['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. Now that the holidays are over and all the gift paper is recycled, let’s take a moment to consider the box.]

Tsumi Ge-mu or “Stacked Game” is a wonderful Japanese term for a game that is initially purchased with enthusiasm but once home is left unplayed, added to an ever-increasing stack of games that the obsessive collector will never have time to actually play. It is frequently associated with vague feelings of dissatisfaction and guilt. A useful method for counteracting these feelings is to take pleasure in video games as objects and enjoy the artistry of their packaging. Don’t be ashamed of package fetishism, embrace it.

Infocom

suspended.jpgInteractive Fiction was, at one time, a very popular computer game genre. In the early 80’s, as the personal computer revolution was taking off, IF represented the cutting edge of game design. Although free of graphics and sound, Interactive Fiction stirred people’s imagination in a way that was completely new, unlike any entertainment media before.

One of the innovators in IF was company called Infocom. Founded in 1979, its first product was the famous Zork adventure game. It was a hit and over the next six years Infocom produced more than thirty successful text adventures. As the decade wore on, the company’s fortunes took a downturn as consumers became increasingly drawn to games featuring colorful visuals and action. Activision purchased Infocom in 1986 and unsuccessfully tried to redirect it toward producing graphic adventures. By 1989 the market had moved on and Activision shut Infocom down.

However, in those early years Infocom did some amazing work and their stories were satisfyingly complex, challenging, and irreverent. In addition to the Zork titles, other outstanding games included A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The Lurking Horror, along with many others. Infocom games were unique in that they were packaged in elaborate boxes that included a multitude of supplemental material. Called “feelies”, the supplements ranged from maps, journals, newspapers, cards, stickers, and buttons, to glow-in-the-dark rocks and scratch-n-sniff cards. The feelies also served as copy-protection by requiring players to look up information that could only be found in the supplements.

Diskette Dreams

The era of the 3.5 inch diskette was a Renaissance age for extravagantly wasteful software packaging. In the 90's, Big Box retail had not yet become the primary distribution channel for computer games. Most were sold by small specialty shops and publishers scrambled for customer’s attention by packaging their games inside increasingly creative and bizarre box configurations.

marathon2.jpgSpectre VR by Velocity and Comanche by Nova Logic came in strange, origami fold boxes that were as mysterious to look at as they were to figure out how to open. The Macintosh versions of Bungie’s Marathon series were also packaged in complex, non-euclidean boxes. The Marathon Trilogy Box that was released in 1997 was cleverly designed so that the two halves of the box slid open like an airlock to reveal the disks and art book inside.

Wargames were usually packaged behind somber covers but came loaded with dense manuals. Atomic Games’ V for Victory series, published by Three-Sixty Pacific included thick books, filled with carefully researched military history. I don’t think I ever really got around to playing Harpoon (also published by Three-Sixty Pacific) but I spent many hours studying the manuals.

ultima.jpgPerhaps inspired by Infocom, fantasy games often included extra materials to enhance verisimilitude. Richard Garriott’s first games were sold in zip-lock bags but he soon moved up to a premium presentation and even remade older games to meet his high standards. Garriott understood more than most the relationship that develops between a player and an RPG and he served his audience with deluxe packaging that included detailed manuals, cloth maps, metal coins, and talismans.

Working Designs

Console games have always had very standardized packaging but there have been a few exceptions over the years. Nintendo’s gold cartridge Zelda for the NES let consumers know that they were buying something special. When Nintendo published Earthbound for the SNES in 1995, they included a strategy guide and packaged it in a large book case box.

One company that truly understood the game collector’s package fetishism was Working Designs. Founded by Victor Ireland in 1986, Working Designs was an independent publisher that focused solely on localizing Japanese games for the American console market. Over the years they published games for the TurboGrafx-16, Sega CD, Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation, and Playstation 2. The titles they picked for localization were usually quirky, anime-flavored RPGs that were colorful and distinctive. Working Designs became known for a translation style that often took liberties with the source material, imbuing the dry, Japanese text with a goofy sense of humor and American pop culture references.

growlanser.jpgNever prolific, Working Designs took its time with each release, often producing enhanced versions of games whose American packaging exceeded the original Japanese. Much effort went into creating color manuals that were printed on heavy card stock with foil stamped covers and several games came with fold out maps and stickers. Their Playstation releases of Lunar, Lunar 2, and Arc the Lad came in boxes with hardcover manuals, maps, soundtrack CDs, and making-of movies, and a variety of other curios. Working Designs’ final release was Growlanser Generations for the Playstation 2. Published in 2003, the game came in two versions. One priced at regular retail, and the other a deluxe boxed edition that included a soundtrack CD, playing cards, jewelry, and a watch.

Fetish

Games are like books. I know I’ll never be able to read them all. Sometimes it’s enough to just take them down from the shelf and run my finger along the spine or feel the embossed texture of the title. Smell the gloss on the jacket. Maybe read a page or two. Sometimes. That’s enough.

[Jeffrey Fleming is a Bay Area book dealer and writer. More of his writing on video games can be found at Tales of the Future.]