Late one night a few months ago, my friend Brett and I – the idea to follow below was at least as much his as mine – got to talking, and before long our conversation, as is so often its wont, had swung to the topic of games. As is true for most gamers, I suspect, both previous exploits and titles, bosses, or levels possessed of especial difficulty are a favorite subject of discussion; such tales as my first encounter with Xenogears‘ last boss, or Brett’s conquest.
I can think of no more apt a term for just how thoroughly he cowed Raccoon City’s undead citizenry – of Resident Evil 3 still appear with a high degree of regularity in our exchanges, even years after the fact. (I may never have demonstrated any talent in the more traditionally masculine domain of ‘foosball’, but, by God, Deus knew who wore the pants in the relationship by the time my Gears were finished with him.)
But in addition to recounting our sundry misadventures, lately I’ve come to recognize ever more consciously that we share – again, I believe, in common with a great many of our fellow gamers – a marked proclivity for the enthusiastic critique of our pastime and all its myriad facets; not only do we complain, but we in fact revel in doing so.
Very often we love nothing more than an appraisal of the industry as spirited as it is scathing, and have given more hours than I can count over to the cheerful evisceration of a title, series, company, or console. Yet for all our ostensible vitriol, the truth is that we set to it with such gusto precisely because we care so much about gaming writ-large, and have so heavily invested ourselves therein – indeed, I would account it one of the most central and enduring aspects of who we are and how we define ourselves.
And it was thence, from the implicit understanding that we love it dearly in spite of its shortcomings (as we perceive them), that we stumbled to the dawning realization that, in many respects, gaming might well – perhaps even best – be characterized as a relationship.
The Good with the Bad
Radical though such a proposition may seem, as I’ve contemplated it over the course of the ensuing months I’ve found it to be a wholly apposite observation, and one which I’ve belatedly recognized playing out at every level of my career, from that of the individual game on up to gaming itself.
Perhaps most obviously, no game is, by my lights, truly perfect. Some have come close, to my mind – maybe even many – but never in my life have I encountered a title that I could honestly say is entirely without fault, or to which I could in good conscience award a perfect score (thereby implying the former). In all reality, much as any man or woman is, any given game is far more likely than not to be riddled with flaws – some more pronouncedly so than others, but all to a greater or lesser degree.
What’s more, this is true even – often especially – of our most beloved titles. Xenogears, to this day, remains my favorite game of all time, hands down. I’ve always held in high esteem its genre’s emphasis on narrative – when describing RPG’s to non-gamers I in fact tend to liken them to novels – and from the outset I fell madly and unabashedly in love with the labyrinthine involutions of Xenogears‘ storyline. I spent the balance of the game with scarcely a clue which way was up, but in a very real sense it was a prolonged and fantastically effective ‘hook’ – my confusion, far from dampening my enthusiasm, only drove me to play still further in an attempt to decipher the plot’s often baffling twists and turns.
Were I to write a review for it, however, it would, at most, receive a seven out of ten (or the appropriate analog); even within the context of the PSX and its contemporaries thereon, I have to concede that it’s well and unequivocally beset by a litany of problems. They range from the obviously spotty localization, to the comparatively harmless – albeit inexplicable – random sound effects that can be heard in the background from time to time, to the infamous second disc, which to my way of thinking all but removed the player from the transpirations of the game entirely, and strained nearly to the breaking point the RPG’s already liberal interpretation of gameplay.
And yet for all that, I love the game to death. Time and again I’ve willingly looked past its faults, taking the bad along with the good to get at what it could be, and holding firmly to the belief that it’s more than the sum of its parts – much as, I would argue, we all do vis-à-vis those closest to us. I have here spoken of relationships chiefly in terms of those running toward the romantic, though in truth the analogy applies just as well to the realm of the platonic.
For, whether we openly admit as much or uncomfortably avert our figurative gaze, we are all acutely aware that our friends, family, and significant others are eminently fallible individuals. If we were to be brutally, unflinchingly honest, we would have to acknowledge that they have (or will have), in some way or another and at some point, let us down or otherwise disappointed us – and, by way of a perhaps more painful admission, that we have them; the nigh on timeless aphorism that no one is perfect, clichéd though it may be, is no less applicable for all that.
Some readers, no doubt, are by now squirming uneasily in their chair – no doubt even more so if they happen to be reading it along with said family or friends – but the foregoing statement hardly qualifies as a revelation, if at all. And my main purpose in drawing attention to it is less to discomfit anyone than to stress that none of us would for a moment be tempted to rashly sever all contact with our loved ones on such specious grounds – nor they with us – because we recognize that people are far more than their mistakes. So too with our games.
All Work and no Play
Such is not to say, naturally, that our ‘relationships’ (in the game-centric sense that I am here elucidating) are without their growing pains. Just as the maintenance of continued and amicable interpersonal commerce often demands no small measure of effort on our part, so do the games that we play – or the series, as the case may be – sometimes require a level of commitment that falls well outside the bounds of normalcy.
To illustrate, I need to rewind by a little over a decade. Way back in the summer of 1997 (lo, those many years ago…), while Brett and I were hanging out at his house one afternoon, he pulled out the demo for a game in which the player assumed the role of a mercenary pilot – not of the more pedestrian aircraft that are Ace Combat‘s stunningly successful stock-in-trade, but of large, highly customizable mecha. The preview, of course, was for From Software’s Armored Core 1, and though its release a few months later was lost amidst the general shuffle of high school – my freshman year – I would later reconnect with the series and then some, and in fact go on to track down every member of the extended AC family, rapidly growing into one of its more ardent devotees.
Though not without their quirks, the Armored Cores have always provided a comparatively solid – if eccentric – gameplay experience for what they are, and have, collectively, consumed the hours of my life in far greater quantity than any other series out there. Further, where other franchises of broadly similar make have come and gone, Armored Core has somehow, against all odds, persisted; it, alone of its sister IP’s, has consistently and reliably afforded me the opportunity to indulge my near-pathological affinity for the giant robots which, in my own case, comprise a key element of the nerd’s panoply that I wear with pride (when no one’s looking).
I flirted with MechWarrior‘s solitary PSX outing, I was nothing short of delighted with Zone of the Enders (that free game that came with the MGS2 demo), and I personally thought Zeonic Front a breath of much needed fresh air for a property that rehashes the One Year War with the regularity of the lunar phases – but over the years they and their ilk have, regrettably, been left by the wayside, and the subgenre at large fallen very nearly into abeyance; today, its marches stand eerily silent, prowled only by the occasional, furtive AC release.
But for years the paucity of mecha-themed titles troubled me little, if at all, for the Armored Cores supplied all that I could reasonably want of such things; in truth, the honeymoon was an inordinately long one. But when Nexus released in the fall of 2004, our theretofore effortless relationship abruptly assumed a more strained tenor. For its eighth entry From Software had implemented a number of mechanical changes that, while minor on paper, all but obliterated the foundations of my design philosophy as it had existed to that point.
Then leaving me to flounder helplessly as I struggled to learn all over again how to assemble an Armored Core of any meaningful pollency. The experience was, it goes without saying, something of a shock, and for some time I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Nexus. I knew that the series and I had always had a good rapport, but now it had, entirely without preamble, made a volte-face that I neither fully understood nor liked; though I never actively considered so drastic a prospect as its wholesale abandonment, I couldn’t help but wonder: was the magic gone?
In the end, I blew out a steeling breath, rolled up my sleeves, and dove back into the game with renewed determination, working doggedly to come to grips once and for all with the relative havoc that From Software had wreaked – and ultimately, I feel, I emerged a more conscientious designer for it. My friends and I periodically joke that I found the only fun copy of Nexus, as I was the only one of our group to truly take away from the title anything more than frustration – but the reality, of course, is that I willingly resigned myself to the hours of hard labor that it demanded, and obstinately refused to give up on a series with which I had so much history.
I Love you, but I’m not in Love with You
But whatever the conditions that necessitate such hard work, perforce they also introduce to a relationship a certain measure of tension, sapping the general good will that – ideally – prevails under normal circumstances.
That same first year of high school, I had the good fortune to find myself in a class taught by a teacher – one of my all-time favorites, as it turned out – whose predilection for setting off atop his pet steed Tangent was well known by the student body and faculty both. Though he took a bit of good-natured ribbing from some of his colleagues as a result, I myself always enjoyed the extracurricular subject matter of his ‘bird walks’ (as one of the English teachers once termed them); the textbooks on which the class drew encompassed no information that one couldn’t obtain in a hundred other works of a similar bent, but the stories that he recounted frequently yielded insights into less tangible aspects of life, and I still remember a fair number of them to this day. (Some were also hilarious.)
In one such tale he had occasion to speak of a disagreement that he’d once had with his wife, after which she had remarked, in a moment of signal candor, that while she naturally still loved him, she was not at that moment in love with him. Now, by no means is it my intent to lessen or in any way vitiate their marriage by drawing a campy parallel, nor would I imply that there exists any genuine parity between the two objects of my comparison – but I can say, very honestly, that I couldn’t think of any more apropos a summation of my relationship with the RPG genre.
As the thoughts on Xenogears that I outlined above may suggest, I’ve always had an especially soft spot for the (J)RPG. Though I’m usually among the first to point out that the genre’s transgressions are legion, and have spent many an hour declaiming against the same, it has nonetheless always held me in a thrall rivaled only by the Resident Evil series. Forty- and fifty-hour accounts of some star-crossed rebellion or other against the obligatory ‘evil empire’ are ten for a buck, and quests to destroy god appear in scarcely less abundance, but somewhere beneath the derivative patina lies a certain ineffable charm that I’ve never been able to resist. The emphasis of plot over gameplay, paradoxically, won me over very early on, and some of my favorite works of fiction came out of the PSX era – by my lights, the golden age of the RPG.
There came a point, however, when all the appurtenant inanities of the genre began to ‘stack’ beyond even my ability to withstand, and one day my patience finally snapped. In the interest of equity, I feel compelled to say in Grandia I‘s defense that it’s no more or less guilty of the sins mentioned above and below than most of its contemporaries – it simply had the misfortune of being one straw too many. But several hours into the game, as I caromed from one pointless task to the next, I was struck by a minor epiphany: in an instant of stunning clarity I suddenly beheld, yawning before me, the overwhelming absurdity of the usual RPG tropes as presented within its binary confines. What in God’s name, I wondered, was I doing? How could a fifteen-year-old and his kid sister possibly save one person, much less a city? Or a nation? Or a planet? And just how integral to the plot was all that menial labor, anyway?
Well, much as a couple might spend a few days apart to sort out their thoughts and emotions, and clear their heads, I opted to take a break – I turned off the game, set it aside, and in fact didn’t touch another RPG for months thereafter. Simply put, I needed some space. But for all my disgust I never lost the subdued reverence that I’d always had for the genre, and continued to recall with great fondness my time with the likes of Xenogears, Chrono Trigger, the Final Fantasies and the Lunars, and Front Mission, among others. And there were obviously a good many aspects of the RPG that I still liked – I just couldn’t marshal the energy or the will to jump through the usual cavalcade of hoops to reach them.
But eventually the wounds were healed, as is the way of things, and I remain as enamored with the genre as ever, if more intelligently so. Although it actually wasn’t until I played through Suikoden III a year or two later (I’d bought Grandia I quite late) that I managed to put the schism well and truly behind me – that I was ready to ‘love again’, to follow the parallel to its somewhat fatuous conclusion.
When its Good It’s Great
Of course, when everything is working in concert, and every cylinder firing in sequence, the result can be rewarding in the extreme. Again, I would stop short of the suggestion that our interactions with an assemblage of hard- and software are really on a level with the romantic pursuits in which we engage – at least such as are met with any degree of success – but I think the underlying principles, at least, I can safely hold up as bearing some greater or lesser affinity with one another. That some – though of course not all – of my most pleasant memories are closely tied to my gaming career, I can state without embarrassment, and however singular our respective experiences, it seems highly unlikely that anyone whose feelings did not in part mirror my own would have bothered to read more than two-and-a-half thousand words on the matter.
To be sure, any resemblance between the gaming ‘relationship’, as I conceive of it, and the more conventional society of our fellow creatures would struggle to emerge from the shadow of their self-evident dissimilarity. But the paradigm that I’ve adumbrated – with, I hope, something akin to lucidity – I have nevertheless found strikingly applicable to my own life, and in some ways even instructive. It’s afforded me a fascinating (and, I admit, amusing) vantage from which to evaluate my responses to games both past and present, and, indeed, it seems a pity that the insights gained have only gone in the one direction.
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