I have to choose what water looks like. I have a lot of choices. I’m not sure what to do.
Let me explain.
I am about to play Thief 2 for the first time. This is an old and very important game from the early 2000s. It is the sequel to Thief, which was as important and influential a game as anything that isn’t literally a household name. I wouldn’t put it up against Pac Man, but almost anything else. Thief largely invented serious, well-implement stealth in computer games, and as such was responsible for a great deal of the fun I have holding a mouse over the last 15 years that didn’t involve an adorable but sadistic feline.
I never finished Thief when it came out. I played it and loved it but I got stuck the place where a lot of people got stuck: the level where sneaking through a stronghold populated by human guards with clever dialogue is replaced by crawling through caves and fighting monsters. The game loses its focus and its charm in those levels. However, it was still such an amazing experience that I never lost my resolve to go back and finish it. I’ve tried a few times over the years. Finally, a few months ago, I did it. It was a glorious experience. The gameplay has really held up. There are a few clunky interface issues that no designer would implement these days. The industry have learned and moved past them. But they aren’t as bad as lot of the clunky interface issues that the industry hasn’t moved past.
The visuals are another matter. Thief came out in 1998, in a time when rendered polygon graphics were both ubiquitous and hideous. The levels and a lot of the objects in Thief looked good. The characters looked terrible then. They look worse now.
But so what? Right now is an amazing time to play old games on PCs, especially if those games were popular or influential. A game as big as Thief is nearly guaranteed to have a player-designed mod that replaces all of the textures in the game and makes it look better. And it does. I installed it, and the game looks much better.
I should add at this point that I don’t care how it looks. Not really. Visuals don’t matter that much to me, and to the extent that they do I am more moved by art design than technology. Gabriel Knight is still a gorgeous game despite being 22 years old. Chrono Trigger will never not be beautiful, any more than Ancient Egyptian art will stop being beautiful. Limitations of technology, even when they are obvious, are not aesthetic poison unless you believe they are.
So why bother with the extra aggravation of installing a mod? Immersion. Graphics are a threshold issue for me. Some old games look old, but it’s easy to lose yourself in them because they still look good. Some old games shove their ugliness in your face. Usually those games weren’t that impressive visually in the first place.
The same way some old movies and books come across as painfully dated. As much as I love The Terminator, if I could install a filter on my digital copy that would update the color and remove the 80s hair I would do it. That way I wouldn’t have to focus on those things. I would still respect anyone who wanted to watch the movie in its original form, and I wouldn’t want to thrust my version on them. But what an amazing situation to be in to have the choice.
So I played Thief with the HD texture update, and it was marvelous. Now it’s time to play Thief 2. There is a fan patch to fix bugs, an HD texture mod, and some other visual enhancements. It’s a bit of work to install them, but worth it.
Except now I have a problem.
It’s not a real problem. Not something to complain about. All of these mods are free. This is enormous benefit to me for no cost but a little extra work. So I present this “problem”more as something to think and ponder about than as a real complaint.
I have to choose my water.
The visual enhancement includes a few other mods people have made, all packaged together. You get to choose between them. This includes the water mods. That is, mods to change what water looks like in the game. There are six of them. So when I play this game I get to (have to?) make a choice between six different styles of what the water looks like.
Nothing in my life has prepared me for this.
In The Paradox of Choice, author Barry Schwartz explores how getting to choose between 50 different mustards and 200 varieties of soap every time we shop causes us more stress than it does joy. Our brains didn’t evolve to have that kind of choice, and although we believe that more choice just makes us happier–the standard neoclassical economics approach, to be sure–it often isn’t the case.
Video games crank this up to 11. Those of us who are indecisive can lose a lot of time and tear out a lot of hair on the most irrelevant decisions. Some games let you adjust hundreds of variables when designing your character’s face and body. Often times this agonizing and fairly irrelevant process–since in many of these games you barely see the character much after the initial design process–is followed up by a painstakingly complex set of screens where you then pick your character’s statistics, again with hundreds of variables.
I’ve spent hours or days on this process. I’ve gotten so stuck on this stage that I never even started the game in some cases. I am not remotely alone in this.
So here we are. I’m ready to play this game. It’s a simple game, as these things go. You play one character, with no stats, and you only ever see his shadowed face in cut scenes. The mods are installed. It’s all ready to go. All I have to do is pick my water-style, which I care next to nothing about. It is literally the least important decision in my field of awareness at this stage in my life. Which of my toenail clippers to use matters more. What angle to scratch my back at matters more. Which brand of tissues to buy when I run out in the next few days matters much, much more. It’s just a game. It’s just water. I don’t care about it at all.
This could take a while.