How Video Games arrived
Some may say a lot of gamers are like me: a varyingly unemployed twenty-five year old who grew up on X-Men cartoons, Super Nintendo video games, and fruit roll-ups. As a generation we saw movies like Clerks and we envied Dante and Randall their lives, so devoid of anything breaking the surface of meaning.
Today, everything has become meaningful. We’ve left the 90′s world of precious boredom and entered into a world where we’re obsessed with ensuring internet freedom, war in countries whose names no one knew in 1998, and health care reform. Instead of having to go out and change the status quo, we’ve been given one that we’re coming to realize is pretty fucked up.
Video games have followed suit. No longer can major releases get away with presenting us with eight bosses a la Mega Man X, telling us to go and conquer. Now we need context. Instead of video game bosses existing as obligation, they exist because Oliver North has spoken them enemy in promotional videos for the game. The jokes we make nowadays playing Mega Man X3—“Look, Blizzard Buffalo’s a sculptor. He’s not a bad dude. Why are we fighting him?”—wouldn’t have happened in the 90′s, when Blizzard Buffalo was a robot master and therefore deserved to die as a test of skill. It was sorely needed: how could you managed to beat the final boss before you beat Blizzard Buffalo? You couldn’t:
you needed to make your own way, first.
It mirrored the narrative of the 1990′s: pay your dues, and you’ll succeed. Working in the mail room at a Fortune 500 company was a legitimate career path: eventually someone would notice your brilliance, promote you, and you’d have three beach houses. False though it may be, that was the narrative. The other narrative was that you could be lazy, like Randall, always saying you were doing something to help yourself, but in the end you’d end up sitting in a stock room playing with chips and salsa. This is what video games said, too: you needed Chill Penguin’s ice shot to advance in Mega Man X, so you murdered him for it. Or you could sit around, dash about the most basic levels like an idiot, never getting anywhere but having fun doing it. Even narrative focused titles had elements like this: in Final Fantasy III you went to Zozo and killed Dadaluma not because he posed any real threat (he didn’t) but because beating the criminal overlord of a slum would prove your worth in the eyes of your party members. You did it because it was what was expected of you.
Now that narrative has changed, for them and for us: they’re back in the mail room, and our path to advancement is working for free for our best years, taking unfathomable amounts of shit, and fighting our way up the ladder, tooth and claw, until we’ve assembled a narrative that resembles the proto-capitalist myth of early overlords like John D. Rockefeller, working torturous hours for little pay. The narrative ends there, though: rather than Rockefeller’s riches we keep the long hours, the minimal pay, and we spend decades paying off loan debt to banks for giving us this opportunity. All the while we concern ourselves with things that don’t relate to the practicalities of economic development: we worry about wars our fathers started, about how they want to destroy the internet, and about what money we can give them after they retire instead of helping ourselves.
In a sense, instead of setting Chill Penguin in our path, modern capitalism’s bosses have placed the final boss in the first room, given us no tools, and said, “Just die a lot of times, you might beat it. You have a Mega Buster!” We nobly attack the world’s problems, the final bosses of life, because there’s no Chill Penguin to help us make our own way.
Our modern video games mirror the modern situation. World of Warcraft is nothing if not the ideal of conservative capitalism, where low levels grind resources that higher levels can afford to buy and refine into more valuable things. You pay your dues, but in the end your reward is running long, grueling raids for extremely low percentage item drops. No one’s happy, but everyone is placated. You pay fifteen dollars a month, and a static expansion fee of fifty dollars every year or so, to maintain this privilege, hoping for an extremely rare drop from an extremely difficult boss to make it all worthwhile.
Say what you will about Mega Man X, but this was a game that let you make your own way. There was always a way to go, a place you could solve. After the briefest tutorial you have eight robot bosses thrust at you, each with challenging enemies gathered in front of them. You have to figure out how to make your way, here, but there always was a way. We follow the crux of Randall’s speech in Clerks—go out and pursue your dreams. Change the status quo. Mega Man X was a video game about changing the status quo.
That’s not how modern games work. We’re thrust into a narrative, given superficial options to change it (will you be a bastard, or will you give money to charity?), and, in the end, we’re allowed to change the narrative by pressing different buttons to get different endings. Or maybe we’re not allowed to change it at all. Maybe we’re forced to wait until someone opens doors for us, wait for our computerized allies to shoot every enemy for us, or wait for a character much more important than we are to finish the plot. Instead of true agency, we’re given the illusion of such. Instead of the freedom to become ourselves, we’re forced to try to define ourselves through outdated modes: through others, or through narratives we have no hand in creating. We’re birthing the self that our forefathers think we should have.
In truth, this is where video games struggle to communicate most with the young: they are an old-fashioned mode of communication. A majority of them tell the stories our parents, and our parents’ parents, want to tell. They’re not stories about pursuing our dreams, but stories about when we’ve already achieved them. We’re never no one, anymore: we’re assassin, we’re dragonborn, we’re Command Shepard’s favorite store on the Citadel. We’re never Mega Man, a cyborg with natural gifts but who has to earn everything for himself.
Video games are stories about when we’ve already arrived.