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Driven by Momentum

Published onJan 11, 2021
Driven by Momentum

The thrill of Rocket League is momentum. The 2015 game of simulated soccer is built on high-speed play, fighting for control of a massive ball from behind the wheel of a car. In a typical (if slightly idealized) sequence, I launch my vehicle through the air to clear a ball rounding the corner of the field. As I connect I adjust the roll and pitch of the car to land, wheels in line with my momentum, on the wall and keep pace with the ball as it sails downfield. To continue the attack, I flip from the wall to the ground, “wavedashing” through a nitrous-boost refill, engage the boost to gain speed, and connect with the ball as it bounces for a powerful strike on goal. Executed correctly, this sequence is smooth, efficient, and short. But a single mistake at any point, a misalignment on the wall or a botched wavedash, could kill my momentum and stop me dead in my tracks.

Momentum is a viscerally enjoyable component of a huge number of games. From web-swinging in Spider-Man to wall-running in Titanfall to sequencing tricks in Tony Hawk, picking up and maintaining speed is a joy across genres and eras. Movement that physically commits you creates opportunity cost in minute decisions. In contrast to systems in which the player can stop or turn on a dime, movement that has weight behind it ensures that the act of navigating a space is filled with meaningful choices.

Momentum is more than physical, though. It’s a description of inertia, of the way that starting down a path can build on itself until you do something purely because you did it the day before. This sort of momentum has been an important tool for me, as throughout my life I’ve struggled intensely to begin tasks or projects that, while necessary, I found uninteresting or disconnected from the goals that I most directly cared about.

These difficulties have made me acutely aware of the momentum of work and play. When I make it to the gym because I have every Monday of the past month, and because habituation propels action. When I start a session of Dark Souls and end up exhausted the next day because I failed to find my brain a satisfying moment to stop until 4:00 a.m. Even when COVID snaps that workout routine and turns my sleep cycle on its head, that is its own kind of momentum.

At risk of stating the obvious, COVID has upended the rhythms of my life. Long-standing habits are broken and day-to-day activity has been refitted into the new kind of inertia of waking up, working ten feet away, and relaxing in the same place as each part of the day bleeds into the next (this the result of the undeniably privileged position of holding a job with the ability to work from home during the pandemic). As time passes, barriers have eroded and my days become a continuous blend. There is, in one sense, a great deal of momentum in this unstructured mix, but it also denies the momentum of sinking in and engaging with any of its constituent parts.

Into this mess comes Rocket League. I’ve played many games in the past year, but none more than the neon-tinted car soccer simulator. Some games have had too much momentum; Dark Souls drew me in to the tune of 70 hours over two weeks. An incredible game, but one that consumed my life in these orderless days. Others have had too little; I’ve found fascinating and exciting games like Signs of the Sojourner and Umurangi Generation, but short games built on formal and narrative innovation cannot serve as comfort or catharsis to return to daily in order to relax and decompress.

Rocket League can.

The atomic units of the game are five-minute matches. This means that I can seamlessly step into half a dozen games for a satisfying session, and just as easily step out. Each victory or defeat provides a natural stopping point and breaks up games, preventing me from being thoughtlessly drawn into all-night marathons. At the same time, the gameplay creates an even more compelling momentum.

The techniques of Rocket League are developed gradually. I wouldn’t consider what I was doing actually shooting the ball until I was 50 hours in; I didn’t even attempt to dribble until around 150. At this scale I don’t look at the game in discrete steps; instead, I revel in the slow development of my skills. Making softer touches, anticipating the direction of a ricochet tenths of a second earlier, hitting the ball an ever-so-slightly higher percentage of the time on that sweet spot in the corner of the car—these are the real thrills.

For me, Rocket League means a game about movement, in more than just dynamic gameplay. It means a game that can step in and out of focus with ease, and that can propel me when other paths seem frozen. In this pandemic, finding a game that breathes, one with a long horizon to look toward and in which I can feel the momentum in my hands every time I return, has given me direction and release when little else could.

With thanks to Oren Maximov

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