Once upon a time and long, LONG ago, I stood with my little brother, my face pressed against a glass case at Electronics Boutique, looking at all of the precious gray cartridges inside. We wanted Super Mario Bros. 3, but the gentleman behind the counter informed us that it was all sold out, and we walked out of the store in tears.
My young brain scrambled for an alternative, and once we arrived at the spot the car was parked, I reminded my mother that the local movie rental place had started renting video games, and begged her to take us there to see if THEY had the game. I informed her I was likely to die if I didn’t somehow get a copy THAT DAY, and I was certain she didn’t want to kill her eldest child. Clearly irritated, she started to tell me no, but my quivering lower lip must have changed her mind, because she told me to shut up and get in the car instead.
All of the copies of Super Mario Bros. 3 but one had been rented, and I held the remaining copy to my chest as though it was a life preserver and I was adrift in the ocean, surrounded by sharks. When we got home, I put it right in the NES and turned it on. I even let my little brother play a few levels when I was tired or frustrated. I think this was the point of no return for me, when I realized gaming was what I wanted to do in my spare time, and no other leisure activity would do. I was a gamer.
Throughout the life cycle of the SNES, the Sega Genesis, the Saturn, PlayStation, and Dreamcast, I played constantly. I preferred RPGs, platformers, fighting games, and strategy games, but I’d play just about anything. I skipped class to play when I was in grade school, and I played whenever I had a second of free time in college. When the PlayStation 2 came along, my husband and I spent a fortune to buy it, two games, and all the extra components when it launched. When the Xbox arrived, we faithfully bought it, but we never really bought much to play on it. Then the new crop of consoles came out and the new games we bought started to dwindle.
All of a sudden, we were collecting older games instead of buying new ones. We simply weren’t interested in sports titles, or first person shooters. There were a few stand outs: Grand Theft Auto IV, Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid 4, Halo 3… but nothing really demanded we wait in line outside at midnight to get it. It started to feel as though we had played a game exactly like every game coming out. Activision and EA started acquiring developers left and right and shutting them down. Creativity was at an all-time low.
Suddenly, we heard whispers about good games coming out on WiiWare and Xbox Live Arcade. World of Goo and Geometry Wars, to be specific. I bought them, and I was not disappointed. Soon, the only games I played were games I’d downloaded, like Scott Pilgrim and Fat Princess and Echochrome. I realized what had been missing from all the AAA titles that had been forced down my throat for years: fun. Great gameplay had been replaced with better looking graphics and orchestral soundtracks. Swollen budgets had made publishers afraid to take a chance on quirky titles that might not sell millions of copies, so they made sequels to the games they’d already made that worked. And we, the gamers, suffered.
Then Steam paved the way for people to download games to their computer safely, and provided little-known developers exposure alongside the bigger budgeted titles. Apple released the iPhone and revolutionized mobile gaming. The interesting things you could now download on your phone, every major console, and PC started an upswell in interest in independent development. People started getting creative. Boundaries were pushed. Major gaming conventions started showcasing independent development and journalists got the word out.
Then somebody realized that it would be cool to have a website where people could actually fund independently developed projects themselves. Then Tim Schafer made over a million dollars for an untitled adventure game on that website. The word was out, and Kickstarter exploded with all kinds of projects, sometimes weird, sometimes terrible, and sometimes amazing.
I sat in on the Gamers With Jobs panel at PAX East 2012 and listened as Ken Levine told the audience that they were lucky. That this is a golden age of gaming. And he’s right. It finally sunk in yesterday afternoon when my husband sent me a text, asking me if I’d seen a game on Kickstarter called The Banner Saga. I watched the video, and felt tears come to my eyes as they thanked everyone who’d supported them, and expressed disbelief that they’d managed to make almost seven times their original goal. They too, called this a “renaissance” in gaming, and I was forced to agree. We now have an unprecedented ability to see the kinds of games we’d like to play made for us. It makes me feel a real solidarity with the community again.
When I was a kid, I was a gamer. I knew what that meant, and I embraced it. Then my definition of what a gamer was changed so many times, I lost my way. Was I hardcore? Was I casual? Did I even want to play video games anymore? We were on the verge of a nasty breakup, I think. Now, amidst the maelstrom of creativity and access, I think can say I’m a gamer again, and it feels good, man. I’m home.