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Why can't games be more relaxing?

Sometimes all I want to do is be there

A terrible confession: this weekend, I broke away from my trusty Xbox 360's embrace and took up, for the first time in 18 months, a Wii remote. On the scale of betrayal, that's somewhere between Activision chopping Nuketown 2025 from the main Black Ops 2 playlists and Churchill bombing the French fleet in 1940. But I just couldn't help myself. I had to play Zelda again. A copy of Twilight Princess found its way under my wandering hand during a tour of the neighborhood charity shops, a blast from the past costing £4.49. £4.49, for one of the Wii's best-received games? A saint would have succumbed, and as this Skyrim diary attests, I am no saint.

Besides, I'm not sure I really wanted to play Zelda again. It's more that I wanted to not play Zelda, to stray once more into that dreamy, rose-tinted bufferzone of pastoral inactivity that has book-ended every game in the series since Zelda 64. I'm talking about the part when Link wakes up, beams at the furniture and sets about his rustic chores, with nothing more exciting in store save (in this case) a quest for somebody's missing cat or a wrestling match with an arsey goat. Rescuing Hyrule from darkness? Beating Ganon? Nah, that's not what I'm about, mate. If you need me, I'll be down at the waterwheel, wowing the neighborhood kids with my mastery of Z-lock and the overhead smash.

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Compare Zelda's small beginnings to the calamitous orchestra-falling-off-cliff eruption which introduces many (most?) Xbox 360 titles to the stage. On the shelf to my left there are copies of Call of Duty: Black Ops, Bulletstorm, Condemned 2 and Halo 4. So, in order of appearance, that's: a game where you wake up strapped to a car battery with huge neon numbers bouncing up and down on your optic nerve; a game where you start dead-drunk in a chair, pointing a huge assault rifle at somebody's head (and thereby, the wall of an easily punctured spaceship); a game which raises its curtain to reveal a screaming, mangy junkie pounding a hoodie's face into the floor of a seedy bar; and a game where you're jerked out of cryosleep to find yourself riding half a battleship, accompanied by an entire Covenant fleet.

Institutional bias notwithstanding, I think it's fair to say that Xbox 360 has delivered more in the way of spectacle, challenge and intricacy than its Nintendo counterpart this gen. But when it comes to games that soothe, games that charm without grabbing the camera in a QTE-headlock and forcing your eye towards some object of note, Xbox 360's got a long way to go. The nearest we've come is probably the wonderful Viva Pinata, one of the franchises Rare cast aside in its headlong rush to reinvention. Since then, we've had to make do with the odd foreground puff of tranquility - a serene prospect in Skyrim, Max Payne 3's initial shanty town foray, that bit in Dishonored where Corvo plays hide and seek with Emily - against the diabolical, whirling backdrop of the action game at large.

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It's not just our narrative trappings, setpieces and core mechanics that are too brash for their own good. It's our reward systems, too. I'm thrilled that, to some degree, every spare moment with Criterion's Need for Speed: Most Wanted contributes to a larger goal, inching me ever closer to the title of Fairhaven's fiercest racer. But the problem with a continual bombardment of minor gains is that the major ones lose their significance, and you wind up fatigued, deflated by the relentless sense of progress. A crucial element of "play" as a social concept is that it has no meaning, no purpose: play is its own reward. The copious unlockable substructure of a Darksiders 2 or a Call of Duty make the silent assumption that we're not interested in "playing" when we play videogames - that this is just another aspect of the working day, just another step on capitalism's never-ending escalator.

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