Years ago, I read a description of a game in Edge and it has slowly transformed, with time and a forgetting of almost all of the details, into a perfect game – a dream game. This was a while back, so far back in fact that I think the N-Gage was the platform the game was headed for. It was a game about building up a city or something like that – really, I have forgotten almost all of the details – and then your city might be attacked by another player, in real-time, and in real time you would have to do something about it.
A persistent world with things kicking off all hours! This probably doesn’t sound so special these days, but back then? Back then the image from Edge, of being in a boring work meeting and getting a message informing you that your city was under attack? Man, that was just wonderful.
For me, over the years, that game has come to stand for all the interesting ways that games intrude into our lives. The way games bleed in. I love asynchronous games like Words with Friends for just this reason. It’s not that I love Scrabble – man, who doesn’t love Scrabble? It’s that I love a game that interrupts you, that announces itself, that reminds you that beyond the layer of the world that you can see, a game is slowly ticking away.
And I thought of all of this earlier this week when for some reason or other I was scrolling back over the pictures on my phone. I don’t connect my phone and sync it half as often as I should, so I always have hundreds of pictures. And looking through them is probably the closest I come to keeping a diary: my days are recorded, or at least strange parts of them are, in shopping lists I have photographed, emails I have screenshotted, train window views that have caught my eye, Snapchats that my daughter has taken (RIP the googly eye filter).
But in there, what’s this? Strange islands, lit by an unmistakable Carribean light, blurry as if taken in great agitation or emerging from dreams. These aren’t travel pictures – or at least not in a traditional sense. They’re islands from Sea of Thieves, and before I realised that you could look down and see the map room from the bridge of the ship, I would take these snaps to remind me of where I was headed next, and what I might expect there.
Many photos later, I get a different island: this is the world of Fortnite, and I have taken pictures of ringed locations which, I am guessing, I probably used to track down posters I had to graffiti. Later still are block puzzles, looking like abstract art, from some of the memory-based challenges in Youropa, a lovely game that I will be writing more about this Thursday. These things have all been memory aids – I always want to call them memento mori, before remembering that that only refers to things you keep to remind you you’re going to die – but whereas years back I would have written them in a notebook or sketched them on the back of a till receipt, today my phone is always with me, so snap!
I love this. I love this strange kind of mobile gaming, where the phone turns the game into a kind of real-world artefact, and where a challenge requires help from a real-world object. I love the way that the games I play live this second kind of life, as a layer of strata, in amongst pictures of my daughter on day trips and birds in the tree at the back of the garden. To play games, I think, to love them, is to let them in. And once you let them in they find all kinds of places to lurk and make themselves at home.