I held my breath and listened, certain that the three kids had heard me when I tripped and fell into the back of the pop-up camper. I was on the far side of the camper, away from the warm glow of the campfire and having trouble feeling my way around in the dark.
“It’s my turn to tell a story,” I heard Aiden say. Good. They still had no idea how close Uncle Ry-Ry was to scaring the bejesus out of them.
I made sure that my neck cover was pulled up snug around my nose and that my beanie was nice and low, leaving just enough room for my eyes to peer through. I looked in and saw Aiden take a seat in front of Randy and Madison, turning the flashlight so it cast his face in an eerie landscape of highlights and shadows.
“I’m going to tell the story of The Bloody Hand,” Aiden said, making his voice as creepy as possible. I took that as my cue and started scratching on the thick plastic window. It was too perfect an opportunity to pass up.
“Is that a…hand?” Madison asked, genuine fear crawling into her voice as she looked to where my hand rested against the window.
Aiden turned the flashlight towards the window. He only got out “What the–” before I leaned into the beam of light, giving a guttural growl.
The screams began instantly, high and shrill. I yanked my beanie off and pulled my neck warmer down, hurrying around to the other side of the camper as the rest of our camping group turned to see what the commotion was about. “It’s only me,” I yelled, swinging the camper door open and letting the kids get a good look at possibly the meanest uncle in the entire world. “It’s just Uncle Ry-Ry.”
The screams turned to laughter, and all three of the youngsters let me know how much of a jerk I was for scaring them.
The next day, shortly following an even bigger scare from Coach Dave when the kids genuinely thought they had stumbled upon the real Big Foot, Papa Jesse leaned down into the faces that were still damp with tears and said something that stuck with me.
“It was mean of him to scare you like that,” he said. “But I promise you one thing: You’re going to remember this camping trip.”
In the weeks leading up to this trek into the wilderness, I had made a solemn vow that I would be taking the opportunity to completely disconnect from the world. When we arrived at the campsite safely, I turned my cell phone off and put it in the glove box. That’s where it stayed for the next three days. I left my Vita at home and brought my Nook under the strict guidelines that it would only be used for reading. But even that felt like cheating, since it was a digital device, and so it stayed in my bag.
I had been playing a lot of games in the months before this annual camping trip with my buddy Jeremy and his family and friends. Darksiders II, Transformers, Battlefield 3, The Sly Collection and enough virtual and real pinball to give my hands flipper-cramps.
“It’s time to get away from all of that and immerse myself in the real world,” I thought. I was beginning to feel like all I ever did when I wasn’t working was play video games, so I wanted to take this opportunity to fully disconnect. Not just from games, but from anything with a glowing rectangular screen. I wanted to hit my own reset button, so that’s exactly what I did.
And you know what? It was wonderful. I got in a short hike, we did some fishing, made smores and sat around the campsite chatting for hours on end. The kids ran around and made a lot of noise while the adults talked about who was snoring the loudest the night before.
It’s stuff like that that sometimes makes me feel guilty about playing video games. I tell myself that I’m just being silly, but that doesn’t make me feel any less like what I’m doing with my free time is frequently a complete and utter waste. And I tell myself that it’s “work,” since I write about games, but that doesn’t take much of the edge off.
I was raised in a generation that was just getting to know video games. At the time they were seen as strictly kids toys – something you could enjoy through childhood but then had to give up when it was time to put on the big boy britches, get a job and start paying the bills.
I know that the hour or two I manage to squeeze in with video games on any given evening is nothing compared to the hours of television my fellow “adults” are consuming on a daily basis, but still that stigma remains. I fire up Jet Set Radio and have to force my brain to stop wrestling with the idea that I should be doing something more constructive with my time. I play games to have fun and unwind, and it’s hard to do that when said enjoyment is constantly at ends with this bizarre feeling of guilt.
In Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead, my back is against the door and Clementine has just handed me a cane to wedge between the handles to help keep the things closed. The undead are howling and pawing through holes in the rickety structure, doing their best to grab hold of an unexpecting snack.
To my left, one of my new friends is set upon by a bloodthirsty group of the walkers. To my right, another new acquaintance is desperately trying to shake free of one of the bastards as it tries to drag her to the ground and bite into her warm flesh.
As Lee Everett, I only have a few seconds to decide which of these people I will save. The other, I know, will be torn apart by a horde of monsters. It’s a decision I didn’t expect to have to make and, in The Walking Dead, the sort of situation I will become uncomfortably familiar with over the next several chapters of play.
This was the very evening I had returned home from the camping trip. I had unloaded the car, taken the world’s longest shower, snuck in a brief nap and, feeling groggy yet refreshed, I had decided to spend the remainder of my evening playing a video game. I decided on The Walking Dead and, despite what I had heard about the game, nothing had properly prepared me for the emotional and mental strain Telltale’s latest work would be putting me through.
That night, I went to bed with the decisions I had made and their consequences running in circles through my mind. My time with The Walking Dead had been a thrilling, gut-wrenching experience. I felt like my decisions mattered and, because of them, a pair of good people had suffered.
But then those old feelings of guilt started to stir. Why was I lying there awake, thinking about the deaths of virtual characters? I had work in the morning and other seriously grown-up stuff to worry about…like flossing and dropping off the rent check. Did any of that silly video game crap really matter?
The answer, of course, is that it absolutely matters. I have spent many hours trying to explain to family, friends and total strangers why video games are a legitimate form of entertainment but, despite my defense of video games to others, it has been as if I refuse to fully appreciate their value myself.
Why should our time with these games be viewed as anything less than the time we spend with movies, books, or in front of prime time TV? Their stories can be just as compelling. We can care just as much for their characters and be moved by their musical scores. They can make us laugh, hide under the covers or shed a few tears. The medium still has some growing to do (And always will), but video games still serve as a viable, and frequently more personal, way of telling a story or delivering a message. Slowly but surely, I’m finally coming around to the idea that I do not need to justify video games to anyone, least of all myself.
I don’t know if video games can live up to the experiences we have when actually connecting with one another in the real world, but what they provide is similarly important. They provide memories. Much like those kids I terrified while on a camping trip, I’m going to remember my time with The Walking Dead, just as I fondly remember my adventures with Super Mario Bros., Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid and Shadow of the Colossus. The recollections I have of my favorite games burn just as brightly as those I have of reading Wuthering Heights, watching Cool Hand Luke or visiting family at a reunion.
Deep down, I cherish these memories and know that I want more of them. So I’m going to keep playing.
About the Author:
Ryan Winslett is an Arizona-based journalist and freelance writer. He is a contributing writer for Gaming Blend and his work has also appeared on Joystiq, Gamasutra and Joystick Division. His only crime is loving too much.
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