Box Shaped Heart
Firm, smooth, and with a sexy sheen in your sweaty grip, the old adage that bigger is better may well be true… at least in terms of games. Or, rather, boxes. For some of us, gaming doesn’t just begin with the intro, tutorial, or pummelling the start button… it begins as soon as we catch our first glimpse of a game across the shop floor. You know how the story goes: a piece of gaming tottie catches your eye; you sidle closer and work up the courage to make your move before someone else gets to it first. Hesitant touches turn to caressing, which turn to… hair sniffing (in this case, the manual – yes, I Am Freak) and the hefty weight of its packaged goods promises nights of satisfying fun, regardless of its looks.
For me, gaming is an experience from start to finish. The thrill of the first fumblings with the box, the trip to the checkout, the ride home, the anticipation, opening it and reading the manual, etc. It is like a heady buffet for the senses. Or it used to be. Now the monolithic Amazonian beautific boxes have been replaced by crackly cellophane and an anti-tamper seal. Big deal? Listen sonny, how would you feel if you came home from work/uni to find your partner’s Calvins/Intimates in the bin and him/her wearing the groin-stirring equivalent of a bin-bag with Robert Kilroy Silk’s face printed on it.
In the same way that heavy = expensive, bigger often means better – it’s almost hardwired into our psyches. No matter how many gadgets a Sinclair C5 Mark 2012 Killatron could pack into its tiny frame, no army/secret agent would be seen dead trundling off to war/shagsville in one. You could pack more weapons than Borderlands into the flip down headlight wells and Jeremy Clarkson would still take the piss… right before he drove over it in his Chieftain tank, while shouting into the world’s biggest camera, nursing the world’s biggest ego.
Mad architects (at least, those who aren’t trying to convince us to live like in Bilbo Baggins in some lightless eco dwelling in our back garden) build em big. You don’t see the mayor of London cramming his floppy hair into an office the size of a coffee percolator in a tiny, glassy London low-rise, Do you buggery. If it can’t tickle God’s testicles, then it isn’t big and tall enough. So what the fuck happened to games… where have all the big boxes gone? Did young girls pick them every one?
In the days before GAME turned to the dark side and eventually self-destructed, it used to be called Electronics Boutique. There was one tucked neatly away on Canterbury high street, and it was a different world. PC games, before they fell from retail grace and were relegated to ‘mutant cousin’ status, filled the shelves as far as the eye could see, from floor to ceiling. And they had to… because they were massive. Yes, vast slabs of boxy delights that could put the average tombstone to shame. They were glossy, thick, and big. Some were spot-varnished and/or matt-encapsulated; some had regular flap boxes, others had sexy slipcovers over a more plain looking cardboard inner, but there was something satisfying about them. When you held one and turned it awkwardly to gawk at the screenies on the back it felt worth the money. They looked good and they felt good and opening your wallet for upwards of thirty quid felt a damn sight more justified, somehow.
What happened? It would seem churlish, even childish, to point fingers at the environmentalists. So let’s do that. Less packaging, reduce waste, save a blind polar bear. We’ve all heard it. That’s all well and good, but when your game box is large enough to crawl into and shelter in the event of a city-killing environmental disaster, we don’t especially care – in a selfish way, I’m inclined to think “bollocks” to it. While supermarkets continue to stock stupid sized hollow chocolate eggs in packaging the size of Jabba the Hutt, I feel no shame about coveting inappropriate and unnecessary game packaging. But, as with everything, money is the biggest factor, not the environment – they just lucked out. The bigger something is, the more it costs (except caviar and ladies’ underwear – true). It isn’t unreasonable to hypothesise that, typically, publishers wanted to squeeze a greater margin out of their releases, and with devs already milked dry and left crying in the corner, eyes naturally fell to PC packaging. You know that jewel-case that you eventually unearthed after peeling back the cardboard layers of your new game? Well, that’s all we’re going to give you from now on. Excuse me?
I remember standing in EB and drinking in the big boxes and spotting one or two games in jewel or DVD cases. I laughed. And then I shunned them. Who wants a game packaged like that? They’ll never catch on, I thought, as I staggered out of the shop with a huge boxed copy of Commandos. After getting it home via a team of elephants and an industrial sled, I saw the problem. Space. Suddenly I didn’t feel so pleased with myself when I saw how little room I had left. The thing is, my shelf was only actually holding about six games. Because of the huge boxes, I had run out of room and the area under my desk was also piled high to the point that I had no leg room. At first I resisted. Then I conceded a little. I peeled away the boxes and lined up the hated breaky jewel-cases instead (ever have one whose hinge(s) didn’t fucking break?), but I stubbornly kept the boxes stored beneath my bed because they looked good and I told myself that one day I’d have more space to return them to their rightful place. It never happened. Slowly, but surely, one by heart-breaking one, the boxes were consigned to a bin-bag over the course of the next few years; I slipped off the Dungeon Keeper 2 cover and secreted it though. I still take it out and stroke it from time to time, like a serial killer with a lock of trophy hair.
Fast forward to the present day and there are a soulless collection of DVD cases on my shelves. And do you know what? I still don’t have any fucking room. It isn’t just the boxes that I remember with nostalgia though, it’s what was inside. Back then, you got the game but, because of the space, you actually got other stuff too. You got a manual that you could use to club a continent to death, perhaps a poster, or a few cards featuring unit types and construction trees, and maybe even a few stickers or some other papery trinkets.
But wait… allow me to pause while the needle jerks off the record. We still get this stuff… you know where I discovered it? They’re called collector’s editions and publishers have the audacity to charge us upwards of sixty quid for them. Big boxes, extra packaging, shelf-hogging footprint… check. Oh look, this special edition contains a book with histories, character info, and some nice pictures. We used to have those. The were called ‘decent manuals’. Check out Colonization for the Amiga to see a reasonable example – a game that also came with cards detailing unit/terrain types (things that often get proudly bandied about on content lists of the latest limited/collector’s/special edition sets).
How did this happen? I don’t know. I may resent paying a small fortune for these unnecessary special sets, but looking back I can sort of understand the genesis of my obsession now. I can see the roots in my past; the nostalgic strings that get plucked whenever I heft a big box reminiscent of the ‘old days’ and hurry to disgorge the contents. Yes, we may get more extras, such as resin figures, soundtracks, stickers, and art books, which justify – to some extent – the inflated price, but on the basic level they aren’t far off the things that we used to have as standard – at least on the outside.
I miss those chunky game boxes as much as I miss the PC sections of the golden age of gaming retail. Perhaps that is why I still have no space… because my shelves remain filled with bulky boxes – they are just called ‘special’, ‘limited’, or ‘collector’s’. The only small thing is my bank balance. Given the choice of being environmentally conscious, maximising premium retail space, and considering publishers’ margins or the big game boxes of old, I’ll jump behind the wheel of that outdated, chunky tank anytime and happily drive over your compact cases with the ‘I Heart Blind Polar Bears’ stickers on the back.
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