"I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled" I say, bending over to pick up one more toy off the living room floor.
"What?" Jessica looks at me with a smile, clearly not getting the reference. I stand up straight.
"Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?"
I'm shocked. I'm actually shocked. How is it that this woman who is the core of my daily existence, my anchor, my rock, and my salvation, has never read the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. But then it hit me.
We no longer care about the classics. Not just poetry, but music, film, and yes, games.
"But, it's T.S. Eliot!"
I scramble to the computer and pull up a copy online. I read her the first bit.
"Let us go then you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky. Like a patient etherized upon a table. Let us go through certain half deserted streets, the muttering retreats of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells ..."
I read it the way I read it in college -– as prose, without forced meter. My skin goes cold and my legs twitch as the pores tense and the small hairs stand on end. I haven't read Prufrock in 20 years, and the re-acquaintance fills me with excitement, malaise, and longing.
"The language is beautiful. But etherized?"
"That's the whole point. He took the free-verse of the modernists, stuck in the romantics language, and wrote this layered piece about growing old and longing. It's ..."
I'm truly speechless.
"What?" She's growing disinterested. She has work to do.
"I will show you fear in a handful of dust?"
"Find it for me, and I'll read it. Or you can read it to me."
I give my wife credit for this. Whenever I, in my arrogance, have decided that she has missed some piece of literature I deem a classic, she will patiently expose herself to it, process it, comment on it, and move on.
But who am I to be the arbiter of what is a classic? As a word geek, I have mountains of academic feldercarb to back up my own assertions of primacy on Melville, Eliot, Thoreau, or Kerouac. The canon of literature, even in geek space, is well understood. Love or hate, there are few that would deny that Tolkien, Asimov, Heinlein, Card or Bradbury are important and influential. And because their form remains unchanged – words on a page – they are all as impactful or self important, brilliant or trite as they were on the day they were written.
Whither games? If the world no longer cares about such an established list of brilliance, what conversation can I possibly have with my wife about her vacant gaming education? I have my own lists, but what is the accepted canon?
I still hold out Tank Pong as a "root game" in multiplayer videogames. But this game is all but inaccessible and should I even find an Atari 2600, what is expected, culturally, from a video game has moved so far beyond Tank Pong that I doubt it would hold her interest. It would a barely hold mine.
And therein lies the core problem. "Old" videogames, despite being dredged up over and over again, remain that: old. Their appointment as "classic" is a function of marketing, not cultural consensus. There is no Bandai behind my belief that "Bartleby the Scrivener" is a brilliant work of absurdist surrealism. But Bandai will foist Pac-Man on my grandchildren simply because it has become iconic.
Delving into the gaming back-catalog is fundamentally an act of nostalgia, not reverence. Most "classic" games simply don't hold up, unless they rely on abstraction. Puzzle games fit this bill, and to some extent, the simplest first generation games (like Pac-Man) can as well. Their required simplicity of design forced abstraction. But games that pushed the envelop of their technological timestamp simply don't work.
Myst was a brilliant game. So was Doom. But beyond the nostalgia, they simple do not stand as "classics" in the same sense that Prufrock does, because they must necessarily be judged against a modern sensibility. To much of the Myst experience, or the Doom experience, is delivered to eyes and ears which have now been accustomed to higher-fidelity. It is for this reason I can't call Beowulf a "classic." It's a work of historic significance to be sure, but most people will only approach it through layers of translation, and still find it interesting for it's place in the canon, not for itself. Few delve back into the 78RPM recordings of Enrico Caruso but to learn of a curious foundation -- to iPod ears, the recordings are grating, belying the brilliance his voice clearly held. Similarly, comparing video games to literature is difficult because the standard the measuring stick we use for electronic entertainment is fluid, changing in both length and metric.
Does this limitation on the form, this difficulty in establishing true classics, mean that it's doomed to remain nothing more than "entertainment?" Perhaps not. Perhaps there is a cusp that can be crossed, where the fidelity of the experience is "good enough" that a generations-old game can survive. More to the point, as the technology and perhaps more importantly the structural genres of games stabilize, maintaining a title as a classic becomes more possible. The game-version of the source-tape can be remastered for digital ears. And so Half-Life: Source brought the original Half-Life into the Source engine, and did so extremely well, making Half-Life one of the only games to bridge the gap successfully.
This requires dedication and foresight. It implies that game developers see value in maintaining the roots of franchises, so that what-has-gone-before can be true prologue – classics that help define the genres in which the live. In this way, whether a modern culture loves a classic game as much as I love Eliot, at least it will be accessible.
I hope this is true. I hope that in 10 years, my 4 year old son will discover Half-Life and see it as a classic, and want to play Gordon Freeman's first journey through to the end for it's own sake. Not just to silence the pleadings of an old man.