When you can feel a character, not just play as him. It's all about that moment.
I was recently going through some long-untouched games in my library, two in particular. First was Resident Evil 4 (not that old, but I haven’t played it in around four months). As I traveled along the path of Leon’s adventure, I eventually found myself at the cabin that left all who played it stunned. If you’ve played Resident Evil 4, you know the one. A horde of murderous villagers were attacking me all at once. I had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide – I was trapped within a would-be grave of spoiled wood. As I unleashed clip after clip of artillery, I could feel my heart beating, my hands shaking with each release of a round, my eyes narrowing in the hopes of overcoming the seemingly unbeatable challenge. Then it happened…
I had won. I had survived the attack long enough to proceed. It was at this time that I noticed I had stopped breathing, and I let out a sigh that could have been heard for miles. I could still feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins- the glory of a triumph was ripe within my soul. For a moment, I was Leon. I was shooting my way to conquest. I was completely immersed in the experience. It had ceased being a game. Just for that moment.
The second game I relived is widely referred to as one of the elite of this generation, Wind Waker. My favorite part of the game has always been the final battle scene, so I just picked up at the end of a previously beaten quest. For those of you who still haven’t finished the game, you may want to skip over the next couple paragraphs.
As I’ve done at least a couple dozen times before, I was once again up against the embodiment of evil, the sultan of sin, Ganondorf. After a somewhat lengthy precursor to the battle that followed, he revealed twin katanas to combat my trusty Master Sword. We dueled for what must have been a maximum of ten minutes. But what a fight… Sparks flew from each contact our blades made; I danced majestically through the air with each parry, and sped along the arena to accommodate a decent setup for Zelda to fire a light arrow into Ganondorf’s back.
And then it was over. I had sealed away evil once more and the world was safe again. The King of Hyrule then appears and we all know the rest, but it’s what follows that’s the most bizarre and perhaps the most sobering. As I sit through the credits, countless memories of the game’s adventure flow through my mind, coupled with the bubbled screenshots that are showed at the end. It’s here that I feel what I have yet to feel in any other game to date. Unlike Resident Evil 4, where it was action and suspense that bound Leon and I together, Wind Waker establishes a bond that goes much deeper – straight to the heart. Just for that moment, you feel Link’s pain, you feel his triumph, and you sympathize with his character, even though he doesn’t have a single line of dialogue.
When I talk to people who aren’t in-the-know about games, they often bring up controversial releases like Grand Theft Auto or Manhunt – citing the extreme degrees of violence or adult content. The way those people see it, games are about taking out aggression – it’s about some sort of perverse escape to perform cruel acts. And I feel sorry for them, because they’ll never know what I know. They’ll never experience the kind of catharsis I experienced during Wind Waker. They’ll never be bound to a character through a sense-shattering flurry of bullets in the attempt to save one’s own life. No, they’ll never understand why I play games. They’ll never understand that moment.