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Life gets in the way sometimes. Work. Family. Finances. Education. Travel. Whatever. What we were can change so suddenly. But, when I stopped playing video games - like, caring about them, enough to want to seek them out, to keep up with tech and trends - not long after university, I don't remember the exact off-switch moment. But by 21, 22 or so, priorities had changed: it was work, rent, pub, gigs, girlfriend, everything and anything else but gaming.
But before then, I had liked games a lot. I didn't find a lot of time while at university to play - though the launch of the PlayStation 2 in late 2000 sure did put the occasional spanner in my revision plans. But beforehand, I loved everything about these things. I'd gone from Spectrum to Amiga to Master System to Mega Drive (with a Mega-CD and 32X, of course), and was making eyes at a PlayStation before my brothers picked one up and saved me the trouble. Before they brought home Sony's little wonder, they had a Super Nintendo, and there was a Game Boy in the mix, too. I read all the SEGA magazines, GamesMaster, Super Play, CVG, and Amiga Power. I stayed up all night playing GoldenEye 007 with mates, and sleepily marched my way through Final Fantasy VII.
And it all just stopped. I moved to London and got into music - like, professionally into it, so my working days were spent leafing through jiffy bags of promo CDs, and deciding what was good and what really wasn't, and my evenings took me to London's smallest venues to see tomorrow's biggest bands. A lot of money spent at bars and clubs, and on taxis to course-correct my journey homewards after night buses had taken me in the wrong direction. And a lot of debt accumulated, because a career in the lower rungs of the music business is not a way to stay in the black.
Redundancy in the summer of 2008 made me take stock of what I was doing, where I was going, and just how much I was spending. It also gave me a chunk of money all at once, which a sensible, just-unemployed 20-something would have put straight into a savings account (luckily, I walked into a new job just a week or so later); but this idiot decided that he'd use some of it to see where gaming had got to, while he was busy stinging his ears and getting by on Marathon kebabs (if you know, you know) and supermarket meal deals.
So off to Hamleys I skipped, down to the GAME in the basement, and there I handed over cash for an (original, white, 2005-styled model) Xbox 360 with copies of Grand Theft Auto IV, Burnout Paradise, and The Simpsons Game. I held it close on the tube and bus home, buzzing with the rush of just spending a lot of money on something I didn't need - a similar feeling to that rare moment in your life when someone gives you a fifty note and you're just, how do I process this. Excitedly, it turns out.
And reader, those first few days of being at home, yet to go back to work, with Grand Theft Auto IV? Magical. I'd played the original Grand Theft Auto, the London 1969 expansion, and a little of Grand Theft Auto III - I can remember where I was when I first saw the series' step into 3D graphics - but this was something else. I'd skipped Vice City, San Andreas; I was aware of them, but I'd not played them.
GTA IV immediately made me regret that. I simply had no idea that a game could be set in a world that mimicked the real one so fantastically, albeit in a way that emphasised the fantastical over the everyday. I pored over its every detail, explored its every road and alleyway. I tried to leave no stone unturned before the dramatic ending to its story, a tale that - to me, at the time - appeared incredibly nuanced for video games (beneath all the violence, of course).
I was lucky - my 360 red-ringed for a morning, but seemed to fix itself, and since then, not a wobble. But of course, the issue of faulty 360s was widespread, and expensive for Microsoft. But without a setback myself, I pressed on and dug deeper into what I'd missed - not just in terms of the 360's expansive library, but also other consoles. I greedily bought up a PlayStation 2 and GameCube, a Dreamcast and Nintendo 64 to call my own (having only used the last two at mates' places, previously), and worked my way through the highs of their catalogues. All the while, the 360 remained my primary console - until the words, sights and sounds of 2013's The Last of Us made it impossible to resist getting a PlayStation 3 any longer.
But even when my 360 stood beside a PS3 - and was perhaps, in hindsight, overshadowed by it in terms of quality, first-party exclusives (playing catch-up with those was a delight) - its rattling disc drive and thumb-smoothed analogue sticks continued to enthrall and amaze. My slim-model PS3 couldn't play games from the previous generation - but my 360 could, and I turned to Outrun 2 so often for when I needed a sunny, speedy pick-me-up. OG Xbox Shenmue II was transportative - but its age was showing, which meant that it was current-gen adventures like Mass Effect and its sequels, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Dead Space, Red Dead Redemption, the Gears of War trilogy and Halo 3 (and, to a degree, 4) that thrilled me the most - and have me kick myself for allowing my affection for gaming to slip.
Indies, too, made sense to me, through the 360. Limbo and Braid, Super Meat Boy and Fez. Xbox Live Arcade did so much for the visibility of indie games, and introduced me to a world of play beyond the racks of the then-fairly-abundant high-street gaming stores (RIP, Gamestation). When you look at Xbox's Summer of Arcade line-ups from 2008 onwards, the quality jumps off the screen: Castle Crashers, Trials HD, Bastion, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Xbox did a lot to elevate indies to the attention of the console-playing mainstream, and the 360 was the vehicle that carried them all to acclaim.
The Xbox 360 switched me back onto games - and I really only bought it on a (feeling pretty flush right now) whim. If I'd not strayed into Regent Street's famously enormous emporium of toys and games when I did, and listened to my then-fiancée (now wife)'s advice that a console would be a waste of money, who knows what I'd be doing now? Possibly not doing this: head of content for a games media outlet that's seeing record traffic numbers right now, and part of a team that counts some of the best in the business amongst its numbers. Would I have written three books on video games, and travelled the world to cover them, as I have? Lectured in universities, and made TV and radio shows about them? Maybe, maybe not.
I'm gonna lean towards, maybe not. So whenever I look at my Xbox 360 - as it's still there, under the TV, albeit not actually plugged into it anymore - I feel sort of thankful. I didn't buy it and immediately move into gaming, professionally. That took a good few years - initially I freelanced on the side of the music-business 9-5 before full-time games media employment came calling five years back, and it's been all go ever since. So it altered the course of my life, clearly - and I think, for the better. Even when I read the comments, still, for the better. A game changer indeed, and a console that'll forever hold a very special place in my heart.
Featured Image Credit: Microsoft Game Studios, Rockstar Games
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