As a writing exercise, I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.
Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.
Top ten games, the first four:
(Unlike other sections that are in chronological order, these are listed by level of influence, from least to most.)
These two games are one continuous 3D fantasy land, full of dark corners and exotic critters. They fulfill the promise that the game Ultima IX made years earlier, but without the bugs and performance issues. It's an open environment: You can just wander around and explore, ignoring the built-in plot and behaving unpredictably, and any direction you go will be an adventure.
These are the only games I've really taken to as an adult (a line I draw somewhere around the age of 25). Sure I've been addicted to others for a while, but it's Oblivion and Skyrim that I keep coming back to, just to poke around. I've even written little stories, and made comics using screenshots from the game. So why do I keep coming back? I think I have an answer for that. I call it the "Alice In Wonderland" effect.
In the original story by Lewis Carroll, Alice falls down a rabbit hole into a twisted realm filled with creatures that are all different shapes and sizes, but have one thing in common: They are all mentally deranged. From the Cheshire Cat to the Mad Hatter, some characters are helpful and some are violent, some can deliver speeches and some can only caper and drool, but the only character who even comes close to sanity, or even aspires to it, is Alice. Even the landscape she wanders through is deranged.
... And that's what it's like to play a single-player computer game - including all the games on this list. That's what it's always been like. Everyone around you is a simulation, following a limited script, and the more complex the simulation, the more likely the script is going to run off the rails and make the character behave in some hilarious or upsetting way.
In Oblivion for example, a guard at the town gates might greet you warmly as you approach, and continue to stand there impassively when you slaughter the guard right next to him. A shopkeeper might ask you to fetch a rare ingredient from far away, then happily reward you for the pile you've just lifted straight out from her own display case, right in front of her. A king might stand up and declare you the hero of the realm, then turn sideways and walk headlong into a closed door - and keep walking at it for as long as you're in the castle. These are supposed to be real people, and if you try to accept them as real, you also have to accept that they are seriously weird.
You are down the rabbit hole, wandering alone amongst the insane. Or, if you believe the framing device of the original Lewis Carroll story, you are dreaming: Wandering alone inside the labyrinth of your own mind, confronting all the deranged fragments of your own personality. Sounds like a great way to spend your leisure time, right? To an introvert, it's actually a bit refreshing.
Here's a bunch more writing I've done about these two games, including some comics:
- First impressions and complaints
- Table dancing
- No repeat offenders!
- What the hell just happened?
- The Hero of Kvatch
Skyrim and Comedy Wolf:
- They used to call me Rimmer! Rimmer, to rhyme with ... scum!
- The wolf sometimes has very bad ideas
- I have really got to stop taking his advice.
- What makes a really good RPG sidekick?
- More adventures with C.W.
- Daft Wooley
- Skyrimmin' Along
- A return to Skyrim
- Bad as ever!
- An Evening In Ye Olde Skyrim
- Can't Get Enough Of Super Golden Crisp
- Can't Stop Comedy Wolf
- Chaos in Skyrim
- Mercenary (A Comedy Wolf Special Episode)
- Comedy Wolf has no respect!
9. (Age 17) Doom
It's hard to believe that this game is so far in the past. It's hard to believe that the gameplay experience it delivered - so novel and exciting at the time - is now quaint and boring for a generation of gamers used to playing Minecraft and Halo on iPads.
I remember the first few minutes I saw this game in action at a friend's house, in his dank suburban living room. I was astounded. A real first-person view, running full screen! And you could play head-to-head! I was instantly determined to break away from the Apple IIgs and assemble a PC-compatible computer. I was just missing too much in the gaming world. I had already seen Might And Magic 4 and Star Control 2, and this was the last straw.
With help from my parents, I went out and bought a motherboard, a 486-DX2 CPU, a couple of disk drives, a 500 megabyte hard drive, and a whopping 16 megabytes of RAM. Then I put it all inside a full-size computer case, made of thick steel. It was nearly three feet tall, weighed over 25 pounds, and was colored a hideous industrial brown. It looked like a giant brick of tofu. I called it "LOAF", and carved that name into the plastic on the front with a soldering iron, including the quotation marks. The display - a 19-inch "NEC Multisync" - weighed another 50 pounds and cost almost as much as the rest of the computer combined. That's a total of 75 pounds. (For contrast I am currently typing this on a portable computer with a ten hour battery life that weighs about 2 pounds.)
My friend Brent visited one day and brought his own computer - a similar beast - and we spent hours upon hours messing with thick serial cables and configuration files in MS-DOS, finally meeting with success late in the day, and then we went head-to-head playing Doom for most of the night. It was a blast, and worth the trouble. Soon we got modems and started tying up the phone lines for hours at a time playing remotely. My sisters liked me even less for that.
My friends and I began a tradition of dialing each other up at night, jumping into some Doom level together, and then blasting through it in co-op mode while we sent chat messages back and forth. We talked about school, philosophy, movies, our crappy summer jobs, and our meager romantic lives. It became one of our favorite ways to have meaningful conversations, and it folded in with the rest of our habits. Eventually it felt normal to start up some deep conversation any time we sat down at a game console together. Looking back, I'm grateful that my friends were as emotionally candid and non-judgmental as they were. I don't think it was typical for teenage boys.
What was typical, is the way we all laughed when things went "BOOM". (The game made it into my "top ten list of accidental funny moments in gaming" twice.) Brent and I moved on to Duke Nukem and Shadow Warrior, but my memories of Doom remain the most vivid.
8. (Age 22) Starcraft
Picture this. You're standing in a messy bedroom, on the second floor of a beat-up victorian house. The carpet is brown and hairy and covered with the materials of a third-year college student - binders, textbooks, laundry, food wrappers. There are also cables looped around, mostly for the stereo, but one cable stands out from the others. It's thick and rubbery and colored an intense industrial blue. It snakes down from the huge boxy computer on the desk, across the carpet, and out into the hallway, where it connects up with five other fat blue cables at a small plastic box, dotted with furiously blinking lights.
It's called a CAT-5 network cable, and it puts the whole scene in a specific historical context, more so than the clothing, the posters on the walls, the stereo, or anything else. This is the year 1996.
As I stood in that room, I was watching a UC Davis student play a computer game. He built little armies of knights and sent them sprinting across a map, where they clashed with the armies of seven other players, representing seven other students on seven other computers elsewhere in the house. It was my first good look at a modern real-time strategy game where more than two people could play. The only networked games I'd seen before this were first-person-shooters.
The game was Warcraft II. I was hooked, and the second a chair opened up, I elbowed my way in and started clashing armies on the map. We all played long into the night, until it was time to drive home, and shortly after that I helped wire up my own house, and clashed armies with my three housemates. The game was fun, but what was even more fun was hearing the smack-talk and the shouts of triumph or agony from down the hall, as players got surprised or double-crossed or made terrific comebacks or forehead-slapping mistakes. Observers could even sneak from room to room and drop hints, or just cackle madly at some battle that only they could see coming. It was a cross between a sporting event and an old-fashioned "LAN party" like the ones I'd attended back in Santa Cruz.
We had fun playing the game, but we were also busy, and it was hard getting everyone together. It was also hard to find enough networked computers in one place, outside of the official college dorms, which were expensive and had anti-gaming policies. The computer labs were locked down and monitored, of course. WIFI was rare and hideously expensive.
Fast-forward three years and I'm at UCSC. Starcraft has been out for a while and it's a huge success; practically a cultural phenomenon. I have a big fuzzy friend group of mostly nerds and we all love to play it, but playing it in different buildings is just not much fun since we can't talk smack and hear each others' cries of anger. Internet-fueled piracy to the rescue!
Using a collection of software gathered from the dark and spooky corners of the internet, I built a custom Starcraft installer, with all our favorite sound effects (mostly fart noises, or our own voices dubbed over the units) and extras built in, and burned it to a dozen CDs and handed them out. Every couple of weeks, somewhere between five and ten of us would storm into an empty computer lab like a crew of viking invaders, carrying snacks and drinks, and insert the CDs into a row of computers. The CDs ran an auto-launch script that killed the password protection on the screen saver, then installed our customized game, and away we went.
Our weekly games didn't change my philosophy or my personality, but they strengthened a lot of relationships, prompted fun conversations, and created lots of memories that still come up today, almost 20 years later. Now my nephews are hooked on sequels to the same strategy games, and these ancient lab gatherings have developed a mythical glow. They have become "the good old days", when the amusing smack-talk and sportsmanship was more important than expertise or bragging rights. Now every time I play a head-to-head game - from Call Of Duty to Puzzle Fighter - I spend as much time cracking jokes as I do strategizing. It's just the way you're meant to do it.
7. (Age 12) Planetfall
Back in the early home-computing days, there was actually a genre of games that didn't have any animation, or art, or music. The only interaction you did was typing words on the keyboard, and getting words back from the computer in response. It was interactive fiction at its most basic, where you played an active role in the story, but the story unfolded primarily in your imagination, as though you were reading a novel.
Planetfall was the first game of this style that I played. Like most of my software collection from the 1980's, I have no idea where I got it from. Perhaps I pirated it from a friend of school; perhaps I downloaded it as a disk image from some dial-up bulletin board. I can almost visualize the disk, a 5.25-inch square with a paper sticker on it, labeled "PLANETFALL" in sloppy block letters with a felt-tip pen. What I definitely remember, even 30 years later, are the scenes I imagined while playing the game.
To get a summary of the plot you can read about it on Wikipedia, but the plot doesn't really matter, because it's not why the game was influential to me. The lasting impact of Planetfall was to inspire me and my friends to recreate the text-based interactive fiction format that it used, using live humans instead of a computer. We called it a "Human Adventure Game" (kind of a stupid name in retrospect) and it went something like this:
Zach: "You are standing in room with a large bay window to the north, showing a sparkling lake in the distance. Most of the floor is taken up by an enormous persian rug. There is a desk on the western wall, and a door to the south, currently closed."
Me: "Look on desk."
Zach: "You see a few crumpled scraps of paper resting next to a typewriter. A bottle of 1920 LaGrange Firewater is next to the typewriter, with a cork jammed in it."
Me: "Throw bottle out window."
Zach: "With a hideous crash, the bottle explodes against the bay window and the fragments rain to the carpet. The bay window is made of thick plate glass however and is unharmed, except for a huge splotch of Firewater dribbling down the inside, reeking like car exhaust. You hear a surprised shout from the south."
Me: "Open door"
Zach: "The door opens easily. To the south you see..."
And so on. You get the idea.
Since playing a game took the form of a dialogue, we could play any time or place. We would often strike up a game while walking in the woods, or sitting in a restaurant gulping endless refills of soda. Other times we would play on computers, connected over the modem, or hot-seat style on a single computer, socializing or tinkering with electronics between turns. I managed to preserve some of those games and put them online.
It was an interesting cross between co-writing a story, where everyone shared in the creative process equally, and directing a play, where one person could impose their vision and the others worked within it. The idea is simple but we took it in a number of surreal directions. For example, we would often add each other as characters into the game:
Zach: "To the south you see Alex, blocking the doorway and looking alarmed. He is wearing an apron and holding a spatula. The smell of pancakes drifts into the room. Alex says, 'what the hell was that?'"
Me: "Tell Alex, 'I was just testing the window.'"
Zach: "Alex looks over your shoulder and sees the huge stain on the window. 'Well the next thing you can test is a mop and some water. And pick up all that glass.' He walks back over to a stovetop and flips a pancake in a frying pan."
Sometimes we would add ourselves into the game, and then make blithe commentary about how the game was going. In this game with Alex, I appear as myself, operating a refreshment stand. I also throw in our graphic arts teacher from high school, and for no reason at all I make Alex female without telling him. In this game, Scott has me playing the part of Charles Darwin, commanding an expedition of Warcraft peons to parts unknown. Looking back, it's telling how so many of these games started with a defiant escape of some kind - Darwin jumping out his own window, Alex smashing his way out of his room - fulfilling a desire to escape our own lives and feelings of conformity.
For a while I was naïve enough to think we had created a novel art form, even though we had really just re-invented Dungeons And Dragons - with the concept of a DM and players - under more relaxed rules. Still, it was a great creative outlet for us, and deepened our relationships at the same time it refined our senses of humor. The built-in emphasis on the comedy rule of "yes and" turned us into better collaborators, I think.
Eventually we all got too busy and preoccupied to play. The last recorded game I have is of Alex and I playing over the internet, set in a Harvey Mudd College women's dormitory since I had just gone on a date with a woman who lived there and the visit was fresh in my mind. It co-stars Jodie Foster and ends with a psychic battle. Of course.
I predict that in about ten years - or perhaps less - when VR becomes mainstream enough to really work - there will be a kind of revival (or perhaps re-re-revival) of this idea. Young people will don a pair of sunglasses with earphones, put on some fingerless gloves, and architect their own sets and theaters, with enough interchangeable parts and props to build an adventure on-the-fly for their friends to roam around in, and the concept of the DM will morph into the VM - the Virtual Master. Imagine the fun of it: Even if you're all spread across different cities working your day jobs, you and your friends can get together after work and participate in a murder mystery, locked together in a creepy victorian mansion with a thunderstorm outside, making it up as you go along while the VM whispers direction in your ear and queues up scripted events like the chandelier crashing onto the dinner table or the lights going out.
(Also, William Gibson will get another round of well-deserved applause for predicting this back in the 80's.)