Recently I watched the entirety of the television series Twin Peaks and kept thinking about Silent Hill.
We have a foggy, forested community of people with hidden dark streaks and secret lives; a town that lies at the supernatural junction of nature and Hell. Key scenes take place in diners or hospitals, and it's the liars - those who try to escape rather than truthfully confront their inner darkness - that are called to account, just like in the Silent Hill games.
I started to wonder whether the 1990s TV series had influenced the games at all, although whenever anyone talks about Silent Hill it's the movie Jacob's Ladder that they turn to first.
Friends reminded me that if I want a game that's heavily influenced by Twin Peaks, I should look to Deadly Premonition. That's true. But I was also thinking of Silent Hill when I watched Hellraiser a few weeks earlier with some friends who'd come to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon ordering takeout and watching horror movies. Like Silent Hill, Hellraiser features mysterious artifacts and an alternate realm of the perverse, an implicit judgment at hand for people with unnatural appetites. Probably, though, I was reaching just a little bit.
We often look at games' influences. Everyone can see traces from the movie Escape From New York when they play Metal Gear Solid games, for example. Or there's that fun moment in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City when the feds occasionally appear wearing colour-complementary polyester suits and driving a sports car, in a nod to TV's Miami Vice. It's fun to pick things like that out, especially because, as a medium, video games are still coming into their own creatively. Because development is so expensive, developers must often incorporate familiar touchstones, so that marketers, and by extension audiences, have an immediate point of relationship, a way to understand the product in a sea of others.
So maybe it's not too totally crazy to see glimmers of my favourite games among the conventions of popular films and television. But I see Silent Hill in everything. Hear a weird siren? Silent Hill (and not Siren!). Misty weather? Silent Hill. A few weeks ago my apartment building had a plumbing issue and my sinks began to back up simultaneously. I said to myself, "man, there's some real Silent Hill shit going on in here."
Obviously what's going on is that Silent Hill has been a bigger influence on the way I see the world than anything in the world has ever been on Silent Hill (and you can feel free to debate what that might say about me later). But video games are weirdly powerful in that way, aren't they? We tend to think of them as enclosed experiences - even when we play with others, headsets on, it's a private immersion in another world we can reach through that funny glowing window in the middle of our living rooms.
Although the influence of gaming on our lives may be subliminal or subversive, it's impossible to ignore. I've got tons of friends who own game soundtracks and put on the music when it's time to work, exercise, or cry. That spiritual feeling we get when we play something we love is portable. In all kinds of ways, it shapes how we see the world.
For many of us, that's been true since we were kids. What did you learn from games that still holds true for you today? For me, it was what cardinal and ordinal directions are, to use just one example: I needed, at the age of five or six, to develop a mental image of a compass rose, to understand which way is East, Northeast, Southeast, if I was going to successfully navigate the strange and often-hostile worlds of the magically ancient image and text-based adventure games I loved so much.
How many of you learned what "dysentery" was because of games you played when young? Learned your world capitals from Carmen Sandiego? If ever I forget mine, I've just got to picture the game, and it jogs my memory. I hang onto that.
(Stuart Ramson | AP) Of course, games taught us facts, but they also taught us some funny misconceptions. I live in New York City, a place where, as you probably saw in Carmen Sandiego, has many tall buildings. There are elevators in these things. And I still maintain a silly, stupid, slight irrational fear of elevators because of a computer game that once challenged me to "jump" on time to avoid being paralysed when it plummeting.
That I still think of a crude, little-known old computer game from my childhood nearly every time I get into an elevator speaks to the power of games to permanently embed their moments, their logic, into one's worldview. I've probably watched dozens of movies in my life featuring elevator scenes, but it's that one game I recall with perfect clarity.
Everyone has a story where they've used a gaming lie to gain cred in their community, most commonly when they were kids on the playground. Everyone has done it, or you've heard someone do it, bragging about having discovered something that doesn't exist, or having achieved the unachievable. Doesn't it speak to the weight of gaming's influence on our self-concept that these are things that we grab onto in order to help represent ourselves in the world?
There are facts, and then there are feelings. When you think back to the games you loved the most, what is it you remember? Likely you'll recall a battle that made you feel especially triumphant, or a happy, amazing accident in a multiplayer match that made you feel so cool you wanted to share it with the world. Or there was something that scared you. Maybe it was a Doberman busting through a hallway window, a memory that prevents you from seeing one of those dogs in the wild without thinking, holy shit, Resident Evil. Hear a bark when you're trying to sleep? Uh-oh.
Much is made of the power of games to teach us things, but they weave their way into our lives outside of gaming in beautiful, unforgettable ways. Here's a weirdly personal story: As part of the 2008 Kotaku staff, I went to E3 with the team, where we saw Final Fantasy XIV unveiled in a trailer presented in an amphitheatre. Of course, as professionals we know to take trailers with a grain of salt - a bunch of pretty FMVs do not a smash success portend (and how, FFXIV).
And yet, ladies and gentlemen, I fought tears. I found myself unexpectedly choked up, and it had nothing to do with the game. Well, very little. See, just a few months earlier I had just broken up from a long-term relationship. And the ex and I had been big Final Fantasy fans. The reveal of FFXIV was a surprise, remember - everyone at the show was still reeling from the revelation that FFXIII would be available on Xbox, and so the unveiling of FFXIV's trailer was something of a response from Sony.
I was sitting in the audience, there to do my job, to be a part of the action and report it back to you guys. But I had my phone in my hand and I thought about texting my ex to tell him all about it: a 14th game! And I realised I couldn't, you know? That I would have to look at all of this without him, without even the awareness of him. And I choked up with this thought, hey, I wish you could see me now.
It was because of the game, yet it wasn't about the game. And I have thousands of those tiny moments: When some old song comes on in a nightclub, instead of thinking, "let's dance!" I think, "Grand Theft Auto!" Or when I catch some strains of the Chrono Cross soundtrack I remember being a recent high school graduate, dreaming of oceanside caverns and lost time, daydreams that could get me through miserable days at the job I had then as office assistant.
The power games possess to take us elsewhere is precious. They also have an implicit, often-understated power to make our little worlds more special. You've formed friendships over games, you've formed memories. You've learned about the world, or you've learned to think differently about it. And everywhere you look, your view of the world is threaded through, sometimes overtly, sometimes delicately, with the influence of your love for games. What are your stories?
Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a wide variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.