When I was younger I loved video games. My first console I played on was a SNES at the house of my preschool friend, Brent. Actually, I never got to play because his older brother was playing a single player game, so I just sat and watched engulfed in the barrage of lights and sounds. Video games had a special quality to them. You could have work to do in one reality, and play in another reality all at once. It was like magic in a box. I could sit for hours solving puzzles, defeating enemies or choosing whether to spend the extra cash on a ferry to cross the Colorado river. Plus, games could hold my attention longer than my parents could, or friends for that matter. I could sit in my room and play a game for hours and not notice a thing outside of the 35 x 35 tv sharp tv screen perched on the dresser.
My favorite game was Zelda, that I never did end up beating. Truth be told I got too scared in the forest temple to go any further (a friend of mine later traded Majora’s mask for it which turned out to be much easier to play). From the time I unwrapped the N64 from under the christmas tree in 1996 to the time I plugged in the ps2, I chanced a perfect love affair with the ‘people at nintendo’. Super smash bros, Mario Kart, Banjo Kazooie, Perfect Dark, Golden Eye, Snowboard kids, Tony Hawk, Rampage, Vigilante 8, Wave Racer, you name it, my friends and I played it (but mostly I played it). It brought a science fiction fantasy to gaming that was unlike anything before. Playing pokemon on my gameboy color was one thing, but moving through new worlds with 3 other players talkin’ trash and getting ‘mad bro’ was something entirely different.
The older I got, the more games I played and the saga of multiplayer rivalries, bitter disputes, euphoric victories and the like only developed across multiple technologies, platforms and sofa cushions. Halo LAN parties and coop guitar hero tested my faith as a heterosexual male trying to maintain his relationship with his girlfriend and as the advent of online multiplayer swept into focus, the gaming world changed forever.
I was around 17 or 18 the first time I played online with my friends. (thats a lie). My first experience with online gaming was trying to logon to battle.net to play starcraft with Manny (rest his soul), before my dad got home from work. I don’t remember much of this event, suffice to say that I couldn’t really play multiplayer because my mom, dad and sister all needed the modem for their work. Right around the time Halo 2 came out, we got broadband and I started playing in lobbies with friends from school. This is what I like to call the golden age of online gaming: Halo 2. I don’t know if it was the caliber of players that I met that year, or the fantastic gameplay of Halo 2.
All of these experiences led me to a sort of fascination with multiplayer that continued with the call of duty series. (reader be warned: I don’t want to appear as though I only played video games for multiplayer experience. Hardly the case, I played all types of games). In time, I reforged my love for RPG’s that culminated in defeating the final boss in Final Fantasy X and the game unexpectedly shutting down and deleting every last scrap of saved data that I’d had. (Reader Note: ALWAYS save your progress). In any event, I petered out my video game trance on a bit of a high when I started to make video games of my own.
I’d taken an intro to programming class in college that taught us the basic elements of game programming. The first game I made was an alien spacecraft that the player had to take off and land successfully on a separate landing strip. I was introduced to concepts such as design, classes, methods and so on. I’d tried to program a few other ideas off hand but the fascination with video games I’d found was only skin deep. I simply loved the challenge of becoming good. I grew so fond of it in fact that my enthusiasm spread into other games like chess and games for the PC. Gaming consumed my life and it was fun.
But something was missing. Over all the time spent playing games, all the opponents desecrated, all the noobs massacred, I began to notice that the kick in multiplayer games was beginning to go away. I couldn’t help but think of times spent competing against my friends on first gen games as I heard the click of their controllers just feet away and as we both experienced the anticipation of the contest. It was simply incomparable to playing a faceless opponent. It didn’t matter if your friends were there when you were playing online, the fun came from playing your friend in a battle of skill, wit and sportsmanship. The best opponents stayed upbeat throughout the game, laughing vividly at defeat or parading a modest smile in victory. The best opponents knew their limitations, their weaknesses and knew how to turn the tide of the game with a simple gesture or exclamation.
I relish all of these experiences because they take me back to when I was just a small boy. I would sit in my friends room as we played ape escape on the ps1 and took turns getting as far as we could. Or staying up all night playing zelda, taking turns: one on the sticks and one reading off the walkthrough guide. Or 4 v 4 Halo Lan parties where the rivalry would subsist at the lunch tables well into the week.
“So” I asked myself late one night staring off into my bedroom ceiling where a particular water stain had formed what looked to be a pokeball, “what’s changed?”
I had no answer. I could only assume that gaming had just gone a different route. That, 90% of gamemakers, guys just like me who grew up on the same games that I’d grown up on, or that had played with friends the same way I’d had, had just taken a different stance.
I felt hopeless. Sure, Call of Duty was fun, but it wasn’t Halo fun or Zelda fun. I thought about getting a Wii, but I didn’t really feel like waving a wand around; I like sticks! So, I had to suggest a new theory. That games were losing their emotional drive. Sure, this seems like a lot to take in, but it’s really quite simple. Gone were the days of underground gaming fandom: Gaming had gone mainstream.
The thought continues to send shudders down my spine.
“But I thought gaming was already mainstream”, the tiny voice inside my head blurts out.
I don’t know when it happened, but gaming became mainstream. Gaming in the 90’s was like an eminem concert. Sure eminem is massively popular, but he has an intensely loyal fan base. You ever met an eminem fan? I rest my case.
Gaming was a boys game, in the same way that make-up is a girls game. Boys got together and played video games. Girls got together and read seventeen and applied makeup.
So, why did gaming go mainstream, and what did this mean to gaming? Well, gaming originally relied on relatively simple technology, you had 8 bit or 16 bit processors, until N64 which had, well, 64 bits under the hood, but once the gaming industry figured out that you could run games on even better tech, the shit hit the fan! Suddenly gaming became the cute little kid who dressed up as a flower for halloween when everybody else dressed up as something villainous. The bee gamers such as I made migrations as normal, but suddenly beekeepers with their end of year bonuses and corporate incentives came to join the party. With no regard for the color in the petals, the beekeepers snatched the flower, picked it of its natural beauty and tossed it aside as if to announce some kind of self imposed rebellion. I say bollocks! On this behavior.
But I digress. The new consoles were chiefly capable, astonishing and dare I say sexy. The design was sleek, intimidating and the picture was worth far more than 1,000 words. Of course, this was the “catering” corner of the gaming industry; because the true gamers stuck to their handhelds. But I refused to be marginalized into a handheld device. It was condescending and made me feel small, naturally.
What I pined for was a video game that surpassed all of my wildest expectations. I remember being 11 or so and seeing commercials for a new game and thinking “oh man, this game is gonna be so sick!”, but I was always oddly disappointed. This was obviously a result of me projecting my relationship with my mother onto my gaming habit, but still, something in me wanted to pick apart the game with such dexterity as to rebuild the game myself.
But the games that I internalized and the games that lasted in my cavernous memory were those that instigated a bond between competitors; fostered a beginning. These games were made with the INTENT to provoke surprise, tactic, skill and deception.
I want to make this point exceptionally clear when I say that gaming is in need of emotion. The emotion that we, the gamers want is AWE, SURPRISE, LET DOWN, PRIDE, BETRAYED, INVIGORATED, RELAXATION, ELATION.
Now, I get it, I mean, why drive halfway across town to play a video game when you can log onto xbox live and sit in your recliner eating snacks and garbling nonsense to your friend doing the same thing? Because it’s FUN.
The whole point of video games is to juxtapose an alternate reality with your everyday, ordinary reality. Sharing this alternate reality is great via online communication, but what could be better than sharing both realities at the same time! But, I digress; my point is not to dull you with a vague existential pseudo philosophy but to inspire a confidence in gamemakers that us ‘old time gamers’ are still out there, we still love gaming and we love our friends even more (what little friends we have). And to that end, we still relish the opportunity to beat the guys who slept with our girlfriends in mario kart double dash.
Thanks for reading