One of the coziest moments I’ve ever had in a videogame was also in one of the first 3D epics I’d ever played. I loved fishing in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. There was nothing like taking a break from the drama of Hyrule to slip into the Fishing Pond at Lake Hylia at dusk, run along the back wall of grass to find the Sinking Lure, and lose a few hours trying to catch the Hylian Loach. It was among the first times a game had asked me to casually pass time with something other than a quest, and the novelty was forbidden and appealing: to relax from the in-game grind with an in-game past time, one that demanded nothing of me but patience, minimal skill, and a bit of luck.
Everything that I find appealing about fishing in real life crosses over to the virtual experience: the hope of catching “the big one,” the victory in landing a delicate cast, and the hours spent in quiet meditation. As fishing mini-games have popped up in more and more games since the Hylian Loach days, they’re still a huge time suck for me wherever they appear, including Far Cry 5, Stardew Valley and Graveyard Keeper, to name a recent few.
Then there’s Red Dead Redemption 2, an open world game where you can spend more time surviving off the land than actually playing the missions. Fittingly, it has its own fishing mini-game, one supplemented by special lures and Legendaries that can only be caught in their secret location once. The difficulty, of course, can range depending on the fish, but for the most part, the ones worth catching will take effort on your part to do so. The larger ones can tease out the reel process for a solid half hour without breaking the line, and the strain it puts on your wrists and thumbs is absolutely obnoxious. I like the thrill of a challenge, but reeling in a sturgeon out in Bayou Nwa shouldn’t hurt so bad that I have to stop gaming for a day.
Despite how much time I spend on them, I’m not sure if I’ve ever even played a fishing mini-game that didn’t bust up my wrists and hands. Most of them seem to rely either on pulling back hard on the analog stick (to mimic the act of reeling), or button mashing, both of which almost demand pain in the process. While I admittedly have wrist issues due to a repetitive stress injury, at the same time, I first got that injury while playing the Stardew Valley fishing mini-game, and it lasted for several weeks. I’d blame the pain of Red Dead Redemption 2 on Stardew Valley but it can’t possibly be their fault: Stardew Valley only used my right hand, whereas Red Dead Redemption 2 annihilates my left wrist. Only fighting games are usually this good at destroying my dexterity.
Thinking back to the Hylian Loach, I don’t remember if catching it hurt my wrists as bad as they do now, but I do remember the dry scraping outside of the N64 controller analog stick, how hours of friction rubbed away at the plastic until it was more white than gray. There are probably a lot of ways we could better design fishing mini-games to not be so taxing—remappable and alternate control schemes, timing and precision based challenges, stuff like that. I’m wary of game design that relies on pain to make its point, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that a minigame inherently about relaxation not be so inaccessible and physically taxing.
In other words, fishing mini-games, can you lay off already? You’ve made your point. If I wanted to suffer this much, I’d go back to actual fishing.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.