I bought an Xbox 360 recently, the first gaming console I’ve owned since the Super NES I had as a kid. I played a lot of computer games in college – this is what you do when you go to school in the backwoods of Kentucky, your friends are all nerds, and you have, for the first time in your life, easy access to a LAN – even to the point of participating in 50-hour, 60-person gaming binges put on by some of my friends. What can I say? We were bored.
After I left that school, video games continued to fascinate me as a medium, but I played them very little. The idea of video games, in many ways, has always been more persuasive than the actual games themselves. Games, in theory, ought to give us unfettered, unrestricted access to virtual worlds and virtual lives, providing novel-like escapism without the hegemony of the author. They would be choose your own adventures restrained only by your own imagination. The best games might still have objectives and storylines, but in general, you’d be free, truly free, to do as you please.
Today, I don’t know if the medium is really there yet, but it’s certainly far closer. Relatively linear, narrative games like Half Life 2 and Bioshock now traffic in fully, fantastically realized alternate worlds. And the Grand Theft Auto series has redefined what it is to create a lived-in virtual environment. This is especially true with GTA IV. I bought it last weekend hoping for the best, but expecting the unbelievable hype to prove to be, well, just hype.
And OK, to an extent, it is. But the progress this game shows toward creating wholly immersive virtual worlds is jaw-dropping. I’m 26 – not yet old, but not simply young anymore – and sometimes I stop and think about how much the world around me has already changed in my lifetime. The internet, yes, is key, with the revolutions in video, music, and self-publishing in which it’s resulted. But it gets more specific: I can remember playing Super Mario Brothers as a six year old – with its rough-hewn, two-dimensional blocks of pixels bouncing around on yellow and blue backgrounds – and wondering if I’d ever see the day when video games would provide living, breathing worlds, full of character and consequence, that I could play in as I saw fit, rather than simply jumping from left to right, brick to brick, platform to pipe. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re sure close. Looking back, it’s the equivalent of moving from thatch huts to skyscrapers in just a generation. Now I just wonder: Where will we go from here?