It is with great joy that I begin writing this blog to you, for it has been over a year in the making. What follows is a story. Specifically, it is my story of some decades in time, boiled down into a few key moments. This story is about the journey, though it does conclude with a happy ending. Normally this content would be published on my own personal blog, however I can think of no better audience than my fellow Giant Bombers. Enjoy.
I am 32. I started console gaming with Pitfall on the Atari 2600 a few years after its release. I started PC gaming even earlier when my Dad created a math game on our 286 computer, though I suppose an easier benchmark might be BBS door gaming using a 2400 baud modem. I have been gaming, video and otherwise, my whole life. I would not go so far as to say it is my only hobby, but it is definitely one of my favorites. I suppose my affection for games is only surpassed by my love of the industry from which it originates. I now spend more non-professional time following this little industry than I do participating in the content it provides. I am sure that many of you can relate if you're a member at this site.
This story begins all the way back when I was a little kid. Back when I was fascinated by video games. I loved the colors and sounds. I loved the way it felt when you pushed a button, on a gamepad or keyboard, and something on-screen reacted. More than that however, I loved the immersion. Of being able to leave behind a world that I was not particularly gravitating towards, and dive inside a different world that lit up my gray matter like the NYC Christmas tree. Soon after the initial shock of playing video games, I started reading more about them. I remember going to the supermarket with Mom, where I would find issues of Electronic Gaming Monthly, Gamepro, and other magazines where I could learn about what was coming out, or get hints on the games I had. I subscribed to these magazines, and still have some of those early issues to this day. I began to follow.
I learned about genres, and platforms. Of characters and stories. I learned there was order and reason to an industry that I only thought put out things randomly. This lead to me being able to track, follow, and then enjoy a particular game. I learned that I could predict what I would like or not like. This was great! I could make purchases much more intelligently. More than that, I didn't have to waste time or money on titles I was not going to enjoy and then ultimately regret. Regret will become an underlying tone as I am sure you'll see. As the years rolled on, the state of technology improved. Games and players would go on to evolve into 8bit, 16bit, 32bit, and the Atari Jaguar generations. No wait, the cake is a lie and the Jaguar was never 64 bit. With each of these evolutions, we would innovate on the level of immersion we could experience as gamers.
1994 - The immersion level reaches an absolute fever pitch! I am standing in Wal-mart. Not the supermarket infused megastore that we have today mind you, this is an old-school Wal-mart. With a computer section. That sold Packard Bell computers. And hardware components like computer memory and hand-held scanners. More importantly, they were running a program that would go on to define literally thousands of hours of my life. Wal-mart had a computer display that was running a demo loop of a game I had never seen before. No doubt, this had been organized by a fellow gamer employee, and was not store sanctioned. I can remember this moment as clearly as any of the most significant moments of my life. My jaw hit the floor so hard my teeth shattered. I gasped and quickly turned around to the department associate now smirking at my wide-eyed expression. I bellowed, "What is this!?" He replied "Oh, that's DOOM".
DOOM changed my life. The well crafted genius of some folks in Texas sent me into month after month of dedicated gaming, exceeding anything Atari or Nintendo had ever done before. DOOM and DOOM II would somehow go on to define my video gaming love beyond all measure, and transcend console and computer evolution until its eventual accompaniment alongside Quake 1, Mechwarrior 2, Super Mario World, Wing Commander III/IV, Whiplash/Fatal Racing, Street Fighter II, EverQuest, and Super Mario Kart as my "greatest of all time". Yet despite this highest of peaks, the ball had been set in motion for the ultimate valley that was soon to follow. For as of this moment, I am still fourteen years old, standing in a Wal-mart with my imagination set ablaze. With a decade to spare for these other games I have mentioned to appear and disappear from my gaming palate, I am now predisposed to nearly every gaming trope, genre, idea, and story type. Still, it is the pinnacle trophy of complete immersion that is key to focus upon.
As the years rolled on, I began to see less mechanical innovation and more technical. I saw less creativity and more evolution upon existing ideas. Titles which introduced something new became increasingly rare. This has everything to do with the gaming industry becoming less about crafting an idea, and more about crafting a profitable idea. The two are not mutually linked, just ask any artist. So while the industry is finding itself, I am also finding myself... bored! Why are the same genres repeating themselves, often with little to no advancement beyond graphical prowess among their titles? So flash forward a bit to the new millennium. We're in the N64, PS1, Dreamcast, and "Pentium" era. I can chalk this whole generation up to the radical innovation of internet multiplayer. Consoles were starting to get it, however the PC got it in a big way and Quake 3 Arena shook the FPS world while Diablo and Ultima Online showed us what was possible. The console world saw some of its best evolutionary games ever in Grand Theft Auto, Halo, God of War, Super Mario Galaxy, and Gears of War. Still, despite the accolades all these games received, the experienced among us can easily see the underlying game mechanics they use and where those mechanics originated. Regardless, they do their part in immersing us in a world and drawing us deeper into the lore of that world. I cannot help but feel like I've seen it all before, and even worse I feel that I've played it all before. Though what happened next was the most damning aspect of it.
The Xbox, Playstation 2, and Gamecube gave way to the current generation. This new generation of gaming focused so tightly on the technology that the whole fucking gaming industry suffered for it. Sequel after sequel was published in an effort to tide gamers over. While I do not intend to turn this into a rant, dear reader, I do need to paint a very clear picture. I was burning out. I was loosing patience for one of the few passions I had in life. A funny thing started to happen alongside this event however! You see, it was about this time that yours truly started to enter the work force. As such, I had the financial resources available to fund some of my passions. I began to build a gaming library, both physical and digital at a much faster rate than ever before. This would become a powerful element to this story as you will soon discover.
I mentioned earlier that I have been keeping up with the industry more than I actually spent time playing games. While I have been doing this for as long as I can remember, I suspect the true origin is probably when online media overtook paper media in the expedited release of content. That is when I became utterly engrossed in the details of all the announcements, previews, interviews, and etc. While this is a bittersweet statement, it has afforded me the opportunity to live vicariously through the experiences of others. Namely the editors and authors of countless previews, reviews, and general coverage of the video game industry. Combine the knowledge that these channels provided with my own pool of gaming knowledge from the early days, and I can gauge pretty damn well what a game is and what it is like to play. This has the side effect of spoiling a lot of experiences. It also has the side effect of luring me into a false sense of experience about the immersion factor of a game. I'll play an FPS game in competitive multiplayer because I know it offers me a specific experience that will occupy my mind. On the other hand, I might not have it in me to play a Skyrim because I know how vast that game is (read: time sink), and because I already played every aspect of Morrowind so much different could it be? Not to mention that I have seen so much coverage of Skyrim, I feel that I've already played it to death before I even start. This sort of thinking has gone on for a long, long time. It would usually take a radically standout title like Journey to bypass my stigma.
Most gamers have a library of games. Some libraries are small and tight. Perhaps only the recent AAA or most frequently played games stick around. Other folks have systems and games that stretch back years if not decades in time. Very rarely do we get around to dedicating time to playing these older games because we're consumed in the shiny new game that is keeping us addicted. That certainly was the case with me, as I tended to let myself be consumed with competitive FPS multiplayer because it offered me a short-term immersion "fix". I would often think of games I owned but didn't play like Deus Ex, Dragon Age, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, or even Metroid: Other M. So many games but so little time. Then I hit prestige in Black Ops 2. When I hit prestige and then went back to fire up another round of Hardcore FFA, a thought shot through my mind: "What the fuck am I doing?" I am only playing this game because it can offer enough manic, competitive twitch-gameplay that my brain can reach "Tilt." Profoundly, my mind is not actually enjoying the immersion in this experience, merely consuming minutes until my next mandatory venture of work. Work to play. Play to work? Enough is enough.
I spent some time thinking about what I was doing with gaming. I had forgotten why I loved it so much as a kid. I had lost the love. I had lost immersion. That singular memory of what gaming was to me as a kid was all I needed. I felt months of confusion suddenly come into focus. My moment of clarity, as it pertains to this story. I soon found myself watching Brad play Mass Effect 3 on Thursday Night Throwdown. The look on his face when Ryan asked him if he liked it stirred something in me. The look on his face was of surprised amusement. The nuances of his voice, advocating that he had just experienced something honest-to-God fun. He had not anticipated Mass Effect's multiplayer being as fun as it was.
"I've got it", I thought to myself. I started researching what game I wanted to play. If Wing Commander and Tie-Fighter had taught me anything all those years ago, it was that I loved space operas. I decided I would just go back to Mass Effect 1 and start fresh. Let me finally put down the desire to play the "known" standby and go visit a universe that I had denied for far too long: The Unknown. I got myself pumped up by watching a bunch of Mass Effect videos and then fired up Mass Effect 1 on my PC. That was somewhere around 7:00PM last night.
*big yawn and stretch* "yeah, this game is fun, but I'm sleepy... What time is it? Holy Shit! 4:47AM!"