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Love and hate. A pair of strikingly simple, straightforward words and concepts, among the very first that every child learns. Neither individual lives nor collective history have ever come to pass independent of their influence; because someone somewhere loves or hates, wars decimate populations, inventions upend economies, philosophies alter thinking, art redefines culture, Civilization As We Know It rises and falls. Base they may be, but these incorrigible twins are the driving forces behind every one of our thoughts, words, and deeds, great and small - put enough power behind love, and there’s no limit to how exalted something can become. Give similar weight to hate, and anything can be undone in an instant.
Fortunately for the Destructoid community and others, love and hate tend to take on a relatively unimportant context when it comes to leisure activities, videogames included – you might say that they’ve been reduced to the simple, disposable DO WANT and DO NOT WANT meme. This is because, at least within the realm of entertainment, love and hate exist merely as the luxury of a choice to be made – you’re free to play what you like, avoid what you don’t, and nobody can really force you to do otherwise. This state of affairs is, on one level, what makes this month’s Musings so interesting to read; even as legions of established “masterpieces” clamor for our attention, for some reason we still enjoy diving deep into titles, genres, and characteristics that, in some fashion or other, outright repulse us.
It’s illogical on its face, but fascinating to watch, let alone participate in – while in “real life” most of us will, out of necessity and/or practicality, seek out endeavors with the most upsides and fewest disadvantages for ourselves, when freed from the looming specter of “real” consequences we’re completely different animals. Many of us are suddenly willing – nay, eager - to belly-flop into some remote, reeking mud pit we’d never so much as approach otherwise, if only to know what swimming around in all that awful muck feels like, so we can chat with our friends (or, in this case, blog) about it later. Sharing these bittersweet experiences with each other, right on down to the icky details that make one’s audience giggle and shudder, is a fascinating, if rather puzzling, part of what makes us both gamers and human beings.
Lest we forget, however, as soon as we pass beyond the boundaries of idle pastimes, love and hate are no longer doting pets kept for occasional amusement, but untamed, ravenous, baying monstrosities that overpower far more often than they are overpowered. Every last one of us has done things in a moment’s passion that we live to bitterly regret – every time we’re forced to ask ourselves “What was I thinking?”, it’s nothing less than a covert assault on our taken-for-granted ability to guide ourselves as we see fit, our very sense of being, of purpose. This is part of why we find entertainment enjoyable, comforting – unlike real life, poor choices can be effortlessly discarded and forgotten, with few lasting “penalties” attached, and we’re ever free to continue our eternal search for the perfect movie, song, or game.
For some of us, though, the wall between Love/Hate and DO/DO NOT WANT – between our “gamer” and “real-life” selves, as well as the lasting implications of each - is rife with chips, cracks, and missing pieces. Its basic structural integrity is sound, but if your eye wanders to one of the larger gaps a beast can always be seen leering back – it never roars, never pounces, only observes. Somewhere within yourself, you already know why – despite the safety and sense of purpose that the barrier around you offers, the fact that you built it with your own two hands, something about its confines doesn’t satisfy you. At times, in fact, the mere sight of it repulses you, and the wrenching in your gut only gets worse with each passing day. Beyond the gates, they can feel it too - as soon as you find a gap wide enough to squeeze through, you won’t be able to resist the opportunity. You’ll be ravaged the second you leave, but for some reason you can’t bring yourself to care. They’re expecting you.
However much you may spurn excessive “labeling” of this sort, I do not hesitate to dub myself an “unusual” sort of gamer - “niche”, “offbeat”, “oddball”, “eclectic”, call it what you will, but suffice it to say that I don’t play very much of what the majority plays. Moreover, if you’ve read this blog before, you know that I revel in this distinction – I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. This identity, this wall around me, however, remains maddeningly porous - even as I continue to seek out some of the most “individual” and “unique” experiences in gaming for myself, I feel the gaze of the creatures outside beaming through, silently calling into question just how much notoriety, how much of a “personality” to call my own, I’ve really earned. How much that wobbly structure really means to anyone, including me.
Oddly enough, when it comes to other “inborn” aspects of myself - appearance, mental faculties, and so on – I’m not predisposed to wonder “what might have been”, and prefer to just do the best I can with the permanent hand I’ve been dealt. Gaming, however, is different – as much as I unabashedly love the stuff I play and as confidently as I can defend my preferences, I still can’t stop constantly, quietly, second-guessing myself. As I slide open the closet door and scan my collection, every fond memory a particular title evokes is matched by a stab of doubt at the decision I made to put it there. The fact that everything I love about videogames can be so easily called into question, however, is not what really gets to me – it’s the attached insinuation that even within my little artificial world I’m not fully in control. If I were, why would I ever feel this way, let alone all the time?
A love/hate relationship with individual games, or genres, or even gaming as a whole is normal, understandable. Being torn in how you feel about yourself as a unique gamer - wanting, sometimes, to tear asunder the very persona you’ve built to surround and define yourself - is a whole new ball of wax.
I couldn’t tell you how many people who are into “unusual” videogames are relatively innocuous “normal” people otherwise, but I’d venture to guess that there aren’t very many – myself, I was always “the weird kid” from the very beginning. Not “the freak” who pulled all sorts of crazy, borderline insane stuff and constantly got into high-profile trouble (for some reason HE was pretty popular), but the one who, without realizing or meaning it, somehow carried himself in a fashion that just didn’t gel well with most, and was never quite sure how to react to all the rejection. It wasn’t long before I was banished to a small coven of fellow oddballs, and my favorite videogames soon began to follow suit – I was comfortable with each, I think, because neither was afraid to be different or strange, at least as long as nobody popular was watching. Years later, even among those same friends (some of whom have found acceptance outside the group, others of whom remain here with me), I still enjoy meeting their “high-tier” or “stylish” Marvel vs. Capcom 2 teams head-on with Amingo, SonSon, Shuma-Gorath, Servbot, Dan, and any other “WTF” character I feel like whipping out. Even if I’m doomed to get my butt whooped, just being able to transform Juggernaut into a giant strawberry and share in a room-wide belly laugh before getting my due comeuppance makes it all worth it.
Now as then, however, even as I relish my “outsider” status, something is amiss – just as I’d momentarily glance away from my table’s lunchtime role-playing sessions to the hated jocks’ table, unable to ignore their uninterrupted, blissful guffawing (or the fact that the school dress code apparently allowed several cheerleaders to be draped over oneself and worn as “ornamental sashes”), I can’t help but hear the sound of all the Madden and Halo players high-fiving each other, and wonder what I’m missing. Of course, the situation isn’t exactly the same (I’ve never been stuffed into a locker by a Modern Warfare maven, at least not yet), but the basic similarity remains – while most “mainstream” players are content to stick with what they know they like, and could care less if a thousand “hidden gems” pass beneath their radar, even as I scour shelves and auctions for some old Saturn title I find myself tempted to snag a cheap copy of Grand Theft Auto, y’know, just to see what all the fuss is about (a decade late). What’s more, the setting, themes, and structure of the latter don’t innately appeal to me in any way whatsoever, but am I just supposed to trust my gut implicitly? Plenty of other players would be content to shrug and say “sure, you bet, I’ve got enough stuff to play as it is” – for some reason, despite all my bluster over being “the outsider” of the community, I can never quite put my foot down and say, with gusto, “I know what I like”. I WANT to in the worst way, but I CAN’T – and the wall around me crumbles just a little bit more.
Of course, once I do manage to unearth a so-called “hidden gem”, a lot of that self-questioning goes swiftly out the window – as nice as it is to take home a game you knew would be great and enjoy it, nothing compares to gambling with a few bucks on a title you “have a hunch about”, and feeling your bet paying off in spades right through the controller buttons. Naturally, the only feeling superior to discovering a diamond in the rough yourself is sharing it with others, and watching their eyes widen as they realize just how monumental a find you’ve made: “Who’s the developer?” “Where can I get this?” “Do you know any other stuff like it?” “How can I find out more?” The questions come fast and furious – the same ones you wanted to ask somebody when you first played the game, but ended up “pioneering” all by yourself, which only makes you prouder. Before you answer, you stand there with a proud (and somewhat goofy, but you don’t care) grin across your face for just a moment, basking in the minor miracle playing out before you…
…of course, this is assuming that you can convince anyone else to step outside their comfort zone in the first place. Let me tell you, it’s not a pleasant occasion when you come to realize that everyone else’s “walls” are a lot thicker and less porous than yours, and that they feel a lot safer and more satisfied behind them than you ever could. Sometimes it seems that the more excited you get about your latest find, the more determined friends and acquaintances are to play Lucy to your Charlie Brown and yank the football away at the last possible second. I’d much rather have someone try one of my favorites out and tell me to my face “I really don’t think it’s that great” than assure me “yeah, I’ll give you a call Saturday before I head over to your place” and never call – as I’ve stated before, open disagreement or even disdain isn’t half as effective a deterrent or depressive than silent, crushing indifference. Whether the “game night” you spent weeks planning falls apart, piece by piece, mere hours before people said they’d be arriving (again) or the heavily-researched article you wrote struggles to attract enough readers to count on one hand, it can make you wonder why you even bother – after all, there’s no shortage of action over at the jocks’ table, or atop the latest meme-go-round. Yeah, my walls still stand, but the only thing they’re protecting is a pitifully barren wasteland – try as I might to retain some shred of pride in my domain, my eyes once again wander to one of the cracks. I’m still being watched intently from the outside, of course…chills down my spine notwithstanding, in a way I’m glad to see that at least someone cares.
The beast’s gaze reaches me even when I’m purposely gaming alone, without any regard or desire for the company or acceptance of others…heck, it’s even there before I actually have a game to play. As nice as it is never having to wait for hours in the cold to ensure that I can take home something I want (I frequently joke with local Gamestop employees, asking when the “midnight launch” will be for a game I’ve ordered – that line always gets a laugh), it’s just as much of a pain being told “we’re not getting any copies of that one” at ten different store chains…let alone paying through the nose to have an import shipped halfway around the world (especially if you want it there quickly enough that you don’t have to worry about it getting lost). On that note, if you’re short on cash and are considering skipping one or two no-name releases “for now”, forget it – hold out today and you’ll never see the bugger again (and if by some chance you do, it’ll cost twice as much on the secondhand market). Moreover, if you don’t support the game’s niche developer from the get-go you might never see THEM again – there’s not a Jewish mother on Earth who can inflict as much guilt as a devoted offbeat gamer does on himself (nothing’s worse than a tearful phone message from Atlus lamenting how you never call anymore).
Of course, once the item actually arrives, you’ve still got Phase 2 to contend with before you can begin enjoying it – if the instructions are unclear (or not included), you’d better hope that some unseen saint has posted a few tips on a message board someplace (not like anyone stuck in Final Fantasy ever has to worry). Heaven help you if you go looking for a full-fledged FAQ or guide – if it even exists, good luck sniffing it out amidst all the empty placeholder Gamespot and IGN listings. The above goes double (actually, make it triple) if your acquisition is Japanese, and octuple or so if you’ve dared to bring home a non-domestic RPG – hope you have enough paper to print out that error-riddled fan script. Believe me when I say that one’s personal gaming wasteland looks even emptier when you’re digging there for water without a map - every time you lay eyes upon your wall it looks more and more like a prison boundary.
Still, once you’re finally past all the barriers between you and the unknown title you’ve been dying to try, one can finally relish the wonderful freedom inherent to niche gaming – if there’s one bright spot in not having any friends with similar interests to yours, it’s that there’s no need for further “urgency” once an item is safely on your shelf. Weirdos are not bound by “social schedules” – we play our stuff whenever we darn well feel like it, even if it’s been decades since anyone else so much as devoted a fleeting thought to the thing. Mainstream gamers, especially social ones, need to constantly keep up with the trends: once the general public has moved on from a blockbuster FPS or MMO to its sequel, most of the time the former becomes essentially worthless, and if you didn’t play it back when it was “hot” then that’s too bad for you (and unlike a “niche” title, there’s no way it’s held onto even a fraction of its initial value by the time you sell it).
Of course, even if you manage to wander into the scene halfway through, by this point everyone else has been fine-tuning their skills and grinding levels for weeks or months, so you’d better be prepared to serve as someone else’s cannon fodder for awhile. Actually, on that point, it must be admitted that even we oddballs sometimes find it hard to break into even the humblest of communities – while most like-minded gamers are welcoming and friendly, if you’re just starting out on a particular shmup (or, even worse, a fighter), there’s always that one guy who’s got some tourney experience under his belt and won’t let you forget it. No matter what you do, he will never fail to remind you how much you suck, repeatedly “suggesting”, after every subpar score submission or brutal virtual beatdown, that you give up on playing “real” games and “go back to Mario Party”. I’ve spent years seeking out other gamers like me to share these wonderful, unusual experiences with, and THIS is what I find?
By this point, one foot is already on the far side of the wall.
This month’s theme, as you’ve hopefully surmised, was not a pleasant one for me – despite my frequently pessimistic tone herein I’d much rather spend time discussing the “good” parts of videogames, obscure and otherwise. As I stated earlier, at its best gaming is a full-fledged, multi-layered endeavor, comprising “love and hate” but without most of the long-standing repercussions that accompany their real-life counterparts. Most gamers, I’m willing to guess, experience their hobby in this fashion, as it was meant to be – somehow, though, not all parts of the equation come together for this unrepentant oddball. Like something out of Neil Gaiman, the harmless little kitten I spend so much leisure time with dreams of the day when he can join his primeval brethren beyond the wall, and devour me whole – even as I waste my free time pushing buttons, I can’t help but perceive uncomfortable, far-reaching things about myself that I never would have encountered otherwise, and his dream draws that much closer to reality. Even my seemingly meaningless choices in gaming now have a tangible weight to them, weight that I never wanted them to have – once more, just how much of myself is truly “mine” is called into question, and I’m simply too gob-smacked to answer.
Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a weirdo – perhaps the job should be left to those who perceive less of themselves in the pixels and polygons onscreen, and can love (or at least DO WANT) it without so much trepidation. Again, though, I can’t be certain that it’s even my choice to make – try as I might, despite all the second guesses I have about the type of gamer I am, I still have a very hard time imagining myself as anything else. What I love and what I hate, despite the time I waste trying to figure them out, aren’t likely to change much at this point, come hell or high water – about all that’s left to be seen, really, is how much my games and the rest of my life manage to influence each other in any “meaningful” way. How polished a mirror the digital screen really is, as I spend hours upon hours of my life staring at it. How solid those walls really are, or at least how long they can hold out. How hungry the beast outside really is, and moreover whether his perverse appetite can keep pace with my own.
This is the story of a weirdo, his wall, and the beast that lies in wait beyond; of the love and hate that bonds them all. Even as it’s related to you, another brick comes loose.