Wednesday, 28 September 2011

A Proliferation of Worlds

I am clearly in a nostalgic mood and preoccupied by gaming at the moment. The gaming thing is because I'm supposed to be studying for an accountancy exam in November, and I don't have the energy to really read much fiction after I've given up reading about the marketing mix or HR strategy. When I'm in this half-hearted study mode, gaming ends up as the main imaginative activity I engage in: the manual, problem solving elements are soothing and the escapism requires less effort from me to sustain.

As with probably a great many people, as a child I read games magazines at a rate that far outstripped my ability to purchase the games they described. I got my SNES somewhere around 95/96, upgrading from a well-loved Gameboy on which I'd played and been entirely enraptured by both The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening and Mystic Quest (AKA, Final Fantasy Adventure in the US).

Mystic Quest in particular stirred something in me. I got it after having played Link's Awakening and in the hope of finding a similar experience. Link's Awakening, as I talked about in my other blog (linked above), is beautiful because it is so tightly contained, so much itself. As you unlock its secrets it only gives you more of itself and doesn't take anything away, balancing challenge against player skills rather than character level. Mystic Quest was messier, more relentlessly forward driven and less dream-like. The gameplay was flawed, but compelling, unsentimental in stark contrast to the story itself as you were encouraged to upgrade weapons and armour constantly, discarding what once seemed legendary as worthless flak as your power grows. A memento of a vanquished foe became nothing more than a source of cash to by more healing potions. Similarly, once you finished in an area and moved on the likelihood of returning was slim, or even explicitly made impossible - this was a march toward progress, not an exploration of a new world. It was a story about ignoring doubts and doing what was right. I didn't love it, but I found it compelling, and I have found console RPGs like it intriguing ever since.

Unfortunately, where I lived in Lewisham, the second hand section of the games store wasn't exactly swimming with console RPGs. Although I did manage to pick up a copy of A Link to the Past (still one of my favourite games ever) I had to save up for it for months to buy it new, and it was the only RPG I think I ever saw in that shop. And yet the mid-90s was a grand old time for the genre, and I was reading obsessively about these incredible sounding worlds full of adventure and weirdness: Breath of Fire II, Illusion of Time, The Secret of Mana. All worlds I would have loved to explore - bristling with long, complex stories and difficult, imperfect, number-based gameplay that was well-suited to a difficult, imperfect, number-loving teenager.

Except for an overnight stint spent playing the first 5 hours of Final Fantasy VII on a friend's PS1 without a save space, (and an odd game with a dragon that you could fly across a rolling globe, which I managed to run on a mac-based emulator that I can't remember anything else about), it wasn't until I was in my twenties that I actually started playing console RPGs properly. Even so, I can only really play one every year or so, because the amount of time that they take up is so huge - that imperfect gameplay often resolving into a horrendous grind for levels.

Each one is a world on it's own, and the problem with these worlds is that they proliferate endlessly. I couldn't possibly play all the games I missed as well as all the games coming out now, though even now I have copies of Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy VII in my cupboard, and all the others are instantly accessible with emulators and ROMS. They remain instead the unexplored alternative paths of my childhood, their stories existing only in the way that I imagined that they must, their secrets forever refused.

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