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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Xbox 360 at 10: Major Nelson, voice of a generation

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"There's this guy, right, called Major Nelson." This was my friend Stu talking, back in the early days of the Xbox 360, which was also, I think, the early days of podcasts. Stu was more technologically advanced than me, so he would download podcasts and then - I cringe at this - burn them onto CD for me so that I could hear them too. (This is a bit like getting someone to do you an oil painting of a newspaper.) Whatever. I remember listening to Gaming Steve with a growing sense that I was listening in to the future. And I remember listening to Major Nelson Radio with - well, some kind of fascination that was harder to pin down.

Stu had a theory about Major Nelson, or rather he had a theory about what Major Nelson looked like. Major Nelson was a big fat guy with long red hair and a wild beard. He was a real gaming guy, a basement gamer type, who had been hired in a canny move by Microsoft and had then been dropped into a complimentary bunker at Redmond with all the video games and Hot Pockets he could ever want, and a microphone and a sound engineer. He was one of us, in other words - he was just one of us who got lucky.

In truth - and you have probably seen a picture of Major Nelson by now - this is not an entirely accurate portrait of the man. If I had to quickly describe the real Major Nelson to you with any precision, I would probably say that he resembles a 1980s CIA operative posing undercover as a low-level businessman from Cleveland. He's posing as a man who sells sofas, perhaps, and he's visiting a sofa salesman convention in Hawaii. Major Nelson often wears the sort of crisp, anonymising business-casual suit that just aches for someone to drop a lei around the shoulders at hotel check-in. I have seen him in the flesh a few times, and on each occasion I sensed a flickering in the air playing over his body, a temporal rift, as if wherever fate might lead, some part of him was forever truly located in the downstairs bar at a Marriott.

None of this is relevant. Or rather, it wasn't relevant back then. It took a while to get a bead on Major Nelson anyway, to understand, for example, that his real name was Larry Hryb, and that he went by the handle of Major Nelson because it was the name of the character played by Larry Hagman in the old 1960s show I Dream of Jeannie, which Hyrb's Tivo kept suggesting he watch. This story, incidentally, is oddly perfect. A future where a box under your telly told you what to enjoy seemed entirely possible when listening to a podcast that was in turn entirely concerned with the latest gaming console.

Sure, he was left off the poster, but Major Nelson does have a role in the hit movie Sleepers.

In truth, Major Nelson was oddly perfect too - not a mega-nerd at all, but a radio hype man of the old school: a pro who could handle anything when dropped into the recording booth. He was a bit of an outsider when it came to games, and that actually enhanced the strange programmes he created. You knew he was putting in the effort, that he was learning to navigate the bizarre world of video games just as the 360 had made that world new again for the rest of us.

Stagey and slightly hollow as he could be, in other words, there was a real place for him back then. For a console built around its friends list, here was your first friend! For a console whose greatest magic trick was probably the notification system that broke the fourth wall of your living room to tell you that Dave, right, in his living room across town had just loaded up The Last Airbender for a quick 1000 Gamerscore, here was another deeper glimpse of the wider community. Somebody once told me that Major Nelson was part of the team that came up with Achievements or Gamerscore or both of them. Perfect again! Only someone from outside games would see them with that terrifying clarity. Only someone who didn't truly feel the compulsion could offer up a system that packaged that compulsion and weaponised it.

Times changed, of course. Achievements lost their lustre for a lot of people. Podcasts crashed and then rose again. The idea of an interview with the audio engineer of Full Auto, culminating with a discussion of whether there were any cool Gamerscore opportunities in the game, started to sound like a sub-optimal way to spend a morning commute.

I still check in on Major Nelson every now and then, and he seems kind of bored. The last time I fired up his podcast I was stuck at Lewes train station unexpectedly, with no pigeons to watch and my book already finished. Major Nelson was chatting enthusiastically about a new Wi-Fi boiler system he'd had installed at his home. I scrolled forward five minutes. Five minutes again. Still on the boiler.

Even this made sense. Across the land, Xbox 360s were being boxed up and placed in the attic. One of the truly great consoles, and I mean that with all sincerity, was bowing out, and with it, a little of Major Nelson's relevance was retreating to the grey havens too. At least he would be toasty warm with his Wi-Fi boiler. At least he would have piping hot water whenever he wanted it.