Is a Video Game Beef a Beef If the Other Person Doesn’t Know It’s Happening?

A screen shot from the video game Neon White

Image courtesy of Annapurna Interacitve

Out of nowhere, I have become a person experiencing a life of perceived slights, the kind of things sports talk show hosts spend hours yelling about when trying to understand how an athlete like Tom Brady, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, keeps playing a violent sport like football into his 40s with a passion I can only find for opening a beer on Friday night, because a team decided not to draft him decades ago. It apparently keeps him up at night.

For me, this is quietly muttering at and mocking the Steam name of Polygon editor-in-chief Chris Planteand cackling with glee when I perform better at him in Neon White, this year’s best demon-filled platforming shooter game. See, Plante is on my Steam friends list and has also been playing Neon White. We have not exchanged a single word about our experiences playing Neon White. Plante has no idea that he has become “bulletin board fodder” for my time playing, and hell, for all I know, Plante isn’t even aware that I’m playing Neon White.

But his name—and score—appear on a leaderboard at the end of every level in Neon Whiteand serve as motivation to do a tiny bit better, even when I am feeling the pull to move on.

(I should point out that this, on some level, resembles the ongoing Spelunky feud I had with former games writer, former Idle Thumbs co-host, and current Valve employee Chris Remo. Do I have a Chris thing?)

Lots of video games track how long it takes you to finish an objective, but the difference with Neon White is that finishing that objective faster and faster is the point. Your first run through a level is not a measure of completion. Instead, it’s experience for doing it even faster and with fewer mistakes. You need to hit certain times in order to progress in the game. Once you achieve a gold medal time, you can move on…or you can be like me and keep on going.

There’s a level beyond the gold medal called the ace medal, which doesn’t signify the fastest possible time through a level, but it does say you’ve done a really good job. That medal is usually enough for me to feel satisfied and move forward…unless I discover that Plante has bested me. Then, it’s time to head back into the speedrunning mines and take his ass down.

You can almost tell a story about a person by studying the times, too. For example, Plante, like me, was usually getting ace medals. Then, at a certain point, they stopped and seemed satisfied with gold medals. Polygon is a big and busy website, and he’s a father, too. Did he just decide that enough was enough? (The game also gets much harder in its final sprint.)

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Beefing aside, much of this is motivated by discovering that “hey, we’re actually at similar skill levels,” and seeing Plante’s time gives me a sense of when I can reasonably call it on one stage or another. I’d reliably be getting times that are a few seconds faster than Plante, and so it acted as motivation for spending a few more minutes getting a little better.

The reverse of this was finding my colleague, Renata Price, on the leaderboards. By contrast, Renata was much better than me, and was finishing a few seconds ahead of me. If I was able to find a middle ground—just ahead of Plante, just behind Renata—I felt at peace.

That was, of course, until I made it past where Renata was playing, forcing me to patiently ask if Renata could keep playing the game. She agreed, and then I passed her by again, leaving me without a sense of place in the universe. I had to play Neon White by myself.

playing Neon White without the validation of others feels so hollow. sigh. Yet I persist. In other words, I need some new perceived slights to motivate me. Maybe Brady has ideas?

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