There’s something I keep thinking about lately. It’s this idea that we only have so much space in our minds for formative gaming experiences and it’s diminishing returns forever after.
I was talking to a guy in a pub about it, who overheard a conversation I was having with someone else and leaped in, delighted to talk to someone, anyone, about games. It was quite endearing. And it was while talking about older games and remakes he said: I don’t think anything will ever be as good as the original Deus Ex.
On the one hand, that’s fair enough – the old Deus Ex was good, and it was a proper moment for games when people realised RPGs and FPSs could work together. It’s not that which bothered me.
What bothered me was the idea that nothing could ever be as good as the original Deus Ex because, blatantly, that’s not true. Put that old Deus Ex next to the new Deus Ex, or next to games like Dishonored and Prey, and I know which ones I’d rather play. And I know that’s not a fair comparison because there’s more than 20 years between them, but I think it’s just as unfair to compete with a formative memory.
You see what I really think he was saying, this man, was no other game could affect him like Deus Ex once did. And that, I understand.
It’s happened to me too. Once upon a time I played Dark Age of Camelot, and it was the first time I’d really been able to give myself properly to an MMO. And I did, completely, and it blew me away. It blew me away because everything I did there was a new experience to me, a fresh imprint on my mind. I was so absorbed that it felt almost real to me, that virtual world – I can still feel emotions in the memories even now. And nothing – not even my experience of World of Warcraft, which was very strong – has been able to match it since.
I don’t think that’s because DAOC was a better game than WOW – I think history speaks for itself here. I think it’s simply because DAOC got there first.
It seems to be the same with anyone I speak to: their strongest gaming memories always tend to be in the past, often far in the past. And all they’ve been doing ever since, really, is chasing experiences like it, maybe in the hope they can have an experience as powerful again. But can they – can we? That’s the question.
What if our brains are like ink stamps and it’s always the first press that will leave the strongest mark, regardless of what we do? Every mark ever after will always be one step further faded.
I wonder whether it’s a psychological quirk of humans that we are powerless to do anything about. And when I hear sayings like “you can only make a first impression once” and “you can only see a magic trick once”, it seems to back it up. The whole idea of ‘formative experiences’ seems to suggest it’s a known, accepted and understood thing, too. And I’m not sure I like it. It makes me wistful to think about, because I start thinking I will never have the opportunity to be completely wowed again.
But, no, I won’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it. And when the enthusiastic man in the pub said he couldn’t remember the last time he was really excited about a game, I felt a shimmer of hope, because I could.
I can remember running home from work to play Mass Effect, a game I’d waited so long for, and I was 25 at the time. I’d never done anything like that before, as a child or an adult. And I’m pretty sure I did the same for Guitar Hero 2. I also remember how head over heels I was about Overwatch, years later, sitting in the dark in the office on my own, way past home time (don’t tell anyone) just so I could play it.
It’s memories like that that pull me back, give me hope, and make me think the best is still to come. Maybe there’s plenty of room in our minds to be wowed yet.