My father tells me that my stubbornness comes from my grandfather. Albert/Bill/William Best (still not really sure which were his given and associated names) was a huge ginger-haired man who subtly smelled of sweat and tobacco. He would hold me up in the kitchen of his house in Colchester while my grandmother told him to stop tormenting me. I hold the idea that he was a bit of a trickster and liked to joke around, whilst still effortlessly maintaining the intimidation of size and stature. Apparently he ran an internment camp for Nazi POWs – in Ipswich, maybe? – and played poker with the captives. It’s not too hard to imagine this as totally true, he was a bug guy and my father’s strong sense of respect must have come from somewhere. My son, almost two, has inherited the light ginger locks and round face of my wife, while taking on my side’s eyes and mouth, and it’s uncanny how he matches the single strong memory I have left of Albert. Genetic tracing paper, one layer laying over the features of the other.
Someone told Granddad once that there was no way he’d ever give up smoking. The way my Dad tells it, he threw away his cigarettes there and then and never smoked another. No reduction, no action plan – just the iron-coated stubbornness of someone who would never be told that he couldn’t do something.
I came to the realisation at the end of 2011 that I was buying a lot of games. Not spending too much – being a new father pretty much removes any disposable income – but constantly trawling through the used bins in EB, hunting out bargains, sniffing for deals. The less said about Steam, the better. Little purchases over the weeks, drip-feeding the idea that I loved playing games. The only problem with that idea was in the truth – I wasn’t actually playing anything. Each would be briefly checked, like an antique dealer examining a table, before my focus moved onto the next must-have bargain. A combination of my free time disappearing (again, see: fatherhood), exhaustion at the end of the day, and losing patience with any game that didn’t get me straight to the action meant that playing these games had become a bit of a chore. There was a palpable sense of frustration sinking in as I accepted that I was getting nothing from playing. Sometimes I couldn’t even remember that I’d seen, done, heard or felt, led stumbling towards the checkpoint marker with a ready finger on the kill button. These minutes that poured into virtual worlds became hollow and meaningless, wasted opportunities mocking my army of unread books and dusty guitar. I found that I was enjoying buying the games more than playing them. Something had to give, I knew that well, but it didn’t fall into place immediately.
I’m not a big believer in resolutions, and of course I’ve broken hundreds of them in my journey to that opinion. I should frame my selection of gym membership cards, each with a small plaque detailing the exact time of failure. However, I like ongoing challenges, something to push back the boredom of necessary predictability. I was looking for something that could mark out 2012 for me, somehow. Read more, write more, sing more; all great ideas but all underpinned my the knowledge of who I am – without motivation, I will flutter away from good intentions as soon as something pretty distracts me. I was at a party with some good friends, people who have shifted past that initial polite barrier into the realm of those that can truly reflect on who you are. I’m a sucker for a good pun, and The Year Of Living Gamelessly drunkenly popped up as we were talking about 2012 changes. In truth, I had to spontaneously give meaning and structure to what, up to then, had only been a fun play on an established title. What if I, a resolute and (seemingly) passionate gamer, go a whole year without…buying games? Kat responded with a laugh – friendly, winking, knowing – that found its echo in the group. “You’ll never do that”, she said.
The idea took hold immediately. A whole year without buying games sounded so insane that I couldn’t resist.
I started gaming on my neighbour’s Atari 2600 at the age of twelve. Up to that point, it was only the infrequent visits to Southsea seafront that allowed me to take in the sounds of the arcade, feet sticking to sticky carpets in crowded, badly-lit pier buildings. The 10p pieces would be rationed and savoured. The singularity moment of walking into his game room and finding this wooden panelled machine, pads out, ready to play without a coin slot to appease…I can still clearly feel that moment, seared very deeply in my pleasure centre. We played games that were little more than blocks on blocks beeping and chirping away like fat sparrows while we pretended that we knew what we were doing.
Next was a Sinclair Spectrum 128K +2, a box of copied cassettes and a tape deck that clicked happily to itself every five seconds. My Commodore Amiga came to university with me, disk box full of classics like Lemmings, Speedball 2 and SWOS also hiding the terrible digitized porn disk inconspicuously labeled “Pics”. My first TV console, a SNES, was the worst purchase of 1996, Tetris Attack and Mario Kart slowly chipping away at my study motivation. PS1 led to PS2 and many, many happy hours playing TimeSplitters 2 by myself and Tekken Tag with Steve. (Steve, incidentally, used to make gamenight pints of whisky and coke that were 50/50 measures which led to End Of Days level hangovers). I can still pick up Tony Hawks Pro Skater 3 and use pure muscle memory to ace every level. Halo changed my life. XBox, 360, PS3, Gamecube, Dreamcast, Nintendo DS, Gameboy Micro, PSP, PC, Mac, iOS, Android…games, games everywhere, at all times, in all places. Gaming has been a major part of my life for almost as long as I can remember.
After the party, I formulated the firm rules for my endeavour: none of my own money was to be spent on any video games in any format, whereas vouchers, gifts and store credit was fine. A single own cent spent would be failure, even if it meant missing out on an absolute bargain. The simplicity and totality of the rules attracted me even more. Clear lines and instructions, so all I needed to do was make it through twelve months.
I knew straight away that the hardest part would be the fight against spontaneity. I often would buy a game on the spur of the moment, convinced that I absolutely had to have it, only to leave it collecting dust after a few brief days. To see something at a special price, or find myself with a free Friday night and a game I wanted sat on the shelves, was almost more tempting than I could take. The first few months were relatively easy due to Christmas and my February birthday, and distance from home meant that Amazon vouchers were the present of choice. I pondered over these purchases, knowing that I needed a few titles that could essentially get me through to Christmas (I had already conveniently forgotten about the piles of games virtually unplayed from the previous year). Gran Turismo 4 and a WWII plane sim called Birds Of Prey arrived a few weeks later and completed the usual cycle of initial play falling into disinterest.
Journey and Trials Evolution had been planned for, and Amazon vouchers spent accordingly, otherwise that would have been the end of my challenge right there. However, past these releases in March, the bite started making itself known. I had to physically force myself to walk out of stores on a number of occasions, shiny boxes calling me back like sirens in the deep. The worst find was a fresh discount bin in Future Shop with a number of genuinely interesting titles at $1 each. At one point I had six piled up in my hands, feet itching to run to the counter before my brain kicked past the barriers. My strategy of truthful reasoning began there and continued to get me through the rest of the year. I held up each title in turn and asked myself two simple questions:
1) Have I ever really thought about wanting this?
2) Will I actually play it?
Putting back the games that failed either question, the pile soon reduced itself to nothing, and my pride did the rest. I knew the failure would hang over me for a long time if I broke, and there would be no way to reverse it. The honesty of my situation became a hard, belligerent motivating force. Actually, it felt incredibly exciting to break the spell of bargain entrapment and that pushed me on ever further.
This circle repeated itself occasionally as the year rolled on. However, there was one major flaw to my plan. I had assumed that, if I just stayed out of the game shops, then I could resist the temptation of new titles. What I hadn’t accounted for was the game shop in my pocket, winking at me every time I used my phone. I’d be the first to admit that iPhone gaming could never fully replace the console experience, but what I started seeing was many reviews of apps that not only used the limitations of the device to great effect but also were exactly the kind of arcadey games that I loved. Turns out it’s easy to not spend $60; not spending 99c is an entirely different prospect. The fact that you could press one button, enter one word and a new game would magically appear in your hands was almost too much to resist. Almost. What had started to kick in, fuelled by the insistent reasoning, was a far more honest and shrewd opinion of what I wanted from games, and this gave me the edge over the persuasive itch to buy, buy, buy. I managed to resist.
Until Super Hexagon.
My first play of Terry Cavanagh’s hypnotic puzzle experience came in a review of the iOS version that linked to the free Flash original. It didn’t take long before I was hooked, and a brief run on a friend’s iPhone version just compounded how I absolutely had to have this RIGHT NOW. My options were limited, however; App Store credit had long disappeared, no more games to trade in, not a birthday or Christmas in sight. I turned to the gift app option, offering my wife all manner of things to secure the $1.99 present. She didn’t bite, of course. I’d load up the game page and stare longingly at the BUY button before forcing it to close. Resolution finally came, of all places, in a casino. In true Run, Lola, Run style, I watched with gleeful eyes as my five dollars slowly rose, dipped and finally inflated into eight. I walked out of that casino like a hero, the only man to beat The House. The original money went back into my pocket and the winnings – not my earnt money, technically – went to my wife, to the App Store, to my e-mail, and finally to my phone. Six months later and it’s not only my game of 2012 but also one of my favourite games ever.
Summer heat took away much motivation to sit in and play anything, which helped, but I was surprised when my console attraction didn’t really return as the Fall chill returned. I played a little bit here and there, and the library rentals certainly scratched the itch to play something new, but I was nowhere near as committed as before. Worse than that, there was a real disconnect of focus – where I would once have been able to stare at the screen, entranced and reactive, I found myself now barely able to even stay awake. The interest had all but gone, more simple iPhone experiences frequently filling the few minutes I had spare. I thought Halo 4 would be a serious issue – I had owned all from Halo 2 on release day, even sitting through an uncomfortable midnight opening surrounded by teenagers for Reach – and didn’t have a strategy for getting through this challenge. Luckily, Matt is as big a Halo fan as I am and we were soon sat playing his copy, raging through the campaign, split-screen. Even more luckily, I became so frustrated with it that the thought of owning it completely left my mind.
The strangest sensation connected with all of this was in November. As the gaming releases ramped up for Christmas, and the titles from earlier in the year were heavily discounted, my palms actually started itching. Not metaphorically. I desperately wanted to buy and play something new, the closeness of the next year doing nothing to alleviate my urges. It was very strange indeed, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even about playing, the repression of my spending patterns was finally staring to burst at the seams. The final boss battle came in the form of Super Hexagon on Steam, running at a ridiculous frame rate, all shiny and tempting. By that point, thought, Christmas was almost upon us, so my putting that at the top of my list actually made it child-level exciting once again.
I was playing Ticket To Ride with some good friends, heavily inebriated, when I realised that I’d done it. I’d joked that I’d probably see the New Year in on the Steam store, finger hovering over the BUY button as midnight chimed. Truth was, I barely even noticed until an hour later. What had seem like an impossible goal had passed unheralded, buried underneath wine, friends, food and laughter.
My Christmas present stash was a good one for new games. Between actual presents and Boxing Day discounts, I’d suddenly accumulated Lollipop Chainsaw, Far Cry 3, Sleeping Dogs, FTL and Thirty Flights Of Loving. It was like having giant bowls of ice cream after a year of occasional spoonfuls. I went into a few game shops at the beginning of January, giddy at the prospect of being able to buy something again, but left empty-handed. Interestingly enough, not because there wasn’t anything I wanted; more that the frugal nature of my justification hasn’t left, and I’m starting to wonder if it ever will. Those two questions still ring loud when I ponder a purchase, and I’m finding that I’m putting bargains back when once I would have spent without a second thought. My first game in over a year was, predictably in hindsight, on iOS. Hundreds was followed by Repulze, then Amnesia on Steam, then a PS+ subscription and the wonderfully batshit mental Tokyo Jungle. The spending already feels like it’s spiralling again, but this time there’s an important difference – I’m also not buying things. Even if they are cheap. Even if I absolutely must have them OMG. Whatever, a new part of my brain is saying. You’ve got plenty to play. They’ll be available later if you still want them.
And that, right there, is how my gameless year has changed me forever. It’s made me what I could not be before – realistic. The impulse has changed, and with it the love for sprawling console epics has all but vanished. Right now, I want games, not interactive movies. Not realistic depictions of street life. Not liberating your friends from island mercs. I want to instantly have three minutes squeezing my triangle through techno-backed mazes, I want to survive as a Pomeranian in neo-Tokyo, I want to savour the sublime squelch of a beautiful cheerleader dispatching zombies. I’m even playing Far Cry 3 purely as a spacial puzzle game (which works surprisingly well). Minecraft, ever-present and absorbing, is pure exploration of a Lego fantasy. Not a QTS cut-scene in sight. This is what I want now. Maybe it’s a call back to the singular experiences of Southsea arcade. Maybe all I needed was to be reintroduced to the sticky carpet and aural pleasures of games that are games.
Someone once told me that I would never be able to give up buying games for a year, so I did it just to prove them wrong. It probably tells you everything you need to know that I did it out of pride rather than an attempt to change a bad habit. What emerged, though, was an outlook on my decades-old obsession that was entirely fresh, mature and finally free of knee-jerk enticement. Rationality born from stubbornness. A gift from my grandfather.
Albert Best, on right, being cool.