In the dying hours of my work week I desperately tried to blast my way through Yoku’s Island Express. It is the quintessential Game Pass game; released in 2018 to a sanguine reception, as enthusiasts everywhere marveled at Villa Gorilla’s ability to merge pinball dexterity with Metroid-style puzzle solving, and it’s been sitting patiently in my backlog for years while I tackle the higher-priority titles on the docket. Microsoft’s subscription service seems to be designed specifically for those of us who need to chip away at the many, many games gathering dust on our bookshelves, in our attics, and within boundless Steam libraries. So frankly, it should be a blessing that I’ve been afforded the chance to finally see what Yoku was all about, ostensibly free of charge, on another one of these formless quarantine afternoons.
There was only one problem. Yoku’s Island Express was scheduled to leave Xbox Game Pass on August 15. Any hope of leisurely journeying through the flipper-laden island was doomed. My only hope was to binge my way through the story within the final few days the game would be in my grasp. Yes, I realise I had plenty of time to play Yoku when it wasn’t on the chopping block, and yes I understand that makes me a clinical procrastinator, but subscription services have a way of inflaming my innermost consumption anxieties. At the end of the month, when the content turns over, it always feels like I’m behind the curve.
The last time I felt anything comparable to my Yoku breakdown was in early June, when all seven seasons of Mad Men left Netflix. I’ve been plugging away at Mad Men for decades. (I believe I am still in the middle of season two.) It isn’t a show I love, but it carries a substantial legacy, and is well-liked by enough of my friends, that I felt like I would someday finish the series regardless — even though I would routinely go years between episodes. There was something about the solvency of the Netflix brand that made me grow complacent. Mad Men has been on the service for as long as I’ve been a subscriber, and therefore it would stay that way forever, right? Not so. The ongoing streaming wars made Netflix’s proprietorship of Mad Men one of its major casualties, and just as I did with Yoku, I spent many nights in May desperately trying to sop up the dozens of hours of television I’d put off for my entire adult life.
Video games were traditionally immune from that sensation. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel pretty guilty every time I look at the Fallout 4 disc. I put maybe five hours into Bethesda’s most recent epic back in 2015, and despite my best intentions I haven’t made my way back since. (Similar condolences can be offered to The Witcher 3, Final Fantasy XV, and so on.) But there’s never been a time crunch on my inevitable return. Physical media doesn’t deteriorate. As frustrating as it might be to dig out a Super Nintendo to play Chrono Trigger in its native state, there isn’t some corporately brokered mandated deadline bearing down on anyone wanting to finally cross that off their lists. But with so many game publishers experimenting with subscription models, gamers will be contending with that brand new anxiety for years to come; the looming inevitability of a 40gb download becoming inoperable overnight.
Already, I’m feeling some novel brain-sickness from the stress. Yoku’s Island Express wasn’t the only title leaving Game Pass on August 15. Kingdom Come: Deliverance also disappeared from the service. I had zero interest in playing Kingdom Come since it released in 2018 — the murmurs I heard through the grapevine about its technical jank, plus the exhausting Gamergate aura around its lead designer, were huge turn offs. And yet, I absolutely found myself mired in the rolling fields of Bohemia in the hours before the game turned back into a pumpkin. Nothing gets me to click the download button faster than the news that the function will soon be deactivated. It is funny how easy it is to never want to play a game, up to the very moment you can’t.
I would probably be a little bit happier if I made peace with the idea that I was never going to finish Mad Men. If I’ve waited this long, is it ever going to happen? Maybe the fate of Sterling Cooper will be forever unresolved. And I’ll never see what happens to Peggy’s baby. Why does that make me melancholy? I don’t really care about those characters, much in the same way I’m not really affected by Kingdom Come’s brutal revenge saga. Perhaps it’s just an ailment of 21st century living. If you think of yourself as a literate aficionado of your chosen obsession, there is no reason you can’t constantly have your nose in another movie, or TV show, or video game. In the subscription age, anything you want can be administered at lightning speed from an international canopy of machinery that exists, solely, to ensure that we are not bored.
In that sense, we’re living in a legitimate golden age for consumption, and I should be able to tell my brain that it’s ok if I never end up seeing the credits of every video game in the universe. But I think a lot of us are still caught up in our native 20th century thinking when it comes to content. We have not fully adjusted to a world where it is possible to play everything and anything, untethered from expensive discs or arcane platform limitations. As more publishers pivot to the $US15 ($21)-a-month model, one of the only barriers left is time, and that ticking clock in the corner of the Game Pass client, letting us know that we have mere days left to play Yoku’s Island Express.
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. In addition to Kotaku, he contributes to Vice, PC Gamer, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Polygon.