I had grand plans this weekend. Strictly speaking, I had absolutely no plans, but that was the exciting part. There was no pile of washing to do, no lawn to mow, no annoying chores to eat into any spare minutes you get to yourself. What’s more, my fiance had made solo plans with our daughter, so I wouldn’t be reading the same two books over and over again. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Very Hungry Caterpillar as much as the next guy, but on your sixteenth read of the day it loses its charm a little.

I’d blocked the first couple of hours out to watch the football, but after that I could do anything I wanted. My brain immediately went to FIFA. Ligue 1 Team of the Season players are currently in packs, and it was likely to be the sweatiest Weekend League of the season as everyone ratted it out for the infinitesimally small chance of pulling a red Mbappe. I wouldn’t get all 20 games in, but between that big session and Monday night, I’d be all set to get my usual 11-14 wins.

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And then I thought, nah. I won’t do that. The sun’s shining, summer has finally hit England, and I’m gonna go outside. So I set up my hammock and read a book. It was lovely. I wasn’t completely enamoured with Hugo Award-winner Becky Chambers’ sickeningly positive world of A Psalm for the Wild-Built, but just being outside, lying in the breeze and relaxing was beautiful. I realised that Panga, the book’s world, was the direct opposite of Weekend League: a welcoming, beautiful place full of helpful people and wonderful interactions. Reading the novella was like receiving a gentle hug from a friend you’ve not seen in years.

Neymar celebrating a goal in FIFA 23

Weekend League is toxic. It’s not just the sweaty goals, the pull-backs from the byline, or the constant griddies. It’s hard work and takes a lot of concentration. Sometimes I’m in the mood for that, for a gaming session that’s more like being spat on by a stranger who doesn’t like your moustache than waiting at the train station for your friend, thoughts of that forthcoming embrace warming your insides. But FIFA’s getting worse, the number of people who quit at 0-0 instead of giving away wins seems to be increasing, and I’ve never been more glad to be on PC and away from the toxic messages I’d be barraged with on console. It was going to be worse than ever this weekend, so I avoided it and buried my head in a book.

I still had time after I finished my book though, and I hadn’t pencilled anything else in. That was the beauty of this free afternoon, so I hadn’t wanted to book myself up with a to-do list of fun activities that would soon become a chore in itself. I thought about FIFA again, and decided against FIFA again. Then I thought about hopping on for a few games of Apex, and decided against that too. I got into bed at an absurdly early hour and played Tears of the Kingdom.

Vantage smiling at her pet Echo, which is standing on hers rifle and opening its muth in a menacing way.

I love live-service games, and I’ve spent more hours in Apex Legends and FIFA than every other game I’ve ever played combined, maybe excluding Pokemon Silver that I wore out when I was a kid. I play through the odd career in FIFA, but for the most part those hours have been spent grinding online. Whether that’s getting promoted to Division 1 in Ultimate Team or climbing the ranked leaderboard in Apex, every match is a means to that end: to progress up a ladder, a ladder that has been greased with the oil of other players’ progression and resets either every season or year.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and as I’ve gotten older, the fruitless nature of live-service titles has become more apparent. I think a lot of it comes from becoming a parent. I have less time for games these days, and I don’t regret a single minute I’ve spent with my daughter rather than staring at a screen. I’ve got to be more selective about the games I play with that time, though. The elation of getting promoted is great, and the serotonin boost of winning a battle royale match pushes you through the next four unsuccessful hot drops, but it’s ultimately pretty meaningless. Choosing to step away from grinding these endless live-service titles this weekend has solidified those thoughts in my mind.

link and sidon fighting in tears of the kingdom
via Nintendo
link and sidon fighting in tears of the kingdom

I’m not too far through Tears of the Kingdom, and yet it still amazes me. I’m enjoying taking my time with it instead of bingeing every possible side quest like I did Breath of the Wild – again, parenting has changed my gaming habits – but it gives me a feeling that FIFA and Apex haven’t in a long time. It’s a kind of catharsis from finishing a mission or beating a boss, a sense of accomplishment that winning matches against other humans doesn’t match because you just move onto the next and then the one after and it never ends. Single-player games have an end, and reaching every small summit along the way is gratifying.

The new Zelda game isn’t perfect, and has some aspects of grinding itself, but I’ve ignored them and fared okay. FIFA is barely a functioning game outside of its loot box mode, whereas TotK is rewarding in a hundred different ways. When your Frankensteinian Ultrahand monstrosity actually works, when you dive off a beautiful sky island, when you reach a Temple, when your humble pine cone takes out a Moblin, when a sorry villager earnestly thanks you. I’m nowhere near facing off against Ganondorf, but I feel great about myself and the story I’m forging for Link.

I learned a lesson this weekend, one that will stay with me. I’ll still play live-service games, I enjoy doing so, but sometimes the grind isn’t worth it. Sometimes you’re better off playing Zelda or an even cosier game. You don’t necessarily have to touch grass, but sometimes you’re better off reading in a hammock stretched six inches above it.

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