Eternal Sunshine of the Gaming Mind

I’ve seen a lot of variations of the question “If you could erase your memory of one game so you could play it again for the first time, what game would you pick?” And, like… I don’t get it.

I know the question isn’t meant literally. It’s like the question of what books you’d take to a desert island; if you give a practical answer you are missing the point. The desert island framing is just an evocative way to sum up the harder-to-express actual question, which is more along the lines of “if for some reason you had to pick right now a short list of what books you could read for the rest of your life, which would they be”? Which in turn is really a way to ask for someone’s favorite books - but specifically weighted toward longevity and re-readability. The extra constraint changes the ranking and is thus more interesting than just asking someone to rattle off their already-decided favorites.

Similarly, I know the forget-a-game question must also be trying to get at something related to but distinct from just asking someone what their favorite game is. Responding practically, I’d minimize unnecessary memory loss by picking a tiny game I’d played ages ago and already mostly forgotten. That’s clearly missing the point, but what is the point?

To me, most of the value of a good game comes from the memory of it. That’s the part I get to savor and enjoy for much longer. I get to look back and understand how the game’s parts come together to form a greater whole. I get to talk about it with others and share our experiences and insights. And I get to see how games influence each other as the medium grows and evolves. I love playing good games, but I might love more the way that every game I play increases my understanding and appreciation of games as a whole.

From that perspective, replaying a game I do remember can be more valuable than recapturing the original experience, as it provides opportunities for experimentation or for seeing new things I missed before. (Studies suggest that people consistently underestimate how much new stuff there is to find in repeat media and experiences, and thus underestimate how much they’d enjoy revisiting them.) This can leave me with a more complete picture of the game and a more nuanced appreciation and understanding - made richer by what I’ve learned and observed from other games in the meantime.

So okay, what if the question is really about your best gaming experiences that you can’t come close to matching through replaying today? When I think of games like that, the difference isn’t something you can surmount with a memory wipe. As a teenager, I fell completely in love with Chrono Trigger - but that’s because I was a different person then (and not in an entirely healthy way). I couldn’t recapture that experience without regressing to my adolescence. And in college, I had a complete blast playing City of Heroes, but that was more about the people I played with than the game itself - and the community has largely moved on from MMORPGs, and that particular game is no longer even playable. I’d need a time machine for that one.

I think for a lot of us, our favorite gaming memories are only partially about the game. They are about who we were, what our life was like, and what the world was like. Trying to recapture them with a memory wipe would just destroy a treasured memory and replace it with an inferior imitation that couldn’t possibly live up to the original.

All I can really find in this question that makes any sense to me is “What is your favorite game with little to no replay value?” Which I guess does act like the desert island question as a new constraint on the favorite-game question, though it seems like a less interesting one to me.

…but I guess my answer is Portal.