Eating Your Hay: Playing the Classics Isn’t Always Easy

Old BooksIn university I had an English professor who taught a third year criticism and theory class. On the first day he handed out the syllabus with a wry smile on his face. When we looked at it we understood why. The class was broken up into lectures that steadily progressed through a long history of Western literary criticism.

This meant that we’d be spending the rest of the semester reading dense text from Horace and Longinus to Baudelaire and Foucault.

“I know that you’re probably not looking forward to the reading,” he said. “But you have to work hard at dry material to get a proper understanding of literature. My class is about doing that. It may be more enjoyable to read more exciting texts, but this semester we’re not having cake. We’re all going to have to eat our hay together.”

That turn of phrase has stuck with me ever since. In some classes the reading was pleasurable, the syllabus filled up with Alice Munro short stories and Mark Twain novels. In others, like this criticism/theory class, I spent nights trying to unpack huge ideas from intricately written essays and drinking heart-stopping amounts of coffee in an effort to stay  awake through gargantuan Victorian tomes penned by Britons who were paid by the word. Just the same, by the time I graduated I appreciated what I had taken from all the effort.

I’ve tried to keep eating my hay on personal time. Since graduating I’ve supplemented a diet of “easy” fiction with bales of James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, David Foster Wallace, and Leo Tolstoy in an attempt to keep my reading as full of nutrients as possible. I’ve also found that trying to do the same with both listening to music and playing videogames has been valuable.

Just the same, experiencing the classics isn’t always easy.

“Eating your hay” applies to all media, meaning that playing “important” games can be as simultaneously frustrating and rewarding as working through a tough book like Ulysses or finding the rhythmic heart beating beneath the sonic wall of a Lightning Bolt song+. Videogames can be even more difficult to experience than a book written in challenging prose or music that defies easy understanding due to their difficulty, though. Since games nearly Planescape Reid Save Filealways focus on challenging the player it’s entirely possible that even the most dedicated audience will be unable to see the conclusion of something they’re interested in. No matter how initially baffling a song may seem on first listen, the only real hurdles an interested party has to overcome in understanding it is patience and an open mind.

Compare this to a few of the role-playing videogames that occupy the medium’s (rough and constantly reinterpreted) canon of important works. Planescape: Torment first presents itself as a battle of will between the player and the game’s seemingly impenetrable use of invented nouns and verbal lingo. This isn’t too much unlike reading a fantasy or science fiction novel, though, and can be overcome by anyone who is properly persistent. The real trouble comes when a combat system is introduced that makes progressing to the next story beat a bit like trying to see through to the other side of a brick wall by repeatedly slamming your own head into it. Despite playing a good number of games, the basic mechanics of something like Torment can stop me in my tracks++.

Tough TimeEven games without a high level of difficulty or steep learning curve can be tough to make it all the way through. The Super Nintendo RPG Earthbound is very straightforward from both a narrative and gameplay standpoint yet it suffers from the kind of issues that can make actually getting from introduction to epilogue feel like a chore. The main quest can feel meandering and aimless, the combat incredibly repetitive, and the level of difficulty bounces all over the place. Despite these problems, players who can’t force themselves to work past these problems will end up missing out on something that is undoubtedly important to the history of videogames. Earthbound‘s director, Shigesato Itoi, is evidently a very smart man, and a gifted developer. The game has a lot to say, not only about other Japanese-made RPGs, but about America, childhood, and a myriad other topics that are definitely worth struggling against the occasional bout of boredom to experience. For all the times that its uneven design makes the player want to give up — each time a character is knocked out and has to be revived after an arduous trek to a hospital — it ends up being difficult to remember these issues once the credits have rolled. The ultimate impression left by the game (and of so many other “important” works that are tough to enjoy in a traditional sense) is that the experience was worthwhile.

And that’s the real point of eating your hay; you chew through mouthfuls of dry stuff and end up getting something out of your lack of immediate enjoyment. There’s something valuable to this process and it’s worth encouraging others to do. Sure, there is always a faster way to get enjoyment out of entertainment, but some of the longest lasting kinds of gratification come when the payoff is deferred a little bit. Struggle through games you’ve been putting off playing; read that giant book that you’re afraid of starting; check out bands whose music sounds like nothing but noise on a first listen. In a lot of cases, the kind of media that is held up as “important” — no matter how stuffy or bizarre the content may initially seem — is worth the effort in the long run.

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+ Of course, not every classic is tough to enjoy. The Iliad is actually a lot of fun, The Beatles are a constant joy, and playing Super Mario Bros. 3 is a goddamned blast.

++ This example is minor compared to how difficult it can be to experience a reflex-based action game. If Super Meat Boy has a mind-blowing ending I won’t ever get to see it without help from YouTube.

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Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He is also editor-in-extremis for videogame site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.

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4 thoughts on “Eating Your Hay: Playing the Classics Isn’t Always Easy”

  1. I have mixed feelings on this approach. The attitude you’re describing is useful to the audience members (reader, viewer, player, or whatever other term people like), but I don’t think it’s as useful to the creator.

    You’re absolutely right that the more dense, sometimes less digestible material can be good for us. But I think the value in the challenge of material isn’t nearly as great as the value of good material, which isn’t necessarily challenging but can be quite often. What concerns me is a creator attempting a more erudite flourish than they’re capable of, making something that’s dense because they think it will inherently have more value if it’s difficult. Making something succinct, lucid, or elegant takes mastery. Often good material can be difficult, and if a creator is honest about what that material is meant to be, and express, then they won’t let that bother them. As you write, some times we have to chew the hay. But I think the less experienced creator can fall into the trap of thinking that something difficult is masterful because it’s difficult instead of realizing that the reason why it’s difficult is because it’s verbose, convoluted, pretentious, or otherwise sophomoric.

    I’m all for what you’re saying in general, especially as marketing becomes exclusively geared towards pushing material that is shallow, easy, and aimed at the widest possible audience with as little challenge as possible. I’m all with you for encouraging people to try something more challenging, to stick with the tough stuff and be better for it. But it takes a lot of learning to understand why the challenging material is good for you, and what is difficult material because it has to be, versus difficult material that is poorly crafted.

    But anyway, good piece. I dug it.

    1. I definitely understand this and wish there was a solution to the problem. I don’t necessarily believe that challenge, in and of itself, is always valuable — only that disregarding something based on the difficulty of it can mean missing out on truly valuable work. At the same time, both hacks and masters can unnecessarily obfuscate the goal/message of their work underneath layers of convolution and I’d argue in favour of really great, straightforward efforts as often as I would for tougher ones. There’s really no way to recommend “classics” other than on a case by case basis (and, even then, so much of what a critic thinks is valuable can depend on their own aesthetics/critical bent), but I just wanted to make the point that delving into work that appears scary is often a really good thing to do.

      As to learning how to tell what is poor/hard or great/hard; that is a real issue that I’m not sure there is a good way to address. There’s a whole argument simmering just below that statement involving the democratization (and demystifying) of critical studies that is an enormous can of worms to crack open. I think the only way to tell if a work is worth the effort is to read/play/listen to a lot and seek out criticism involving it. Whether or not that’s possible with the way most critics are taught to write is another thing altogether. This is a tough issue, but, I think, a pretty interesting one, too.

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