"Ray, people will come Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.
Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.
And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray."
Earlier this week I appeared on a Gamespot podcast, discussing video game reviews — what's wrong with them, how they can be improved. I reiterated my usual stance: I don't like writing reviews for a number of reasons; there are problems with how we review games, experience is subjective, I don't want to contribute to the unintelligible white noise. I think the podcast is well worth listening to, and you can check it out here.
But on the train home that same day I grabbed my 3DS, I played Mario Kart 7, I had a huge amount of fun. I asked myself: if I had to review this game, how would I judge it? How would I score it?
Then I forgot about that and went back to having fun.
The thing about video game reviews, and all reviews for that matter, is this: they attempt to objectively judge and assign a value to subjective experiences. In fact, that may actually be the major problems with video games as product reviews.
And nowhere is that discrepancy more obvious than in a game like Mario Kart 7.
Mario Kart means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It's a video game, obviously, but it's much more than that. It's a bizarre conduit that reimagines all your Mario Kart experiences, your memories, your individual history, and force feeds it back into this one tiny little cartridge. Into a package which is then sold back to you.
And you hand the money over without a second though, because you want that feeling again, you want to clutch at those memories — huddled around a CRT, battling over the best N64 controller, fighting over who gets to play as Yoshi. An imagined past where the sun always shines, the cordial is always sweet and countless hours are spent in battle mode bursting balloons with red and green turtle shells.
The reviews for Mario Kart 7, even the extremely negative ones, were completely fair. As a series Mario Kart is stagnant. It hasn't changed in years. But as I sat on the train, playing through the Grand Prix via a combination of instinct and muscle memory, I found it increasingly difficult to separate the fun I was having in the present moment, from the interactions the game was having with my own nostalgia, my own memories. And more so — I didn't want to.
Mario Kart 7 isn't necessarily a video game — it's a photograph, constantly remade; a chance to indulge ourselves in a fragmented, static representation of our own childhoods. We've all played Mario Kart at some point, we all have our favourites, we all have our unique memories — and that's what each new version represents. A chance to relive the past, to form new histories.
How do you place an objective value on that experience? How do you judge it? You can't. Well at least I can't; not in any definitive way at least.
I'm reminded of the movie Field of Dreams, a movie that deals with nostalgia, the idea of a single constant threading its way our lives like a shared history. Video games have been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But Mario Kart has marked the time. It's a part of our past. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.
And I don't think I could really put a score on that.