6 Moments That Make Video Games Worth It
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 ...
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."
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.
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."
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.
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 ...
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.