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.
The next three:
(Unlike other sections that are in chronological order, these are listed in increasing level of influence, from least to most.)
6. (Age 13) Law Of The West
This was by most accounts a dumb little game. Yet it managed to teach me an important idea, one that has guided me in making plenty of life-shaping decisions as an adult.
In Law Of The West, I played the new sheriff of a small frontier town, having a series of conversations with various townsfolk. Each citizen walked out into the middle of the screen with a herky-jerky animation, then turned to face me and started talking. I got three or four responses to choose from, and the dialogue branched out. This went on for a while until the citizen walked away, or until they draw a weapon - or I drew mine with the joystick - and somebody got gunned down. Over the course of a game I could have conversations with the town drunk, the local doctor, a tough-talking cowboy, a schoolteacher, a kid, and some others. Depending on how I steered the conversation, I got a chance to stop a robbery, drive a troublemaker out of down, or even go on a date.
Since I was a 13-year-old kid, I believed that the way to win was to do a great job as sheriff, and that meant preventing robberies. I hunted through the dialogue tree for each citizen, and discovered that almost all of them - even the schoolteacher - could tell me about a robbery in progress or about to happen, and then there would be an action scene where I drew my gun and shot down the bandit before they escaped. Kapow!! Dance, varmint!
After eleven conversations (or less if I got shot) the game would end and show a summary of my score, with a collection of icons. Each time I played I was able to get more and more "badge" icons, and fewer "flying moneybag" icons, showing that I prevented more robberies. That got me feeling pretty good - but there was a whole section of my score table that remained stubbornly blank. With 11 conversations, the most I could earn was 11 badges, so what was the point of all that extra space?
Eventually I realized that the space was for different types of icons. There was more than just the badge and the money bags. If I arranged a date with the schoolteacher I got a little icon of two people kissing, down on the next row of the table. If I acted tough and arrested a troublemaker, I got an icon of a dude behind bars in another row. If I drew my gun and shot an innocent person, I got a creepy icon of a gravestone on the bottom row. Bad sheriff, no cookie.
This was frustrating to me because I wanted all the icons, all at once, to maximize my score. But there were only 11 conversations, so completing the table was impossible! The best I could do, after learning the game really well, was choose some arbitrary collection of badge icons and heart icons and money bag icons, and aim for that. If I didn't set my own goal, the game would be pointless.
Some time later - months or years later - I remembered this game, and suddenly I realized the lesson it was teaching me:
Every situation I get into is a chance for me to pursue something, and usually the thing I choose to pursue will be the thing I find. If I don't make that choice consciously - if I don't diversify my pursuits and learn to find more than one kind of thing - my world will close in around my pursuits like a thickening forest, and my ability to find happiness will close in at the same time.
There is value in making money, yes. There is also value in romance, in spending a day at the beach, in making people laugh with a really good joke, in being useful, in reducing waste and resolving conflict, in hearing a great story, in petting a cat, in showing appreciation for a gift. Not for some other end - not for a future plan or an icon on a score table - but because each of these can be satisfying on its own terms. It also becomes cumulative, because if it's easier to find value in the present, it's easier to see a path to the next valuable thing.
This matters, because no matter how you might insist you are going with the flow, or seizing the day to drive your plans forward, being alive forces you to make a thousand decisions on autopilot every day. You simply cannot pay attention to everything; you cannot fully exploit every opportunity, and those automatic decisions will shape your fate as surely as anything else you do. If your habits are bent around pursuing only one or two things, an entire universe will pass around you unnoticed, carrying a universe of opportunity with it. You may eventually find what you seek, but you may not find much else.
Years after internalizing that, I also had to confront the flipside: How much of something is enough? Should ambitions only grow in scale, or should they also recede?
How much money is enough, once you're well fed and safe? Is three money bags enough? If you give up two hearts, in exchange for three more money bags, will you be happier?
How much travel is enough, when you've explored places on the opposite side of the earth, and so many of your ancestors only went a couple hundred miles at most?
How much should you worry about any milestone - your public perception, your fashion choices, the completeness of your collections, the monetary worth or lasting influence of your art, the popularity of your tastes - any way ambition can be measured - when you and everyone you love and everyone you disapprove of will be gone and forgotten in a hundred years or less?
How far can you take the rule of diminishing returns, before you have to find change? What if you haven't trained yourself to recognize it, and change passes you by?
You have a sword in one hand, and a shield in the other. You are standing on a hilltop covered in grass. The grass is not green; it is jet black, and cut short like a carpet. This weird surface extends far before you into the distance over gently rolling hills until it meets an ocean. There is no seashore -- the grass simply plunges into the water, down beneath a roiling surface that has no orderly lines of breakers but is churning in all directions at once.
Out on this treacherous sea, in the distance, you can see bone-white monsters, with humped backs and long curving necks, looming up, and moving slowly towards you. Closer at hand you see restless humanoid creatures, pale-skinned and ghoulish, wandering slowly in your direction. They carry tridents and swords and clubs in their crude hands. They are silent, and unblinking, but they hit very hard. You will spend most of your time running from them, running between towns and their relative safety.
This is the landscape of Ultima II, as filtered through a child's imagination, based on the charming little graphics it lays out in tiles on the Apple II screen. It's easy to play, and pretty fun, but you have to spend a lot of your time restarting the machine because when you die, the game hangs, as though the whole universe has just stopped -- which is oddly appropriate.
I played this game from start to finish, then busted out a disk editor and went exploring into the raw materials of the game. Lo and behold, all the maps that I'd been wandering across were there on the disk, in an uncompressed format, easy to modify. It only took a little bit of experimentation to put together my own editor.
The first thing I did was surround all the monsters by solid rock. Ha ha haaaa! Then I made bridges across all the oceans, and knocked holes through every mountain range. Phenomenal cosmic power! Then I went the other direction: Put a hundred demons on the map; channel them all into one valley. Kill them all in one absurdly epic battle. They don't leave corpses, but I could still imagine it - rolling black hills cut with a spiderweb of tiny channels, from the blood of a thousand clammy white eviscerated bodies. Awesome! Badass!
Then I built mazes, and prisons, museums. First on graph paper, then entering the data into the game with my editor. Why had the designers wasted so much space on big empty rooms, when they could have stuffed the map with twisty passages from end to end? My next-door neighbor and I decided that the modified maps were evidence of a vengeful god, or perhaps a sadistic dungeon master. We plugged the output from the Apple II into a video tape recorder, and plugged a microphone into the audio jack, and narrated the tale of a hapless adventurer wandering the planet while subject to the whims of an aggressively-voiced Arab wizard with the title "Nam Epod, Ruler Of The Sand". For those of you not juvenile enough to get the joke, that's Dope Man spelled backwards.
I actually have some of that recording transferred to a digital medium. For the sake of all mankind I am not putting it on the internet.
My family had a home computer, but they weren't loaded, so I got almost all my software through piracy. Taking what I could get, I skipped over Ultima I and Ultima III and pirated Ultima IV, then saved up my Christmas money and purchased Ultima V when it hit the stores in March of 1988.
Most people don't remember this, but there was a time when games came in a box, and with accessories inside the box. Not just some 'special edition' version of the game either, but every single copy, in the assertion that these items were a part of the experience, just as important as the bits and bytes on the disk. And I can tell you, they were. Ultima V came with a cloth map that you could hang on your wall, as though you had really traveled to a strange world where paper would not have been durable enough, as well as a shiny silver coin stamped with a mysterious design. In additional to the user manual was a separate booklet decorated to look like a few pages taken from a journal, and it was just as important as the map and the coin in setting the mood for the adventure to come. It told the tale of the great king Lord British, leading an expedition into a vast and terrifying underground realm called the Underworld that mysteriously opened up beneath his kingdom. He disappeared, and the expedition was lost. Now it's up to you to rescue the king and unravel the mystery!
Eventually you do enter the underworld, with your own band of heroes, and retrace the doomed expedition by following the landmarks described in the journal. It's a great example of interactive storytelling because it gives you the feeling like you're walking around in your own imagination, and the setting is dark and claustrophobic, and the game does not hold your hand along the way. If you run out of torches or magic, you will stumble around in darkness - until you run out of food, or are slaughtered. Horrifying monsters - described with plenty of detail in Lord British's journal - come slithering in from side caverns and up from underground seas, and close in behind your back. The torches only carve some of the darkness away, and you'll often catch a glimpse of an entire crowd of weird, hungry things, before they step back out of the light on the next turn. The Underworld is old-school hard, and it's also freaking enormous and doesn't come with a map, or an automap, so you are guaranteed to get lost. It's great!
I would play the game all day on the weekend, then wander around the Underworld in my dreams that night. I spent so much time there in my imagination that the memories of it are just as vivid as my memories of real places -- often more so. And of course, after I finished it I started poking around with a disk editor and changing things. Tweaking stats to make myself a god, altering the landscape, sowing confusion...
One day I ran into a kid in my "junior lifeguards" class (a summer program where you spend a lot of time running up and down the beach) and told him about a program I'd written that converted every single mountain tile in the Underworld into cropland - a pretty clever hack that made the Underworld much easier to navigate, except that now all the critters everywhere around you could make a beeline through the crops and wale on you all at once. He laughed and said that was awesome, and asked for a copy of the program, which I brought to him a week later. At age 15 it was my very first contribution back to the "software community".
I bought and played the rest of the sequels later when I upgraded to a PC, and years after that I got inspired to write a parody of the Ultima series, called "Untima 9", which my friend Alex ported to the Mac. In retrospect the game is a nice time-capsule of all the things I thought were hilarious as an 18-year-old, though I do very seriously regret the way I parodied the "Take Back The Night" program I saw at UCSC. The sight of a huge throng of young women marching from one building to the next bearing lit torches was scary to me, and the negative reinforcement of "if this is scary for you, think about how we feel" was way too subtle for me to grasp. All I thought was, "Holy crap a mob with torches!! Where is this going?" (Whatever chauvinistic objections I might have voiced at the time have been handily silenced by making the modern Take Back The Night ceremony co-ed.)
4. (Age 11) Alice In Wonderland
As a young kid with a hyperactive imagination, struggling to pin down the border between the external world and my own, I could relate to this game thoroughly. I often felt like I was on the edge of sanity, or that perhaps sanity was an illusion of an overly-compartmentalized mind, and if I explored the wrong compartments inside my own mind I could get lost and never find my way back to daily life and the real world.
I think this is one of the reasons young people are drawn to Lewis Carrol's work, and the idea of Wonderland. Their minds are still forming, and reality seems very plastic to them still. Little of the world makes sense to them yet, and it would be liberating if the world just dropped the pretense and stopped making any sense at all. We could forget about logic and learning and live by instinct alone.
Anyway, this game - the Windham Classics version of Alice In Wonderland - is meant to be cute and whimsical, and it is. But by staying true to the source material it also brings along the same subtext. The game is open-ended, and playing the character of Alice, you mostly wander as you please through the twisted labyrinth of Wonderland, one screen at a time, using a hopelessly tangled network of doorways and passages - some of them one-way, some of them linked to multiple places - and have weird interactions with ghostly animated characters along the way. They're ghostly because they're rendered exclusively in black and white, in order to stand out against the colored backgrounds. The limited color palette of the Apple II also forced the designers to make the background for any exterior location - any landscape - jet black, accidentally giving the impression that all of Wonderland takes place underground, in tight passageways or in glowing structures standing silently at the bottom of a huge dark cavern. And since the premise of the story is that Alice has fallen asleep, and Wonderland is a dream, you - the player - are effectively playing a game where you wander through the dark, twisted contents of your mind, encountering ghosts who are all various degrees of insane, trying to escape before the whole thing disappears, taking you along with it. Totally wicked!
For me, this was ground zero for the kind of playing experience I mentioned in my description of Skyrim, and what I called the "Alice In Wonderland" effect.
The Apple II computer wasn't actually powerful enough to re-draw everything on its screen more than a few times a second. I know it sounds absurd in 2016, where we consider full-screen movies a basic human right, but those were the limitations back in 1985. So, the game designers had to create Wonderland as a series of static areas, mostly self-contained single screens. Then they threaded these areas together with doors. A hole in a hillside could be a door. A fireplace could be a door. A mirror could be a door. A window, a mouse hole, a gap inside a cloud, the rectangular spray underneath a fountain - these could all be (and were) doors. The result is a fragmented reality: You could create a map for Wonderland using squares and connecting lines, but there is absolutely no physical way that all the rooms fit together in the same physical space. It just doesn't add up.
The limitations of the Apple II hardware forced the design in other ways. Wonderland is big, but it's mostly unpopulated. You spend most of your time alone. The characters you do encounter are only able to do a few things, so they loop in on themselves, like ghosts fettered to the spot where they died, re-enacting their trauma. They usually vanish when you give them an item or say the right thing, as though you have laid their spirit to rest. Wonderland is also very static: Nothing ever decays. No matter how long you linger by the seashore, the ocean will be completely flat. A fire in a hearth will stay lit forever, and the room will always be exactly the same temperature, and the grass will never grow. You could wait in one place for eternity, or only a moment, and the experience would be the same. Everything is drawn in bold primary colors, using jagged textures of interleaved lines. It's like walking around inside a stained-glass window.
It's a design that was just as much a product of the limited hardware and the state of the industry, as of purely artistic decisions. Those restrictions were not seen as desirable, by the authors or by me, but it didn't matter: It was what it was. The authors didn't intend to create a psychedelic haunted metaphor for madness, but I was an impressionable young person with my own vivid imagination, and enough of their design ended up that way for me to find it there. When the Nintendo came out I jumped on that, and on the Apple IIgs, and I jumped on every other hardware advancement I could afford, and very quickly the design limitations that spawned Alice In Wonderland were totally gone. Nevertheless, this game dropped an anchor into my subconscious mind, and even when I played Skyrim 25 years later I was returning to Wonderland, coming back to that same well.
When really good VR comes into its own, ten years from now, I will create a universe of rooms, rendered in tiny glowing blocks under a jet black sky, interconnected in bizarre ways, and it will feel like home.