One group of us meet on Saturday mornings for lunch. We eat, chatter away about our daily lives, and revel in the simple pleasure of the weekend.
The conversations twist and turn. Upcoming community theatre productions litter one person’s agenda; one of our number is close to a promotion at work, and it will do wonders for his future prospects. Someone else talks about wanting to join a political campaign; the party’s collective blood boils at the mention of the ‘p’ word. Politics, declares the one who usually brings us together on Saturdays, is off the table, effective immediately. Potential bloodshed averted.
As the topic is shelved, the conversation inevitably leaps into video games. We’re a table full of gamers, after all. The manager of the restaurant is a gamer, and he lingers by our table, swapping stories, asking for advice on a PC to console transition, and looking for game recommendations.
A few titles are tossed his way: Darksiders 2 is out now, I tell him, and it’s a lot of fun; go check it out. No, no, wait for Resident Evil 6 if you need a horror game fix, says another of our group, despite my protest that Darksiders 2 is not a horror game. No, no, neither of those, man, says a third, forget video games altogether; we’re doing a Star Wars tabletop game. Want in?
We’re a motley crew. Four men, one woman, we come from a variety of backgrounds – technology, factory work, retail. We hunch over our meals, prodding one another for information on what games are grabbing our fancy this week.
Two of our fellows justify the presence of dark circles under their eyes by explaining their late-night session of the online strategy game League of Legends. It doesn’t help, one complains, when the crew he’s depending on to help him destroy the enemy team’s towers is made up of people who don’t know how to play the game. Worse, he adds, is when an experienced player drops out at the most inconvenient moment, costing his team their chances of winning the round.
Another muses whether or not to continue his current run on Star Wars: The Old Republic. He enjoys the game, he says, he truly does, but he’s done two playthroughs of the story mode already and unless another person at our table wants to start a group with him, he’s probably going to stop playing the game. After all, Guild Wars 2 is coming out soon. That should satisfy his MMORPG fix.
Our leader is adamant about completing Assassin’s Creed II. He fixes me with a deadly glare. “Do not spoil the other games for me,” he orders, a finger raised in mock threat. I agree to spoil nothing, and admit that I’m far too involved with a few other games to even be considering the revolutionary sequel.
The pun earns me a snort of laughter, plus a wadded up napkin ball to the face.
I’m wandering around a local video game retailer after work. I peek in now and again, looking for a good deal, maybe a head’s up on an upcoming special. The two clerks wave in greeting, and I peruse the wall of Xbox games, although nothing really catches my eye.
A voice from behind me grabs my attention. I recognize the man and his wife, new clients from my job. We chat about the classes he’ll be teaching. He explains that he’s not sure he’ll be smart enough for these kids, because they know everything after all. We laugh in the way that people out of their undergrad work laugh, that familiar I remember being that kid fashion, the one that comes after your ego has been summarily thumped out of you.
The man’s wife asks if I’m still in school. I confess that I’m not, but, if I was, I probably wouldn’t be in a video game store. Not that video games didn’t distract me in college, but if I was still studying, you’d rarely catch me playing. Not that I wouldn’t be, but nobody would see me doing it.
She asks what games I like. I mention the recent ones I’ve played, like Dust: An Elysian Tail, which had a great story and was fun to play. It feels like revisiting an old side scroller, but with newfangled twists; it’s anime-inspired visuals are striking, and they keep my attention. Darksiders II has my interest because it’s so immersive, and the story is intriguing, with great pacing. It feels like a mashup of God of War and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, in the best possible way. Button mashing, I tell her, is a very satisfying thing after months of playing nothing but shooters and RPGs.
What’s your favorite game? she asks.
“That’s like asking my favorite book,” I tell her.
So what’s your favorite book?
I admit that it’s a toss up between three of them, and none have a lick to do with technology or games.
The man grins, watching my hands waving in the air, gesturing as I talk. He bobs his head, and tells me that listening to me talk about video games is like watching me when I’m in my work element – always in motion, hands doing half the talking for me, dropping a quick aside here and a quip there to keep people’s attention. It’s a skill I’ve almost perfected in the past ten years of working with the general public.
When he mentions work, our conversation shifts to narratives and stories. The man is teaching general education classes; his passion is folklore, the epic sagas, stories that really stress importance, that encourage exploration and investigation.
I tell him those stories sound like the video game stories I like the most.
He glances at the wall behind him, his eyes scanning titles. He plucks a game from the shelf. This one has a great story, he tells me. PC version is more fun to play, but the story can’t be beaten.
He’s handed me a copy of Dragon Age: Origins.
An evening out with my best friend, a fellow gamer, one who is more than willing to listen to me talk at length about bizarre theories, character development, the importance of music, and why games should matter more. Our conversation is animated, both of us talking, waving our hands, sometimes gesturing wildly to make a point.
Of late, we’ve been discussing two franchises, Uncharted and Mass Effect. Treasure hunts and outerspace, to be exact. I’ve watched my friend play the Uncharted games, but never touched them myself. The latter franchise we’re both familiar with.
Our focus in our discussions tends to be on the lead characters, and what we do and do not like about them. I confess that I don’t understand Drake’s motivations in Uncharted, so I’m reluctant to care about him as a character, but I admire the fact that he’s not an idiot, and clearly does care about his friends and his fortunes. Playing Mass Effect, I don’t actually believe Shepard feels remorse for any action, regardless of the alignment path, and that makes it hard for me, the player, to want to see the story all the way through again.
After we’ve dissected characters, we move onto stories. My companion points out that the Uncharted games are contained stories, with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. There is some historical figure who matters as far as background, but that person ultimately doesn’t play much of a part. The point of the game is the exploration, the level of control the player has over the character’s physical movements and actions. Apart from cutscenes, the games never really stop being games. The player is almost always in control.
Mass Effect doesn’t do that, I say. He agrees.
Our conversation shifts to the aforementioned game. We dissect the narrative, and find plot holes, narrative loose ends, characters who don’t quite fit the story, and more than a few protagonist quirks that don’t exactly feel right. As we talk, we poke and prod the story until we can separate out what elements – there are about a dozen events – actually matter across all three games. Ultimately, we tear it apart, and reassemble it in such a fashion that we come away saying yes, no doubt, we love this franchise, but it’s time to move on.
It’s funny. The more we talk about Uncharted, the more interesting it gets. Meanwhile, the more we talk about Mass Effect, the more critical we get.
We pick things apart, we like to tinker, to understand what makes a narrative flow, what makes a character tick. We like to know these things for the same reason we dissect the movies we love the most, why we find the not-so-perfect endings the best ones. It’s the same with our favorite books, why a certain character’s voice is all we need to say “this book will be the best one I’ve read all year.”
I want to look at a game and say that one, that one right there, it’s the best one I’ve played all year. I want to look at my fellow gamers and say “you must play this.”
As gamers, we thrive on interaction, dialogue, engaging conversation, passionate arguments. And it stems from the games we love and hate.
About the Author:
Alexandra Geraets is an fan of story-driven video games. She's an even more avid fan of exploring how and why they resonate with all of us. Her essays have been found on Village Voice Media.
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