By Jordan Gray | Tall Dark Friend
Videogames represent history’s most convergent art form. Illustrators, animators, actors, writers and musicians come together to breathe life into imagined realities – that Gamers are then given the tools to reshape from within. Moral ultimatums attached to branching story arcs were a trendy gimmick of the noughties; now a sprawling open world seems like a waste without them. MMORPGs invite new types of conflict and tension into our lives with the onset of real-world friendships developing ‘tele-presently’.
The emotional spectrum that games once offered (i.e. joy, surprise, frustration, relief) has expanded and become far more complexly refined. Gamers today might expect to experience empathy, indignation, wanderlust, pride, trust, loyalty, existential dread and spiritual transcendence – all before Act 3 even kicks in. And of course as every generation inevitably ages to fill the cynical void of the last, nostalgia affects how we experience the medium of videogames. But it is often the not-directly-intended moments in gaming that bring about the deepest emotional revelations.
Here are 5 moments in gaming that taught me what it means to be truly happy in a non-virtual world:
You can’t control everything
Born from the mind of Swedish game developer Markus ‘Notch’ Persson, Minecraft drops the player into a vast Cubist world (rendered from a unique player-chosen code) and then teaches them to reshape it. Your world is your own.
In Survival Mode, you spend the game mining deep into the earth to extract the materials you need to build, upon its surface, anything and everything your imagination can muster… all the while fending off the monsters that come lurking in the night. In Creative Mode you are given access to all the materials that could ever need from the get go, you can fly and are impervious to damage.
It is here in Creative Mode than most gamers choose to construct their grand designs, safe from interruption and unconstrained by gravity. I once chose to build a grand glass mega-hotel; spanning 10 stories, with over 100 uniquely furnished rooms. In one such luxury suite I decided to construct an open-plan kitchen-space, complete with breakfast nook, oven, sink… and a refrigerator.
Using 2 Snow blocks, one atop the other, I placed Stone Buttons on the front to look like handles. To complete the look of a ‘lived-in’ kitchen, I decided to place some food on top of the fridge – in this case: a pumpkin. To my shock and amazement, the fridge came to life and began chasing me around the room, trailing snow in its wake! Half-terrified, I ran out of the room and closed the door behind me, trapping the abominable fridge monster inside.
After a little research, I learned that this configuration off 2 Snow blocks and a Pumpkin is how you make a Snow Golem. There are Iron Golems too as well as an entire plethora of strange beasts one can only create by instruction… or, my case, by astounding coincidence. After countless hours stacking blocks, laying carpets and hanging decorations for a hotel that nobody would ever visit, the emergence of this peculiar Jack-o-lantern-headed snowman inspired me to STOP and enjoy my creation. Because even in a rigid system, surprises can happen. And they can be wonderful.
#2 Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Stay in the moment, skilfully.
In a time before Level-Scaling, open worlds were simply scattered with enemies of all different strengths. When starting a new game, the immediately surrounding foes were usually weaker but further afield there were some ‘bosses’ that you simply shouldn’t be allowed to reach, let alone challenge in combat. You learned the hard way not to stray too far from the scripted quest-line by being demolished by a foe several tens of levels your senior – prompting you to either re-spawn or reload an earlier save and take a different route.
To gain enough experience to defeat these great enemies, you had to grind against weaker foes for hours, perhaps days, with diminishing returns as you became stronger and they stayed the same. Level-Scaling was introduced in the noughties to provide a constant but rigid level of challenge. Enemies became stronger as you did, with certain outliers beyond your reach without special items or a level requirement.
But sometimes we WANT to bite off more than we can chew. Especially when we have the opportunity to ‘fight smart’. The Witcher 3 (and, to an extent, the Dark Souls series) still does this very well.
One of my fondest moments in gaming was while surveying the red wastelands of Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind. Losing my way, I took shelter in a Daedric ruin. Sneaking through its monster infested corridors, I came across a large room with two wizards far FAR beyond my skill level. Hiding outside the door, I spied behind them a tantalising table of exotic looking weapons, armour, potions and spell tomes.
I knew this was a moment I wanted to experience *fully*. So against my better (nerdier) judgement, I fought the urge to pre-save. Where was the thrill in knowing I could trial-and-error my way to victory?
Senses sharpened, thumbs twitching, I snuck pillar-to-pillar, finally making a mad dash for the table and grabbing everything I could. I knew I would over-encumber myself with the loot and wouldn’t be able to run from that spot. But that was never an option – one lightening bolt from either of these wizards and I was done for. Instead, I made use of something I’d been saving for a rainy day – the most expensive spell scroll in my back pack – a teleportation spell that would transport me halfway back across the world. I jammed the A-button down so hard it bruised my thumb. As the spell surrounded me in twinkling light, knowing I may never find this strange place ever again, I turned to the wizards and basked in the final moment’s glory of my daring escape.
With enough prep, Skill converts Risk into Thrill and can be used to squeeze adventure out of a scary and uncertain world. Stay in the moment.
#3 Pokemon (Gen 1)
The joy of the journey
I will fangirl over all things Pokémon until the day Arceus recalls me to the Distortion World. Full disclosure: this section assumes a certain degree of Poké knowledge on your part. If you’re not a total and utter Pokémaniac, you may wish to skim the next few paragraphs with the same glazed expression my girlfriend used to give me… until I forced her to love Pokémon just like me!
Now, in Red, Blue and Yellow, Dragonite was arguably one of the hardest monsters to attain in the game by natural means. First of all, its base evolution Dratini was a rare find; available only from a specific body of water in The Safari Zone – which means that catching it was a frustrating case of hurling rocks and hoping it didn’t flee. Either that or you could purchase one at the Game Corner for a bazillion-jillion-dratillion Poké-bucks.
Factor in Dratini’s not so fantastic moveset (Wrap, Leer, Agility, Thunderwave) and it would take some serious bait-and-switching to evolve it into its 2nd form – Dragonair – at level 30. Grinding a further 25 levels up to 55 for a Dragonite was a monumental undertaking for a newbie. And remember, this was 1998, we were ALL Pokémon newbies.
‘Rare Candies’ could force a single level boost per candy. But as their name suggests, they weren’t just lying around on the beach. You could buy one from the Celadon City dept. store for about $10000000000000000… but surely earning all that money was time better spent training your Dragonair?
So how do you do it? Well… you swap stories with a drunken man in Viridian City and then soar off to Cinnabar Island for a cheeky coastal stroll. That’s right. Like many of us, I decided to cheat and consult the mysterious ‘Missingno’.
Triggering the Missingno glitch is, by itself, pretty exciting and probably deserving of a spot on this list. But there’s a more lasting moral behind this fable than the thrill of breaking the rules. Missingno is a coding glitch created by last minute developments to the game before release. When you discover ‘a wild Missingno’ and then flee the battle, whichever item is 6th in your backpack is automatically duplicated x99. Boom, infinite Rare Candies. No more training.
As I scaled my lowly Dratini up through its 20s into a beautiful and slender Dragonair, I was elated. I had never even seen one in-game before. But as I coldly robbed it of its 30s and 40s I was suddenly struck by a sense of deflation. I was never going to use this Dragonair in battle. I wouldn’t never look over its shoulder as it destroyed my enemies at my behest. I would never run panicked to a PokéCentre to cure it of a poison Zubat bite. Why was I doing this? To attain an arbitrary goal? To hit the level cap of 100? And then what?
Our brains are problem solving machines. The gamer community’s manipulation of the Missingno glitch was genius. And like me, I’m sure it left many gamers with a strange sense of ennui. We robbed ourselves of hours of adventure and exploration, bonding with our little sprites in the heat of battle.
There was no way I would cherish my puffed up Dragonite the same way I did the Venusaur I raised from a little Bulba of lvl 5. When Dragonite reached level 100, I stared at the screen for a moment and then put the game down for about 8 weeks. The happiest gamers fall in love with grinding for the same reason we don’t glue our Lego creations together: the destination was never the goal.
Kindness in our genes
2K’s artistic FPS masterpiece takes place in the Art Deco sub-aquatic dystopian city of Rapture. Roll the credits. Beyond its incredible setting, the game offers a compelling story that weaves together braids of freedom, free enterprise and free will.
Derived from modified sea slugs, ADAM is the life-force of Rapture and the fuel behind your “plasmids” (genetically augmented powers). These sea slugs survive in symbiosis with the many clones of a single little girl (Little Sisters) who are protected by hulking great behemoths (Big Daddies). Kill a Big Daddy and you are given have a choice. In that moment – if you choose to ‘Harvest’ the slug from its Little Sister, the girl dies and you get maximum ADAM to spend on upgrading your powers. Save her and she toddles off and you are left with minimal ADAM and… a warm fuzzy feeling inside?
After a while, the surviving Little Sisters will begin to leave you secret ‘care packages’ containing ADAM as you progress through the game. The ADAM in these packages evens out the deficit – to basically the same amount as if you had harvested the girls without remorse. So, beyond an alternate cinematic ending with a slightly fuzzier feel to it, there is no reward or punishment for your mercy. So why save the girls?
Because kindness and altruism are written into our genes, like plasmids. We evolved to care for smaller versions of ourselves – a fact not lost on the developers of Bioshock. ‘The Little Sister’ design went through various permutations (incl. a toad with a toxic waste canister on its back, and a venomous sea slug and a disabled dog with a wheel-brace) before arriving at ‘adorably creepy little girl’.
We know by now that there is no God judging us – certainly not a God written into the code of Bioshock. And yet we are compelled to goodness. Atheists don’t suddenly go mad and start a-murderin’ the day they stop believing in God. We do it because it feels right. Kindness is a function of our evolution and ties us to our prehistoric ancestors. Own your ‘goodness’. You are your only judge. Now will you kindly take control of your own moral compass…
#5 Halo Reach
Play can mend the bonds of time
Due to circumstances beyond my control, or indeed my understanding, my brother drifted out of my life when I was around 19. Geographically, he didn’t get far. But an emotional distance grew between us that I never really understood.
I’m a Transgender woman, so as brothers we fought – a lot. Videogames were a way to channel that aggression into winning the match/fight/race. As consoles improved, side-scrolling beat ‘em ups turned into lengthy FPS battles across vast and uncertain terrain. Sometimes joined by his friends, sometimes mine, sometimes neither. We’d do battle for hours, filling the air with trash talk and boy farts. We didn’t talk to EACHOTHER much, using our friends as a breakwater. And then one day, he wasn’t there anymore.
Suddenly my videogame experience went back to the solitary exploration of offline open world RPGs. Carving out lonely adventures in strange lands, populated by brilliantly rendered and well-voiced characters; none of whom would pause the game to go pee, offer me crisps or makes jokes when I walked off the edge of the map. I find myself wishing they would.
One day, after my transition, I visit my brother at the house that he and his fiance share. Conversation assumes a typically English ratio: 1 part “how’s work?” / 2 parts mannerly silence. We decide to fire up Halo Reach to fill the awkward hush. What else are we supposed to do? And so, without talking, we proceed to batter each other with loud alien technology.
After a particularly brutal head-shot, my brother breaks the silence with a taunt. I respond with quiet optimism. He tells me the Laser Sword is better than the Gravity Hammer. I say “not if this was Warhammer”. He says “it’s not Warhammer”. I say “I know it’s not Warhammer”. He says “look out”. I say “what…?”
He deftly slices off my head with the aforementioned Laser Sword. I concede a glorious defeat.
45minutes go by. Death after death, we extol the virtues of various weapon and alien technology. He tells me the Earth guns are better. I tell him the alien guns are more fun. We talk about the duel-wielding in Halo 3. He asks me if I’ve played the newer Halos. I tell him I’ve been busy with work. He tells me the same and that work sucks. And then came one of the moment that this blog is about. The moment I realised: we were no longer talking about Halo, or guns or aliens or even other videogames… We were just talking.
Moments like that don’t spawn every day.