This week I had one of those ‘imagine if your younger self could see you now’ moments.
It was at Sony’s Playstation Summer Showcase for journalists, a huge room in central London lined with gigantic plasma TVs, each blaring the promise of a Hot New Game to try. Friendly staff hovered with plates of fast food. There was even beer.
And I saw myself suddenly aged 14, a pallid virgin curled before the TV, battling monsters in Final Fantasy VII, controller bound to his palm with sweat.
He’d love to be here I thought, as I took in the bangs and crashes and swirls and the power ups and the sweaty-backed fan boys and the girl stood next to me underlining ‘GOBLIN CHASES SNOWBALL’ in her notebook.
So why do I wish I wasn't?
Gaming desperately wants to grow up. It’s been trying – like all of us – since the early stages of its adolescence, a period that began with Sony and the Playstation 1.
Since around that time – when games went ‘mainstream’ and started popping up in nightclubs and Lara Croft appeared on the cover of Face magazine – people who love video games have been wearily defending their habit with stuff about ‘proper story lines’ and ‘incredible graphics’ and that thing about them being bigger business than films nowadays.
And it’s worked, to an extent. The word ‘gamer’ no longer conjures up a spotty kid in square glasses but a man in his mid to late twenties, driving around a digital Silverstone or garroting a few terrorists to unwind at the end of a long day. A well-adjusted, perfectly charming, probably even quite successful man, indulging his inner child for an hour while his girlfriend gets ready.
In other words: exactly what I could be, if only I could reconnect with the magic – and it was magic, as much as reading or music or climbing trees – that gripped me fifteen years ago as I sat maneuvering Solid Snake around a cargo bay or whizzing across the skies in a spaceship from 2097.
But I can’t.
At the showcase, I played a forthcoming game called Beyond: Two Souls. Like The Last Of Us, it’s being cited as the latest proof games are catching up with films, using big budgets and real actors (in this case, Willem Dafoe) and proper storylines.
But you know what? When the cut scenes are finished, you’re still moving a person who looks like they’ve shit themselves into a door they inexplicitly can’t open. You’re still jumping into walls, looking for things to collect that aren’t there, trying to figure out how not to die. The more ‘film-like’ games get - the more the production values in Red Dead Redemption and Tomb Raider and the rest improve - the more absurd actually having to play them seems to feel. Why ruin a good story by having to start again because you fell off a cliff, or pause to find a fucking key? Why not just read a book?
I also played Driveclub, a racing game that works basically the same way as every racing game ever made, except that now, of course, it looks better than real life. The hills and lakes and sunsets you zoom past in your glistening pretend car are so gorgeous it’s heartbreaking. It just made me feel sad I wasn’t outside embarking on a real journey, smelling sweet fresh air instead of the fetid scent that seems to creep into any place video games are played in for too long.
And there’s the problem, I think. It’s not that games have changed that much – despite people feeling the need to pretend they have – it’s me.
Gaming was magical growing up because age, money, parents and social awkwardness conspired to limit the possibilities of real life. Now those boundaries are gone, I can’t play a game for more than half an hour without getting the nagging feeling that I’m wasting my time. The experience points and power ups and end bosses of my childhood have real life equivalents now. They're scarier and harder to figure out or achieve, but they're more fulfilling. By comparison, the stilted narratives, the inherent predictability, the inescapable repetitiveness of video games feel too frustrating. They just feel like what they are: imitations of real art, real senses of achievement, real life.
If my younger self really could have seen me stood in that gamer’s paradise, I would have had to tell him I’m sorry, but one day, he won't get it anymore. That the imagination and devotion it requires to lose himself in these make believe worlds will soon be beyond him. That against his will, he'll come to see them as silly and pointless and a part of him will always feel poorer for it.
Not that he’d have heard me, of course. He’d have been far too busy having fun.