The Mainstream is Coming!

Normal people are leaping over the barrier and swarming over the precious electronic games which were once our sole domain. It may be that they are a friendly, benevolent force, but it would be foolish to assume it. In fact, I think it’s best that you wait here with me in this impervious, well-stocked bunker while we try to figure out how things went so terribly wrong.

We already know that videogames make a person healthier physically while they refine the intellect. Well, we don’t know know it, but that is our desperate hope, and there is a kind of purity in that. Outside of these beneficial (and quite probably, imaginary) properties, we are aware that playing these games is completely awesome. That’s pretty much incontrovertible; I don’t have to make up a study to prove it. It was really only a matter of time before the vast majority of human beings realized this fact and began living the meaningful, digital lives that we all take for granted.

Games, though, until the last few years, weren’t ready to be the default pastime of sentient creatures. If you’re the sort of person who would read a magazine solely distributed in Adobe’s PDF format, chances are you know what I’m talking about. Graphics have been at a level attractive to people in general for a couple generations. But what the hardcore is willing to tolerate (and in a sick way, appreciate) in terms of punitive gameplay mechanisms and technological hiccoughs is well above the threshold the majority of living creatures are willing to put up with from their amusement medium. Outside of the sports titles which have always enjoyed mainstream attention, there is a vast geography of game experiences that rarely break the surface of the wider culture. That isn’t to say there haven’t been moves to push it to the forefront, perhaps even before it was entirely ripe for the purpose.

Let me tell you what I saw on MTV. I won’t admit to watching that channel on purpose. Let me instead suggest that while switching between two other channels – each one dedicated to the higher pursuits of the mind – I happened to stumble upon your Music Television and see something that struck me as odd. I guess I should say that it strikes me as odd now. In 1997, when it actually occurred, I think I just thought it was neat to see a commercial for a game on television. I didn’t pick up at the time that they weren’t talking to me. They already had me, see, since I was three and discerned that the device I was holding held some undefinable power over the television. No, they were after the sort of people who watched MTV because watching MTV was actually what they wanted to do.

Nestled between commercials for products I would be ashamed to purchase, let alone use, I saw Final Fantasy VII‘s Cloud Strife engaged in various acts of pre-rendered, post-apocalyptic heroism. Of course, I knew who he was, Cloud Strife as an entity was only slightly less anticipated than our Lord Jesus H. Christ. The ability of the Compact Disc medium to store data, coupled with Squaresoft’s unrivaled artistry and intimidating financial power, had created something that looked – at times – like a blockbuster film.

If the numbers I’ve read are correct, Square sold one copy of the game for every man, woman, and child on Earth – living or dead.

That may be an exaggeration.

What a person snared by that advertisement thought of the game once they got it home is anybody’s guess. You’ll forgive me if I assume that the reader has some knowledge of gaming genres, and won’t skitter away if I suggest that Final Fantasy VII constitutes an epic RPG – but suffice it to say that the user “plays” this kind of game by navigating a series of blue menus for up to a hundred hours. For me, hey, I can’t get enough of that kind of thing. I crave a good menu. I’ll sometimes go into a Denny’s and not even order anything. But a person could be forgiven for harboring misconceptions about the experience. All of that aside, it moved a tremendous amount of dedicated entertainment hardware into a truly staggering number of living rooms, and gave Console War I to Sony’s Playstation. The fact that we as dedicated gamers were already sold on the series was only part of the success. The game crossed over, beyond the ramparts, and attracted another type of player altogether. Somewhere in my mind, this has always been the point of demarcation after which playing videogames was no longer the sole domain of pariahs.

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And so, the way was paved for the breakthrough megagame – something that would really and truly puncture the mainstream and induct them into our dark brotherhood. It would have to be a little more interactive, a little more accessible. It would have to contain less blue menus, and it did. It starts with the letter H, and rhymes with halo. Because it is Halo.

There is a lot of meat in Halo story-wise if you want it, but if you can’t be bothered with narrative you won’t find your progression hampered. Halo included cooperative play – something we’re already starting to see the next generation of consoles take very seriously – and it’s a feature which no doubt projected the game to a wider audience by infusing what was essentially a single-player experience with camaraderie. PC gamers had already tasted it, and tasted it at exorbitant expense. What Halo did was bring the excitement and social experience of a LAN party to virtually anyone who wanted to have it. That’s no small thing.

The conversion of gaming from a solitary activity to a group activity that did not require thousands of dollars and considerable technical savvy is not insignificant. At the time it was released, the lack of Internet play seemed like a serious omission to the old guard – but as it stood, Halo forced you to get your stuff, get out of the house, eat Fritos brand snack chips and tote imaginary shotguns in drive-bys on frozen tundra. It’s extremely rewarding, and I think it’s as responsible for Halo’s legendary status as anything else you’d care to name.

When I was waiting in line to grab my copy of Halo 2, it became clear that what had started with the original Halo had intensified – three years of addictive, communal Combat Evolved had created a culture with its own jokes and shared culture. I could see that the line in front of me all the way to the register was filled with people I would never see in the ordinary course of my life. These were not young men who turned to videogames because – as it sometimes was in my day – the pleasures of a social existence were unavailable to them. These were people just as hardcore, in their way, as I was – and yet they were somehow able to blend into the larger population unnoticed. Mark II, I thought. These are Geeks Mark II.

I hid behind a display.

Now, they walk among us. Try not to be startled by their odd cuisine or strange mannerisms! They’re here to stay, and the effect of their presence on the industry and the games it produces is pronounced. Look at The Sims, or Nintendogs – a game whose actual, real objective is to make a puppy love you. They’re targeted at, and bringing in, an entirely different kind of person. That’s something we can get into next time, if you like, but I kind of have to go. I haven’t checked my e-mail in, like, an hour and I’m starting to itch all over.

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