Mundane Grinds and Impossible Lairs
A bright spot of the last few weeks & change is finally having time to play video games again. Despite the myriad of indie/arthouse options in my queue, or continuing the Yakuza series, or finally starting the original Red Dead Redemption, I wanted something simpler. Something smaller, but something new. Something engaging, but something I could still turn most of my brain off for. Something to challenge me in a way that resonated with me, not in a way that my work challenges me. And I’d just gotten the bright and colorful Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair. It’s been a long time since I just turned my brain off, but the benefit, the allure in this mundane grind, is unquestionable.
Let’s dig into The Mundane Grind for a second (because I do love being angry at The Grind in general). Whether full-time or part-time, salaried or hourly, my experience across the board is that we’re just trying to finish, but the work is never done, it’s just us who become done. End of shift, end of workday, whatever it is, we’re constantly pulling ourselves toward that singular completion. It’s not a task that can be overcome, it’s just a timer we’re waiting out to the best of our abilities. The moment we arrive at work, or start working, it just becomes a waiting game to not working.
In the hours between clocking in and out, The Mundane Grind is just that: mundane. It’s a to-do list whose items are constantly changing; one sheet of paper that never gets thrown away, the objectives are just replaced. By the time we finish one task, it’s time to start on another, and another, and another. Maybe it’s day-spanning obligations that give way to other day-spanning obligations, leaving us unable to accomplish anything traditional on our checklist, making us feel like we’re failing even though we’re required to have these entire days eaten up. It’s snapping in and out of awareness, either on (thinking, considering, planning), or off (unconsciously zoned out, fully unaware). It is telling of a system when we are most excited to leave it the moment we arrive at it.
When I’ve gotten home the last several days, it’s been to boot up Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair, with the understanding that this is a video game: it is designed, by its very nature, to be completed. What’s more, the eponymous Impossible Lair is intimidating from the starting block, but not entirely insurmountable. It’s possible to beat it (and the game) at any point in a player’s progress, and doesn’t gatekeep anyone from trying again, whether they’ve completed one level or all but one. It is difficult, but not impossible (despite the villain’s hype). The Impossible Lair goes a step further to show players how far they’ve made it in the Lair itself (a la Cuphead, but with less rage and more encouragement), showing them they’ve made it that far, they can push further. Surmounting the Lair is at the top of my checklist.
Underneath that main to-do are smaller to-dos: completing levels, amassing a bee shield army, collecting challenge (T.W.I.T.) coins, and finding tonics (game-altering mods). The Impossible Lair throws this myriad of smaller tasks at players that all have some part in ticking off the Big To-Do: complete levels to rescue Beettalion members and take more hits in the Impossible Lair; collect challenge coins to unlock more levels; find tonics in the overworld to make them available for purchase; play levels to get Quills to buy tonics to make levels easier to complete (or harder, with greater rewards); alter the overworld to unlock alternative level forms for more of everything. It sounds like a lot, but players aren’t thinking about that while trying to avoid the deathtraps littered throughout.
Even though the Impossible Lair level disables all tonics (helpful and challenging) during a run, they are helpful in the rest of the game for resource acquisition, like a final run in an RPG. Or, if you’re like me, maybe you just appreciate enemies sprouting flowers where they died, and the little joy that brings you is enough. Each of those steps, split amongst the twenty levels (each with two variants), is on a smaller checklist that players still get the satisfaction of completing, all in service of making the Big To-Do more manageable.
Further unlike the Mundane Grind, the Impossible Lair values progress, even incremental. If a player (like me) slips up and dies x-number of times in certain section, they get the offer to “skip this section” and move onto the next. The trade-off is that they can’t collect any Quills or challenge coins in the skipped section, but you do get to move on. Sometimes, progress can mean more in the short-term. It can keep us invested when frustration would stagnate us and our approaches. There’s always a sense of momentum, of moving forward, of a (fully optional) helping hand when you might need it.
Lastly, what I loved about The Impossible Lair, and what I was so specifically looking for, was just a chance to empty my brain. A “no thoughts, head empty” kind of vibe, where the plot was negligible and my head was preoccupied with jumping. The narrative is, very simply, a wicked capitalist bee wants to take over the nice queen bee’s kingdom, so stop him in his Impossible Lair. No nuance, no moral quandaries, no “oh my god I was the bad guy the whole time,” nothing. Just a bright green chameleon, their purple bat friend, and a lot of jumping around to tackle an Impossible Lair. And look, I love video game narratives and how they, as a medium, tell their stories, and what kind of stories they tell. But also, I love being told “here’s what you gotta do, go do it, champ.” It worked in Super Mario Bros., and that was just contextual “go right” momentum.
As I hammered this out, I thought of other times I felt the sense of calm, emptiheadedness (shut up I’m making it a word) in games. It was subsequent runs of Resident Evil 8, having absorbed the narrative’s full impact and now just barreling forth with machine guns and magnums for faster completion times. It was Stardew Valley in the first few in-game years, finding a community center that needed healing, and all the tasks and checklists that came with that. It was Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, after having never picked up an Ace Combat game before. I recognize that there was an overarching plot, international intrigue, and a “two sides to every war” message, but in fairness, I was just excited for dogfights and strafing runs. Machine gun goes brrrrrr, and all that.
Sometimes, it’s good to just have something to turn off to, something that is mindlessly fun. Sometimes, we just want to progress in a campaign, or beat levels, even if there isn’t (or we’re ignoring) any plot, so-to-speak. We just want to progress. And until such a time as work can feel like any of us are making headway on our never-ending checklists, we’ll keep on enjoying (and preferring) the momentum and progress that games can provide. Now, I need to try that Impossible Lair again. I’ve made it 27% of the way through so far, what’s another 73%?