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

DrNash wrote:

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.

Perhaps. But that doesn't mean that an understanding of context cannot be obtained, otherwise there would be no point in studying any art--literature, painting, whatever. That aside, I wouldn't place any game on the trophy shelf that was terribly sensitive to context anyway... excepting perhaps some genres with titles that were memorable simply because they were the best coercion of a limited media at the time: driving sims, for example. I've replayed a number of my favorites over the years and they really have stood the test of time in terms of how fun they are, or in the case of RPGs, how effective the dramatic elements were. In these instances, the technology with which they were produced is irrelevant, because the technology was simply a way to convey an idea. I may not be able to enjoy The Hobbit or Ultima or whatever as much today as in my first encounter, but much of that is because I already know the story, so surprise is instead experienced as nostalgia. At least in many cases. If the material is sufficiently complex it can stand multiple readings or plays through much better. I would love to see more games designed with this attention to detail.

The best analog to a library though is a retro arcade. What really draws me to libraries first and foremost is the smell of old books and then the feel of simply being in a public place devoted to literature. Entering a good retro arcade can similarly feel like stepping into a time machine, and may be the closest gamers will ever come to truly recapturing the past. Assuming one's past includes video arcades, I suppose.

I think the closest place to an actual "altar" to video games has to be the Walk of Game: http://www.walkofgame.com/about/abou...

Anyone from San Francisco who has seen it?

Huh, I've walked past that thing a million times without ever noticing it.

Heh, that's not a good sign!

d4m0 wrote:

I think the closest place to an actual "altar" to video games has to be the Walk of Game: http://www.walkofgame.com/about/abou...

Anyone from San Francisco who has seen it?

Unfortunately by the look of their site, they didn't bother with 2007 or 2008. I'm going to assume the project died.

Just thought I'd point out that this article got paraphrased over at the Escapist! Nice one Katarin, nice one.

Turbo-win?

Awesome, thanks for the heads-up!

Clemenstation wrote:

Just thought I'd point out that this article got paraphrased over at the Escapist! Nice one Katarin, nice one.

I suppose it's worth noting that Katerin has written a dozen or so articles for the Escapist in the past.