I’m a gaming hobo. While my bindle is digital, I’d still like to pretend it resembles a red and white handkerchief slung over my shoulder as I meander from game to game, from genre to genre, in search of “home.” I’ve pondered the aspects of my nomadic rambling before, dueling fanboys and pragmatists, while defending my position that I’m not a picky whiner but someone in search of a gaming identity. Realization of my search came a few years ago, when it hit me that it just didn’t make sense to play Quake III when Quake II was so much better. Good luck justifying that epiphany to the collective crowd that is mainstream gaming; according to the groupthink, “it’s better because it’s new, and you’re a grognard if you can’t adapt.” I never really earned the “gamer” title because I couldn’t fall in love with anything put in front of me.
I don’t consider myself a gamer; I consider myself someone who does things, and sometimes plays games. I read and talk and write about them more than I actually play them; I’m a fan of the ideal, the hype, the promise. I’ve argued design theory with masters of code to the point of profanity, but when the games finally hit shelves, all I could do was read the box quotes, shrug my shoulders, and wait for the Next Big Thing.
I know I’m not alone. I’ve seen entire tribes of refugees during my travels, people fixated on one dead game or another. There are die-hard Ultima Online fans, SubSpace freaks and Fallout geeks. As the Great City of Gaming builds itself on top of its history, an undercurrent of homeless gamers wander between high-poly games, in search of their previous gaming peak. Rarely do they find it. The tribes converge from time to time, occasionally trading stories, their artifacts from ages past. The common theme is always the same: Where’s home?
So many games are going by the wayside that even The Great Ones are starting to fall off the map. As with anything great, it’s hard for us to say goodbye. The games become a strange version of home, a personal place into which people channel themselves. And the ones without crap on the walls are hard to let go, because you’re never quite sure when the next one you’d show off to your friends is going to come around.
Some people have just given up. They’re the disgruntled faction of “classic gamers” that peaked during an ancient era and refuse to modernize, whether it’s because of an objection to new commercialism, the new emphasis of graphics over content, or to a controller with more buttons than an arbitrary figure they’ve allotted in their heads. They’re the old timers of gaming, the people who liked it better when “then” was “now,” and make no bones about telling everyone why.
The online era has only made things worse. Other hobos can now congregate and lament over new games together, and even delve into those ultra-addictive MMOGs, only to be left wanting months later. A few lucky ones find what it is they’re looking for; World of Warcraft (WoW) has garnered numbers like nothing else, which has injected hope into the ranks of a surprisingly optimistic crowd. Curmudgeons rule the community, but the majority of gamers are more than willing to give anything a chance. They were genuinely interested in Molyneux’s Fable, even though it didn’t meet anyone’s expectations. You can’t find home without searching, or so the vibe goes.
Finding a game to love is definitely not hopeless for anyone. Companies are beginning to realize people had good ideas beyond, “Hey! Let’s add polygons to that!” and are re-envisioning old classics in some form or another. Bethesda Softworks owns the rights to the Fallout license, which should elicit a collective deafening cry of joy from every fan community in the world. The Bard’s Tale remake sent a wave of jubilation through many circles, rippling from deep within central communities. And while many of my fellow hobos might not want to admit it, good games have been made since the late ’90s. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines by the now-defunct developer Troika is guaranteed to bring some new refugees into the mix. Katamari Damacy has brought jaded gamers out in droves, all tittering over how much fun they’re having.
Maybe Katamari Damacy is the secret. It’s not all that deep – you run around with a giant ball of stuff which you convert into a bigger ball of stuff. It’s simple, it’s fun, and most importantly, it’s new. We hobos understand it’s hard to go home again, but finding a new place to dwell is almost as exciting as taking off your boots in familiar territory. Strange innovations from the Orient might just usher in a new era of gaming for the old school. Maybe it’s only because it’s hard to have an old school mentality toward novelties previously untouched by Western hands. Or maybe those same novelties are created by groups who know how to instill spirit into games instead of just the standard “more is better” formula.
The revolving door of the gaming homeless never stops spinning, each generation of consoles and video cards sucking in new hopefuls and spitting out disoriented derelicts just looking for “not Halo 2, damn it!” The horde is finally getting big enough to collapse upon itself; sharp developers are beginning to listen to our beleaguered cries. As I continue shuffling around, I bump into other zombies like me, some of them occasionally lighting up, snapping out of their melancholy like a coma victim emerging from the ether of the subconscious, discovering their latest place to squat for a time, or even taking up residence with a new lease on their gaming lives. These awakenings leave me wondering, when is it my turn?