Before the age of the internet, it was much more difficult for a gamer to get information on what he or she wanted to play. Once a month you got your game magazine, more often if you read a couple. Other than that, you had your friends and their opinions. As we all eventually learn, sometimes your friends are wrong.
My friend Allen, he who put me onto Link to the Past, had pretty good taste in games; we shared our love for Super Metroid, the Legend of Zelda games, the Street Fighter series, and a whole host of other games that are indisputable classics. Over time, I came to accept that he knew what he was talking about, and he basically did. But not always.
Allen didn’t like role playing games (save for Zelda, which is only sort of an RPG anyway). I hadn’t played many, and I was too young when I had played them to appreciate what they were doing. When he told me that Illusion of Gaia was not good, I took him at his word. After all, he knew what was good, so why would I doubt him?
Random chance and the vagaries of game rental combined to show me the error of my ways. I rented Mega Man X2, played it, enjoyed it a lot. The thing is, when I got it home, it had the instruction booklet for Illusion of Gaia in the case. I surmised that someone had rented both games at once and mixed up the manuals when they packed them up to go. Rather than doing the simple thing and telling the clerk at Blockbuster about the mistake, I used teenager logic and decided that my next rental would be for the purposes of reuniting that manual with its game, which I purportedly wouldn’t enjoy. (I call it teenager logic, but the truth is that I still make decisions with the same sort of reasoning. It probably explains a lot.)
When I got the game home, it took about ten minutes for me to realize that Allen was wrong. I was honestly confused about his distaste for it, in fact. Illusion of Gaia is not a Final Fantasy-esque traditional Japanese RPG, but is very much in the vein of Zelda, surpassingly fun action-RPG. Past that, though, was the story. I’ve talked about how I like my story, and there was a surprisingly complex multi-character narrative to be had here.
As Will and his friends traveled the world searching for family, love, etc., something surprising happened: I realized that the world they were traveling was ours, or at least a version thereof. Sure, the geography was a little shaky, and the culture ran somewhere between “a little off” and “surreal”, but the locations were places that I could go. Video games are famously (or sometimes infamously) about escaping reality, but who says that putting a little bit of reality into the game couldn’t help with suspension of disbelief?
As I traveled the world, fighting all manner of batshit enemies and uncovering the really weird secrets of the story, I finally (and admittedly a little belatedly) came to realize something: the only opinions on games that matter are my own.
People who play games have traditionally been pigeonholed into a monoculture, as though all gamers are interchangeable. Even as the industry grew after it was resurrected by the success of the NES, through the increased exposure offered by every console generation, we were still referred to as “gamers” by those who didn’t play.
(This never ends completely, of course. A few years ago, George F. Will implied that people over the age of 18 who play video games should lose their right to vote. I respectfully disagree.)
But why is “gamer” so often deployed a pejorative? I have many faults, but I do not think any of them can be blamed on video games. The media that a given person chooses to consume may seem perverse to someone else, but that is what choice is about; if you do not like it, then maybe it just is not for you. People decried modernist architecture and color in film and the very concept of the novel once upon a time, but what was really great about those things is that you could still choose not to consume them. If you like it (assuming that it is legal), then why shouldn’t you live in it or watch it or read it? Or play it?
After Gaia, I started drifting further and further afield, discovering things for myself. Turns out, I really liked JRPGs. I also appreciated the abstractness of the sports games at the time. Maybe all this self-discovery was just a part of my transition from an awkward youth to an awkward young man; I started making choices about what music and movies I liked for myself around the same time. I can’t separate the why and the when, not really, but I do know that it was all mission-critical to shaping who I am today. For that, I apologize.
I never did ask Allen why he didn’t like Illusion of Gaia. I imagined then that the answer would have been something along the lines of his distaste for Final Fantasy III, which was that it was boring and the graphics weren’t very good. I don’t think his opinion is incorrect, as such, but it was an important step when I realized just how much I disagreed with him. Just like people should get to choose whether they enjoy a particular medium on their own, they should have their own opinions of what is good within it. That is why, when I played “Still Alive” and a friend of mine told me he hates the song and the game from which it springs, I simply told him that I could not possibly disagree with him more and dropped it. There was little point, to my way of thinking, to getting into a conversation about why he was wrong.
People are entitled to their stupid (friggin’) opinions.