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Video Games

The Rental Era: The Games that Made Us

Demos need to make a comeback.

I’m standing in a bookstore at the mall, waiting for whichever parent was in charge of me that day to figure out their purchase, and I look over the magazine rack because I know there’s something there for me. I’m not sure how old I was at the time, but I know I was in elementary school because my family hadn’t yet pooled resources to get me a PlayStation 2. I was still playing games almost exclusively on my neighbor-friends’ original PlayStation or SNES.

Then I find the holy grail of the month, the one thing I’m allowed to request my parent purchase for this trip to the mall: PSM, the PlayStation Magazine. I’d go on to buy so many individual issues that it became more cost-effective to just buy a subscription. This was before the downfall, acquisition of the magazine by PlayStation manufacturer Sony Entertainment, and its rebranding as the “Official PlayStation Magazine.” Despite being “unofficial,” the PSM came with a demo disk, the real prize. Sure, the articles were often cool and exciting, and I usually felt an obligation to thumb through them to see if anything grabbed my eye, but also, like…I was in elementary school, and there was a disc with a half dozen video games I could play that weren’t even out yet!

PlayStation Magazine. Volume 1, Issue 4.
PlayStation Magazine. Volume 1, Issue 4.

When my editor, Gabi, approached me to write my contribution to this column, that’s what came to mind. I can think through the earliest games I remember or the ones that left a huge impact on me during grade school: Mortal Kombat 2Shadow of the ColossusMetal Gear Solid 2NFL Blitz 2003, Soul Edge, and so many others. I realized, though, that no individual game quite hits my nostalgia quite like the idea of these hundreds of fragments of games and how I used to be able to engage with video games at large.

You see, each of these demo discs contained incredibly small portions of upcoming games, often the first level or tutorial. To a kid, that was enough for hours of entertainment. I loved the feeling of having all these options of games to play and worlds to explore, and the repetition wasn’t really an issue. If a game was exciting enough, I might be able to convince an adult to take me down the street to Blockbuster, so I could try to absorb as much as I could of the full game before we had to return that disc in a week.

PlayStation Magazine. Volume 1, Issue 3.
PlayStation Magazine. Volume 1, Issue 3.

I miss that discoverability in games. The internet has seemingly infinite possibilities, but you can only find what you’re looking for. For me, it creates a loop of confirmation, where I know I like a game, so I look for games like it, and I can pretty easily find those. But these days, how often do I stumble into a game that I can actually just spend an hour messing around in?

Things like the Xbox Game Pass and others have done a great job of recreating the feeling of just being able to mess around in a game to see if you like it. On top of it creating a nightmare for game developers attempting to capitalize on the Game Pass business model, I just simply don’t play games like I did when I was a kid.

What I like now is more passive and social. Each of those games I listed above (except Shadow of the Colossus) and every PSM demo disc I experienced with my friends. Even if we weren’t having fun, we could still connect, and I could still talk with people about the game.

PlayStation Magazine. Volume 2, Issue 6.
PlayStation Magazine. Volume 2, Issue 6.

Today, I’m able to get my fix thanks to the prevalence of streaming. I can watch a person experience a game, and I can chat with people having the same experience as me. I can see genuine reactions and talk through the games critically.

Almost every friend I have, I met through a mutual interest in one video game or another because I learned how to decide which demo I liked or didn’t. I had so many options among these bite-sized games that I had to develop language to talk with people about which ones I thought were best to play.

That’s what this era of my life with easy access to video games got me: A catalyst for human interaction.

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