Monday, March 12, 2012

Computer Games and a Gal Who Loves 'Em

And there might be better ways to waste your afternoon or evening, but I have been playing computer games all my living memory.  The appeal might have something to do with how solitary computer games are as, unlike consoles, they are in general played alone (MMORPGs excepted) and I have in general been more of a solitary than group activity fan.  I also make a point here by emphasizing computer games, as that is all I’ve really ever played and all I play now.  While my house had an Atari like every other middle and lower-middle class house in the U.S., that was the only console we ever had.  I don't know why, but no one in my family seemed to be interested in getting and Nintendo or SEGA, so I never played one.  The few times I was able to play the Atari I liked it, but, being the youngest kid, that was fairly infrequent.  While I was home earlier and more than my older brother and sister, I didn’t know how it worked and the only people who would show me wanted to play if we turned it on.  By the time I had figured out how to switch input from TV to the Atari, the Atari was old and uncool.  I do think I remember being fairly decent at Centipede, however.
Of course the Atari was more than a gaming console—it was also a home computer, with some of the earliest versions of word processors I remember using to type up my earliest stories.  I’m sure there were some computers in-between, but when my dad upgraded to a Tandy (4800?  not quite sure on the number—roughly 1987), I became interested in computers because he bought several games.  There are some single-screen games I can picture clearly that were a kind of combination MUD/graphic game.  You had to type in your directions like a mud, and there was little to no movement in the screen shot—just a picture with possible directions and typable actions, again like a MUD.  There was another game, however, that I wish I could remember the name of (Dragon Wars?  Dragon Fighter?), which was the next level up from this and very similar to the Might and Magic games I’ll examine below.  It had a first-person POV and you walked around as a party of role-playing type characters (thief, cleric, fighter, wizard) and solved quests and killed things.  The main difference between this and later games was the lack of detailed scenery.  There were walls for the cities and dungeons as you walked through, a map key to show where you’d been, and a few creatures to represent monsters.  Everything else was represented by some version of a statue or portrait that would say “Turn to Page 24 of your manual and read paragraph 3” for a description of what you were supposed to be looking at.

Next came the game that probably changed my life and brain forever: Sierra’s King’s Quest IV.  Having not played the previous games, I was initially uninterested in it.  As a firm, stubborn tomboy, I refused to have anything to do with “girly” things, and I read KQIV as girly because it had a female protagonist.  Eventually sick of the other games, I started playing it (I always referred to it as Rosella because of the main character), and Rosella changed the way I thought about games forever.  Not only is the storyline awesome, the puzzles complex, and the world fairly large for that era of games, it was wicked hard to complete.  My neighbor friend, K., would come over and play with me on the weekends and I’m pretty sure it took us a year to finish (I will add a caveat that most of that time was due to user error, as we often got stuck in places where it was difficult to move Rosella without killing her—we’d be stuck on some ledge or spiral staircase for weeks and weeks, screaming at the screen in frustration).  The following Xmas, I got The Conquests of Camelot, which is possibly my favorite game of the Sierra line.  I was always a big King Arthur and English history fan, so it seemed to me to be a game just for me.  A couple of months later I was also given Hero’s Quest (later renamed) for my birthday, an early—but not the earliest—role playing computer game, and between the three of them, K. and I were kept busy for a long time, finishing, if I remember correctly, all three suddenly and back-to-back in one long weekend go.  I remember I was so happy I actually cried when KQIV rolled it’s end sequence.  I also played the sequels to King’s Quest and Hero’s Quest, as well as Colonel’s Bequest (which I loved for the setting), Police Quest 4, and the Lucasfilm The Secret of Monkey Island (1990).

My next interest was first-person shooters.  When Wolfenstein 3D was released in 1992, just about everyone with a computer was glued to their seat for weeks.  I believe it was my sister that brought this one home through a friend, but anyway, I was immediately hooked in it and several of the great follow-ups, Doom (1993), Doom 2 (1993), Rise of the Triad (1995), Quake (1996), and my favorite, Blood (1997).

I was still interested fantasy and role-playing, partly because of a voracious appetite for those books at the time.  The Might and Magic series stepped in to bridge the gap between fantasy role-playing and first person shooters.  I began with Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen (1994) and went on to play, over the next several years, all of the sequels, Might and Magic VI, VII, VIII and IX (1998, 1999, 2000, 2002).  These were and are the crème dela crème of fantasy games.  While Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age would eventually replace them in ingenuity and complexity, these games, especially those from the 1990s, were incredible.  Huge sprawling countryside, coupled with giant dungeons, and completely alterable role-playing characters.  

Looking at these dates is occasionally very surprising, as I picture myself much younger when I was playing many of these, especially the last.  I’ve recently downloaded and replayed MM4-MM8, and one thing I’ve noticed and have noticed by replaying many of these games is that I still know where I’m going.  I can’t really express how big these worlds are, but I can tell you one thing, if I spent 15-20 years away from a place I might have lived once, I doubt very much I could navigate my way around like I can in these games.  I actually believe that videogames might have given me at least one thing: the ability to navigate spaces.  I very rarely get lost and can easily determine quicker routes between spaces once I’ve mentally mapped something once or twice.

Another strange thing: I remember the music and sound effects from these games like I was just listening to them yesterday.  I occasionally will find myself humming something and realize that it was the score of King’s Quest IV or Conquests of Camelot or something else.  This has led me to believe that my brain must look something like this:

Happy Gaming!