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I started vaping nicotine in the summer of 2018. After the end of a long relationship, I was a specific type of melancholic, the type that made me want to start smoking cigarettes again. I had smoked for a bit in college, thanks in part to going to school in New York City and also thanks to being a bit depressed over not having Miami weather year-round, but I had dropped it by my sophomore year and, a drunken cigarette here and there aside, had never picked it back up. When I went to dip my lungs back into that tar pit in 2018, I found that I actually hated cigarettes; the smell, the price, the "having to go outside," all of it. So, instead, during the start of this particular craze, I bought a portable nicotine vaporizer. This was one of the worst decisions of my life.

Since maybe early 2019, after the novelty had worn off and the nicotine addiction had kicked in, I have lived in a constant state of trying to quit vaping. First, it was when the mango varietal of vape juice was banned. I could still find the flavor at bodegas and smoke shops around the city, but the price went slowly up, from $20 to $30 to $50. I paid all of those prices, and maybe even higher. After that came COVID-19, and I tried to quit to preserve my lungs during the time of quarantine and a respiratory disease. Turns out, quarantine is boring and nicotine helped with that, so I failed. Then I started trying to quit because I was spending too much money even on normally priced pods. That's where I'm at now. The process has repeated many times: I'll buy a vape, some pods, blow through them in a few days, throw out my vape, proclaim I'm going to quit to my (very patient) partner, then repeat the cycle in a week, or a fortnight, or a month.

The last time I vaped was in Miami a few weeks ago. I was down in my hometown for the Formula 1 race, and I knew walking around in the heat while trying to focus on my notes would give me a huge craving for nicotine, so I bought my usual kit of vaping paraphernalia and spent most of the weekend ripping plumes at the autodrome. I threw out my vape, again, at the airport on the way back, thinking that if I left vaping in a different state, it would be easier to stay off the stuff. It hasn't been easy at all, but I'm working on it. I'm always working on it.

I've been thinking a lot about vaping lately, not just the aspect of my own nicotine addiction but also the notion of quitting as a concept, and failure as an ever-present state. This batch of perhaps tenuous but earnest philosophizing has been spurred by one of my other vices: video games. The day I returned from Miami, Hades II, the sequel to one of the most universally beloved action roguelikes, and really video games as a whole in recent memory, entered Early Access. Essentially, I paid $32.39 for the right to beta-test the game, which feels like a dumber waste of money than any vape. Unfortunately, Hades II rocks, so I don't feel bad about it. More unfortunately, I am absolutely horrible at Hades II, and that has done a number on my mental state.

In Hades II, just as in the original game, you take over one of the titular character's children; in the first one, it was his son Zagreus, and in the new one, it's his daughter Melinoë. I won't bore you with the plot intricacies, mostly because I am too bad at this game to actually know the entirety of the story, but the gameplay boils down to receiving boons from the gods of Olympus in order to defeat level after level of enemies. If you die, the whole thing starts over from scratch, though there are permanent buffs and items you can acquire to make future runs easier. This incentivizes going as far as you can in each run, but also punishes you by making you go through levels you have already played before getting back to whatever killed you.

For me, right now, that is the second major boss in Hades II, a trio of sirens, one of which plays drums and another guitar. (It's a silly game, but stylishly so.) I felt a great surge of accomplishment upon beating the first boss, Melinoë's instructor Hecate, and getting to this second boss before dying. I figured I had made permanent progress in my skills, which would allow me to get back to the sirens quickly in order to figure out how to beat them. In a handful of runs since that first failure, I've not once made it back to the sirens again. My patience is being tried every time I die to some stupid banshees in the game's first area. (I hate the banshees.)

This is a battle of pride for me. Maybe it shouldn't be; games like Hades II are intentionally hard, and they are meant to push you to the outer limits of your ability before teaching you how to expand those limits little by little. But I have been a capital-G Gamer for as long as I can remember, and I consider myself quite good at most video games I play. While I appreciate and respect Barry's take that video games should be easy, I read that blog thinking, "That doesn't apply to me, though." When a game like Hades II shows me that my belief in my abilities was unfounded, it stings.

And yet, for some reason, I am currently playing two other games in which failure isn't just expected, but in which it is actually a feature. The recent release of Ghost of Tsushima on PC, as well as watching Shogun, made me want to dive back into that game in order to defend the titular Japanese island from a fictionalized 13th-century Mongol invasion. Tsushima isn't quite on the level of Hades II in terms of difficulty or in terms of what it means to fail, and I've heard it gets quite easy as you level up your main character's skills. My Jin Sakai is weak still, though, and I have died a lot trying to perfect parries and combos with the katana of his clan.

Luckily, you don't lose much when you die in Tsushima; you might go back in time five minutes and have to re-clear a bit of the game to get back to the boss that killed you—or, in my case, the throngs of nameless enemies that seem to be harder than one-on-one boss duels—but it's a minor inconvenience. Perhaps this is why I have not grown frustrated with Tsushima yet, and why I have not put my controller down in a rage.

On the other end of that spectrum comes Elden Ring. I have been in a similar state of quitting Elden Ring since it came out in 2022. Unlike my coworkers Tom and Patrick, with whom I have an intermittent DM conversation about the game, I have not come close to finishing the game, though I am trying to get there before the Shadow of the Erdtree expansion comes out next month. Hell, I haven't even finished the game's first area; over three playthroughs, I have killed the first major boss, Margit the Fell Omen, three times, but have never even seen the second, Godrick the Grafted, who waits at the end of the Stormveil Castle dungeon. Instead, I have died repeatedly because of some normal-ass enemies in the castle, from archers I can't seem to dodge for long enough to get in range for a big bonk with my sword, to giant knights who kill me in two hits, to little dudes who just swarm me.

Death screen in Elden Ring
I died on purpose here for the screenshot, but these guys have absolutely killed me before.Elden Ring

Elden Ring is sort of the middle ground between Hades II and Ghost of Tsushima in terms of failure. While you do not have to restart a playthrough in full, like in the former, Elden Ring sends you back further than the latter. If you die, you return to the last save spot you visited, and you lose all of the "runes" you were carrying. (Runes are essentially the game's currency and experience points rolled into one.) You must then carefully make your way back against respawned enemies to grab the runes you lost. If you die again, they're gone forever.

This sets up a gameplay loop that I frankly do not enjoy, but which I desperately want to overcome: you fight some enemies, you die, you fight those same enemies but with your blood pressure cranked up, grab your runes, then die again and repeat. God forbid you die on a boss; you either have to keep fighting the boss over and over until you kill it, or quit to get stronger and lose the very runes that would make you stronger in the first place. (Smart players will just use all their runes before attempting a boss. I am not a smart player, as my having to fight Margit for two hours in order to not lose like 40,000 runes showed me all too well.)

This is supposed to be fun! In some ways, all of those games are fun, insofar as conquering whatever defeated me previously is a high not unlike taking a particularly satisfying rip of my vape. But like the feeling of shame that comes after I reach that nicotine high in between attempts to quit, playing games that are both difficult and punishing makes me feel tilted and defeated. In a fun twist of the human mind, failing at these games makes me want to vape more. And yet, I have never really played these games while in the active state of vaping; it's only when I quit that I want to feel a more visceral level of failure to distract me from the more nebulous desire to inhale nicotine. It's a vicious cycle that just serves to put me in a bad mood for at least a few hours.

And yet, I return to Elden Ring, just as I have been firing up new runs of Hades II here and there, just as I go back into Ghost of Tsushima to liberate a Mongol outpost for a few minutes before the tension becomes overwhelming. It's stupid, really. I have so, so many games on my backlog, games I would probably enjoy more. Why waste some of my precious time on this Earth playing games that are confrontational at best, or downright torturous at worst? Well, that's the thing about pride. I want to conquer these games and their loops of misery, hoping for the payoff of actually "winning."

It's not too dissimilar to my desire to conquer my own brain's dependence on a chemical. I'm never happier than when I have avoided vaping for a few weeks. And yet, like all of these games, that feeling of accomplishment is often replaced by the desire to take the easier road, to quit playing out of frustration or to quit trying to quit vaping out of addiction. I feel trapped by the push and pull of what would feel better, and I have gone back-and-forth more times than I care to admit.

Would beating Elden Ring perhaps make me feel proud enough of myself to also quit vaping for good at the same time? Honestly, maybe! Brains are dumb things sometimes, and attaching something that is slowly killing me to something that brutally kills me over and over seems as logical as any other type of motivation to quit vaping. Is that a stupid way to tie a video game, even one as good as Elden Ring, into something much more serious, like a nicotine addiction? Well, no, but I never said I was dealing with any of this in a smart way. I just keep failing over and over, hoping that the small lessons I learn from each failure will eventually snowball into total victory.

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