I need to relax. I try to watch a movie or read a book, and my brain enumerates 15 simple steps I could be taking toward a vague idea of personal growth. I should write a book, then I should learn guitar, and after that, I should learn carpentry and how to fix a car. I'm almost 30, am healthy and happy, and burdened by the nagging sensation that I'm running behind on becoming an adult. I am the White Rabbit who can't take a breath and enjoy Wonderland.
My awareness of time passing is acute when playing video games. I've dedicated a good portion of my life to reporting on video games, and I believe making time for play is vital, that games are a safe place to relax, learn, understand cause and effect, and study intricate systems. I know and often echo the talking points of gaming's advocates, and then dammit I sink 40 hours into an iPhone puzzle game and want to cut off my fingers with garden sheers so I never waste my time again — maybe then I'll finally build that theoretical garden I bought those sheers for.
Fluff is most likely to trigger to my shame complex. What is fluff? The best current example is Yoshi's Woolly World, which is like a Super Mario Bros. game, if it were designed for a toddler covered in its own drool. The dopamine release mechanisms aren't hidden: complete a level to unlock the next level; collect trinkets to buy power-ups; find each bundle of yarn to unlock bonus characters. Repeat until there's nothing left to do, and find a new game. Puzzle games, I can tell myself, have shown possible benefits for treating trauma and stress, and maybe, possibly, just might help prevent degenerative brain disorders. But what does fluff do?
I took two hours to complete the first couple stages of Woolly World, though they're only meant to take a few minutes each. Notifications, you know? Every couple moments my phone reminds me of the timely obligations of adulthood, more important stuff than directing the admittedly adorable Yoshi through a saccharine world built from fabric and yarn. I have days-old emails that need replies, and countless stories to get a head start on; and Twitter isn't going to check itself.
When I play games, I feel time passing
This game, I could just tell, is a digital babysitter, the keeper of children's attention while parents do parent stuff. It couldn't get my attention though, because I am a grown-up. So every few minutes I'd tap pause, fire a few emails, progress a little more, check social media, reach the end of the stage, and think about reading, but not reading a really dry biography of Mark Twain, because I love Twain, and I really should know more about his life, or at least, that's what I tell myself.
I can't be responsible for the hours between 3PM and 7PM last Thursday. They just disappeared. One minute I'm alternating between playing the game from my desk and deleting junk emails, then I'm on the couch, hunched in the Neanderthal position, drool pooling at the corner of my lips. Yoshi's Woolly World is easy, but getting every collectable is, I won't say tough, but challenging enough that you're almost embarrassed when things don't go as planned. The game is the tortoise, and I'm the hare. It is slow, and I'm over-equipped with decades of video game experience. I should pulverize this game, and then it gets the best of me; I somehow miss a ball of yarn, which prevents me from unlocking one of dozens of playable Yoshis, all of whom are pretty much the same. There's no reason within the game that I need this Yoshi. I can progress without unlocking this one or any of the others. I can't have that, of course. I have to do better. I have to retry until I reach 100 percent on this stage and collect its tiny dinosaur bounty. Time is merely a measurement of available opportunities to beat all of Yoshi's Woolly World.
I can try to justify my love for this game. For one, the collectibles scattered across the stage actually have purpose. Collect yarn and you get a novel visual reward in the form of a new, handspan character to play as; dozens of little wispy hearts on a stage can be banked and used to purchase some unlocks that make the game easier, but also goofier. Bulldozing through a stage as a Yoshi that looks like an orange and can fire balls of yarn that fill a fifth of the screen is as joyful as it sounds. For long-term fans of Mario games, Yoshi's Woolly World so playfully riffs on familiar characters and places, placing them in slower, different contexts. Enemies you'd avoid in Mario become solutions for puzzles in Woolly World. Yoshi's stand-alone adventures have done as much for over a decade, but Woolly World feels accessible to children and fans who've passed on the series.
There's something else tucked comfortably into all the yarn: a magical incantation to reverse time and make its players into kids unfazed by the adult world. It's a Nintendo talent, one it most closely shares with Disney. Launching a good Nintendo game is like stepping into Disneyland, a bath of wonder brined in nostalgia. I love video games, and because I love them, I can focus on their future, power, and potential to change the world. Sometimes, I just need to reset though, and remember what I fell for in the first place: the stuff that makes me feel good, young, and hopeful. The fluff.
I need to relax, so I play a game.
Yoshi's Woolly World is now available on Wii U.