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.
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.
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.