That video game you want has a best-before date

I’m terrible at playing video games in a timely fashion. Most of the games I play are a couple years old, and I usually choose them because they happened to be on sale. Saving money is the main benefit of this strategy, but it’s not without its downsides. The main one is that art can come with a best-before date, and often games don’t go on sale until they’ve reached that point.

The phenomenon also plays out with books, movies, podcasts, and any popular, story-based medium. I’m focusing on video games because the last two I played offer examples at opposite ends of the freshness spectrum. One game had been released about three months before I played it, while the other was nearly four years old. They are 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim and Nier: Automata, respectively. And even though one is ancient by video game standards, I highly recommend both.

Still, if you play Nier: Automata today, you won’t be getting the experience you would have gotten if you had picked it up on release day. It’s not expired by any means – I selected my food-related terms carefully here – but external factors will almost certainly shape your experience in a way that doesn’t happen with a totally fresh game.

Food and video games, it turns out, are best enjoyed immediately.

2B and her pod take on a group of enemies in Nier: Automata
Thank you Square Enix dot com for this lovely promotional photo.

They’re called spoilers for a reason

Spoilers ensure games reach their best-before date almost instantly. Seeing discussion that reveals key plot points or twists in a story before you’ve engaged with it will drastically alter your experience once you do pick it up. The name isn’t hyperbole: sometimes spoilers literally ruin art. For example, I will likely never watch the movie Soylent Green because we all know what the titular substance is made of.

Both Nier: Automata and 13 Sentinels have several moments that could be spoiled, but it was a lot harder to avoid seeing spoilers for the game that’s been out since 2017. In Nier: Automata, even something as basic as the knowledge of who is and isn’t a playable character is a spoiler. Naturally, I stumbled across that information and a few other plot points by 2021.

My experience with 13 Sentinels was the exact opposite. Its twists just keep coming, and I knew about none of them in advance. It can be difficult to put 13 Sentinels down once you become invested in the characters, because it just keeps presenting you with moments that leave you wanting to know more.

I loved the experience of feeling like I was slowly puzzling together what was happening in its world. To me, that was central to my enjoyment of the game. If I had been spoiled on a significant number of those plot points, I wouldn’t have had that experience. I still think I would have liked the game – the storytelling is incredible, and the gameplay is fun – but I wouldn’t have gotten to figure things out for myself.

Spoilers speed up the best-before date

The longer a story has been out in the world, the more likely you are to see someone discussing it. You can’t predict when a game’s best-before date will be – it’s different for every game and every player – but you’ll know it has passed when you realize that tweet you read gives the plot away.

Social media has screwed up spoiler etiquette. I heard discussions on podcasts over a decade ago about how you should wait six months before posting spoilers. That rule was hardly observed in the slow-motion era of blogs and forums, but it’s totally untenable today. People want to talk about what they’re hyped up about right away, and they’ve probably built their online community around such discussion. If this describes you, please tag your posts so people can mute them!

Thankfully I don’t find it that common to see video game spoiler discussion, especially since I don’t engage with much gaming content. In fact, I didn’t see Nier: Automata spoilers before I started playing. But I did see them when I got stuck on a mission and turned to the internet for help. Playing games years after release means many people have already struggled with that thing you’re struggling with. Advice on how to overcome it is easy to find. But looking it up often exposes you to spoilers. The following could all contain them:

  • Google search suggestions
  • Google search results
  • “Related topics” on the page you open
  • The comments on that page
  • Sections of the page that contain spoilers for no reason

In my case, it was the last one.

This is almost always how I find spoilers. Not some jackass on Twitter talking about how [redacted] turns out to be [redacted] after [redacted] [redacted]s your [redacted], but a thoughtlessly written or designed website.

Fuyusaka from 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim runs to school with a slice of toast in her mouth
Yes, 13 Sentinels actually looks like this. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and the animation is stunning. Now imagine an episodic, non-linear story with an endearing cast. Seriously, you need to play this game.

I just walk to talk

Online discussion can lead to spoilers, but it can also deepen your enjoyment of the game you just experienced. When I finish anything with a great story, I want to see how other fans reacted. I want to talk to people about what happened and see the fan art they’ve created. Memes you can only understand because you spent 60 hours playing a game hit different than the garden variety kind.

But those discussions dwindle as time goes on. Almost no one is making fresh Nier: Automata memes in 2017. There’s fan art here and there, but not to the same extent it would have been in the immediate months after its release.

Hardly anyone is talking about 13 Sentinels either, but that’s because it’s an incredibly niche game that dropped right as hype for the next generation of consoles was exploding. Still, Polygon published a piece about the game that sought to raise its profile. And someone I follow (whose glowing endorsements, along with the holiday PSN sale, are a big reason why I played this game so soon after release) is working on cosplays of all the female characters. She’s already done two, and I look forward to seeing the rest of her interpretations of the cast.

Maybe the ongoing pandemic is exacerbating how lonely it feels to play obscure video games. But seeing articles and cosplays help me feel like part of a community. You should really join us because 13 Sentinels is unreal and I will discuss it with you anytime you like.

When the quiet comes

I would also discuss Nier: Automata with you anytime – it too is unreal – but chances are you haven’t played it since 2017 and have nothing to say you haven’t already said. And that’s how online discussions factor into the best-before date equation. There comes a time when most fans have moved on to other things, and they might not be ready to revisit the game just yet (more on that later). That’s the case with Nier: Automata.

I want to talk to someone in a similar situation as me, someone who just finished playing and who needs to discuss what they witnessed. Looking up Reddit threads from 2017 just isn’t the same as seeing it happen organically on the timeline. And bugging someone who played the game back then to talk about how I felt playing it now rarely leads to the kind of discussion I want.

There’s a weird balancing act here. You don’t want to see these discussions before you’ve experienced the story, but you do want to see them afterward. Not seeing them, at least for me, leaves me feeling kind of hollow.

Games approaching their best-before date? Pickle them

Just because a game’s best-before date seems to have passed doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play it. Like I said, I still highly recommend Nier: Automata. (And 13 Sentinels for that matter.) But there also comes a point when well-regarded games essentially become timeless: when they become canonized. And at this point, these video games get a new lease on life.

Canonization is a literary term appropriated from the Catholic church, which I am appropriating for my own machinations here. In the church, someone becomes canonized when the pope makes them a saint. In literature, something becomes canonized when critics widely regard it as a classic. I’m sort of using it similarly to the latter, but I don’t give a damn what the critics have to say.

If we’re sticking with food terminology, I guess canonization would be equivalent to pickling. I’m going to use that term for the rest of the article because I find it hilarious.

For me, a game becomes pickled when fans widely regard it as an outstanding work. Gamers mostly agree that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a classic, so it’s pickled as far as I’m concerned.

A key feature of pickled games is that people are always experiencing or re-experiencing them, and therefore also discussing them. This may come in waves, like when a game gets re-released or a movie gets added to Netflix, but chances are good there will be a corner of the internet that is perpetually discussing a pickled work. That hasn’t happened yet for Nier: Automata, although I think one day it will.

This article’s best-before date is coming up

Like real-life pickling, this process preserves media and extends their shelf life, though you have to wait a little while for … uh the vinegar to penetrate the discs? Look, the analogy is falling apart. It’s not an instant process, but it seems to happen quickly with video games compared to something like novels.

The process does nothing about the spoiler problem, but it does lead to perpetual discussion. The flavour of those discussions is different than the first impressions you get when a game is brand new. But the flavour of pickled food is different too. Some would argue better.

I think I prefer the pickled discussion. If you’ve newly finished the game, you get to compare your experience with those of people who might be enjoying their second or third playthrough, and who have spent years considering the events you experienced. Their insights will be different than yours, and they may open your eyes to something you missed.

This is a topic for another article though. Have you played a game that was past its best-before date? What about a picked game? And don’t hesitate to talk to me about 13 Sentinels or Nier: Automata because I have so much to say!

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