Humans are a species of fortune-tellers. This ability to anticipate the future has played a prominent role in our lives since our cave-dwelling days.
Back then, our very survival depended on our predictive capabilities: from leading the throw of a spear, to stockpiling grain in advance of a brutal winter, those of us more adept at spotting patterns in the chaos of the world outlived our more myopic brethren. That’s why these days we’re so prone to seeing patterns in our lives even when there are none. The tendency to forecast is baked right into our brains.
It’s this primal impulse that makes replaying games so compelling. After leaving just enough time for the specifics to fade from memory, we can return to a previously-conquered game and play through it again with only a mild case of deja-vu. We blast through levels with preternatural skill – and yet, it doesn’t feel like cheating, because the knowledge sits below our conscious mind, simmering in the layers of our muscle memory.
Rather, we revel in our capacity to surmount every obstacle the game throws at us, entertaining the notion that we have simply skilled up since our first tussle. We’re smarter, now, better at anticipating what is coming next. The survivalist in us beams with pride, and we feel stronger.
This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to previously-played games either. Through the use of time travel, some games create Groundhog-Day-esque loops that leverage the empowerment of foresight on the player’s first run through. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare serves as a prime example. Trapped in a time loop by his evil doppelganger, the titular Wake must survive the same twisted scenarios again and again as he pieces together a weapon to help him escape.
Because he remembers how events will play out, Wake is able to bypass the busy work and better prepare himself on the second and third times around. Coupled with the player’s foreknowledge of enemy ambushes and resupply locations, it fosters a feeling of mastery absent in the simple uptick of damage numbers.
Sometimes we don’t want games to surprise us. Sometimes it is the familiar tale that we desire, the song to which we know all the words. Knowledge, after all, is power, and in this chaotic, volatile world we call home, any chance to pretend we have control, we take.