Saturday, February 4, 2012

Poor Boy's Complaint — a video game memoir [Vol. 3]


An interesting thing happened in our family that directly related to my dad's mid-life career as a freelance graphic designer. Sometime around 1987 my family got a home computer. Yes, a home computer. The kind of home computer that showed letters and images on a screen. The kind that emitted beeping-blooping electromagnetic sounds through built-in speakers. The kind of home computer that ran licensed computer games!

Well, sort of.

I mean, yes, it was a legitimate home computer and it played some games but … well … you see, Doctor, it wasn't just any old computer. It was … a Macintosh. An Apple Macintosh SE to be specific.

I guess you could say my dad was a man ahead of his time. He was so ahead of the times he didn't HAVE time to waste on convoluted operating systems that required the knowledge of entire secret languages just to run programs. DOS prompts? We haven't got any DOS prompts. We don't have to show you any stinking DOS prompts! No, really. It's super easy. Just use this thing called the mouse—drag it around with your hand on its cute little mouse pad and watch it correspond to your on-screen cursor. Yeah. Now move your cursor over to this “folder” and double click this button on your mouse to open this … ahem … “window.” Now just double click on the little icon thingy for whatever it is you want to run. That's it. Oh yeah, it's got a keyboard too, you know, for WRITING WORDS AND SENTENCES! Seriously, why didn't this Mac OS baby catch on with the rest of the consumer base? Okay, okay. That was obviously a trick question. It did catch on—as a bastardized version sold by a different company under a different name.

But that's neither here nor there. The point is that even when I somehow caught a break as a video game-deprived child I caught the most laughable break possible. First of all, this was a monochrome computer. In place of greens, reds, purples and blues, this monitor had gray, lighter gray, darker gray and slightly lighter or moderately darker gray. Secondly, this was a Macintosh. Companies didn't make games for the Macintosh! And when they did it was only out of sheer pity for moping people like me, sometimes months, if not years, after first releasing on the PC. Remember what I said about sloppy seconds? I mean, there were the exceptions. Prince of Persia? Classic game. Incredible game. Developed on an Apple II. You want other examples? Well, I haven't got any others off hand.

Here's my point, Doctor. Let's use an analogy. Imagine there's a kid who grows up and who just really loves professional sports. This kid learns all about collecting sports cards and—most importantly—rooting for the professional sports teams based in the nearest major city. This kid just pines and yearns for the day his nearest-major-city professional sports team has a killer season and makes it all the way to the national championship—and wins! Now, imagine this kid grows up in the greater metropolitan area of … I don't know … Seattle, Washington. What do you know? It's a city with three professional sports teams. Count 'em. You've got football, baseball and (this is still the 1990s) basketball. It could be worse, right? Those Supersonics actually won a championship, albeit before the kid was even born. The Seahawks made it to the playoffs that one time in the late 80s. The Mariners … well, they had a pretty amazing run in 1995. BEAT THE YANKEES IN FIVE GAMES OF THE FIRST ROUND OF POSTSEASON … before losing the American League pennant to Cleveland. Surely, one of those teams is bound to win a championship SOME DAY. I mean, come on, the odds! And yet, what year is this now? 2012! I'm sorry, I need to go … I've ... I've just got something caught in my eye.

* * *

Okay, maybe I got a little sidetracked. Macintosh or not, to a five-year-old kid who didn't know any better this computer was a big deal. We were talking about games right? Well, this thing had 'em. Loads of 'em. My dad, bless his heart, got hold of some floppy disks that held like 20 freeware games each! You would be amazed at the stupid things a little boy can content himself with when his experience can't comprehend anything more advanced. It was like giving a Christmas present to an infant who can't get over playing with the wrapping paper. It was like a Facebook game to a bored/retired housewife. This computer had a backgammon simulator, a Hearts card game simulator. One of the disks had a Missile Command knockoff. There was a simple turn-based strategy Daleks game where a tiny little avatar man had to avoid these advancing, randomly place Doctor Who cyborgs and get them to crash into one another. The player had a cool one-time-use force blast that disintegrated any bad guys in the player character's immediate vicinity. Or if the player was essentially stalemated, they could call upon the teleport function, which would respawn the character to any random tile on the screen—perhaps directly next to an advancing Dalek! That's what we call tension, ladies and gentleman. I remember another game involving a helicopter and clicking a button to make a skydiving stuntman try and land into a moving horse-drawn hay cart. The animation of that little stick man flailing its limbs as it fell toward the earth. Unforgettable. And the smooshing sound that resulted when the poor jumper landed on the earth—or the horse or the cart driver—so satisfying.

This was the era of fun. The era of innocence. An era when computer games and education really could go hand-in-hand. We played Math Blaster. We played Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego? Good God, my sister was a master sleuth at that game. Again, there was tension! Following a trail and apprehending the suspect, hoping to God almighty you had nabbed the right person. And if you were really good and solved like fifty cases—finally bringing to justice Ms. SanDiego herself!

But even these games, Doctor—talking about them is only like enjoying the cartoon short before the main feature. Our humble Macintosh may have served many purposes, but I will always remember it as the computer that played King's Quest. Wikipedia and other wonderful online resources will describe the King's Quest series as a seminal collection of titles in the graphic-adventure computer game genre. That wouldn't have meant anything to me back in 1987. To me, King's Quest was pure survival horror—text-based survival horror, yes, but survival horror nonetheless. I mean, here was this vulnerable Graham character wandering around a monster-infested medieval land with absolutely no means of defense (until, perhaps, you acquire the magic shield, but … never mind). Step into the wrong screen and risk being torn to shreds by a wolf, bludgeoned by an ogre, ransacked by a dwarf, enchanted by a sorcerer or kidnapped by a witch. The game had this wicked little musical cue signifying when a monster was present. It sounded like pipe organ. And it wouldn't have been so bad if it wasn't for the fact that this would happen seemingly at random. You would just be walking around the forest, trying to get to the next screen and—BAM!—there was that music. Dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-duuuuuuuum! At first I literally could not watch this game. Maybe I wasn't yet able to disassociate fictional danger from real danger. When I got older and began playing the game by myself, I was a nervous wreck. I would sweat. I would have to pump myself up just to traverse from one screen to the next. Eventually my parents purchased the official game map and hint-book, and I discovered how to beat the game without having to cross any of the potential monster screens.

Then a funny thing happened. I fell in love. It probably helped that this period of Macintosh gaming corresponded to the same period of my life when I learned to read and write. King's Quest was like a high-tech fairy tale. It had a dragon's lair, a Leprechaun kingdom and a land in the clouds—all in the same 30-minute-or-less adventure. It didn't matter that I'd played through the game before, because playing through again was like re-reading a favorite storybook.

King's Quest was just the gateway drug. Then there was King's Quest II. Then I discovered Space Quest, and oh how I loved Space Quest. If my King's Quest devotion was like going to church every Sunday, then I became a bonafide Space Quest evangelist! This game was so incredible, it's about a janitor saving the universe—how could I not share it with others? My poor friend Jon. It hadn't been that much earlier that I had been the poor boy being subjected to manipulative two-player Super Mario Bros. games on other people's Nintendos. Here I was inviting my new best friend over to our house to play a text-based adventure game. The whole game! Now, there was no easy way to accomplish this sort of task. One person would get to sit up front in the comfortable office chair and control the keyboard and all of the typing—me. The other person would have to sit in the hard kitchen chair and try to watch from about five feet back. It's a miracle I ever kept Jon as a friend. I'm sure I must have gone through every nook and cranny of that game. I know myself too well. It wouldn't have been enough for me to just plow through the screens, showing my friend the basic concept of the game before going outside and tossing around a softball, or anything interactive. I would have stopped to “look at...” every description of every pixel on every screen—because that's how I played.

What am I saying, Doctor? That's how I still play games! What's wrong with me? I can barely get through a modern Grand Theft Auto game without making myself practically role-play every stupid minute of the experience. I mean, here's an example of my neurosis. Say my GTA IV Niko Bellic character watches a few programs of an in-game television show—like one of those stand-up comedy bits with Ricky Gervais. Then Niko goes out on a mission and—oops!—dies. “Oh crap!” I inwardly tell myself. I didn't save my progress before going out on that mission, meaning my Niko Bellic character just lost that in-game experience of watching that TV show. This doesn't necessarily mean I will go and rewatch that program, but I would be lying if I said it didn't bug me. I feel guilty for skipping through ten-minute cab rides. I practically have to discipline myself! Thank God the game doesn't give me the option of watching the character sleep!


  1. Jon's not a gamer at all, if you made him watch that now he would leave you forever.

  2. I've got some pretty good video game memories with Jon. Toe Jam & Earl. We made it pretty far on that one together.