In a meeting last week I bonded with my colleagues over shooting a poison pod into the mouth of a necromorph leviathan in the sixth chapter of Dead Space. We laughed at how I spent nearly two hours running in frustrating circles in an anti-gravity chamber, being splattered to the wind by giant alien tentacles.
Of course, this never happened. The reaction to this story would probably have been similar to if I had dragged my rear across the office carpet like a dog with worms.
In my office, rehashing the latest series of Mad Men is perfectly acceptable; it demonstrates a sense decorum and urbanity. Talking about the last thing you saw at the theatre is encouraged (Top Girls, unbearably self satisfied, incidentally). But games can only really be discussed with a fellow gamer. Other people lack the points of reference. It’s like trying to explain the concept of empathy to a spaniel.
Except, when you look at just how successful games companies are, you wonder where all the gamers are hiding. Activision Blizzard, publisher of titles like Call of Duty, matched the sales of Universal Music for the first time last month ($1.86bn). With Activision on the ascendancy and Universal in a seemingly inexorable decline, the safe money is on the games publisher to move ahead next year. While this doesn’t directly translate to popularity (it’s much easier to copy music than an Xbox game), it shows just how powerful the games industry is.
And it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Any gamer knows just how complex, subtle and gripping games have become; creating sprawling, free-roaming worlds and moral choices impossible to capture on film (Apocalypse Now makes you question your empathy towards a character who has just gunned down a Vietnamese family. A game can hand you the gun.) Makers of the upcoming Far Cry 3 have gone to incredible lengths to introduce a realistic system of morality, allowing a player to make life or death choices based on instinct or whim, rather than its direct in-game consequences. The Bioshock franchise, of which the latest instalment will be released next year, painstakingly creates not only a visually stunning dystopian city but an incredibly nuanced political backdrop, exploring issues including scientific ethics, psychoanalysis, libertarianism and socialism.
Like a good book, great games have replay value. Which is why I have spent the last month sitting alone, in the dark, playing through a stack of old games. It’s been like visiting an long-lost friend, albeit one who eats your spare time like a digital black hole and keeps trying to shoot you in the face.
I haven’t spent this much time gaming since I clocked up 135 hours trawling through irradiated subway systems in Fallout 3 back in the heady days of 2008. To put that in perspective, 135 hours is almost six entire days or, if you prefer, an entire month’s worth of five hour shifts (and sometimes it really felt like shifts – when you spend all night searching for fried iguana snacks and a new type of hat, it starts to feel like you have a job you’re not being paid for, yet inexplicably turn up to every day, grinning through the tears).
But this time wasn’t wasted. It was as rich a cultural experience as reading Ulysses or watching a box-set of early-period Fassbinder movies. So I’m going to talk about Dead Space at my next morning meeting. And if it doesn’t go down well, I’ll resort to plan B. Just don’t expect me to shampoo the carpet afterwards.