eastern Bloc nation. An endless line of asylum seekers, lost family members, criminals, victims and innocents comes by your window, and you have to scrutinize the papers they hand you, looking for any detail that would reveal they're lying. Papers, Please also gives you a limited amount of time every day, but this came as a relief from the difficult mental work I was doing — and I didn't even mind the screen that told me how cold, or hungry, or sick my family was getting because I wasn't pulling my weight.
Papers, Please is an empathy game, and I mostly felt empathy for myself. Now I understand how easily someone who makes life and death decisions can learn to take it lightly. The monotony of my work overcame me: if I had to follow the rules of the game, why shouldn't everyone else? When I separated a husband from his wife, who didn't have good papers, I shrugged at her as she returned to hell: why didn't you get the entry permit? Why is this my fault?
Every time it made me miserable, I had someone to blame. The situation is bad, but it's the system's fault and the state's fault. It didn't depress me and it didn't stress me out; it just made me numb. I'm guessing that's the point.
By contrast, Cart Life gets an "Oh, man. That game is so stressful" from everyone I know. It runs the risk of becoming the Metal Machine Music of stressful games, pigeonholed as something you expect to subject yourself to, rather than enjoy. But the truth is, only the beginning of Cart Life is stressful. And that's why I keep going around nudging people about it and urging them to play it, and to stick with it. Because while it is easily the most stressful game I've ever played, it has an amazing payoff.
Why is this my fault?
In three different storylines, two of which are free to play, Cart Life casts you as a person who is down on their luck and almost out of cash, who decides to start a small business to get back on their feet. I played the game as a woman named Melanie, who is getting a divorce and trying to win custody of her daughter. Right from the start, every aspect of trying to open a business is overwhelming. The game gives you a map of an unfamiliar town. Little is explained, and reminders about important events — like, picking up your kid from school — flash by for a second, so it's easy to miss them. By the middle of the game's seven day timeline (there's that timeline, again), I was out of money, my family was falling apart, and I still hadn't even opened my business I needed a drink. I needed too many drinks.
This was stressful because every single bad thing that happened was clearly my fault. I played the game badly. I couldn't manage my time. I couldn't figure out what to do with the information in front of me. The mistakes were all mine.
And that's why Cart Life is also one of the most sublime games I have ever played. Because once you do get the business running, you start to serve customers. Some of them tip you. You make money, and spend it to feed yourself, and you still come out ahead. You're finally in charge.
Put together, these games form an arc — an understanding of how we grow to understand, accept, and finally, use stress as an engine in our lives. Pikmin 3 is a game for kids, about how you can never do everything you want to do; Papers, Please is a game about adolescence, that teaches us to accept the pressures life brings us. And then in Cart Life we see stress the way adults understand it: as something we bring on ourselves, for our own good.
Sometimes you seek out more stress, and other times you just give up. It makes us; it kills us; it entertains us.
Chris Dahlen keeps it all on the inside. He is formerly of Edge, The Onion AV Club, Paste, and Kill Screen Magazine, where he was co-founder and editor. He was also the writer on Klei's Mark of the Ninja. Look him up on Twitter @savetherobot.