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Aug 23 / Great Apes

The Joy of Discovery

I’m part of the first generation that really grew up with video games, I think.  I got an NES for Christmas when I was five years old, not too long after I first played Super Mario Bros. at a friend’s birthday party, so video games have been part of my life nearly as far back as my memories go.  I’ve owned something like a dozen consoles and handhelds over the past few decades, not to mention hundreds of games, so it’s easy to say that games have played a fairly central role in my life.

Among the hundreds of games that I’ve played, there are a handful – maybe 10, maybe 15 – that stand out in my mind because of a particular kind of impact they had on me.  These aren’t necessarily my favourite games.  What they are is games that provided me with an experience that felt really new and unique and powerful.  They’re games that have stuck with me primarily because there was an incredible feeling of discovery that went along with playing them, especially the very first time I picked up a controller and spent some time with them.

The first game I can remember giving me that sensation was Super Mario 64.  Before the Nintendo 64 was released, Nintendo set up demo stations in department stores across North America.  One day I was in the local Zellers when I happened across one of these displays.  The whole thing felt bizarre.  The controller had an “analog stick” that was nothing like the cross-shaped directional pad I had grown up using to move characters around on the screen.  There was a button underneath the joystick, which felt strange.  And the controller had three handles, so you couldn’t even access all of the buttons at once; how bizarre!  Even the controller felt like it was setting me up for an alien experience.  But it couldn’t match the strange joy of playing the game.

I think almost anyone who grew up playing video games in the 1980s and early 90s remembers what it was like the first time they played Mario 64.  I’m not sure I can really describe it adequately, because in order to understand how strange and wondrous it seemed, you have to know what it was like for that kind of experience to not exist.  Before Mario 64 nearly all games had 2D graphics and movement, and the shift to a 3D world was remarkable.  Even more amazing, perhaps, is that Nintendo nailed it on the first try.  Mario 64 is a really, really good game, even today.

Playing Mario 64 for the first time was a remarkable experience.  There was nothing that could possibly have prepared me for what it would be like to play.  I’d read articles about it and seen screenshots, but none of that really conveys the huge jump in possibilities that was made possible by the jump from 2D to 3D.  Playing Mario 64 blew me away because it was something completely new and surprising.

Since then there have been a small number of games to have a similar effect.  Most of them are from that mid-to-late 90s era: Wave Race 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, and Final Fantasy 7 all gave me surprising experiences that filled me with wonder because they were so unlike anything I’d played before.

In more recent years there have been a lot fewer games capable of having that effect on me (Metal Gear Solid 4 stands out as one noteworthy exception).  Part of that is age; games like Metal Gear Solid or Wave Race came out when the number of games that I’d played was much smaller, as were my life experiences in general.  But I think another part of it is that games have become very standardised.  In the 80s and, to a lesser degree, the 90s, there weren’t a lot of clearly defined genres or conventions in gaming, so developers were creating games without trying to fit them into rigidly defined boundaries.  Over the past 10-15 years, however, there’s been a real dilution in the variety of games available, at least as far as big budget console games are concerned.  The most obvious example of this is first-person shooters, which all play like other first-person shooters, right down to the controls.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve finally played another game that gave me that feeling – No Man’s Sky.  Booting it up for the first time felt, fittingly, like an alien experience.  I had some idea what the game would entail, of course, since I’d been watching trailers and gameplay videos of it for two years prior to its release.  But I didn’t know what it would feel like to play.  I know what a shooter feels like to play.  I know what a role-playing game feels like to play.  But I didn’t know what No Man’s Sky would feel like to play, what kinds of emotions it would trigger or how my inputs would help create them.

It’s a game that’s filled me with awe on more occasions than possibly anything else I’ve played.  The first time I flew over a procedurally generated planet was awesome.  The first time I broke into the upper reaches of a planet’s atmosphere and saw the whole thing from outer space was awesome.  The first time it really struck me just how unfathomably huge the procedurally generated universe turned out to be was awesome.  The first time I landed on a space station was awesome.  The first time I landed on a moon and gazed up in the sky at the overbearing spectre of the nearby planet was awesome.  And so many other moments that I don’t even want to share because they could spoil the fun of getting to see them for yourself for the first time.

No Man’s Sky isn’t the best game I’ve ever played.  But it is a game that let me feel a kind of wonder that has been increasingly rare as I’ve gotten older, and for the way it has transported me back to a younger self who felt like there was an enormous and scary and wonderful universe out there to discover, I’m incredibly thankful.

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