labyrinthine tree is, for me, enmeshed with the night
dad stayed out late without calling and the screaming
that ensued when he returned. Was there a thundering
summer storm outside or were the floor tiles unbearably
cold? Did we have the old couch? Carpet or hardwood?
What year? What I remember are the castle town walls and
the themes of the king and the shopkeep. Time is marked
by the procession of games, the games are marked by
their time. They are windows into moments in years I
deliberately occluded from memory, they are skins shed
that reveal the shapes of past selves.
SMB3 is the elation at receiving the cartridge for good behavior and few Incidents during the semester, and the desperate frustration upon realizing it was too difficult for me, and watching The Wizard, understanding nothing but that it was about Nintendo, that I vaguely wanted or wanted to be Fred Savage in danger, that I vaguely wanted or wanted to be his girlfriend in danger, that I vaguely wanted to be crushed by the mean kid’s Power Glove in the same way I lusted for most fictional bullies, and that I clearly needed to be as preternaturally gifted as the younger brother to compensate for my strangeness, emotions raging out of control, the ever present dread that I had to demonstrate my value or risk being Sent Away (as happened in stories, such as Southern gothic yarns about which family members had been in the in-sane asylum.) Mario fell once more into the fucking lava and I covered my arm with a sleeve of bitemarks.
My experiences with 8- and 16- bit games were co-authored by a child mind I can recollect or simulate but never truly return to. I can work to understand what they meant to me at those times in my life, but setting out to make a Zelda game I’ll enjoy in 2013 the same way I enjoyed Zelda in 1987 is charting an expedition to a continent that sank. Adventures in this vein are usually founded on the premise that we can understand those experiences as adults clinically surveying the work of other adults. We say that NES Metroid, as a piece of design, isn’t supposed to be bewildering and glitchy and impossible; Super Metroid refined it into an experience anyone could complete without consulting a guide, and in doing so set a template to be cloned endlessly for the next two decades (and beyond.) When I solved Super Metroid’s puzzles, I felt like the baddest bounty hunting bitch in space. NES Metroid lived in a TV screen in dismal rainy Northern Georgia and it was a craggy, ugly, jagged, sprawling, claustrophobic deathtrap designed to crush me as I tried to escape the stress of travel, the stress of beercans and adults bellowing with laughter as they morphed into pod people for the evening, the stress of encounters with a branch of family irretrievably corrupted by real evil. There was no catharsis in defeating virtual, yet tangible demons as proxies for real, yet intangible ones. The labyrinth of the game was the struggle against the invisible given form. It was an articulation of despair, loneliness, suffering, boredom, subservience to icy, remote, indifferent authority and a gradual grinding down of the will to continue.
This was my experience with many such games that held me in a kind of erotic thrall as I tested their boundaries and found it was safe to be defeated there, safe to be weak, safe to be angry but helpless, safe to be ashamed, safe to cry like a baby when again my little surrogate hit the lava, the spikes, the electrified floor. I ostensibly played these games to win but I mostly only ever lost. In those deaths, in the monsters and structures that caused them, in the Game Over screens was a simple acknowledgement: I had been harmed.
My child mind was not capable of dissecting an experience to understand how it met my needs or selecting an experience targeted towards seeing those needs met; this was all as haphazard and stupid and arbitrary as much else in my life at the time. In my present life, when I need to be crushed I can directly ask someone nice to crush me. Where does that leave Link and Samus?
What happened when I played Metroid was real, in that I did experience it, and unreal, in that you won’t find it on the cartridge. I could say the same for most anything else I touched in that era. Understanding those experiences takes time, patience, introspection, and observation. That those primal experiences (which also constitute the Important Canonical Works in the Medium) are broadly understood instead as pieces of code or level maps to dissect is why so much game design and criticism is stalled on the notion that games “progress” in the same way we understand “progress” in the development of e-mail apps or household appliances.
Narratives of progress aren’t a threat to games, they’re a threat to you. If you’re roughly my age and feel you hold almost the whole of home gaming history in your head and life experiences, you’re poised to declare yourself master of a world that will disappear in ten minutes, when the next wave of kids have no idea what you’re talking about, when changes in the means by which games are produced and distributed render obsolete concepts and working methods you may have accepted as intrinsic to any interactive medium. The canonized Metroid and Zelda are specific accounts of what the experiences of those games were. A canon is curated to describe the present by charting the past, and embedded within is the notion of locating the origins of key concepts and tracking them through subsequent works; beware self-serving analysis which constructs an artform’s history in just such a way that the architects of the list are centered as the present torchbearers of The Fine Old Lineage of Ideas.
If you want to reach into the past, do the personal work of understanding what was fascinating or lovable or useful in your experiences. Don’t look in a software catalog--go to your memories, to pieces of your actual life where the software happened to be. Find those invisible, half-real phantom games and, in creating, give those phantoms their offspring.