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I've been out of college for 5 years now, and contrary to my mother's constant predictions throughout my youth, I've yet to "grow out of" gaming. Fortunately for me or not, video gaming has grown up with me and each year brings new and fascinating explorations of player agency and interactive storytelling.
However, as I've matured, so have my tastes in games. As I come to see myself more and more as a critical and academic appreciator of the medium as a whole, I've made a conscious effort to try games that, once upon a time, would have been outside of my wheelhouse. Part of this endeavor has meant going back to play the classic games that passed me by as a youth, but part of it has simply been pushing myself to play titles that I might otherwise have overlooked because of genre preferences.
This process may have begun as early as the late ‘90s, when I came home from the mall with a game which was way outside the aesthetic that I usually preferred: Metal Gear Solid.
I had read an article in the most recent issue of the now-defunct gaming mag Next Generation about how The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was unquestionably the "game of the century." This was immediately followed by a review for MGS which stated that if you were one of the unfortunates who didn’t happen to have a Nintendo 64, then this was probably the best that you could hope for. Of course, even at the tender age of fourteen, I could tell with reasonable certainty that I had already played the greatest game of all time, and it was definitely a PlayStation exclusive).
As it turns out, I was one of those unfortunates who had picked the PSX over the N64, and I was determined to play this "last, greatest PSX title."
The only problem: Metal Gear Solid was scary as hell. You had to sneak around, your weapons were exceptionally limited, and there was a very loud alarm sound every time someone detected you. The visual aesthetic and tone of the game were realistic, somber, and dramatic. Even to someone whose favorite series was a certain anime-flavored, melodramatic epic, the stakes were raised considerably.
I grew accustomed to Metal Gear Solid's high-tension thrills, and I'll be among the first to champion it as one of the greatest games of all time. I am certainly among the ranks of those who got a little shiver at hearing Psycho Mantis describe their love of Castlevania.
My aesthetic horizons as a gamer had been broadened, and I was better for it.
Several years later, I embarked on a campaign to familiarize myself with a new genre (one with which I had extremely limited experience) the first-person shooter. How was it that I made it through more than fifteen years of gaming without seriously investing time in an FPS? Well, my family had never had a PC capable of running top-of-the-line games, and as a result I stuck mostly to consoles. Glance quickly at my console ownership history, and…well, name an FPS worth playing on the Genesis or the PlayStation.
Yeah? That's what I thought.
So, when my buddies and I gathered at our esteemed colleague's house for a night of Halo, I was that guy. We couldn't play two-on-two matches, because someone would have to get stuck with me. People hunted me down in deathmatch because I was an easy kill, like a tiny flightless bird in a very small pen.
Eventually, just after graduating from college, I decided that I'd had quite enough of that and embarked on a quest to play through the campaigns of the entire Halo trilogy in an attempt to hone my skills. My good friend Sebastian and I teamed up to do it cooperatively, and we became so wrapped up in the challenge that by the time we got to Halo 3, we decided to invite some of our other buddies in to join us…and maybe crank the difficulty up to Legendary. You know, for funsies.
Afterwards, I noticed that whenever we played multiplayer, I was no longer at the bottom of the standings. I wasn't exactly dominating, of course, but I was holding my own. I had expanded my horizons as a gamer yet again, and this time it was with a genre I had not been comfortable with previously. If I hadn't pressed myself to engage with first-person shooters, I never would have played the first Call of Duty, or Bioshock, or Borderlands. There are so many superb shooters, and I would have missed them if I hadn't stepped outside my comfort zone as a gamer.
Aww… I can't imagine my life without these guys!
Over the last couple of weeks, however, I realized that there may be limits to how far and how fast we can push ourselves as gamers. As part of my continued effort to engage with classics from all genres, I picked up a copy of the original Gran Turismo at a flea market. I was immediately impressed with the depth of the customization system, the wealth of authentic cars, and the RPG-like progression that fueled the "simulation mode." It may not look like much these days, but it's obvious even now that Gran Turismo pushed the PSX hardware pretty heavily.
Well, you know. This was 1998.
However, as I fooled around with it, I realized that despite all of its positive features, it just wasn't getting its hooks in me. I could appreciate it thoroughly as an excellent game, but I wasn't invested. I spent a lot of time wondering why it was that I could eagerly memorize half of the Final Fantasy Tactics Battle Mechanics Guide but couldn't be bothered to look up which cars I should put money into in this "driving simulator." Was it the fact that there was a huge time investment needed, and I am now a busy adult with (ugh) responsibilities? Was it the fact that I was reluctant to dive down a rabbit hole which was fourteen years old?
Or, I thought with dread, was it simply the fact that I was not into racing games?
“Now, hold on,” I reassured myself. “You played Ridge Racer Revolution and Jet Moto when you were a kid. None of your friends will play you in Mario Kart: Double Dash because they think it's a foregone conclusion. You've beaten every Grand Theft Auto– aren't those sort-of racing games?”
Not really, as it turns out.
I wasn't fooling myself. I knew that just because I liked arcade racers and gangster crime sagas, I didn't have any real experience with the genre to which Gran Turismo belongs. It bills itself as a "racing simulator," and though it certainly has an arcade mode, the real meat of the experience is in building a career as a racer, customizing your car, earning licenses, and pimping your ride. The pull of the game is in winning races to earn money that can be used to buy sweeter wheels that will help you win more races and earn more money…but I just wasn’t into it.
So I'm going to put GT back on the shelf and let it stew for a while. Perhaps it's simply too far, too fast. Maybe if I were to bridge that gap more gradually — maybe play some Burnout or Need for Speed — I could come to appreciate the greater complexities of the racing genre. As a gamer, a gaming scholar, and someone who strives to be "well-played," I feel obligated to. Because I know what wonderful things can come when you step outside your gaming comfort zone, and I hope that as long as I play games, I never stop cultivating my tastes
This post originally appeared at The Lost Levels.