The Magic of Videogames: Where Did It Go?

I’ve been thinking a lot about videogames lately, specially about that “special something” they seem to have lost. When I was a kid I thought that videogames were the most magical thing ever. I would spend hours on end before my mom’s TV set watching as an odd, pizza-shaped yellow thing devoured dots while running away from ghosts and as a square wondered around a maze of blue blocks on top of blue backgrounds, and in my mind there was “something more” there. I was two years old at the time. By the time I was five I had already mastered how to shoot down World War II airplanes from the sky while controlling a flying house piloted by a dog, and I still remember the thrill of jumping over rocks, killing crocodiles, swinging on vines, and jumping over an African / Indian native thing to rescue the princess. I was even more thrilled when after I pressed the orange button I, for the first time, heard a crude music that served as a backdrop for an oddly shaped green figure that would run around evading other oddly shaped creatures to rescue a trembling monkey dog that was just beneath him.


A few years later, when I was in elementary school, I remember how my friends and I would huddle around that magical box to watch some kid beat up a bunch of cartoon-looking macho men, a red plumber become big after eating mushrooms, or the Keebler Elf explore some place with walking octopuses. I still recall with fondness how my friend and I would team up as twin bubble blowing dragons to rescue some cloud thing from another cloud thing, or how we could be Rambo and Commando and kill endless hordes of football players with guns in order to achieve some unknown purpose that no one knew about because no one has ever REALLY finished Contra.

It was a few years later, when the 16 bit generation consoles came out, that I realized why I was attracted to Pitfall, and Jungle Hunt, but not to Berzerk, why I always found Snoopy and Pac Man more appealing than Yar’s Revenge and Lucky Chase, why everyone found Super Mario Bros. and Contra superior to Excite Bike and every single RBI game. What kids like in their videogames is (a) some sort of narrative, and (b) an element of the absurd. Because of these two things is that games like Mega Man were critically acclaimed, and more serious games, like Taboo, were not. I’m sure that everyone remembers fondly the first time that huge guy burst out from a wall to beat you up in Double Dragon, but no one remembers that bad game where you controlled a tank and tried to shoot the other tank. In fact, if you mentioned one, I’m sure it wouldn’t even be the one I’m thinking about.

So, with narrative and absurd in mind, I enjoyed controlling a spiky blue hedgehog through endless levels so that I could rescue animal friends just as much as I enjoyed navigating through an intricate fantastic plot of deception and romance to find out that the main heroine is half human half esper. By then, videogames were still “magical”. But then, something went terribly wrong.

“Oh no… Lunar…”

With the arrival of 3D capable game consoles games started shifting away from vampire hunters with whips and big armored futuristic robots that fought against bacteria into Metal Gear Solid and “insert name of sports personality” 3D “insert name of sport”. Suddenly, colorfully creative cartoon characters that excited the imagination turned into emo vampires, and as surely as day turns to night, morphing bio-technological beings that could morph from human to spaceship became various generic versions of Master Chief. Contra became Generic World War II Shooter, and the only remaining bastion of the magic that videogames used to have was Nintendo.

Slowly, I even forgot that games were once “magical”. Sure, I remember fondly games like Journey to Syllious, where the war-ridden post-nuclear future still looked colorful and not brownish gray, but I couldn’t quite figure out why I remember so fondly the overly simplistic world of the Light Warriors, or why I would, any day, choose to go on a relatively short quest to retrieve four graphical glitches that were supposed to be orbs over the longer “epic” 13 installments later. Indeed, I would often argue with the now “hardcore” gamers over why gaming used to be so much better “back in the day”, and I wondered why they could not see that Final Fantasy VI was infinitely better than any that had come after. But I was even more surprised at not being able to exactly point out what made it so much better. “The characters are better, the story is better, the music is better”, I would say. They would retort with “character design in XIII is better, the story more complex (debatable), and the music more melodious”. Indeed, I did not see why they didn’t see, and I didn’t know why I saw.

Until today.

While fighting Cactuar (formerly Cactrot) in Final Fantasy XIII, my 3 year old son (who is not very interested in videogames) walked into the room, saw the battle, and burst out laughing. He had never been interested in space marines killing aliens, or gangsters blowing up places, or even in parties of people fleeing endlessly from PSICOM hordes. And yet there he was, laughing to no end at the sight of a microscopic green cactus-thing with a cartoon face beating the crap out of three tough looking warriors.

And that’s when it hit me. Videogames lost their touch of insanity.

Now, videogames tend to gear towards realism. Even when I look at my 360 collection and I see excellent games that have given me near 100 hours of fun, like Fallout III, Fable II, and Bladestorm, I know that the sense of magic and fantasy that videogames used to have is now nearly extinct. Indeed, with the exception of a few precious titles like Eternal Sonata and Tales of Vesperia (both of which I’m sure will pique my kid’s interest in a few years), the magic is dead, replaced by the grim gray-brown battleground that “hardcore gamers” love so much. And this is why the Wii is selling so well. The Wii is the only system that still offers that magical experience of flying around in a buffoon / jester costume collecting blue orbs to save a kid’s dreams. Hopefully, developers for other consoles will take a hint from this and try to bring the magic back to gaming.

However, with the incredibly low sales that the Blu Ray Player’s game Little Big Planet had, it’s doubtful we will see that many “magical” games in the 360 and the PS3.

Next up: Types of Gamers

About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on June 13, 2010, in Video Game Commentary and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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