Christmas Eve. Finally the house is quiet, and the lights are dimmed to twinkles. All the hard work is over, the fridge full of once-a-year delicacies and everyone else has gone to bed. But I’m still up, as I always am, to have a last, long look at the tree. Or rather, at the boxes under the tree. The big boxes. The biggest box.
If you’re a gamer, there’s something different about Christmas, something different about those boxes. Part of my work this year has been helping with the launch of the UK’s National Videogame Archive, and it’s meant having a lot of interesting conversations with interesting people about what a game museum might look like. My favourite suggestion so far was that we recreate a childhood Christmas – that childhood Christmas, when whatever it was that changed your life arrived.
So you’d book your ticket, and pay your money, and there when you arrived – alongside the Big Trak or the Tracy Island or whatever it was your sister wanted – there’d be a box with your name on it, wrapped in that papery paper you don’t seem to get any more – and you’d be allowed to rip it open and turn it over and over and over and look at the pictures of Rygar or Pole Position or whatever it was, before taking a deep breath and letting rip on the flaps. At which point a security guard would probably escort you from the premises.
As an idea for a museum exhibit, I admit, it needs a little work, but I’d still love to do it. My big box – my big boxes – would have an ST and a monitor in them, and the tiny, shiny screenshot that I’d pour over would be of Ranarama.
It’s often argued that what people enjoy about games is the power fantasy, so here’s Ranarama’s power fantasy in a nutshell: you play Mervyn, a vain, inept wizard who has inadvertently turned himself into a frog, and must now escape a dungeon run by evil Warlock using his one amazing superpower, the ability to solve an anagram really fast. Note the syntax: not his ability to solve *anagrams* really fast, but his ability to solve one eight-letter anagram – of ‘Ranarama’ – over and over, really fast. This, you will note, is not really much of a super-power. ‘Ranarama’ isn’t even a real word! It’s mostly all the same letter! God knows how he’d have coped with rhythm or diarrhea or numismatist.
No twelve-year old wants to grow up to be an inept, obsessive-compulsive, anagram-solving frog with body image issues called Mervyn. So if it wasn’t the prodigiously feeble power-fantasy, what was it that I loved so much about Ranarama then, and why would I now happily pay money to unwrap it all afresh and start the adventure again?
It’s partly, of course, that Ranarama is basically brilliant. Even today the rubbery crunch Mervyn makes as he moves gives me goosebumps, as does Steve Turner’s brilliant theme music. The core mechanic of balancing your magic spells and your power spell stands up, and there’s still something opulent about the visuals, despite their simplicity. I know I would still play it all day because I do still play it all day.
But those elements aren’t why that Christmas was so special, why Christmases are different for gamers. What Ranarama gave me was my first experience of being truly, meaningfully alone. Kids are lonely a lot, of course – especially ones who get over-excited about frog-heavy Gauntlet clones – and even sometimes on their own a lot, but what they don’t get to experience is that combination of freedom, responsibility and power that characterises quite a lot of adulthood. As a little kid if you’re really, properly, totally alone the chances are that something’s gone wrong, and chances are that it’s not going to be up to you to fix it.
But in a game – or, at any rate, in the kind of game you used to get for Christmas – you’re literally the only person in the universe, and literally the only person with the power to fix things. No-one’s going to come and help, no-one’s going to come and tell you off or second-guess your choices: there’s just you and a world that will stay broken unless you fix it. What’s in the box isn’t a frog power fantasy – it’s a vibrant, momentary taster of the glorious pressure of being a grown-up.
And so this year, yet again, there are big boxes wrapped in papery paper sitting under my tree. They’re not for me, but they’re going to bring me just as much pleasure come the morning. I hope they do for you, too. Happy Christmas, Offworlders!
[Margaret Robertson is the former editor of Edge magazine and now videogame consultant. One More Go is her regular Offworld column in which she explores the attractions of the games she just can’t stop going back to.]