I've been thinking a lot about why it is that I love both 2008's Bully and 2010's Persona 3 Portable, which I've recently started playing on my Vita. Both games are set in high schools, and while I'm on the record as wanting more high school games, that's only part of the reason I like them as much as I do.
What I really love about both games is that they make me keep to a schedule.
In life, I love having unscheduled time. I'm never that productive with it, but it's nice (and increasingly rare) when I'll have a stretch where I'm not supposed to be actively doing something on a deadline. While I love a good open-ended game as much as the next guy, they can sometimes stress me out. There's too much to do!
In Rockstar's Bully, players control Jimmy Hopkins, a student at Bullworth Academy. Among all of the open-world shenanigans typical of a Rockstar game, the school schedule is one of the most distinctive features of Bully. There's a clock in the corner of the screen, and everything I do is part of a regular schedule.
I remember the first time I played Bully, I was working on my first album. It required a lot of writing and a lot of scheduling. And for whatever reason, Bully fit in with my creative process perfectly. I'd play through the morning in Hopkins' day, attend a class, and then take a break to work on a recording. It provided a lovely rhythm — even the open-world quests that Jimmy is assigned wind up having to fit into his daily routine. And that routine is comforting and relaxing to me.
I feel the same way about Persona 3 Portable, which is much more regimented in its schedule than Bully, and actually more compulsive because of it. Every day there are classes to attend, friends to hang out with, and activities to undertake. It's all about choices, though — will I train in Tartarus tonight? Or will I head out with Akihiko and take Koro for a walk?
The constant scheduling of P3P is a relief, not a burden. I remember back when Leigh Alexander wrote about "Nice Guys, Stressed Ladies, and the Curious Ways they Play Video Games", she interviewed a friend who played Farmville for the comfort of the routine.
I get that! While I don't particularly enjoy Farmville, I get where Leigh's friend is coming from when she says "It just feels really good to know that I'm on top of things, I like to know my farm is in good shape and like, everyone can see it."
I like feeling as though I know just what I'm going to have to do next, like everything I do is according to a set structure. It's a response to the stresses of being an adult — I have so many decisions to make, things to take care of, bills to pay! Wouldn't it be nice to just live in a dorm, go to school and occasionally fight giant demons? Yeah, it would.
Of course, I don't mean to suggest that every game be like this. I love a good wide-open game as much as anyone else. While I enjoyed the balls-to-the-wall intensity of Mass Effect 3, I'm with Jason — I like it when games have downtime, even when they're boring. Often, to do that, they have to have a lot of unscheduled time where you can just wander around and be bored.
But all the same, I enjoy it when a game makes me schedule my time. I play video games for a lot of reasons. Sometimes I play to get away from the responsibilities and deadlines of my everyday life. But other times, I play to find some structure amid the stress of those same responsibilities and deadlines.
And yeah, OK, also to team up with a robot girl and fight demons.