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A Time And A Place

“Timeless” is a very interesting way to describe a game. In and of itself, it really just means that the passage of time is a nonfactor in the quality of an object or concept. Most often this is attributed to certain styles or designs because they are far removed from time in every critical way that they remain as valuable or beautiful as the day they were conceived. Classic cars, vintage clothing, and black and white photos of James Dean are all usually considered timeless.

Things that don’t have the ageless quality are generally stuck in the zeitgeisty part of our memories. These are events or fads that came and went because as time went on, we grew tired of them. Pet rocks. Slap bracelets. Kardashians. They all fade away and only surface in conversation when we laugh about how weird we were 10 or 20 years ago or when we’re cleaning out the attic and tip over a dusty box full of pictures. They were a novelty then and they are a novelty now, existing only as an ephemeral distraction from noting the gap between the amaranthine.

Video games, however, have a very different slant on timelessness. Retro games of the 8-bit era will always been unfading and eternal because their concepts transcend their visuals; they are the purest form of what they offer. But almost everything else is intrinsically tied to a specific time and, most likely, place. There will always be the Shadow of the Colossuses and the Mario 64s that come up every once in a while, but the pop culture surrounding games is half of what the entire industry is about.

Consider a game like Fez. While itself a great game and lovable in a curiously taxing way, Fez was designed to cultivated conversation and collusion in a way that was lost to a time before the Internet. For as charming its visuals were and subtly entrancing its music, Fez was about the communal aspect of discovering, discussing, and dismantling puzzles not explicitly laid before our collective feet.

You would hear from one friend who heard from another guy who read somewhere that the symbols mean something. An off-hand quip on a forum would lead you to realize that the bell is more than just a bell. You and four other friends would spend hours playing together trying to solve the ostensibly last great riddle of the game. For all the drama surrounding the game’s development, it accomplished what it intended.

But imagine trying to play it now. Fez‘s audio and visual design aesthetics will go down as some of the best to ever hit our eyes and ears (and hearts), but the global goal of trying to crack this one singular nut is gone. If you picked it up now and started playing for the first time, questions regarding the meaning of certain shapes and sounds would be just that: questions. Questions have answers, and everyone has answers. Mysteries are much more interesting in that way.

An example that might resonate with more people out there would be World of Warcraft. It is arguably the single most financially successful game ever made and continues to rake in the money, allowing Blizzard the freedom to take Valve-like lengths of time on new projects. But it cannot go on forever. It is tired, it is weak, and it is showing its age. In almost every single way, World of Warcraft is not an undying beast. It sustains simply on its numbers, and they are bleeding out, albeit slowly. The lukewarm response to Mists of Pandaria is proof of that. Mere months after its release, subscriber numbers have fallen back down to the Cataclysm low.

That, however, is not its fault. MMOs are social games by their very nature, and WoW succeeded in being one of the best in that regard. When—not if—the servers finally shut down for good, the entire premise of the game and its innate genre attributes will be sheared off with a single powerful gale. You can tell people about how you explored Ironforge or prepared for your weekly raid or conned your way into leading a guild, but that is all gone. There will be no disc you can put in and replay the campaign of your actions with WoW and there is no historia for the culture of the realms. The immense amount of social data and personal stories will be lost to a single keystroke and the tick of a clock.

Even before the certain end, WoW has changed. The people that were around in its nascent days are almost certainly gone now. It has been almost a decade since it launched. Ten years of people coming and going. Ten years of changing hierarchy and customs and norms and idiomatic speech. Every few years and every expansion is an influx not only of content and people but also of culture and knowledge. World of Warcraft was never built to be timeless.

And that may very well be true of most games. Catchphrases, I guess, linger like “war never changes” and yelling “SNAAAAAAAAAKE” when something bad happens, but rarely are entire games made to exist outside of time. They are products of their environment where the pop culture of design guides the hand of development to include active reload and quick-time events and motion controls. They are the result of a million minds pushing a single product into a particular ebb and flow of a national consciousness. The games themselves might not be the enduring result of the industry, the industry itself the immortal thing. And that might be what makes video games so special.

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