Years ago I worked at a cinema with this fellow usher called Jess. Jess was amazing and wise and she worked the popcorn stand, and she worked it in a very particular way. She spent hours and hours there every day, ignoring customers and rooting through the depths of the popcorn, head bowed, a scowl of deepest concentration on her face. It was always the sweet popcorn that held her attention, and rightly so. What she was looking for was the rare, one-in-a-million piece of popcorn that had far more than its fair share of sugar on it. Most popcorn has a sort of matte, papery surface, doesn’t it? But these special, over-sugared pieces looked like they had been varnished. They crunched in a different way between your teeth and there was something syrupy to them as they exploded with gritty sugar in your mouth.
What made them all the sweeter, of course, was the one-in-a-million thing. They weren’t the norm. They were special. And so to my favourite gaming moment of 2018, which is probably also my favourite gaming moment of the last few years, if I’m being honest. Like a piece of over-sugared popcorn I have probably come upon it once or twice in every year since 2008.
Burnout Paradise has crash gates. These lurid yellow-green things that litter the landscape and mark the entry and exit points of shortcuts. They’re like Agility Orbs in Crackdown: there’s a limited number of them (400) and once you’ve started noticing them they become all consuming.
It’s fun to hunt crash gates and spent an idle hour checking them off and nobly slamming through them in the name of progress. But that’s not how to get the best of them. To get the best of them what you have to do is wait for the universe to align.
And here’s how that works. Every now and then you’ll be in the middle of a race, tearing along at ludicrous speeds, enemy wreckage flying over your head, eyes unblinking as you will your screaming tyres through one arcing turn and the next. Then you’ll see a crash gate. You’ll crash through it and find the perfect shortcut. Through the next gate and what’s this? Another crash gate – and another shortcut. You pile on the speed because there’s simply no friction now, nothing’s getting in your way, you’re golden – and there’s another gate and another shortcut! You’ve found a secret palm print laid across the body of the world, an uninterrupted flow of short cuts that seem randomly placed but actually connect perfectly only when you’re in the zone and only when you’re travelling at the kind of speeds that are possible when you’re in the zone.
Just like finding one of those rare bits of popcorn right? Not quite. Because to get the most varnish on the popcorn, to get the biggest sugary burst, you have to be doing all of this exactly as Avril Lavigne’s Boyfriend, the best bad song ever, comes on EA Trax and sends you racing on your way. That’s the moon shot. That’s the one-in-a-million moment. And when it happened this year, last year, all the other years back to 2008, I knew that I had reached the pinnacle of my gaming experience for the time being, thanks very much.