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.