Memories that remain rigid. The ones you can replay in your mind without effort. Those memories are usually the least interesting. Whether they are accurate or not.
And most likely they are not. A story endlessly retold by friends and family; sections that don’t fit brutally forced by the collective might of those who witnessed something. Something happened that night. We know that much. Collectively we recreate these things into a memory we all share.
My wife and her four siblings once had an hour long argument. As a toddler one of them had a tantrum so bad they had to be chucked kicking and screaming into a cold shower. Crazy story. Only one problem: all five of them were 100% certain they were the one who had the tantrum. Each pleaded their case. By the end of the discussion the memory had been tugged and stretched in so many different directions I had no idea who or what to believe. Somehow: a consensus. The oldest brother had been tossed in the cold shower. They all agreed to agree. It didn’t really matter whether or not it was representative of any kind of truth, it only mattered that the story was straight. That’s the nature of memories, that’s the nature of history.
It’s the same with video games. We remember the ones we talk about, the ones we discuss, the memories we all share.
For the first ten years of my life, I grew up in a small council house in Scotland, the equivalent of what Australians would call public housing. Every day on my way home from primary school I would walk up the same overgrown path. I’d climb up the same set of stairs.
That was where I fell off my bike into a nest of nettles; this is where I tripped and got that scar on my upper lip. I got into my first fist fight in that playground. Every single day, the same walk, the same house, the same memories reinforced over and over and over again until I could never forget, even if I wanted to.
In a similar way we can never forget the Super Marios. The Zeldas. The Tomb Raiders. The games we replayed endlessly, the ones we discuss. Those shared, collective memories constantly reinforced: The games we were supposed to love, the games we’ve decided as a culture are worth remembering, whether they’re worth remembering or not. It doesn’t really matter whether there’s any truth in it, it only matters that we’ve got our story straight.
What about the games we don’t remember?
There’s something otherworldly about those games; the ones that hang on the periphery of a memory you can’t quite grasp towards. A bad case of Deja Vu. You’re not even sure it exists. The name escapes you. A beat-up game on a blank cassette, slowly erased from memory, despite your best efforts. You remember fragments. You ask friends, ‘remember this game?’ They have no idea — because you can’t describe it in anything but the vaguest terms. How how could anyone be expected to remember that strange game you played once, that strange broken old game. It is, almost literally, the closest thing to a dream: a dense set of illogical fragments that make no sense whatsoever as a tangible whole.
I remembered playing poker. I remembered my Grandad loving that because he loved Poker, and sometimes playing alongside me. I remembered streams and streams of text I couldn’t quite understand. I remembered gunfights I could never win; I didn’t even know how to win.
I remembered wandering out onto the desert. I remembered a vulture and a setting sun. I remembered all these things and I could feel them fading. Becoming less coherent. Making less sense as time goes past.
I remembered a Colt 45.
For no particular reason whatsoever I had a flashback to this game, and was immediately overcome with the nostalgia that comes with dreaming about a friend long gone or someone you once fell in love with.
I typed the details — the fragments I remembered — into my Twitter account with a question: does anyone remember this game? Did anyone play this game?
Multiple replies. Nothing. Then eventually:
“Sounds like The Wild Bunch.”
The Wild Bunch. It was The Wild Bunch. Surely. That feeling in my stomach was familiar. Tight and cold and unmistakably tense.
A Google search confirmed it. The Wild Bunch. A vulture silhouetted against a setting sun. The screenshot was almost painful to look at and I had no idea why. How could this game — a game that no-one had ever really played, a game that even fewer remembered — affect me in that way. Not positively, not negatively — more like a machine with the ability to transpose me, fully intact, to a perfect singular image of one precise moment in time.
I searched in vain for a playable version of the game, but nothing. Later I stumbled across a YouTube video. 30 minutes long, 1800 views. A silent player, progressing through the game in a way I never could as a clueless child who could barely read.
“Howdy Partner, what name do you go by?”
The Wild Bunch was (probably, in hindsight) a derivative text adventure set in the Wild West. You have been wrongly accused of killing a man in cold blood and must prove your innocence by tracking down a murderous member of The Wild Bunch, the man responsible for the crime you are wanted for.
The Wild Bunch was mediocre. It was not memorable. Which is why — again, probably — it occupies such a fragmented area of my own memory and, conversely, why it remains memorable to me personally. Literally, for some strange reason, my brain has deemed it ‘worth remembering’ even if it is of very little worth in a cultural sense. The Wild Bunch is a subtle reminder that we have very little control over the things we remember and the things we forget. We also have very little control over the things that will ultimately become meaningful to us. That’s a bit scary.
These are the thoughts that run through my head as I watch another human being play The Wild Bunch on YouTube; drowning in a sensation that can only be described as a really fucking weird Disney ride through the darkened corridors of my own personal history.
Every new sight reminds me of a new memory long forgotten. Drinking cold milky tea in front of an old CRT at my Grandparents house. Staying up later than I was normally allowed. Way past my bedtime. Being taught poker and then playing it — first in the video game, later with a set of real life cards with matchsticks for money.
But the music. It was the music I had forgotten and the music that brought back memories that I thought completely lost to the ether. Again, just fragments, a dull noise reverberating inside an echo chamber. That is the hollow nature of nostalgia. It doesn’t make you feel happy; it doesn’t bring you joy. The word is ‘sadness’ or rather ‘emptiness’. It’s a feeling you once had. A feeling you no longer have the capacity to grasp or engage with. It is a ghost and your fingers slip right through. Nostalgia is not an positive emotion. It’s an indulgence and in the strangest of ways, it is actually physically painful.
I watch the video all the way through to its conclusion. 30 minutes worth. After a while it becomes difficult. Old feelings fade. New memories file themselves into multiple compartments in the way memories usually do — eventually I’m just watching another old video game.
But I slowly become curious. I never did manage to finish The Wild Bunch: it was too esoteric, flat out confusing for someone without an instruction manual or a developed brain in his head. What happened at the end? How did it end?
“You have scored 6412
“Best score so far is 0 by Nobody
“Press enter for another game”
This story originally appeared on Kotaku Australia in April 2014