As one of the infinitesimally small subsection of gamers who make a bit of scratch from their gaming, I’m not so broke as I used to be. These days, bills get paid, the hydro never gets cut off, and it’s been a long time since I had to head down to the hock shop with a bag full of stuff to be able to swing rent. But no matter how much cash I’ll ever cobble together, there’s one ritual I cling to that’ll always remind me of my broke-ass days: The bin.
You know the bin. Most game stores have one. Beyond the regular titles shelved in neat little rows, there’s often a discount bin, filled with the little games that couldn’t. It might be tucked away in an overlooked corner, out of sight and mind, or nestled right beside the checkout in full display. Maybe it’s labeled “two for fifteen” or “as cheap as ten.” Sometimes there’s just a sticker than just reads $$$DISCOUNT$$$, based off that unspoken rule that the cheaper things get, the more dollar signs they deserve.
The bin is always in disarray. In some, games are stacked on top of games like cordwood, or all scrambled about with no rhyme or reason. This needn’t be a sign of neglect. No matter how often it is organized and put back into place, a bin will return to chaos the moment you turn your back on it – it is the bin’s natural state. It weathers a gauntlet of grubby little hands and fat little fingers, all flipping through the two dozen copies of High School Musical: Sing It! in search of a certain something … or, maybe, a certain anything that isn’t High School Musical: Sing It! The bin is disregarded and disrespected – and why not? These are not the games that everyone wants. These are the games that slip from the shelves bit by bit, edged out by newer, shinier titles, until they end up in that disorganized pile, cheap as dirt, waiting to be scooped up indifferently and disappear.
The bin is where games go to die.
Old Madden games that have the date of their obsolescence stamped on their face. Old MMOs with their servers empty or taken down. Weird and obscure stuff you’ve never heard of – knockoffs with oddly generic titles like Sword Lord 7 with bulgy, badly-drawn heroes on the case. Some games have layers of stickers pasted on their faces, a half-inch of little price tags, counting down to a fraction of their original price. Other games are designed to run on computers so old even your parents have long since upgraded. There’s something distasteful about sifting through this sort of cruft – especially when you really get in there, elbow deep, rooting through unknown titles smeared with fingerprints and sticker glue. It makes me feel like a vulture hunched over some bit of carrion. This is not prime cut. This is skin and bones.
But at the same time, I just can’t kick the bin. Any time I visit a store that has one, it’s my first stop – even if I’ve checked it recently, and even if I’m sure the contents haven’t changed. It’s not exactly a chore. It’s more a compulsion. I can’t not do it. I’ll check and recheck, hopeful that I’ve missed something mind-blowing, something game-changing. And of course it’s all rubbish – the same rubbish I saw yesterday, the same rubbish I’ll see tomorrow. But that’s the thing about us bin-divers, and our rummaging ways – we aren’t much for logic, and we live for the long odds.
Because it only takes one score to kindle someone’s rummaging spirit, to forever beckon them to the bin. Maybe it’s something you recognize, but had no idea you’d ever come across a copy, much less for that price and in such crummy company. Maybe it’s something obscure and innocuous, that you simply grab on a whim – and upon playing it, you realize it’s not just good, it’s great, and boggle at how easily you could have skipped right on by it. Or perhaps it’s as simple as finding a title for 15 bucks, and remembering when it was sixty, and feeling those precious forty-five dollars still sitting in your wallet when you ring it through. One score, big or little, can be enough to convince you that the bin is worth a second look, that it’s not just knockoffs and shovelware – that there’s gold in them thar hills.
Every now and then you find a scrap of something. Sometimes it’s strictly a money thing – a cracked copy of The Misadventures of Tron Bonne or Valkyrie Profile, or a mint cartridge of Star Fox: Super Weekend. Sometimes it’s a question of quality, like finding Grim Fandango sandwiched in among the Learn Spanish Easy CD-ROMs. And sometimes, it’s to give an underdog a chance – maybe Sword Lord 7 is a misunderstood gem. Maybe it’s a masterpiece! Or maybe it sucks, and you’re down five bucks. And, really, what’s five bucks? A box of Kleenex and a bad burrito.
I remember my own first find, the one that made me a bin-rooting believer. The funny thing is, it wasn’t even a videogame. I was traveling across Ontario to begin my first year at University, and my family had stopped for lunch in a small town we’d never been to before. Beside the diner there was a second-hand store. From the appearance, it could have sold anything. The front stoop was adorned with deer antlers, wind chimes, and weathered old Muskoka chairs. I had a minute, and I was curious so I poked on in. As it turned out, it was a bookstore, specializing in European classics. The walls were lined with Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, and the bored-looking proprietor was idly flipping through a worn softcover copy of Notes from Underground. I approached the man, and since I am a gentleman of discerning style and elegant taste, I asked him: “Got any comic books?”
I remember he wrinkled his nose, and said, “Whenever we get any, we put them in the bin in the back.” I had a look for myself, and it was pretty slim pickings – the only book that hadn’t been torn to shreds from neglect was a curious trade paperback with a night skyline and a shattered window on the cover. I took it to the guy at the counter, and he nodded, and said, “Yeah, I had a look at that one. It’s about a blue man with his penis out.” I bought it for a dollar.
And of course, that comic was a mutilated copy of Watchmen, and that blue penis rocked my world. Engrossed in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s seminal comics masterpiece, I entertained two thoughts. The first was a nagging sense of injustice – through what mistake could something like this end up in a pile of trash in the back, instead of out front where it belonged? If that store is dedicated to great literature, then here was one that slipped through the cracks.
My second thought was: A buck? I got this for a buck?
From this episode I’m tempted to say that a bin is a bin, and that all bin-rooters and junkhounds are created equal. But there’s something especially unusual about videogame bins, which trade on the dismissive ways we often treat our electronic media. For one thing, distinctions are made about the value of our media – not just as entertainment or as literature, but as literal, tangible objects. We are told that games, as electronics, are a quick fix, but ultimately disposable, doomed to obsolescence by the steady march of better and brighter operating systems and consoles. From this perspective, games more closely resemble the shredded pulp ephemera of comic books than the careful, curatorial reverence of literature “proper.” For another, there’s something about the bin that seems like a relic from yesteryear. The internet has changed how games are acquired, from the digital distribution of Steam, GoG, and games-on-demand services, to the extensive and esoteric purchasing opportunities of eBay.
Between these two technological impulses – that old games are doomed for the scrapheap anyway, and that any worthy contenders will be remastered in HD and to be downloaded at a moment’s notice – why rummage through unwanted games at all? There is something that seems obstinately old-fashioned about actually bargain-hunting at the bottom of a bin. And it is exactly from this perspective that Microsoft recently defended its Games on Demand pricing, saying that “our program is about giving people 24 x 7 convenience and selection when shopping for Xbox 360 games.” Translation: We as customers will pay a premium not to do the legwork, not to get our hands dirty, not to even put on pants.
But despite all this, the bin is still around. The bin will always be around, as long as there are games that don’t get bought, that slide unnoted between the seams of supply and demand. And perhaps there will always be people who still like to get their hands dirty, who thrill to it for one reason or another. Maybe they can’t stand to lose even a dollar on a mediocre title, and want to wait until the asking price bobs ever downward toward its personal value. Maybe they get a certain kick out of peeling price tag after price tag from the upper-right corner of their deeply-discounted game, watching the asking price go up and up, feeling like an archaeologist uncovering a precious relic. Or maybe they’re just truly, unrepentantly, unabashedly cheap, cheap, cheap. Cheap enough to muck about where others fear to tread. Cheap enough to put on pants.
So I am a believer in the bin and its mysteries. It’s dusty, and sticky, and faintly embarrassing, but I’ll get right in there every time, and root around like a pig looking for truffles. Because for me, beyond everything else, the bin is a source of comfort. A comfort that, beyond triple-A preorder bonuses and review aggregators telling you what you should and shouldn’t waste your money on, there might be something we’re missing: the simple thrill of discovery. The discovery of a great game in an odd place, or a better-than-bad one plucked out of the stinkers. It’s here that money matters melt away – because when you get right down to it, the bin is never about what you’re looking to save. It’s about what you’re willing to find.[byline]Brendan Main is cheap enough to put on pants, but just barely.[/byline]