If you follow me on Twitter, you probably haven’t heard from me for a while. That’s because I’m on a media blackout right now. I am so scared of seeing Sonic Mania spoilers, that I’ve installed a Google Chrome extension that blocks Twitter and other websites until Mania’s release date this week. I’ve crawled out of my shell just long enough to bring you this opinion piece.
Picture this: The year is 1997. You are a 6th grader and it’s a Friday night after school. You are sitting alone in your room with a Nintendo 64 controller in your hand as the light from a 4:3 cathode ray tube television shines a reflection in your eyes. You are about to collect the final Power Star of the entire game. It’s Star #120 and it’s the only thing standing between you and 100% completion. “If I get this last star,” you think to yourself, “maybe it will unlock Luigi like Nick said on the playground.”
Much to your surprise, you are not greeted by Mario’s taller, greener brother upon collecting the final star. Rather, nothing seems to have happened at all, until you return to the very first area in the game to find a cannon outside Peach’s castle. You hop inside it and say, “Hey, I wonder if I could get on the castle’s roof. Maybe there’s something up there.” With an eager press of the A button, you launch Mario through the sky and watch as he clumsily lands at the top. What’s that? An exhilarating sense of discovery overtakes you. “Yoshi! Oh my gosh, Yoshi is on the roof!” you say aloud. You’re the only human being in your room, but you don’t care. You say it anyway. It’s a moment you will remember forever. It’s a moment where it’s just you and the game, and the world has no idea what you’ve discovered.
That, my friends, is an experience we do not get anymore. In this Let’sPlay-saturated culture, it’s hard to imagine there was a time where the only one way to see a video game in action was to be in the same room as the game console. Maybe you saw a small, low-res screenshot in a magazine, if you were lucky. Even that wouldn’t come close to experiencing it in motion.
What is there to unlock today? What is there to surprise us with? For 100% completion, Ty the Tasmanian Tiger (2002) gave you a cutscene teasing a new villain for the sequel. If you wanted to see the new villain, you had to put hours into that game. You had to earn it. If it were released today, that cutscene would have been slapped up on YouTube on release day. Some journalist would have screenshot’d it, and gave it all away in the headline. No working for it, no earning it, it’d just already be out there. Instant gratification without the journey. Just so someone can get a few more clicks, and few more views.
At high risk of sounding like a raving Luddite, the internet has greatly diminished an intimate sense of discovery that once existed in gaming. It’s discouraging developers from even trying to facilitate it. Renowned Smash Bros creator, Masahiro Sakurai, was disappointed when the cutscenes for Super Smash Bros Brawl were put up online and decided to exclude any cutscenes from its sequel. He said:
Unfortunately, the movie scenes we worked hard to create were uploaded onto the internet. You can only truly wow a player the first time he sees [a cutscene]. I felt if players saw the cutscenes outside of the game, they would no longer serve as rewards for playing the game, so I’ve decided against having them.
I’m not saying the internet has ruined everything. Rather, I’m thankful for Lets Plays. There are tons of games that I’ve never had a chance to play that I’ve got to experience vicariously because of Twitch and YouTube. Heck, I’ve watched playthroughs of an entire game, and still bought the game anyway. It’s not the end of the world. But we’d all be fools if we said that the internet hasn’t changed the way games are made. The plethora of DLC packs alone is enough to make that argument (but that’s another rant for another day). There is a certain mystery that’s just not there anymore. Instead of hosting a meeting-of-the-minds between the slide and teeter totter during recess, any 6th grader can just pull up a gameplay video on his phone and learn all he needs to know about unlocking Ganondorf in Smash 4. When he sees that “Challenger Approaching” screen, it’s no big deal. He already knew it was coming.
That’s why I want to see nothing of Sonic Mania until its release this week . I want those special moments of discovery. I want those easter eggs to feel new to me. When the title card comes up at the start of a stage, I want to be reading it for the first time. I want to watch that opening cutscene in context (yes, I know it got leaked and then quickly released, but I still won’t watch it until day one). This game, this wonderful game they call Sonic Mania, is doing everything it can to feel like a game from a bygone era. For me to have seen the whole game in a 60fps video beforehand wouldn’t feel right to me. If you are much younger than me and don’t share these pre-YouTube memories, I won’t judge you if you feel differently. But for me, much like Sonic Mania itself, I want to recapture what has been lost.
So can that wonderful sense of discovery exist in an always-online world? I believe it can. It’s just harder. You may think I’m an old 90’s kid who’s off his rocker (and you’re probably right). But I believe that there is satisfaction in having to work for it.
I believe there is merit in discovery. And I think somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten that. Sometimes, we just need to be reminded…
…is a reasonable assessment.
Noah Copeland is a somewhat-interesting human. He makes music, makes films, and stands at exactly average height. He reads all your comments, but you can also throw things at him on Twitter @NoahCopeland (when he’s not on media blackout, anyway).