I’ll never forget the end of Super Mario RPG, when, with their mission done, Geno ascends back into the sky and leaves his friends down below. After all the hours invested playing, it didn’t occur to me that at the end Geno, who’s only goal was to restore Star Road, would have to go home. I was a kid, and I gravitated towards titles that featured characters I liked more than how “good” they were. Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, EarthBound, all those SNES titles that so many people were enjoying at the time were lost on me, because I didn’t know any better. As a result, for all intents and purposes, Mario RPG was the first true RPG I ever played. I spent the whole time laughing at the oddball characters, soaking in the graphics, and tapping my toes to the excellent soundtrack. When it finally ended, though, I just wasn’t ready to let go; I believed it wasn’t right that my reward for beating the game was to lose a friend.
Deep narratives aren’t uncommon in video games, but not all of them resonate the same way for different people. Whereas some will site the twist at the end of the first BioShock as their favorite moment in gaming, others might say that triumphing over the Elite Four in Pokemon Diamond left them breathless. It sounds weird, but really, it’s the player’s attachment to any given title that makes the experience special. Take Super Mario Galaxy, for example. When Mario’s little Luma buddy throws himself into that vortex at the end, I’m crushed every time. I might have saved the day, but ultimately all I cared about was that the Luma was by my side, then he wasn’t. That was twice in my life that a Mario game made me think about loss, and each time was potent.
It’s an incredible thing to have a game connect with a player beyond just having fun. There’s a certain amount of escapism to video games, but I know that when I’m playing, for me there’s a lot more it it; I’m soaking in everything that’s on the screen in front of me. The design of the characters, the worlds, the sound of the music, the story, all of it is being absorbed by my brain. I’ve seen and done things that left me in awe in all my time gaming. I count leaving behind poor, brave Makar to guard the Earth Temple in Wind Waker right up there with watching Atticus Finch defend Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird. Pushing forward relentlessly to find the source of the pillar of light in Journey resonates as strongly to me as Gatsby reaching futilely towards the green light across the water in The Great Gatsby. The themes and tropes video games explore are just as compelling as the written word or projected film.
It’s important to recognize the depth of emotions and feelings that people have experienced in video games, because then it becomes easier to validate the industry outside of its own community. Twitch is great, or posting videos of playthroughs on YouTube, but it’s also integral that gamers move past the pure, visceral aspects of gameplay and take a deeper look at what these games mean, the stuff that lies under the surface. We’ve had enough talk of head shots and hidden rooms; it’s time to start saying what it all means. Think of when players saw Aerith die for the first time in Final Fantasy VII; thousands of people across the world were convinced that they did something wrong. PlayStations were reset, shutdown, or unplugged from sockets as a response, with some folks going so far as to even restart their entire playthrough. That’s an incredible moment in storytelling, let alone the industry, that only people who play games have any inkling of, and as time progresses it’s a memory that fades. Let’s do our best to recall and catalogue these experiences so that the legacy of gaming is more than negative news reports and congressional debates.