I Wonder Where The Wonder Went

Posted by Simon on October 19, 2013
Editorial

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The first time I completed my all-time favourite game, Sega’s astounding Rez, it was on a semi-stolen projector. I mean, stolen is probably too strong a word, but it’s definitely safe to imply that I shouldn’t have had it hooked up in my games room instead of being tucked up safely in a dark recess of my work office.

My games room. That once existed. I have the pictorial evidence. These days, as a father living in an apartment nestled in a city where square footage is more highly prized than most other things, it feels like a glimpse into Bizarro World. Look! That’s where I kept my gargantuan CRT with its silver widescreen grin looming over a cabinet filled with a plastic spaghetti of random cables, console peripherals and gaming magazines. Can you see the crappy wooden shelving unit to its right? Can you see its contents? Can you see the games for each of my double-figure number of consoles, grouped either by name or release date or genre? All lined up and ordered. See that glass cabinet? Those individual top lights once proudly picked out each individual console where it stood, perfectly installed and placed, ready at any given moment to unleash pure joy. My component switcher hid to the side, looking like a Borg ship after the assimilation of a forties telephone exchange. I had to virtually carve a thrift store couch through a wall to get it in there, but it was worth it. Once the 5.1 surround sound speakers had been integrated, of course.

Often, people with kids will tell you that they can’t remember what they did with their time before they had children. Understandable, as negotiating free time with a toddler is like explaining Lorca’s Blood Wedding to a herd of cows. However, I have no such memory issues – I can tell you exactly what I used to do with my time. I would position myself in my own field of dreams and drift off into some interactive journey.

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The journey that day was to the end of the game that had been slowly filling my mind with possibility and wonder. A psychedelic dive into the mind of a sentient AI not just set to thumping music but with it at its very heart, Rez had firmly tapped into my triple loves of glorious graphical design, arcade twitch thrills and pounding dance tracks. I cleared a wall and projected it wide across my vision, surround sound delivering the beats directly to my heart, and went from title screen to credits. It may be cliché to refer to it as a religious experience, but I did sit in silence for a good time afterwards wondering if anything game-related would ever make me feel that way again. In a way, since that moment, that’s been my chase.

With increasing age comes a change in your perspective of time, from a free and easy reference point to a valuable finite resource. Not in the way that We Are All Going To Die – I’m not about to remind anyone of their approaching guarantee of mortality, least of all me – but more that every action has to become prioritised against all others. What you want to do soon becomes replaced by what needs to be done. Unfortunately, the needs are never as much fun as the wants but take double the energy, so by the time it’s finally time for the wants, your chief want has usually been replaced by bed, bed, bed. This can take its toll on whatever you use to disconnect from the horrors of normal life, be it games, books, movies, music, whatever; none are spared when the day’s energy disappears. This then ultimately leads to decisions and ultimatums – if I only have thirty minutes to play, what do I play? Gone are the opportunities to gently unfold a title and find its inner charms over the course of hours or days. The Time-Restricted Gamer becomes a butcher, mercilessly cleaving away elements that don’t deliver the thrills as succinctly as possible.

It’s at this point that you are forced to take stock and boil down your passion to its bare elements. What do I want here? Why do I play games?

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If you’ve been following the site, you’ve probably guessed that I’ve been having a rough time with games recently. Well, this week my relationship with the medium broke down completely. At the arse end of a particularly shitty day, at the point where gaming would have usually been my salvation, I turned off my console in disgust after the grim realisation that I’d rather be doing nothing than play any more. In my head, I composed an incredible poem (just be thankful that I can’t remember it) about how I was breaking up with modern gaming, how its need to appeal to a meaningfully younger audience had left me feeling totally alienated. In the grainy twilight of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V, in the blissfully bright world of Ubisoft’s Rayman Legends, in the sweeping hills of Capcom’s Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, a constant voice was gaining volume in the back of my mind: I’m so, SO bored. The acknowledgement of repeated actions, slowly building in difficulty over varying backdrops, turned each title into something nearer to work. It wasn’t just a case of buying the wrong kind of games. I eagerly tried the latest, greatest indie titles, from Fez to Kerbal Space Program to Spelunky, each eventually fading into indifference. These magical worlds did the opposite of engrossing me in the way they once had, the distance between controller and television growing gulf-like with every new level. Years after I clicked off the PS2 and projector, I once again sat in silence, but this time asking very different questions: Have I outgrown this? Do I hate games?

You’ll hear me repeat this as we count down our favourite games and movies of 2013 in December, but I came to the conclusion that I’ve only really enjoyed a handful of games this year. I’ve been lucky enough to play many, many more games in 2013 than I did last year including the larger titles like Halo 4, Bioshock Infinite, Animal Crossing, Fire Emblem, The Last Of Us and the aforementioned GTA V, but none has earned more than just passing appreciation of their design or world building. The games that have I’ve really, truly enjoyed are few: Tomb Raider, Saint’s Row 4, Super Mario 3D Land, Attack Of The Friday Monsters and Superhot. So, if these are the titles that got through the toddler/work/sleep firewall, what was their secret? The answer soon became clear: amazing interactive stories with constantly evolving gameplay. Each game in this list either allowed me to experience a deep narrative with fun interactive elements (TR, AofFM) or blew me away with headlong trips into the pure fun of unhinged imagination (SR4, Sm3DL, SH). It also helped me ascertain what I am not interested in: online multiplayer, “social” elements, DLC, in-app purchases, bleak reflections of “real-life”, or long-winded stories with no end in sight.

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So, then, where could I go with this knowledge? My absolute pleasure at jumping through Super Mario 3D Land had surprised me. It wasn’t just the immaculate design and control that we have come to expect from Nintendo’s flagship mascot, but more that it felt like a game that remembered why so many had become captivated with the medium in the first place. Bright, shiny, tough and rewarding, it was a delicious treat for the reflexes. Nintendo constantly takes hits from the most vocal section of the gaming community, but I had established that I was no longer among them. So, with the 3DS in mind, I thought that the Japanese company might just be able to save my gaming relationship.

A few weeks ago, however, I thought another gaming handheld might be the answer. The PS Vita now has a decent library of games that I could play anywhere, anytime, pausing each when necessary, and my PS Plus account means I already have a library of 20+ games ready to go. I ventured into Best Buy in an attempt to price match a print offer on a cheap Vita, but I didn’t even make it to the enquiry desk. Playing on one of the display screens was The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, there to promote the limited edition Wii U bundle. I couldn’t walk past. It was so bright and colourful, so full of promise and adventure, that it was totally captivating. I’d only dabbled in an emulated version of Wind Waker before, using Dolphin to run it at a ridiculous resolution just so I could appreciate the art style a frame at a time, but here it was in all its glory. My son, all blonde hair and blue eyes, has his look mirrored in his Wind Waker Link plushie that guards him as he sleeps. Here, it was almost as if I could reach up and grab it down for him. At a time where I feel like the wonder of gaming has slipped away, this was a stark reminder that Nintendo still could provide the magic.

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Then, a week later, this article on Eurogamer was the extra push I needed. Super Mario 3D Land is about to evolve into World, and this is what it will bring to the Wii U:

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The gamer in me shook off his cobwebs, unfurled his frowning brow and smiled like a teenager. That colour! The imagination of it all. I’m not sure the timing could have been any better. At a time when I am positively desperate for something that can recapture the trips of my youth, it looks like Nintendo, for all its old-fashioned ideas and reliance on stock characters, might actually be my salvation. Maybe I count as old-fashioned too. The more I watch the latest reveals, the games headed to the new consoles, the more I feel like a bystander. Perhaps I was right in thinking that I’ve grown out of modern gaming, but I had the direction wrong. I think I’m going backwards, straight into Nintendo’s net. If that’s the case, then the gap between me and the cutting-edge of modern gaming will continue to widen until I’m no longer part of it at all. I don’t care, though, not any more. I can’t wait to see the look on my son’s face when he sees Link burst into beautiful life. You see, the roots of imagination aren’t nourished by deathcounts and gritty reminders of humanity’s failings; creative sparks feed off the unreal, the ethereal, the shapes and forms designed for smiles and dreams. It’s my job now to deliver that spark to someone else, and I know just where to start.

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