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A Lament For The Lost

Video games are moving towards their natural habitat. That is, they are becoming increasingly digital. They are, of course, already digital in the sense that all they really are is compiled code, bits of zeros and ones stamped onto a disc that exist to be read out and interpreted by a machine for your pleasure. The increasingly digital part comes in where they are being sold; digital sales through the likes of Steam and PSN and XBLA are booming and show no signs of stopping.

Physical retail has been on the decline since 2008 while digital delivery has increased since long before that. Mobile gamers are expected to double in the next couple of years on platforms that don’t even have physical media. If you look at NPD numbers for December, you’ll notice a decline in reported sales and yet the industry feels like it hasn’t lost a step. The cause? Digital sales are generally unreported.

Case in point: digital is on the rise, which—operating on the assumption that for cross-platform releases, digital vs. physical is a zero-sum game—means that physical is on the decline. But an important part of gaming is disappearing alongside the corporeal, and that is what used to go alongside the disc.

Do you remember game manuals? I’m sure you do, otherwise I’m going to have to ask to see your permission slip for the Internet. But recall how much used to go into those little booklets. By comparison, they make modern manuals look anemic. This is emblematic of several trends like going green and increasingly hand-holdy game design/tutorials, but let’s call it like it is; this is a loss of art. These miniature tomes were not only instructions on how to play the game but also were records of a world we knew little else about.

I remember that the manual that came with Final Fantasy VII on PC included biographies about all of the characters. You had their names, jobs, height, and even blood type. I spent my first half hour poring over that booklet, trying to absorb and retain everything I could so that the world that I was about to enter would be all the more inviting. There was art and hints and contextualized bits of instruction that read like you were already in Midgar.

And correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there was a walkthrough for the first section in the back. Maybe.

Compare that to today’s instruction manuals. I’ve see flyers with more real estate than that. Nowadays, most of them fold out a few times from a 4″x4″ square, half of which contains legal information and the other half a controller diagram. And that’s it. No biographies, no prologue, and certainly no hints. That tells you that either it is impossible to not understand something about the game or it is being purposefully opaque, neither of which amount to much of an apology for removing a chunk of art from your life. There were times when I, as a child, would go out with my family and I would bring a stack of manuals to read along the way, essential literature and not poor kindling.

While not on a similar decline, you can also soon kiss box art and disc art goodbye. The ridiculously large but oddly sentimental and ornamental boxes that PC games used to come in are gone (and for good reason; I’m guessing each FFVII box required at least one redwood and several saplings) and the diminutive size of modern disc cases (gooooo Green Team!) has diminished the once Idaho-sized canvases of old, but the inevitable digital future demands one especially horrible sacrifice: box and disc art.

Some of which is pretty good and some of which kind of makes you glad people won’t be able to just walk into your house and see that sort of nonsense. It could go from the metal-as-fuck cover of Doom to the painfully horrendous North American box art for Mega Man. Recall the contrasting masterful and shameful box art for Ico on the PS2. In the case of Max Payne 2, the box art was an extension of the game, setting the mood for the player before they even booted up. All the industry in-jokes and the generational milestones will be gone.

And with no box, there is no disc. And with no disc, there is no disc art. Sayonara to giggling at the fact that Tennis 2K2‘s disc looks like a tennis ball. Auf Wiedersehen to staring into the psychedelic abyss that is the We Love Katamari disc. That little movement of taking a disc and pinching it precariously between your thumb and index finger will never happen again. Spindle them up on your digits and twirl those suckers because they are going bye-bye.

That High Fidelity kind of lust for records will become a relic of a bygone time—our time—when video games still came in boxes and housed inside of them a disc with a manual. You will no longer be able to pull a case off your shelf and hold this piece of art in your hands. Your appreciation will be from afar, a maintainable and unknowable distance that stretches between the tips of your fingers and the edge of your screen. Rob Gordon’s obsession will begin to seem rational, his austere precautions mandatory, and his appreciation appropriate. And we will understand that he is a lament for the lost.

And we can only hope Catherine Zeta-Jones will one day date us.

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