I’d played games avidly since I could manipulate keys on a keyboard, with the same ferocity of concentration that I’d read all the books in my parents’ house. I read everything from Agatha Christie’s endless novels to “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”.
The joy I felt buried in a book or a game was fierce, but it was always manifest as a firmly intellectual joy. Pleasure tickled my cerebral cortex, that great organ of logic and processing that divides us humans (most of the time) from other animals.
It wasn’t until nearly 10 years later that I played a game that stroked the neurons in my limbic brain.
The limbic brain is the part of your brain that nurtures emotion (stay with me here, I promise we will get somewhere) and is most involved in processing reward and producing pleasure. Not coincidentally, it is also involved with smell, that most intimate of senses. The limbic brain is what makes you close your eyes with rapture when you listen to that favourite track. It’s what makes your heart break when your crush doesn’t realise you exist. It’s also what makes you remember your first kiss, or the smell of your mother’s cooking lingering in the kitchen.
My limbic brain is what sparkled like sunset on the Fourth of July when I played Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 game Rez for the first time. It was so nakedly experiential, and sensual almost to the point of being anti-rational. It invited you to lose yourself in your senses; it seemed to suggest that this was your brain on drugs, and it was beautiful.
There have been other game designs since that have stimulated those emotionally charged pleasure centres – Rock Band comes to mind – but Rez remains unique in its ambition to create synaesthesia as a playable experience. It was the first mainstream art game (and it wasn’t that mainstream, as it turned out.) The creators of the game moved on to other things, the studio was merged with other corporate units, and that was that.
It’s strange; the game was by no means a hit when it was released. It was recognised by a small circle of aficionados as something quirky, beautiful, and different. In the years since, Rez has captured more mindshare; partly because more people accept the idea of art games, partly because maybe it just took that long for people to discover it and play it. By 2008 there was enough of a movement to convince Microsoft to release Rez HD as a downloadable game for the Xbox 360. It got rave reviews from game critics, but, seriously, it was the exact same game, redone graphically to look pretty in HD. It was the same game, so you didn’t get to relive that moment of intense anticipation and discovery of playing it for the first time.
By 2009, there were rumours that Mizuguchi was looking to do a “spiritual sequel”. Naturally I joined all the other fans in speculation, because I had lots of ideas about how it should be done. It couldn’t be “Rez II“, that was clear, because you could only live that once (as Rez HD proved to me.) But how would you capture that sense of wonder and beauty, that feeling of floating through a gorgeous digital world? I began to think that perhaps it wasn’t possible. You can’t recreate something special – it’s locked up in the limbic brain of your memories and maybe that’s where you’re supposed to access it.
I have to admit that I avoided hearing too much about Child of Eden when it was announced. I was afraid of being disappointed. When you hold such a cherished memory of an experience even the chance for a new experience seems – dangerous, somehow. But when it was finally released I didn’t hesitate – I knew that this was the game that would make me get a Kinect.
I played it for the first time at a friend’s house, after a day of barbecue in the sun, accompanied by several excellent glasses of wine. He insisted I put on the headphones. I lifted my right hand to begin. And then I was suddenly falling upward through a liquid field of stars. I don’t really know how else to describe it. It was exhilarating, because for the first time in a very long time I felt again that excitement of experiencing something utterly new and strange and beautiful. I started dancing subtly to the beat as I played without even really realising it.