Recapturing the First Playthrough

I remember the very first time I played Resident Evil 4. I was in a GameStop, waiting on my mom to finish running errands in a neighboring store. For weeks, I’d been hearing glowing reviews for the game. I wanted RE4 badly. But I was fifteen, too young to purchase the game on my own. Tentatively—fearful I might be observed—I took the controller in my hands and started the demo.

I was met with a dead forest, a ramshackle house, and axes. It was terrifying. I had never experienced this intensity of dread when playing a video game. But something about the terror that the game produced in me was beautiful and exquisite. It was something forbidden. I knew I should not be playing the game, but that made it all the more wonderful. It was a private experience, wholly mine, though—or perhaps because—I hid my violation of its prohibition out in the open. I can still conjure the flavor of my fear, a sensation that I knew would never be replicated in precisely the same way again, even as I was experiencing it. But that conjuration is only a vague and unsatisfying remnant of the real, lived feeling, the precise impression I had in my moment of play.

That moment started a love affair with survival-horror video games that has never waned. Although it would be a long time before I could have my own copy (after much begging and pleading with my parents to buy the M-rated game for my not-yet-seventeen self), I was enamored.

When I eventually had the chance to make my way through the game, I found that I could only play for about twenty minutes at a time. I waded through it cautiously, confronted by my apprehensions of what I would find next, of what gruesome ways I would watch Leon be killed because of my fumbling efforts. I loved it. I loved the power of that feeling, the knowledge that RE4’s horrors could always be allayed by my snatches of mustered courage and skillful commands. And I savored it—because once I finished the game, I knew I would never have that experience again. It would be gone.

In the years since, I have come to realize that each successive playthrough of RE4 (and of every survival-horror game that I have played) has been a fruitless attempt at recapture. I have incessantly tried, and failed, to recapture the essence of that first time playing through the game. That first time, when the game was fresh, its depths undiscovered. When I had no clue of the future impact that the game would come to have on me, its long-lingering influence. When I was experiencing it anew, caressed by the touch of its power, a touch that was already being withdrawn even as I was in the process of enduring and enjoying it.

But I will never have that first playthrough again. I had played it; I had come to know its horrors, and I had overcome them. RE4 would never be as scary and as unknown and as pristine again. The sensation was departing even as it happened, the pressing immediacy of it quickly lost to me. It would survive as nostalgia: a longing for what had been. A dissipating memory corked in a bottle at the very moment of its fading, its image distorted by the curves of dark-colored glass. All I can do now is look at it, but never touch it or experience it or know it in the same way again.

But that nostalgia has a potency all its own. It follows me with an unfulfillable promise that it has already broken: live that moment again. Remember that time…? it asks, and I do remember, but that time was already gone the instant that it happened. I can only look back at it and pine. And pine I do. I want it back.

I think that this is a significant part of how our nostalgia for video games operates. I think that first playthroughs of games have a unique and formidable power. I believe that our nostalgia is a pursuit of that initial contact with a game, when the game was full of uncertainty and potentiality. It is an ever-elusive desire for an already-departing, in-the-moment being-experienced. The moment of play drifts away the instant it is enacted, and we may remember the way it felt, but those smokey tendrils were already shifting form and departing even while we were feeling them.

Why do we talk about nostalgia so frequently in games? It is a ubiquitous theme and an undeniable force in so much of games culture and writing. One has only to look at how many pieces of games criticism are couched in the critic’s childhood encounters with certain games to witness the primacy of nostalgia in the way many of us make sense of games. Nostalgia compels players in a way it does not seem to do for many other media forms. That does not mean that we do not crave those first readings of books, those first viewings of films. But I think that the nostalgia for video games has an effectiveness that goes above and beyond those of other media. I can only speculate as to why. But I think there is something to be said for the first playthrough as possible influence.

As we are playing through a game, we don’t necessarily recognize that it will become one of our favorites. And even if a particular game does not achieve that status, we still do not know what impact it may come to have on us. Later, in light of that now-known impact, we look back on that initial encounter and desire it again, wish we could play it again before the knowing came. We wish we could play it again when we did not know what was ahead, when we were present in the moment and simply experiencing for the first time, our new contact raw and brutal and beautiful. The game wrapped itself around our presence, necessitating it, establishing a matrix of unknowns that would only be answered by our actions. And we took it up, filled the experience, completed what was incomplete and uncertain without us and our moments of play. And then it was over, only to be remembered from afar.

When we experience nostalgia, we are wishing to recapture what was instantly gone, what was already departing in the moment of its coming. We are clinging at what we have left, greedy for what will never be again.

This post was written for Critical Distance’s Blogs of the Roundtable August 2015 topic, nostalgia.

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