Here and now.
These days, gaming has entered the lexicon of ‘cool’. Expensive video game trailers set to expensive music blast onto TV screens at primetime, advertisements are splashed across buses in every major city in the world and E3 ‘press’ conferences are modeled after rock concerts. Kanye’s a gamer. Snoop’s a gamer. Mila and Aubrey are gamers. Everybody’s a gamer.
When I was a teenager living in New Zealand in the late ‘90s, the landscape was a little different. Although the industry was growing at an exponential rate, games were still distinctively “not cool”. The prevailing attitude was that console games were the domain of kids – Sonic or Mario, bro? – while PC gaming was strictly the business of young men wearing glasses held together by tape. Playing video games was masturbatory; something that was done behind closed doors with the curtains closed.
And we were obsessed with cool, back then. It was a superficial exercise (‘coolness’ was within us all along etc etc) but in the late ‘90s it felt like a tangible thing to chase. It gave us listless jerks – too young to drink, too young to stay still – purpose.
What did cool mean to us, exactly? It had anti-authoritarian connotations, but vague ones. We were caught in the hangover of the early ‘90s, and pop culture still echoed a general dissatisfaction with being. But we were, perhaps, more hyperactive than the Reality Bites generation: Nirvana was still omnipresent, but it was old news. We wanted anger, but we wanted it to be as high-octane as possible.
We wanted anger, but we wanted it to be as high-octane as possible.
Skater culture spoke to us for this reason. I never skated (thank god), but my guy friends did, poorly. Sometimes girls would go watch them flail about in the skatepark near Wellington’s waterfront, on their asses more than their boards. We liked the droopy clothing and the lackadaisical attitude it seemed to convey, but most of all we liked the music.
Pop punk and pop rock was in a constant rotation on our CD players. We listened to radio bands like Blink 182 and Green Day and The Offspring, and the granddaddies of the genre like the Ramones and The Buzzcocks. These bands sung about being young and pissed off and horny, which is what we were pretty much all of the time.
When Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater made it into our grubby hands in 1999, initially via a United Video rental, we couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t just a skateboarding sim, it was was an embodiment of our culture – the culture of ‘cool’. The levels – Warehouse, Downhill Jam, Roswell, School, Burnside, Mall, Chicago, Streets and Downtown – were cool. The skaters, with names like Bucky and Kareem and Chad, were cool. With its arcade controls that turned button mashing into 360 shove-it rewinds and 540 board varials, it felt cool.
But the music – the music was the coolest of all. Instead of generic rock riffs or an orchestral score, Pro Skater’s sountrack was a carefully curated pop punk mix tape; a love letter to my generation’s favourite music. “I’m trying to keep the ground on my feet,” sang Goldfinger’s John Feldmann, “it seems the world’s falling down around me.” With stolen beers in our hands, we would bray along.
At the bottom of the world, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater opened the door for video games in our cultural lexicon. For a brief period of time, hanging out and playing it was as essential as going to school or “partying” (as hard as we could at age 15). Those who could afford it bought PlayStations. Those who couldn’t knew someone whose console was always on. From then on, we gamed together, in our pizza-funky living rooms with the curtains drawn and the sound on our Panasonic 30 inch CRTs turned up loud, and it was glorious.
I do worry about the series’ future. The decline of quality that began after Pro Skater 4 was tough to swallow for those of us who grew up with the games, and I still can’t think back at that overpriced Tony Hawk Ride board in the corner of my living room without a pang of embarrassment for all involved. The series started trying to do too much, and along the way lost its hard, fast and focused pop punk soul.
I still think there’s life in the Tony Hawk game label. But I hope developer Robomodo listens to what young people are passionate about today. What makes them pissed off and fired up and horny. I hope it listens to their music and acknowledges the things that stir them out of their dark bedrooms each day. I hope Robomodo makes its game for them, like Neversoft did for us. One that’s cool.
Lucy O’Brien is Entertainment Editor at IGN’s AU office. Follow her ramblings on Twitter.