In that cliché sort of way, it’s a First World problem. Presented with some sort of wrapped gift, whether Christmas morning, the last day of Hanukkah, or your birthday, you are hopeful. It doesn’t matter the size or shape or what you just received from another covered parcel, you are filled with some blind optimism. I call it blind because you don’t know what you are expecting or want to expect, but your hopes are high. Without knowing what is underneath this Sunday funnies garb, it could, quite literally, be anything. You’ll pick it up, weight it, rattle it around, but whatever estimations going through your head are quickly cast aside in favor of that eternal positivity.
The thoughts often manifest in ill-terminated “what if” questions. What if…and some nebulous idea finishes the statement. A feeling of what could be possible takes hold, and feelings are always poorly defined. Even if it’s a giant, horse-shaped box with a bow on it and all you’ve ever wanted your whole life was a pony, the sensation of anticipating your new equine friend overtakes any amount of reason and words begin to fail. It’s an amorphous feeling of sanguine suspicion, not yet and never ready to be put into a tangible anything.
With video games, it’s a reaction I get, oddly enough, only when I finish them. It’s never when I’m playing them or even right before I remove the plastic shrink wrap on the case and put the disc into my console; it’s only when the credits begin to roll do I gain this impression that there’s simply more. Of course I get all jittery and anxious like some addict when I’m presented with a present—it’s only natural and I’m only human—but this is different. This is the last present. Everything you didn’t know you wanted is contained within the walls of your mind as you face down this one last gift.
Have you ever heard the bit of advice about flipping a coin when you can’t decide between two things? You pick one thing for heads and another for tails and you flip the coin. As it tumbles about through the air, your heart will jump and flutter but in the final moments before it hits the ground, your true desires will bubble up and you hope for heads or tails to roll around. It’s a bit of a romantic notion, but it generally holds true.
And what are video games if not visual representations of the romantic? Exploration, at its very core, is about romance, that hope to find some love you didn’t know existed. I can tell you that Ferdinand Magellan didn’t get on that boat because he was bored; he hoped that whatever lies beyond the horizon was what he had been looking for his whole life.
Beyond that horizon for us gamers is what lies beyond the edges of the game. Ever since that Easter Egg in Adventure that squirreled away the sole credit of the game in some secret dungeon, players have been hypnotized by the notion that more lay just outside our grasp in these digital worlds. Search and scouring in the face of no promises and no guarantees just might be about the most romantic cliché there is.
Just today, there was a Eurogamer article about the entire practice of taking apart Shadow of the Colossus, the second PlayStation 2 classic from Team Ico. A dedicated group of “secret-seekers” have been using glitches and grand extrapolations of in-game lore to find that Last Big Secret. Threads years and years old would describe in painstaking detail theories and experiments in attempting to reach the top of the already known Secret Garden or find that elusive 17th colossus. This collection of passionate individuals was attempting to manually break down whatever walls Fumito Ueda had put up between them and the grand reveal.
All of this—years of studying and collaborating and tinkering—took place in spite of never being told that anything even exists beyond the edge of the world. Explorers just the same as Magellan with no promise that there was such a thing, they went at it using the few tools at their disposal: hope and ingenuity. They still saw that one last present and were shaking it for all its worth.
Romance, however, and the mysteries it contains is a finite resource in the oddest way. Each person comes to it and mines what they want or need from it and move on, using what is taken in the moment they scoop it up. The love of discovery dissipates and the gift is left battered and crinkled on the side of the road, discarded like a piece of trash. But the mystery is renewed when someone else comes along and wonders the same thing: what’s inside this box? It feels an awful lot like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a novel about a boy uncovering the first secret of many in a long abandoned (or, rather, dismissed) scavenger hunt for untold treasures. Those before him have taken what they can from the hunt, but his love is new, and his bounty growing.
That gift, though, gets opened, and nothing is left to be renewed or harvested. Christmas ends, your birthday part is over, and Magellan makes it home. The mystery is laid bare and you finally know the secrets previously contained within. In the case of these secret-seekers, a hacker breaks the game wide open through an emulator and snaps them all awake. There is nothing behind Celosia’s door, there is nothing above the Secret Garden, and Shadow of the Colossus contains no Last Big Secret. It is a sobering realization, and one that leaves you feeling cold and abandoned by someone who was always going to leave you but you never believed.
That one last gift, that single box left still wrapped up in its shiny green and polka-dotted paper and its gaudy little bow, never really goes away, though. It’s not about unwrapping everything you see but finding the mystery that surrounds them and reveling in the romantic notion that anything and everything could be just one shred of paper away. These secret-seekers are just the same as you and I. We all subscribe to the same idea that the unknown is amazing and the unknown is stunning. Albert Einstein said that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious, and in these moments of trying to look beyond the horizon to the edge of the world, I’m inclined to agree.