Selling Illusion

Saturday, May 07, 2005

[The Greatest…]

At the time of writing there is just over an hour before select gaming shops around Belfast, and I’m sure the rest of the United Kingdom, will open their doors to an expected and expectant flood of gamers, X-Box in origin, all eager to exchange a wad of four ten pound notes for a shiny metal tin with the words ‘Halo 2’ emblazoned across it. It does not take much conjecture as to what will happen next. They will rush home, idly puzzling in their minds what mysterious illness will be on the cards tomorrow morning to make for an extended weekend off work. Once threw the door, lights will be dimmed, electricity will soar as thousands commence the same ritual of turning on televisions and powering up x-boxes, inserting a game disc inside, and with one hand closing the CD drawer the other will be twirling the hi-fi volume to spindle to eleven. They will make themselves comfortable, grip a Controller S in a sweaty mitt, give one last gasp of breath as they await that familiar music to course through their speakers.

What is less certain is what happens next. Reviews have taunted Halo 2 as the greatest game ‘on X-Box’, ‘this year’, ‘of all time’. A Tsunami that has been months in the making, the build up across industry magazines, from the mouths of fans, and the brute force of advertising campaigns that are seemingly endless. It seems if you’re not with the Master Chief this Christmas, you’re losing out, big time. But hype and the onslaught behind it can only go so far. The real test, despite what sales figures may say, is only a short time away. It begins with the press of a ‘START’ button. Ultimately, immersion and playability will be the deciding factor. And that’s the only way it should be. Conclusions and opinions will come, either this weekend, or sometime in the next few weeks. They will come in the shape of gamers. And that’s how it should be. Not marketing campaigns, nor review scores from official publications – simply from the man/woman on the street. The players, the gamers.

Through means devious or otherwise, I’ve been sitting playing a copy of Halo 2 since early this evening. Four hours is not enough time to form any coherent and truthful answer. I have one, certainly. But it is not one that I will express in any shape or form. Because I haven’t earned the right. But what I can tell you for a fact, right now: it will not be the greatest game of all time.

Because there has never been one, and never will be. ‘Greatest Game Ever’ is a fabrication, a myth applied by marketing people in order to sell more units, and a generous exaggeration used by the gaming journalism profession. I can name five games of the top of my head, which have been rated with such an accolade. Do any of these achieve such a lofty ideal? No, they do not. However, they do contain great gaming moments, and as such should be treasured. For while there may never be a game that out shines them all, there can be great gaming experiences. And they, thankfully, are about in abundance. You know the type. The list is endless, the range diverse as they come, as is mine.

It may be the first time you perfected the powerslide in Ridge Racer, listening to the thunder of the techno soundtrack as you drifted round that first right hander, straightening out as you approached the waterfall bridge. Or that first loop de loop with Sonic, or jumping through a liquid painting with Mario on his Nintendo64 debut. Or is could be Castlevania: Symphony of the Night in its entirety. The memories stretch out, back over fifteen years, through four or five generations of gaming machines.

And the trend is continuing. ‘The Greatest Game Ever’ is still a myth, but there are games that push the boundaries of quality to extreme levels, and rise closer to an art form, towering above the heap of mire that some companies are excavating. Prince of Persia, Burnout 3 and Beyond Good and Evil are three that come to mind. All three I have purchased, played, and have taken up permanent position in my mind as some of the all time greats. Lasting impressions that would bare close resemblance to a great novel, or a fantastic film; the feeling that your life has been enriched with being exposed to such delights as these. To what generates such a empathy is hard to construe on the page, it is something that, in my case, would involve a great deal of arm thrashing, sounds that hinted of primeval and heaven like qualities, and a general registering of a cerebral ecstasy that would have any crack addict searching for my secret stash.

It’s a variety of things. The three games I’ve picked up on here are not tied by any similar genre type. A platformer, a racer, and an adventure. But they all have ‘it’. Something fundamental, something ethereal. Maybe it cannot be identified in itself. Maybe the only way to do so is by recognising the traits developed by an individual with its infection. The most useful and recognised example would be the case of Final Fantasy VII.

It’s been some seven years since the fall of Midgar. The gaming community has seen the arrival of four other Final Fantasy games, and an ever increasing variety of role playing games. Yet the fall out of VII can still be felt. A film set some years after the end of the game is soon to be released in theatres around Japan, and on DVD in America and Britain. Two new videogames are to be based around the events unfolded in VII. Statues, comics, posters; all to commemorate a seven year old PlayStation videogame. Now, this could be seen as a marketing ploy by a company seeking to drum up some extra revenue. But such products would not be made if the interest was not there to purchase them. That interest is there, because for many, Final Fantasy VII had ‘it’, and it had ‘it’ in spades. Just ask someone who has played it about the death of Aeris.

To fill in those to whom a collective ‘who?’ has arisen from, Aeris was the central character’s love interest. And who, over the course of some thirty hours gameplay and innumerable conversations, had managed to chip away at Cloud’s stony, defensive exterior. She was a fully realised character, and gamers responded to her straight forward honesty and pure nature. Such was the power of this medium that a fairground ride was given a romantic and sweet edge, and the embarrassment that should have come with being pulled unwilling into performing in an unscripted play was quickly manhandled into open delight. Over the course of the game a genuine sense of care and love had been bestowed on this girl, and a secret promise that no harm would come to her.

And before the player’s very eyes she was murdered in cold blood at the hands of a madman.
The shock of this, the suddenness of this betrayal, the feeling of helplessness had an effect on many that surprised them. This was nothing like the fan boy lusting of Lara Croft, or the affection held for a certain Italian Plumber. Aeris’ death was real. Frighteningly, sickeningly real. A memory that ironically holds the title ‘greatest gaming moment’ for some.

It is that ability to push past the exterior and touch us deep inside that holds the key to the myth, to understanding the true meaning of ‘The Greatest Game Ever’. In fourteen years I’ve seen and played dozens that lay claim to the title. But it is those that I will remember and reminisce over, those that ten years from now will still feel as fresh and clear as the day that I first played them, those will be ‘it’. And that’s the way it should be, and always will be.


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