When I was young, one of the coolest board games I never got to play was Mouse Trap. There was something semi-mystical about the game of building something. To this day, I don’t quite understand how the game works (I’m pretty clear on the part where you build a mouse trap so elaborate it’d make Rube Goldberg indecent, I just don’t get what happens next) but whenever I think about it, I imagine the weight of the pieces in my hands, the feeling of things snapping together for some greater purpose. I loved Lego, but Lego didn’t have a goal. Lego told stories, sure, but it wasn’t a game. Lego had a magical ability to draw my imagination out of me when it was in my hands, but Mouse Trap, a game I never played and only ever saw in commercials starring multicolored mice and overacting children, captured me.
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Some Japanese arcade machines don't have controls for a second player. Instead, they get two cabinets to be networked together. Sometimes, the two machines are right next to each other, sometimes they're across, so you can't see your opponent but you always know where they are. Sometimes, as was the case with the Japanese machines in the arcade I went to a few times in high school, they were scattered among the giant lineup of cabinets, so you had no idea who was playing with you. It added this palpable sense of loneliness to whatever game you were playing, since any opponent was essentially a CPU. There was no face to them, no name, just a series of strategies and inputs that was trying to defeat you.
In case you don't remember the halcyon days of plastic instrument parties, Rock Band is a fairly simple rhythm game made interesting by the fact that you play it with plastic versions of guitars, drums and keyboards. The conceit was that you and your friends were the titular Rock Band, and your basement was a stage.
The game itself is pretty irrelevant at that point. Sure, if you're better at timing your button presses you'll get a better score and the song will sound better, but you're not really noticing any of that once you reach a certain threshold of quality, you forget all that. You're on stage, you're playing the song. You are, for a brief shining second, role-playing as a rock band. That roleplay element is something that most video games can't really get us to participate in.