3 Video Games That Feel Horribly Like Life


1. While my cats were coming down off ketamine, I finished The Walking Dead game. Kubrick, gray and white, and Bosch, black and white, repeatedly banged their faces into the wire mesh of their kennels as I tried to ignore them via enacting catastrophic human mistake after catastrophic human mistake in this fucking game about zombies. I’ll back up a bit: I bought The Walking Dead game after reading some positive reviews. It was described as well written and emotionally affective, and I feel emotionally affected by a videogame about as often as I’m emotionally affected by a bowel movement. So: rarely. But I bought the praise and bought the game, then played the first section a few days before getting our two cats neutered. Something strange happened. I played through the first two hours feeling like I had not made a single good decision. I told my wife, semi-jokingly saying, “This game feels like life.” Aviva defaults into a sturdy hatred for all games, no matter their configuration, but my reaction intrigued her. As I progressed through the dystopic Georgian nightmare, Aviva watched. She was drawn in. The game transcended its gameness for both of us. Later, after a main character is suddenly shot—point blank; no foreshadowing; a videogame death that felt sacred it was so arbitrary—I caught myself reconsidering one of the in-game conversation choices leading up to the shooting. I was driving our cats to the vet, and the sun was lighting the smog up like a filament bulb, and I was thinking, “Should I have said something different to X back there? Could I have saved Y?” I was deeply anxious. The game continued, its horrors mounted. I regretted my decision to forbid myself from replaying sections; I wanted to bumble through the game irrevocably, like life. The game kept developing this sheen of awful reality—you panic over decisions that ultimately don’t matter, your intentions are misinterpreted, trivial details take on undue emotional intensities, you fuck up, you forget, you give up, you mourn. The game ended, and my cats finally fell asleep, and I sat with this feeling of hollow certainty, underscored by a more evil ambiguity—I’ve lived through the experience, but did I really save anything?

2. Again, an enthusiastic review lead me to play Spec Ops: The Line. I was wary of the game to begin with—first person shooters make me feel fried, as if some hidden nub that keeps me socially operative gets cored out by a few hours of tapping buttons and killing brown avatars. The genre’s got a lot of problems, in other words, all of which are obvious. But the review promised that this game is different. I ran through the story in a few long bouts—I struggle to play videogames less than three hours at a time—and by the time the credits rolled, I vowed to never play another military FPS again. Spec Ops installed an ethical dilemma in me that, while small, still has an effect on my daily life. It’s probably the only videogame to have done that. I won’t recount the plot—I hear the harried cries of SPOILERS! SPOILERS! as I type—but the story felt like a new form of the Narcissus myth, roughly shaped through Colonel Kurtz’s meaty hands. It’s critical of war and pride and violent intervention, and it’s supremely self-critical of first person shooters and of videogames as a whole. I’m a glutton for indictment via art—see: my love of Michael Haneke—so this felt like a necessary modern product of “entertainment.” Spec Ops smuggled meta-criticism and philosophical questions into this dopamine-abusive medium, which is a rare feat. It felt urgent and doomed, like days do. I’m happy I played the game, but I’m unhappy I had to.

3. I played the first act of Kentucky Route Zero a couple days ago. Within a few minutes, I knew that I’d love the entire game. It’s a brilliantly designed experience that unfolds like a languorous evening in a stranger’s large house, if the house was a haunted labyrinth surrounded by lamplit Southern swamps. The experience reminds me of certain portions of earlier, stranger games like Earthbound and Chrono Trigger, which were produced before videogames had many patterns to conform to. Kentucky Route Zero feels like a portal in and out of a warbly dream state versus some set of problems to be solved then swiftly forgotten. It’s only been forty-eight hours or so, but I have a foggy grip on the act’s events, which I think is the point. But I vividly remember certain images, sounds, textures: a burning tree, a newly empty room, a jilted recording, the phrase used to describe the pink goo in a fish tank… The game is bent to conjure a transfixing mood within the bounds of point and click. It feels more driven by David Lynch than Shigeru Miyamoto. After a haunting shift from one in-game territory to another, the screen cut to black, the first act over, and I prayed for the game’s developers to mete out the next parcel of mystery. I’m excited for the game to keep progressing and for its mood to build, even if I’ll never quite remember exactly where it took me.

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