“It’s, like, games only exist because the players are playing them, so without the player, there is no game. So if you think about it, this entire experience can all be reduced to a series of pixels. Man, I should watch ‘Inception’ again.”
Such is my approximation of what I remember being the real takeaway from the ending (pretty unspoilable, don’t worry) of “Fez,” in which colorful cubes putz around and the lead character/ghost blob plays the drums for a little bit. I was extremely stoned at the time, and pretty much played through the entirety of the game, at the very least, very high. “Fez” is a puzzle game where you shift the perspective from two dimensions to three in search of magical blocks while the camera spins and spins like it’s directed by Alfonso Cuarón. This game is made for me to play … on weed.
But watching the ending again — sober this time — yielded sobering results. It seemed more “neat” than profound, for one thing. Like, yeah, it’s cool when everything’s all blurry and pixelated, but there wasn’t much more than that. I still really like “Fez,” I just didn’t see the aforementioned grand thesis in that drum solo. Also, I was kind of kicking myself for not reaching the final level with 100 percent completion. Smoke had clouded my perfectionism, masking my subpar accomplishments with DEEP, PHILOSOPHICAL MEANING.
Or, what if … the game had been trying to tell me something all along, and the gateway drug was actually a gateway to a religious video game experience?
Because shortly thereafter I finished “The Last Of Us” and had a completely different interpretation of the ending than anyone I could find; and believe you me, I Googled the hell out of it. Mine had to do with the empowerment of the self-awareness generation, and theirs had to do with, um, secrets. I went back and checked to make sure I wasn’t crazy, and sure enough, things seemed fairly straightforward the second time around. It seemed my wild theory was a one-time deal.
I’d liked it, though, and wondered if I’d discovered the Rosetta Stoner of gaming. If that was the case, I would turn my controller into a bong, if you know what I mean (I would partake in recreational marijuana prior to the enjoyment of a videoed game).
Turns out I may be on to something. When I talk to Rosa Mikeal Martey, an associate professor at Colorado State University who studies video games on an academic level, I tell her a condensed version of my “Fez” epiphany and she says I’ve actually stumbled upon a complex gaming theory that has taken researchers years to properly articulate and study.
After the town throws me a hero parade, we keep talking.
“When you’re in a mediated experience like a game, your job is to understand what that set of pixels is supposed to symbolize,” she says. “So the extent to which pot can enhance symbolic thinking and interpretation, I think would play a role.”
She does explain that deriving meaning from a game is, you know, the thing everyone does when they play a video game. So my out-there interpretation of “The Last Of Us” might not have been brought on by pot, but rather something I picked up on earlier in the game and kept looking for as I played, consciously or not. Just like any form of art, games can be both a cypher and an expression of the creator.
And also, like the others, they don’t hold up upon repeat viewings, ever. According to Dr. Gary Wenk from Ohio State University — whose e-mail signature boasts involvement in the departments of “Psychology and Neuroscience and Molecular, Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics” — I internalize the first time I ever play a game, and subconsciously measure every subsequent time against that inaugural Xbox run. And in this case, I was viewing my inaugural “Fez” run through green-tinted lenses. As much as you’d like to think every viewing of “The Dark Knight” is as good as the first, I’m here to tell you this guy has devoted his entire life to scientifically proving you’re full of it.
But he does concede that pot can make that first time seem extra special. “Given we know cannabinoids stimulate dopamine for the euphoria and the reward, you can easily make the leap that anything that enhances dopamine should make the reward better and make you want to try harder,” Wenk says. Games already give me joy and make me thoughtful. My profundity was probably a byproduct of just getting more of that from my particular poison. But there it was again: It’s the game, not the pot.
It turns out there’s nothing revolutionary about my discoveries. Guy gets stoned and thinks something he already likes is even better, story at 11. But I like that I don’t simply see the ending as “more cool” when I’m high. I see all the things that hooked me way back in the day to rush out and buy another game: a chance to be the player, to make my own fate. And, obviously, take my own meaning from the end of a game. Nothing will ever be as good as beating that first “Legend Of Zelda” game, but being high has brought me as close as I’m gonna get. I just have to be ready for nobody else to understand what Link’s quest had to do with the Cuban Missile Crisis.