Dylan of Backstage Gaming’s 2021 Conundrum

Striving for Perfection: 2021 in Review

2021 was the year I decided to pump the brakes on gaming. The year 2020 was… a lot, and to share my own experience, the end of the year saw me drifting between jobs with a quarter life crisis I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Lacking the energy to pick up anything new, I found myself playing and replaying Sin and Punishment: Successor to the Earth for the Nintendo 64. It’s a game I had played and beaten numerous times since Middle School, and it is also a game that I will never shut up about. It also now has a Switch port through Nintendo’s Online Service, so with this technicality, I could argue that Sin and Punishment is a valid choice for my top pick of 2021. The thing is, I’m not writing this article to gas up one of my favorite games of all time. Quite the opposite, it almost killed my passion for games entirely.

Let’s rewind a bit; hi everyone! My name is Dylan Gregory. I’m an actor with a day job, and I love video games. I even co-host a podcast with fellow actor Chris Wilson where we regularly liken the experience of playing a game to the process of an actor learning their role. Acting and gaming tickle the same part of my brain, and circumstances have caused me to put the former passion on hold. So to fill my free time, I’ve been playing a lot of video games. Particularly older, twitchier, arcade-style games: NES side scrollers, arcade shmups, fighting games, beat ‘em ups, et cetera. Games that are short, but require a lot of time and investment to clear in one run; kind of like how you have to rehearse a play for hours before everything starts to come together. 

An actor’s goal is to portray what’s written in a script in a way that feels natural and clear to an audience. When playing a difficult game, the appeal *for me* is to understand its design to a point where I make it look easy. In these types of games, I spend a lot of time repeating the same difficult segment numerous times in an attempt to make it to the end as smoothly as possible. I pay attention to enemy placement and stage hazards in the same way actors and directors block out a scene. 

It sounds tedious (and it can be), but in both cases, I feel as though I’ve formed a deeper connection with whatever medium I invested my time in. Unfortunately, I found it very difficult for many games to hold my interest by the start of the year. Unemployment took a lot out of me. The management at my last job had shattered most of my self-confidence, to the point where I wasn’t sure if I was capable enough to handle any job I’d bother to apply for. Struggling to clear a game just doesn’t hit the same when everything else in life is bumming you out. So, I decided to stick to an old favorite.

For people who have never heard of Sin and Punishment, it’s a rail shooter in the same vein as Star Fox or Kid Icarus: Uprising. It’s a brisk game, about an hour long, but when I first beat the game, I replayed it dozens of times in an attempt to make sense of the nigh-incomprehensible story. If you want to know what I mean by that, I highly recommend giving the game a spin; by the end of the game’s third stage, there’s a massive plot twist that hits you out of left field and the story just snowballs out of control from there. Just be aware that the game’s difficulty ramps up with the absurdity of its story; it’s set to “easy” by default, but it still took me a while to get past stage 5 with any consistency back when I had first picked up the game.

That said, that difficulty is what made me revisit the game over the years. Once I learned all the beats of the game (rail shooters are heavily scripted by design), I would move on to the next difficulty. Each progressive difficulty adds more enemies (with more health), and gives bosses more complex attack patterns or even new attacks altogether. The added difficulty really pushed me to learn what actions and maneuvers I could get away with during play; it’s very satisfying to learn the nuance of a particularly difficult segment. So, after I beat Normal Mode, I pushed myself into clearing the game without dying (this is what’s known as a 1cc or “One Credit Clear”). 

The grind to beat the game without dying was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. To go back to my acting analogy, there’s something innately satisfying about the tech week before a play goes “live”. You’re running a play over and over again, and at the end of each rehearsal you are given notes from the director in an attempt to perfect the show. There’s something about tech week that feels more “real”; you’re performing in costume, with the props you previously had to mime using, and the lighting that gives you a better idea of the story the director is trying to tell. Tech week is the time during a play’s rehearsal process where finally feel the play start to come together. Attempting a 1cc is no different. You start to pay more attention to the sections that give you trouble; you might consider “I can take my time here” or “I should speed through this part”. You stop looking at the game as a collection of levels and you start considering it as one continuous journey. The knowledge I gained from numerous 1cc attempts make the game’s Hard Mode almost tolerable.

If Sin and Punishment on Normal Mode is an exciting challenge, Hard Mode is a total buzzkill. Hard Mode is VERY difficult and when you run out of credits, you have to start the whole game over. Learning to 1cc Normal Mode is analogous to a good tech week, scraping through Hard Mode is a tedious one. A bad tech week is a grueling time where you struggle every evening in the hopes that when opening night rolls around, the play you’re in doesn’t suck. Everyone’s exhausted and running the play is a chore.

For Sin and Punishment, the repetition was starting to wear down on me; These types of games reward players extra lives when their score passes a certain threshold. With these extra lives, they gain a better chance of reaching the end. Unfortunately, that only invites so many replays. Eventually, the first half of the game felt like a slog, and the second half felt like an unfair wall of difficulty. When I did finally get through it, I didn’t even attempt a 1cc of Hard Mode. The second I hit the Staff Roll, I thought I was done with the game for a while, but, during my unemployment, I thought of checking out the game’s Turbo Mode.

Turbo Mode is a setting you unlock after clearing the game on Hard. It makes the game run at double speed. That is to say, it makes the game a deranged funhouse mirror reflection of itself. Characters move erratically in cutscenes while the voice acting bleeds together. Enemy attacks hit you way before you expect them to, and your character moves faster and feels heavier when you jump. At first, I was put off by it, but over time, I started to adjust to the new tempo. I began to realize that Turbo Mode’s speed helped me blast through sections of the game I found dull. It also gave the easier difficulties an unpredictability that made them feel fresh again. 

I have to admit, it also feels like there’s some kind of pedigree attached to playing the game at double speed. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding Turbo Mode. I could’ve sworn I saw a runner play it at Games Done Quick one year, but I haven’t been able to find footage of it anywhere. I’ve talked to multiple friends who’ve played the game that didn’t even know it exists. There’s a couple videos of the game running in Turbo on Youtube, but of the scant videos that exist online that talk about Sin and Punishment, even less seem to be aware that this is a setting that even exists. When I first tried it, I seriously wondered if the devs had even playtested it (I’m 90% sure they have, but there’s no evidence one way or the other). I had to figure out how to clear it, it feels like the cool kids club! …You know, as cool as a millennial doing challenge runs of an obscure twenty year old video game can be.

More important than bragging rights, I played the Turbo Mode to give me something to look forward to every morning. I would get up, make myself a cup of coffee, and think of a new goal to set for myself: “this morning, I’ll fight this mini-boss without getting hit”, “on this level, I think I can score this many points”, or other goals along those lines. While I probably should have focused on being more productive, it felt nice to allow myself to have fun without feeling guilty at the start of each day. The fact that I was becoming more competent at this indescribable perversion of a game already notorious for its difficulty also gave me a bit of an ego boost. If I could make sense of this, I could do practically anything. It helped motivate me to improve as an actor. 

I don’t think I need to tell you that acting can be a demoralizing profession. Ask any actor what the number one requirement to be an actor is and they’ll tell you “you need to know how to deal with rejection”. You get used to rejection after a while; it’s figuring out what you need to do to improve that’s the next largest hurdle. I hadn’t performed in a show since Autumn 2019. The few auditions I had the energy to go to, I walked away dissatisfied with myself. I knew I could do better, but I also wasn’t sure how to go about how to reach that next level. When I collected my final paycheck from the grocery store I worked at, I saw an ad for a vocal trainer. Whether that’s a sign of fate, or just peculiar timing, I couldn’t tell you, but I decided to take a chance. 

As it turns out, having an experienced perspective critique me in a one-on-one setting can help a lot, who knew! Not only was I made aware of my shortcomings, I was given exercises that could help me improve. Writing this months later, I can say with some confidence that they worked. My teacher’s lessons helped get me out of my head. My prior education made me think of acting in such a detail-oriented manner that I would overthink my performance. She’s helped me trust my intuition. Well, to an extent. I didn’t realize this until recently, but I tense up my throat when I speak. The consequence of doing so strains my voice and causes it not to travel as far. Neither of those things are good for an actor, so I became obsessed with scrubbing this flaw away, to the point where if I didn’t show any clear improvement in a week, I looked at my apparent lack of progress as a failure. 

After a while my instructor noticed my agitation, so she taught me a trick to put things back into perspective: focus on a single image that you can focus on. You can probably already tell where this is going: there is a boss in Sin and Punishment that spits a barrage of bullets at you from multiple angles. Earlier that week, I had finally managed to make sense of all the visual noise and knew exactly where I should stand at the start of the fight and how long I could afford to stay in one place. Whenever I felt myself getting frustrated, I would play that boss fight in my mind, and think of how many attempts it took to clear that fight unscathed. I would remind myself that I didn’t force myself to “get good” at that segment; it was a process of failing numerous times until something clicked in my head and I adapted accordingly. I just need to have faith that my progress isn’t a linear process; mistakes are inevitable, even mistakes I had previously avoided. What’s important is that I trust myself enough to believe that my failures are leading to something. 

After that, playing Sin and Punishment became an exercise in discipline for me. If I was upset with my acting progress, I would play it to blow off steam. By this point, I could breeze through the first half of the game without any deaths. Unfortunately, I think I let my perfectionism infect the way I approached the game. I was getting frustrated with a wall of difficulty that starts with the game’s sixth level, and I found myself turning the game off prematurely because I felt a pressure to learn the level. Everything up until this point I could do in my sleep, but now, it felt like I had to keep track of an insane amount of information. I wasn’t playing the game anymore; I was studying it. 

I tried to alleviate this by playing other action games, but then I was just frustrated because I didn’t know those games as well as Sin and Punishment, as silly as that may sound. I wanted to play something that felt like Sin and Punishment, was as engaging to me as Sin and Punishment, but was also something I could learn faster than Sin and Punishment. Maybe the game was becoming a bit of an unhealthy coping mechanism? At any rate, I had to put my controller down for a while. This was a game I had loved, it had been a part of my life for the past decade, but now it had left me feeling burnt out, and I couldn’t even allow myself to enjoy other titles in the medium. I had put myself in the same rut that had shaken my belief in my own ability to act.

The thing that took me out of this rut was, ironically, playing a game I don’t even particularly like. After a conversation with a friend, I bought the HD remaster of Final Fantasy VIII on my Switch, just to occupy my time. It’s weird, but the things I initially adored about Sin and Punishment: the ludicrous plot twists, the arcade-style flashiness, absurd setpieces and level concepts, all of this stuff is in Final Fantasy VIII. I think from a pure design perspective, FF8 is one of the series’ more tedious entries, but the remaster’s new quality of life features allowed me to ignore a bulk of the game and just enjoy the insanity. Because I wasn’t taking the game seriously, I didn’t have to take myself seriously, and because I didn’t have to take myself seriously, I was able to enjoy a handful of games I had bought and bounced off of the past couple years.

I originally began this article to explain how stepping away from my favorite game reminded me that there is more to games than the elements I find most appealing. Playing a Final Fantasy game in particular reminded me that my earliest acting experience was voicing the textboxes of the games’ numerous characters as I played. Games weren’t just challenges to overcome, they were worlds to explore, stories to enjoy, characters to meet, and so much more than what I can summarize here. Likewise, acting is more than just delivering the best performance I possibly can. It’s the culmination of working with a group of passionate artists who want to bring a story to life. Having lived in isolation for so long, I narrowed my focus and almost killed my passion for both of these things. 

However, that’s not to say that I’ve ceased striving for perfection. While writing this article and describing the game, I must admit I got the old itch to boot up Sin and Punishment again. Coming back to the game after a few months, I noticed that I felt less obligated to play “perfectly”. I put less pressure on myself to study the areas that were giving me trouble. I began to trust my own intuition again, even when it didn’t always pay off. In fact, whenever I made a mistake that got me killed or cost me a large amount of points, I was able to laugh it off, and keep my momentum going as I looked forward to the next challenge. 

Maybe that’s the secret to perfection?

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