Tag Archives: Ernest Cline

The Last Present Under the Tree

The Last Present Under the Tree

In that cliché sort of way, it’s a First World problem. Presented with some sort of wrapped gift, whether Christmas morning, the last day of Hanukkah, or your birthday, you are hopeful. It doesn’t matter the size or shape or what you just received from another covered parcel, you are filled with some blind optimism. I call it blind because you don’t know what you are expecting or want to expect, but your hopes are high. Without knowing what is underneath this Sunday funnies garb, it could, quite literally, be anything. You’ll pick it up, weight it, rattle it around, but whatever estimations going through your head are quickly cast aside in favor of that eternal positivity.

The thoughts often manifest in ill-terminated “what if” questions. What if…and some nebulous idea finishes the statement. A feeling of what could be possible takes hold, and feelings are always poorly defined. Even if it’s a giant, horse-shaped box with a bow on it and all you’ve ever wanted your whole life was a pony, the sensation of anticipating your new equine friend overtakes any amount of reason and words begin to fail. It’s an amorphous feeling of sanguine suspicion, not yet and never ready to be put into a tangible anything.

With video games, it’s a reaction I get, oddly enough, only when I finish them. It’s never when I’m playing them or even right before I remove the plastic shrink wrap on the case and put the disc into my console; it’s only when the credits begin to roll do I gain this impression that there’s simply more. Of course I get all jittery and anxious like some addict when I’m presented with a present—it’s only natural and I’m only human—but this is different. This is the last present. Everything you didn’t know you wanted is contained within the walls of your mind as you face down this one last gift.

Have you ever heard the bit of advice about flipping a coin when you can’t decide between two things? You pick one thing for heads and another for tails and you flip the coin. As it tumbles about through the air, your heart will jump and flutter but in the final moments before it hits the ground, your true desires will bubble up and you hope for heads or tails to roll around. It’s a bit of a romantic notion, but it generally holds true.

And what are video games if not visual representations of the romantic? Exploration, at its very core, is about romance, that hope to find some love you didn’t know existed. I can tell you that Ferdinand Magellan didn’t get on that boat because he was bored; he hoped that whatever lies beyond the horizon was what he had been looking for his whole life.

Beyond that horizon for us gamers is what lies beyond the edges of the game. Ever since that Easter Egg in Adventure that squirreled away the sole credit of the game in some secret dungeon, players have been hypnotized by the notion that more lay just outside our grasp in these digital worlds. Search and scouring in the face of no promises and no guarantees just might be about the most romantic cliché there is.

Just today, there was a Eurogamer article about the entire practice of taking apart Shadow of the Colossus, the second PlayStation 2 classic from Team Ico. A dedicated group of “secret-seekers” have been using glitches and grand extrapolations of in-game lore to find that Last Big Secret. Threads years and years old would describe in painstaking detail theories and experiments in attempting to reach the top of the already known Secret Garden or find that elusive 17th colossus. This collection of passionate individuals was attempting to manually break down whatever walls Fumito Ueda had put up between them and the grand reveal.

All of this—years of studying and collaborating and tinkering—took place in spite of never being told that anything even exists beyond the edge of the world. Explorers just the same as Magellan with no promise that there was such a thing, they went at it using the few tools at their disposal: hope and ingenuity. They still saw that one last present and were shaking it for all its worth.

Romance, however, and the mysteries it contains is a finite resource in the oddest way. Each person comes to it and mines what they want or need from it and move on, using what is taken in the moment they scoop it up. The love of discovery dissipates and the gift is left battered and crinkled on the side of the road, discarded like a piece of trash. But the mystery is renewed when someone else comes along and wonders the same thing: what’s inside this box? It feels an awful lot like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a novel about a boy uncovering the first secret of many in a long abandoned (or, rather, dismissed) scavenger hunt for untold treasures. Those before him have taken what they can from the hunt, but his love is new, and his bounty growing.

That gift, though, gets opened, and nothing is left to be renewed or harvested. Christmas ends, your birthday part is over, and Magellan makes it home. The mystery is laid bare and you finally know the secrets previously contained within. In the case of these secret-seekers, a hacker breaks the game wide open through an emulator and snaps them all awake. There is nothing behind Celosia’s door, there is nothing above the Secret Garden, and Shadow of the Colossus contains no Last Big Secret. It is a sobering realization, and one that leaves you feeling cold and abandoned by someone who was always going to leave you but you never believed.

That one last gift, that single box left still wrapped up in its shiny green and polka-dotted paper and its gaudy little bow, never really goes away, though. It’s not about unwrapping everything you see but finding the mystery that surrounds them and reveling in the romantic notion that anything and everything could be just one shred of paper away. These secret-seekers are just the same as you and I. We all subscribe to the same idea that the unknown is amazing and the unknown is stunning. Albert Einstein said that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious, and in these moments of trying to look beyond the horizon to the edge of the world, I’m inclined to agree.

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Seeking Closure, Finding Resonance

If my friends had to describe me in two words, they would probably be “emotionally” and “dead.” All right, that’s probably a bit of a stretch, but I am fairly sure that I do have some sort of psychosis, not entirely undue to watching 90s cartoons like The Ren & Stimpy Show and the like (seriously, those original Nicktoons were kind of messed up). The advent of the Internet didn’t help either as otherwise disturbing, saddening, or whatever things instead became litmus tests for normality.

The number of movies that have significantly moved me emotionally could be counted on two fingers. Every evocative piece of art usually only brings about a singular feeling of mild curiosity but definitely nothing substantial. Some songs make me want to dance and some pictures make me want to fall asleep in a sunlit meadow, but books have the greatest kill count of feels for me, the most recent being Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

The most consistent medium, however, for eliciting some sort of deep, unfettered response has been video games. Per title, each game brings out more unique or extreme emotions than any of those other forms of entertainment. That’s not to say it happens a lot, but it is more consistent. Both The Walking Dead and Journey, for instance, get me all riled in up in vastly different ways but to almost equal extent.

I bring the entire topic up because yesterday Justin Korthof of Robot Entertainment sent a tweet asking, “What is the most emotional a game has ever made you?” The common responses he culled were Halo 3, Journey, Gears of War 2, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Red Dead Redemption, and Heavy Rain. That’s a pretty good list, although really I could only personally agree with Journey. The rest I’d felt little more than saddening indifference. I actually thought Halo: Reach and Gears of War 3 were more moving than Halo 3 and Gears of War 2, but hey, to each his own.

Red Dead Redemption was an interesting notion, though. True to its name, at the end of the game, I felt an immense sense of redemptive closure after the epilogue. The pseudo-end was bittersweet more than sad to me as it was building up to that moment since the start of the third act, but the ending ending was—dare I say—incredible. Perhaps it was the combination of the low key cowboy lifestyle preceding the final all-out action sequence with melancholic topper, but it really hit hard once the credits started rolling. It was closure I’d rarely felt in life let alone in a video game.

So when I found out a friend of mine had just made it back to Beecher’s Hope (he’d just picked up the game of the year edition for cheap), I told him to pause it so I could drive over and watch him play it out. I wanted to know that after these past couple of years, my time with John Marston was not wasted.

My friend is a bit of an oddball in that he has a very…unique take on locked doors, i.e. he doesn’t. Neither do his parents, which I guess is where he gets it. He does, however, lock his car, which is strangely enough the only thing to ever be stolen from him. This makes it interesting to drop in on him because you don’t need to stop to call him or ring the doorbell or anything. You just walk on in.

And when I walked in, I saw him not playing Red Dead Redemption but rather Shadow of the Colossus. I’d only lent it to him via the Ico HD collection two days ago but I knew he’d burned through about 10 colossi on the first night. The first thing I see, however, is something I’d likely repressed. Repressed for seven years and now brought forth by witnessing him make the last move to the 16th and final colossus.

Agro had fallen.

Agro, the horse you’d spent the entirety of this incredible journey with, this companion that has been with you long before you arrived in this forbidden land, had been taken away from you. It suddenly all came back to me that not only now was I feeling everything that I’d felt all those years ago but also so much more. Even though I knew she was fine in the end, watching Agro fall after seven years of pent-up and unchecked depression was overwhelming in the most severe of ways.

And when my friend dropped his controller and looked back at me, mouth agape, bewildered by what had just happened to his one friend in this dire, empty world, I just had to walk back outside. It was just too much.

No tears were shed, though. I am, after all, mostly dead inside.

Feel free to discuss in the comments below. Have you revisited any games and come away with a new regard? Has a game ever impacted you emotionally before? Shaped the way you lived your life? Tell us all about it!

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