Right, let’s get one thing out of the way immediately. The following Vault Entry is a list of games that I tried to love but couldn’t. It is not a list of objectively bad games that I happened to hate. It would be very strange for me to actively try and love something terrible (though, admittedly, I am a member of the gender that enjoys the whiff of their own farts) so what I am left with is classic games, that I knew I wanted to love and knew that I should love, but for some reason the chemistry and the magic just wasn’t there for me. Think of these games as enigmatically blooming spring flowers, only they give me hayfever and smell like other people’s farts.
There are moments when games can make you feel like an outcast and oddly, it is not when sitting alone in your pants with only your Xbox controller, a semi-erection and addiction to Halo: Reach multiplayer for company. It is when you are in a group, discussing games, and everyone is completely sure and powerfully forthright that “Fad Game X” is the best game that they have ever played and everyone else agrees with them. Only you’re there, with your corner of the table rapidly shrinking, stool legs shortening, voice getting mousier, saying “actually, I don’t think that game is anything special”. Everyone else just laughs and adds another point to the list of things to take the piss out of you for. There will be many moments like this through a gamer’s life; times when the conventional wisdom of a game’s mesmeric brilliance just doesn’t jibe with what you are seeing on screen and feeling through your control pad.
This isn’t just an excuse to callously pick holes in towering achievements in gaming, it is a battle cry for everyone who has ever picked up the latest installment of “Triple-A Sci-Fi blaster Y” or “Bog Standard Military Shooter 7” and thought to themselves “Am I the only one who doesn’t get this game?”. No dear friend, fellow gamer, and exceptional human being – you are far from alone. It is perfectly acceptable not to love the gaming franchises that everyone else tells you are fantastic, and you aren’t the only person to think that way.
Let me tell you why!
5: GoldenEye 007 (Rare, 1997)
Things are always more fun when you get to do them, rather than just watch them. Formula 1 is great on the TV, but cavorting around with supermodels on boats in Monaco is actually more fun in person (I would imagine). Equally, being in the cinema watching Jedi’s doing Jedi things is probably 0.0000001% as much fun as gadding about pretending to be pious whilst secretly teaching alien women to love.
And so it was for me with GoldenEye. As a youngster, my parents (infuriatingly at the time, wisely with hindsight) restricted the number of game consoles in my house to zero, lest my eyes go square and I devolve into the green blob creature from Blade. So my experience of console games was always at a friend’s house, often just watching the action. There was a lot of that with GoldenEye; watching mates who had the game showing each other who could do the Dam level fastest, who was more fluent at 00 Agent and basically who rocked the hardest at the best James Bond game ever.
I could barely even hold the N64 controller.
So when it came time to start a four player split-screen session, I was the cannon fodder. The uncoordinated loser who was killed not only with the normal weapons but by chops (most humiliating), the remote mines (most frustrating) and by running headlong into proximity mines (most demoralising).
There you have it. That is why I didn’t love GoldenEye. Simply because it was brilliant, everyone loved it, but, because of my lack of practice, I felt like I was playing a different game, where everything was clumsier and fiddlier and less like Bond, more like Austin Powers, and my happy chums delighted in rubbing my incompetence in by chopping me to death as I sprayed bullets into the walls all around them like Elmer Fudd in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Amazingly, within a few hundred words, I have disproved my own spurious point: there are things that are less fun to do than simply watch. Things you are shit at.
4: Gran Turismo 5 (Polyphony Digital, 2010)
Ah, Gran Turismo, what a history we have together. The original game in this series is one of the seminal gaming experiences of my life, up there with Tekken 3, SSX and Resident Evil 4, where I was shown the potential of gaming and how broad the palette of experiences could be.
Like Star Wars fans from the late seventies, who watched the potential of special effects and cinema changing with the innovation and technical excellence of Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic team, Gran Turismo’s loyal followers were given a window into the future, not just a contemporary game.
But if Gran Turismo is gaming’s A New Hope, the Gran Turismo 5 is undoubtedly The Phantom Menace. Too long in development, the soul of the original lost and clearly helmed by an obsessive director more interested in pursuing his personal goals than making a well rounded product that fits into the lineage of the name it bears.
You know when games are described as ‘love letters to fans’? Kazunori Yamauchi’s game is a love letter only to himself, or to the army of cars that fill his driveway, or to, well, anything other than the loyal fans. Flaws from the earliest parts of series obstinately remain, with simple issues like race balancing, opponent AI and menu navigation so poorly implemented it feels like it might have been done to spite you. In piques of rage, as another race was rendered impossibly dull by overly easy or difficult opposition, I often thought I saw Yamauchi’s mug smiling at me from behind the glass front of my TV, grinning inanely whilst waving his middle finger back and forth.
Not that Gran Turismo 5 was a terrible game. Its handling model is beautifully refined, so pleasingly tactile that it should have a statue erected in “Gaming Achievement Park”, right next to the plaque that Nintendo was awarded for Super Mario Galaxy’s imagination, the oak tree that was planted for Street Fighter IV’s character balancing and the wall where Call of Duty players can leave each other notes saying “no, you’re a c**t, d*ckw*d”.
All I wanted was for Gran Turismo 5 to take driving games to the next level, to actually learn from previous games in the series and finally achieve the potential that was hinted at in the wonderful, wonderful original. It didn’t. So lust and excitement became disappointment and love never blossomed this time. Sad.
3: Portal 2 (Valve, 2011)
Portal 2: The game that should never have been made. Not because it wasn’t brilliant and teetering upon the edge of all-time-greatness, but because the original is an All Time Great. With emmer-effin’ capital letters.
Portal was perfect level design, weaved onto a loom of astonishing narrative structure and immaculate characterisation. It was also the perfect marriage of game with medium, its short length and tight focus being perfect for a download release and as a feature part of The Orange Box. Its story of finding your way into a larger world, like waking from a terrible dream, was powerful and the cherry atop one of the greatest games ever made.
Knowing all this to be true, it made me want the sequel even less.
Things that are perfect should be left alone. No one is suggesting that a Directors Cut of Baywatch should be released, with more thorough character development for Mitch Buchannon and less time focussing on slow motion shots of Yasmine Bleeth (ah, Yasmine, how I miss you). That would be meddling with what is universally accepted as perfection.
Yet, somehow, Valve thought it right to retcon the ending of Portal 1 via a patch to fit their new story and to drag the player back into Aperture Science to fight round two with Glados.
Certainly the game was longer and had more content, but it was flabbier. The voice acting cast was more famous, but none surpassed the creeping menace of the original Glados. Portal 2 was arguably a better game than the original, yet it was worse, because it retrod old ground so brazenly, pushed the same buttons so unapologetically and was not so gloriously new as the original game. Of course, by definition, it never could have been.
And, for that crime alone, I couldn’t love it.
2: Black & White (Lionhead Studios, 2001)
At university I was constantly looking for hippie-beatnik-pretentious-weirdos to shout at. Douchebags. The year before university they would have been drinking Smirnoff Ice with a straw, stalking night-clubs like a filthy hyena whilst simultaneously minesweeping the leftover drinks with the rest of us. Now, by virtue of starting an english or philosophy degree, they have decided that they have to wear a scarf borrowed from Rupert the Bear, a permanently sour-faced expression like they had a filling made of salt, and that they have to read hugely ostentatious books in order to make themselves seem cleverer than they are.
What a hypocrite I was.
I had spent my pre-university years playing more Pro Evo and SSX than should be possible in a week and my combined obsessions probably cost me at least a grade in my physics and maths exams. When I came to university, like a nobby english student, I decided that I needed to broaden my palette. Out went the Smirnoff Ice, in came the wheat beer and heavy ale. Out went SSX, in came Black and White.
I wanted a game that challenged me mentally. A thinking man’s game, one where I could survey what I had created, marvel at my ambition and bask in the beauty of its execution. Black and White was to be my canvas. Then I could bore all my friends with it by talking non-stop about it whilst they all played SSX and Pro Evo. What an insufferable twat I was.
Of course, it didn’t play out like this.
Far from mentally challenging, Black and White succeeded only in testing my patience (tuned for the past half decade on the immediate gratification of my PS1 and PS2), boring and frustrating me in equal measure. I like to think that my experience with Black and White was the same as that of the army of english students had when they sat down in front of Finnegan’s Wake: they thought it was going to make them feel clever, it just made them feel stupid.
1: Grand Theft Auto 3 (Rockstar North, 2001)
I am sure that there isn’t a more uncool sentence in the english language than “live music is a bit shit, isn’t it”.
I hate live music. Standing around getting elbowed and kneed by all and sundry, back gradually giving out as you realise there is nowhere to sit and the constant, nagging feeling that the music sounds better on a CD through a nice stereo.
However, anyone who I have ever spoken to has told me how much they love live music, how festivals are brilliant, how getting so covered in mud that you are at serious risk of being absorbed by the earth is “part of the fun” and that I’m a “massive loser” and a “prick” for not liking live music. I can’t be the only person who doesn’t like live music. There are too many people in the world for me to be the only one.
I have the same experience with Grand Theft Auto 3; everyone you speak to tells you how amazing it is. Someone is lying to me. Someone else doesn’t like Grand Theft Auto 3. Six or so billion people on the planet and I’m the only one who doesn’t like GTA3? I’m not buying it. Actually, I’m starting to believe its all a big joke and that I’m the subject of some bizarre, Truman Show-esque cover-up. I’m pretty sure that the camera in my iMac is watching me right now. It always seems to come on at 3am when I’m drunk and writing features.
I tried to love Grand Theft Auto 3. Hell, if I didn’t, what else was I going to talk to my gaming friends about? But I just didn’t like it. I felt that, because you could do anything, somehow the story felt superficial to the game rather than integral. Most objectives felt like elaborate orienteering exercises with with an excess of set dressing. Combat was clumsy, haphazard and the more people you killed, maimed and humiliated the more the police seemed to tail you around. The reward for experimenting was being punished by a mountain of police and a game world that seemed ever more determined to kill you.
I understand that the game gave players the freedom to do anything in a massive 3D world, and the exploration, violence and ability to choose what to do next was intoxicating. But whenever Grand Theft Auto 3 gave me the choice of what to do next, I usually chose to turn it off and play something else.
So now, I’m going to finish off with the second most uncool sentence in the english language.
“Grand Theft Auto 3, it’s a bit shit, isn’t it”.