Why do we play video games? It has to look like the world's stupidest hobby to somebody who isn't into it, and I don't think the answer I used to give ("Leave me alone, Mom! GOD!") really holds up anymore. Well, let me give it another try.
Because every time a particularly trashy or embarrassing video game appears, I feel the need to defend the medium as worthwhile. As a gamer who's pushing 40, there's still some shame attached to the hobby (sometimes for good reason), and let me assure you, I have much worse things to be ashamed about. Much worse. Much, much worse.
Anyway, as a writer I am known for two things: complaining about the video game industry and huge sentient insects that burrow into people's heads and take over their minds. So let me break from both of those things and, with joy in my heart, try to explain what it feels like ...
#6. When You Truly Feel Powerful for the First Time
I completely understand why, out of context, the sight of me giggling like a fool while blowing a bad guy into a pile of donor organs can feel as if you're watching the final erosion of human morality right before your eyes. But non-gamers never seem to understand that the blood-and-guts ultraviolence in video games is always either about A) goofy slapstick on the level of Wile E. Coyote getting run over by a steamroller or B) empowerment.
That's Fallout 3, and what you can't know until you've played one of these games is how hard they make you work to earn that. Games are empowerment fantasies, and when you start out in that particular universe, you are a refugee hiding underground in a shelter. Eventually you find a dinky little pistol that has like four bullets in it (in a universe full of bad guys who laugh off bullet wounds). In other games, you'll start out as a child with a wooden sword.
For hours you scurry around in fear, powerless. You die, you hide, you scrape for every little upgrade. And then, finally, you get the Game-Changing Weapon. Depending on the game, it might be a gun, or a spell, or a special ability. Whatever it is, it's laughably overpowered, beautiful to watch in action and incredibly satisfying when you unleash it on the same bad guys who tormented you in the early days.
In the Final Fantasy series, they have the Ultima spell:
Yes, that's a wild animal getting vaporized in a planet-sized explosion. But you have to put that ridiculous sequence in context. You've been charged with saving the world. You'll have some stupid freaking monster sitting there between you and your goal. Maybe it's one that has eaten you and your teammates alive a dozen times ...
... but now you have Ultima, a spell that casts down a pillar of holy light from the very heavens:
This empowerment moment is fundamental to storytelling; it's Neo in The Matrix becoming "The One," it's Luke Skywalker becoming powerful enough to blow up the Death Star, it's "The Reward" in Joseph Campbell's hero's journey. It's the hero embracing his destiny as the badass savior of mankind.
In shooting games, it's as simple as getting whatever weapon will let you obliterate a whole pile of enemies in one shot. The most famous is Doom's BFG 9000, which turns a hallway's worth of demons into something that can be scooped up with a snow shovel.
But no game has ever done the empowerment journey like Half-Life 2. You wake up as a helpless, unarmed nobody on a future Earth under brutal occupation. The first people you see in the game are masked police shouting orders at you. You can't touch them, you can't disobey them.
See that bearded guy on the screen back there? Everywhere you go, there are video screens where that shithead, a Big Brother-type dictator named Dr. Breen, gives droning, pretentious speeches:
When you meet up with resistance fighters, the first weapon you get is a goddamned crowbar ...
... and you spend much of the game running for your life from occupation troops who will beat the shit out of you if you look at them wrong.
Finally, you work your way up through the game, one incremental upgrade at a time, until you're infiltrating the tower of that bearded asshole. Inside, you obtain a Super Gravity Gun. What does it do? Well, immediately a big group of bad guys come running at you, guns blazing. In a panic, you aim your new gun at them and squeeze the trigger ...
... and suddenly you realize you just freaking sucked the bad guy across the room with your gravity gun and are now carrying him around like a helpless rag doll.
Curious, you pull your trigger again, at which point it flings him across the room and knocks over the rest of his squad like goddamned bowling pins.
You work your way up the tower, and you run into more of those propaganda screens, with the bearded asshole giving another one of his speeches. You aim your gravity gun ...
... and realize that you can rip the damned monitor off the wall with it ...
... and hurl it across the room in a shower of sparks.
The oppressor is up there, many floors above you. He thinks he's safe in his tower, his boot on the neck of the peasants, the status quo forever secure. But he is not safe. You are coming for him.
Yet, if you're a kid playing that level and a grownup walks behind you and sees you trashing a room with a ray gun, he'll roll his eyes and think, "Awesome, they've made a vandalism simulator to teach little Timmy how to rip our flat screen off the wall."
#5. When a Piece of "Victory Music" Plays
There's no doubt that as an art form, video games are way, way behind Hollywood in several ways. Game plots are still either simplistic, brutally violent grindhouse (Max Payne) or absurdly convoluted nonsense (the Metal Gear Solid series, most Japanese RPGs). Dialogue is stilted and often delivered with the inflection of a first-year drama student. But one thing games have nailed almost from the beginning is the music.
Sure, today you've got Hans Zimmer doing the score for the Modern Warfare series, but the industry has always had top-notch composers. Mario, Zelda and Sonic all came up with simplistic, looping tunes that you somehow never get tired of after 12 consecutive hours of playing. That has to qualify as some kind of miracle in the world of music composition. And some game themes kick so much ass that the game itself is almost a letdown (see: the opening theme of Command and Conquer: Red Alert).
Man, by the time that knife lands on the map and Europe starts to bleed, you are ready to start kicking some Soviet ass:
"DIE WAFFEN LEGT AN!"
OK, you say, but the same could be said of a film -- lots of movies have kickass soundtracks that get you in the mood (see: Pulp Fiction). But games have another musical trick up their sleeve, and I'm not sure Hollywood has an equivalent.
I'm talking about in-game music, and the almost Pavlovian response you will start to have to "victory" sounds once you learn what they mean. Here, close your eyes and see if you recognize this soothing tune:
That's the music that plays in Resident Evil 4 when you find one of these:
A typewriter save room. This comes only after running from some of the most nightmarish shit that monster designers have ever dreamed up, knowing the whole time that if you die, you'll have to face them all over again, operating a character who runs like he should be at home drawing a disability check. Then, finally, you plunge through a door and reach sanctuary. You cannot be hurt in a typewriter room -- that's the rule. You can stop, take a breath, record your progress and regroup, with that soothing lullaby harp tinkling in the background the whole time. The RE series always does this ... here's the save music from the RE 1 remake:
Video games are full of little joyous musical cues like that. If you've poured several dozen hours into Final Fantasy III (VI in Japan), this little blast of MIDI trumpets will make your arm involuntarily do a fist pump:
That's the "victory fanfare" after you have ground your way through several minutes of turn-based combat to bring down some monster or other, bleeding out hit points one attack at a time.
And, of course, there's the "you just solved a puzzle" chime from the Zelda franchise:
I've been hearing variations of that jingle for 26 years, and it still gets me.
#4. The First Time You See an Awe-Inspiring Enemy
There is a part of your brain that you rarely have to use in everyday life, but that your ancestors used all the time: the part that identifies and reacts to monsters. There is a feeling that only comes with seeing a huge, previously unknown predator. Fear, awe, then fight and/or flight.
Horror movies used to try to push this primal button -- in the '50s, they were all about huge monsters ("Radioactivity has made huge maneaters out of these common pubic lice!"). But we've become too immune to huge movie monsters over time -- that's why modern horror is less about giant radioactive insects and more about serial killers, and huge movie monsters are the stuff of direct-to-cable Sharktopus cheese. They always look fake, like something that doesn't really inhabit the same world as the heroes (I'm pretty sure the only reason the Cloverfield ad campaign hid the monster is because of how stupid it looks out in the open).
But video games can still push this button. Not just fear of the predator, but awe. Every gamer can remember the first time some boss character started bursting up out of the ground, or looming in the distance, and just kept getting bigger and bigger on the screen ...
... until you're fighting the goddamned thing by crawling up its back like a rat:
That's Shadow of the Colossus for the PS2, and for gamers who grew up on that system, they don't completely understand the "Holy shit look at that thing" feeling some of us have, since we were raised on games where the biggest and final boss of the entire game looked like this:
... and that was the biggest thing you ever saw in a video game. That was all the NES-era horsepower could manage.
That's the thing -- because games are such a new technology, when you are playing one, you're always vaguely aware of the limitations. You know you can get attacked by 20 enemies, but you can't get attacked by 50,000 of them -- the hardware can't render that many. A video game universe is an ecosystem where there is a hard limit on what is possible. But those technical barriers are being broken all the time, and that lets you feel that sense of awe that is so rare in other forms of entertainment, the feeling of "This thing before me should not be possible."
Hell, when I got a Super Nintendo and saw this monstrosity come crashing through a wall during Contra III:
... I almost shit my pants. To borrow a phrase from J.K. Rowling, that thing was too big to be allowed.
Maybe movie audiences felt that same sense of awe in 1933, the first time they saw King Kong, some of them having literally never seen a special effect before. But even then, they didn't see him and immediately have the realization that they were going to have to be the one to kill him. Not like when playing God of War III and having Cronos pick you up like a flea:
If you can't see the character you're controlling, it's the speck on the giant's fingernail:
And the very first thought you have (well, the second, after "Holy shit!") is "I am going to have to find a way to kill that thing."