The year was 1998, or thereabouts. Dates were hazy for me around this time, as I was still struggling to get my head around reading a watch, let alone tracking a calendar. What I knew for sure, though, was that something exciting was happening: my dad was giving me his original Gameboy.
This represented my very first taste of the world of gaming, and it’s a memory I cherish. In the intervening years, video games have gravitated inexorably towards the centre of my life and never left. The Gameboy was an appropriate entry point for me. I had previously watched my dad play games on the PC – Doom and Quake that I remember, undoubtedly others that I don’t – but the Gameboy was the first time I was ever at the controls.
I had Tetris, and one of those X-in-1 cartridges bursting with games you’d play once and forget about. In this case, ‘X’ was 32, and I had more than enough games loaded on there to hold my attention for a long time.
It was a purely joyful, escapist experience, but the more I played it, the less there was to find.
Games were important to me, and they still are. But what I remember about that time as distinct from now is the sheer purity of the joy I gained from this monolithic grey brick of gaming tech. Gaming now is a significantly more complicated affair. No longer can I sit down with a game and switch my brain off for a little while; instead, I think critically about it, try and unpack as much as I can from the experience, compare it with nearly two decades worth of other games that sit in the back of my head like books in a library, each one filled to bursting with its own set of associated memories and emotions.
When I was four, those shelves were bare, and the experience of playing a new game was that much less diluted. I didn’t think in terms of design and theory, and as such, I was able to lose myself in the games loaded onto that cartridge for blissful hours at a time.
Fast forward to 2001. Diablo 2 entered my life: though it had been out a little while, it was only around this time I had the opportunity to play it. I’d played many more games by now, acquired and discarded certain tastes, and played a handful of different consoles – not too long after Diablo, I’d add a Gamecube and a Gameboy Advance to my collection ( a Nintendo-shaped niche began to form).
But I still watched my dad play PC games, when he had the time for it, and I watched him play this one with eager attentiveness. Soon, I became curious enough to play it myself, and that curiosity turned into an obsession before long. I just couldn’t get enough. I hardly understood the maths behind it, but I knew how good it felt raising armies of skeletons, crushing demons beneath relentless mace blows, gathering loot and beating bosses. The heavy clang of Diablo‘s ‘quest complete’ sound will, I think, always have a Pavlovian effect on me.
It was a purely joyful, escapist experience, but the more I played it, the less there was to find. I started to notice the patterns in the random world generation, noticed recurring phrases in the weapon names, beat the bosses and cleared the quests for the fourth, fifth, sixth time around. I wasn’t getting bored, far from it. But the magic, sure enough, was fading.
I had never thought about it too much, assuming it was merely an inevitable part of playing games as a lifestyle choice: novelty, by definition, can’t last forever.
It’s been a long time since I played Diablo 2 with naivety on my side, and though nostalgia compels me to revisit it every now and then, I know each time that I’ll never do so with the genuine thirst for adventure my seven-year-old self-enjoyed so much. In a lot of ways, I think the majority of games I’ve played since have been an exercise in trying to get that thrill back, and many have come close. My numerous tours of Fallout: New Vegas have just about exhausted the desert of all its secrets, and I definitely remember enjoying the raw potential of the Mojave stretched out before me, another dungeon waiting to be crawled.
Elephant in the room: Diablo 3 did little to scratch this itch. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the same. Something had changed along the way, and eleven years was a long time to wait. I don’t think the problem was with the game, though. Diablo 3 may have had its flaws, but it was still very true to the dungeon-crawling spirit of its namesake, and I have no doubt my seven-year-old self, seeing it with no prior experience, would have loved it just as much if not more than that relic he poured so much time into.
Then something happened very recently that shed some light on this. I had never thought about it too much, assuming it was merely an inevitable part of playing games as a lifestyle choice: novelty, by definition, can’t last forever. Quite unrelated to this, I had the opportunity to show someone a game that was very important to me. This was how I saw Skyrim, for the first time in six years, with fresh eyes.
The person in question was my girlfriend, who was aware of games from a strictly external position. I suggested playing it with her and she liked the idea, so we sat down and I gave her the controller, noting immediately that the instinct to hold it with thumbs on buttons did not appear to come naturally.
She laboured over her character with loving attention to detail (a veteran of The Sims, this was an element of the game with which she was familiar) and then the game began properly. Camera control took some getting used to, as did the specific feel for combat and the interface. But this much I expected.
What I didn’t expect, though, was the sheer awe she had for the openness of the game world. Skyrim was to her what no game had been to me for well over a decade. I had learned to see the limits, the walls of the sandbox; she was more than happy to play with the sand itself. Consequently, she became enamoured with it almost immediately.
Every room was a treasure trove. With no pre-existing knowledge of what items were useful, even wooden plates and iron lanterns had potential. One man’s trash, as they say, is another man’s treasure, and any Bethesda fan will tell you that trash is not hard to come by.
During her quest-bound expedition to Bleak Falls Barrow, she turned every corner with apprehension, reeled at the sudden appearance of every Draugr, and jumped back in shock at the Frostbite Spider I knew all too well. However, regardless of the obstacles, she was single-minded in her search for the Dragonstone. Far from the plot device of entirely arbitrary importance I’d always considered it, she believed wholeheartedly in its legendary nature. To me, it was an item that I was told to retrieve – nothing more, nothing less. To her, it was a piece of arcane lore. The difference could not be more vital.
I had learned to see the limits, the walls of the sandbox; she was more than happy to play with the sand itself.
Eventually, she found her way to the burial chamber at the heart of the barrow. When she killed the Draugr guarding her prize and looted the Dragonstone from its body, she cried out in excitement. I hadn’t seen anything like it in a long time – but why not? She had, after all, come a long way for it, fought many battles, and even died a couple of times in the process. The moment was hers, and she was visibly thrilled.
This, in a frozen moment, was the simple joy that gaming offered. I was seeing it before me again, after so long, and I was instantly reminded of what I hadn’t even realised I’d lost. There are advantages to scrutinising games. As players, we owe it to ourselves to take the game apart, to discern its flaws from its qualities, and hope that by doing so we might get a better game next time. It’s a race for perfection, in a sense, and one we might never finish. But as with so many things, it’s the journey that counts.
That was what I had forgotten, and that was what my girlfriend, beaming with pride at her achievement, unknowingly knew. Gaming is a labour of love, but in recent years I’ve felt the slow advent of the labour overtaking the love. I don’t know quite how to use this epiphany now that I’ve had it, but I’m determined to try.
My seven-year-old self knew that games are about the simple pleasure of exploring a world entirely removed from our own, and experiencing it all as if it were real. I’ve become accustomed to thinking of it as simply beating another boss, or handing in a quest, when really the missing ingredient all along was believing that it mattered because, to put it simply, it does.
The way a game makes you feel matters, and the extent to which you believe in that feeling matters too. It could be defeating Duriel in the deepest recesses of Tal Rasha’s tomb, or it could be plundering a draconic tablet from a Nordic burial ground. Hell, it could be coming first on Rainbow Road on Mirror Mode: who says RPGs should get all the fun?
Leaving the tomb, the aurora showed itself on the way back to Whiterun – one of my personal favourite sights in Skyrim, ever since I saw it for the first time in 2011. I saw it with fresh eyes, then. I encourage you to do the same.