Love Affairs

Some games, you play for a week, others for a few days. A really good one can suck you in for a month or two, especially if you can involve other people. And then there are the love affairs: the games you never stop playing. You know the type I mean: you’ve beaten it so many times, but you just keep coming back for another taste. What is the mysterious chemistry that makes us love one or two games so much more than others? Some might suggest it’s plain and simple quality, but I think it goes much deeper; I’ve seen friends give years of their lives to a title they admitted was fundamentally flawed. Like any art form, games will occasionally forge a bond with their audience, one that even the developers may not have anticipated. When it happens, it reminds you of why you got into gaming in the first place.

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For me, the best example of that is a game series called “F.E.A.R.” Many of you know it, most have probably played it. The original “F.E.A.R.” was a PC game, which forced me, console-bound, to gawk at it from a distance. I was so amazed by the concept: fusing a corridor shooter with Japanese-style horror. Why didn’t I think of that? Console gamers know that a PC game has a certain illicit charm. The world of the computer is freer and more exciting than our regulated, standardized plastic boxes, and we always covet the forbidden fruits hanging just out of reach: twitch shooters, Blizzard games, MMOs, and RTSes. Oh, how we long from a distance, Dear Reader.

But sweet mercy, Day 1 Studios finally came along and ported “F.E.A.R.” to the 360. I dallied for awhile—because honestly, a ported PC game loses some of its luster—but when it finally got its claws in me, the game dug in deep. Monolith’s genius in designing “F.E.A.R.” was two-fold: first, they introduced the most sophisticated A.I. in town, creating breathless firefights where victories felt earned and defeats deserved. Second, they kept the formula fresh with “palette cleansing” horror sections, interspersed throughout the campaign to keep the game from getting monotonous. For most people, this was reason enough to give the game a spin, although its repetitive environments and unsatisfying final boss fight also guaranteed the relationship was not long-term.

And yet, when I got my hands on it, I just couldn’t let it go. Even the endless stream of same-y office complexes didn’t get to me, I actually enjoyed how grounded the world felt. The combat was brilliant, every firefight played out like a Hollywood blockbuster: I’d knock down a door, activate slow motion, dive through the middle of a room with my shotgun kicking like a mule, and land just in time to switch to an SMG and finish off the last fleeing enemy before he limped around the corner. Ragdoll physics meant that each enemy I hit would go flying, their automatic weapon blasting off stray rounds as they fell to the floor. It was some of the most truly cinematic gaming I’ve ever encountered.

And then there were the horror sections, ingenious little haunted house acid trips where the player got to take a break from sweaty palms and itchy trigger fingers. The atmosphere was so thick you could swim in it: a creepy little eight year old girl with telekinetic powers hunting you like an animal, and a cannibalistic super-soldier taunting you with ghostly whispers. Monolith wisely kept the details of the plot a little obscure, putting it together was like trying to remember a dream. But the symbolism invoked in the imagery made it hit hard and stay with you, and a few pop-outs were so effective I came out of my seat. I still think “F.E.A.R.” is one of the scariest games ever made.

Years later, I am still playing the original “F.E.A.R.” I’ve even beaten it on “Extreme” difficult, which is one of the most punishing challenges I’ve ever seen in a game. I think the secret to how a video game creates this bond is aesthetics: when the world they create hits you just right, it leaves a lasting crater in your psyche. I love SWAT teams, I love corridor combat, and I love ghosts, and “F.E.A.R.” puts them all together in just the right way. I have a friend whose love affair is with “Ninja Gaiden,” based solely on the fact that he loves swords (and therefore, a ninja who wields them). He’s beaten both the original and the sequel on the hardest difficulties simply because ninjas are cool, and “Ninja Gaiden” seems to understand that.

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I waited with baited breath for “F.E.A.R. 2,” but when it came out, I swore it off as lacking the magic of the original. Although the environments were more varied and the graphics took a step up, its AI felt almost insultingly simplistic, and the scares weren’t coming, no matter how much Monolith tried. At the time, I thought it was further proof of how magical the original “F.E.A.R.” was, and I resolved to keep playing through Monolith’s crown jewel and ignore the sequel. But as years passed, I softened, eventually purchasing “F.E.A.R. 2″ and beating it twice. Sure, some of my favorite aspects of its ancestor were gone, but I quickly discovered that “F.E.A.R. 2″ still had enough of its “ghosts meet special forces” style to suck me in. The story had also taken a step up, functioning much more coherently and ending with one of the most shocking conclusions I’ve ever experienced in a video game. And actually, by being much easier, “F.E.A.R. 2″ managed to also be a more recreational experience than its uncompromising older brother. My love affair turned out to be with the series as a whole, not just any one game.

So now, with the October release of “F.E.A.R. 3″ imminent, I’m playing through both of them again…as well as “Perseus Mandate”…and I’d be remiss to ignore “Extraction Point”…and also “F.E.A.R. 2: Reborn.” God help me, am I going to have time to eat and bathe myself?

How about you, Dear Reader? What franchise beckons you back every time? What is that game that has your heart no matter what?