Putting Mario Kart 64 into the Nintendo 64 console my parents got for me for the first time: the thrill when I saw those cheap graphics pop up on the screen for the first time, and the rotating Nintendo 64 logo that dominated the screen before I saw the first start screen, Mario and pals screeching along the road on their colorful go-karts.
Losing my last Yoshi in Yoshi’s Story, and watching him release a single tear as he’s carried off to the unknown horror of Bowser Jr’s castle. My sister, who was watching nearby, commenting on how she didn’t know video games could have that kind of emotion. Myself smugly saying that video games can make you feel all kinds of things, if you open your heart to them.
Exploring World of Warcraft for the first time: seeing the mounts, the heavy armor, the exotic worlds I could explore as I walked down the road with my level 9 gnome priest.
Getting the wrong items for Tristana in my first League of Legends game because she used a gun so clearly she needed the gun-like items.
Buying a player’s guide because of the fricken’ Water Temple.
I have them, you have them: precious memories attached to our time playing video games. Typically they’re short, they’re sweet, or they’re attached to something else that was going on in our lives at the time. But they’re always there, and they always paint our perception of a game or a title well beyond what could be called “objective”. And for a nice change of pace this week, I wanted to spend some time talking about these memories: the things we kind of take for granted when we play and talk about games, but the things that are also arguably the most important reason why we play games… and why we like the games that we like.
It’s something I started thinking about when I finished Fire Emblem: Three Houses last weekend. Not the full game, mind, just the Blue Lion house route, which was the one I started with. As soon as I finished, had my feel-good moments and my post-game bag of skittles, I started up a new game + and started playing from the perspective of the Black Eagles: how could I not? There were so many mysteries and unexplored threads that were introduced in my first play through that seem impossibly tied to the Black Eagle play through… heck, the Golden Deer house ultimately seemed so irrelevant I’m not even sure why they needed to be there. Maybe they play a bigger role in this story, who knows, point is: I was hyped.
But I was also kind of sad.
Because while I was thinking on this subject, an odd thought struck me: five years from now, what part of this game will I remember?
That’s another though that’s preoccupied me for the past few months, not just for video games, but for life in general. We live in our memories, after all: “now” is so brief and fleeting that most of the time, we mark our lives and it’s passing by the memories we create. Making sure I have enough memories and new experiences to feel like I’ve lived a long, full life (and to keep time from getting even faster than it already is, that’s a thing, look it up). Typically, video games are counter to that notion of creating new memories, since it’s something I play to relax and unwind, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, something special happens in a game that I’m able to remember, and treat like my other precious memories, which I won’t list lest you think I’m trying to brag about something.
For example: finishing a game of League of Legends at 1 AM so spectacularly that my friends and I went out for some late night/early morning pancakes. I can’t remember the game itself for the life of me, but I remember that using it as an excuse to go out and eat in a nearly abandoned Dennny’s was probably the first and only time in my life I’d ever do such a thing.
Or playing the final ending of Nier: Automata and being both inspired and helped by the other people who were trying to reach that point. And making the decision to erase all my data just to help an absolute stranger with their own journey.
Or literally bowing at my brother’s feet because he managed to get that last star in Super Mario 64, forcing me to accept my loss and call him the undisputed gaming master in our household. A title he still holds to this day, considering how badly he crushes me in Smash.
I think of these memories and I feel happy. There’s lots about the games that surround them that I forget – I’m sure there’s plenty about Nier: Automata I can’t remember, I can’t remember a damn thing about 99.9999% of all the League games I’ve played, World of Warcraft is a similar blur – but even just these single precious memories make all that time and effort worth it, and it escalates these games, in my mind, to something valuable and precious. The games that create these moments are, irrevocably, my favorite games.
So what moment did Fire Emblem: Three Houses have for me? What would cling to my memory like the Forest scene in Chrono Trigger or landing on the abandoned island in Skies of Arcadia, or finding my home village burning in Tales of Symphonia? If it didn’t create that kind of memory, could I call it a good game, or even a great game, let alone one of my favorite games?
On one hand, I don’t know. I’ll need time and distance to realize what parts of that game, if any, manage to penetrate the fog of memory and last in my consciousness. I have a few guesses right now, of course, but until I can look back on it in six months and say “oh yeah, that moment was great”, then I won’t know for sure.
On the other hand, I can’t really call this an objective metric of game’s quality. Looking at it purely objectively, Super Mario Odyssey is the better Super Mario brothers game, but if you asked me which game had the best, most fond memories attached to it, well… that would be Super Mario 64. There’s no replacing the youthful energy and imagination that first drove me into video games in the first place, and there’s no going back to the days where my brother and I could literally spend weeks at a time playing one game to death, whereas today I’m so spoiled for choice I can get sick of a game mere hours after I load it up. RIP, Warhammer 40k: Space Marine.
But then, objective quality is kind of a pointless metric, isn’t it?
Well, pointless is putting it strongly, but consider this: what’s the point of rating a video game’s quality? To show how good it is, sure, but something can only be as good as the games that surround it. There’s no single, baseline, paragon “game”, perfect in all forms and functions, that we can compare other games too. And without that single, paragon “best game” to act as an example, we have to acknowledge that even the very best games ever made are going to have flaws. Even the 10/10 games, the ones that sell a million copies, the ones loved round the world.
So it’s kind of fruitless to gauge a game based on quality alone, or even how good it made you feel when you play it. After all, like we established earlier, the ‘now’ is fleeting and temporary. Useful, but replaced by a new moment and a new “now” almost instantly. It’s the memory, and what lingers, that really matters most.
So if a game is “perfect” or not? Doesn’t matter. Because there’s no perfect game. It’s far more worthwhile to say “this game gave me a memory I won’t ever forget”. Good or bad, happy or sad, that’s one extra blip on the path of your life that is due to that game. And in the end, I'd rather play a game that gave me a memory than an otherwise perfect game I'd forget.
It is impossible for me to know which moment (if any) will stick out in my mind when I think back on my time with Fire Emblem: Three Houses. But here’s my best guess: after the five-year time skip, you stagger back to the halls of Garreg Mach, which has been ruined by an earlier attack. And as you wander the empty ruins and walk over the recently deceased, you stagger into the head of your house, Dimitri: once a bright-eyed lad who believed in teamwork, justice, and hope, crouched in the darkness in tattered armor, missing an eye, covered in blood, and engulfed in bitterness.
You see your beloved student, suffering and delusional, and you reach your hand to him.
But he doesn’t take it. He just calls you a ghost, and looks away.
That seems like a moment I’ll remember for a long, long time.