I’ve had a hard couple weeks, and in a bid to distract myself I tried playing two different video games. One was Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a massive beautiful open-world adventure that everyone loves except, apparently, me. The other was Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet, which is very silly and small and a little amateurish and a self-aware knockoff of the Monkey Island games, and therefore perfect.
I am a known rereader, rewatcher, and replayer, which I recognize is a personality trait with no real value component. When I was in 8th grade I used to read a little of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead every day at lunch, for instance, and then come home and watch a little of the movie every day after school. Six years later or so, in college, my roommates and I used to watch a VHS of Twin Peaks in the evening, then immediately put it on again the next morning to copy the tape, and then sometimes watch the dubbed version that night. The list of books I reread every 2–3 years is probably longer than the list of books I read in 2020. All of these books are very good; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is very good; Twin Peaks is very good. But my near-compulsive revisiting of these cultural properties doesn’t mean that revisiting itself is good, or bad, or anything. It’s just a comfort to me.
The thing about rereading a book or rewatching a TV show, though, is that you understand how to read, and how to watch. The mechanism of taking in a book or a show is identical whether it’s new to you or an old favorite; only the content changes (or, as it happens, doesn’t). My desire to replay Monkey Island games, though—which, don’t get me wrong, I definitely do replay, even the comparatively bad ones—exists alongside a related desire to play games with the same vocabulary, games whose mechanisms and goals I intuitively understand. I don’t like books that are trying to be The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, because what I love about that book is the content; in form and function it’s just a book. Knockoffs are invariably inferior copies. A copycat Monkey Island, though, is a game in which I know how to operate. I know the basic strategies, the implicit rules, the best practices. (Pick up everything that’s not nailed down, for starters. Try every dialogue option. Use everything you have on everything else.)
In fact, a knockoff might be a better example of the Monkey Island vernacular than Monkey Island itself. One of the implicit rules of the game is that your little dopamine hit, the thing that makes it play, comes from solving puzzles. (I’d venture that in any game, the source of the little dopamine hit is a never-stated rule.) The fun is in making the logical or not-quite-logical leap that unlocks the next bit of the story: catching the rat to put in the vichyssoise so the cook gets fired so you can take his job. I can’t do that in games I’ve wrung all the surprise from. So a game with the same vocabulary but new content fulfills what I’m looking for in a replay better than a replay does.
There’s nothing wrong with Breath of the Wild, but I’m bad at playing it, and I’m bad at playing it partly because the vocabulary is so unfamiliar. I am always hitting the wrong buttons, or falling off a cliff because I was accidentally looking at the sky. I don’t know which monsters to fight and which ones to run away from. I don’t know how to choose which weapon to equip. I’m not sure how to tell which parts of the map are significant and which are filler. I’m not sure what’s expected of me, or how I would do it if I knew. I get the sense (though I don’t credit it) that it’s considered mildly shameful to reread/rewatch/replay when you could be experiencing something new, but this feels less like choosing an old book over a new one, and more like choosing a book over a form of entertainment that must be experienced by sticking plugs up your nose. That’s unfamiliar, and it sounds uncomfortable, and I’m not sure which end of the plug is which. Whereas if you gave me a book I could just read it. I know how to read.
A better analogy, perhaps: How would we feel about rereading, or looking for near-identical twins of the books you already read, if you had to learn a whole new language every time you picked up something really new?
None of this is inborn, of course. I know how to play Monkey Island games the same way I know how to read English: because I learned it early on. That doesn’t mean I can’t learn new vernaculars or even whole new languages when it’s worth my while (Disco Elysium, for instance, had RPG-ish aspects I never quite got comfortable with to the point where I could make good use of them, but was such a fucking tour de force of a game that it did not matter.) And it certainly doesn’t mean that Nelly Cootalot is a “better” game than Breath of the Wild, which would be a meaningless comparison. But I think it does mean that my desire to be provided with a constant stream of overt Monkey Island clones, at least until I feel better but preferably for the rest of my life, isn’t just a function of my penchant for retreads. It’s a function of a very human instinct: the desire to know what to expect and what’s expected of us. We all want to have our sea legs. I happen to want to plant them specifically on a pirate ship.