Retrogamer: Speed Dating for Video Games
Michael B. Tager
In the past year and a half, since writing Retrogamer, I’ve played quite a few games, many because I legitimately wanted to play, or because they were highly recommended, but also because I thought people wanted to read about it. And I gave them a fair try, but I couldn’t get into them, not enough to write a long piece about how much I hated them. I could barely muster the energy to finish an hour or two of these games, with one notable exception.
But, welcome to speed dating for video games.
I. Halo 2 (Xbox)
I liked Contra and I liked Goldeneye. I even liked the original Halo when it first came out, despite minimal playing time (I was in college). I liked Fortress and all those early PvP games played on college servers. I fully expected to like Halo 2, especially now that I was giving myself time to really dig into it. But, I realized very quickly that I have better things to do than map out attack patterns for exploitation and the exact steps to run a gauntlet while following directions from some dippy AI named Cortana.
The crux of this is that I’m missing something with first-person shooters. I know I am. And Halo, for all the trappings of science fiction joy, is still an FPS at its core. And that core is not what I dig. It’s dying and resetting and figuring out exactly where the enemies are located. It’s repetition and brute memorization. That’s not a game; that’s like learning multiplication tables.
Halo 2 reminded me of Cecily, the sweet Filipino-American woman I went on a single date with. She was tall and lithe and had delightfully dirty stories; she had a good job and a lovely kid that she showed me a picture of. She also had a dagger-field of topics I couldn’t discuss (politics, music, books, her family, sports, the Philippines) and jokes I couldn’t make, because she liked being the funny person in the room. I probably could have figured out the pattern, but, like Halo 2, I simply couldn’t be bothered.
II. Phantasy Star 0 (DS)
In the early 2000s, I lived with Jason, a recovering heroin addict. He spent a lot of time on the couch, playing GameCube and often, when leaving or coming home, I’d hang out with him and chain smoke cigarettes. While I’d sometimes play Mario Party with him, mostly I watched him play Metroid Prime and Phantasy Star. I liked him.
He died a few years later of a heroin overdose. I found out later, through friends of friends, because I had moved out of the house as soon as I put all the pieces together. Why our money was disappearing, why his friends were using our bathroom for an hour at a time, why a cop showed up at our early in the morning for no particular reason. This isn’t strictly related, but it feels that way. Phantasy Star 0 played like I imagined a heroin overdose would feel: slow, stultifying, mind-numbing, a product of poor decisions.
Phantasy Star 0 was half a hundred things warning signs, like platforming and weapon farming and minimal storyline. Warning signs I followed.
III. Final Fantasy III (DS)
Another victim of the blocky isometric necessity of the early aughts. What was the fixation with that crap? The load times that were put into the game in order to have these square-headed, lopsided monstrosities. Call me old-fashioned, call me a luddite, but I like my old-school RPGs, well, old school: pixels, cartridge-based, non-existent load times.
This isn’t to say that Final Fantasy III is unplayable. I’ll track down a different re-mastered version and play that, one without 45-second load times between every single battle and dungeon. Especially on a portable platform, one that’s meant to be quick and easy.
IV. Mass Effect 2 (PS3)
Why didn’t I like Mass Effect 2? Why did I play it for three or four hours, put the controller down and simply never come back to it? I enjoyed the intro and the interface. I was engaged. It even felt like my wheelhouse.
Sarah was a doctoral candidate in psychology, she liked Dance, Dance, Dance and Kafka on the Shore. She had an adorable cat and a 1950s time capsule for an apartment. All stuff I dig.
After our second date, after we kissed in her doorway, I went away for a week. And then she had a conference. And then with one thing another, three months passed before we spoke again. By that time, she’d started dating her old friends-with-benefits and now they’re married. I’m happy for them.
Mass Effect 2 was, on the surface, everything I looked for in a video game. But sometimes that doesn’t matter. Sometimes people and places and games slip away, one moment at a time, until, with a look around, there’s a realization that time has moved on and if there was a space, that space has been filled.
V. The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind (PS2)
This was disappointing. Fallout 3 was what re-ignited my love of video games in the first place. I knew it was based on the Morrowind engine and modeled around the same open world, quest-based fulcrum that enthralled me. And I love high fantasy, so this was obviously a win-win. But it wasn’t.
Turns out I no longer love high fantasy—not without irony or deviation from norms. I didn’t even make it out of the first town. The spark that drove me in Fallout—the gallows humor and meta-reference—was missing in Morrowind. Without that, it was just a sandbox I didn’t want to play in.
I became friends with this dude Suleiman in my early 20s. We met at a country club where we were both killing time waiting tables. Me, I was waiting to leave for a year in AmeriCorps. He was waiting for his drug dealing career to take off. Of course, I didn’t know that initially. All I knew was that we got along real well, talked about girls and video games and smoked copious amounts of weed after our shift.
Before a shift, Suleiman handed me a vial of cocaine. I asked him why he did that and he said, “Oh, you try it out for free and if you like it, come back to me. That’s how it works,” and it was then I realized he was a proper dealer. And I remembered the times I gave him rides home and he made multiple stops along the way. And I realized there was no way we could be friends. I never told him, though. I just stopped returning his calls and when he asked to get stoned, I was like, “I’m good. I smoked earlier.”
Before I went to AmeriCorps, I heart through the grapevine that Suleiman was hurt I chose to not be his friend. I wondered if I made the wrong decision. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. Last I heard, he was in prison for murder.
VI. Star Ocean (SNES)
Once upon a time, I would have loved Star Ocean as much as I loved its sequel on the PlayStation The mix of science fiction and fantasy (think the crew of the USS Enterprise goes back in time and is stranded on a world where magic works), the intense leveling system with dozens of skills to master, the combos, the blend of action and classic RPG. The vast world and frequent random encounters along the way to multiple branching paths.
Star Ocean was close to what I liked, but it wasn’t enough. Not quite.
I lived at a frat house my junior year of college. I wasn’t in the frat; my roommates pledged and our house became the party house. It was whatever. I liked the free beer and I didn’t mind the parties, either the open campus ones or the smaller ones with the sister-sorority.
One woman and I became very frequent beer pong collaborators, running the table for nights on end. She got her name, “Moogle,” for skipping rush one night to play Final Fantasy VII. When we discovered our shared love for the franchise, we tried hanging outside of a party, just to get some food. We both could have used new friends, but we realized that outside of video games and beer pong, we had nothing at all to discuss. Nothing. She didn’t read, I didn’t care about football, she liked school and I was there for the extracurriculars. Her major was one thing, mine another. Democrat, Republican.
It was the first experience that, yeah, I might like someone, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to be tight. I’d grown beyond needing just one or two similarities.
VII. Twisted Metal (PS)
I played the heck out of Twisted Metal 2 in the ’90s. I learned the ins and outs of all the vehicles. I memorized the courses. With one or two exceptions (I never learned to time the dune-buggy’s jumps and playing as a malevolent clown…no), I mastered the game. So, of course I was excited to try the original Twisted Metal.
Except, sometimes originals aren’t as good. The original Mega Man is basically a crappy Mega Man 2, with hints of a good game inside. Twisted Metal could have been a good game if the graphics had been better, the controls smoother, the handling tighter, the cars more differentiated… if it had been an entirely different game, in other words.
I went out with Keisha twice. The first time I thought I saw some potential, despite her talking on a cell phone for half of dinner. On the second date, when I saw her take out her phone despite, “Oh, I’ll just be a minute,” I realized that, nope, I was right the first time.
VIII. Metroid (NES)
I wound up dating this woman for a few months. Amy was a scientist, an artist. She laughed and taught, ran and painted, and liked Guitar Hero and loved travelling. I liked her. I met her dancing and thought, oh shit, this dating thing worked out. I liked her. A lot. Like, a whole lot.
I never got comfortable. I couldn’t relax. She was, to quote High Fidelity, “Out of my class: too pretty, too smart, too witty, too much. What am I? Average.”
Metroid was like Amy. Too hard, too complicated, too dangerous, too menacing. When health got low, that damned beeping sounded until either I either died or restored my energy. I lived with that beeping for hours on end. I couldn’t figure out the mazes. I couldn’t find the hidden weapons and passages. I couldn’t time the jumps.
And at a certain point, well, I gave up. I couldn’t get out of my head. I second-guessed myself. I stopped trusting my instincts and signals. I took too much damage, jumped around frantic. And then it ended, poorly.
Metroid ended the same.
IX. Advance Wars (DS), Marvel Versus Capcom 2 (PlayStation), Civilization 4 (PC), many, many others
Despite my anxiety, occasional depression, and frequent pessimism, I’m actually quite good in social situations. I know how to talk and bullshit; I have a few different degrees; I watch a bunch of movies, read books. I know stuff. I know what to take seriously and when to show irreverence. This is what made me good at dating, romantically or otherwise.
In the summer of ‘07, I went speed dating. Ten-minute dates played to my strengths and hid my weaknesses. I could reuse jokes and anecdotes and appeal to pop culture, surface-level attraction if there was no ready connection. “I don’t live in the basement. I live in the attic, Greg Brady-style,” I may (definitely) have said.
Sometimes, I was asked about children. On a normal first date, I may have hemmed and hawed, but speed dating? “I love kids and they love me. The first time they’re bad, I hold up a single finger. The second time, I punch them hard, between the eyes. Third time? There’s never a third time.”
I was quizzed about my hobbies. “None, really. Mostly pot. And macramé.”
Not particularly hilarious humor aside, of the twenty women, I went on a few follow-up dates. None of them were soul mates, but we had fun times. And I remember them well, along with most of my single-serving or two-to-three-dates-over-two-weeks-before-it-fizzled-into-nothing romantic matches. I remember them, not because of regret or because one “got away,” but because, in one way or another, they all clarified exactly what I was looking for.
On a coffee date with one of the non-soul mates, Sara, a red-haired, zaftig doctor, genuinely surprised me with a casual insight. We were halfway through our coffee (you date enough, you start scheduling coffee instead of food to save on cash) when she sighed, interrupted whatever I had been saying, and said, “You know, you’re not my normal type.”
I sipped, raised an eyebrow and asked for her to continue.
“Well, you’re funny. I don’t like funny guys. And you work in mental health; I like guys who make more money than me. And also, you’re white.” Her fingers tapped the table continually.
“Yes. Yes, I am white,” I said, lighting a cigarette and keeping my eyes from rolling.
She pounded the rest of her coffee and asked for a refill. “I exclusively date black dudes.”
I exhaled smoke rings and thought for a moment. “So, let me get this straight. You don’t like funny white dudes who are poor.”
“What about artists? Because I’m an aspiring writer, too.”
She sighed, “God, I hate artists.”
I laughed and signaled for a refill too. “Dude, I can’t imagine why you went on this date, then. Because if you aren’t into those qualities, I literally have nothing else.”
She bummed a smoke from me and we inhaled in unison. The check came and we paid. “Well, I don’t know. You have to try new things, right? We get older and we forget to branch out, you know? But sometimes you know you missed. I mean,” she smiled and put out her hand, “you weren’t that into me either, right?”
I refrained from saying anything that would make this conversation more awkward, and just nodded. I ignored the attraction I felt and pushed it down. Because she was right, besides the purely physical pull I felt toward her, I wasn’t that interested in her.
Until then, my 27th year of life, I’d almost always been after the story. It’s why I went speed-dating, why I went to random raves in warehouses, why I always said yes to whatever weird thing my friends wanted to do. Or I said yes to dates because she was hot. Or because it would look good on a resume. Not always because I enjoyed it. In fact, I would often say yes to events I very well knew I would hate. Because I wanted the story of how much I hated it.
And then, just as we were saying goodbye, she said something banal, but that I just hadn’t thought of until that particular moment in time.
She said, “I’m just too old to waste my time when it isn’t working.”