23 They’re Just Videogames, Right?

or, “Memoirs of an old man trapped in a thirty year old body with the muscles of a fifteen year old girl”

This blog began one year ago. All because I love videogames – but, they’re just games.

Right?

I’ve always chased dreams. While in my teenage years I watched as friends chased girls, fast cars or rock bands that could be the spokespeople of their alientation, I was chasing fantasies promised in cartridges, CDs, instruction manuals. I could live with that, even with the reputation of being “that guy that won’t shut up about games”. One day I managed to talk about Bushido Blade for ten straight minutes with friends of mine just to draw a comparison between the sound one of them made while he choked on some coffee and the wet rattle a character in LightWeight’s title did whenever they were fatally pierced with a sword. The silence that came after the monologue was terrifying, even more so when one of them asked “all that just so you could compare the sound?!”. They endured a lot of my obsessions, but that didn’t stop them from being my friends. Or as friendly as they could be, at least.

Eleven years later and I’m rediscovering some of them on social networks. One of them, who looks like Alan Moore but paints more like Keith Haring, confessed to having played and enjoyed Return to Castle Wolfenstein. One other friend, a woman-child for whom I was terribly infatuated with for six long years, seems to be quite addicted to The Sims and social games. Rediscovering another, who went on to make wanderlust a way of life, left me heartbroken. Time had managed to steal half his heart and half his leg: in the first case, figuratively; in the second, not as much. He was one of the rare few people with whom I shared my passion for videogames and someone who, I discovered later, would go on to play EVE Online for years, ingraining himself into that virtual space, manipulating markets, making and unmaking corporations, commanding fleets and the respect of other players.

He, like the others, didn’t always took kindly to my videogame rants. But he, like the others, also didn’t resist their allure. Did I influence anything? Was it simple curiosity, an impulse, an obsession? Did they see videogames as more than headshots, more than suburban laboratories, more than persistent competitions?

Did they see nothing more than that?

If I had been asked these questions in 1997, I probably wouldn’t think about them.

All because another friend of mine introduced me to the PlayStation. A videogamer almost since birth, he’s resisted the best he can to daily updates on how many cows we have on virtual farms so he’s not keen on social networks, but nonetheless reestablished contact after some years of absence. Our relationship was a strong one, and above all built and nurtured by videogames and our opinions about them. Diverging opinions, even: I could never see the “poetry in movement” he so often claimed to exist in Shenmue in the same way I could never explain to him the “magic” in Planescape: Torment. But when we came to own a PlayStation, we also found ourselves in the unique position to modify the console and get our hands on japanes titles before the rest of the world. One such game was Bushido Blade. Another was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. With no internet access but fully exploiting our telephone lines, we’d spend hours trading advices, hints, tricks. He would explore every nook and cranny in Dracula’s castle while I would embark on the mammoth task of writing down and compiling the names of every piece of equipment, so I could then compare with any I found previously. Of course, circumventing regional blocking is not the same as going around the language barrier and these lists saw me transcribring japanese characters with no clue as to what they meant. Looking for patterns where there were none. Eventually the reward was to open the way to the central portion of the castle, only to then spend hours mixing and matching pieces of equipment to defeat an enemy in a very specific way, only to then be presented with… An inverted version of the original castle.

Jeebus.

Years later, that friend went away and left a huge void in my life. Around this time I dive headlong into the videogame world: I’m discovering emulation, games that had passed me by, internet forum drama and the vicissitudes of assembling my own PC (like spending two months’ salary in my first ever graphics card, a Voodoo 3D FX, only to take little more than two hours finishing the game I had purchased it for – Kingpin: Life of Crime). Then it’s all a sequence of fleeting moments like sliding down icy levels on Super Mario 64, discussing what is a role-playing game on the GameFAQs forums and finding out that unlike what the Dungeon and Dragons ruleset claimed some trolls aren’t killed with fire, travelling across System Shock 2‘s corridors, fearing and respecting the darkness in X-Com: Terror from the Deep, and letting Thief 2: The Metal Age, Deus Ex, Fallout and Quake 3 – along with so many others – open my eyes to things I never thought possible. Without warning, and without neglecting simpler pleasures like OutRun and Space Invaders, videogames gain another meaning. I find myself researching games in search of common threads, themes and inspirations in sequels, prequels, spin-offs, spiritual successors of spiritual successors…

And to make up for his absence, I think about something that tricks me into believing he’s still around. I start reading portuguese videogame magazines, namely MegaScore, which he diligently read. As a sort of homage to our friendship I start buying it and reading it and getting involved with its community. On a certain day I find myself in a not very pleasant exchange of blows with one of its journalists who, upon reading my comment on how Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was very cliched, thought I was knocking the game. For several pages the argument that pointing out cliches in a story is not the same as attacking it falls on deaf ears, and what was once a pleasant discussion withers beyond repair. Eventually we let it go but I register his name for future reference. And three months after I start following the magazine, it comes to an end. To the editorial staff it’s a decade of work torn apart; to me it’s seeing the attempt to honor a distant friend ruined and dragged through the mud. Like being late at a family member’s funeral and all you have is a plastic flower bouquet to show and some platitudes on a card to say. And then you read the card and notice it says “get well soon!” and then there’s no point carrying on.

To my surprise, some time later I get invited by the same editorial staff to voice my opinion about a new project. Along with other readers – who would later become friends and part of the group which co-created the No Continues community with me – there I was being shown the seeds of a new magazine. Some months afterwards, Hype! begins its print run. It had Kotaku staff writing for it. It had some of the finest portuguese journalists in the field writing for it. It had a monthly opinion piece by Kieron Gillen. It only lasted ten issues, thanks to mismanagement outside of the editorial team’s control. Around then I decided not to associate myself with similar projects, lest I had an inverse Midas touch. But No Continues was gaining full steam and I was broadening my videogame writing portfolio, even if I never felt my writing to be particularly interesting. On the other side of the fence my family still looked at it all as something useless but also a necessary evil, like making stupid faces and sounds to distract babies.

But things can change, of course. Just not always for the better.

When me and my girlfriend broke up, it wasn’t easy. I spent days and nights lying in my bed as if I was part of a videogame where the winning condition was to use a porcelain mask. I smiled and was warm to the touch but everything else slipped into another sequence of fleeting moments: videogames, insomnia, cigarettes, something to remember and then to forget. During this period I meet someone else. A woman, in the true sense of the word, who would not make sense to many male gamers around the world, too busy with their jokes and stereotypes about female gamers. She arrives unexpectedly and I let myself go too fast, and everything’s strange and new all at once. One morning we wake up together and talk about common interests. About ourselves, but not much. About the place where we woke up. About videogames.

About videogames. As if it were the most wonderful and natural thing in this goddamn world. I exhale. I feel free. I remember how much I love videogames. How much I’ve had to hide that love from so many people. But they were just games, right?

Some days later I’m telling her about Gunstar Heroes. To the neophytes, I’m telling her about one of the finest shooters ever created. I’m telling her about a game whose main attraction – more than its weapon combination system and the ability to block incoming bullets with bare hands, more than pulling off wresting moves and aerial kicks – is to let us grab soldiers, grenades and vehicles and throw all that back against almost everything that moves on the screen. I’m telling her of a game where it’s possible for two people to play co-op and throw each other against almost everything that moves on the screen. A game where one level is a tabletop game, where one level is a close quartes fight against a monster made out of curry, where one level is seen through a giant screen from which the game’s villains follow the main characters’ progress. It’s a game where everything stops to tells us the names and abilities of gigantic creatures. A game where a soldier is fired for incompetence by his superior because his only ability is a love dance. A game where we face Seven Force, a multi-tiered chrome nightmare that takes up entire portions of the screen and which we fight against during a high-speed chase inside an abandoned mine while driving a mine cart that lets you flip between the ground and the ceiling; expert use of the cart lets you sustain yourself indefinitely in mid-air, quickly tapping the Jump button to switch between the gravity pulls.

A game that was an obsession of mine for quite a while, though you may assume from the previous paragraph I still haven’t gotten over it. That’s not true (spoiler: that might be a lie). An obsession which utterly dethroned the Contra series, with the possible exception of Contra: Hard Corps, and one which made me look at the shooter genre in an entirely different way. Years later I’m telling her about this amazing, insane game. I bring a smile to her face.

The days we spend together are like spending an entire life being whispered promises of great things to come, until the day they finally come true. Until the day they stop being great. After all, things change.

It’s possible that at some point in your lives you will look at a game and find something different in it. A theme, a song, a sequence or something in the very play mechanics that will clearly let you know there’s something special there. It could be a spirit that, in the name of love, chained itself to a morgue and tells you it will wait for you in death’s halls, and suddenly you’re punctured by a tremendous shiver. It could be the simple act of leaping across rooftops and hearing a casual conversation between guards, and a pre-recorded audio file is all you need to believe you’re in a genuinely living world. It could be that you’re driving around a virtual city and the same split-second a tank fires in your direction and you swerve unscathed out of its way is the same split-second a pop song on the car’s radio reaches its emotional chorus. It could be the moment your father repeatedly beats you in a racing game but you feel a perverse sense of satisfaction because the game erases every victory once you turn off the console. It could be the moment you’re running scared along the hallways of a space station and an artificial intelligence is defying your manhood, and suddenly the word “corridor” turns into a thing of sexual tension.

It could be that a woman you could’ve been happy with treats you like the residents of Fable: rubbing in your face a totally inconsequent decision or curse you for things you never did. In the end, it was over in the same way that Molyneux’s game was: in the end, nothing you say or do matters. And in the end, that’s all that mattered.

Many months later, I’m back with my first girlfriend. If you’ve never reunited with someone after you broke up in terrible circumstances, well… There’s not a whole lot to say. Both talk of horrible things. Then there’s silence. Then you make a strange kind of love and fall asleep, just to wake up and trace this new old body in front of you, registering every subtle change. You sleep some more, dream a red and black mess of childhood mixed with your recent past, then wake and get up in an orderly manner. Like nothing changed. Then comes rebuilding. Some days you’ll argue, other days you’ll hate each other, and others you feel it’s going to be alright. You learn to cope, of course, and accept there’s a chance that it may happen all over again. You may be lucky, as I was, to reach some level of happiness with your girlfriend that had been impossible up until then, and even appreciate the fact that now she’s the one saying she’ll go to bed just as soon as she finishes another Audiosurf session. But one day you’ll stop feeling fear breathing down your neck and get on with your life.

Which was what I did with mine during 2007, 2008… and one morning in January 2009, I get a strange email. One of the journalists involved with the magazines I followed says he likes my articles at No Continues and asks me if I’m interested in being a part of a new project. I accept meeting with him to discuss it further but the feeling of vindication about my passion and commitment to videogames is tempered by the simple fact this was the journalist who argued with me about Knights of the Old Republic. “You’re not taking me alive, bastard”.

Their office was a small, naked thing. Hunched over a makeshift table and with sunglight coming in through the blinders, he asks me what I have done in life. It’s a short answer. We talked about the project’s goals, traded amusing stories about videogames and before I realized, we were talking about morality in role-playing games and how Knights of the Old Republic was likely his favorite RPG ever. What do you say to that? It occured to me that if we had traded places in the past, and if someone were to talk about a game like Another World rather than KotOR, my reaction would probably be the same. Even if he had assumed something wrong out of what I said back then, how could I hate the guy? Going ballistic about videogames once in a while is almost a pre-requisite to liking them. Of course I accepted the offer.

This blog began one year ago. One year ago, I also started writing for Smash! magazine.

During this time videogames opened my eyes again. On one hand I’ve had a privileged viewpoint about how a magazine works backstage and the honor of working with some of th best journos (or those on their way to become the best) in the field. On the other I’ve lived moments I never imagined. Like convincing Mário Valente to play “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”, in The Ronettes’ version, as a dedication to my girlfriend. Like dancing to the sound of Clash’s “Police On My Back” with fellow magazine colleagues. Like seeing Nelson Calvinho – former MegaScore, former Hype!, now Public Relations Officer at Nintendo Ibérica – DJing, then folding his turntables into a sleek silver suitcase and leaving the Lounge bar at 3 a.m., going towards the Lisbon night and the city streets, as if the city needed healing and the cure was inside that suitcase.

All of that in a single night.

It’s quite likely that along the way some god will find me to be exceedingly lucky and will exert divine punishment, and everything will go away without warning. Hey, it’s happened before. It can happen again. Everything can go away in a second. And when that day comes I’ll be laughing and dancing under the fire and brimstone.

And until then the questions remain. Who knows if my friends weren’t influenced about by videogame rants? Who knows if the woman-child I was painfully infatuated wasn’t, much like Symphony of the Night, proof that devotion without context is useless? Who knows if my friend’s absence and my way of paying tribute to him weren’t responsible for where I am today? Who knows is Fable wasn’t some accidental homage to my failed relationships? Who knows if videogames can’t be more than headshots, suburban laboratories or persistent competitions?

Is it even important to have an answer?

Videogames can be intimate relationships, memory chunks, guilty pleasures, something that takes us to unexpected places or a simple cure for boredom; but above all, they are games. Games we love, games in which we believe in, games we repeat and relive until they become ours. There are some in this industry who dedicate themselves to expect more out of videogames, trying to subjugate them to things they should not be. Videogames were always capable of expressing ideas and rouse emotions, even when the best we could do was associate them to images (“video”) while we forget what distinguishes them from the rest (“game”). These people are embarassed about videogames in a way that, fortunately, I will never be embarassed again. And for that, I can only thank every person who opened my eyes – both the ones who went away and those that stayed.

Much like them, I also love videogames – but, they’re just games.

And isn’t that why we love them?

23 Responses to They’re Just Videogames, Right?

  1. Hi daf, thanks for visiting! Good to know you enjoyed it :)

  2. daf says:

    That was lovely to read, brought allot of good memories :)

  3. Thanks Stacey, that means a lot to me :D

    I’ll try my best to keep writing :)

  4. Malibu Stacey says:

    Catching up on the RPS Sunday Papers during lunch time at work.
    Have tears in my eyes now after reading that & hoping no one notices.

    Never stop writing. Things like that are why the internet was invented.

  5. My sincere thanks, Asgeir, glad you liked it :)

  6. My thanks to you as well, hydra9 :)

  7. Asgeir says:

    I am speechless……..beautiful writing……

  8. hydra9 says:

    This is absolutely lovely. Great writing – Very passionate and evocative. Many thanks!

  9. Thank you for reading it, Greg :)

  10. Greg Giddens says:

    Wonderful article. It triggers good and bad memories from my own gaming past, memories well worth revisting.

  11. @ThePope:

    True. At some point in your life, you just feel like sharing what videogames mean to you with someone that also means the world to you. It’s not always easy, but life as this strange way of validating your love for videogames – and one day, one time, when you least expect it, it becomes possible. Maybe it doesn’t last long but while it does, it’s an incredible feeling :)

  12. Thanks for dropping by and for your comment as well, Matt :)

    As for your question, I’m still with my ex – the first girlfriend I mentioned, whom I broke up with then reunited at a later time. I have not seen the other one since.

  13. Thank you, fistfull :)

  14. Lewis, thank you *very much* for your visit and your comment :)

    I wasn’t expecting the reception it’s gotten and it’s been not unlike RPS’s “Gaming Made Me” panel – lots of people coming together to share their videogame experiences and how gaming has influenced their lives. In other words, it’s been fantastic, and I have you and many others to be thankful for it :)

    Best regards!

  15. ThePope says:

    I know just how you felt as a child (as I’m sure all gamers do to some extent.) I used to hope too hard that I’d find girl who liked Lucasarts games. Probably because they helped define my existence.

  16. Matt says:

    Fantastic article, really enjoyed reading it, out of interest are you still together with your ex? (apologies for the personal question).

  17. fistfull says:

    fucking brillaint

  18. lewisdenby says:

    Just spotted this via RPS, Diogo – one of the most magical pieces of writing-about-games I’ve read so far this year.

  19. Pingback: The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun

  20. You’re welcome Chris, but I also have you and many others to thank ;)

  21. Thanks for dropping by, Rich, I really appreciate it :D

    And I’m glad you enjoyed it :) Probably the hardest thing I’ve written. I tend to look at videogames very personally, but this one was a bit different – I wouldn’t even let myself publish it if I hadn’t shown it to some friends previously, to let them know this one was straight from the heart and about them as well.

  22. Chris Lepine says:

    All I can say is: thank you.

  23. richmcc says:

    Just quickly to say – this is fantastic, /fantastic/ writing.