Game Changers 4

I’ve been read­ing Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which is a novel about many things, but large­ly about detach­ment and loss. It’s con­cerned with those things which were a part of our world, once, but are not now and can­not be again. In O’Neill’s novel we find Dutch-born Hans van den Broek in the strange and tense set­ting of New York imme­di­ate­ly post‑9/11. Like the New York sky­line, Hans is expe­ri­enc­ing the empti­ness that fol­lows loss, the sen­sa­tion that some­thing is wrong, some­thing is miss­ing. Estranged from the struc­ture and sup­port of fam­i­ly, friends, a home or a pur­pose, Hans is detached from any­thing mean­ing­ful, any­thing that might ground him in the day to day expe­ri­ence of actu­al­ly being a human. Without overem­pha­siz­ing it, the novel is per­vad­ed by an essence of mourn­ing, that sort of down­beat res­ig­na­tion in which life goes on but is seem­ing­ly more hol­low.

We usu­al­ly asso­ciate mourn­ing with death and specif­i­cal­ly the pass­ing of a loved one, per­haps even a pet. But what we are real­ly doing when we mourn is lament­ing changes in our life, changes that cause the removal of some­thing which has ingrained itself in our iden­ti­ty. Because we are a social species this is most acute­ly felt with other peo­ple, but the loss of any­thing which con­jures an emo­tion­al attach­ment can cause that same lump in the throat. Homesickness is a type of mourn­ing, as is that melan­choly you feel at the end of a truly great game, book or film. They say that only one thing is cer­tain in life and that is death, but by the time we even reach that point we have already expe­ri­enced a series of end­ings which punc­tu­ate our lives like… well, like punc­tu­a­tion. From edu­ca­tion to rela­tion­ships, jobs to sports, nov­els to hol­i­days, videogames to tele­phone calls, their com­ple­tion both destroys us and recre­ates us anew. The loca­tion ref­er­enced by O’Neill’s title, Netherland, is a place where our past selves lurk, defined by its very dis­tance and inac­ces­si­bil­i­ty.

We can’t escape into the past, but we can revis­it it. Hans’ sit­u­a­tion is dire, and to com­bat it he invests him­self into the incon­gru­ous sound­ing under­world of New York crick­et. Cricket in New York is very dif­fer­ent from the purer form of the game played by the Hans as a child, but not so dif­fer­ent that he can­not pick up his old gear and slot back into his old place at the crease with the relief of one return­ing to his or her child­hood home. We might call it ther­a­peu­tic, or at least anaes­thetiz­ing. Certainly for a time Hans finds him­self abdi­cat­ing the com­plex­i­ties of his life in favour of his sport.

My own child­hood was a fair­ly stan­dard mix­ture of sports, gam­ing, books, out­side play, and so on. Certainly videogames took up a fair chunk of my time. Somehow, though, I don’t feel that in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances I could fall back upon games the way Hans does upon crick­et. Last year, Logan Westbrook wrote an emo­tive fea­ture for The Escapist Magazine called Getting Back in the Game, relat­ing his use of gam­ing as an escape after the break­down of his mar­riage. That I can see: gam­ing as escapism. But there’s a sub­tle dif­fer­ence between the ways Hans and Logan escape in that Hans’ crick­et­ing is very clear­ly relat­ed to a spe­cif­ic con­nec­tion between the sport and his past. Hans is escap­ing into that nether­land in an attempt to re-experience it; Logan is avoid­ing thoughts of his past, try­ing to dis­con­nect. While Logan plays con­tem­po­rary games to take his mind off his pain, Hans goes one step fur­ther to relo­cate his mind some­where else com­plete­ly.

There’s a con­sis­ten­cy in sports which car­ries over the years. In spite of the dif­fer­ing styles of New York crick­et and the more for­mal, nor­mal crick­et of Hans’ youth, it is the same game. The mechan­ics of actu­al­ly play­ing, the phys­i­cal act and emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence of the game, is the same. This is what draws Hans into his past. Like many sports, crick­et has expe­ri­enced cos­met­ic changes over the years, but moment to moment the per­for­mance of tak­ing part in a match is lit­tle dif­fer­ent from that of decades and even cen­turies ago. The same can­not be said of videogames, which are chil­dren of the accel­er­at­ed dig­i­tal age. Change in videogames is con­stant, with devel­op­ers con­stant­ly push­ing at the bound­aries of what is pos­si­ble, accept­able and desir­able. A videogame is pret­ty much obso­lete soon, if not imme­di­ate­ly, after release. For estab­lished fran­chis­es, the next sequel is already in pro­duc­tion; for orig­i­nal titles, any inno­va­tions which work are hybridized into the next gen­er­a­tion, those which don’t work are dis­card­ed. New games come like waves break­ing on the shore, some crash­ing momen­tous­ly and some fad­ing with bare­ly a splash, but all for­got­ten when the next wave rolls in. And the next wave always rolls in.

My favourite game is Metal Gear Solid. Let’s not go into the rea­sons too deeply right now, suf­fice it to say it’s a great game that came at just the right time to etch itself onto my con­scious­ness. I remem­ber with fond­ness the ador­ing pre­views in var­i­ous mag­a­zines before it came out; I remem­ber my build­ing des­per­a­tion to play it; I remem­ber play­ing the demo over and over and then after all the antic­i­pa­tion being not in the slight­est bit dis­ap­point­ed by the final prod­uct. It’s my favourite game, and one that I asso­ciate along with the likes of God of War, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus in a decade-long hey­day of my gam­ing edu­ca­tion. Those three (inci­den­tal­ly, excel­lent) games have been at the fore­front of the recent PS3 run of HD remakes of clas­sic titles. There are whis­per­ings that Metal Gear Solid, being from the same era, might well be for the same treat­ment.

Which would be great, sort of. I’ll play a remake and no doubt enjoy it for what it is, but in play­ing it I am always very aware that this is an ‘old game’. If there are fail­ings I let them slide, because it’s an “old game”. HD remakes are draped in nos­tal­gia, but lack the thrill of the orig­i­nal expe­ri­ence from when their inno­va­tions were still inno­v­a­tive. In the case of God of War, the spec­ta­cle of the orig­i­nal, the sense of sheer scale it made great use of, is dimin­ished by its own sequels which each took things up a gear. Once out­done, some­thing is no longer impres­sive. You can give them all the facelifts you like; time is unkind to aging games.

The Metal Gear Solid fran­chise plays on the theme of remake and replay with a recur­rence of imagery and char­ac­ter through­out the series. This cul­mi­nates in Metal Gear Solid 4 in a sec­tion in which pro­tag­o­nist Solid Snake finds him­self back on Shadow Moses, the set­ting of the orig­i­nal game of which I am so enam­oured. Along with Snake the play­er is thrown into a rem­i­nis­cence of their first expe­ri­ence on the island, lit­er­al­ly replay­ing part of the open­ing sec­tion of the first game. This is a smart piece of game-making which rounds Snake out as a char­ac­ter with a past, one which we have been priv­i­leged to be along on the ride for, but wait a sec­ond: This isn’t the game I remem­ber! This game… Well, this game sucks! For me, the flash­back scene is dif­fi­cult to play. In my mem­o­ry every­thing about the first MGSis much smoother, in graph­ics and game­play. Where have these blocky pix­els come from? Why is the AI so ter­ri­ble? Once upon a time the fact that the enemy sol­diers would see and take notice of my tracks in the snow was the coolest thing in the world. Now? Now I find myself want­i­ng to make use of all the abil­i­ties Snake has picked up in the inter­im years: inter­ro­ga­tions, cam­ou­flage, shoot­ing out someone’s arm to keep them from fir­ing or grab­bing their radio, and so on. Rather than being taken back to my joy­ous first play of this game, the rose-tinted glass­es of my mem­o­ry have been removed. Re-experiencing it under­lines the bound­aries and lim­i­ta­tions of the orig­i­nal, the advance­ments we have made become obvi­ous, and my ear­li­er expe­ri­ence is deval­ued.

You can return to gam­ing, but return­ing to a game is a more com­plex and often, for me, dis­sat­is­fy­ing affair. Metal Gear Solid as an expe­ri­ence is as tied up with a par­tic­u­lar point in my life as crick­et is in Hans van den Broek’s, but it can­not return me to that point in the same way. Too much has changed, both for me and for gam­ing.

What I’ve writ­ten here might seem a lit­tle down on gam­ing, as though games are some­how not liv­ing up to some­thing, but it isn’t. Or it isn’t meant to be. Games inhab­it a spe­cif­ic time and place in my life; they tie them­selves into my iden­ti­ty through expe­ri­ence. That iden­ti­ty changes, day in and day out, a process that is as inevitable as it is irre­versible. Those changes might ulti­mate­ly make me now incom­pat­i­ble with that which once spoke deeply to me, but that doesn’t mean it never did. I can look back on it with fond­ness, just as one who has been through the trau­ma and upset of bereave­ment might come out the other side with the warmth of know­ing “At least we had the good times”. I lied, above, when I said that Metal Gear Solid is my favourite game. Rather, it is my favourite mem­o­ry of a gam­ing expe­ri­ence.

Cricket doesn’t work out for Hans, of course. You can­not dodge real life for­ev­er, and you can­not ignore change. An unwill­ing­ness to accept loss sim­ply places it on hold; it’s a tem­po­rary mea­sure. Eventually Hans re-enters his life on new terms, a life which is both dif­fer­ent and the famil­iar.

I used to have a poster on my wall, as a child. It was for the cloth­ing brand No Fear, though that bare­ly mat­ters. The poster was a pho­to­graph of the surfer Taylor Knox rid­ing an enor­mous, almost impos­si­bly tall wave. That moment must have been the kind that Taylor lives for, catch­ing the per­fect swell and per­form­ing every­thing just right upon it, allow­ing the momen­tum of the sit­u­a­tion to play out. But in the end the wave always crash­es down, the moment always ends. Taylor will have found him­self in shal­low waters, know­ing that that par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence can never, ever come again. And then what? He swings back up onto his board and pad­dles out to find the next great wave.

Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.

4 thoughts on “Game Changers

  • Matthew Schanuel

    I enjoyed this quite a bit! You do a good job of cap­tur­ing that uneasy nos­tal­gia that comes with return­ing to the cher­ished expe­ri­ences of one’s youth.

    I am curi­ous, though, whether there is some­thing intrin­sic about games-as-art that makes it even more dif­fi­cult to “go back home” than in other forms of art. I might pin it on gam­ing’s rel­a­tive youth, or the fact that a play­er inter­acts with it so close­ly and is intri­cate­ly involved in the pro­duc­tion of the expe­ri­ence.

    After all, I often return to excel­lent films or books that astound­ed me or were defin­i­tive in some way, and some­times even enjoy them more the sec­ond time around. But I have, like you, found it more dif­fi­cult to return to excel­lent games from my child­hood and truly exult in them.

    As I noted, it might be that gam­ing is still grow­ing very quick­ly, and that the lan­guage games use to trans­late their expe­ri­ences to the play­er changes much more often than it does in other art forms. By “lan­guage” in gam­ing I refer to all facets of the game (graph­ics, con­trols, etc.), the meaning-making tools of a game expe­ri­ence. There is exper­i­men­tal story-telling, sure, but gen­er­al­ly one can return to a book writ­ten in the last fifty years and man­age just fine.

    Perhaps the speed in lan­guage devel­op­ment has an impact. Is play­ing a game made eight or ten years ago a lit­tle like com­ing to Shakespearean English? It might be struc­tured around an old design phi­los­o­phy, use old tropes that have become out­mod­ed, and sim­ply lack the sort of gram­mar that mod­ern games con­tains. Is return­ing to Atari games, then, sort of like­ly com­ing to ancient reli­gious texts, where lots of trans­la­tion and train­ing is required to “read” it prop­er­ly, as it would have been expe­ri­enced?

    Obviously, there’s still a lot to learn about old games. The Shakespeare stand-ins (Super Mario World comes to mind) are still worth com­ing back to, since they’re the sort of games that mas­tered the tools at their dis­pos­al, and they can still be total­ly enjoy­able expe­ri­ences. But I think a great deal of great games might be great because they estab­lished a new facet of “game lan­guage,” and I think that new games which serve that role are more dif­fi­cult to return to and re-experience.

    In any regard, thought­ful arti­cle, and thanks for con­tribut­ing to the Ontological Geek!

  • Jim

    Thanks for the com­ment Matthew. Really it should be me thank­ing both you and Bill (and your other guest writ­ers, of course) for cre­at­ing the type of atmos­phere at The Ontological Geek that has room for my mean­der­ing lit­tle thoughts! I’ve real­ly enjoyed ven­tur­ing through the archives and get­ting to know the place.

    You make some real­ly good points, some of which I too mulled over while putting the arti­cle togeth­er. I get the sense that, like me, you’re find­ing that while this is cer­tain­ly a rec­og­niz­able phe­nom­e­non it’s dif­fi­cult to put your fin­ger defin­i­tive­ly on what’s going on. There’s an answer to be had, I’m sure, but it’s prob­a­bly a com­plex inter­play of expe­ri­ence and mem­o­ry along with changes in both our selves and the state of gam­ing.

    What draws my atten­tion, (and again this is per­haps symp­to­matic of gaming’s rel­a­tive youth) is that devel­op­ments in what you very appro­pri­ate­ly call the ‘lan­guage’ of games seem to be regard­ed more as evo­lu­tions than changes in older and more estab­lished art forms are. So while there have no doubt been changes to English in the years since Shakespeare was writ­ing, in com­ing to one of his texts we wouldn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly treat it as a more sim­plis­tic work than those that fol­lowed. Quite the oppo­site in fact! In read­ing, say, Hamlet we need to work to grasp an under­stand­ing of the lan­guage being used, but unlike Super Mario Brothers we don’t need to sit­u­ate it in terms of being an impres­sive use of lim­it­ed avail­able tools. My feel­ing is that once gaming’s high­ly accel­er­at­ed rate of devel­op­ment begins to slow and level out we will be able to more suc­cess­ful­ly dis­as­so­ci­ate ‘what a game says’ from ‘how a game says it’ and the lat­ter from ‘when the game said it’.

    Coincidentally I just today read a glo­ri­ous arti­cle by Jessa Crispin on home­sick­ness which I think taps into a lot of sim­i­lar themes. If you’re inter­est­ed it’s here:


    Thanks again for the response; I’d be inter­est­ed to hear any fur­ther thoughts!


  • Matthew Schanuel

    That’s a very inter­est­ing response! I’d like to respond to two main points — first, that you don’t see Shakespeare’s ear­li­er works as more sim­plis­tic than his later works, and sec­ond, your hypoth­e­sis that gam­ing’s accel­er­at­ed rate of devel­op­ment will slow.

    So first, do you think it’s total­ly fair to say that Shakespeare’s work did­n’t evolve? And why would­n’t we account him like Super Mario Bros., as using lim­it­ed, “archa­ic” lan­guage and tropes (from our stand­point, both Super Mario Bros. and Shakespeare would fit that cri­te­ria) to great effect? What makes the resources seem “lim­it­ed” to us? And, to some extent, we’re look­ing at an entire field here; sure­ly lit­er­a­ture has con­tin­ued to evolve, both to bet­ter suit a mod­ern audi­ence, and because writ­ers have actu­al­ly been *build­ing* on the tropes and tools of the past, con­tin­u­ing to play with and mas­ter ele­ments of sto­ry­telling.

    Second, and I may be read­ing too much into this, but do you believe that this lev­el­ing out will hap­pen soon? What signs do you see of that occur­ring? Is it pos­si­ble that gam­ing’s “rate of evo­lu­tion” will stay rough­ly con­sis­tent, and by what cri­te­ria might we gauge that?

    I think you are tap­ping into some­thing, though; gam­ing’s close rela­tion­ship with tech­nol­o­gy means that the pace of its growth is nec­es­sar­i­ly increased, and that will cer­tain­ly alter our per­cep­tion of it.

    I’m inter­est­ed to see more of your thought on this! And I’m very glad that you’ve enjoyed your time here at the Ontological Geek.

  • Jim

    Thanks for the fol­low up thoughts Matt. This is why I like chat­ting to philoso­phers, you guys always want to delve right down into the nitty grit­ty!

    I must apol­o­gise for not mak­ing myself com­plete­ly clear in my first response. I do have an excuse in that I had that dread­ful sit­u­a­tion where you write out a nice detailed reply and then some­thing fails to load and you’re left try­ing to repeat what you wrote and end up miss­ing valu­able chunks. It’s com­plete­ly my fault, though, that the reply turned out a lit­tle… ambigu­ous, shall we say. Let me try to be a lit­tle more lucid:

    I didn’t mean to sug­gest that Shakespeare’s writ­ing didn’t evolve over the course of his career, but was think­ing more in terms of sit­u­at­ing him with­in the lit­er­ary genre as a whole. There are a great many who would argue that the very pin­na­cle of lit­er­ary art is still con­tained with­in the words he put to paper 400 years ago. Whether it’s the best or just very good is pret­ty much irrel­e­vant real­ly, the point is that the expe­ri­ence of Shakespeare’s lan­guage and the mean­ings he cre­at­ed are still valu­able all this way down the line. If we com­pare Shakespeare to a more recent play­wright, say Alan Bennett, I don’t think we could nec­es­sar­i­ly say Shakespeare was in any way hin­dered by a less devel­oped lan­guage in com­par­i­son to Bennett. Early 17th Century English can look a lit­tle strange to us, and that can slight­ly hin­der its acces­si­bil­i­ty, but I don’t think any­one look­ing at Hamlet in any depth comes out think­ing ‘It was pret­ty good, for its time’, they just think ‘Bloody hell, it’s good’.

    But then of course even 400 years ago lit­er­a­ture was an old medi­um. Shakespeare made use of themes and even direct plot­lines that go all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, and per­haps fur­ther. I think that when you have that bulk of his­tor­i­cal res­o­nance behind you its dif­fi­cult to make a (for­give the term) game chang­ing devel­op­ment in the form. Gaming lacks that kind of res­o­nance to the extent that we’re still in per­pet­u­al dis­cus­sion over what gam­ing actu­al­ly is, let alone what it does or is for. And that’s great, but what it does mean is that changes to the lan­guage of gam­ing can be irrev­o­ca­ble and very dif­fi­cult to con­tend with when going back to older games. For per­haps the first time we’re see­ing repeat­ed ground­break­ing devel­op­ments in the lan­guage of an art form with­in a sin­gle life­time, and thus I think cer­tain stages of gaming’s devel­op­ment attach them­selves to cer­tain stages of our own life­time, mak­ing them very dif­fi­cult to relive. If you’ll for­give me get­ting metaphor­i­cal we might pic­ture these art forms as being cre­at­ed by a black­smith (wow, too much Skyrim for Jim, clear­ly). Shakespeare’s influ­ence on lit­er­a­ture was like the grind­stone bring­ing a blade to a sharp point. Gaming, I think, is still red hot and molten on the anvil, every whack chang­ing things for­ev­er.

    As to your sec­ond point, my sense of the lev­el­ling out (a solid­i­fy­ing plunge into the water buck­et, per­haps!) is that it must come. Soon? I’ve no idea. I’m no tech­nol­o­gy expert and my sense is that gaming’s evo­lu­tion will con­tin­ue to be affect­ed by advances in that area. An apt thing to note, I think, is that what­ev­er its rate of accel­er­a­tion even the fastest car lev­els out at a top speed even­tu­al­ly. The thing is that I’m not even sure what ‘soon’ is in this peri­od of dig­i­tal evo­lu­tion. There were 24 years between Shakespeare’s first and last plays. Look how far we’ve come in that time. He wrote 400 years ago. How can we even pre­tend to know how things will look that far ahead?

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