Monday, July 20, 2009

Gaming Made Me Also

If you've been missing it, Rock, Paper, Shotgun has been running a great series called Gaming Made Me as of late. It began with J, J, K & A discussing what games had a profound impact on them (which is not necessarily the same as favourites or anything of that nature). The discussion then expanded to other contributors, industry notables and others. Some blogger types have joined the fun, and I couldn't resist tossing my own into the ring.

Cosmic Osmo and The Worlds Beyond Mackerel

Cosmic Osmo wasn't the first computer game I played (I think that "game" was the Logo turtle graphics shell), it's the first one I infiltrated the computer lab after school to play. That may be hyperbole; I'm not sure anyone noticed or cared that I stayed in the lab after 3 PM. But stay after school I did. I'd actually forgotten the game's title for a long time (thanks AskMeFi!), but I hadn't forgotten the sense of wonder I had playing the game.

Created by Rand and Robyn Miller (who went on to create Myst), Cosmic Osmo didn't have an end or goals of any sort. You were merely present in a strange, humourous world and encouraged to explore. It left me completely transfixed. It created a love of exploring interesting environments that persists to this day.

Monkey Island

I upgraded my 486 to play The Curse of Monkey Island. I upgraded my rig again to play Escape From Monkey Island. The former was far more satisfying than the latter (although I still, to this day, have the Escape fridge magnets). A friend introduced me to The Secret of Monkey Island and opened the door to the magic of LucasArts graphic adventures. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, The Dig, Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango; for a long time, graphic adventures were my preferred milieu. But none surpassed Monkey Island's charm or personality (although Sam & Max: Hit the Road was a close second). Seeing Monkey Island return as Tales of Monkey Island is most enlivening, and being able to contribute to the series' spiritual successor is still kind of surreal.


I played Final Fantasy II & III (properly IV and VI), and a handful of other JRPGs, before Earthbound. But it and Secret of Mana were the only SNES RPGs that I owned (although I later purchased the excellent Super Mario RPG out of nostalgia off of eBay). The rest were all rented from our local Albertson's.

Everything about Earthbound is still vivid. The iconic clay figures in the Player's Guide that came with the game. The sting of still never having earned a Gutsy Bat from that damned Kraken. The awful smell of the scratch 'n' sniff stickers from Nintendo Power. Only one of my high school friends shared my fondness for Earthbound, but we made up for everyone else. While in Japan in 2006, I purchased a GBA copy of Mother 3 for both of us, even though I hadn't seen him in at least two years. Finally playing the fan translation of Mother 3, with the excellent fan created handbook, is sublime.

Simply, Earthbound had heart. It was sophisticated enough to be able to take itself less seriously at times without compromising its more resonant moments. Final Fantasy seemed to be a significant narrative to me at the time, but in retrospect it's enjoyable but on par with Star Wars (intentionally in the case of FF3). But playing Mother 3, it's almost as if the series grew up with me. Mother 3 is at times dark and melancholy, but still holds some of Earthbound's lightheartedness.

Dungeons & Dragons

While some titles made me appreciate games, it was Dungeons & Dragons that instilled a desire to make games. I started playing in grade 9, in a setting a good friend made up. I still have my first character sheet in a folder. Next time I'm down in our storage locker, I have to pull it out and scan it. Gladius Sylva, half-elf Ranger was the first step on the path that led to my career and passion. I've since played a number of tabletop RPGs, a la Mage: The Awakening, Call of Cthulhu (my current pursuit), West End Games' Star Wars, Shadowrun (giving one of the players nightmares after a particular session is still one of my favourite GM moments).

But the Dark Sun and Planescape settings were what really hooked me. Planescape for its richness, diversity, DiTerlizzi's amazing iconic art, and sincere dedication to creating something wholly new. And, of course, for Planescape:Torment, which is still one of my favourite digital games. Dark Sun was splendorous in its brutality, the ubiquitous reversal of tropes and, personally, for an opportunity to spend years working on the 3rd Edition setting conversion at I learned a lot about the mechanics of games, how rules can convey aesthetics and how to work in a creative space with others.

More gamers, and especially game designers, should play tabletop RPGs. We've managed to get about 1/3 of the office at Hothead in on a few-times-a-month 4E game, which is a good start. If you haven't, I suggest you correct this. You'll be surprised at what you see.

Super Smash Bros./Perfect Dark

Like everyone else in the late 90s, we played GoldenEye 64 quite a bit. But it was Super Smash Bros. and then Perfect Dark that my circle spent far, far too many late nights playing. This isn't a unique experience, and perhaps it's more appealing because it is shared by so many. Had I been a few years younger, I'm sure this would have been Halo. The thick miasma of nerd funk may take on different tones in different basements. It may have been Cheetos and Jolt instead of Doritos and Mountain Dew amongst individual clans. The details differ, but what so many cadres shared is the same.

The basement console co-op was practically a coming of age ritual for a decade of young men (and some women), and I'm a little dejected that it's disappeared a bit in the days of X-Box Live. Rock Band carries this torch well though. My fiancée and I formed Sheep Thievery with another couple and many nights and beers have been spent touring the world. As much as the rise of networked gaming is fantastic, this kind of co-op gameplay is something I hope never fully disappears.


The choice of Braid isn't actually a "Gaming Made Me," but rather a "Gaming Made Her (See)." I've related the story of my fiancée and Braid on a few places in the wild, wild interwebs, but I don't think I've ever done so here. If I have already and I forgot, well, it's my blog and I can be repetitious.

Braid is the game that allowed my fiancée to see why I care about these things as much as I do. She's not unfamiliar with games, but more of the Mario Kart or The Sims variety. She was watching me play the beginning of the second world of Braid, and the combination of the storybooks at the beginning, the music, the art, the symbolism of wanting to do things over and get things right, she started crying. I was a little surprised, but she does cry at movies sometimes, so it wasn't completely uncharacteristic.

But then she turned to me and said, "I get it now. I get why you want to make games." She saw that it wasn't the guns and explosion that drove me, it was the desire to create experiences like that. It really was one of the more profound moments of my adult life. Having someone, let alone the person you're closest to and love most dearly, truly understand what drives you is almost beyond words. I owe Jon for facilitating this, but Hothead did port Braid ... that's probably the closest I'll get to thanking him.

And that's how gaming made me. Thanks for tolerating this absurdly long introspection. Now the tables are turned. How has gaming made you, reader?

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Blogger Erik Fagerholt said...

Interesting post! Me and a couple of friends just started playing weekly games of DnD 4e (with me as the DM). None of us had played tabletop rpgs before but we are all avid gamers. Every time we play we have an absolute blast! I fully agree with you that everybody that is into games and game development owe it to themselves to give it a try. I look forward to our DnD nights all week and spend stupid amounts of time preparing before each session. It's fantastic to see everybody in the group get into it and work as a team to solve the encounters, something I did not expect to see this soon, since a lot of the guys had never met before the first session.

July 23, 2009 at 7:20 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Erik Nice! Most of the folks here at works had not played tabletop before either. The cooperative teamwork that emerges is really an experience that is difficult to replicate.

And I think it has to do with physically being together. Some folks are quick to discount having people around a table or on a couch, but it really is an experience that cannot be imitated sometimes.

July 23, 2009 at 4:32 PM  
Blogger gcandy said...

Jolt cola, Cheetos and Perfect Dark is exactly what one of my summers in the basement with my friends consisted of. I am now beginning to think that summer the streets of Ontario were missing teenage boys for a good two months.

July 24, 2009 at 9:45 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@gcandy Excellent! That's just really not the same as "Remember the summer we all played Halo on XLBA, alone in our bedrooms" eh?

At least Castle Crashers and a few others still carry the torch.

July 25, 2009 at 9:55 AM  
Blogger Erik Fagerholt said...

The part about your fiance and braid was very moving. Some games really can give rise to emotional. philosophical and personal epiphanies in ways that few other forms of entertainment can.

July 28, 2009 at 2:34 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Erik Thanks. I was a little concerned I couldn't articulate that. Glad I came cross right.

July 30, 2009 at 8:51 AM  

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