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Sometimes, video games are better when they let you walk away

Scheduling advice for Lost in the Lands Between

the godlike Pokémon Arceus on a rainbow background in Pokémon Legends: Arceus Image: The Pokémon Company
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Dear Polygon,

I’m a 30-year-old with a full-time office job. On the side, I also draw a webcomic and am trying to develop a (potential) career in digital art. Playing video games is one of my favorite ways to unwind after a busy day. The problem is, when I get into a game, I REALLY get into it. I have limited free time, and my obsession with the game can crowd out the activities that are more important to me, like working on my art. Obviously, some of this problem can be solved by working on my own time blindness and willpower, but I still would like to know: Can you recommend some games that are easier than others to step away from? And do you have any strategies for pacing yourself when playing new games?

— Lost in the Lands Between

Well, Lost in the Lands Between, this is a tricky question! When I get engrossed in a game that I love, I also find it hard to step away. And though I cover the video game industry for a living, it can often be hard to justify playing games that are time sinks, since I also have to report and write, and find time for other hobbies such as painting and reading. It’s a work in progress for me, too. But I do have some strategies and game recommendations that have made things easier for me — and they may work for you as well.

When my life is particularly busy (read: hectic) I try to stick to games that are easy to jump into and out of. I’ve found that Citizen Sleeper, which I mentioned briefly in a past Dear Polygon, is great for this, because the game operates in quick cycles that act as natural bookends for a session. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge can function similarly: The levels are quick (about 10 minutes each) and are perfect for short bursts between tasks.

Despite taking place in a large open world, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is also perfect for this kind of staccato rhythm. I can break up the game naturally by segmenting play sessions into single field outings to collect Pokémon, creating that easy save point to turn off the game once I’ve returned back to camp and updated the Pokédex. Have you tried Neon White? Its seamless platforming and shooting are basically tailor-made for quick sessions, provided you’re not trying repeatedly to beat your friend’s low time on the leaderboards. Lastly, against all odds, I’ve finally gotten into Fortnite. Its no-build mode removed one of the multiplayer game’s most intimidating factors, and it’s easier than ever for me to play a round before going back to painting.

I understand, though, that none of these games are particularly similar to games that you mentioned in the Dear Polygon form. You listed Elden Ring, and it struck a chord. It’s those sorts of games, like The Witcher 3 and The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, that really suck me in and make it harder to exert any willpower over my time management. Lately, I’ve found that it helps to put these games aside until I know for a fact that I’ll have tons of free time to get lost in their worlds — times where I’m OK with my other hobbies falling by the wayside. I think it’s reasonable to have an ebb and flow in that regard, but I am always mindful of making sure it doesn’t stay that way forever.

One other thing that’s been helpful in managing all of my different hobbies while also maintaining a full-time job is actually really boring. I schedule things.

It’s truly against my nature, as someone who enjoys chaos and spontaneity — but it works. Now, my schedule is still loose, and I often break it. But merely having a schedule helps me get started and removes the indecision when it comes time to actually dive into a new book or video game. For example, I use the few hours I’m up before work to paint and draw in my sketchbook. That’s when I naturally feel the most creative and excited to paint. And of course, if I don’t feel like it on certain mornings, I don’t. And that’s fine. My lunch breaks are a perfect chance to work my way through whatever book I’m reading so I can use the time after dinner to play video games.

It’s by no means a rigorous schedule that I have to stick to every day. But mapping out a loose timeline wherein hobbies fit naturally has been immensely helpful in keeping up with the things I love. A bit of planning, combined with games that allow you to happily walk away, could do wonders until your next vacation — at which point you’ll be able to dive into that next open-world game without any distractions at all.