How we remember games

Our long-term opinion of a game may have little to do with how good a game actually is. How we remember games is almost as important as the games themselves. The way we remember any medium greatly shades our opinions, whether it be a game, a book or a movie. Games, unfortunately, share certain properties of the other two media that make each prone to being colored by memory.

First, I will explain what about books and movies are different from video games in regards to how we remember them. Books are highly personal experiences; no one can walk by and share some of a book with you. All of the action, drama, character’s introspection and so on happens in your mind and in your imagination. In this regard, they are different from both movies and games. A key way a movie is different from a book or video game is its comparatively short length. Both how long an experience takes and how personal the experience is dramatically affects how you remember the experience.

I just wanted to lighten the mood by posting a picture of text from War and Peace.

Most books worth reading take a long time to finish. Video games share this property, many taking more than a solid day to beat. Such an investment in time may not seem relevant while you are enjoying the book or game, but becomes important in how the art fits in your memory. As time passes while you read or play, daily events become absorbed into your assessment. When thinking back, we often remember the time period as a whole more than the specifics of the game or book.

For example, I read Vonnegut’s Jail Bird right after a breakup. When I think back to the book I remember Starbucks and the prison riot, but I also remember long hours alone in my bedroom. In my mind, Jail Bird is inseparable from the period of sadness it occupied in my life. Similarly, I played Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm during a week long visit to a friend’s house. Wrapped up with my memory of that game are bits of George Carlin standup, brainstorming sessions on my first (attempted) game’s plot, and a horrid Georgian (or Russian?) pastry topped with honey and sour cream. Draconus may have been a good game according to everyone else, but in my head it’s awesome.

A movie is similar to a game because it is (potentially) social. Who you watch with can play nearly as large a role as how good the movie is. Scream 2 is possibly a terrible movie, but my memory of it consists of sitting in the back of a theater with a few rambunctious friends and some of the more attractive high school girls (unfortunately, I was also in high school). Our jeers were directly proportional to the amount of blood on the screen and I’d have punched me in the face had I been anyone else in that theater.

These aspects of social interaction and time invested even work together and make each other that much more important. Over long periods of time, we have more social interactions both in front of and away from our game consoles; the length and social aspect of games feed into one another in order to distort our memory of a specific game even more than a book or movie.

I played all of Shining Force 3 with Pat. It is no coincidence I usually enjoy games we play together as I enjoy his company with or without a video game’s presence. As the game is broken into three parts, and because Pat and I live in different states, playing the whole game has taken ages (to be honest, we just finished Scenario 2). Not only do we have each others company to make the games more fun, but we have the memory of playing in senior year of college, playing in his parent’s basement, in both of my apartments, and in his. I have had a different girlfriend for each scenario thus far; I have gotten a degree and my first full time job. Shining Force 3 is both a testament to a friendship and a chronicling of important steps in my life. The game may be excellent to an objective viewer, but to me it is fundamental to existence.

I show off my Shining Force 3 Isabella costume.

What can be done to gain a more objective view of games? Besides playing very short games in an empty house, not much. Being aware that how you remember a game may not be a clear picture of how the game really was helps, but only mildly. I know playing Shenmue 2’s final battle with a broken thumb had a dramatic effect on how fond I am of the game, but knowing this does not make it easy to ignore my affection. I understand why other people may not feel the same way, but still cannot change my own feelings. Who I played it with and what was happening in my life when I played it added much subjectivity to my recollection of the game, whether I acknowledge it or not.

How do these factors weigh on the mind of the professional reviewer? As I am not a professional, I have a hard time answering. They likely finish games quickly and do it in solitude. Working on these assumptions, their recollection of a game is likely much less tarnished than ours. Even so, it is probable they don’t finish every game in one sitting and so the passage of time and events surrounding their gaming experience would have at least a small affect on their memory.

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17 years ago

Cool article, Jay. These are all great points. There was a recent "Worst of" list that cited Clayfighter 63 1/3 as one of the worst games ever, but when I played that at a friend’s house in the middle of summer, I thought it was the greatest game. My friends and I played the game on Hard and tried to beat it, even though we tried after just renting it. We played until like 3 in the morning, switching the controller back and forth if we died. And in my opinion, the time I had with Clayfighter was amazing. If Nintendo put that game on the VC, I’d get it in one second. It may have sucked, but the experience I had surrounding that game made it that much better. This brings up the scary thought that some of those games we fondly remember actually do suck, and that the Virtual Console may be a bit bloated for it’s own good. Time will tell on that one.

17 years ago

jesus, have we been playing shining force for that long? i feel old or something. it seems to me people notice some of these external factors more with certain genres.  ask people the circumstances of how they played resident evil and i can almost guarantee their face lights up as they tell you stories of being in their parents basement with a friend or two and the lights off (or on if they are going to be babies about it). unfortunately i am not generally a social gamer.  any time jay and i can get together and play, i enjoy it, and im sure my memories of the countless games we have played together are colored by that, but the rest of my friends either play madden or nothing.   

17 years ago

Actually, I played Resident Evil 2 in my basement…. alone. Yeah, I rarely play with friends anymore. I baptized my girlfriend into the House of Gaming which is cool, but she only plays DS games. She beats the shit out of me in Tetris, though, woo boy!

15 years ago

rereading this i realized that my earliest, and probably most vivid memories of our time with shining force are of playing the first couple battles in your parent’s den (also the site of far too many hours spent with evolution on dreamcast) so thats another site you can add to the list of places we have played it.