Gaming habits: do you dip, or do you deep dive?

My gaming habits have changed quite significantly over the years — partly due to changes in technology and game design, but also simply due to changes in my own tastes. And I find it quite interesting to contemplate various different approaches to tackling the ever-present “backlog”: whether or not you “dip” into a variety of different titles, or “deep dive” into a single experience at a time, trying to get the most out of it.

Back in the earliest days of gaming — we’re talking Atari 8-bit home computers here — I was very much a dipper, because the games tended to lend themselves to this style of play. Many of them were arcade-style affairs — often ports of arcade games, in fact — and as such they tended to be designed in such a way that a single play session was maybe a couple of minutes at most, perhaps more if you were good at the game in question.

Gaming habits: Star Raiders

In fact, games that you could finish were relatively rare; I think the first game I ever actually beat was probably Star Raiders from Atari, which has a definitive win state — but which at the same time is designed to be endlessly replayed on different difficulty levels and randomised starting conditions. To beat Star Raiders takes anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes or so, after which you either play it again or go play something else.

Exceptions to this did exist, of course. The 8-bit home computing era saw the birth of the text adventure game — what we now know as “interactive fiction”, a medium that still thrives today — and that genre provided more substantial experiences that many players enjoyed over the course of several play sessions. Likewise, early role-playing games such as first installments in the legendary (and highly influential) Ultima series provided epic quests to take on, designed to be enjoyed over the long term.

In terms of my own gaming habits, I was still a dipper, though. I was young and had a relatively limited attention span — but mostly I simply enjoyed the variety of different experiences I could have on my computer. One moment I could be racing a Formula 1 car around Pole Position’s rough approximation of Fuji Speedway; the next I could be blasting aliens into next week until they inevitably overran my position in Space Invaders; after that I could be conducting some competitive espionage thanks to Spy vs. Spy.

The games I played, for the most part, catered to that tendency to dip; they were friendly to short play sessions, but offered a degree of depth that could be explored if you so desired.

Gaming habits: Super Mario World

As time went on, my gaming habits shifted more in the direction of deep diving. The first game I remember playing that I specifically wanted to make an effort to finish — and which would take more than twenty minutes to do so — was Super Mario World for Super NES. I had heard from someone — likely either a school friend or my older brother — that the end sequence was cool, and I wanted to see it for myself. So I took on the challenge and beat that game. And then, with the assistance of some guides in magazines of the time, investigated the numerous secret levels and alternative routes in that game.

From thereon, I found myself finishing more and more games as my gaming habits continued to change. Notably, I devoured the Sierra and LucasArts adventure games on PC; at the time these originally came out, these titles all felt like significantly longer games than they actually are, due to the fact that online walkthroughs weren’t easy to come by. As such, you had to work everything out yourself — which could often lead to weeks at a time with a save game called “stuck” that you’d boot up, walk around a bit in the hopes you’d be struck by some sort of divine revelation, then quit and go play Doom for a bit instead.

A turning point for me came with Final Fantasy VII on PlayStation. I was immediately smitten with this game from the very moment the introductory video started, and I knew I wanted to play this game all the way through — however long it took. (About 40 hours, as it happened.) I reached the ending, I heard the legendary One Winged Angel for the first time… and I knew that my gaming habits had to keep moving in this direction. I knew that I had to finish the games I started, because if there was something as spectacular as Final Fantasy VII’s finale waiting at the end of even half of the games I played, I’d be in absolute heaven.

From there, I fully embraced my new gaming habits: deep diving into as many of my games as possible. I’d buy a game, I’d play it, I’d usually finish it. There were exceptions — though I’d often come back to them later — but for the most part, I’d finish what I started. And I felt like I was having an immensely rewarding experience in the process. I was seeing complete creative visions come to fruition; I was enjoying complete stories that weren’t left hanging; I was seeing the overdramatic finale sequences that I had developed such a taste for with Squaresoft’s classic RPG.

And, to be honest, from thereon my gaming habits have remained pretty much constantly in the “deep dive” direction — with perhaps a bit of a temporary shift back into dipping during the Xbox 360 era. The advent of Xbox Live Arcade, after all, meant the emergence of smaller-scale digitally downloadable games that were specifically designed for dipping — the difference being that these were available alongside more substantial disc-based games that felt like “the main attraction”.

Oddly enough, though, I often found myself playing the indie hits of the day a lot more than some of the biggest disc-based releases — I couldn’t tell you how many hours I spent on Geometry Wars 2, for example.

Since I cemented my own gaming tastes firmly in the direction of anime-style role-playing games, visual novels and adventures about a decade or so ago, I’ve definitely headed back in the direction of deep diving into pretty much everything I play so far as my gaming habits are concerned. Part of this is down to the fact that I enjoy writing about them from the perspective of someone who knows what they are talking about — but I also simply enjoy the satisfaction of enjoying those complete creative works.

These days, I tend to buy games with the intention of playing them much later — as a collector of physical releases, I know that a lot of more niche-interest titles become difficult to find before long, so I will habitually pick up copies of games that I have no intention of exploring until maybe several years down the line. But I know that they’re there, and that I can fire them up any time I like.

Gaming habits: Atelier Firis

Were I ever to change my gaming habits back towards being a dipper — as I know many people are today, judging by achievement and trophy statistics on game completions — I have a substantial library of enormously varied experiences that I can turn to at any point, whether I’m in the mood for spending time with some hot definitely not criminal fellas, exploring the dungeons beneath my high school or hanging out in a creepy old mansion that absolutely definitely has a dark hidden secret. (Although I did already beat that last one, so.)

And if I don’t, I probably have more than enough games on my shelves to keep me busy until the day I die.

What’s nice about today’s gaming landscape is that it’s quite feasible to have a “big game” on the go at any given moment (Atelier Firis for me right now) and enjoy some palate cleansers when you’re not in the mood to play that. Comfy sims fit the bill nicely, as do shoot ’em ups. To put it another way, these days it’s eminently possible — even desirable — to be both a deep diver and a dipper at the same time.

Which are you? Or are you both?

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Pete Davison
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