captain my two game examples of this phenomenon are Shenmue, and difficulty in general.
For years I used Shenmue as a punchline, as an ambitious experiment that fell flat on its face every time it tried to do something. At best, my most charitable read was that it was the growing pains of innovations that would be more effectively realized and implemented by its successors. And then, I don’t know. One day a switch flipped and I realized that I’ve always really loved awkward, janky, ambitious games covered in prickly, un-sanded edges. Why was this any different? It became immediately clear how ridiculously cozy that game is and I started growing a deep appreciation for it, warts and all.
The other thing was difficulty in games, but there’s more than that at play. I grew up playing a lot of NES games, which formed something of the foundation of my taste in games. But as I was going through my junior high/high school years and was sort of fruitlessly flailing around trying to figure out who or what I was, I was still playing games. But most of the games that I had any visibility on were the more obvious AAA games of the era, and they really weren’t doing much for me for the most part. I felt like I was sort of vaguely interacting with a lot of games that were, at the risk of sounding reductive and overly simplistic, kinda playing themselves. Giant glowing waypoints and HUD icons telling me exactly what to do and where to go, it felt to me like an amusement park ride, which can be fun and grand in spectacle, but it’s empty calories. A lot of design trends of that generation were asymtotally approaching this idealized vision of frictionless interaction. Games were made with the intent that everyone who spends their $59.99USD or equivalent sees the whole thing, and feels like they got their money’s worth. This was playing out alongside the growth of Unreal Engine 3’s ubiquity, which in a lot of ways is a very good thing, but it’s lack of non-english technical documentation left most Japanese studios in the dark, and the engine’s particular strengths and weaknesses in that iteration lent themselves to a very specific type of aesthetic in the way shaders, mapping, and post-processing FX are applied. And also, a heck of a lot of cover-based third person shooters, which is a mode of interaction I’ve just never been terribly interested in. Okay this is getting long-winded and again I’m super duper over-simplifying to make a point about where I was at in terms of my relationship with games at the time. I wasn’t just playing new AAA stuff, but that’s most of what I was aware of. I had no Insert Credit, I knew not of the wonders of Bujingai. I assumed God Hand probably was a 3/10. And above all, games had become another passive media for me, in effect. Like movies but with screen tearing and (usually) worse stories and characters lol. Over time I sought out games I could more or less effortlessly slide through to the end of, then stick it back on the shelf and do the same thing with another game. And I really don’t know what broke me of this. Because Demon’s Souls came out, and a handful of cool people were singing its praises but I didn’t know yet how much my tastes actually aligned with those people. I truly just did not know myself very well yet. Then Dark Souls 1 comes out and blows up and thus kickstarts the next decade of difficulty discourse or whatever. And so much of the broader conversation around this game’s sudden explosive popularity is centered around this perceived notion of it being some kind of masochists’ pornographic dream. I was so certain that was distinctly Not For Me. And I’m trying to figure out what gave me the realization that it totally is. I wonder if it was when the MegaMan Legacy Collection came out? I played a lot of MegaMan 6 (the best one) as a kid, and having a great new package in which to go through all six of them again proved to be a lot of fun. I started getting back into playing Castlevania games, fell in love with Rondo of Blood, etc. Then a friend offered to shepherd me through Bloodborne and it was all over from there. I still don’t seek out extreme difficulty as a point of purpose, for example I really dislike a lot of the way Dark Souls III handles it’s overall difficulty and boss structures. But I’ve found that I absolutely adore a good sense of friction, when a game pushes back against the player a bit. God Hand, Ninja Gaiden Black, stuff like that. Turns out I really love that feeling and it’s super satisfying! Not in the “finally beat something I’ve been struggling with” sense, that does nothing for me. But in the moment to moment feel. But emotionally and kinesthetically.