Candy Box was a collection of ASCII art filtered into exploitative accumulation systems. When it was Farmville it was a five-headed hydra, an abomination, but we forgave it in Candy Box. Why?
Maybe it was the sense of discovery.
We knew nothing about Candy Box. It was a link that was shared and clicked on. Then it was a ASCII version of Doctor Who exchanging lollipops for Candy. Then it was a quest to kill goblins. Then it was a farming simulator. We peeled back the layers together, on social media, on blogs, on tumblr. We discovered it together in post-modern barrage of tweets and chinese whispers.
"Wait, how do you cover your sword in chocolate?"
"How many lollipops are you farming per second?"
"There's a dragon?"
"You have to fight Satan?"
It awakened a nostalgia buried so deep I had forgotten it even existed. Days spent rummaging through my Uncle's 200 strong collection of pirated Spectrum games. They didn't even have covers, or cases for that matter. They were just cassette tapes with names scratched in biro.
Horace Goes Skiing
Way of the Exploding Fist
As the tapes slowly bleeped and screeched primitive loading images onto my Dad's colour CRT we had no real idea what was next. What to expect. All we had was rumours, whispers in the playground.
We were explorers
At one point during The Last of Us demo, Ellie — the teenage girl you're escorting through a town — stops for a second over a broken arcade machine. Covered in dust. Unplugged. Unplayable.
"I wish I could play it," she says.
As I sit down to play The Last of Us for the first time it occurs to me that I know very little about this game. I have no idea what to expect, really. In a media landscape saturated by asset drops, developer diaries, early access previews, trailers, it feels strange to be loading up a big budget video game, weeks from its release, knowing next to nothing about it.
It feels... a little bit like playing Candy Box.
I know there is a man, the main character, the protagonist. I know there is a girl, who accompanies you. I know it is set in some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland. That's all I know. In this day and age The Last of Us is about as close as a 'AAA' game can get to being nothing more than a name scribbled on a cassette tape, waiting to be played.
Is Ellie my daughter? I don't know. Are 'the infected' some kind of zombie? Are they the reason the world I'm in is in tatters? I don't know.
The Last of Us feels like it's about discovery.
The section of the game I'm playing is set in an abandoned town, ravaged by time and some sort of post apocalyptic event. I've been given time to explore, time to breathe in this broken down, rusty version of the world we live in. In most video games this kind of silence is a full stop, the end of something. But in The Last of Us violence is punctuation — hard, short, brutal, sparing.
The Last of Us is a deliberately paced process of accumulation. A scramble for resources, a series of discoveries. There is, of course, shooting in the game. You can and will aim a cursor over the heads of enemies and pull the trigger. There is a memorable sequence towards the end of the demo, violence as a full stop. Hanging upside down, in a cleverly laid trap, your perspective is shifted to the point where you don't know which way is up. It's a brilliant subversion of the 'turret' trope in third person shooters where the player, in a fixed position, must ward of hordes of enemies for a specific period of time. It's restrained, tense and memorable, but it wasn't my favourite part of The Last of Us demo.
The town had a record store. It didn't sell CDs it sold vinyl. As long as we've been listening to music we've been nostalgic about vinyl. I suspect, in the same way, our generation will be nostalgic about arcade machines, games like one Ellie wanted to play but couldn't.
Ellie talks again, it makes her sad that this music that will never be listened to again. She flicks through the record sleeves. It reminds me of rummaging through cassette tapes with no idea what I was about to play, what to expect.
And that reminds me of The Last of Us. A game that feels like the vinyl in the record store, or the arcade machine Ellie couldn't play.
The Last of Us: it's like a Candy Box, or vinyl we can't listen to. A modern day scribble-tape mystery.