#3. The First Time You See the Universe Running Without You
Here's a quick way to separate good fantasy stories from bad: The good ones leave you feeling like the universe continues whether or not the camera is there to see it. Not to beat a dead horse, but if you want to see a really easy example, watch the original Star Wars trilogy -- not the special edition -- when Luke and Ben enter Mos Eisley. Watch as the camera drifts past exotic aliens going about their business, as if they're a normal part of the background not worth noticing -- this universe exists regardless of what the main characters are doing. Now watch the special edition, where new CGI characters dance and whiz in front of the camera, pleading for your attention, reminding you that you're watching a movie.
Well, when you play a game, at heart you know that it's nothing but a digital obstacle course. Everything exists for you; the Goombas you're stomping in Mario don't have their own lives or goals, they appear when you come along. They're just obstacles with faces, no more alive than swinging spikes or pits of lava. You, the player, are the center of the universe, and everything that exists in that universe is purely there to stop you. Nothing you see is "alive." That's why every gamer can remember the first time they had a game blow that idea wide open.
For instance, everyone who plays Skyrim remembers the first time they stumbled across a giant wandering around out in the wilderness (an early mission intentionally makes you walk right across their camp):
I think 99 percent of you tried to fight the giant, at which point one blow from its hammer flung your corpse across the landscape like a rag doll:
So then, later, you have your first random encounter with a dragon:
"Wow, it's so cool! I wonder if it breathes fi-"
Then, days or weeks later, you will happen to be running from a dragon and holy shit, accidentally stumble across a giant, too. You're doubly screwed, the two are probably going to flip a coin over which one gets to eat the tastiest part of you (your toned buttocks, obviously). But then, with 10 times the joy a father feels when he sees his son win the Nobel Prize, you realize the dragon and the giant are going to fight each other.
Now you're not in an obstacle course, you're in an ecosystem, where there is a hierarchy of predator and prey that functions completely without you.
The first time I ever saw this was in Doom. It happens at random -- one type of monster gets caught in the crossfire and shot in the back by another monster, at which point he turns in a rage and starts blowing the shit out of the shooter:
That screenshot doesn't look like much if you haven't played it, but for teenage me, this was the equivalent of going up in the attic and seeing my old G.I. Joe action figures walking around and talking to each other. It changed everything.
Younger gamers first saw this in Halo; sure, the game tells you that the alien bad guys are actually two warring factions who hate each other as much as they hate you. But then there's the first time you actually top a ridge and stumble across a vicious firefight between squads of AI enemies. They're completely ignoring you -- they have their own war to fight.
It's a standard part of game design these days, and maybe newer gamers, ones young enough to not remember ever having to blow on a game to make it work, don't see it as a big deal. Though in my opinion, if you don't smile like an idiot when you play through the level in Half-Life 2 where you use bait to make giant ants attack the bad guys, you're dead inside.
#2. Reaching the Other End of an Impossible Level
Every gamer who has put in time in platformer games (be it Mario, Sonic or Mega Man, or maybe you were the weird kid who grew up with Crash Bandicoot) has run into a level that is clearly impossible. The thing the programmers are asking you to do simply can't be done. They ... programmed it wrong somehow. It's broken. The landing spots are too far apart, or too small to land on, they're not giving you enough time to jump.
I don't just mean the level is "hectic" or "challenging" -- challenge is routine for this kind of game. If you're a veteran of the genre, you know it's just a matter of running it four or five times to get the timing down. No, I'm talking about the levels where, after 20 attempts, you are certain that somebody made a mistake.
My first was Super Castlevania IV for the SNES. Stage B. You start on the ground floor, with a giant freaking circular saw inexplicably whipping back and forth below you:
I question why a vampire would install one of those in his own home, but that's not the point. The point is, if you touch the saw, you instantly die and start over. I mean if it brushes one pixel on your foot, it's instantly over, no matter how much health you have left.
Then the saw starts chasing you up the level, the whole thing is vertical.
No big deal, you think. Just got to get up those stairs. But this is Castlevania; you can't jump onto the stairs, you have to perfectly line up with the bottom and angle your controller up in that direction. And the game took advantage of this horrible mechanic to torment you -- the moment you touch the stairs, they crumble. And I mean they all crumble, immediately, all the way up. So if you brush against the bottom stair, the whole staircase disappears ...
... and the level is over, the saw gets you. You have to run them with absolute perfection and zero hesitation. And there are lots and lots and lots of these stairs. As you progress, you'll run into spots with long staircases above and, in the course of killing an enemy (yes, there are enemies, too), you accidentally will touch the stairs and make them crumble above you:
That's it -- there's no other way up there. But instead of instantly starting you over, the freaking game makes you stand there for what feels like an eternity and wait for the saw to come kill you.
And you have to wait there, for your own death, over and over again, each time you make that mistake. I was 16 when I played this. After a few failures, I started counting the attempts. I stopped counting at 60.
It was no longer a game at that point. It was personal. The man who programmed this level hated me. He hated games. I had this fantasy that he had been fired from Konami, but was told he had to finish this one level before he left. So, he intentionally made this sadistic chamber of torment as a grotesque insult to Konami, gamers, and gaming as an art form. It was this or come back with a rifle and shoot up the office, and he chose the more cruel of the two.
The point to all of this is, when I finally reached the top and saw a huge golden doorway, I felt like I had somehow beaten the system.
This is what you can't get from books or TV or movies -- that sense of accomplishment.
I suspect every gamer has "that level." For some it's Toxic Tower in Donkey Kong Country 2, where you have to jump upward onto the backs of bees (touch any other part of their body and it's instant death) while the room is rapidly filling with toxic sludge that (you guessed it) is also instant death. It's about 50 jumps that you have to nail perfectly in rapid-fire succession; missing any one of them means you start it allll over:
Also see Heat Man's stage on Mega Man 2, with its appearing and disappearing blocks, each no wider than Mega Man, each suspended over lava:
Now, as I enter my golden years, stages like this just annoy me -- I sit down knowing I only have an hour to play before I have to get back to work, and if one level eats up that whole hour, I feel like the game has wasted my time. But as a kid? Practicing a level so much that the rhythm etches itself into your muscle memory, to the point that you could play it with your eyes closed, the way you can type without looking at the keyboard ... it's maybe the most physically rewarding experience gaming has to offer.
Which brings me to ...
#1. Mastering the Rhythm
This is something you probably felt long before you ever picked up a plastic Guitar Hero guitar or matched dance moves with Han Solo in that Star Wars dancing game we keep mentioning.
For me, the first time I felt like I had mastered the "rhythm" of a game was in F-Zero, a racing game. And if you've ever played a racing game long enough to get good at it, you know what I mean -- that run when you finally know the track like the back of your hand. You feel the curves coming around long before they appear on screen, effortlessly edging over into a corner that you know is going to be there in three seconds, slamming on the accelerator halfway through the curve because you know the long straightaway is next. The pavement rolls out in front of you exactly where you want it, like you're laying it with your mind. I couldn't make F-Zero look like this video, but it was close:
Note that when he "crashes" in that double hairpin turn each time, that's no accident. The great platformers did this, too -- the Sega Genesis built its entire business model with a game where, if you mastered it, you could fly through the level like a blue rodent acrobat, bouncing and ramping and somersaulting, barely touching the ground:
Doing that aerial ballet in Sonic has nothing to do with reaction time, or decision-making, or even anticipation. It's pure rhythm, nailing the notes like hitting keys on a piano. And when you do it just right, when you fly through the level and nail all the jumps and boosts and kills, it has to feel like the first time somebody learning an instrument plays a familiar song and makes it sound like the actual song, the beautiful contours of perfection at the command of your own fingers.
I mentioned Guitar Hero earlier. If your only experience with these games is videos on YouTube, then you don't get the appeal -- those videos only show you how the game sounds when the song is played perfectly. "So, what, the game plays a popular song and you tap colored buttons on a plastic toddler guitar along with it? So it's like a motor skills training tool for the retarded, right?"
You see, if you hit the buttons wrong, the game butchers the music. Do it wrong for too long, and the song garbles to a stop and the crowd boos. So for your first hours with the game, that's your experience with it. It's just you ruining classic rock songs, the TV blasting horrible, off-key deformities. You have to work your way up, with practice, to the point where you can actually do the song justice. Until finally you can hit the notes, and bring the real song to life. You become one with the music.
A waste of time? You bet. It's a pointless substitute for the real thing, just like candy is a pointless substitute for vegetables, a novel is a pointless substitute for a textbook, sports are a pointless substitute for warfare and recreational sex is a pointless substitute for procreation. But I'm pretty sure that humans who don't do those "pointless" things become either robots or pack animals.
So, that's why I play games. Hope that answered the question.
For more from David, check out 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted and The 7 Commandments All Video Games Should Obey.