What's the most important element of gaming? It's a question that's been repeatedly asked, and the answers are different depending on who you ask. Is it the compelling story? The challenging gameplay? Perhaps the composition of the game itself; the combination of music, writing, art direction, and graphics. Why do we play games? Up until very recently, I would have said it's all about the fun factor. If a game isn't fun, why the hell would I be wasting my time playing it?
There's a reason no one's made a game about going to the dentist. That is not the face of fun.
But I've had an epiphany, and thinking about it, its a rather simple and obvious one, but one that nevertheless I believe is overlooked (at the very least, I've been overlooking it my entire life). The most important element of gaming has nothing to do with the games themselves, it's the ability to share that experience with others.
I know, I know, I probably sound like a PR guy from Nintendo right now whose only goal in life is to say the phrase 'We're about the experience!' as many times as humanly possible. But bear with me, because I think Nintendo is right about this.
I have realized that I am incredibly lucky to have formed a group of friends that share in my passion of gaming. I met most of these wonderful people during my middle school years. Up until then, my passion for games was mainly shared with my younger cousin. He was the one with the SNES, and I looked forward to holidays and summertime because it meant playing Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country 2, and Primal Rage.
Seriously. Why has no one made another Primal Rage game? DINOSAURS FIGHTING DINOSAURS. COME ON PEOPLE!
As my cousin and I got older we started playing new games on the N64 and Playstation. But thinking back on it now, what really made those early gaming memories in my life special wasn't the fun I had, but sharing that fun with someone else
. The shared excitement in getting to the next world in Super Mario World or Donkey Kong Country 2. The shared laughter at the absurd characters and narrative in Rayman 2 The Great Escape. The shared frustration of taking turns and not being able to beat bosses in any game. The shared awe at the massive worlds and epic stories of the Final Fantasy series. The shared anger at each other for consistently beating the snot out of the other in the original Super Smash Brothers or Mortal Kombat II. The absolute fury encountered when accidentally erasing save files in Quest 64 (it happened an abnormal amount of times).
Someone needs to make another Quest. Game was DOPE!
These are the reasons I can still remember those faraway memories. And it's the same reason my cousin and I can watch each other play Demon's Souls for hours on end, even if only one of us is playing. That shared experience is what makes games so special.
But back to middle school, I found myself in a new environment, where suddenly being a nerdy gamer was a potential risk. This was the age when kids started getting mean; bullies, cliques, parties (of the underage drinking kind), this is when it all started. But somehow, I inexplicably found myself invited to my first LAN party. Halo was the newest thing on the market, and the XBOX was quickly becoming the console of choice. Of course, when I say all of this, I am speaking of my own generation, and my own observations. Sure, plenty of older gamers had been having PC LAN parties with games like StarCraft and CounterStrike for quite awhile. Or they were playing early MMOs like Everquest. But kids my age weren't quite tech savvy enough for that. We thought the XBOX was cool 'cause it was green and had a giant X on it. That was enough for us.
The XBOX made it easy to LAN. All we did was set a bunch of TVs down on a living room floor, hooked up the XBOX's, and played Halo until we could barely keep our eyes open anymore. Love it or hate it, there's a reason Halo became as popular as it did; if you grew up with it, it changed the way you played games with other people. I was no longer regulated to only sharing my passion with my cousin during the holidays or summertime. Now I was laughing and yelling and playing games with 15 other people every other weekend. The friends I made on that first night of Halo bliss I am happy to say are still my friends to this very day. But Halo wasn't the only game we played. PowerStone, Worms Armageddon, Super Smash Brothers Melee, Dragon Ball Z, and Splinter Cell were all on the list.
Bloodgulch. Capture the Flag. Classic.
But then things started to change...
The next generation of consoles came, and with it came a greater capacity for online play. LANs were old fashioned, who wanted to lug around consoles, TVs, and PCs anymore? The only game that my friends and I continued to play together, hours on end, was Super Smash Brothers Brawl. We've pumped hundreds, more likely thousands of hours into that game. We imposed our own game rules. Sometimes we'd play tournament style- no items, 3 stock, Final Destination. Other times it was 99 stock, all items, random stage. We would choose random characters, and then choose teams based on completely arbitrary rules. So if we ended up with Link, Ike, Kirby, and Ness, it would be promptly decided that Link and Ike would be on a team solely because they had swords. Bounty Hunters versus Pokemon, hats versus no hats, etc. etc.
As time went on though, there was less and less of this. More important was Halo 3, Modern Warfare, and World of Warcraft. And even MORE important were the records and statistics in these games. How quickly could you become a General in Halo Matchmaking or Prestige in Call of Duty? Sure we still played together, we still had a good time, but more and more often it was over the internet, and not over the couch. We couldn't push and shove each other if we killed the other. Or sneakingly unplug another player on a kill streak. And of course, if you're playing online with a friend, the moment you stop playing is the moment that person is no longer there. What made those early days so fun was that when we did
finally get tired of endless Deathmatches, we were still together. We could order a pizza, play a boardgame, build walls made of soda cans, hell just go outside and run around in the street at 3 a.m. in the morning.
This was the afterparty. Jealous?
Of course, there are other reasons that complicate matters. People get older and people get jobs. It becomes much more difficult to get together and play a game until 3 in the morning if you have to be at work at 8 a.m. Nevertheless, it's a time that I yearn for.
And now we've reached present day, when I had my epiphany just a few days ago. When all of these realizations hit me. It's become much more difficult for my friends and I to all get together for a quality game session. We've become content with matches of Call of Duty Black Ops over Xbox Live. Or if we've gathered to have a few drinks (which has come to replace our gathering for games) we might have a few matches of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 before turning it off in order to play Beer Pong (frankly I'd rather be playing MvC3).
But as I sat with 2 of my best friends the other day on a lovely Saturday evening, we popped in Super Smash Brothers Brawl for old time's sake and played a few rounds. And it was glorious. We hadn't touched the game in a year and a half. And it had been a year and a half since I'd had that much fun. But it wasn't just because the game was fun, it's because I was laughing and yelling with these guys again. The shared frustration when another player gets the Final Smash 4 bloody times, the erupting laughter when after desperately fighting over a pokeball a goldeen flops out, the furious rage when THAT MOTHERF*@% FISH EATS YOU!!!!
It never gets old. And until a new Super Smash Brothers comes out, we'll keep playing Brawl.
And you know, the real epiphany actually happened afterwards as we chowed down on a freshly ordered cheese pizza. We started talking about some of the recent reveals of E3, and our discussion found its way towards Zelda. One of my friends, per an earlier suggestion of mine, had download Link's Awakening on the 3DS eShop. He had never played it. Which led to much criticizing. Which led to my confession of never beating Ocarina of Time (my darkest crime against the gaming world). Which led to my other friend's confession of never having played Twilight Princess. So there we were, the three of us, criticizing, arguing over the best Zelda *cough Majora's Mask cough*, sharing our excitement for Skyward Sword.
In the grand scheme of things this little conversation hardly even qualifies as a footnote in my life, but it reminded me of why I love gaming. It's not the story or the music or the fun, it's the people. The people that I get to share my gaming experience with. Be it the joy of multiplayer or the passionate debate over single player experiences, the fact that I could just talk to these guys about games was incredibly satisfying. I'd like to leave you with a challenge. My newly recognized philosophy of gaming- Find someone to share your gaming experiences with. As fantastic as this community at Destructoid is, where we do a great deal of sharing in the excitement and woes of the games we love to play, there's no substitute for a fleshy meatbag friend that you can share some quality gaming with. We play games because we love it, and it's an amazing feeling when you can share that experience with equally passionate people.