Writer Jon Morcom sent us this elegy for physical game boxes and physical game shops, and its very British, melancholy portrait of the older habits of our hobby was too lovely not to publish.
The spidery writing on a sign that’s been stuck to the whitewashed windows of what used to be my local GAME store tells me that the nearest still-operating branch is in Vladivostok. Actually, no it doesn’t, I’m lying. But it is somewhere far-flung enough from where I live to make me baulk at the trip. Now HMV too has, in its reduced circumstances like GAME, closed many of its outlets up and down the UK and I’m starting to wonder where I’m going to go to buy boxed PC games in the years ahead.
Digital downloads - they’re just so damn convenient, aren’t they. You know how it goes – you make your choice on Steam, GOG or whatever, type in your card details and inside leg measurement for the future amusement of some band of spotty hackers then click on Download. So you go off to make a cup of tea while the bytes start to slowly trickle through your broadband connection like a succession of slightly drunk single blokes being begrudgingly admitted to a Basildon nightclub on a slow Wednesday night. Start game on completion? Tick. All very well and all very efficient but for me this routine just does not have the same appeal or generate as much sense of anticipation as acquiring a boxed copy of a game in a shop. A joy that is increasingly being denied me.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s a ritualistic aspect to buying a retail copy of a PC game and installing it that a digital download just cannot deliver. For a start, why would anyone want to buy a game that doesn’t come with a box and a booklet? I appreciate that it’s not financially viable for many indie developers to sell their games other than through digital download, but nothing says game ownership and a life constructively wasted like a solid row of DVD cases majestically lined-up in alphabetical order on your shelf, looking like some magnificent shrine to Nvidia the Whispering Goddess of Graphics Cards.
If a game-savvy friend came to my house and inspected my shelves, unless they study my Desktop and my Steam library too, there’s no way of them knowing that I’ve also got cool titles like, say, consummate bowel-loosener Amnesia: The Dark Descent, unfathomable platformer Braid, or arse-on-a-plate space sim Faster Than Light because they have all been necessarily downloaded; great games all three, but I can’t help feeling a little bit cheated that they didn’t come with all the...the bits. Auto-patching and being able to download bigger games while you sleep is, admittedly, very convenient but give me the satisfying rattle of an Amazon delivery being forcibly pushed through the letterbox by a cursing postman or the full-on High Street cash-for-goods retail experience every time.
But just as the accessibility of games and DLC digitally downloaded through distribution services such as Steam, Origin et al has increased in recent years, the availability of boxed PC games sold through retail outlets is diminishing faster than quality toilet roll on the first day of Glastonbury. Walk into any shop that sells games in the last four years and you’ll know that the PC as a platform has been marginalised to the extent that it’s hard to believe the platform still exists. Blame the advent of digital downloads, blame the bean-counters, blame whatever – the fact is we’ve all played games in which even the lowest minion’s health bar is still longer than the list of PC titles your local store has in stock.
Entering the shop, you will see aisles full of Xbox and PlayStation games that extend so far into the distance you can actually see the curvature of the Earth. Navigating your way through this gently-mocking labyrinth of green and blue, you’re on the lookout for something familiar but which is fast going the way of the dodo. Finally, there in a far-flung corner, just near the carousel of strategy guides that are sealed shut like porn you find the PC section. Here you are likely to find a ‘Top 20’ of sorts. This will comprise a dozen empty cases for the number one game, Sims expansion packs from numbers four to seven, vacant spaces for numbers ten, twelve and thirteen and somehow, still at number nineteen, Sins of a Solar Empire.
Adjacent to the Top 20 you may find a rack or two of heavily discounted games from years gone by. Browsing through, you might unearth a few relatively recent releases at budget prices but it’s more likely that you’ll be flicking through a randomly stacked collection of Pippa Funnell horseshit-shovelling sims, early RollerCoaster Tycoons, Civs and Holmes mysteries that are more Eamonn than Sherlock. It can be monumentally disappointing.
The way it used to be, you’d make your choice from a fairly generous range of titles and then take your place in the queue behind a nine-year-old child trying to convince his Mum to buy him Headshot 2: Maxillofacial Trauma instead of Mario Kart and some monosyllabic adolescent in a hoodie and what looked to be a full nappy, attempting to trade-in a twocked PS3. When you finally reached the counter, an impossibly young person with two-hairstyles-in-one and a tractor tyre embedded in each earlobe ratted through the drawer trying to find the disc and booklet for your game. If you were lucky and you’d selected a newish AAA title, you might have got a pristine, shrink-wrapped copy from the Aladdin’s Cave that is the locked cabinet behind the counter but for which no one ever seemed to have the key.
When Dymo Nametag eventually stopped boasting to his colleague about some improbable drinking feat he’d recently managed involving tequila shots and absinthe, he’d ring-up the purchase and take your money. As he did so he might utter what at first appeared to be a matey, hey-we’re-all-gamers-together type comment but which was, in fact, a carefully considered phrase to establish his superiority over you; he’d already played this game and he was better at it than you. “The Cock Blocker shottie is awesome, man.”
Perhaps on the bus on the way home you’d sneak your purchase out of its bag to admire the lurid box art, read the specs or just to savour its heft in your hand. Hopefully, if the box felt bountiful it was because there was a lavishly illustrated multi-page booklet in there and not because it contained a second disc or worse, flyers advertising The Sims Argos Nights.
Getting home you might treat your hard drive to a good defragging. While that process is crawling along it’s time to open up the merchandise. Even trying to remove the shrink-wrapping assumes the ceremonial pomp of a bout of Sumo wrestling and requires about as much strength. If you’re a bit clumsy like me, you’ll see the ‘quick release’ cellophane strip encircling the case but struggle to locate the starting tab. Maybe then you’ll run your thumbnail along the edge where the case normally opens. Nope, can’t breach the wrapping – nails aren’t long enough. OK then, I’ll just work this pen into that little diagonal crossover fold there on the top edge. No, that didn’t work either - you’re going to have to shift your arse out of that chair, go into the kitchen and get some scissors.
Ah, the case finally opens, releasing - if you’re lucky - the intoxicating aroma of the glossily printed booklet within and revealing the tantalising glint of a newly-pressed DVD. Once you’ve eased the disc off its strangely recalcitrant retaining hub, you reverentially lay it onto the slide-out tray and give it a little jiggle to ensure it’s sitting optimally. You close the drive where it spins up to speed and finally starts. The EULA pops up. Do you agree? No, I have an issue with the bit that says despite me having just spent £35 on a disc, case and booklet, the game is not really mine. What, I can’t proceed until I say I agree? Oh, alright then.
Each question you’re prompted with is treated like a life or death decision. Language? English. Installation path? I’ll have a ‘C’, please, Bob. And then you get to the validation process. If it was done through the old GFWL, you would make a mad scramble for the bag, hoping like hell that the receipt was still in it, otherwise, the product key code is entered with all the care and deliberation of a NORAD operative inputting failsafe codes into some missile launch computer deep in an underground bunker somewhere in Colorado. You announce each sequence of characters to yourself reassuringly, as if you’re getting your eyes tested at Boots. “V...3...X...L...G. Or is that a 6?”
Meanwhile, in Bellevue, Washington...
Valve lackey: Hey, Gabe, some dude in the UK wants to validate a copy of BioShock Infinite. Is that OK?
Gabe Newell: Yeah, go on.
The installation progress bar works its way from left to right as the file names flash through at speed giving you a tantalising taste of what’s to come. Even better, you might get a percentage indicator and watch as it ticks over inexorably to the magical one hundred mark. Although these days booklets accompanying games contain less information than a Domino’s Pizza menu and are frequently printed in monochrome instead of colour, I still love to pore over them while everything whirrs away. Try doing that with a downloadable PDF manual you can’t get your hands on until the game’s installed.
You’re just at the point where the game is ready to play when, what’s this? Up pops a prompt that informs you ‘A patch is available for this game. Would you like to download and install it?’ Hmm, a patch already? May as well - you need to be playing with a full deck. At last your new purchase is now installed and fully patched. A mug of tea sits steaming on your desk, just out of mouse range and the sticky residue on your hands from the Chocolate Digestives you’ve just scoffed down has been wiped onto your jeans. You sit back and take a sip as the punchy proprietary ads finally make way for the opening cinematic. And if that’s not gaming Nirvana I don’t know what is.
Just as vinyl LP records are enjoying resurgence and are more accessible to buy than they have been at any point in the last twenty years, I dream of a future where boxed PC games experience their own renaissance and where forward-thinking publishers will learn to embrace the concept of producing a physical product once more. Perhaps PC enthusiasts will again have parity with console gamers in terms of shop shelf space and video game archives will swell anew with splendid examples of the craft. Fast forward a hundred years, tune into BBC 1 on a Sunday evening and maybe some dandy wearing half-moon spectacles and a tweed suit will be sitting with an expectant punter, examining a flattish plastic box. “Hmm, from what I can see of the markings and the draconian DRM conditions, I’d say it’s a Ubisoft, probably early 21st century.” Turning it over in his hands and narrowing his eyes slightly he’ll suggest it’s worth some highly improbable amount of money. And hopefully my great granddaughter will lean forward and say to him earnestly, “Oh no. I would never part with it.”
You young whippersnappers are welcome to your one-click downloads, play-anywhere games libraries and auto-patching. Call me an old fuddy-duddy (and aren’t policemen looking younger these days) but the digital revolution can carry on without me. I prefer my games to come with some investment of effort, a greater sense of anticipation and with some beautifully designed, non-biodegradable packaging around them. Now if I could just find a shop round my way that sells the damn things.