One of my resolutions at the start of 2024 was to take a month off from gaming. Towards the end of last year I had started to feel a little burned out and overwhelmed with choices, especially given the never-ending firehose of free games provided by services like the Epic Store and Amazon Gaming. I found I was only able to play anything for a short time before growing bored and logging out; perhaps a reset of sorts was required. I suppose it's been a long time coming.
I've been playing video games of one kind or another for more than forty years now. It started with visits to the arcade on Portsmouth's Southsea pier as a child, where – armed with stacks of 10p pieces from the change machine – my younger brother and I would spend hours feeding them into Out Run, Star Wars, Spy Hunter, Street Fighter, and many more towering cabinets whose names are lost to the fog of memory. As well as providing us some welcome additional pocket money to waste on those visits to the coast, my grandparents also eventually purchased an early home arcade system (possibly the Coleco Telstar Alpha) that allowed us to play such cutting edge games as Pong, and an early shooting game, on their black-and-white television.
By the early 1980s, computers were starting to become a part of schooling in Britain; most children of that era will have stories of the single school computer being wheeled from classroom to classroom on its trolley. Luckily for us, our father was a headmaster, and so the cream-coloured Acorn BBC Model B from his school spent its school holidays in our spare room, where we played a range of vaguely educational games like Granny's Garden (which is apparently still going strong).
It wasn't until 1985 that we finally had our own home computer, a ZX Spectrum 48K+, and discovered the twin wonders of 8-bit gaming and software piracy. It's probably not an exaggeration to say that I played on it every day. Over time, I came to find the technical aspects of the computer just as fascinating as the games, and I taught myself enough BASIC to write my own simple programs, including one (a simple maze game) that even had its own loading screen (leading friends to doubt I could possibly have achieved something so advanced).
As the 8-bit era gave way to 16-bit machines, videogames became less of a priority in my life, replaced in large part by a growing interest in music. My brother had a Sega MegaDrive, and I enjoyed playing Micro Machines and Sonic the Hedgehog, but I didn't really pick up gaming again until the late 90s, when I bought my first PC. Now with a much more powerful 32-bit processor, and the availability of dial-up internet in my own flat, I would spend hours playing Age of Empires 2 or Ultima Online, occasionally burning my dinner when I couldn't tear myself away from the real-time action.
Years later I would finally replace my ancient Windows PC with a new toy, the Apple iMac, which unfortunately also greatly limited my gaming selection. But it was also around that time that I discovered MMOs like World of Warcraft, and then later Elder Scrolls Online and EVE Online, all offering a Mac client as well as persistent online worlds with infinite possibilities for play. Eventually I took the time to set up the Mac's handy dual-boot feature, reinstalled Windows, and was able to expand my gaming horizons: Skyrim, Tomb Raider, Fallout 4, Bioshock Infinite and the Arkham series of Batman games were some of my favourites during that time. We also acquired a PS3 in 2012, and – despite the difficulty in claiming any TV time with three children in the house – I was able to play through classics like The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V.
And then came the pandemic, and a lot more time spent at home. So, in 2020, I finally retired my iMac and built my own gaming PC, curved monitor, fancy mouse and all. Since then, my Steam library (alongside the Epic Store, GOG Galaxy, and half-a-dozen other launchers) has grown exponentially, and the last three-and-a-half years has seen me playing more videogames than at any time since I was a teenager. Apex Legends, Rocket League, Destiny 2, Crusader Kings, Death Stranding, Red Dead Redemption 2, The Witcher 3, Microsoft Flight Simulator, Elden Ring, Baldur's Gate 3, Kingdom Come: Deliverance... the list is endless.
After this month off from gaming, I'll be picking up something else new: Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy from 2021 was one of Epic's freebies over Christmas, and everyone who has played it seems to have good things to say, so I'll be spending some time with that in February. And after that, who knows? I still have an original Spectrum sitting on my desk, together with an SD card loaded up with classic games from my childhood – perhaps I'll finally be able to finish Manic Miner, or reach the inverted levels of Chuckie Egg?