My Life in Games
14 Sep 2021
Games. I love ‘em. Always have, and probably always will.
I love how games are so…indefinable. Are they art or a sport? Solitary or social? Deep and introspective, or exciting and adrenaline pumping?
Well, in my opinion, it’s all of the above.
Games been an incredible source of comfort, entertainment, and inspiration to me over the years. They’re the perfect coalescence of creativity: art, music, and storytelling, bound together in a single package. And just like any other medium, they’ve left an indelible mark on my personality, shaping who I am over the years.
So, to celebrate National Video Games Day, I’m going to talk about the games that, while not necessarily being my favourite, have been most impactful on my life, and the lessons they have taught me.
The Legend of Zelda: Links Awakening
This was where it all started. Alpha and omega. My first gaming memory. Scrap that – my first ever memory. That’s right: the first thing I remember in life is sitting at the kitchen table, Gameboy clasped in my chubby four-year-old fingers, transfixed by the black and white (well, green and green) Dot Matrix screen in front of me.
This game was completely different to anything I had played before – which until that point was the brilliant-yet-one-note action of Tetris and the compromised platforming in Mario Land. This was an entire world baked into a cartridge, complete with towns, people, and more adventuring than you could shake an Ocarina at.
I could wax lyrical about the game: the beautiful pixel art; the chip tunes that are more epic and touching than they have any right to be (check out the end credit cut scene!); the morally ambiguous story that sees you slowly realise that the dreams of the Wind Fish – the sleeping whale whom you’re tasked with waking – contain all of reality. Wake the Wind Fish, and the island of Koholint (along with the friends you made on your adventure) would cease to exist.
In any case, it was when my young, illiterate brain was trying to decode the dialogue of the game’s colourful cast of characters that Link’s Awakening taught one of my most important lessons – particularly for a future copywriter: it taught me to read.
Who sent you your first Valentine’s Day card? A crush perhaps? Or your first girlfriend?
Mine was from a polar bear in a pink dress named Tutu.
You’ve probably heard of Animal Crossing on the Nintendo Switch. But I was chatting with animal villagers and haggling with capitalist raccoons back when the game was nothing but an oddity from Japan. In the age of mobile gaming and MMORPGs, it’s hard to appreciate the novelty of playing a game that utilised a real world clock. But at the time, it was incredible.
I found myself racing home from school to catch the furniture sale at Nook’s Cranny. I’d wake up early on Sunday morning to buy turnips from Joan. And on Christmas Eve, I’d stay until 2am to catch a glimpse of Santa delivering presents.
Secondary school isn’t easy for any teenager. But Animal Crossing showed me, whenever I felt lonely or disenchanted with life, I had a village teeming with friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) critters to spend my time with.
Nintendo Wii, 2007
At 16 stone, I was certainly heavy for my height during Nintendo’s Wii era.
I picked up Wii Fit out of blind Nintendo loyalty rather than actually wanting to get fit. But when I stepped on the Wii Balance Board (essentially a set of smart scales) and was told I was obese, the penny finally dropped.
This was the first time we’d had a set of scales in the house. But the way Wii Fit gamified weight loss made it kind of addictive. I’d check in every morning to see how I was doing, and was thrilled to see how making smart food choices was having a real, incremental impact on my weight. In terms of exercise, I was too embarrassed to run outside (let alone, God forbid, go to a gym.) But by popping the Wii Remote into my pocket and jogging on the spot, I could run around Wii Fit’s virtual island resort, burning calories from the comfort of my own home.
Overall, I lost 6 stone – in fact, I became too thin! Having always been big, I always thought my weight was inevitable. Wii Fit taught me that, with grit and determination, you can change how you look and achieve anything you want.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
Nintendo 3DS, 2011
2011 saw me finishing university and traveling to Asia to teach English. This wasn’t just the first time I had left the UK, it was the first time I’d ever been on an airplane – so as immensely excited as I was, I was very much out of my comfort zone.
I remember my first night sat in my bedroom in Shanghai. I was so cold I could see my breathe crystalise in the air. I’d just seen a cockroach in the kitchen, and the toilet plumbing wasn’t hardy enough to handle paper (the elegantly signed ‘sh*t bin’ that sat in the corner will be etched in my mind for the rest of my life.)
I was utterly homesick and I may have packed it all in, if it wasn’t for the black, clamshell device I’d stuffed into my suitcase.
Originally released in 1998, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of my favourite games of all… well, time. A sprawling, epic adventure that pretty much cemented what a 3D adventure game could look like. The 3DS remake was every bit as epic. So every time I felt homesick, I’d reach for my portable console and relive classic memories – catching Poes, traveling by horseback, and yes, defeating that dreaded Water Temple.
As the weeks passed, I found myself playing Ocarina of Time 3D less and less. I came out of my shell, made new friends, and spent more and more time outside my flat. I went from counting the days until I could return to the UK to dreading the day my adventure would end!
In fact, I enjoyed myself so much, I stopped playing altogether. To this day, I have never completed Ocarina of Time of 3D. And that’s testament to the lesson it taught me: home isn’t a location. It’s a state of mind. You can be happy and content wherever the world takes you.
PS3, 2011 (played in 2016)
2016 wasn’t a great year for me. Without going into detail, I took two years off full time work to care for my girlfriend. Jobless and terrified about the future, I bought Dark Souls knowing it was supposed to be a classic and thinking it would offer some fantasy escapism.
I fired it up, watched the opening cut scene, took control…and then died.
That is the Dark Souls experience. A third person action adventure where you die. Then die again. And again. At first, I just didn’t get it. But as any Souls veteran will tell you, that’s the point. Nothing about Dark Souls is easy. The combat, the exploration, the story…all of it is as bleak and oppressive as the game world itself.
The intricate lore isn’t told to you – it can only be pieced together and interpreted by snatches of dialogue and item descriptions. Every enemy is a mortal threat. And with save point ‘bonfires’ few and far between, victory depends on you learning enemy tells, and having the patience to guard as much as attack.
Progress is demoralising, exhausting, often infuriating. But while death can be gruelling, it makes the eventual win even sweeter. In Dark Souls, you truly earn your victories.
The dying Kingdom of Lordran was a kind of digital twin of my mental state, complete with festering corridors, crumbling cities, and menacing, macabre vistas. Every night, I’d come back to the game and continue to batter my head against the proverbial brick wall. My gaming life mirrored my real life as I struggled, shouted, and even threw things across the room. But just like in real life, slowly, inexorably, I made progress. I become tougher. Smarter. Stronger. And challenges that once looked insurmountable where eventually overcome.
I came to Dark Souls looking for cushy escapism. What I found was a black mirror: a twisted hellscape of my own reality, confronting me against my own demons, testing the limits of my endurance. Dark Souls wasn’t the game I wanted. It was the game I needed. Its very obtuseness helped me work through my overwhelming pain, fear, and anxiety in a way no other medium could, until that wonderful day three years later when my girlfriend could finally return home.
Ultimately, Dark Souls taught me, when things get tough, you need to grit your teeth and trudge on. Because there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s the moments of pain that make you truly grateful for the moments of joy.
Golly, that went on for a bit longer than I thought.
This is just my gaming story. But I’m part of a generation that was around for the genesis of home console video games – and each of us can chart our own histories through our gaming experiences (and hopefully not everyone is as Nintendo-centric as me!)
Whether you’re an old timey SNES lover like me, or a Gen Z Minecrafter, we’re all united by the colour, creativity, and plain old fun that video games offer. And with innovations like cloud and VR gaming (well, good/affordable VR gaming) on the horizon, it’s genuinely exciting to see what new experiences the future of the industry holds.
Lesson: Retro graphics can go beyond pixel art.
Lesson: I’d never crack it as a lawyer.
Yoku’s Island Express
Lesson: Pinball and platforming make an amazing combination.
The Last of Us
Lesson: Games can have a story as compelling as any movie.
Lesson: Indie developers can surpass AAA studios in terms of both quality and value for money.
Doshin the Giant
Lesson: I wasn’t cut out to be a God.
Lesson: Same as above.
Lesson: Games can make a real political point.
Shadow of the Colossus
Lesson: Simply, games can be art.
Lesson: The best games can come out of the smallest budgets.