When was the first time you can remember playing a videogame? My first gaming memory comes courtesy of Virgin Atlantic; I was on a flight from London to New York, and there was a SNES built into the back of the seat in front (more specifically, it was a Nintendo Gateway System). I think I managed to play Super Mario World for the entire of the 8-hour flight, and I don’t think I managed to beat the first level. I was 7 years old.
I remember my childhood in fragments; snatches of times and places arranged into a haphazard narrative of things I did when I was little. I’m not sure if I remember more or less of my childhood than most people; I have friends who remember their early years with storybook accuracy and others who remember next to nothing, so my patchy recollections are probably about average.
What I know for sure is that the memories that are most vivid for me are the ones that involved strong emotions. Lots of things trigger strong emotions when you’re a child. Getting an awesome Bugs Bunny cake when I was maybe three, then being distraught to see it cut up into chunks. Playing a particularly great tag/swordfighting hybrid with friends in some nondescript play park. Getting so impatient with my mum not paying attention to me that I bit her hand, hard, and immediately feeling overwhelming remorse.
Media triggers strong emotions when you’re a child. I vividly remember the room at my grandparents’ house where I sequestered myself and finished Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass for the first time. I can remember the exact smell of the room as I put the book down and spent the next ten minutes just trying to digest what I was feeling.
Videogames feature heavily in my memories of childhood. Perhaps it’s something in the interactivity of the medium that let me get more invested in my childhood games than in books or films. When I was really young I would conscript videogame stories and elements into my real-life play; in that way my game life and my real life became intertwined.
There are family holidays that I remember entirely through the filter of videogames. I can remember the exact point that I stopped playing Final Fantasy VII to go on a summer trip to the island of Menorca. I remember diving for rare materia in the hotel swimming pool, obtaining cans of ‘Hyper’ from street vending machines, and the beautiful Cuitadella de Menorca will always remain in my memory as a night-lit extension of Cosmo Canyon.
There’s a holiday which I remember almost nothing about except one journey in the back of a rented car during which I climbed Victory Road in Pokemon Silver. I can’t remember which country we were even in, but I vividly remember the grimy carpark where I finally caught a Skarmory.
Perhaps it says something about me that my holiday memories are not about beautiful architecture or exotic locations, but about videogames. I prefer to think it says something about children; kids, on the whole, have really shitty priorities. But shitty priorities can still beget strong emotions, and strong emotions are how we form memories – real science people with fancy degrees have confirmed it. When you’re a kid catching a rare Pokemon elicits more emotion than any number of fancy old buildings.
Replaying some of my favourite games today is like navigating a map of childhood memories. There’s a particular part of Final Fantasy IX that I can’t play without recalling, in detail, the interior of the room in my friend’s house where we stayed up half the night to beat it. There’s a stretch of road in Final Fantasy X that cannot fail to recall the time a group of us camped in someone’s garden with an extension cable, a tiny television and a PS2. Yes, I played a lot of Final Fantasy as a kid.
I’m going to go out on a non-scientific limb and suggest that there’s a point during our formative years when media affects us more powerfully, when we form more vivid memories and stronger ties to a particular book, film or videogame than we would if we’d played it as an adult. I think that this influences the conversations we have about games today.
Let’s look at Final Fantasy VII – because no, I don’t feel I’ve spent enough time on this particular franchise already – widely considered the most popular Final Fantasy title to date. This is always a pretty fraught debate, but I bet if you polled everyone who considers themselves a Final Fantasy fan and asked them which the best Final Fantasy game is, the most popular answer would be Final Fantasy VII.
I don’t think so many people consider Final Fantasy VII the best in the series because they really objectively think that it’s the best mechanically, aesthetically or in terms of story, though these are all factors as to why people love that game so much. I think that much of the lasting appeal has to do with Final Fantasy VII being released at a time when the kinds of people who get involved in discussions about which is the best Final Fantasy were at an age when such a game could leave a visceral, lasting emotional impression on them.
Final Fantasy VII was my first Final Fantasy game and, as such, it will always have a special place in my heart over many possibly better games that I’ve played since.
Media marketers are aware of this phenomenon. That’s why there are more extraneous games and other media related to Final Fantasy VII than any other entry in the series. Much of it isn’t very good, but this often doesn’t matter to the dedicated fan. I’ve yet to be impressed by anything from the ‘extended universe’ of Final Fantasy VII, yet I’ll admit I’ve watched and played much of it – and made a much more concerted effort to like it than I would with an unrelated product – just because it’s got Sephiroth in it. And while my adult self may be able to admit that perhaps Sephiroth was never actually that cool to begin with, my internal 10-year old will hear none of it.
If you can develop a piece of media that can cause a visceral emotional reaction in children, then you’ve made a fan for life. Look at the enduring popularity of classic Disney films among both children and adults. Childhood memory association is part of the reason why so many indie developers automatically reach for comfortable 8- and 16-bit graphics almost by default. It’s why Marvel are comfortable announcing their future film releases all the way up to 2020. It’s why our cinemas are full of reboots of 80s franchises like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Robocop and Transformers.
It’s also, incidentally, why a movie based on children’s toys seems to feature an inordinate amount of Megan Fox’s ass. Movie producers are well aware that they are marketing to two distinct audiences; the first is children new to Transformers who just want to watch cool robots punching each other, and the second is grown men gritting their teeth through another Michael Bay butchering of their beloved childhood franchise, but unable to tear themselves away because goddamn it, it’s Transformers.
As a relatively young medium, videogames have a pretty short time-frame for this generational shift to take place. The oldest someone can be and reasonably claim to be a fan of videogames is about 42. Thinking in real-person years and not tech-industry years, that’s really not that old. There’s only about half a lifetime’s worth of nostalgia that games industry can mine.
So it makes sense that our most popular games are still basically Quake; you can bet a fair number of the people who worked on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare grew up with early FPS games like Doom and Wolfenstein. It makes sense, too, that a good deal of our independently developed games are side-scrolling platformers. Those are the games these developers will likely have the strongest memories of growing up with, so that is what encapsulates a videogame for them.
I’ll freely admit that were I given unlimited budget and resources I’d make a massive, sprawling RPG that would end up basically being a 90s-era Final Fantasy title. Because those were the games that affected me most as a child, so they remain, in my most vivid memories, the pinnacle of the art form.
Outside of obvious personal bias, I’m not really that interested in seeing a Final Fantasy title developed by someone like me. What I am interested in is what the next generation of games developers will produce, those future-people who are impressionable children right now.
They probably won’t have grown up obsessing over Super Mario or Final Fantasy or Half Life; their formative memories will be of Minecraft, Skylanders and DayZ. There’s probably a child out there somewhere right now, holidaying on some unremembered Spanish island, playing videogames in the back of a rented family car. Except instead of playing Pokemon on a GameBoy Colour, they’re playing Disney Infinity on an iPad.
When they grow up, they’ll be reminiscing about entirely different sorts of games to those that we do. And should they go on to become game designers, they will be designing around an entirely different set of founding principles. And while the nostalgic part of me, the inner child that would love nothing more than to see my favourite types of media churned out again and again, is kind of scared at what that means, the adult me cannot wait to see what the videogames of today inspire the next generation of designers to create.