Austin Grossman’s YOU has been praised in the Boston Globe as “razor sharp…a smart meditation on the nature of gaming” and by Tom Bissell in Harper’s as “some of the most startling, acute writing on video games yet essayed.” Find it in bookstores everywhere or pick it up from your e-tailer of choice this week! We’ll have a full links post of the great coverage for YOU tomorrow–in the meantime, check out the below guest post from Austin on some of the most memorable moments of his gaming life.
This isn’t a top-five-games list, although there aren’t any bad games here. Instead, it’s a list of the five best moments video games have given me.
Now that I’ve started writing at length about them, this is the part that interests me most. There’s a lot of debate as to whether video games are art, whether they deliver the kind of emotional or narrative or profound experiences associated with the idea of what an art form is. But if we’re going to see clearly what video games are, we have to think about not just the “text” of the game, the art and code and game mechanics, but whatever it is that happens when game meets player, the ephemeral, collaborative experience that results.
You could say the same thing about any medium but for obvious reasons it has a special bite for interactive media. The best video games don’t just tell stories, they generate them.
Ritual caveats: It’s not really a top five, of course – I’ve done way too much gaming for that, and had too good a time doing it. I only have so much space. I could talk about Braid or SpyParty, but I think those are significant more because they’re good games than for a personal experience I had with them.
I’m also excluding games I worked on – no System Shock, no Deus Ex, no Trespasser (although I could – go ahead and call me on it). In that regard I’m letting Flight Unlimited in on a technicality, because I mostly just worked on the manual, and because part of what I’m writing about is the hardware peripheral.
It was a little ways after midnight. I was at a friend’s house in Oakland on the couch. It had been a couple of years since I had a proper gaming console and I was catching up with some Halo.
I’d been a little dismissive of Halo during the opening levels back on the Pillar of Autumn – I felt it was standard shooter stuff – but then I hit the outdoor levels, out on the Forerunner-built pseudo-planetary surface and I got the point. Tactical combat moved outdoors, dynamically modeled vehicle physics, and glorious scenery of the Halo, the kind of vistas that induce a uniquely vertiginous awe, the Ringworld sublime.
I’d been living there a few weeks, house-sitting after bailing out of a living situation that – well we won’t debate the rights and wrongs at this point, but there I was. I was still in the first half of a doctorate I would never complete, pretty lonely, and for three or four hours a day I needed to not be there in my head. I played every night until I fell asleep.
I was almost halfway through the single-player campaign, partway through “Assault on the Control Room” and bogged down in one of those endless canyons. Dying and re-spawning, frustrated, bombarded, I was getting tired and lazy.
It was snowing onscreen, my human squadmates were dying, and I felt like the miserable WWI infantryman in a Wilfred Owen poem, getting shot by enemies I didn’t even notice. It took me maybe forty-five minutes of grinding shooter gameplay to figure out that I could knock an enemy off its vehicle, and – if the vehicle survived the crash – I could get on it myself, and fly.
That was the moment. Part of it was just one of those satisfying clicks where you realize that the virtual world is simulated more thoroughly than I had assumed, that they had opted to make me, Covenant troops, and vehicles part of the same universe, with the kind of robust interoperability that makes a simulated world feel complete.
But then there was the absolutely unexpected somatic thrill of the ground dropping away, like I had torn free from something. I pulled back on the stick and streaked up along the cliff face momentarily free, above the rainy, slushy mess of dying Terran and Covenant troops, right out of myself and Oakland and regret and all the memories of a wasted year.