NOTE: This piece is also available as a downloadable MP3 audio file, with cool music and sound effects from classic games. (It will be sent through the Podbean/iTunes feed as well, so no need to download it manually if you already subscribe that way.) Please note that the audio version came out in 2006, so it’s dated in spots. Enjoy!
Hello. My name is Duke and I’m addicted to video games.
How It All Began
In some ways, I blame my father. One of my earliest Christmas memories is of us all retreating into the office in the back of the house, where the Timex Sinclair had been pitifully serving as less of a computer and more of an advanced calculator (programs on the Sinclair were actually run from a standard audiocassette player). There, on the desk, was a brand new, shining Apple //e. (Okay, it wasn’t actually shining. But in my memory it has a child-of-Bethlehem glow around it.)
That machine (and the //c I soon acquired of my own, with — wonder of wonders — color graphics) provided me with countless hours of digital entertainment. This included Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?, a geography- and history-teaching diversion from which the game designers of today could really learn a thing or two. And the Apple //e sported a (relatively) wide variety of self-spawned games like Lemonade, wherein the player virtually managed a SimLemonadeStand. (This got me ready for later games like SimLife and SimCity.) Also, the Apple brought me Zork, and the text-version Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game — which is available online in Java form. (I wanted this game very badly for my birthday one year; I thought I’d dropped sufficient hints, so when my folks took me to get a new bike instead, they were bewildered as to why I was so sad. “I wanted the Hitchhiker’s Guide game,” I said morosely. “Okay,” they said. “Don’t you want a bike too?” I shrugged. “I guess so.”)
But the crowning achievement of the Apple //e’s gaming retinue was Karateka. Designed by Jordan Mechner (who would later strike gold with Prince of Persia), Karateka was the first one-on-one fighting game I ever played — and how I did play it. My brother and I spent many happy days laying the foundation for a lifetime of pixelized engrossment. Forget playing football or joining a swim team! Kicking those horned-headed denizens and timing the deadly gate-run was all the excitement my eight-year-old self would ever need.
Chicken Soup for the Console
The first console our family ever owned was Intellivision, whose graphics were far superior to the clunky Atari systems that all my friends had. (This would mirror the later meaningless debates about PC vs. Mac supremacy.) Of course, the game selection for Intellivision was roughly 1/20th what Atari had to offer — but we didn’t mind. We could escape into videogame heaven, flipping cards with Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack and fighting vaguely dragon-looking beasts in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The paddles were skinny, silly-looking dealies with absurdly non-responsive buttons that wore down after six uses. (In the later years, we had to mash the keypads with furious strength.) And if you’re dying to play Astrosmash again, the internets have made your dream a reality.
The mid-80s brought the messiah child of home gaming, the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. Our friends the Bruderlys had one of these glorious grey boxes way before we did, so I used to go over to their house every day after middle school and play Super Mario Bros until my eyes fell out. I distinctly remember having a report on Ancient Egypt due the next day — but finding myself unable to resist the lure of those damned Italian plumbers.
Once the NES invaded our home, I quickly glommed onto Dragon Warrior, RBI Baseball, and — of course — The Legend of Zelda. (A lover of fantasy authors like Eddings and Zelazny, I fell in love with Role-Playing Games [RPGs] at a young age.) But the title I remember spending the most time with (especially since it had some wicked-sweet co-op play and a perpetual-continue option, so Mark and I could join forces for maximum endless bad-guy destruction) was Ikari Warriors (screenshot at right).
I also got a Nintendo GameBoy for Christmas one year, and poured many hours of my life into mobile versions of Tetris, Castlevania, and Golf. It was extensively useful on long car trips, and I spent many weekends saving princesses with my little friend — and yet I knew very well that it was always a low-quality substitute for the real thing.
The Void Stares Back
But the Nintendo was also a creature of great evil. Around 1991, I had moved it into my bedroom (formerly my brother’s room, but he was off to the University of Florida). Late one night I sat sequestered before the NES gods, trying to finish the final stages of Mega Man III. Some big robot-dragon monster was giving me hell, and after seventy-four thousand attempts, I lost it. In a fit of screaming and hurled controllers and shredded copies of Nintendo Power magazine, I tore around my room in a furious ragestorm until I collapsed on the floor. My Nintendo was bruised and my knuckles were bloody. I had hit rock bottom.
On that day, I realized I had a problem. I packed the Nintendo up and decided I needed to re-evaluate my relationship to video games. If they could bring me to such embarrassing depths, I needed to be careful around them. I began to define the damage done in new terms, and take stock of my goals vis a vis the lure of the digital opiates.
For these and other reasons, I didn’t play many video games in high school — with two exceptions. One was Street Fighter II, which I wasted many many hours on, mostly with my friend Steve at the arcade in the abandoned mall near his house, and on his SuperNintendo. (For whatever reason, I never got into Mortal Kombat, and so was unaware of the parental outrage over that game’s bloodletting and misspelling until it had passed by.) As a one-on-one fighter, Street Fighter II served up a vast share of rage when I lost — and I could feel the demons of the past creeping back inside my head. Somehow, though, I kept my perspective sane and always stepped back to say “it’s just a game” just in time.
The other video game I played much of in high school was Pool of Radiance, which I would play on my Apple //c with my real-life D&D-playing buddies Paul and Scott and Joe. Bear in mind this was before the days of multiplayer RPGs — so we all just crowded around my low-res screen and shouted “Cast a fireball!” I played some other RPGs in high school, like Bard’s Tale and King’s Quest IV, but I stayed far away from the action games that had infected my soul so painfully in the past. RPGs offered me a calm, turn-based mode of gameplay that allowed me to think and breathe between (even during) battles.
Eventually I traded my Apple //e for a Mac LC, and spent more time on the Gainesville BBS/chathaus Dragon Keep than in RPG worlds. Toward the end of high school, I drifted away from video games altogether.
Then Myst arrived, and everything changed.
Myst was the most important video game released in the 1990s, and one of the five most important of all time. It marked a vital turning point toward intellectual gameplay and true synaesthesia. The story was riveting, and the dynamics of play were elegantly superb. It had problems of course — one maze was truly idiotic, and the ending just sucked — but I had never been so completely absorbed in my life. I spent entire days locked up in my New College dorm room with all the lights off, clicking away at the gears and switches. I would muse aloud at dinnertime about which brother to trust. It did become my world, just as the tagline promised. And it was a world I loved.
Myst was the succubus that lured me back into the land of virtual ecstacy, tempting me afresh with the promise of euphorias I once knew and could experience yet again. I’d been away from Silicon Eden for years, and it had spawned many fruits for me to indulge in. Wolfenstein 3D dragged me in for many months of immersion, and even served as the hook for a story in the St. Petersburg Times featuring a picture of me, slack-jawed, blasting virtual Nazis (at home in Pei Dorm Room 318).
Re-entering the inferno, I found my way to Doom, Prince of Persia, and Civilization — but I did so in moderation. In college I was able to juggle my renewed lust for the pixel with my studies, my friends, my writing, and my blossoming HTML and electronic music outlets. When I moved in with Jon, Dave and their Sony PlayStation, though, things took a turn.
It was in that house that I met SoulBlade, a one-on-one fighter that rekindled the spark which Karateka had ignited. Because I had finished school and worked at a mall bookstore, I had ample time to develop my skills and soon reigned supreme on the Stage of History. Taki was my favorite, but I could kick arse with nearly anyone (Dug could beat me with Voldo pretty regular, and Garrett swung a mean club as Roc). SoulBlade was better than other fighters, because the hard-hitting combinations could be arrived at by just mashing buttons at random. Thus, even those without the dexterity required for Ken’s fireball in Street Fighter II could serve up a LiLong beatdown in SoulBlade.
The Void, Part II
But it was Final Fantasy VII that really did me in. With its glorious combination of state-of-the-art graphics, intelligent storyline, and intriguing (if often pathetically stereotypical) characters, Final Fantasy VII marked the crucial resurrection of the RPG. We loved it so much that we sat for hours watching each other play — partly because we wanted to secure next; but mostly because it was so beautiful and enjoyable as a passive entertainment. As if bragging about what a superb game they’d made, the creators included a timer which logged the many hours of play each person’s saved game had elapsed.
Of course, such an intense high often bring along an intense low; and it came one morning in 1998. My housemates woke to find me hard at work battling Sephiroth once again, and became concerned. “Did you stay up all night again?” they asked. I nodded, vaguely aware that someone outside the screen was talking. “You need to take a break,” they said, and moved to eject the disk. “Wait,” I said, realizing they were serious. “I’ll break. I promise. Lemme finish this battle, and then I’ll save and get some sleep.” They eyed each other suspiciously and left for class.
Two hours later, they returned and slowly realized what had happened. I was still sitting in the blue papasan chair, my eyes wide with disbelief. The controller lay upturned on the ground, my outstretched hand dangling above. On the screen, the words “Overwrite Completed” shone in mocking white. Jon and Dave laughed at me.
Whilst trying to save, I had inadvertantly loaded one of Jon’s games. Panicking, I tried to load my backup save file (of course we kept backups) — but my sleep-deprived mind pushed the wrong buttons and I wound up saving Jon’s game over my backup. In thirty seconds, I had obliterated over 20 hours of play.
Truce with the Monkey
I was able to recover from this trauma much more easily than I had the Mega Man III incident, and I started back along the road to defeating Sephiroth. Eventually I got sick of having to fight the same enemy sixteen times (while my magic became more and more useless — an aggravating feature of the mostly excellent Final Fantasy games), and I stopped playing the game. My love for the PlayStation remained strong, but I found other diversions more compelling and stopped playing it for a while.
Thus it was that my brother Mark gave me his PSOne when I returned to Gainesville. By this time, everyone was wetting their pants over the PS2, so I was able to score PSOne games cheap. I grabbed a copy of SoulBlade and started to explore the video game reserves that had spawned in my latest absence. It was here that I realized that I had always been a step behind the times: While everyone else had the NES, I had Intellivision. When everyone else had a SuperNintendo, I had an NES. When everyone else had a Nintendo64, I had my GameBoy. When everyone else had a PSOne, I was playing Mac games. Now that I had a PSOne, everyone was moving on to the PS2. I got a PS2 when everyone else was trading up to the 360 and PS3, but now that I’ve got a real job, I’ve finally caught up.
My life with the PlayStation also introduced a new chapter in the saga: The era of used games. Before this time, buying used video games was unheard of. Even the Nintendo cartridges had been available for rent, but very rarely could they be found used. The PlayStation revolution, however, brought with it a new kind of video-game store: One where you could buy and sell used games and even (be still, my heart) trade them. And because I was now playing the games no one else wanted, it was a perfect situation for inexpensive gaming. I lived alone and played lots of games — my favorites were WipeOut XL and Nitrous Oxide (as much for the excellent techno music as for the intense gameplay).
Also on the PSOne came the brilliantly innovative Parappa the Rapper. Parappa mixed some truly bizarre graphics and a remarkable new style of play, wherein you used the buttons to spit lyrics over hip-hop beats. It was weird and very nice-looking, and even had some pretty tight lyrics.
Moving to Madison and living with Christie and Garrett meant I could finally face off with video games. We were a touch sick of SoulBlade by this time, but many hours were spent with You Don’t Know Jack and Driver.
Meanwhile, the Mac was finding some superb titles as well. Riven, the beautiful sequel to Myst, had entranced me back in Gainesville — but Exile: Myst III came along and impressed the snot out of me once again. On the RPG front, I found Baldur’s Gate and Diablo supremely engrossing.
Eventually I got sick of being able to watch DVDs only on my computer, so I scored a used PS2 and — what choice did I have? — started exploring the universe of games available for it. Now that I was living alone once again, I could sink hour on hour without fear that I’d be bothered by other pesky humans. The Duchess was very understanding about my addiction and graciously decided against an intervention. In fact, I started spreading the disease to her — and in 2004, she finished the amazing game Ico, her first completed video game ever. Since then, we’ve blazed through Gauntlet: Dark Legacy and Champions of Norrath together; we had a go at Fantastic 4, but we quickly realized that game was a stupid jumble of dumb QuickTime Events. Other PS2 games to which I donated my soul were True Crime: Streets of LA, Gran Turismo 3, and Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction.
Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems
To make matters worse, I recently purchased a Compaq Armada laptop with Windows 98. For years, I’d walked past the racks of PC games and wished I could sample some of the fare that didn’t make it onto the Mac (probably about 10% ever got ported over). So now I’ve begun plowing through the half-decade-old shelves of games at Half-Price Books and eBay. Once again, I find myself immersed in the cheap castoffs that no one else is interested in anymore. And I love it.
But it’s becoming a problem. When I wrote this in 2006, I had seven games going at once — a new record: Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, Burnout 3, and True Crime: Streets of New York on the PS2; and Icewind Dale, Disciples II, Adventure Pinball: Forgotten Island, and Unreal on the laptop. And I can’t stop. I’ve uninstalled perfectly good games from the lappy like Black & White and Age of Empires, just because they didn’t thrill me to the core. Every time I drive by Frugal Muse, I have to go in and see what PC games they’ve got available for $5.99; I always walk away with at least one more game. I’m always prowling for new titles, whether it’s at PrePlayed or the local thrift shop. PS2, Mac, or PC: it doesn’t matter. I still manage to get my work for school done (and keep up a decent relationship — and some friendships, when time permits), but I’m as deeply enslaved to the digital monkey as I’ve ever been.
Harvey Pekar once monologued his record collecting like this:
No matter how many records I get I’m never satisfied; I gotta get more. I’ve tried to quit but I can’t. What am I gonna do? This is like being a junky!!
Well, fortunately I’m not quite this bad with my video games — I’m what is referred to as a functioning addict. My involvement with video games is pretty ridiculous, but it’s not really having a negative effect on my life. I can feed my fix inexpensively, and because I’m working on home systems, every game comes with a convenient pause feature. I probably don’t read as much as I should, but I’m pretty happy as a video game junky. I haven’t tried to quit, and I doubt if I could.
So what am I going to do? I’m going to go play some video games.