Year’s end: to some, respite; others, opportunity and new beginnings. To most everyone though: reflection. As many of us here look back on another year in search of inspiration or some meaning, I need to look deeper, farther back than a “year-in-review” will permit.
No, this is a life-in-review. I guess video games played a part in it.
If you’re a regular, or even infrequent, reader of Tap-Repeatedly then your initial thought upon glancing this post may be that this is the first you’ve read from me in a long time. You would be right to think that: it’s been over 11 months.
This year I’ve dealt with what I would consider the most acute bouts of depression in my life. What that means exactly is not simply described. For some depression is experienced as a chronic state of being. Medication is often prescribed and more often inadequate care is given (at no fault to selfless caregivers) for a condition that is not readily understood. I’m fortunate in that what I suffer is not a constant state; I take no medication; several times in a given week I’ll reach a very low point: my vision seems to narrow, excessive stimulation bothers my brain and conversation has me feeling reserved and inadequate. What also takes shape, however, is a calm that washers over everything; and while feelings of exhaustion and worthlessness are present, I’ve learned to take these opportunities to reflect. Not on why I feel this way (it’s never clear), but on who I am, and who I desperately hope to become. One of the major difficulties has been my inability to write, at any time, not just my low points. If it’s fine to say that a hobbyist writer such as myself can experience writer’s block, then that’s what I’ll go with.
(Disclaimer: the above paragraph is in no way an attempt to romanticize various types of depression, or any mental illness for that matter; when I say I try to “use” these situations, I am talking strictly about myself, and applying my words to no one but myself. Nor am I advocating not seeking appropriate medicine or any kind of help when it comes to mental illness; I have a wonderful wife who suffers from an anxiety disorder, and because of that we can often relate to one another in similar aspects. That is a form of therapy that works personally for me. This is a personal story, please do not mistake my words. Thank you.)
In the spring of 2010 Steerpike asked if I would become a writer for Tap. Having been part of the community for a couple years, in addition to conducting myself with more manners than, say, your average YouTube poster, the staff at the time held a brief discussion in which they deemed it acceptable that this invitation be extended my way. I’d posted a thing or two here and there, but quite obviously what prompted this offer was a piece in the forum I’d written about Ico, a game I was new to and had just finished a week prior.
That post connected with many of the forum members around here, I suppose because I attempted– and succeeded– in earnest to convey the overwhelming joy which Ico brought me. The truth though was that writing about the experience of that game brought forth just as much emotion as playing it. I’ve always known I wanted to share these experiences with others, if not to entertain or provoke thought, then at least to offer insight into one more perspective. (It helped of course that I practiced in front of a friendly, trusted crowd.) What I didn’t know, however, was just how much I needed to share these experiences for myself.
I’ve struggled with the aforementioned writer’s block this year for no other reason than that my words lacked confidence, something that’s hard to come by when you condemn your own prose relentlessly. In searching for a way to overcome this obstacle, I thought it best to aim inward and look to past, future and present. The only thing that has taught me more about myself than playing, living and breathing video games is deriving meaning from, reflecting upon and writing about video games.
I’d like to impart some of what I’ve gleaned for reader enjoyment, while I also hope to discover some things about my self.
The Way Out Is Through
This is the first in a four part series, herein I discuss a collection of games of the personal computer which have, in some form, had profound and lasting effect on both my life as a player and admirer of video games, and my journey as a human being.
King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow 
It’s only appropriate that I begin by expelling words about the first computer game I ever played(!), which is the oddly timeless King’s Quest 6. What can I say about this? I was eight years-old, it was an unremarkable evening like any other, of which I remember nothing about, until of course a moment of fate occurred: my dad called me downstairs to join him and my mom in the kitchen. She was sitting in one of our hilariously awful 80s dining chairs, but it was pulled up to the new IBM PS/1 home computer they’d recently purchased. 40 MB hard drive! 512 KB memory! The future was now. Or something. They wanted to show me this game, “look, it’s neat,” they exclaimed. My first glimpse was through the porthole of a rickety old ferry, permanently dry docked, much to the dissatisfaction of the sea captain within. There was a man in a funny hat, a dapper looking prince and something about a rabbit’s foot. I’ll never forget it.
Not long after being a curious interloper I was allowed into the driver’s seat. “Can I start from the beginning?” I begged. “Okay.” After a fanciful cinematic introduction there I was, set to go on an adventure, the destinations of which I could not yet imagine and an end point which I once considered impossible in more than one way. Looking back, that very first set piece – Alexander shipwrecked on a mysterious beach – held both literal and metaphorical meaning for me: not only was I, the player, lost in a genuine sense that I had no exposure to adventure games and was therefore ignorant of their function, but I, the child, wouldn’t really find myself until this journey’s end– which astonishingly would not be for another 4 years.
My tender age then combined with the lack of exposure to any similar games prior meant that each isle was a self-contained monumental achievement of puzzle work. The most time was probably spent on the introductory Isle of the Crown, slowly but surely reaping the rewards of problems confronted. Take that, flute! I discovered your purpose, nightingale! Uhh, I don’t know what you do, paint brush, but sure I’ll take another mint. Before I knew it I was fooling gnomes, outwitting spiders and being threatened by chess pieces. It was truly a wonder, much like everything on the Isle of Wonder. The area which holds up entirely to this day though is the bewildering Isle of the Sacred Mountain. Once you’ve climbed the face of said mountain– which can be done only after solving several problems on other isles and finally referring to one of those classic anti-piracy game manual puzzles– you’re off to delve into the terrifying catacombs. Yes, I was young, but the horror and tension of those dark halls still scares the shit out of me when I think about them: deadly traps, precarious missteps and the violent Minotaur be damned, when you finally emerge from that hell what awaits on the other side is, to make modern comparison, something akin to arriving in Anor Londo. Haunting beauty and awe, but also terror.
Once that nightmare is resolved what follows seems simple. A dance with a beast, a visit with druids and one very strange trip down the river Styx later, the journey at last culminates in what appears to be the beginning of the end; finally reaching Death’s door in the underworld, a place Alexander and I visited many times before, but for the wrong reasons, an audience with Death itself should be the penultimate puzzle. Knock on Death’s door…fade to black. What? Knock knock. Door opening…black.
No, that’s not how the game was written, that’s just how our computer handled it. Apparently whatever lay beyond that door was too much for the modest processing power of the PS/1. Every time– and I tried it dozens of times– the door starts to open … *fizz* … the computer crashes.
After all that hard work, all that I had learned, about Alexander, about my own abilities, seemed for naught. I was so utterly disillusioned, this game had been my after-school life for months. Fuck you, Sierra! Fuck you, Roberta Williams! Go straight to hell you 9 stupid floppy disks!
Deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. Life goes on.
You can bet that the first thing I did when my parents got a new Pentium computer 4 years later was install KQVI and blaze a lightning-fast trail to that door; the whole time I’m convinced there was an entire compartment of my brain that worked constantly to rationalize fears that The Door would still lead to black. You know, of course, that I couldn’t tell this story if it did. No, it didn’t lead to black. Finally, I met Death! After 4 long years of burning hatred (well, okay, I’m embellishing a bit) I was finally given a chance to outsmart Death and leave his purgatory. All I had to do was make him cry. Child’s play. Like the Sacred Mountain it was a cinch after that, with but a few nervous moments sprinkled throughout (so that’s what the paint brush is for!), and at long last a climactic clash well deserved.
King’s Quest VI certainly stands as my lengthiest adventure, and I don’t know if you can call a starting point a turning point, but it was a turning point for me in that I would never stop (by choice) engaging in the art of video game play. It’s appropriate then to let this story serve as a new turning point, personally, in which I strive to channel my energies both positive and negative into therapeutic and, I hope, entertaining storytelling.
The classic point-and-click adventure game format has always fascinated me. We are swept through a series of beautiful paintings, drawings or renderings, and see exactly what a guiding hand wishes. But what do we see beyond? In an era where game developers strive to deliver us with unprecedented power and the tools to sculpt change in their worlds which we desire, what place does an unchanging world have?
As a child, in that opening scene on the beach, I furiously wanted to take control of the camera and turn it around to see what Alexander sees. What’s out there? A seagull perched atop a drowned mast? Rocks? Mermaids? Only now do I understand that his expressionless face staring out at the sea is already perfect: he sees a vast ocean filled with potential, an unwritten future; or is it emptiness? Uncertainty? It’s all of those: it’s the unknown. I choose to face it.
Part two coming soon.
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