Here we go, readers, part 2 of my acclaimed series. In this part, we delve deeper into the Temple of Doom-esque eyeball soup that comprises my psyche. You scared? Good. That means we’re ready.
Last we met, we left our story in the midst of Nathan Drake’s pièce de résistance, and just after the name “Ezio Auditore da Firenze” was being shouted on subreddits everywhere. What happened to video games after this? What happened to me after this?
The year is 2009. I’m finishing off my GCSE’s and a couple of games have been sitting in my “backlog”, waiting to be played, teasing my procrastination-prone brain. One such game was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Yes, it had been released a few years prior, but I had never played through the story proper. For 30 minutes, following a spate of dull revision, I was allowed to pick up my PS3 controller and shoot some bad guys in the face – I’ve heard it does wonders for your personal development.
I remember playing through the initial training sequence, trying to best my time of shooting plywood enemies, throwing flashbangs and trying not die by falling off the rope; I remember Captain Price’s iconic line: “We are LEAVING!” screamed to our protagonist, “Soap” MacTavish, as we attempt to leap from a rapidly capsizing ship; I also recall being wowed by how cinematic the game was – it raised the bar for FPS’s in my eyes; in 2007 it was like a prescient Zero Dark Thirty.
My favourite mission was “All Ghillied Up”: a flashback assassination mission where you play as Captain Price (Soap’s mentor in the present timeline) with Price’s past captain (MacMillan), prioritising stealth and silencers. I have yet to feel the same tension in another FPS to this day. This mission has you crawling on all fours avoiding tanks, carefully taking out guards in pairs, sprinting ninja-like in abandoned radiation-thick buildings in a post-nuclear Chernobyl, and eventually making it to your “nest” in order to vanquish a high priority target. One unfortunate bullet leads to another bad situation and after a daring escape, you end up by a rusting, disused amusement park, making a final stand as you await extraction. This single level was the cherry on the top of an already brilliant video game. Check this video out for a great description of what I’m talking about.
Video Games are Art. Period.
The period from 2009-2011 was somewhat a renaissance for me. I started to really appreciate video games as an art-form, beyond the next “mindless kill ’em up 5”. I had only scratched the surface with Uncharted, AC and COD, and now, with A-Levels fast approaching, what better way to de-stress after memorising organic chemistry mechanisms all day, than to jog through a virtual Louvre of video games?
I got woke. No longer were games fun; they were stories, fantasies, tirelessly constructed by inspirational designers and diligent programmers. They were little slices of those digital architects’ souls – and I was lucky enough to have the means to gobble them up. Yes, my friends started giving me weird looks when I spent much of my game time staring at puddles, “The drops man! Look at the raindrops!” And they may have been concerned for my wellbeing when my first mission in any game was to get to the nearest vantage point and stare at the scenery for tens of minutes.
I jest, I jest. I didn’t have any friends. *Getting dark, fast*.
Well, in that period of my life I did have people who conformed to my past self’s definition of being a friend. Only now, however, do I realise how wrong I was. Friends don’t bully other friends. Friends don’t lie, to quote Stranger Things.
But we’re getting off topic. The point is, for about 2 years, just before I left my parent’s house for University, I was playing games completely differently. It’s sort of like when you start reading a book not just for the plot, but you notice how the author has constructed a particular sentence, or a particular character arc – I started to notice how video games were being designed.
Every single thing you see in a video game: every rock, every drop of rain, every tear, every spurt of blood; it’s all been constructed. It has been created, moulded, hewn from rough code into the glorious virtual diamonds we see on our screens. Every flower, every laugh and every mutated zombie is the result of someone’s hard work.
It’s difficult to comprehend the world-building that goes on in video games – there’s simply too much of it on display and we take it for granted. There are so many examples of utterly amazing world-building in those years: Red Dead Redemption, Bioshock, Fallout, Mass Effect, Skyrim, Mirror’s Edge to name but a few. I could spend this entire blog talking about what Rockstar did with RDR (following on the successes of then recently released and now iconic GTAIV), how it took the Wild West to harsh, gritty, unforgiving and tragically beautiful new levels. I will only pick out one golden nugget, that being the entrance into Mexico. That little respite of riding through the Mexican badlands as José González’ music drifts out of our TV’s speakers is utter bliss. That moment of pure “experience” is so raw, and so rare in games such as RDR; an open-world, brutal action/adventure extravaganza. Typically they are consigned to genre games such as Journey (a gorgeous game nonetheless), where you know what you’re getting into from the beginning. RDR never sets you up for it, though. There is a sense of poignancy, of an old dog trying to learn new tricks, amid a sense of self-destruction throughout, but this single scene leaves the player reeling. Too many feels, bro. Far (away) too many.
My A-Level years were capped off with releases such as Portal 2 – a wonderfully elegant, and hilarious, 3D puzzler sequel that entailed “testing” of a portal gun, allowing the bearer instant teleportation across infinite spaces, as long as there were two surfaces for two portals; Uncharted 3 – Drake’s final outing on the PS3, which included a jaw-dropping falling-out-of-a-cargo-plane-in-the-middle-of-the-Rub’-al-Khali-desert sequence; and Heavy Rain – a noir, David Cage movie-sim/interactive drama where you are tasked with hunting down the Japanese paper-littering “Origami killer” (I even remember the video game box came with origami!).
Soon after, however, the golden years came to an abrupt halt. I went to University, sold my PS3 (gasp!) and decided to redefine myself. Overall it was for the better; I was finally happy for once in my life, now outside of an abusive relationship with my friends.
Back then, video games were my escape – at university, life was my escape, while video games took a backseat. Although, I found it really hard to make friends, and realistically only made one good one (she’s my wife now, so yay). During my “redefinition”, I grew up, but I ended up going too far. I began to think that everything I was before Uni was wrong, and everything now was right, which wasn’t true. I was still that chubby teenager inside, tearing up just thinking about RDR and humming the Assassin’s creed theme over and over. It took me several years to finally convince my crazy-self that it was OKAY TO LIKE VIDEO GAMES AS AN ADULT.
Thanks to support from my wife, on March 21st 2014, I played a video game for the first time on a brand spanking new PS4 (thank you student loan/sobriety) in almost 3 years. That game was Infamous: Second Son. No, it wasn’t the greatest game ever. But man, it was exactly what I needed at the time. I got into it slowly, playing as morally ambiguous Delsin Rowe, blasting pink Neon here and there, flitting smokily through the damp Seattle air, and gazing longingly at puddles, “The raindrops man!” I felt like a kid again.
I felt like me again. But a new, improved me.
When I was a teen, video games ruled me. They were all I had to escape from my depression. By the time I graduated Uni, I was ruling video games. They weren’t an escape, but a hobby. They weren’t a guilty pleasure, but a justifiable pastime. Almost half the population of the UK plays video games in some form or another. Some must be video game snobs just like me.
I’ve lost my way dozens of times in life. No, I haven’t ended up wandering mirage-dazed in a baking desert, nor found riddled with bullet holes in the American Far West. I merely got lost in my head a bit during my teenage years – video games pulled me through. They showed me a dark abyss, but also beautiful vistas. They showed me that they were not miracles, but made out of blood, sweat and pixels. They showed me that it’s okay to be passionate about the things you love, in fact, you aren’t doing life right if you aren’t passionate about those things.
I love video games; maybe not the way you do, but love isn’t defined unambiguously. Go shoot those bad guys, score those goals and do that side mission to help a guy find his missing goat. Meanwhile, I’ll be here, spending hours and hours in photo mode, on top of a mountain somewhere, or maybe just staring at puddles – glassy-eyed in wonderment at the alien worlds our fellow human beings have created.
Thanks for reading guys & gals 🙂 Stay tuned for Part 3, where I talk about the millions of games I have yet to complete, as well as some utterly phantasmagorical ones too. That’s a real word, promise.