I’ve played a lot of games in my life. The first game I ever played was Peek-a-Boo. I would hide behind my hands, thinking that I was invisible to my relatives, and then surprise the hell out of everyone by throwing my hands aside to unveil myself. The rules and expectations were simple back then. I made the rules, or thought I did, and everyone played along. I had no concept of winning or losing. Everyone who played the game was a winner and the prizes were giggles and smiles.
The next game to enter my life was Hide and Seek. It’s similar to Peek-a-Boo except none of the players are under the delusion that they are invisible. You run to your chosen hiding spot and hope that you’re the last one to be caught. Sometimes, depending on the rules that everyone agreed to, you’d try to sneak back to the safe area. Simple rules, but they are necessary for the game to function. Living in rural Western New York, we had plenty of great hiding places — some even came with a complimentary patch of poison ivy.
One of my all-time favorite games was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This was not a licensed game, and there were no tokens or boards. It consisted of me, my grandmother’s front yard, nunchucks (an important role played by a stick), and sometimes a cousin that would play as one of the “lesser” turtles to my stellar Michelangelo(1). It was a great game where story ruled and everything could only be limited by your imagination. We’d often take down Krang while he was super-sized in his exo-suit. Neighbors driving by probably just saw two kids high-kicking the air. Their loss.
Now that I think about it, most (if not all) of the games I learned to play as a child were never really about winning or losing. They were driven by physical activity, critical thinking, social skills, or imagination.
Hidden amongst these traditional “real world” games lies an entirely different game timeline. For much of my childhood, my uncle lived in my grandparents’ basement(2), and he was the first person to introduce me to technology like computers and videogames. I can’t remember if Super Mario Brothers or Tetris was the first videogame I ever encountered. It doesn’t matter; they were equally impressive. The mix of moving objects that you could control and catchy 8-bit soundtracks melted my little mind. “This is like TV but I get to control it!” I was instantly hooked.
At the time, my mom cleaned condos at the local ski resort for all the rich people that drove in from Canada and Ohio. I absolutely hated going with her during the winters, except for the days that she was cleaning the place that had the NES. I beat Super Mario Bros. 3 on their saves multiple times. I’m sure their kids were confused and pissed.
In 1992, I had a revelation when Alone in the Dark scared the ever-living shit out of me. That was the moment that I knew games could be more. It was the first game I ever saw with polygons, a real story, weird puzzles, and any real attempt at building atmosphere. I knew that this was the future of games and very few since have had that kind of impact on me.
1992 was also the year that I first disliked a game. Our 2nd grade computer lab teacher let her brother show us Oregon Trail(3) and Dragon’s Lair. Having already been introduced to games, I jumped at the opportunity to try out Dragon’s Lair. I remember thinking that slick graphics shouldn’t be used to hide such a frustrating game mechanic. I don’t understand how people have the patience to finish that game.
The following Christmas held a surprise. My fairly luddite parents let me save up to buy my own NES. The deal was that I would save up my allowance for half of it and they would pay for the rest. If you know the financial situation faced by most small farmers, you’ll understand that this was a rare treat. What I never expected to see on Christmas morning was an SNES. Apparently my uncle helped cover some of the cost, and the only thing I remember from that day is opening my brand new SNES, something I didn’t even know existed. It came with Super Mario World and they even went the extra mile to buy me Mario Paint. For the next year, I beat Super Mario World more times than I care to count.
In 9th grade, I saved up money from my summer job of helping my dad mow the local cemeteries to build my own computer. My parents had purchased an HP with Windows ME (shudder) that I wasn’t allowed to play games on, so I had to get my own machine. The first game that was played on this new machine was Half-Life. Half-Life was as important to my understanding of interactive storytelling as Alone in the Dark was to atmosphere and Super Mario World was to rewarding exploration. I’ve also never looked at a crowbar the same since then.
Throughout high school, I worked a few jobs, and most of my money went into rebuilding my computer and buying used PC games. I’d pore through my uncle’s old copies of PC Accelerator and PC Gamer(4). Unreal Tournament‘s multiplayer over LAN opened my eyes to the world of online competitive multiplayer. I had to have the latest and greatest game and a machine that could run them. It was an expensive hobby, but the entertainment value was worth it to a kid with few responsibilities. Games, first and foremost, were an escape. I dreamed of being American McGee or Cliff Bleszinski, but had no idea how to get there.
Eventually, graduation came and I roomed with my best friend from high school at a nearby tech college. I applied to one school and had some scholarships so why even try for anywhere else?(5) Part of my scholarship required that I work on campus, so naturally, I started at the campus IT Help Desk. Not long after starting, the PC recycle area cleared out, and I brought multiple computers and a “gigantic” 21 inch CRT monitor back to our tiny dorm room. Thinking back, I can’t believe we didn’t blow a fuse. The two biggest influences on my modern gaming habits were installing Steam on my PC for the first time and seeing dudes playing Halo 2 at an all Xbox LAN party. I think I had a negative score by the end of my first Halo 2 round, but I’ve gotten better since then.
By the end of college, I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career, but I knew that A) I wanted to move as far away from rural NY as possible and B) I wanted to work in games. I’ve told this story a million times, so the short version is I moved out to Seattle with no job lined up and everything worked out. Eventually I got my first job at Microsoft in the Xbox division and it’s been a pretty good ride. I’ve been blessed to be able to meet many industry figures that I grew up worshipping.
If you’ve made it this far, you have survived my rambling. Trust me, it could have been worse. I cut out many other games and systems along the way that left their mark on me. My point is that games started as a learning tool to teach me basic concepts and behaviors. As I grew and was introduced to technology, games evolved and taught me about coordinated teamwork (more than eight years of soccer ever did) and how powerful interactive storytelling could be. Videogames are just marketed as silly toys for kids and adults, nothing more than a luxury hobby when you look at the big picture. But to me, games are fucking magical. What else would you call watching a kid’s eyes light up the first time they jump on a goomba, or as they pour their heart into building something in Minecraft? What else could you call trash talking a friend 2600 miles away after you kill them with a headshot? Magical. We are lucky to have these experiences that twenty to thirty years ago were just pipe dreams of the first video gamers. There is so much more that games can do, but we just now getting to a point where we’re starting to see their true potential.
Now we’ve almost come full circle where a couple people creating shareware in a home office are now running huge development companies and publishers, and the kids that grew up on Doom are out creating their own games. Amidst the Rockstars and Bungies(6) are individuals like Edmund McMillen, Anna Anthropy, Derek Yu, Phil Fish, Dean Dodrill, Mike Bithell, and many more — all creating smaller games that let them show us a bit of themselves through interactive storytelling. When I have a rough day or am just in a no-good bad mood, I know I can fire up a game and escape into another world. Obviously, this is in moderation and with the understanding that games can’t solve all of life’s problems. They aren’t that magical.
So, after years of playing games, almost obsessively, and following the industry to the point of landing a job there, I’m taking my next step. I have finally committed to creating my own game. The story is written. I’ve been teaching myself GameMaker for weeks now through online tutorials. It is time. I have partnered with an artist to help out and am in the process of gathering music I can use, as well as getting some made exclusively for the game. This is all out-of-pocket and probably won’t see the light of day until 2014 since I can only work on it in my spare time. I don’t have any delusions that it’ll be great. Hell, it might not even be good, but I’ll have made a game. And then I’ll make another.
1 – Now that I’m an adult I have seen the error of my ways. Raphael is clearly the coolest of the four turtles.
2 – Before you start with the “creepy uncle in the basement” comments he was the youngest sibling of four and moved out soon after. Also, he owned a motorcycle. That’s an unimportant fact, but the tiny version of me thought that was the best thing ever.
3 – Growing up in rural NY means that most people I knew had never heard the state Oregon pronounced correctly, so I sounded like an idiot when I moved to Seattle. Fact: It’s not pronounced Or-uh-gone.
4 – Man, those old PC Accelerator covers were all about the boobs.
5 – Kids, don’t do this. If college is a path you are pursuing then apply to many.
6 – I love Rockstar and Bungie’s games. They were used just to show the far opposite end of the game dev scene.