Broadening Your Gaming Horizons
I’ve been out of college for five years now, and contrary to my mother’s constant predictions throughout my youth, I’ve yet to “grow out of” gaming. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, the medium has grown up, too, and each year brings new and fascinating explorations of player agency and interactive storytelling.
As I’ve matured, however, so have my tastes in games–and as I come to see myself more and more as a critical and academic appreciator of the medium as a whole, I’ve made a conscious effort to try games that, once upon a time, would have been outside of my wheelhouse. Part of this endeavor has meant going back to play the classic games that passed me by as a youth, but part of it has simply been pushing myself to play games that I might otherwise have overlooked because of genre preferences.
This process may have begun as early as the late nineties, when I came home from the mall with a game which was way outside the aesthetic that I usually preferred: Metal Gear Solid.
I had read an article in the latest issue of the now-defunct gaming mag “Next Generation” about how The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was unquestionably the “game of the century,” which was immediately followed by a review for MGS which stated that if you were one of the unfortunates who happened not to have an N64, then this new Hideo Kojima joint was probably the best that you could hope for. (Of course, even at the tender age of fourteen, I could tell with reasonable certainty that I had already played the greatest game of all time, and it was definitely a PlayStation exclusive.)
As you may recall, I was one of those unfortunates who had picked the PSX over the N64, and I was determined to play this “last, greatest PSX title.”
The only problem was: Metal Gear was scary as hell. You had to sneak around, and your weapons were exceptionally limited, and there was a very loud alarm sound every time someone detected you! The visual aesthetic and tone of the game were realistic, somber, and dramatic–even to someone whose favorite series was a certain anime-flavored, melodramatic epic, the stakes were raised considerably.
Eventually, of course, I grew accustomed to Metal Gear’s high-tension thrills, and I’ll be among the first to champion it as one of the greatest games of all time. I am certainly among the ranks of those who got a little shiver at hearing Psycho Mantis describe their love of Castlevania.
So–my aesthetic horizons as a gamer had been broadened, and I was better for it.
Several years later, I embarked on a campaign to familiarize myself with a new genre–one with which I had extremely limited experience–the first-person shooter. How was it that I made it through fifteen-plus years of gaming without seriously investing time in an FPS? Well, my family had never had a PC capable of running top-of-the-line games, and as a result I stuck mostly to consoles. Glance quickly at my console ownership history, and… well. Name an FPS worth playing on the Genesis or the PSX.
Yeah? That’s what I thought.
So, when my buddies and I gathered at our esteemed colleague’s house for a night of Halo, I was that guy. We couldn’t play 2-on-2 matches, because someone would have to get stuck with me. People hunted me down in deathmatch because I was an easy kill, like a tiny flightless bird in a very small pen. I excused myself from the challenges in Perfect Dark because, well, I wanted them to have a chance at victory.
Eventually, just after graduating from college, I decided that I’d had quite enough of that and embarked on a quest to play through the campaigns of the entire Halo trilogy in an attempt to hone my skills. My good friend Sebastian and I teamed up to do it cooperatively, and we became so wrapped up in the challenge that by the time we got to Halo 3, we decided we’d invite some of our other buddies in to join us, and maybe crank the difficulty up to Legendary. You know, for funsies.
Afterwards, I noticed that whenever we played multiplayer, I was no longer at the bottom of the standings! I wasn’t exactly dominating, of course, but I was holding my own. I had expanded my horizons as a gamer yet again–this time, into a genre I’d not been comfortable with. If I hadn’t pressed myself to engage with first-person shooters, I never would have played the first Call of Duty–or Bioshock–or Borderlands! There are so many superb shooters in the medium, and I would have missed them if I hadn’t stepped outside my comfort zone as a gamer.
Over the last couple of weeks, however, I realized that there may well be limits to how far and how fast we can push ourselves as gamers. As part of my continual effort to engage with classic games of all genres, I picked up a copy of the original Gran Turismo at a flea market. I was immediately impressed with the depth of the customization system, the wealth of authentic cars, and the RPG-like progression that fueled the “simulation mode.” And that’s not mentioning its graphics! It may not look like much these days, but it’s obvious even now that Gran Turismo pushes the PSX hardware pretty heavily.
As I fooled around with it, however, I realized that despite all of its positive features, it just wasn’t getting its hooks in me. I could appreciate it thoroughly as an excellent game, but I wasn’t invested. I spent a lot of time wondering why it was that I could eagerly memorize half of the Final Fantasy Tactics Battle Mechanics Guide but couldn’t be bothered to look up which cars I should put money into in this “driving simulator.” Was it the fact that there was a huge time investment needed, and I am now a busy adult with (ugh) responsibilities? Was it the fact that I was reluctant to dive down a rabbit hole which was fourteen years old?
Or, I thought with dread, was it simply the fact that I was not into racing games?
Now, hold on, I reassured myself. You played Ridge Racer Revolution and Jet Moto when you were a kid. None of your friends will play you in Mario Kart: Double Dash because they think it’s a foregone conclusion. You’ve beaten every Grand Theft Auto– aren’t those sort of racing games?
I wasn’t fooling myself. I knew that just because I liked arcade racers and gangster crime sagas, I didn’t have any real experience with the genre to which Gran Turismo belongs. It bills itself as a “racing simulator,” and though it certainly has an arcade mode, the real meat of the experience is in building a career as a racer, customizing your car, earning licenses, and pimping your ride. The pull of the game is in winning races to earn CarBux to buy sweeter wheels, so you can win more races and earn more CarBux.
And I just wasn’t into it. I doubt that I would be into it if I were to pick up 2 Gran 2 Turismo, or Gran Turismo 5: This Time It’s Personal.
So I’m going to put GT back on the shelf and let it stew for a while. Perhaps it’s simply too far, too fast. Maybe if I were to bridge that gap more gradually, maybe play some Burnout or Need for Speed, I could come to appreciate the greater complexities of the “driving simulator” series. I feel a certain obligation to– as a gamer, as a gaming scholar, as someone who strives to be “well played.” Because I know what wonderful things can come when you step outside your gaming comfort zone–and I hope that as long as I game, I never stop cultivating my tastes.