Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Video game collectibles and the value of "stuff" in a digital age

Or, wherein the Modern Medievalist reveals his inner neckbeard to the world at large.

In 2015, when I buy a video game, the most common course of action is not to get a disc, but to log onto Steam (the most popular digital distribution service), check for a game I want, and set an alert to be notified by email when the said game is offered on discount. I can then download the game directly to my hard disk without ever going to a store, waiting for a shipment, and best of all, for 50%, 75%, or even 80% off the usual retail price. 

The downside is that my game library is increasingly reliant on a cloud service even more ephemeral than video games in general:  the dependence of my access to games on the state of Steam's servers, and worst of all, the fact that all the games I've bought on Steam will eventually be gone. It may not be in five years, or even ten, but some day, Steam (or rather, its owner, Valve Software) will go out of business or otherwise no longer have a reason to keep their servers running. I know this, so every time I buy a game through that service, I'm consciously putting an expiration date on it.  

Needless to say, our medieval forebears had little or no concept of buying the rights to an immaterial thing, and would probably find something as doomed to obsolescence as Steam (not to mention the rest of our culture of disposability) rather abhorrent. But every once in a while, I choose to defy this doomsday scenario by actually buying a box copy of a game I know I'd really like. As I mentioned in last week's post on the Wild Hunt, my most recent acquisition of this kind was the Collector's Edition boxset for The Witcher 3, the third and final installment of a dark medieval fantasy role-playing saga based on a book series from Poland, which I fell in love with ever since playing the first game back in 2008.

The makers of the Witcher games, Polish developer CD Projekt, grew up in another time and place where copyright and intellectual property were not only nonexistent, but antithetical to the the entire philosophy of governance: Poland behind the Iron Curtain. There's an excellent short video documentary which you can watch below, but I'll provide a brief summary underneath:

Early video games from the west could neither be bought nor sold; they were instead broadcast through the airwaves for anyone to copy at will.  As such, with the downfall of Communism, game developers in Poland had a real need to "sell" the very idea of buying games by giving extra value in the box, e.g. books, maps, and other goodies that can't be easily replicated. This mentality is now all but lost in a world where we we're accustomed to buying and downloading games directly online or, at best, going to the store and getting a disc in a case with nothing else save for a bare-bones manual spanning three or four pages. 

Thankfully, CD Projekt continues the relatively ancient tradition of packing their games with other goods. Therefore, if you buy a box copy of any of the Witcher games, you're likely to get not only the game on a disc, but a map of the game's setting, a small compendium guide, perhaps a short story, and the game's soundtrack on CD. And, bear in mind that these are just the standard editions. Each game has also been released with a collector's edition boxset, jam-packed content. In 2011, I ordered just such a boxset for The Witcher 2 to arrive at my doorstep on the day of its release in stores, and last week, I did the same for The Witcher 3. This last one was the richest collection of loot I've ever seen, with a statuette, art book, steelbook, map, necklace, and keychain.

I'd like to think that, if we were able to go back in time, strap our medieval forebears to a chair, and subject them to the wonders of digital interactive entertainment, they'd have an easier time getting a grasp of it if they could touch and feel some manifestation of the game in the physical world.

And now, for those who like "stuff", I'll share with you pictures of my Witcher collection, particularly things that came with my new collector's boxset.

Possibly the only time you will see the Modern Medievalist in a t-shirt.

Madame Medievalist, also clad in an official Witcher t-shirt, models the statuette of Geralt battling a griffin.

The collection together, along with other items from the Witcher 2 boxset. (The incensers are just there to keep things smelling good and medievalesque in my abode.)

The box that even plebeian "standard edition" owners get still comes with a map and soundtrack of the game's music.

True fans, however, will encase their beloved game discs in the collector's steelbook, for that extra level of permanence.

The steelbook holds all four installation discs, though of course, in the PC version, you don't actually need one in your computer's disc drive to play.
The wolf's head medallion worn by the game's protagonist, Geralt of Rivia. 

Contrasting the two wolf medallions I have (left is from The Witcher 2, right is from The Witcher 3). The right is much more "three-dimensional" and closer to what appears in the actual game. You can also actually prick your finger if you put it in the wolf's mouth.
The keychain!
Map of the game's world, the Northern Realms.

The collector's edition also comes with a hardcover book with much of the concept art made for the game.

When we ask ourselves, "where did all the good artists go?", I believe history will tell us that, in the aftermath of modern "art", true conceptual artists migrated over to the film and game industries.
The statuette again. 
These don't come with the collector's boxset, but they are the novels that the games were based on. There's roughly one translated to English from Polish every year now. I have two more to go.

This book of the game world's lore came out on the same day as The Witcher 3. I haven't gotten much of a chance to peruse through it yet, but it seems ridiculously comprehensive.
The collector's hardcover strategy guide. Again, another release from last week. I took a picture of it from an angle so you can see how thick it is.
The collector's strategy guide also comes with a small lore compendium.
Inside the small lore compendium.
And finally, actually playing the game. No, I don't actually recommend playing these games in front of children!


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