Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending, explores the nature of memory and how the documented past often conflicts with our personal recollection of events. The book is split between two main sections: one in which Tony is a young man who responds to romantic disappointment with a detached dry wit and one in Tony’s retirement years. With most of his life behind him, he unexpectedly receives a letter that prompts him to reevaluate his memory of those formative college years. Faced with old writings from both himself and his friends, he struggles to reconcile the immaturity, irresponsibility, and bitterness apparent in the historical record with his personal heroic recollections.
It’s an understated, narrowly-focused story about one person’s life, but the underlying concepts are universal. Our mental notion of the past is a continually shifting concept that can be upset by even the smallest piece of contrary documentation. It’s probably a good lesson to apply to all facets of life, but in the interest of starting small, let’s focus on video games. The proliferation of the Internet has provided an unprecedented opportunity to record and then access past events. Going forward, our memories of the kinds of games we play, how we play them, and the culture surrounding them will routinely bump up against the recorded past.
The ease by which we obtain and play games from the distant past illustrates perhaps the most common example of this phenomenon. Thanks to emulation and digital remastering, games are no longer frozen in time at the moment you stop playing them. For every evergreen classic, there are those games that are better remembered than revisited.
More mental adjustments await every time we open our Steam profiles or view our achievement lists. Everyone conceives of themselves as a certain type of player: one who is an expert in roguelikes, one who has devoted great attention to mastering a particular racing game, or maybe one who always goes the extra mile to find obscure independent games. But what happens to these conceptions in the face of cold hard numbers? What does it mean that your playtime for Plants vs. Zombies dwarfs a game like XCOM? Were you really that amazing at Geometry Wars 2 if you only unlocked one-third of the achievements and aren’t even ranked among the top ten of your friends list? We’ll soon be able to know what kind of gamers we are quantitatively; the data is all there, the final step is bringing it to the forefront.
Similarly, there exists a technology that promises to give each of us the shock that Tony received in The Sense of an Ending when confronted by letters written by his younger self: game capture and streaming technology. Today, capturing a play session is still a cumbersome and expensive process that is usually bolted on to existing games. It usually requires third-party hardware and software and takes some careful tweaking to perfect. Despite all this, it’s hard to find a game for which there is no YouTube or Twitch footage. Even in this kludgy environment, people have found a way to preserve not only their games, but themselves.
Thankfully for my ego, the opinions I had when I was ten years old are safely obscured by the sands of time. I’m free to simply recall what I felt, not relive what I actually said. This will change over the next five years, both as streaming services become more popular and as the console manufacturers wake up the social habits of their players. Judging by all the montages, walkthroughs, “Let’s Play” videos, and general video-related silliness on the Internet, people want to share their opinions and their play sessions. It’s only a matter of time until the decentralized efforts of those like Bungie are formalized at the OS level with “instant broadcast” or “post to YouTube” features baked right into the menus.
The result of this won’t just be an archive of game footage; it will be a collection of personal stories through which people will see a very specific, inglorious version of their former selves. I like to think that when I expressed my favor of Super Mario over Sonic, I did so with cogent, well-reasoned arguments. I decry the rampant hooliganism tweens exhibit in multiplayer matches; surely, I was never that much of a little douche bag…
As Tony learns in The Sense of an Ending, the person that you remember being isn’t always the person you actually were. History’s hard records can offer amazing insight into our formative years and the games that made them special, but they can also foster some uncomfortable realizations. Easily available classic games, a metrics-driven approach to documenting our play sessions, and the ability to record not only our games, but how we interact with them, are changing the way we will remember the medium and our relationship to it. We’re quickly approaching a point where our sense of a game and who we were when we played it will exist side by side with a dispassionate record. Inevitably, the two will come into conflict, forcing a change in the way we remember our games and ourselves.