Altars


"I think it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is."
-- Vladimir Nabokov, BBC Television, 1962

Sometimes, when I'm feeling lost or lonely, I retreat to Fiction/Literature, Letter N.

Fingers tip-tapping across unbent spines, I meander the stacks at my local bookstore, eyes myopic and wandering, searching for his name. But mine is a ritual of habit only, because who am I kidding? I know exactly where Vladimir Nabokov is: fourth tall row, third rack in, fourth shelf from the top. There his books wait, sometimes twenty-five of them, sometimes twenty-three, always slightly dusty, their ranks inflated by four different versions of Lolita. Old, familiar friends. Some I haven't read yet. Some I never will.

As my hands graze the soft covers, I'm a pilgrim, kissing the painted feet of saints as I pass by. The Vintage typesets, the pastel covers, the jackets featuring chess pieces and butterflies -- they whisper together in an indistinct language, a lullaby just out of reach. Sometimes I'll pull Pale Fire or Ada down from its pedestal (or, if I'm feeling really bad, Lolita) and skim the first few pages. Sometimes I just read the titles, as I've done hundreds of times before, each name a well-practiced whisper, a silent, familiar Om.

Nabokov often wrote about the dead reaching out to the living in subtle, powerful ways, speaking to us so forcefully and urgently that the message goes overlooked. But when I'm in Fiction/Literature, Letter N, my Russian Virgil's voice rings out like a clarion call, and I feel safe, important, inspired.

But what I find most comforting, what invariably makes me smile and walk away feeling so much lighter, is the knowledge that Nabokov and Letter N will always be there for me. I can visit my mentor whenever I wish. Books do not expire.

Not so for other media.

In a game store, the racks are in constant flux, inventory always shifting to accommodate the newest stock. And that's okay, I suppose, or at least it's natural; the commercial obsession with novelty is especially strong in a medium as young as videogames. But it means I have no gravestones to visit, no ghostly shades to offer comfort and inspiration. No Letter N to welcome me back.

That isn't to imply that as a medium, videogames are inherently fleeting, that the experience of them somehow makes a shallower impact. Just as with books, there are those games (and their creators) that have touched us so irrevocably, so monumentally that just being reminded of them makes us come alive inside.

For me, Final Fantasy IV is one such title. The clumsy, plodding melodrama, riddled with poor translations and unintentional jokes, changed my life. As the first RPG I ever played, it was my initiation into a world of interactive narratives and player-dependent action. I controlled the characters. I gave them life. And for a small girl who spent most of her young life chasing after shadows and feeling out of control, it was like Promethean fire.

Most of us have developed similar attachments for other titles: Zork, Fallout, Ico. But there are few monuments to those memories, no physical conduits allowing us to channel the past. The classic games that have marked us forever are gone from store shelves, never to return. There are no altars in Gamestop for the reverent.

I worry sometimes that by allowing games to become such a transient medium, we've shorted ourselves, robbing our community of the pleasure of a shared history. We rely on websites and Internet forums to pass on our favorite games for the future, but really, it's no better than a new breed of oral tradition: A pale shade of permanence just one server crash away from annihilation.

Don't get me wrong; this isn't some wail against online communities, and I love Home of the Underdogs and GWJ as much as the next person. But I long for a Letter N in my neighborhood game store: some place I can return to again and again, that serves as a wellspring of inspiration and comfort when I feel low. Somewhere I can run my fingers along the dusty cartridges that have touched my life, and remember.

This basic, even primal desire is why millions of faithful travel to Mecca every year, even though they're perfectly capable of worshipping in their own homes. It's why we visit the graves of dead presidents and national monuments, and why people have scratched poems into the walls outside Mikhail Bulgakov's Moscow apartment. The physical act of remembrance, of paying tribute to what has come before -- it is our declaration of identity, our Ozymandian rage against the abyss: This is what I am. This is what I claim as mine.

As gamers, without a Letter N, our identity will always remain unfixed. We have no outlet for this primal expression. I can scrawl poetry on a website, but it will eventually vanish from memory, buried under newer posts and updates and spam. Instead I watch passively as the titles endlessly refresh on store shelves, hundreds of names forgotten over the years, hundreds more waiting to be forgotten. Most I haven't played. Most I never will.

But when I'm in a game store, occasionally I'll pause, if just for a second, before the slightly dusty copies of the DS Final Fantasy IV remake, and remember.

Comments

Cool read. This is part of the reason why i never sell games. I like to be able to turn to them and 'flick through the pages' from time to time.

Maybe i'll start a game register with my personal ratings on games i've played with notes on particular aspects of each one in the margins.... Ooh... this means i have to go shopping for a suitably leather-bound volume of sufficient weight with plenty of space on each page for discussion and disection....

Even more than the story or gameplay elements themselves, games usual inspire recollection of snapshots in time for me.

Where was I when I played that game? Who was I playing with?

Playing Intellivision Poker with my mom as a kid in the family room.
Playing Super Mario with my brother in playroom.
Playing Contra with my high-school sweetheart.
Finding an English version of Civilization 1 in some random Tokyo Dept store.
Playing Final Fantasy IV coop with my Japanese brother in law, while living in Japan.
Playing Fallout 1 just after my wife and I moved back to the States.
Playing Starcraft with my wife on a cobbled together LAN.
Playing some Mario Sunshine with my 2 year old after visiting my wife on her hospital bedrest (awaiting the birth of our second son.)

It's almost like when I was young, I would hop from tile to tile in the Supermarket while my mom shopped.
Game memories are a lot like those tiles. They don't tell the whole story of course, but as I reflect back on them, they do create a mosaic of this journey through life.

While it's not quite what you're after, the National Media Museum in the UK has recently launched the National Videogame Archive, and is treating these artefacts with the kind of reverence you describe.

Also in the UK, Gamestation used to sell older games (including NES/Atari carts, Saturn discs and even C64 cassettes) repackaged in little baggies. Unfortunately my local one dumped this area in order to erect a ghastly Wii branded boxing ring surrounded by shelves full of novelty bent plastic.

Edit: also savethevideogame.org

Touching article Katerin.

The closest I came to the kind of relationship with N you have in the bookstore were the racks of used PC games that used to wash up on the bottom rack of the furthest corner or my GameStop in my home town.

I'd do a circuit after lunch, over for a cup of coffee at the (now shuttered) family owned coffee shop and then down the the store. I'd ignore the staff, thank god it was a weekday and there were no teens in the store, and crouch down by that rack and pull out a stack to sift through. That's where I found all of the old Fallout games in the original prints. Of course, without buying back PC games that section is only a memory.

Perhaps bookstores are the only places where you can buy history anymore, the only place where that transience is absent, and then only in certain sections.

I remember those days of the old. I'd come home all ecstatic, holding a little transparent white diskette box in front of me like a little Christmas present, made just for me. Then I'd carefully remove those disks from the box, one by one, and install the game onto my PC. This usually took a long time and I was always a little panicky because those old 1.44's were easily corruptible, especially when riding in trams and alike.
When (or if) it worked, I'd put these little fragile disks back into their little box and hide them away somewhere safe from all the dust or anything else that might hurt them.

And then the joy began. It was always some new experience. No clones, no million sequels of some old "best" thing. These games were young and new then. They were fresh new ideas. They were fun experiments and playful research. And as they grew, I grew with them.

I think those old games will never really expire and become forgotten. There will always be a gog.com (some or other) where we'll be able to go and get our fix. (Though I'll admit...being able to walk into a store and see these dusty old games sit on a shelf is much nicer )
It's like the movies really. We see so many movies pass through our movie theaters and our DVD players and yet there are always those we'll remember...no matter how much time has passed since we first saw it and no matter how advanced digital effects have become in the meantime.

Do you think there is enough interest among consumers or financial benefactors to support a kind of lending library for video games? Without the existence of libraries and the shared experiences they provide it seems unlikely that any games will ever receive 'canon' status in their medium. Let me ask in general: if libraries for video games were available, would you take advantage of them, or would you continue to purchase old games to own from eBay and the like?

Although, films seem to do just fine at establishing lasting pillars in a transient medium... despite the incredible odds against finding any copies of "High Plains Drifter" at my local Blockbuster. Why is that?

Irongut wrote:

Even more than the story or gameplay elements themselves, games usual inspire recollection of snapshots in time for me.

Where was I when I played that game? Who was I playing with?

Indeed... I still remember sitting with my mom on the floor of our living room just a few meters from my old brown TV. My Commodore 16 was plugged into the TV, running some slot machines video game (I can' remember the title anymore)... We'd play that for hours on end.

I also remember when my dad first showed me that computer. I went to sleep, waited 'till he went to bed, sneaked out and loaded myself some Pacman goodness. My dad heard the noise and went to investigate. At first he thought someone had broken in

Good times

You've put words to something I've felt 100 times and never been able to articulate. Thank you.

Schmutzli wrote:

Do you think there is enough interest among consumers or financial benefactors to support a kind of lending library for video games? Without the existence of libraries and the shared experiences they provide it seems unlikely that any games will ever receive 'canon' status in their medium. Let me ask in general: if libraries for video games were available, would you take advantage of them, or would you continue to purchase old games to own from eBay and the like?

Although, films seem to do just fine at establishing lasting pillars in a transient medium... despite the incredible odds against finding any copies of "High Plains Drifter" at my local Blockbuster. Why is that?

The problem with game canons and history is that they require a very specific hardware configuration to play, most of the time. Old Windows games need a bit of hacking to run on XP / Vista. ROMs don't really emulate the experience of playing a console game (sitting in front of a computer is rather different than sitting in front of a family TV, not to mention the material aspects of having an 'original' controller). As the original hardware to run these games fails and is not replaced or upgraded, the games themselves become largely inaccessible and, as such, it is hard to convince people who have never experienced them of their value.

Sites like Good Old Games are doing a great deal to counteract this, and should be commended for their business model. Still, questions of accessibility (does the non-hardcore demographic even know about GOG?) remains a key factor in maintaining cultural impact and/or awareness.

Movies have this problem to a lesser degree because the VHS to DVD market is still pretty strong, and there is a well established body of criticism and industry recognition to ensure that the cannonical works are upgraded into new formats (Criterion collections, etc).

Books, of course, do not have this problem at all.

I'm always rejoicing when someone is able to put into words things around which I ponder for a long time and am unable to grasp. Also, now I'm furious that all my books are neatly packed into the boxes, ready to be moved in several weeks, and I'm unable to just open books you have mentioned. For example, I have a burning desire to read a bit of Pale Fire right now.

raz0r wrote:

And then the joy began. It was always some new experience. No clones, no million sequels of some old "best" thing. These games were young and new then. They were fresh new ideas. They were fun experiments and playful research. And as they grew, I grew with them.

Yech. What sickly sentimental rose-tinted bittersweet nonsense. No clones? No million sequels? Complete claptrap. Everything seemed to be a Mario clone, or a space invaders sequel, or an upscrolling shooter. We just as much innovation now as ever, perhaps more so.

Insectecutor wrote:
raz0r wrote:

And then the joy began. It was always some new experience. No clones, no million sequels of some old "best" thing. These games were young and new then. They were fresh new ideas. They were fun experiments and playful research. And as they grew, I grew with them.

Yech. What sickly sentimental rose-tinted bittersweet nonsense. No clones? No million sequels? Complete claptrap. Everything seemed to be a Mario clone, or a space invaders sequel, or an upscrolling shooter. We just as much innovation now as ever, perhaps more so.

How many Doom's did you play before Doom? How many Pacmans (Pacmen? :D)? How many Lost Vikings? How many Monkey Islands? How many Fallouts? Froggers? Stunts? Prince of Persia? Alone in the Dark? I could go on for miles. Granted, there were clones, but you can't possibly compare then and now.

And btw...I was a kid back then, remember? Of course that post was based on sickly sentimental rose-tinted bittersweet nonsense.

Did early book stores have a "classics" section or were they mostly catering to what was popular at the time? I'd like to think we'll eventually see a classic game section in gaming stores, but because the medium is so young we just haven't had the need for one yet because the populous at large hasn't demanded it. Perhaps as gaming is considered an equal to film, music, and the written word, we'll start to see classic games being stocked in stores?

Ephemeral as they are, it's wonderful to see the old games give rise to new words like these. (Ephemeral as they are.)

We're all carrying around a bit of this wistfulness after a while. It's not as if we want the new games to stop coming, but you're right, we need more quiet moments to reconnect with the memories. The National Videogame Archive is a great idea, but it would be nice if game stores recognized that someone, somewhere, might really need to play Leisure Suit Larry 3, or just look at the box, for the good of their soul.

...what? Some people have Zork, Fallout, Ico. I have Leisure Suit Larry 3. Don't hate.

The heart tug, that feeling of assisted heart beat from a memory, lives on in impromptu circumstances. We all have our own sacred apostles in our path. Those titles that led us into a deeper appreciation, involvement and passion for games. Browsing my old drawers and CD binders can reignite those fumes of a past experience. It's a personal, effective library. However, it does not have the same grip as seeing your treasured experiences outside of your own holy, apostolic, church.

Encountering a loved title in friend's library, a bargain bin, or elsewhere bellows on the glinting embers kept for it. In a store, I feel it must be some mistake. My personal value metric for the title grays out its neighbors. $4.99 is an insult. The layered stack of changed price stickers on a corner is like a modern attempt to restore an aging fresco. $60, $55 (used), $40, $27.99, $14.99... These modern 'caretakers' just don't seem to get it. Their attempts at reconstruction will never restore the blaze that the title once had.

It was about time and place.

My first impulse is to buy, to play, to share. Slide a case out from a friend's shelf. It is a buldging collection of stimuli just waiting to make my synapses explode. My mind wants to light up those pathways, replay, re-experience, relearn, recount, remember. The last is the very root of it. I just want to remember it. I know, from failed attempts, that it is impossible to recapture the full justice of what it once meant.

This classic struggle was briefly played out in the very medium. Tomb Raider: Legend's first area, Bolivia, has Lara (non-Crigger) coming upon a familiar temple with big stone gears and pressure sensitive floor tiles. One of her radio support friends chimes in about the condition of the place being hardly worth the palace name. Another replies that he must remember they are only looking at the skeletal remains, the memory of something that was likely much more vibrant and impressive in its time and place. Legend is this very temple. It is impressive and evocative of the Tomb Raider memory, but it isn't closer to the Aristotelian form of what Tomb Raider was.

These sequel/remakes can be a bastion for the memories. These Legends can be a living library. They'll never be them, but they let them burn longer.

Great read, Kat. Reminds me of this other masterpiece of yours.

Insectecutor wrote:
raz0r wrote:

And then the joy began. It was always some new experience. No clones, no million sequels of some old "best" thing. These games were young and new then. They were fresh new ideas. They were fun experiments and playful research. And as they grew, I grew with them.

Yech. What sickly sentimental rose-tinted bittersweet nonsense. No clones? No million sequels? Complete claptrap. Everything seemed to be a Mario clone, or a space invaders sequel, or an upscrolling shooter. We just as much innovation now as ever, perhaps more so.

Regardless of opinions of the rate of innovation, games seem to be as in danger of being lost to time as many of the earliest films. Certainly not everything from back then was a MULE, Ultima or King's Quest, But I'd rather live in a culture with a collective pack-rat mentality, just in case Thexder or Ancient Art of War at Sea come to mean something to someone. It's not like we're going to run out of storage space.

This article reminds me also of the one used English Book store I found in Tokyo. I lived there for almost 4.5 years and for the first two or three I was relatively cut off from reading. Then, through other folks at work I learned of a used English bookstore. Folks could pick up used paperbacks and sell them back when they were done. The store provided such a great service, because it helped move books and a little piece of home, from reader to reader. This is before Amazon and some of the conveniences that are probably available today.

I'd only get to go ever so often. They would have a diverse and ultimately random collection of books, but there were shelves and shelves of them. I'd head into the Sci - Fi / Fantasy shelves (of course). I always had this ocd habit of keeping my own books near perfect, but in this case all the imperfections, the folds, the bends, the scratches, the rips the fading, all of it provided warmth and a sense of community. Maybe I'd stumble across a well-read Robert E Howard book, and know that there was a good chance that was the ONLY copy in Tokyo and despite all the other volumes being missing, that fragment of the story was a treasure. It was also a connection, to another reader, to a piece of home. The random nature of the store also inspired some exploration of titles and authors I may not have read otherwise.

It was a bit of a journey to get to the store, but it was truly a magical place.

Trachalio wrote:

Did early book stores have a "classics" section or were they mostly catering to what was popular at the time? I'd like to think we'll eventually see a classic game section in gaming stores, but because the medium is so young we just haven't had the need for one yet because the populous at large hasn't demanded it. Perhaps as gaming is considered an equal to film, music, and the written word, we'll start to see classic games being stocked in stores?

Back when there were early bookstores, all the books were classics. There was a point in time where The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a new publication.

Clemenstation really nailed the answer, though. Old games require old hardware. You don't need a special set of eyeballs to read a first edition copy of Of Mice and Men, you don't need to install an emulator in your brain-- though it might help if you ever want to read anything by Edith Wharton without killing yourself.

All books require is paper. Paper doesn't RROD or require system updates (A form of pulp is available. Download now?)

It is a shame, though. There are a few old Atari and NES games that I'd like to play again in their original form.

doubtingthomas396 wrote:
Trachalio wrote:

Did early book stores have a "classics" section or were they mostly catering to what was popular at the time? I'd like to think we'll eventually see a classic game section in gaming stores, but because the medium is so young we just haven't had the need for one yet because the populous at large hasn't demanded it. Perhaps as gaming is considered an equal to film, music, and the written word, we'll start to see classic games being stocked in stores?

Back when there were early bookstores, all the books were classics. There was a point in time where The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a new publication.

That's exactly what I'm talking about. After Gutenberg made books available for the masses, were the shops filled with only new literature because that's what the masses wanted, or was there always a section for Plautus, Plato and the like?

I'm just wondering if there's a historical precedent we can refer to.

Wish I'd read this article before playing The Graveyard. Not that The Graveyard is my Letter N, but this article's sentiments would've added another layer to the headstones whitewashed across the old woman's gaze.

Trachalio wrote:

I'm just wondering if there's a historical precedent we can refer to.

That's why I brought up films. I think the niche video store is a fairly accurate model for where old games might show up. Not ideal, but it's my prediction.

wanderingtaoist wrote:

I'm always rejoicing when someone is able to put into words things around which I ponder for a long time and am unable to grasp.

Same here. Fantastic article Katerin. I feel the same way in the bookstore - well, the used books stores anyway. Chapters doesn't have that "visiting old friends" feel to it.

I haven't been gaming long enough to have a Letter N - but when I have been playing long enough, I hope there will be a place to go where I can visit and remember.

This is something I think about a lot. For me, the tragedy is not that we can't go and visit the monuments to old classics, but that it's so difficult to ever share those classics with our friends. There are so many games that had a profound, formative impact on me as I grew up that I can't share with the people in my life. Unless you too were lucky enough to play the first Privateer, or The Last Express, all I can do is struggle to express what they were and why they mattered, my hands making ever more excited and futile gestures as I fail to get my meaning across.

Lately I've been watching a lot of classic movies with my partner, and luckily for me (and the future of our relationship) she loves them as much as I do. She was intoxicated by Strangers on a Train and floored by Double Indemnity, and she fell utterly in love with Cary Grant in The Awful Truth. And watching these movies with her, old friends whose lines and shots I know by heart, I am seeing them again for the first time, living vicariously through her. Afterwards we talk excitedly about what we liked best, and things that I've noticed over the years and the things that she just noticed that I never would have.

That's the experience that I'm missing with gaming. The inability to have a shared experience with an old classic is frustrating and a little depressing. I can pick a book off the shelf and shove it into someone's hand, saying, "This is the first book that changed my life," and that person can read it.

But my old copy of TIE Figher? "This might be my favorite game ever, and-- have you got a pen? Okay, you're gonna want to get a program called DOSBox and-- how are you on your DOS commands, by the way? Not so good, huh? That's okay, you're going to want to go to this one website for a tutorial on getting it working. Then, once you've figured that out-- wait, do you have a joystick?"

Mister Magnus wrote:

Clark, just north of Belmont.‎

Might have to hang out at McChuck's again soon.

Just meandering around Chicago one day I came across a great little game store called People Play Games. It's a couple of doors down from Chicago Comics on Clark, just north of Belmont. It's a used game store but they stock old cartridges, diskettes, Saturn games, systems... all sorts of stuff. I haven't been back in a couple of months (it's not really in my stomping grounds anymore) but I remember I couldn't wipe the grin off of my face for a long time after leaving.

If you're in the city, I recommend checking it out (might as well pop in to Chicago Comics for a quick book or three while you're there).

People Play Games
3264 1/2 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 883-8813‎

EDIT: And thanks Katerin, I enjoyed reading what you wrote.

One issue that could stand in the way of the lending library idea that someone mentioned is that games are so accessible to people they attract a crowd that can very often not respect or care for them the way many library-goers do. I know that I'm making a generalization and that many books you check out from the library can have doodles, scribbles or torn pages in them but that weathering won't necessarily prevent you from going in and still enjoying the book. Perhaps you'd even view it as having history "added" to it. But a game that's been left data-side down on someone's carpet or a floppy that was crammed into a pocket isn't going to play or perform for folks. Not to mention that a book only requires eyes (ok, and a knowledge of how to read) as a barrier of entry, but not everyone is sitting on an old Tandy or other IBM compat. that is ready to boot up and rip off some King's Quest.

Katerin, I believe you had more of bookstore in mind than a library. I'd love that for games. There's nothing like old-school instruction manuals as opposed to the four-page leaflets that get included with many games now. Well, to paraphrase Penny Arcade, A boy (or girl) can dream...

Nice article!

Like the previous posts before me, I have many a fond memory of playing videogames with someone. For myself it would be playing Snafu, Baseball, and Auto Racing on the Intellivision with my Dad. I so clearly hear the Snafu music, the 80's computer voice saying "Your Out" from the Baseball game, and the ever increasing ticking sound that was the car engines of Auto Racing.

I too have started keeping the games I have really enjoyed in the hope that consoles continue to provide backwards compatibility for the older games, but I'm not confident they will. I think we'll end up buying downloads of older games on newer consoles or perhaps at online sites. I believe that is the only way to get to the letter N in the future, perhaps now.

Trachalio wrote:

Did early book stores have a "classics" section or were they mostly catering to what was popular at the time? I'd like to think we'll eventually see a classic game section in gaming stores, but because the medium is so young we just haven't had the need for one yet because the populous at large hasn't demanded it. Perhaps as gaming is considered an equal to film, music, and the written word, we'll start to see classic games being stocked in stores?

Does that mean that in this sense Square Enix are years ahead of their time?

DrNash wrote:

Wurdz

Well spoken sir, well spoken.

Rob Zacny wrote:

This is something I think about a lot. For me, the tragedy is not that we can't go and visit the monuments to old classics, but that it's so difficult to ever share those classics with our friends. There are so many games that had a profound, formative impact on me as I grew up that I can't share with the people in my life. Unless you too were lucky enough to play the first Privateer, or The Last Express, all I can do is struggle to express what they were and why they mattered, my hands making ever more excited and futile gestures as I fail to get my meaning across.

Give it up man, it ain't worth the pain.