I recently got back into Path of Exile with the big patch that released in early August. The game itself is a masterpiece of game design in a classic fashion: it takes a familiar format and twists, refines and adds to it. After a childhood literally spent growing up with Diablo and Diablo II, a game like Path of Exile appeals to me more than most, but its core loop is basically irresistible once it hooks you. It’s a complex treadmill that rewards effort and time investment with incremental gains while always keeping that carrot right in view. After dumping 100 hours into my new character in about 40 days, the only reason I’ve slowed down on playing is because I’ve run out of content, the treadmill has topped out.
And now that the insatiable lust for improvement has been sated slightly, I’m reminded once again why I shouldn’t play games like this: they’re timesinks that amount to nothing. All gaming, of course, is a timesink that amounts to nothing, but an unending game like PoE is worse than usual–I’m not playing it for the story (which is apparently awesome! but I didn’t even pay attention to it), I’m not playing it for the friends I make in it, I’m not playing it for any reason remotely positive or enriching. I’m playing it because I want to get better at playing it. I didn’t even always have moment-to-moment fun playing it (the whole early game is just a slog) but those bursts of fun in the form of a gear drop or level up or other power increase drove me on.
I don’t want to criticize the game or people who play it because it’s exactly what it is. It’s basically a perfect example of videogamery. And that’s OK! But I’m too susceptible to gaming’s hooks. I’m too susceptible to the timesinkiness of it. I can be nihilistic and acknowledge that nothing matters and that this waste of time is every bit as valueless as climbing to the top of the world, but there’s an emptiness at the end of a grind-y game like this that makes it all so unsatisfying once the grind is over. There’s no achievement at the end.
Maybe it’s too much like real life in that way: there’s no final achievement, there’s no “you’ve won!” screen, there’s just another goal, another competitor better and higher up the foodchain than you, another goal in an endless string of goals that don’t abate till death. Games are an escape from that mentality, like how stories appeal because they end somehow, not just stretch on until death. Action RPGs like PoE and the Diablo series end when you’re bored.