It’s the constant search for the ‘Epic Win’ that’s kept me playing videogames

Karl R. de Mesa
It’s the constant search for the ‘Epic Win’ that’s kept me playing videogames
From 'Street Fighter' to 'Silent Hill' to 'The Last Of Us,' it's the possibility of experiencing something transcendental that keeps the gamer gaming through the years

If you were a kid in Manila during the late 1980s, your prestige rested on two things: your Family Computer abilities in Street Fighter (yes, the bootlegged one) and Contra

If you didn’t haunt the arcades in the malls, then the advent of the home console system meant that you were always at a friend’s house pounding that controller with the Konami cheat code with your neighborhood barkada. Act quick:


By the early 1990s, your parents could find you in the early versions of “gaming cafés.” Meaning: hole-in-the-wall places outfitted with partitions that resembled office cubicles but are perfectly designed to hold both TV and console. Yes, there were those things then.

But through time, a number of things remained constant in these gaming hubs: the sweat of tweens (even inside a place with the AC on full blast), their tendency to huddle around the glare of their friends’ screens – congregated heads like a closed fist, and the involuntary ejaculations of victory or defeat sounding like the cries of a charismatic church.

It was Street Fighter back in the early ’90s, Counter-Strike in the early 2000s, and DotA in the late 2000s. The popular games and platforms may change but the atmosphere stays the same – only now, serious gaming tournaments can fill up entire arenas. 

Beyond the atmosphere

While the sense of excitement has always been there, the perceived benefits of the medium have changed. It used to be that: videogames = baaad, a distraction from studies and whatnot. 

Now, there are a lot of TED Talks (and various studies) that tackle the various aspects of video games and why they’re good for us in moderation. But my favorite is by developer Jane McGonigal who posits that if we could harness gamer power, we’d be able to tackle the problems of the world in real life with much more ease.

She explains that we can do it by seeking the emotion of “Epic Win,” which eludes us in the real world so much, frustrating and chaotic as it is.

I do believe that, too. See, I’d definitely say I passed a rite of gaming manhood after playing the very first Silent Hill.

It had just come out in 1999 and I played it with my friends since only one of us had a PlayStation. That experience, specifically the introduction, is something I still remember like it was last week: being led into the town after the car crash, bouncing around the maze trying to navigate its grotesque corridors, and then devoured by the shadow babies like a human donut.

Thinking about it as I write this still gives me the creeps.

My point being, after bathing in Akira Yamaoka’s haunting “Rain of Brass Petals” and killing monster dogs you were warned of with the shrill cry of the radio alarm, you felt like you had survived something meaningful and important. Even if you got the worst ending, a finely crafted game world with an excellent story in the hands of a master like Keiichiro Toyama would let you experience something transcendent, as opposed to simple pathos. That Epic Win.

Playing SH felt like a test of fortitude. It was visceral and powerful. It was scathing. Which is likely why the franchise survives until now, seven games in, living off on the echoes and remains of the first two games (just like the Resi Evil games do) in a series of diminishing returns.

It’s also lasting. I realize I still try to capture that feeling of dread in any horror fiction I write. I am still, in many ways, trying to be SH brave-man Harry Mason with his shotgun peering into the dense fog as he searches for his adopted daughter Cheryl in an American ghost town whose streets bear the names of horror writers.

Sidenote: After getting the worst ending on SH, we promptly downloaded a walkthrough (still rare in those days) and tried our hardest to beat the game again. It was that awesome.

Moving past Silent Hill

It’s been years since I first stepped foot in that devil’s lair. Since then, the nature of gaming has changed so much that you’ll need to adjust your perception and rethink what you understand games to be.

I am pretty surprised that I enjoy the games produced today. Aside from the temporary collaboration in fighting games I usually don’t play well with others. (Shooters? I prefer bots for teammates even in Rainbow Six). I don’t go for online co-ops at all. Which is to say I like RPGs and exploring worlds by myself. The test is all mine and so are any Epic Wins along the way. One gamer’s experience of the Epic Win is of course different from another; as varied as the genres and sub-genres and the sub-sub-genres now existing in the increasingly colorful world of games. 

Personally, I like it weird. The weirder the game world and the more technically challenging the gameplay of an RPG is, the more I like it. Which meant that when I finally made the switch to Steam I enjoyed the heck out of modest titles like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Limbo, and Deadlight.  

LIMBO. The 2010 puzzle-platformer spooked gamers with its shadowy atmospherics. Screengrab from Limbo/Playdead

Even if I liked the occasional bombast of all out massive worlds like Assassin’s Creed, The Last of Us or Uncharted, games like the ouroboros futility of Journey or the prosaic expressionism of Elegy for a Dead World resonated with me. The exploration of all these diffferent worlds means appreciating them for their inventiveness and how they push the boundaries of storytelling. Because that’s what games have become: the preferred technological medium for telling immersive stories.

They are now their own convergent blend of storytelling and art, letting us take on roles and experience unique moral choices we never could or never will.

A few more examples: 

Grand Theft Auto 4 features refugees fleeing the Balkan war committing crimes to survive; one Call of Duty needed you to mow down women and kids at an airport so you could keep your cover and get to the head of a terrorist organization.

War of Mine is even more outstanding in the post-war survival genre letting us know how non-combatants can suffer extremely after a city is ruined by strife. You don’t play it as much as it plays you, conveying the message that often, in those scenarios, there are only bad choices – none of them evil. 

But whether it’s a simplistic (by today’s standards) fighting game in the ’90s, a soul-scathing horror game in the original PlayStation eraor a sampling of today’s strange, nuanced selection of games, they all share a common thread: Each of these experiences contains that addictive dose of Epic Win. 

In 2010, what was essentially my homage to videogames was shortlisted in the 3rd Fully Booked Graphic/Fiction Awards. In “Won’t You Be My Friend, Mister Faceless Creature of Evil?” (a pompously precious title, even for me) a hardcore gamer gets trapped in the game world of SH and finds a perverted kind of peace in there. He opts to stay.   

Am opting to stay. There are more Epic Wins out there.

At its peak, video games are platforms of pure expression practiced by masters of craft. If a developer like Ryan Green can make something like That Dragon, Cancer, about his son’s Joel’s battle with brain cancer, and make us feel miserable, make us cry, or whoop in triumph because of it, then I will continue to play games as long as I can grasp a controller with both hands. –

Karl R. De Mesa is the author of the non-fiction books Radiant Void and Report from the Abyss (both finalists for the National Book Award); he is also the co-editor of the horror anthology Demons of the New Year.


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