Second Hand Memories
“Um, hi. Do you think you could tell me anything about this game? I, er, found it on the bottom shelf back there.”
“Gunstar Heroes? Hmm. I’ve not heard of that one. Let me take a look.”
This is Mad Andy. We’re not friends and that’s certainly not a nickname of my invention. Rather, it’s the name Andy’s given himself and, by extension, his shop, an independent, second-hand video game store based in South London.
Mad Andy pulls a dog-eared phone directory from the shelf behind where he’s sitting, and plants it with a dull thud on the counter with that officious sense of purpose some men display when called upon to give advice.
Tongue peeking from the corner of his mouth, he flickbooks through its tatty pages, every now and again calling out the name of a game that catches his attention as it flits past his eyes alphabetically.
“Altered Beast, Another World, Bomberman, Contra, D,…”
The book’s a catalogue of every game ever, or so it seems to the thirteen-year-old me. More accurately, it’s a price guide compiled by goodness–knows-who, listing the buy and sell rates for games current and past. Armed with this tome, every independent videogame store knows how much to buy in a second-hand game for and how much to mark it up in order to secure fair but essential profit without undercutting market rates.
As well as prices, the book also boasts reviews, again, written by God-knows-which sorry freelancer. These pithy one-line assessments are accompanied by a score out of five, two pieces of information that gives the salesman everything he needs to issue customers with an authoritative recommendation.
“Elite, Frogger…Ga…Gi…Go. Ah! Here we go: Gunstar Heroes. Hmm. Well what do you know! It’s a good one. Look, right there: ‘Fast, frantic, frenetic scrolling shoot ‘em up. Five out of five.’”
Our sorry freelancer is a fan of alliteration.
“Whoa.” I look down at the back of the box in my hands. “Treasure? Never heard of them.”
Mad Andy and his shop are long gone but I still think about him and his staff from time to time. All gamers of my generation knew a video game store like that, a dealership they visited in youth with wide eyes and a fistful of pocket money. These were the places where dreams were met, the escapism dealers.
Everyone who has ever bought a video game at a shop knows how long the walk home can be. But that time between when a purchase has been made and before it’s played is never unpleasant.
Rather, it is in these delicious moments that you hold in your hands the perfect video game: one which has been invested in but which is yet to let you down. Unknown games are always the best ones because they are played in our imaginations, free of budgetary restraints, deadlines and the ten thousand other pressures that bear down upon the games of reality.
They are always stronger, funnier, cleverer and better-executed than their realities and so that walk home from the store, when the game is tangible in your hands but still imagined in your mind, is oftentimes the most potent moment in the videogame experience.
And yet it’s an experience whose days are numbered. If not by the next generation of hardware then certainly by the one after, all of our games will be supplied by digital distribution, the walk home from the shop with a new game box an anachronism, the weird necessity of supposedly poorer and simpler age.
This makes sense. While shopping for clothes on the high street will always be preferable to mail order – after all, clothes are tactile, need to be tried on and assessed in the atom dimension – video games have nothing to do with physicality. Discs are a means to an end, not an end in themselves unlike, say, an art book with thick pages that you’d want to leave open on a coffee table. Just as .mp3s make CDs obsolete so too will our broadband pipes and copious hard-drives dismiss hard media.
The long walk home will be replaced by a loading bar which fills as you browse the internet or make a cup of tea. And why not? Quaintness will always give way to convenience in technology’s inevitable advance and few things are so convenient as digital distribution.
The game manufacturers, ostensibly, win too. As their games exist only as digital copies, tied to gamertags and PSN accounts, so the second hand market console software will choke. No need to tie hardware to software codes, or to create long-view achievements to convince players to hang on to their games. There will be no other option.
But beyond the romance of reminiscing about the dingy independent game stores of our youth, there’s the very real disadvantage of not being able to trade old games in for new. How many game sales are made in part-exchange, trading spent old experiences for new ones, especially amongst younger gamers?
And what of those games that will be lost to time when they’re removed from the publisher’s servers? Bandwidth costs ensure that not every game released into the ether will be served indefinitely. When a game fails to make enough money month on moth to cover the cost of its hosting, what sensible business is going to hold onto it?
Will we need a videogame arts council, funded to make available those games that aren’t necessarily popular but are important and culturally improving, like those who work tirelessly to preserve the opera?
Video game retail is endangered, its removal from the industry supposedly a good thing, bringing publisher and consumer closer to one another and, perhaps, by removing the middlemen, helping to reduce the cost of games.
But the implications of the shift are far-reaching, will cost jobs, will bury games that have outlived their virtual shelf life and will make it much harder for 13-year-old newcomers to find buried Treasure, a sad thing indeed.
This column first appeared on GameSetWatch yesterday.