After 16 years covering the game industry, playing hundreds of games and interviewing thousands of people, I've slowly developed a catalog of life events tied around memories of games.
If I'm trying to recall a time when something happened, my mind quickly jumps to what I was playing, where I was sitting when playing it, and when in my life that must have occurred. This is a compilation of some of the games that are deeply tied to my personal memories from 16 years of covering games.
I'm 11 years old, and I've just discovered personal agency. Rather than going straight home from school, I can spend some time on my own without alarming the parental bodies. (I recently learned at a Mother's Day brunch that they were never that concerned about my whereabouts. Parenting was different in the early 80s.) By "on my own," I mean hanging out in the four-cabinet arcade at the Golden Gate Lanes bowling alley in El Cerrito, just a few blocks from my house, waiting to play Ghosts N' Goblins.
I loved that game. It looked like nothing else out there; its depiction of fantasy had no bearing on Tolkien, Elfquest, Piers Anthony or any other fantasy authors whose books never matched the drama of their covers. It was illogical but so particular in its design that I couldn't wait to see what the next level would bring because there was no way to guess without advancing on your own or, in my case, watching much bigger people accomplish that feat. Over time, I drummed up the courage to play it myself, apprehensive about the protocols of placing my quarter on the headboard of the arcade cabinet to mark my turn because, well… all quarters look the same.
I sucked at Ghosts N' Goblins. Couldn't get past the first level. Once the jawa guys on the broomsticks came at me, I panicked and lost the essential and sadistic timing the game required. But that didn't stop me. I figured out how to sheepishly ask for car rides to the Berkeley BART station from my friend's parents after school, pocketing the 40 cents for the child's bus fare and saving it up for a Friday session on the game that lasted about 10 minutes, never clearing the first level but desperate to see what came next. This worked until my parental bodies talked to my friends' parental bodies, and suddenly, I had to account for tens of dollars' worth of change that I had absconded with. Apparently, hanging out at a Bowling Alley whose halcyon days had long past, rendering it more suitable for Bukowski than a scrawny kid, wasn't an issue, but pre-adolescent embezzling was.
Eventually I received the NES cartridge of the game, right at the start of summer break, and I played the game with an indulgence of a young child happy to seclude himself from the confusing world of girls and '80s clothing. Finally, this game, which once tethered my enjoyment to the number of quarters in my pocket, was in my control. Through a death grip on that controller and military-grade focus, I made it past the first level, saw the ice levels, beat the cavern with zombies, preserved the dagger and anticipated the hectic pattern of the demons in the weird blue brick level, and then finally, took down the final boss.
All the mystery was revealed; this was it — the resolution to a lifetime's worth of effort and anticipation. Upon success, my younger brother and I cheered and we hugged. Then, the unthinkable. The game told us that it was all fake; we had to run through it again. All that power I had developed for months over the game vanished as the unequivocating hand of unfairness, vessel of the adult world, weighed down on me. I turned the game off and wouldn't visit it again for 13 years.
The La Val's Pizza Parlor below street-level on Durant in Berkeley was a shrine to Friday-afternoon 12-year-old liberty—pitchers of root-beer, cheap pizza and arcade games. They had 1942, Gauntlet, Sector Z, and above all, Ikari Warriors. Two-player, octagonal joysticks; it was a revelation of strategic play, nothing like that simple-minded Commando game. Steeped in Rambo and America's dalliances in Central America, it had a subversive appeal in still-radicalized Berkeley.
In the end, it was all about stretching out that play session, milking every moment of that afternoon with friends which are always at a sun-dabbled magic hour in my memory, laughing with that infectious hysteria brought on by the weekend and overc-onsumption of sugar, feeling powerful as a group lost in benign abandon, keeping at bay that latent certainty that this will give way soon to moving to different schools, complicated decisions on how to behave and greater responsibility. But right now we strap on our bandannas and make our way to Ikari Village.
Ice Climbers: I don't know why I bought this game. I like platformers, but apparently everyone else is playing Castlevania. I keep thinking that game title doesn't make any sense. I didn't know about it. I picked Ice Climbers. Maybe because of its perfunctory title that lays bare the virtual goal. It's not even a new game. This does not help my political capital at El Cerrito High where I know next to no one. Quietly and with no formal decision, I switch my attention to girls and parties.
The 400 block of Kelton St. of Westwood village in Los Angeles is where I live during my sophomore year of college. I have two roommates; one is my best friend from high school, the other is a newer acquisition who, in the course of the year, will go full 1990s and keep piercing his body as long as there is a flap of skin to support it.
My friend and I have decided to live off-campus, free of the suffocating paternalism of the dorms, and we suck at it. We can't really cook, we have no money, no car and no fake ID's, our domestic and social lives are as minimal as our under-fed bodies. But our next door neighbor, who will quickly become a life-long friend, has a SNES and we play Super Street Fighter II . . . a lot. Whenever it was quiet and I had settled down to study that thought, that "Well, I could just pop over and play a couple of matches" would weave its way into my thoughts as I struggled to engage myself in an G.E. Earth Sciences text. The house rules were no "milking" with E. Honda or Blanka more than twice. We ate a lot of ramen. My grades dropped.
It's 1998 and I'm working at a multi-national bank. A co-worker and friend who got me the job plays more games than I do and sets up an emulator on my 486 computer at work and I play Ghosts N' Goblins for the first time since I was 11. Realizing it is way too hard, I switch to Ghouls N' Ghosts. It plays better, it's prettier and it ends where it should. In a few months, I'll get a job hosting Gamespot TV on ZDTV, and suddenly alt-tabbing away from balance sheets and cash flow statements to a knight in his underwear is research.
Banjo-Kazooie, or as I termed it, "Bird and Bear" to try to somehow sound less silly when speaking about it in casual conversation, was my first game after getting a job on TV to talk authoritatively about video games. "We need you to play more" was the admonition I was given after getting the gig, an understandable one, and not too taxing like, "We need you to perform more amateur neurosurgery."
I chose Banjo because it looked safe and friendly and less capable of exposing my charade of expertise in a field where I was surrounded by colleagues like Jeff Gerstmann and Greg Kasavin, whose breadth and ease of gaming knowledge seemed as unattainable as it was foreign to my ears. This was a bear with a bird in his backpack; I collected jigsaw pieces and colorful jinjos, I fought oversized root vegetables. The arbitrary nonsense of the game was a comfort, a Technicolor respite from an increasingly tenuous and uncertain career path. I'd wake up early on a Saturday morning and infuriate hungover roommates with the chirps and "who—hoo"'s of the game, as I fell into the remarkable design, the seamless overworld that revealed secret areas that led to new levels, remarkably consistent in their cartoon logic and that simmering goal to just complete one more task . . . and then one more . . . .
Soon I would ravenously play Shogo, Half-Life, Unreal, Fallout 2, Grim Fandango, Ocarina of Time—1998 was a damn good year—but the silliness, the childish rambunctiousness, the unapologetic self-recognition in Banjo that it was a game, stayed with me as a core pleasure. Future games that I came to adore, like Sly Cooper and Ratchet and Clank, were informed by that initial experience of professional game consumption, their elastic and unfettered logic, their rounded edges and goofy conceits signaling pure escapism, not through a power fantasy but safety in nonsense.
It's 2000 in San Francisco and the dot-com boom is still governing the hedonistic strut of the city. I have no memory of ever paying for a meal or a drink during this time. A consistent stream of parties from companies long, and deservedly, forgotten, all using the same caterer that slices roast beef into a sourdough discus with mustard as an optional condiment. There's a hint of uncertainty in the air but everything unfolds in my mind as a collection of brilliant nights whose sheer propulsive determinism will withstand any obstacle to this brave new entrepreneurial future.
For months, I play Deus Ex, staying late at the office and finding any free moment during the day to jump back into this game depicting a collapsed world of misplaced power, economic disparity and paranoid motivations. I had never before played a game that meted out such satisfaction. The most distinct break from the governing game logic of finding the right path or second-guessing the designer's intentions, it was a playground of experimentation and discovery.
Once, with one bullet, one sniper's bullet left, I needed to pass through a room with two soldiers and one cyborg. I'd been at it for a while and slowly coming to grips that I would have to reload the game and replay an inordinate amount because I forgot to save. One last ditch inspiration is to attempt a headshot on the cyborg which can trigger an explosion which might eliminate the human guards. After some truly delicate first person crouch-maneuvering (and a lot of hitting the F6 button) I get my shot, there's an explosion and the room is emptied of adversaries. I quietly applaud my brilliance because it's 8 p.m. and there's no one in the office to relate my brilliance to.
That instance still remains my favorite in any playing experience, that pure moment of creativity born out of circumstance; nothing has come close to replicating it. Despite the multitude of games released in the interim that offer a wide catalogue of player options, their careful and elegant design, ensuring that any path is a potentially successful one, lose out on the odd thrill of overcoming the latent uncertainty that the game hadn't anticipated your situation and all may be lost. It was an era of imperfection and the shagginess and rough edges somehow made it all the more exciting.
As an excuse to get a paid trip to London, Extended Play covered ECTS, the European Computer Trade Show which, despite its name, was about games. The show had become rather anemic with only one moment of significance, the announcement of World of Warcraft. Somehow we managed not to get an interview with Blizzard about the game. I do recall interviewing some gentleman about his Football Hooligan RTS (you could use women as decoys…clever!) and eating a Vindaloo on Brick Lane that was determined to claw its way out of my intestinal track the next morning.
I tried Absinthe and there was a very attractive Spanish lady who wanted to see me at the same club two days later (neglecting to mention she would be with some dude). England beat Germany in football for the first time since forever. I returned on September 8th 2001, deciding at the last minute not to extend my stay an additional week. Three days later everything changed. In a few months the economy contracted and San Francisco got a lot smaller, the advertising dollars dissipated and TechTv, which grew generously under the unilateral and myopic direction of Paul Allen, started cancelling shows and laying off employees wholesale.
Extended Play, regarded as a marginal show given its frivolous content in a world of hard-nosed technology coverage (It was hard not being a digital camera), never benefitted from the largesse and, as a result, survives. What was once a place of blind enthusiasm and giddy promise seismically pivots into something far more severe and functional. Getting shows on the air is the goal. It'll be a while before I think of World of Warcraft again.
It's a chilly and foggy January Friday in San Francisco. X-Play, a show born out of Extended Play's moribund ratings in a last ditch effort to save gaming coverage and TechTv itself with more youthful and "edgy" programming, is now the top rated show on the network, despite a diligent lack of promotion ahead of its launch. The team feels good; it's like the unwritten sixth act of Henry V.
We spend the afternoon at the executive producer's place having a cramped off-site meeting, reviewing recent episodes. We watch Blair Butler's hysterical review of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which highlights the ability to punch police cars and policemen….in a church…to say nothing of the chivalrous hand-to-hand beatdown of the Terminator Lady. We're making a show and it's fun, it's funny, it's what so many of us wanted to do and people like it.
Later that evening I head over to Dr. Bombay's in the Mission to meet a woman who I had been dating but had been broken up with for the past couple of weeks, mutual anxieties about emotional well-being getting the better of us. I've been mentally torturing myself and trying to stay focused on the show as a distraction. I mean I'm on a hit show, what does it matter that the relationship didn't work out? She shows up half an hour late and smiles at me. I relate to her about how things have been, I try to relate the Terminator review to her, desperate not to over-nerdify my description of 4 minutes of video but determined to convey what made it work, what made us all laugh again at something we had seen multiple times. She smiles at me. A few months later she figures out what I do for a living when two gentlemen ask to have their photo taken with me. Three years later we'll be married.
If there was one game that more co-workers rallied around at one time, it was Resident Evil 4. Perhaps the greatest game to release in January, it fostered more segments on X-Play than just about any other game (I think there were more CoD pieces, but no one really liked them). I can't recall any other game from 2005. It was an endless source of discussion, parody and distraction.
It was only a few months after the absorption of X-Play and the other remnants of TechTv into G4, and the suspicion about the new station and its mercurial and illogical management underscored our day-to-day functioning. If anything though, it bonded us together and fostered what I believe to be the creative zenith of the show. I never expect to be surrounded by as many talented people ever again: Morgan Webb, Blair Butler, Mark Fahey, Guy Branum, Matt Keil, Michael Leffler, Rob Manuel, Paul Bonanno, Jonathan Solin, Shane Satterfield . . . . I know I'm neglecting some people and will regret it later but . . . you get it, it was pretty awesome.
We approached everything with a reckless and furious abandon, like the Zombie episode, the April Fool's episode where I "quit," the "Robot" Episode and the woefully appalling "Homeland for the Holidays." All are brilliant instances of no one paying attention to what we were doing. The inmates ran the asylum and we had video cameras. Quite a few of us had left people behind in San Francisco and the people on the show became my world, professionally and socially. If I train my memory on the particulars the challenges, tensions and anxieties come into focus, but it gives way to a greater collective memory, one of invention and the undead; the year of Resident Evil 4, that's the one I keep in my breast pocket.
After a disastrous E3 in 2007, when G4 pulled out of the Halo 3 trailer for a station identification and things went downhill from there, Comcast decided that maybe the sharp minds that bring you 10 hours of Oscars red carpet coverage weren't the best to produce the 25-hours of live coverage from the expo. So it fell back into our hands and the goal was to show as many games as possible over the 4 days.
Motivated by determination to wash away the devastating fiasco of the prior year, demonstrate to the G4 executives that people actually tuned into E3 coverage to see videogames and use the word "exclusive" as if we had discovered fire, it resulted in an endeavor that was far more Herculean than expected. Asking game developers to demonstrate a game live on television is understandably greeted with apprehension; structuring a live schedule that moves a new game demo in every 8 minutes runs contrary to television logic.
Once everything was in place, everything would change. 48 hours before the coverage started developers wanted to drop out; we were even asked by one company to pull away from their final reveal trailer at the conclusion of a press conference. Half of the preparation of the coverage was expecting the phone to ring with information that would bring down this feeble house of sticks with a casual gesture of regret. While nearly everyone in production at G4 came on board, I spent an inordinate amount of time with a new employee, Abbie Heppe, looking at the Hoover Dam of E3 and trying to figure out which crack was a cause of worry. All of this uncertainty, this foolish and arrogant enterprise hinged on one game: Fallout 3.
I was fairly certain the game was going to be big, and we wanted to demo it as soon as possible. It was scheduled on our first day of coverage after it premiered (for an unfortunately short period of time) at the Microsoft press conference that morning. We had set aside 20 minutes to show the game after going to great lengths to convince the powers that people would watch this game for that long without changing the channel. I didn't know if that was true; I just hoped it was possible, I didn't know if the gameplay would work; it just had to.
The affable, inimitable and extraordinary Todd Howard arrives and mentions that he has something special to show. The first half of the demo is flawless, bloodier than anything seen earlier in the day, the audience is screaming with glee as the VATS kill-cam dismembers limbs in a plasmic mist. The representative from the legal department in the control room is hapless, this is live . . . it's already out there. Then comes a demonstration of the crafted weapons, the Rock-it Launcher, and it's loaded with teddy bears. The next two minutes are a lovechild of Goya and Jerry Lewis; Teddy bears eviscerate and sever, the audience, especially a kid named Flitz, are screaming with childish sadism. Yeah it's like the Roman Coliseum but it's paydirt. We bring in some of the highest ratings ever. We'll have to replicate this again over the next 6 years and it will lead to the decision to turn X-Play into a daily show, which will overextend resources and bring about its slow demise, but at that moment . . . fucking teddy bears.
It's the final day of the pre-E3 Judge's Week, where representatives from various outlets get an opportunity to see games on display at the expo early for determining the Best of Show. I'm in Westwood at a hotel where Ubisoft is showing a sampling of their titles. Of particular interest is the HD reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game. I'm trying to give it my professional attention, see how well it honors the legacy of one of the most loved arcade games and a franchise that stands as a monument to a generational nostalgia of unapologetic juvenilia. I can't. Something is wrong.
My wife hasn't been well for the past few weeks. Frequent nosebleeds, fatigue so severe she falls asleep any time of the day, and skin and eye coloring that has taken on a toxic shade that is nature's primal and direct statement of warning. The doctors have ruled out cancer; they've extracted vials of blood and we hope to know something soon. I'm here looking at cartoon turtles in bandannas, armed with fetishized implements of eastern combat. She told me to go, we both know that things aren't good but if we change our patterns, we acknowledge it, we suddenly can't ignore that something is very scary and very wrong and outside of our spousal skills to resolve. I'm just gazing at the Ninja Turtles, looking to grasp that Pavlovian response to pizza and inane catchphrases where danger manifests itself as digital anthropomorphic menace. I want to care about the Turtles because if I do, things are okay.
I step outside and call my wife, waking her up from having collapsed asleep in a pile of laundry. I beg her to get to her doctor appointment, I offer to come get her, she says she's okay, don't bother, she'll call after the appointment. I don't believe her. I hang up rattled, smoke the uncounted cigarette for the day out of a dull perpetual confusion. A friend and colleague who heard enough of the call gets me to talk and tells me to leave. To forget the turtles and whatever games are left and go.
I get in the car dazed and resigned; I'm driving down Wilshire towards what I haven't wanted to hear, driving away from the turtles and their hijinks. I'm driving towards a very adult world with very unclear problems that the turtles cannot help. I will arrive after traffic and be brought into a room by the doctor. She has a rare form of auto-immune disorder that has gone unidentified for too long. Her immune system is trying to destroy her healthy liver like it was a foreign entity. The doctor tell me she will probably go into organ failure in the next 24 hours, the intake desk at Cedars-Sinai has her name, there will be no questions or forms to fill out when we arrive. He gives me a prescription for a massive dose of steroids and his phone number. We go to the Safeway on La Brea to get it filled. The Ninja Turtles are gone; videogames and E3 are ethereal notions, every second is viscous with bearing.
Somehow the drugs work. We don't go to the hospital. The years ahead involve a jumble of doctors, more scares, more medication, side-effects, and absolute joy that we are still together.
I never want to think of the turtles again.
Mass Effect 3 was my final review for X-Play and I knew it. Since January of that year I had been told by numerous co-workers in confidence that some people were happily informing anyone but me that I would be out of a job in April and that I should be careful who I trusted and talked with. The date gave me some comfort because, having reviewed the previous two installments in the franchise and having a deep affection for them I latched onto the satisfaction of at least seeing that through.
To be honest, it was minimal comfort. In the past couple of years, after increasing frustration about the decline of the show, increasing tension between myself and people at G4 and an unsettling awareness that I was significantly older than any other host on the network my confidence had given way to a corrosive discomfort. I managed to remove myself from everything but the most essential responsibilities: Being on camera and reading voice-overs. I spent most of my time at home with the wife and friends, happy to review games as they were a perfect excuse to recuse myself to the one part of the gig I still enjoyed: the games.
As down as I was about the job and as anyone who's been through it can tell you, repeatedly hearing that at some point in the next month you're out on your ass manages to surface what air is left in the balloon of your day just to deflate it. Walking into the G4 offices to get that look, like I might be contagious. The nauseating excuses, the flimsy rhetorical niceties when I inquired as to why I wasn't working DICE or GDC on camera. The way in which every gesture, toss-away comment and stage-direction carries portents of the shoe that can't wait to drop.
At least I had Mass Effect. The symbiotic despair of the game and my self-pitying were soul mates for the four days I played non-stop. I've always felt that the controversy of the game's ending ignored that the entire game was an ending, a summation of decisions and behaviors that came before. Even the game's oh-so-infuriating "decision" at its conclusion and its seemingly indistinct results resonated with me. We are what we have done, this desire to find approbation in the final analysis, it's a falsity, a children's story we tell ourselves to mitigate the frustrations. You don't get to collect on your efforts, your efforts are all you've collected.
Yeah. I got that dark. I wrote the review in a fury, loving the game and trying to use descriptions of its pervasive existential dread to telegraph to anyone that I knew what was coming. I knew I was done. I just had a pathetic need to reclaim some power from the simpering whispers and the cabal of secrets that had taken control of my final months at G4. In a few weeks I'd be told without fanfare and regret in my dressing room that it was my last day, security would lead me out of the building and it was over. What sucks is that there are so many good memories of those times; the longest single experience of my life was hosting one television show but it's still hard, when recalling one of those innumerable moments of when it was great, to not have it laced with the strychnine tannins of its resolution. But man, do I still love that Mass Effect 3 review.
When I played Bioshock: Infinite it reinvigorated an interest in games after a droning series of releases the previous months. I loved that game; it excited me aesthetically, conceptually and philosophically and I wrote a review that reflected that stimuli. Little did I know that The Last of Us, Gone Home and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons would similarly upend my expectations. I didn't want to write a book report. I knew the review was gushy, I knew it was pretentious but I loved every minute of writing it. Being only a few months into my brief stint at Rev3 Games, I wanted to deny the formalism that 15 years of television had conditioned in me. It's absolutely honest in its sentiment and my attempt to reflect the experience of a game while playing it. Although it would be complete garbage without Zac Minor's stunningly deft editing. I'll still watch it from time to time. The internet appeared to like it… until they didn't.
The internet hates me. I said some things about resolution and how it's not as important as people are making it out to be. I should have seen this coming. I really can't be paying attention to this—we need to plan out the console launches.
We're a team of four people, the PS4 and Xbox One are launching one week apart and we need to schedule edits for embargoes we don't have. We have to estimate how many views each video will get to see if we'll hit our goals and make the advertisers happy, but we don't have embargoes, we don't know how many videos we'll have and we have nothing to tell them. Every e-mail in my inbox is not an e-mail that brings any clarity to the situation and I hate everyone who is e-mailing me because every e-mail makes my heart jump because I think it's the e-mail I want.
I feel like a teenager waiting for a returned glance from a crush but it's really just confirming some dates for blu-ray discs to arrive in the mail so I can play them on the new plastic boxes. God the internet hates me. They don't just want me dead; they want to rape my wife, because . . . of resolution differences. I really can't focus on this but I am having some very dark fantasies and would love to meet one of these little NeoGAF shits out on the street.
We don't know when the review copies for the games are coming in so we can't schedule the edits or secure the editors because we don't know what day anything is happening even though there are only 14 days in which it can happen. I don't think we can hit our viewership goals and my fingertips are tingling because my breathing is so shallow. I want to sleep but I keep waking up because I don't know if we can do it. We're a team of four and everyone else is working hard. These guys can edit and use camera equipment, I'm a guy with a rolodex and an ability to vamp in front of the camera, except lately, every time I do it, the Huns of the Internet get riled up again.
I'm supposed to ignore it, a professional doesn't let this get to him, but they want me dead and they want to assault my family. I'm a shill, a drug addict, an avatar of evil. I don't even like this anymore; I'm tired of having to come up with something to say in front of the camera, there just isn't anything more to say that's interesting. There are two consoles and one is more expensive than the other and they're already sold out at pre-order so who gives a goddam. I just want to get the videos done and desperately track the view counts on YouTube to see if we meet our goals. But the games aren't here and I'm tired. I'm speeding down Interstate 5 and LA is nowhere in sight, the glimmering at the highway's end recedes further into the horizon, its brilliance ever dulling until it's nothing more than the end of the road and we're still not there.
Playing and writing the review for Infamous: Second Son, the last review I will ever write, is like punching in clay. There's nothing left.
I'm finally playing for real and with true intent of finishing one of my biggest Pile of Shame games: Civilization V. It's been out for years but I never felt I had the time to commit, to have the clarity of mind to make an informed decision without concern that there's something else more important than a culture victory I should be attending to.
It's been a little over a month since I decided to depart the career that probably over-defined me for sixteen years. From time to time I'll wake up in the middle of the night with that sharp sensation penetrating the sleepy fog that I've done something wrong and have led myself astray, but it's increasingly less frequent. I'm going to the gym to box, planning meetings, looking forward to an E3 where I get to preserve my voice, and enjoying a quietude that has a long way to go to cease being novel.
Really, I'm just determined, and to make my wife proud, to get the Korean Empire to a culture victory, I have to balance relations with about 5 different Civs whose armies could crush me in a few moves, but I want and enjoy giving the attention necessary to accomplish my goal. Fiddling with the menus, listening to my pretend advisors and carefully moving my little units around the map all leading up to that quiet moment of turn based tension when you hit End Turn and see where all those choices got you. Finally, I can recapture something of the eleven-year-old in the dingy bowling alley in front of the Ghosts N' Goblins cabinet.
I can't wait to see what comes next.
Adam Sessler is no longer part of the gaming press. He now runs his media and entertainment consulting firm TheoryHead Inc. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, and he still loves her smile.