"Rise and shine, Mr. Freeman."
An intense figure with features just a touch on the unsettling side of bland intones his greeting in a strange, halting cadence. His voice leaves an instant and uneasy impression on me. Suddenly, I find myself in a dingy train, with no context for my presence there except the vague warning from my off-putting greeter that I should "Wake up and smell the ashes..."
I still remember the first time I embarked on the weird, catastrophic adventure that was Valve's Half-Life 2. I was in early high school, taking my first steps into a world of gaming that had previously sailed over my head. Before Half-Life 2, I'd mainly played licensed games based on movies that I'd liked or educational games my family was happy to provide. I was a big fan of the Age of Empires series as well as the X-Wing series but neither those nor the other games I spent my childhood playing drew me into the world and the story the developers were telling the way Half-Life 2 did.
After Half-Life 2 I was hooked. No longer could a game woo me with pretty graphics and the promise of some mildly interesting gameplay. I saw my official licensed games for the largely shoddy cash-ins they often were and started hunting the meatier worlds and stories that captivated me the way City 17 and its inhabitants had. I found Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I poured hours into roaming the island of Morrowind and hunting out new places and quest lines to experience. I was beginning to realize that the games that really stuck with me and that left the most lasting impressions were more than just intriguing mechanics layered over well-crafted visuals (though these were and are still important to me). To really endure in my memory, these games had to invite me into a world, had to be the wardrobe through which I entered Narnia and the rabbit hole through which I fell into Wonderland.
I'll admit here that I'm probably not a typical gamer. While I've logged my hours in Team Fortress 2, played Call of Duty at least through Black Ops, and even terrorized Slayer matches in Halo 3 decked out in Hayabusa armor with my frustratingly decorative katana strapped to my back, competitive gaming wouldn't by itself keep me in the hobby. I'm not the guy who runs raids, invites people into my game world for co-op, or tweets about finding some community challenge item as often as Ubisoft would probably like me to.
No, I'm the guy who intentionally walks at normal pace through the streets of Assassin's Creed's cities to admire the scenery and the NPCs just going about their daily business. I'm the guy reading all of the ridiculous codex entries and background info for the games I play. What pushed me away from Destiny after a week or two wasn't repetitious loot-grinding but rather the lack of any ability to even understand what I'd done when I finished the "story." I even spent serious time on the internet creating a framework for just what actually happens in the Metal Gear Solid series so I could understand what was going on because I found myself compelled to care about the plot.
But that's my point. Games that go beyond being games to being virtual worlds, even alternate universes a la Bioshock Infinite are the ones that will carry on within the collective memory of the gaming world. Despite putting way too many hours into multiplayer Halo matches the only real memories I have of all those games was the one time I flipped an Elephant on top of a second one to create a massively useless, if awesome, new vehicle and the time I accidentally killed 4 people with a Spartan Laser. But talk to any gamer and they'll have stories of the first time they saw Aeris die, the first time they cringed in terror as SHODAN crooned malevolently to them, or the first time they found out the cake was a lie.
Even games where players create the story themselves for the most part through so-called "emergent gameplay" have this pull. People love X-COM: Enemy Unknown and even though everyone's experience is different, everybody has stories of heartbreaking casualties (usually named after their best friend or significant other) and victories snatched from the most certain defeats.
Ultimately, what pulls me back to games is the chance to step into other worlds, and to explore the imaginations of others. Through games, I can visit worlds that don't or can't exist, but paradoxically do exist through the work of developers and artists and actors. Competitive thrills and power fantasies have their appeal, but the staying power of a story and a universe I can actively engage with as a participant rather than an observer is unparalleled.
Am I alone in gaming this way? A lone oddball who stops to marvel that I can pet the dogs in Assassin's Creed's New York rather than slicing my way through the entire British Army? Or are there more of us out there, finding the same wonder and excitement alongside our combat missions and escort quests?
The mysterious G-Man beckoned Gordon Freeman into City 17 back in 2004, and unwittingly through him Valve pulled me into their world and left me with a digital wanderlust that remains with me to this day. My game shelf isn't just a row of discs, it's a near infinite series of wardrobes, each leading to its own unique world, and I'm not done wandering through them.