There are two rules for gaming that I learned early on while playing Final Fantasy VII: 1. save early and often and 2. if the game lets you do side quests or fight random monsters, then do so. One is pretty self-explanatory. Why would you want to replay the same sequences over and over just because you forgot to save when you could? I lost hours of gaming due to a bad fight all because of failing to save when I had the chance. It was a valuable lesson in managing resources, since time is most definitely a resource. Though in all honesty, the second lesson was, in a number of ways, more valuable in the long run.
If you play through the game going from primary mission to primary mission, you will come to a point where the level of the challenges far exceeds the level of your character, and you have effectively gamed yourself out of contention. It happened to me time and again in various games where I played seriously, focusing on playing as if this were a movie or a story, moving from action to action with no thought of anything except that. It pretty much never ended well because despite having skill, that alone did not make up for the gaps I was creating between my character and the assumed level I should be at when facing said challenge. Thus began my focus on what I call “level chimping.”
The idea behind it was very simple. In order to avoid hitting that wall and dying simply due to a lack of level, I would explore everything, take as many side quests as I could find, and unless there was an actual countdown, understand that there was honestly no rush. This simple notion changed how I play to this day. I boost my level, making later challenges manageable, and at the same time deepen my gameplay experience—fundamentally not a bad plan.
Game designers have always enjoyed hiding things in little out-of-the-way corners, fairly sure that most players have a tendency to just barrel through the game and thus miss things that could make their character stronger and gaming experience a bit richer. I have found weapons, equipment, clues to various puzzles, and all sorts of things by trying to understand the areas I was in. And all these things were basically freebies because they were rewards based simply on traveling around and enjoying the vast maps that the game designers created. If I hadn’t explored, I never would have gotten them.
When you take the time to explore everything, you can stumble onto side quests and minigames that have been designed to expand and enhance the gaming experience. Sure, some of them are odd and seem to make no sense in the larger scheme of things, but some of them can give you a deeper understanding of the world you are playing in—and that can make later challenges easier because of that knowledge. The other bonus that side quests often have is experience and occasionally loot. More experience pretty much leads to your character having a higher level. Higher level leads to being stronger and thus able to face greater challenges. As for the loot, sometimes you can only receive certain weapons, armor, or equipment because you have done these quests. That can make a huge difference the further you go into the plot.
Mass Effect is great for this. As you travel around the star systems and check out different planets you can gain resources, fight pirates, geth, what have you, and find some really interesting Prothean artifacts. These side quests can give you amazing armor that you simply cannot buy in stores as well as better weapons, cash, and knowledge that widens the gameverse. Those games are excellent examples of this.
As for the ‘no countdown, no stress’ idea, think about various games and movies and how they use the concept. Countdowns are used to heighten tension and subtly force the player to think quickly, which can lead to mistakes. This tendency is the reason that militaries and quick response units (fire, medical, police, etc) train so much to make some of these choices ingrained. It cuts down on fatal errors. With higher tension and a propensity to make simple mistakes, game designers/directors challenge the viewer or player to get even more immersed in the action, narrowing their focus to the essentials. In the beginning of Final Fantasy VII, there is the fight in the Mako reactor with the clock ticking down. Engaging in too many fights can result in your character dying when the reactor blows up. You can literally win every fight you face and still die. Because of this, countdowns can really make games nuts.
But remember that if you get lost in the action and forget that there is not always a countdown for your actions, you could rush through the game, moving from primary action to primary action in as straight a line as possible. Sure, if you are lucky you can win the game and all is well, but then you have all but missed out on the total experience that had been designed for you. Games—especially games where they are not linear—are meant to be explored and enjoyed. There are reasons why some of the puzzles that are now standard in gaming cause you to explore different parts of the map. You can see this vast creation that people have spent a portion of their lives creating for you.
This particular approach has also taught me a great deal about life. Life is rarely about rushing from primary action to primary action. There are very few actual countdown moments in regular life, and when there are, it behooves you to savor the experience and focus on making the best choices you can. The world—our gaming map—is vast, with many hidden wonders and experiences that you can easily bypass if you simply stay in the groove of routine and the expected. All of the best things in my life, the most worthwhile, and the most fulfilling have happened to me because I took the time to explore, to get involved in the side quests and minigames that life afforded, and be in no particular rush while doing so. And yes, even in my own life I have saved early and often, making memories that I will never lose.
Gaming has taught me many things. Not only how to game better, but also how to better live. This has made my life rich and rewarding. These simple gaming approaches have been some of the best things I have ever learned and one of the prime reasons I will always love gaming. Learning about real life from the virtual has been a wonderful gift. So game on and live on.