We chat about the hopes, desires and gnawing anxiety wrapped up in maintaining our gaming backlog lists.
By Thomas Quillfeldt and Andy Corrigan
If you’re a mad keen gamer you’ve probably made a list or two in your time, maybe listing your favourite games within a genre or ranking entries in a given series. Such is day-to-day life here on the Internet, with its myriad overlapping fandoms and communities spread across social media and forums.
Then there are those dedicated gamers (if this were about wine, I might be brave enough to employ the word ‘connoisseurs’) that rely on lists to manage their hobby. Those lists can be mental or actual, clearly defined or loosey-goosey, but there is one type in particular that seems to give rise to conflicted feelings of anticipation and anxiety: the backlog list, AKA the ‘Pile of Shame’.
Here’s a chat between yours truly, Laced With Wax editor Tom Quillfeldt (TQ) and Andy Corrigan, video game connoisseur (if the shoe fits...) and freelance games writer for IGN AU, among others. We get into it about the peculiarities of the personal backlog list and the positive and negative feelings bound up in it.
Warning: this is deeply nerdy nonsense, and the authors recognise the utter fluff-filled frippery of it all.
Backlog list = Pile of Shame?
TQ: “When I think of what constitutes my ‘backlog’, I think of various things: games I've started and intend to finish but lost momentum with; games I have or can borrow and intend to play; and then stuff I don’t have access to yet that I'd like to play soon or someday. That’s a lot of games (over 200 in my case 😧), and I find it’s a list that gets added to or pruned depending on where my head is at in terms of my gaming habit.
“Previously, one might have separated a theoretical, mental ‘backlog’ — games to catch up on — from a tangible ‘Pile of Shame’ that gathers dust on the shelf. This distinction melts away in the digital age though. I keep my backlog list in a spreadsheet like a total dork because I want to list my digital games alongside boxed ones.
“It all seems pretty disparate these days: there’s your PSN/Xbox library which grows every month thanks to subscription programmes; the Steam list stuffed with titles bought on the cheap during sales, accumulated iOS/Google Play games... And that’s before you include free-to-play PC, console, browser or mobile that you might dip into one day.”
Andy C: “I'd agree that one’s backlog and Pile of Shame are the same thing these days. I truly intend to play everything those on my list, but whether that happens or not is a different matter entirely! And yeah, I have one of those spreadsheets too, with each game’s estimated completion time, which makes it even more daunting.”
TQ: “I’ve made peace with the idea that there’s no way I’ll get round to everything on the list. What I actually play next is a case of mood and momentum. I might be in the middle of something stage-based like Hitman (2016), then suddenly the mood will seize me to indulge in a month of Final Fantasy games. Similarly, I’ll suddenly get the itch to replay a classic like The Last of Us and it’ll push ahead of the queue.”
Andy C: “Oh yeah, playing everything on my list is impossible, but I can try, right? But I can’t put something down like you — stop ‘Game A’ part way through and start ‘Game B’ — because I’ll suffer an incredible amount of internal guilt for leaving Game A unfinished (as is the case with me and Persona 5 at the moment!) That said, Game C or D might suddenly seem more important than Game B and push ahead in the queue.”
You’re on the list
TQ: “Just adding something to the backlog feels good, as if you’re taking ownership over the possibility of one day experiencing something. By making that note, you feel proprietorial about a game which you haven’t played, but somehow resonates with you enough to want to mentally bookmark it.
“Presumably a number of factors will mean a game gets added to your list? For instance you dug the marketing, you received a strong personal recommendation from someone or you were intrigued by positive media coverage…”
Andy C: “Bingo. You know what, though? Sometimes I can be pulled in by negative coverage too. You’ll read about how the latest comic book movie turned out to be a stinker, but I’ll still really want to see it, if only out of curiosity! I get that with games too.”
TQ: “As we covered in our photo modes piece (“Point and shoot: Bringing video game photo modes into focus”), a game like The Order: 1886, which was lauded for its graphical fidelity (and has a photo mode), can seem appealing for reasons beyond the gameplay experience.
“Then there’s franchise loyalty. Sometimes a new entry in a beloved series will barge ahead of contemporaneously better-reviewed games, priority-wise. I recently dove into Dark Souls 3 rather than Nioh (which is now on the backlog); and, as a lifelong Final Fantasy fan, I booted up Final Fantasy XV ahead of Nier:Automata or Yakuza 0, both of which people have been raving about recently.”
Credit to @Tenkay23 for inspiring this one...
Andy C: “And getting round to earlier entries in the series can delay playing later ones. Nioh sits ahead of Dark Souls 3 on my backlog as I still need to play Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. But yeah, there are certain games that I will drop everything for: Final Fantasy XV was exactly such a game for me. I didn’t care what else I had on the go, that was the one game I had to play on release. I didn’t regret it one bit. It was a delight.”
TQ: “Trouble is, my 200+ game backlog brings with it mental baggage. I feel a mixture of guilt, desire, FOMO and, occasionally, blasé about the listed games. Often with films, games, TV etc., you feel compelled to keep up with the conversation around something like Overwatch or Stranger Things. But you can’t play/watch/read everything, and certain things you enthusiastically add to your backlog can come to seem stale after the buzz has died down.
“Of course this is absolutely a ‘First World problem’. Worrying about what video games I’m not playing is an incredible privilege. In your case, you’re a professional games writer who talks a lot about managing your gaming schedule on Twitter. How do you feel about your backlog?”
Andy C: “Honestly? Really fucking stressed about it, what with the bulk of big end-of-year 2017 releases fast approaching.
“For a couple of years, right up until start of this year, I’d been out of the loop with new releases, but this year I’m excited by the idea of playing new stuff as close to release as possible and being part of the conversation when things launch. The side effect is, obviously, that my backlog is likely to grow and certain games are going to fall down the pecking order.
“On 27th October alone, you’ve got Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and Super Mario Odyssey coming out. I can’t play them all at once, so something will have to be relegated to the backlog. In my head, I’m already trying to strategise around that. I think I can justify playing Super Mario Odyssey concurrently with other games because the Switch is a handheld...
“But what will be my ‘main’/big screen game to complement it? Assassin’s Creed will be at least a 30 hour game, Wolfenstein II mostly likely around the 10 to 15 mark. I’m tense just thinking about choosing between them, and that’s without considering the possibility that I might already be bang in the middle of something else when they drop... I hate my brain!”
Never-ending games: The mortal enemy of the backlog
TQ: “And now the industry is doubling down on this idea of persistent ‘games-as-a-service’ — Destiny, Grand Theft Auto Online, Rainbow Six Siege — as well as the likes of card games, MOBA’s, RTS’s and so on. There have always been games you can sink thousands of hours into like Elite, FIFA or World of Warcraft.
“It’s just that in 2017, gamers’ time and attention is a particularly scarce commodity and big marketing bucks are being spent on trying to get players to invest themselves into playing one or another of these giant, endless ‘black hole’ games with their own gravitational pull. Either that, or the buzz generated by a fervent community starts to pull you into something like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Overwatch or Minecraft.”
“But if you get snagged on one of these never-ending games, your backlog will never shrink! And that’s OK as long as you’re honest with yourself about whether you’re enjoying actually playing; these games are brilliantly designed, after all.”
Andy C: “I must admit, I’m lucky that I can distance myself from that a lot. I enjoyed Destiny for its mechanics, and it sated my occasional hunger for a first-person shooter, but I didn’t feel a strong urge to level up or see everything in the game.
“But even games with a traditional story are getting treated as games-as-a-service now. To bring up Final Fantasy XV again, they’re doing time-limited ‘festivals’ and events within the game. I already spent 120 hours playing that game, and while I’ll happily jump back in for some the story-focused DLC (and maybe replay the whole thing in a few years’ time), I’m less inclined to dive back in to change a character’s outfit.
“My only real ‘vice’ in respect of never-ending games is Final Fantasy XIV as the only MMO I spend time in, but even then, it loses out to other games in my backlog.”
TQ: “What gets a game struck off your backlog? For me, I’ll add, delete and then re-add something divisive like Firewatch, based on whoever’s opinion I last heard. Or someone will make a convincing case for why I don’t need to play something on the list, for instance the controversial assertion that I should skip The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past and just play the sequel/modern update, A Link Between Worlds.”
Andy C: “Time is a big factor. My backlog is so large that I try to plan carefully. There’s this great site called HowLongToBeat.com that you can use to work out roughly how long games take. That way I know what I can fit in before a big release comes along, for instance I snuck a cheeky 25 hours of I Am Setsuna before Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle launched.
“It’s incredibly rare that I don’t finish everything I play, even if I’m not enjoying it (unless it’s just too hard — I rage-deleted Shovel Knight recently!), but I’m just careful about what I start. And, if there are games that can be finished in under four hours like Journey and Gone Home, I save them for public holidays, as it’s a bonus day off and I can knock them off in one sitting.
“The size of my backlog means that I feel like I have to justify to myself everything I play via some sort of structure. I’ll have one ‘main’ game on the go, one handheld, and a handful of low investment games that I can dip in and out of as it suits; usually fighters, racers and shooters. Splatoon 2 is perfect for this.”
TQ: “That all sounds very logical. Unfortunately, when you’ve got a young child, any such planning on my part goes out the window in favour of crying-induced impromptu trips to the park or spending forever researching child car seats (i.e. not fun).
“I try to juggle games in a similar way, although my ‘dip into’ list only ever seems to grow… I like the idea of having an evening or weekend with a game and then letting it go. I had a brilliant, mind-expanding time with David OReilly’s Everything, but I don’t know if I’ll go back to it other than to show it off to people (because it’s nuts).”
Andy C: “RPGs create the most stress in terms of time, which is difficult because I love them! That said, if an RPG is available on handheld, I’m way more likely to get through it and quickly. I just find more time to play that way.”
TQ: “I'm enjoying slowly working through older RPGs like Final Fantasy VI on the (handheld) PlayStation Vita. It may be sacrilegious to say so, but I find certain older, ‘classic’ games don’t feel like ‘big screen’ games for me anymore for reasons of graphics, interface and pacing. Whereas you need that bigger screen for the tiny text and more intense action of modern RPGs.”
Andy C: “I finished Final Fantasy IV on handheld for a feature series I’m doing for IGN. It’s just so convenient — in the case of I Am Setsuna, I wouldn’t have even considered it in unless it was portable (on the Nintendo Switch). That neatly sums up what I love about the Switch: how switching between the big screen and small on a whim helps to fit in different games.”
Context is king
TQ: “I have a guiltily titled section of my backlog called ‘Great games I’ll probably never play’, including very well-regarded stuff like Stardew Valley and Darkest Dungeon. I’m convinced they’re brilliant games, I’m just not clear in what context I’d choose to play them. Mind you, sometimes when a game comes to a different format, e.g. it was only on PC but comes out on iOS, it can find itself back on my list.
“Modern gamers have sky high expectations: we want to enjoy a game in a physical context that seems most convenient and comfortable to us, which is why these days you constantly see fans asking developers ‘When is X, Y or Z coming out on Switch?’”
Andy C: “You know, I just don’t enjoy playing on PC unless we’re talking Football Manager and a couple of other exceptions. I don’t even consider my Steam library as part of my backlog. If it’s portable, I’m more likely to fit it in sooner, but that doesn’t include smartphones because I prefer tactile controls.”
TQ: “Obviously price plays an important part about when you pick up a game and how soon you play it too. There are so many options now. You’ll eagerly await a £100+ special edition to drop through the letterbox and devour it on day one; or you’ll pick something up for dirt cheap in a sale and it sits unloved in a digital library.”
Andy C: “I may think I’ve got the next few games planned out, but that can change because of sales or an unexpected gem being released. Best laid plans and all that.”
TQ: “I’m happy for my backlog to be just a theoretical list — ‘someday, I might play this’ — and resist the FOMO around buzzy games, keeping them off the list. But I love to read persuasive articles or listen to a podcast where someone eloquently makes the case for a game, new or old; stuff like Rich Stanton’s brilliant Dark Souls piece for Eurogamer about getting the ultimate trophy/achievement (or his Metal Gear Solid retrospectives). I’ll happily chuck something on the pile if someone passionately champions it. That said, if I wait too long to actually play it and it’s no longer front of mind, it can slip down or off the list.”
Andy C: “The Cane & Rinse podcast [where a panel of critics takes a careful look at games that are at least six months old] is responsible for a lot of my backlog order changes. I’ll have the next few games lined up in my head, hear those guys rave about a game, or offer intriguingly differing views on it, and then I’m in.”
TQ: “That’s funny, because I treat podcasts or YouTube shows like Cane & Rinse, Retronauts, Watch Out For Fireballs, Game Informer’s Game Club and the like as aperitifs; as gratifying analysis of something I’ve just finished that’s still fresh in my mind. Also, a great retrospective by a clever YouTuber like SuperBunnyhop or Errant Signal can pull you back into a series.”
Shoulda, woulda, coulda
TQ: “I’ll admit it: I’m probably more shallow in my gaming tastes than I’d like people to believe. There are incredible games on my backlog that I feel I should play, like Papers, Please, This War of Mine or That Dragon Cancer. By merely having them on there, I can feel better that my gaming hobby is not just about becoming an all-powerful super-being and blowing shit up. But rarely does the mood strike…”
Andy: “I know exactly what you mean. This War of Mine is on my list. I’m looking at Tacoma too, but even though I adored Gone Home, I’m wondering if I’ll find the time. Saying that, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which deals with mental health issues, came out of nowhere for me and I really like the sound of its messaging and themes — so that’s on my list now too!”
TQ: “It’s the constant struggle with your animal brain as to whether you choose a game (or film, book etc.) that’s more of a work of art to be experienced and reflected upon rather than a straightforward piece of entertainment to be consumed. Is one ever truly in the mood for a heavy film like Schindler’s List or Downfall? But I remain hopeful that by adding highbrow stuff to my backlog, I’ve at least considered playing a game that sets out to say something meaningful.
"Maybe it’s the case with the more harrowing game experiences that you need to ignore the Pile of Shame, steel yourself and dive in.”
Lists upon lists
TQ: “I’ve got separate lists for multiplayer stuff and for adventure/puzzle games I might play with my partner. All these gaming lists don’t exist in isolation, of course. We’re living in an unprecedented age of plenty when it comes to culture. Undoubtedly film buffs, musos and bookworms each have a giant Pile of Shame. And all this other digital stuff! There’s Netflix’s ‘My List’, Spotify’s ‘Your Music’, Amazon’s ‘Your List’, YouTube’s ‘Watch Later’ and so on. Too much!
“Is it a worrying side effect of the rise of consumer culture that we create these rabbit holes for ourselves? That with these Piles of Shame, we try to constrain and control what culture we’ll experience in the future? Or is it just one of those harmless nerdy pursuits like alphabetising one’s LaserDisc collection or ranking the recorded output of Phil Collins?
“I’m not sure, but it definitely feels like my backlog list is an essential part of my gaming hobby — an ever-shifting reflection of my desires (and anxieties) around all the games I might (but probably won’t) get round to.”
Andy C: “I think it’s a combination of all of that, if I’m honest. I mean, my brother used to have a database for his extensive VHS collection. It was originally in hard copy, written on an actual typewriter, then electronic as soon as he was able. Over my entire life, I’ve made lists of the media I like to consume, be that top fives or things I want to buy and the order I want to buy them in. Right now, I’ve got a list of the games I’m definitely buying in the remainder of this year, their release dates and prices.
“Whether that’s an ingrained part of my hobby, or an ingrained part of my psyche is up for debate, but I definitely lean towards it saying more about my mental need for order in all things. Just having it in a list makes me feel a bit more at ease, even if that’s a fluid, changeable illusion.”
Andy Corrigan is a freelance video games writer and critic whose work has appeared on the likes of IGN, and Games.On.Net – www.andycorrigan.info | Twitter: @FlameRoastToast
We’re curious to know if it’s just us, or if there are plenty of others out there who carefully cultivate their lists; who take pride in pruning their backlog bonsai tree.
Get in touch — if you show us yours, we’ll show you ours... (Pile of Shame lists, that is)