Old Dog, New Games: How a 50+ Year Old Discovered the Joy of Videogames

Oddly enough, my new appreciation for videogames started when I moved from a Windows computer to an iMac.  "Odd" because Macs, despite all of their other advantages, are not great gaming machines. That means relatively few games get ported to the Mac platform. So when Tomb Raider: Underworld appeared in the Mac App Store in 2012, I noticed. At that point, everything else on the iMac was new to me. Why not try a new game? 

It wasn't that I'd never played a videogame before. In the mid-70s, I had a high school friend who let me try Pong on his new Magnavox Odyssey game system. During college, I was glued to the Space Invaders machine in the campus coffee shop, a quickly dwindling roll of quarters in my pocket. After that, it was DragonFire, a cartridge game for the Tandy Color Computer, and King's Quest, a text and 16-bit graphics game for early PCs. Then I stopped. 

Fast-forward 27 years.

Joystick controllers were long gone. So was everything I knew about videogames.

I stumbled my way through Underworld, relying heavily on a printed user guide as well as the YouTube walkthroughs of a player known as Nuttylamb. (I tried a few other YouTubers, but settled on Nutty because I loved her English accent, her laugh, and her lighthearted approach to gameplay.)

I definitely needed the help. Lacking modern game experience, I was ignorant of nearly all of the tropes of third-person action-adventures. I was oblivious to highlighted handholds, overlooked the paths the game wanted me to take, discovered I'm completely incompetent when it comes to managing any sort of vehicle, and thanked Square Enix/Eidos for the gift of aim assistance.

But somehow, despite my fumbling with the fundamentals of gameplay and controller use, I fell in love with the game. I wasn't watching some flat, 16-bit rendering of a character or an environment. I was there, in exotic places that were alive. And I was experiencing it all through the eyes of the compelling character of Lara Croft, driven by a globe-spanning multilayered story.

I finished the game. As soon as the final credit rolled off the screen, I started it all over again.

I played it a third time when I picked up an XBox 360 console and said goodbye to iMac gaming. But I loved Underworld so much, I was reluctant to try anything else. So Tomb Raider remained my sole gaming addiction, with Underworld leading to the 2013 Tomb Raider, then Rise of the Tomb Raider.

After Rise, though, I was finally ready to branch out. I read XBox Magazine and Game Informer. I started following GamesRadar, IGN, GameSpot, and Polygon on the Web. I tried to understand what it was I loved about the Tomb Raider series, and then I went searching for similar games that combined action/adventure/puzzles with an entertaining story. Along the way I heard about the game that would make more of an impact on me than all the Tomb Raiders put together: Naughty Dog's The Last of Us.

Ellie and Joel, in  The Last of Us

Ellie and Joel, in The Last of Us

Fans will know that The Last of Us is a PlayStation exclusive. A nephew let me borrow his PS3 to try it out. By the time I reached the opening credits -- after what must be one of the most wrenching opening sequences in game history -- I was hooked. A PS4 quickly joined the 360. Along with my own copy of The Last of Us: Remastered came the wonderful Uncharted series. My game library grew with Bioshock Infinite, Until Dawn, and more. Before I knew it, an XBox One had joined the family.

Nowadays, I try to play every weekday morning for about an hour, whenever possible. My focus is still on "story first," with quality animations and voice acting following closely behind. (While I appreciate the emotional content of games like Life Is Strange, I doubt I'll ever play it myself; the dialogue is often awkward, the lip syncing/lip animation is more like a ventriloquist dummy than an actual person, and the voice acting is just okay. But having watched several YouTube playthroughs, I do understand why so many players connected with this game. I'm just not one of them.)

I'll probably never become adept at shooting or driving a vehicle. Without aim assist, "thumb panic" means my targeting is all over the place. As for driving: I was terrible on Lara Croft's motorcycle in Underworld in 2012, and I was equally incompetent behind the wheel of Nathan Drake's four-wheel-drive rover in Uncharted 4 in 2016. It's a miracle anyone got through those games alive. 

I prefer third-person to first-person perspective. So far, Bioshock Infinite is the only FPS I've played, and it went better than I expected. Watching YouTubers play it gave me nausea. But when I'm in control, I can slow down the camera movements so they aren't so sick-inducing. Still, my sense is that Bioshock Infinite is unique among first-person shooters in terms of its world building and story. I liked what it delivered. I don't have any interest in all of the many futuristic, militaristic shooters out there. 

I want single campaigns. For whatever reason, I have zero interest in playing with other people online. Maybe it's because I don't enjoy rushing through games. My goal isn't to be the quickest or most efficient player. Sometimes, I like to just stop what I'm doing and take in everything that the developers have invested in a game. Usually it's the scenery. A hummingbird appears in the first 15 minutes or so of Bioshock Infinite; I think I walked around that guy for about five minutes. I could have watched the giraffes grazing in The Last of Us forever, if they hadn't moved on.

The  Bioshock Infinite  hummingbird

The Bioshock Infinite hummingbird

I play despite my weaknesses. The final battle in Bioshock Infinite took me more than four hours to win. . . and I played on the easiest difficulty! Similarly, there's a sequence late in Rise of the Tomb Raider when Lara has to shoot down trebuchet-launched projectiles in order to disable a helicopter; I cannot tell you how long I spent on that section. (For both of these cases, YouTube playthroughs were no help whatsoever. The folks I most enjoy watching got through these levels with little or no trouble. That's because there was no "secret" approach or no one solution for winning. You simply had to be good at what the game was requiring of you!)

Finally, I've enjoyed discovering that I like watching others play videogames just as much as I enjoy playing them myself. I'm particularly drawn to players who are willing to emotionally invest in the games they play, players who are open, sincere, funny. I don't want over-the-top personalities (like PewDiePie). Currently, my favorite YouTube players are Briana White, AKA Strange Rebel Gaming; GhostRobo (he's notorious for not finishing games, but he's also brilliant at rhyming commentary), TheRadBrad, TetraNinja, and, when he's not trying too hard, Markiplier. When I seek out new players to watch, I always check to see if they've played through The Last of Us. How they react to the first 20 minutes tells me whether I'll enjoy following them or not. 

My first love, Nuttylamb, has shifted from YouTube to Twitch...but her tone has changed as well. Lots of YouTubers throw around R-rated language, and that doesn't bother me. But Nutty built her brand on not swearing. So when her most recent playthrough was filled with strong language and constant sexual innuendo, it felt like I was watching a completely different player.

I will be 56 on my next birthday. And I plan on playing videogames until I can't anymore. It may seem strange that a man my age -- a man without children running around -- plays videogames. But the adults I know who have families don't have time anymore for gaming. That's too bad. Videogames give me a connection with younger generations, including my own nephews and nieces. They work parts of my brain that don't get tapped in my normal workday. And, as a full-time writer, they teach me things about story structure and plot development.

In the end, though, they're just plain fun.