It was exactly 20 years ago, a warm, late-summer afternoon.
My girlfriend and I arrived in Bath, unsure of where to park, marvelling at the sheer density of beautiful Georgian architecture – just like millions of tourists before us. I was there for a job interview, and I was nervous as hell because I had lied to get it.
The PlayStation was launched in Japan in the winter of 1994, but it took several months for Sony to roll its impressive 32bit console out to the rest of the world. The US release was on 9 September 1995, a day of hype and expectation dominated by two launch titles: the arcade driving sim Ridge Racer and the now almost forgotten fighting game Battle Arena Toshinden. Both featured state-of-the-art texture-mapped polygonal graphics, both spoke of a future that would abandon old-school two-dimensional sprites and scrolling, in favour of fully explorable worlds with dynamic cameras. It was immense and exciting.
But I’d missed all that build up. I was working for a small development studio in Leamington, writing manuals and testing levels for PC games – not console games. I didn’t know where I was going or what I wanted to do – so I stayed with friends and helped them make games. I tested the very first consumer virtual-reality headsets with our war simulation Tank Commander, I fed Game Genie codes into hundreds of Nintendo GameBoy games. But I didn’t see a PlayStation.
Then my friend Jon Cartwright, who got me my job at Big Red Software, spotted a job advert in Edge Magazine. This was (and in some ways still is) the industry’s bible, a stylish, mature publication that has always treated games as an artform rather than a throwaway entertainment. They needed a staff writer. Jon told me to go for it. He lent me a couple of issues, and I read about the excitement surrounding the arrival of a new console generation, spearheaded by the Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation and other weird outliers like the Atari Jaguar and 3DO. “I don’t know what these things are,” I said to him. But I applied anyway.
On that summer afternoon in Bath, I met the magazine’s then editor Jason Brookes, and we just chatted about games and what we liked. I didn’t know much but I understood his excitement, I knew we were on the verge of a new era. I’d read so much Edge, I faked my way in. When he complained about the early PAL versions of PlayStation game’s he’d seen, which were poorly converted from NTSC, with great big black borders to make up for the difference in the television refresh rates, I nodded and could name the worst offenders. I’d read about it in Edge.
PlayStation came at a fascinating time – games were moving closer to pop culture and pop culture was moving closer to games. Already, CD-ROM technology was allowing games to include real video and music soundtracks, this was astonishing back then. But at the same time, 1995 saw the very beginnings of the world wide web, and the concept of internet publishing, personal home pages and the digitisation of life experiences. This was also the era in which computer-generated imagery was making vast progress thanks to powerful new processors. Pixar was making its wonderful short CGI animations, which would soon evolve into Toy Story: the world was beginning to understand how to read and appreciate computerised imagery as linear entertainment.
And music was so important of course. PlayStation could play CD-quality tracks (indeed its built-in CD player was one of the very best available at the time), which led to a new emphasis on audio. The famous example was Wipeout, the sci-fi racer with its dance music score, picking up on and amplifying the exploding club scene. Many teenagers discovered groups like the Chemical Brothers and Leftfield through PlayStation games and also understood the aesthetics of dance music culture through hypnotic video game graphics.
I had to do a writing test for the interview. Jason told me to just review a game I liked and then he left the office for an hour. I sat in a room next to a vast CRT television, which was spewing cables on to a desk groaning under the weight of Japanese games consoles like the Neo-Geo and FM Towns Marty. I could also see a blue debug PlayStation, the version of the machine only usually sent to developers – a Japanese copy of Ridge Racer sat next to it. I could barely concentrate on what I was doing – I felt elated and curious; I desperately wanted to be there. So I wrote a review of XCOM: Terror from the Deep, a PC strategy game I’d been playing at work – I wasn’t quite cocky enough to attempt a PlayStation review. But what I did do was write it in Edge style – no first-person (we used “Edge” instead of “I”) video game as one word – all the stylistic elements I’d learned. Apparently I was one of the only applicants who did that.
I got the job. My first week was reviewing PlayStation games – a baptism of fire into the next generation. I’d never loaded a CD game before, never attached a console to a TV with anything other than an old RF cable (we had scart and S-video at Edge); I’d never taken a screenshot. I did all my writing on an old monochrome Mac Classic, which was on a shared server with every other magazine in Future Publishing – I was bewildered by it.
Across the office from Edge (at that time we were based in a converted pub on a backstreet behind Future’s main Monmouth Street head office), a small team was working on the launch of the Official PlayStation Magazine. There was so much excitement and energy, and all these astonishing new experiences coming in. I remember huge groups of us standing around in the games room when titles like Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy VII and Driver arrived. We’d play into the night – the security guards would come and watch. It was uncharted territory – not just in terms of visuals, but experience. We’d all grown up with the rigid structures of arcade titles with their systems of levels, bosses and high scores. But these games had no scores, they were often open and explorable; they handed autonomy to the player.
PlayStation brought in all these new people; people I’d never played against before. Pa Rappa the Rappa, Um Jammer Lammy, Bust a Groove … these were games you could play at 2am with anyone in the house. The concept of post-pub gaming was born – the divide between going out with your mates and getting back home was blurring because you all lived together anyway and when you got back you just switched on PlayStation and played International Track and Field or ISS Pro Evolution Soccer. In the UK, the advertising giant TBWA was producing amazing commercials that augmented the sense of PlayStation as a culture in itself. “I lead a double life”, went the voiceover from the most famous example, a montage of gamers – gangsters, a pregnant woman, kids, clubbers – boasting about their onscreen achievements. For years I’d played games in my bedroom on a tiny portable TV, feeling slightly awkward and alone. And now here they were, with beautiful choral music and interesting weird people, blasting across the cultural landscape like a hurricane.
So I’ve been doing this for 20 years. Writing about games, playing them with friends, thinking about them, being excited by them. PlayStation has been a constant during that time, through four generations of hardware – it doesn’t surprise me that people feel such nostalgia and warmth for the brand; it doesn’t surprise me that you can now buy PlayStation 1 merchandise, that the limited edition PS1-skinned PS4 released last year is such a prized collector’s piece. This was the beginning – the beginning of the modern era of gaming. Even when I worked on a Dreamcast magazine for a year (and I loved that machine), I had grudging respect for the PlayStation 2 as it crushed Sega’s console like a tin can.
I walked out of Edge magazine on that warm afternoon and went to meet my girlfriend in Queen’s Square. We sat for a while, watching the pink glow of the sun on all the sandstone-coloured buildings around us. “How did you do?” she asked. I said I thought it was OK and told her about the consoles in the corner, and mentioned the blue debug PlayStation I’d glimpsed. I knew that if I got the job, I would move to this beautiful city, and I knew that it would be a pivotal moment for us as a couple, because she was still at university in Leamington. I wasn’t scared, it felt like everything would work out. I was right.
Sometimes when I hear the PlayStation’s start-up music it takes me back to that time, to that very afternoon even. We walked back to the car park, hand in hand, having seen the future of games, and not realising that it was our future too.
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Friday 11th September 2015 11.55 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010