A Triumphant Return to Physical Media

It was always so damn cold. The lines seemed endless. I was more tired than I let on.

For years, despite these conditions, with each release of the latest installment of Halo or Call of Duty, I’d join forces with my friends and wait in line for fabled “midnight releases” of our favorite console games. It was our thing, a regular way for us to gather in the same physical space and celebrate something that would ultimately force us to bond over an internet connection.

While I never expected us to keep up such a tradition through marriages, kids, and careers, part of me never wanted it to end. When digital game downloads became a prominent fixture of the Xbox One, I remember telling myself that, while somewhat sad, it was the best thing that could ever happen: a gift sent directly from the heavens above. No more lines. No more boxes or discs. No more planning. I’ve been given the easiest possible path to the games I most wanted to play.

This state of apparent content would last for years, even as distant memories of those “midnight release” events faded into the natural ether of life progression itself. Going 100% digital just made sense, right? No more boxes cluttering the house, no worrying over scratched or missing discs — theoretically, it’s perfect.

While I generally did believe this was the proper way forward over all those years (especially as kids entered the picture), I constantly felt the itch of missing something obvious in all of this. When my daughter began consuming movies and games on her own, downloading things to the Xbox or her tablet worked great. But, on the occasion that she’d receive a physical game or movie, I took notice to how she’d react differently when she could actually hold something in her hand or proudly display it somewhere – as if it meant more in tangible form.

Sure, current physical media really just boils down to a fancy plastic box and a few polycarbonate layers. It’s literally inconvenience incarnate. But where would I be without blowing into NES cartridges as a kid? Or knowing the exact shape of system-specific boxes so that I could spot them under the Christmas tree every year? Or waiting in those long lines with my best friends through all of those blissful years? Physical media, as I should have never stopped admitting, is really cool.

This mirrors the common debate over books, which started long before games. It’s super convenient to stick with digital formats and have access to all of your literature on a single device…but, then again, a loaded bookshelf has managed to become a decorative staple in home design, and visually imbibing the varying colors, textures, and sizes can generate a sense of satisfaction that’s simply not attainable with the alternative. For me, games — and movies, to an extent — have recently started to surface the same dilemma.

I probably should have prefaced all of this with the fact that I’m a serial collector and have been my entire life, as that’s a condition that can surface or amplify this flavor of penchant for physical things. My primary collecting focuses are currently based in comic books and sports cards; to this point, I’ve steered away from physical media, such as games, movies, and music. Though I do often fondly look back on my family’s enormous VHS collection and my personal DVD collection that I’ve (foolishly?) parted out over the years. And all of those CDs I had – ouch!

Perhaps inspired by these collecting tendencies and recent content from seasoned media collectors, such as Cinema Sickness and Retro Gaming Boombox (special shout-out to Rick, as we went to high school together), I’ve officially made a vow of “physical first”. I have a genuine interest in building that sort of entertainment-related “history” that physical media very clearly provides. And much like a collection of songs that each point to a specific time in someone’s life or emotional journey, there’s a fantastic — yet undeniably ironic — intangible element to it all.