I loved being a foreigner.
When I moved to Tokyo for my employer, I left behind possessions, a relationship and a whole way of life. The British contingent of our Tokyo office socialised, went places and did stuff as often as it could, a sort of professional replay of our student years. Conversation no longer covered sport or last night's telly: we talked about asking at a Koban where the train station was in Japanese, we talked about braving natto at our favourite izakaya, we talked about the Japanese women in the office putting out Valentine's Day chocolates with the note "Happy VD" attached. You can't have conversations like this living in your own country.
Despite the joy of having no possessions to own me, a year into my tour of duty I found myself buying a PC. And I began playing games again. The full-blooded environments of Thief and GTA III were astonishing. I excavated their experiences completely, devoting all the hours required to know them.
I wanted their secrets.
I wasn't happy returning to the UK and having to stop talking about Japan. Back here there's only so many times you can start a conversation with "When I lived in Tokyo..." before you burn out your audience. I was thinking ahead: I never had any intention to settle in Japan, a sure fire way to turn your love for the country into something more negative.
There was also a Mrs. HM in my life now. You know you have chosen well when your wife is unable to stop playing the original Thief until 5am.
I played Thief: Deadly Shadows after Mrs. HM had completed it. Hints had been dropped on the internet about some awesome level, something about a cradle, something more frightening than the stunning Haunted Cathedral of the original game. When I reached this fabled level, it was too late in the evening to play through it.
But such hunger to taste just a small bite of Shalebridge Cradle! I wanted at least one scare out of it before heading off to bed. A quick jog into the level and I was surprised to find nothing surprising. I kept looking around for a hair-turn-white moment and eventually found a staircase. So as not to spoil it for those who have never experienced it: what happened on that staircase maxed out my adrenaline.
But I wanted more and continued to run around, seeking out more scares. I realised slowly, with dread, that I had destroyed this, the most anticipated of levels. I had run around an environment designed for a player with tentative, respectful steps, rewarding him or her with heart-stopping levels of sweaty fear. The Cradle was about atmosphere and anticipation. Broken. Ruined. Killed. The Big Mac approach to playing games.
What I didn't know at the time was that this was a glimpse of my future.
Rock Paper Shotgun is the devil on your shoulder that whispers: 'Wouldn't that be a nice game to play, don't you think?'
It was RPS who made me ask family to get Sins of A Solar Empire for Christmas. As a game, it was a lot to pick up and learn, particularly as Sins was my first foray into the 4X genre, yet fun is what I had. But playing just one game had sapped weeks.
At this point, my gaming time had degenerated into scraps here and there. I could often go weeks without touching a single game. What if I wanted to get better at Sins or play other scenarios, other races? I wouldn't play anything else for a whole year.
I was also starting to shirk my duty as a game completionist. I just didn't have time to waste on completing something which was anything less than total fun. And the new plague of badges and achievements were meaningless to me, nothing more than another vampire drain on my time. Get the gnome in the rocket in Half-Life: Episode Two? Are you insane?
To this day, I have not played a second game of Sins.
I fired it up but was tired, lacking the ability to concentrate. I ran around, not stopping to read any of the text being presented nor appreciating the art of this alien place someone had constructed for my benefit. I got angry with myself for squandering another new experience.
My gaming had turned into a loveless marriage: going through the motions, getting nothing out of it.
I'd become a shallow player who couldn't live without quick save for fear of losing seconds, a player unable to embrace anything with depth, demanding optimal play that tutorialises via blipverts and works the pleasure centres instantly. Behind me, narrative and art; ahead, Bejewelled and Tetris. Was this my fate? A gamer of thirty years, raised on Adventure, on Planetfall, on Ultima IV, lost in a forest of casual gaming?
The Real Question
Mrs. HM and I have been playing one particular video game for two years now:
And the long-awaited follow-up is released in the next couple of months. This particular game has unique rules, most of which are transient and in no way obvious. The levels are varied and exciting. But this game eats up time like no other.
Now this is the point where you would expect me to come out with a platitude like "this is all the video game that I need". I'm afraid not. I'm not a cliché in some Hollywood elevator pitch.
In the past, I just had to decide whether I wanted to spend some spare time credits on PC gaming. Present day, I'm bankrupt. There's just no such thing as "spare time" now; there's always something constructive and useful I could be getting on with that I've put off to tomorrow for at least 17 tomorrows. My relationship with games has boiled down to a simple question I never needed to ask before: 'Are games important enough to me that I need to make time for them?'
And the inescapable truth of my story is this: yes, they are.
Even back in Tokyo when I was footloose and fancy-free exploring a foreign land, I found myself hankering after a game of Half-Life. Watching a video of Every Day I Dream The Same Dream is not the same as playing it. Listening to someone tell you about that brilliant moment in Bioshock doesn't come close to the excitement of experiencing it first hand. Covetous can disturb a player with his very participation; a horror story on screen or in print can't do that. And I will never forget the emotional power of Deionarra's sensory stone in Planescape: Torment.
I'll play that second game of Sins. I just don't know when.