Here you are, at the root of another damned blog about video games, some other thirtysomething male's time-waster and futile ambition-fulfiller. Or, at least, I'll have been thirtysomething at the time of my writing this initial post. If you're from the far-flung future and managed to crawl your way down the archives, then this probably amounts to the prophetic ravings of a now-senile old man. That is, if there's still such a thing as the Internet in the year 20XX. I'm pretty sure the aliens will have taken over by then.
If you're here, then my ramblings somehow gathered a small following and some people actually care to see what I have to say about video games. I'm but one of many, but my perspective is my own. Agree or disagree with me, I'll just be happy to know that someone cared enough to read my words while I soapboxed in front of a crusty Logitech G510 keyboard. If I manage to entertain you while doing it, then it's a plus in my book.
So who's this Tom Magnus guy, and is he really an esquire? Of course not, Voice in my Head, I'm no member of any gentry and all I've got going for me is an excessive amount of education. Pick any fast food joint worker or taxi driver and start asking; you'll find that degrees in literature aren't always conducive to steady employment. Suffice it to say, I'm the guy who chose between staying sane and finishing his master's thesis on H.P. Lovecraft, thereby condemning himself to an eternity of freelance work as a syllabus-correction goon. The Higher Ed system spat me out three years ago, and I've been trying to survive ever since. “Overqualified and underpaid” feels like the motto for a huge chunk of Millennials, honestly...
The thing is, I love video games more than I do French Structuralism or Russian Formalism, and care more about Doomguy or the Dovahkiin than I do about Leslie Fiedler or S.T. Joshi. I love reading, and I especially enjoy reading complex stuff – but writing about it is a huge turn-off. Intellectualizing a novel deemed to be crucial to a specific analytic approach is hard work, whereas intellectualizing the Dark Souls series, for example, is endlessly stimulating to me.
A few decades ago, gaming didn't have its theorists. Before Altug Isigan left his mother's womb and Tom Bissell grew to be old enough to pontificate on Resident Evil's influence on his childhood, “game theory” was a term typically used in Anthropology to define the social roles filled in by a specific culture's devised amusements. It was also used in Behavioral psychology to refer to the triggers pulled by gambling mechanics. Now, however, we have entire papers dissecting design approaches spanning decades on end, and have developed a rich academic vocabulary to put to use in describing the various facets of the medium. We've come a long way since Tennis for Two and Pong, to the point where we now have offerings that can elicit profound emotional responses in players.
Here's a thought experiment: think of the words “Clementine and Lee”. Did you feel a pang of anguish or a vague sense of regret? Better yet, did your eyes start watering? Now think back on the halcyon days of the early seventies and ask yourself how, outside of D&D campaigns, you were supposed to capture that feeling. You couldn't, of course. Unless you had a really good DM or your text adventure was assembled with the utmost narrative care, it was impossible to imagine that what we now group under the term “Gaming” would eventually move people to such a degree.
We live in a crazy time, come to think of it. I'm writing this in July of 2016, and the park two bends away from home is the subject of a small throng of kids and adults. They're not congregating there because of their pets or because the weather's nice, but because a phone app told them to. There was a tiny fictitious animal to capture in the neighborhood's spectral twin, and all the kids as well as several adults around my age group raced outside to try and claim it – if not duel each other for it. If they'd looked disheveled and had been displaying flocking behaviors, I'd have pegged the scene for something straight out of Stephen King Cell.
Pokémon Go players and Phoners – même combat.
Imagine trying to explain that to Shigeru Miyamoto even as Nintendo's nascent form is prototyping the first few Donkey Kong cabinets. Better yet, imagine yourself sitting the Pokémon Company's lead designer down in the early nineties, and telling him that his innocent little critters would rule the world not only once – but twice. The franchise certainly languished in the late nineties and early two-thousands, but the shareholder confusion involving the app's ownership is telling. Nobody cares about who owns Pokémon Go, the only thing players care about is catching 'em all. If that means walking to new parts of town, getting mugged or meeting fellow players and complete strangers, all the better!
That example aside, gaming is evolving at a pace that literature and cinema both pale to reproduce. Writing might be done with a keyboard now, instead of a stylus and a clay tablet, but the practice of it still remains the same. The mechanics of writing appear to be either unchangeable, or possessed of a particular form of grace and efficiency that makes the thought of changing them laughable. Comparatively, movies are still doing most of what the silent era used to, as they aren't much more than captured movements either pressed on celluloid or digitized. The camera has free range of motion and can shrink and grow as needed, sound design has exploded in complexity since the 1920s and Al Jolson's Blackface performance and we can capture vistas and actions that are thoroughly out of this world – but the guiding principles are much the same. Comparatively, gaming needed all of sixty years to develop a narrative expertise and a grasp of projected three-dimensional space on flat surfaces, only to now reject these notions and to be contemplating the gamer's complete physical projection into their suggested spaces. Pictural art hasn't fundamentally changed in thousands of years – not since the birth of Man, actually - whereas its moving and interactive cousin is mutating and evolving at a breakneck pace.
Consider the average PC gamer. If you're one of them, like I used to be until recently, how often did the technological horizon occupy your thoughts? How often do you find yourself thinking that your rig needs an upgrade or two, or that it might be time to scrap it all and start over? We're chasing the horizon, gunning for the future – and that's something few, if any other medium can hope to capture. Beyond the materialistic satisfaction of having built this year's Beastly Rig of Death, there's awe and wonder at the incremental efforts made by the industry. Console gamers experience it as well, albeit on a smaller, more gentle hill. The climb is longer, but console advocates tend not to worry about silly notions along the lines of PC parity.
30 FPS or 60? Or 120, if you're one of the 4K Gaming Prophets? None of it matters on a fundamental level – all that does matter is that you're sitting down to play a game. You're sitting down to experience the awe and wonder of the medium, to feel yourself converging with a piece of fiction or a historical re-enactment. You're swinging for the fences or saving the land, gunning an enemy down or trying to wrap your head around some Byzantine affair some hoity-toity designer dared to call a puzzle. Sometimes, you don't even need hardware to experience that thrill. Common experiences, shared tales, “Oh, snap!” moments retold with a giddy smile – all these are part of the experience as well. Gaming also involves what brings you around a table, drinks in hand or snacks on call, to share in that awe.
Why do you game, honestly? You play games because they move you. They touch you. They mean something to you. We all have a relative who barely touches a gaming PC or a console and whose experience is limited to yearly sports releases or the occasional overly-enthusiastic recommendation. Even this guy has one or two tales tucked away; close shaves and near-misses that he'll tell you about if you squeeze the proverbial lemon just so. Honestly, if you sit down in front of a console or gaming PC for any other reason, or if those other reasons take precedence, then I honestly pity you.
Skill, bragging rights, maintained leaderboard dominance or a slavish adherence to real-time mechanics – all of these factors pale in comparison to those golden moments that make your eyes go wide and that pull at the corners of your lips; all those clutch victories gained at a sliver of health. If you've thanked your lucky stars after a tough fight and spent a few minutes soaking the scenery in to calm down, you've experienced part of what gaming has to offer.
That's what I'd like to talk about here. Games and experiences that moved me – as well as those that gave it an honest try and fell short.
No scores, no bullshit – just some guy's opinion.
If that interests you, then please – feel free to tag along.