Everyone goes home again, but what do you do when you get there?
I spent the better part of my last trip bumming around on a friend’s couch playing their games, eating their food and just generally being a nuisance. This was a few months ago, and Just Cause 2 held a sacrosanct spot in the 360 as the latest Next Big Thing. Of course when company arrived and controllers were dealt we fell back on co-op classics like the Nazi Zombies mode in Call of Duty: World At War, but those brief sojourns into the imaginary island paradise of Panau played an integral role in gathering a crowd for multiplayer jam sessions. attracting casual observers with a smorgasbord of startling visual sequences.
Playing the game this way is perverse, crafting a straightforward solo experience into a performance that’s only engaging when played among an audience. I’ve met many people (most of them artists) who demonstrate an unconscious desire to create, reaching for pen and paper or a well-worn guitar at the first sign of an ebbing conversation to fill the valleys between peaks of chatter with impromptu chords and margin doodles. Just Cause 2 allows for similar entertainment, terminating faltering small talk and filling uncomfortable silences with the savage beauty of a Steven Seagal movie.
“Holy shit, did you just lasso a helicopter?” Amazement shadowed by disbelief, and a caustic conversation about college graduates tapers off. All eyes are on the screen. “Do it again! Dude, can you jack that chopper in mid-air?!” Craziness confirmed, the challenges start coming. Prior conversations might scrabble to regain traction, but every discussion inevitably derails after a spectacular stunt. “What, you didn’t know how to ride the exploding gas tanks into the stratosphere? It’s a scene straight out of Dr. Strangelove! Pass me that controller and I’ll show you how it’s done!”
I played a shit-ton of Just Cause 2 that week, but I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about the plot, setting or characters involved. It took me three days of play (and sustained assault by a platoon of Maoist militia) before I realized the game was set on a fictional smattering of islands in Southeast Asia, instead of the real-world South American archipelago I’d envisioned based on the box art. What I CAN tell you is that if you strap protagonist Rico Suave (name changed to protect my ignorance) to a canister of rocket propellant, blow the release valve to smithereens and ride that ramshackle rocket straight into the stratosphere while screaming at the top of your lungs, you are guaranteed to get a roomful of grins and at least a few guffaws. Games like Just Cause 2 are performance art, like a friendly round of extempo competition in which each player passes the controller with the shameless secret hope that the next guy (or girl) will find an even more ridiculous manner of making cool shit happen on the screen. Add alcohol, rinse and repeat.
I know that nerds playing video games at house parties is nothing new. You don’t know that the people I met at those parties didn’t give a shit about games before they earned a round of drunken applause for leaping out of a golf cart careening off a mountain and parachuted into a passing F-15. Now, games are an acceptable social activity. Of course they’re still not cool, and that stings. I can remember a time when games were for children, when we who played them wanted games to be seen as cool.
Games have never been cool, they never will be and they never should be. Games should be boring and mundane and accepted, like music or motorcycles or Bud Light. Memories of bonding with friends over beer and a borrowed guitar are the stuff of cultural legend, and I think we’re fast approaching the day when the zeitgeist will acknowledge a gamepad among the accepted building blocks of social capital. Guitars at a campfire, steaks on a grill, music at a club, games at a house party; they’re all equally excellent ways to be social, win friends and influence people. Which means we don’t have any excuses left.