I collect games like I do books: stacking them on shelves or in boxes, never quite finding the time to finish them but always enjoying simply having them around. Owning physical games provides a sense of history and future possibility and makes me feel like I have some sort of handle on this unwieldy hobby I’ve constructed a large part of my life around. But as that habit evolved beyond the physical into the digital, I’ve found myself increasingly overwhelmed.
I own a lot of games. More than I ever would have guessed a decade ago. By the tail end of the aughts it seemed conceivable I might never buy another game again, content instead to spend endless hours before class playing Age of Empires II on sketchy third-party clients or occasionally booting up Final Fantasy VI Advance on my Game Boy SP to retread well-worn JRPG territory while shouting random words at my TV during Jeopardy. (“From the German for ‘bog’, it’s a lowland covered wholly or partially with water.” Swamp? Marsh? Answer: Fen.)
In the time since, I’ve ended up buying more games than I can keep track of. Part of this includes impulse buys around the holidays, like a copy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown on Xbox 360 that still remains in the original shrink wrap five years later. I’ve also become more interested in collecting older games, especially for handhelds. I’m hardly systematic though. Earlier this week I found Dead Head Fred stuffed between old mail in a side-table drawer.
The rest remain scattered throughout my life, ready to be called back into existence the moment I open a box I never got around to unpacking from the last time I moved or hit the eject button on my PS4. Oh look, Dragon Ball FighterZ! With physical games it’s not so much a matter of having forgotten I purchased them as not having room left in my brain to recall them outside of when their unexpected re-appearance jars my memory. This is part of why, as I grow older, I also grow more fond of physical games. It’s harder to ignore a game you once couldn’t wait to get your hands on when its box art occasionally looks you in the face.
But then there are digital games, by far the large majority of my collection at this point. If you can really call it a collection—at times it feels more like a loose federation of proper nouns sitting around waiting for the day I finally double-click on them. There was a time when every game I owned fit inside my parents entertainment center, a carefully curated selection spanning only a few consoles memorized and tended to with care.
Now I have a Steam library that’s by no means as big as some people’s but at 267 games is still too big to really get to know intimately. For instance, a quick scroll indicates I bought Deus Ex: Invisible War in March of 2012, a game I’ve always wanted to play after falling in love with the series’ more recent reboot. Apparently I played it for 10 minutes at some point. I think I got stuck on an elevator while trying to escape a burning building at the very beginning. I’m hope to get back to it someday.
I also apparently own two versions of Dear Esther, an indie exploration game about walking around an island in the moonlight. I have the regular version and the “Landmark” edition, which was released in 2017 and includes several updates. The developers at The Chinese Room were kind enough to include it free to everyone who had previously purchased the earlier version. So in that case the duplicate actually makes sense. There are lots of other duplicates, and in some cases even triplicates, which have no defense.
My Humble Bundle collection is probably the worst offender in this regard. There was a time when getting a mixed bag of indie games for a few bucks was an offer I couldn’t refuse. More recently, as Humble Bundle morphed into a digital storefront of its own, the flood of games has picked up so drastically that I’ve shunned it entirely. Copies of Monaco, Papers, Please, Prison Architect, and Risk of Rain, all decent and interesting in their own ways, sit in my Humble Bundle account like mirror images of their Steam counterparts, trapped in digital amber behind a login I’ll never remember the password for.
I’ve heard people joke before about what will happen to their vast Steam libraries once they’re dead, assuming Valve the company is still humming along. But I’m more curious about all the DRM-free games and un-redeemed download keys floating dormant on various internet servers scattered throughout the world. It’s not quite as dramatic or violent a fate as hundreds of thousands of E.T. cartridges buried in the New Mexico desert together, but it’s still a ghostly way to fade into oblivion.
And then there are the handful of games locked behind other proprietary storefronts like EA Origins and Ubisoft’s Uplay. What will happen to my copy of Anno 2205 or Star Wars Episode I: Racer? At some point it seemed like the wave of digital game giveaways might subside, but now even Twitch has gotten in on the action for users with Twitch Prime subscriptions (which you automatically get if you already have Amazon Prime). Last month I claimed a second copy of Tokyo 42 and several other games.
This month I got my first copy of Psychonauts, a 2005 puzzle platformer from Double Fine that I’ve been meaning to play since its release. My hard drive is currently maxed out though, so I haven’t downloaded the game. By this time next month I’ll probably have forgotten all about it. Only so many days can go by with that tab still open, surviving each new browsing session, until I move on.
In the end it would be easier to turn my back on each of these small islands of misfit games if I didn’t still have grand plans of one day giving them the time and attention they deserve. At least when I leave a book like Les Miserables out for months collecting dust on a shelf in the living room there always lurks the possibility I’ll finally pick up it up and start reading from the page I dogeared in 2016. Sadly, for the copy of The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind hiding in my GOG account, that’s not quite the case. Unlike my home, where everything I own has its shared proximity in common, my digital games are scattered and, as a result, too often forgotten. It’s possible I might one day create a masterlist in an Excel spreadsheet, to be maintained by me or the robots tending my future estate in perpetuity. Even better would be a unified account to track not just all of the digital games I own but my online identity as a whole. More likely, however, I’ll continue collecting shiny new games online for years to come and promptly lose track of them as the days go on.