First! What It's Like Beating A Game Before Anyone Else
I have always had wild fantasies. As a kid, I was told I could wish on a dandelion. Over the course of several months, I probably made more than 100 wishes on 1 dandelion. Roughly a third of those wishes were to become a Super Saiyan. I knew that humans hadn’t historically done that. But I didn’t care; I wanted it with all my heart. Sure, it never happened, but it doesn’t mean that it won’t. I am willing to accept that I might not be the chosen one, though.
As I’ve gotten older there has been a similarly fantastical thought that’s popped into my head -- in various forms -- on numerous occasions. Sometimes the question was,"What if I had a game made explicitly for me and no one else?" Other times it was phrased as, "What if I was the first person to beat a game?" No matter the form the question took, they were all informed by one idea: that no matter how much a game ensured me that I was unique, I knew that I was not. There were millions of other Pokemon Champions, many of whom had a better team than I did.
Many games try to play up this idea that we are unique. Games very rarely care about the mundane, and instead usually lean towards fantasies of epic power. At its best, games that tell us we are unique might give us choices to make, like the Mass Effect Trilogy. Still, just knowing that I made choices to have slightly different stories never really felt like it was special to me. The illusion was thinly veiled because I knew I was not the only Commander Shepard saving civilization by one handedly destroying the Reaper threat.
Everybody forgets how ridiculous this sequence was.
This was perfectly encapsulated by the controversy surrounding the ending to Mass Effect 3. The reason we were so offended by the ending was that we wanted our choices to put us into a unique situation. A unique situation that fit our unique personality, which was displayed through our unique actions.
Maybe some people wanted the "best" ending, to ensure themselves that life doesn’t have to be sloppy and messy. You want to believe that you can do everything right and you can have the perfect outcome. Maybe some people wanted an evil ending that made them feel like being a wretched asshole at every turn for the last 3 games was actually worth something. Any of these yearnings were reflections of our desire to attain outcomes that were reflective of who we are.
But that wasn’t what we got. We got something that was one size fits all. Saint or sinner, when all was said and done you got the same choice and same set of outcomes that everyone else did.
My personal desire to be the first person to beat a game spoke to a larger issue: that I am not as unique as I might like to think. But everyone else who also plays these games and are beholden to the false promises of uniqueness therein also falls into this category with me. We desire to feel unique and games appeal to this.
We see this reflected in all sorts of games that insist we are unique, only to figuratively slap us in the face with how much we aren’t. In Borderlands, I am supposed to be a unique vault hunter, but then I see a Siren hop in that is literally the same person as me and it kind of ruins the illusion a little bit. In games like World of Warcraft and Destiny, you are assured that you are the only chosen one that can help save the world… only to then see another person getting the same quest and the same spiel at the exact same moment as you.
Couldn't find multiple of the same character. No one wants to play a "slightly different" Maya.
I always particularly loved leaderboards for this same reason. I remember playing Devil May Cry 4 and feeling so successful while earning good marks… only then to see my score compared to the rest of the player base and to see that I was not some stellar hero at all. In fact, there were literally millions of people that were measurably better than me.
It might not have been a competition, but I sure felt like I was losing.
I can’t help but feel that maybe I am over exaggerating this. Maybe we all see this stupid appeal to our baser instincts and we all just sort of overlook the usually shoddy storytelling that plays into the trope of, "You’re the only chosen person that can do this painfully specific thing for arbitrary reasons!” And I think to some degree that is true; we do see through it. But it still says a lot about us that the desire to be unique is so powerful, even to the point that it consumes our media. More interestingly is how and why it consumes video games.
These sorts of tales about a chosen (i.e. super unique) one have always been common. But prior to video games, we were always a step removed from it because we were never active participants. Sure, Frodo is the chosen one, but we aren’t Frodo when we are reading the book or watching the movie. But now, in video games, we are Frodo. We take over control of these various characters and we become the powerfully unique, chosen ones depicted therein.
Nothing like the smile of a chosen one to brighten up your day.
I believe this goes further than merely retelling the same types of stories in a different medium because video games have evolved to embrace this particular type of power fantasy to an alarming degree. Like the aforementioned Mass Effect series, building a game around a proverbial chosen one while still letting the player shape their own path. But even more damning is the overly affirming callouts present in most Triple A games. Just listen the next time you are playing. You will hear all sorts of call outs from your allies ensuring you that the shot you made was awesome once it finally connected after 4 misses.
You may be guided along like a young child who can’t be trusted to walk 5 steps off the beaten path, but the ground you walk upon will be worshipped with reverence by your allies.
This might not be present in every game. But it is certainly disproportionately represented in the biggest, most popular games that we indulge in as a society. And that makes this worth paying attention to because it says volumes about our culture. We are so obsessed with being called unique and special that we are willing to accept it from our media even when we know it is blatantly lying. We are perfectly pleased to have these meaningless platitudes thrown at us. Maybe we know we are mundane, but that is seen as an insult, not an inevitability on a planet filled with 7 billion other people.
Pharmakon, a game I recently reviewed, was the game that I beat before anyone else. At the end of the game, you are given an ambiguous option: you can either click end or answer. Upon clicking answer, nothing seemed to immediately happen––I thought it was a glitch. But once I closed the game, I noticed a Discord chat had been opened in my browser, which connected me to the developer.
The first and only message read:
I sort of froze. The chat was empty. Was I really the first person to be greeted with this screen? To view this chat? I was tempted to ask, but before I had the chance to do so, the one man dev team congratulated me on having been the first person to beat the game.
I never expected to see those words; not that I had ever thought about it. I didn't feel different though. Sure, it was technically special and unique, but just having that badge didn’t really change anything. It had no real value to me. No more or less than any other game I’d beaten.
After discussing the game a little bit with the dev, he ended up sending me a message thanking me for having played and completed his game.
Unlike before, that really did feel good. I think we inherently know the feeling. When someone says they are thankful for all their millions of fans, it can’t help but come off as a platitude. They can’t possibly know all of them, some are inevitably shitty, and the human brain just can’t comprehend millions of other people; they just become numbers on such a large scale. But when an indie artist (musician, developer, etc) says the same thing, it feels truer. Because when you have 5 fans, you can sincerely know and express gratitude towards all of those people.
I'm still the only one who has engaged in the chats so far.
Being able to be the first of hopefully many fans for someone that is still paving their way does feel significant. In this way, I find that my feeling of being unique didn’t come from the real life equivalent of an Xbox Achievement, but rather from the relationship I forged with someone else through this accomplishment.
Often times, pursuing uniqueness is a way to show off, to separate ourselves from a crowded pack. It can be a solitary, self-absorbed experience at times, even to the point that it hurts the rest of us. Other times, being unique is merely a byproduct. Maybe you work hard to be the best you can, and that just so happens to make you unique once you eventually reach that goal. But it’s become clear to me that being unique doesn’t have to be something that is exclusionary or that separates you from others. At its best, it can bring you together.