12 Apr 2010

Where Videogames Go To Die

Back when I was a kid, one of the first videogames I remember playing was Horace Goes Skiing. I was about three years old, playing this basic Frogger clone on a computer with a dead-flesh keyboard. It was great, even though it was frustrating trying to steer this character down a virtual slalom course. There were a number of other games that hallmarked my youth, from Fantasy World Dizzy through to Shenmue, stopping off at Sonic the Hedgehog, Doom, Unreal and Half-Life on the way.

It’s awe-inspiring in a way – as I’ve grown up over the last thirty years this whole new form of entertainment has grown up with me. It’s something that simply didn’t exist before my generation, yet it’s something I’ve lived with all my life.

And yet I can’t help but feel that somehow videogames are the only form of entertainment that has a built in shelf-life. I’m not talking about things like DRM or anything as draconian. It’s much more fundamental. Videogames are the only form of entertainment that is almost welded to the hardware it was created for. We expect that in time to come we will move on to better hardware, and with it newer videogames. Those older ones, the classics of forgotten generations of hardware, are abandoned and rarely see the light of day again.

Let me try and give a clumsy analogy. I have a bookshelf, on which lie a collection of books. Most of them I’ve read, some of them I’ve yet to start. But I’m in no rush – a book is a book is a book. I won’t open it one day to find the book technology has changed, or the book server has been shut down and my book service closed. It’s a kind of comfort, knowing that they will still be there and that I can get round to them, some day.

It’s the same with music – I listen to music every single day. Sometimes it’s on CD, sometimes it’s on my iPhone, sometimes it’s on computer. Sometimes I make my own music, cranking out badly plucked half-tunes on my cheap Squier Strat. But music is transient in nature, being easily movable from one medium to another. Notation on paper to bytes on a magnetic platter, it’s all the same. But I can still dig out the music I was listening to ten or twenty years ago and pull it forward, making it play on my latest gadget or gizmo. It never goes out of date.

I think it’s my fast-approaching wedding that’s thrown this into the forefront for me. One of the biggest joys in my life is being able to play videogames with other people, be they in the same living room or a different continent. I want to be able to share and pass on those experiences, and I don’t know why but I feel it all the more as I grow older. But although I can share the stories that shaped my youth and the music that inspired me as a teenager, the videogames that defined my gaming life will probably stay in the past.

Think about the games you’ve played, the characters you’ve created and the experiences you’ve had. In the case of Warcraft, you might have characters that you’ve been playing for five years or more. They have their own stories, their own paths. Even if you’ve never roleplayed, you’ve still fought battles and overcome the horrors of the world. There’s a history there full of memories.

One day the game will end. The servers will shut down and the hard drives scrubbed. Our characters will probably be long gone by then, probably only recorded in blogs like this one or merchandise like the plastic figurines or posters. And unlike a book that you can pull of a shelf and pass on to the next generation, a videogame is like a fixed point in time that we cluster around for a brief moment before moving on to the next one. Then the next one. Again, and again.

Consider that the creative endeavours of a single person might last for over four thousand years, it seems such a waste of effort that something touched by several hundred people might only live for a few years. For some reason it feels broken, as if a videogame is like a Nexus-6 replicant trying to live out beyond it’s dedicated lifespan.

In the meantime, I can only imagine that one day there’ll be a time when I’m asked about the Big Daddy figurine or the Wind-Rider plushie, and where these creatures came from. And I’ll reply:

“From worlds that once existed, but that exist no more.”

See you in-game.

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