I was in a Gamestop today, finishing my shift and looking over the walls of games, making sure everything was how they should be before my shift ended. As I looked over the games some memory, long dusty in the back of my mind came to the forefront and surprised me. It was the memories of gaming when I was younger.
When I started gaming, it was something I could blame my dad for. He was an early gamer. I remember when I was about four and my brother was two, my dad would get home from work and sit on the floor in the living room, busting out the Atari. The room would become alive with bleeps and bloops as bright squares would shoot more bright squares at even more bright squares. I mean, it was Atari. But I knew what those squares were supposed to be. I didn’t see a bunch of pixels floating around the screen, I saw my dad in charge of a knight, battling enemies, defending the piece. I saw him pilot space ships against alien hordes. Patrolling mars to discover hidden threats to humanity. I watch my dad lose himself to adventure after adventure and eventually he caught my interest and got me into it as well.
I was amazed. I remembered that suddenly I was in charge of something huge. My dad was mid battle and suddenly he threw me in the cockpit. I remember how much fun I had learning to play and how everything seemed to calm down in the world when I played it. I didn’t have the smoothest childhood one could ask for but when the seas got choppy, playing games was like going below deck and weathering the storms.
As I got older, I eventually got my own system. At first it was a Colecovision. We’d go to this place called the Memphis flea market where I’d save up my allowance and purchase cartridges from people at folding tables for about three bucks a piece. I remember buying titles with names like Stampede and Burgertime. The impossible difficulty of the Smurfs game (seriously, play it on an emulator, it’s still hard). Playing games over and over and getting better at them.
Time went on, my parents split, and I was exposed to gaming a little less. My dad had the systems at his house and, as the child of dual custody I spent half the week at my dad’s house, half the week at my mom’s apartment. Then, one day, at my mom’s apartment, the kid across the hall got a Nintendo. I got home from school and heard music coming from through the door to his place. I’d later find out it came from a game called “Excitebike”. I remember hanging around in the living room, near the door, just waiting to see if he’d come out to play so I could ask him about it and one day I caught him. He couldn’t wait to show me. He had Excitebike and some game called Super Mario Brothers.
I was obsessed. I had never seen graphics like this in a game. While with the Atari and Colecovision I still knew what I was doing and who I was supposed to be, this really made me feel it. And, for the first time in a game, the screen scrolled. No more single room games where you’d hit the right edge and enter a new screen. This world rolled out in front of you like the red carpet of imagination. I didn’t fully understand the story but loved coming up with conflict in my head for why Mario and Bowser hated each other.
Then, one day, my mom got me a Nintendo for my birthday and it was incredible and with it, one of the coolest things, going to Toys R Us to pick out a game. Back in the day, Toys R Us wasn’t the place it is now. Now it markets primarily to adults, appealing to THEIR interests rather than the interests of kids. But in my day, holy hell. It was incredible. It was mecca.
They would have parades and giveaways. You could come in one day and suddenly find yourself sitting at a table engaged in a drawing contest to win a Nerf gun (spoiler, everyone won one) or you’d go there to find a parade of your favorite cartoon characters. People dressed in costumes that would be in character and interacting with you. Were the costumes horrifying, looking back on them? Sure. But to me they were the real deal and for that moment my heroes were real.
Even if nothing crazy was happening that day, there was always the video game isle. I remember entering the massive isle that was wider than all the others. It was brightly lit and absolutely bonkers. Behind glass cases were televisions playing the title screens for current games. Usually random ones that employees decided to throw in. And if you asked, an employee would open the case and let you play for a minute before telling you they had stuff to do.
And instead of boxes on the wall, there were flaps. Pictures of the front of the box hung from the wall. If you lifted the flap you could read the back of the box. If you were interested, you’d take a sheet of paper from under the flag and present it to someone who’d get the game for you. These were like passports to adventure for me.
Gaming was everything to me. I played with toys a lot, I went outside a lot, but gaming was special. I would get into the very story heavy games like the amazing Crystalis or Faxanadu where you’d go on a heroes journey, collecting items and getting stronger. Formats that the Legend of Zelda series would become famous for. And while the games were fun, that wasn’t the only reason I played it.
When I played Faxanadu, the people in the towns would talk to me. They’d tell me about monsters plaguing their towns. Quests they needed to have completed. They needed me. They didn’t just need me but the respected and trusted me. They put faith in me and felt I could deliver. It game me a confidence my life was sorely lacking. I played the games over and over again, improving, leveling, collecting items, going to the library to read the guides, everything, all because I didn’t want to let down all those NPCs that trusted me enough to put all their eggs into one basket.
It was my escape.
And threw the years it never stopped. Even into my awkward teenagers when I got my Genesis and later, the Sega CD.
The Genesis was a huge one for me. Much of my love of story telling and writing spawned from my time playing that damned system. Especially with a little game called Shining Force. Shining Force was this a grid based, tactical RPG that still holds up to this day. But it was one of the first games I ever had that had almost a perfect 50/50 gender ratio for playable characters. And when I played I built stories for the characters in my head. There was no benefit for this and often made the game a little harder but goddamnit, the redheaded sorceress needs to fight along side the elven archer because they’re in love you assholes! Of course, this was a habit I felt I was alone in until playing Fire Emblem: Awakening this year and realizing that the game actually added a mechanic where units fighting side by side WOULD fall in love and even get married. But back then it was all imagination.
Even now, years later, after generations of Playstations and Dreamcasts. Gamecubes and handhelds. It’s still an escape for me. It helps so much. I can have a day that ends with me feeling like a colossal failure only to suddenly open my 3DS and usher an army against an evil force. I can play Mirror’s Edge for the millionth time and be Faith as I run from a world gone horribly wrong. Or, I can even go completely meta and play the amazing Firewatch which is a game I escape to about a person who escapes life by becoming a firewatch ranger who befriends a woman who is escaping life who are being tormented by…well…spoilers. But let’s just say that game is all about escaping on every level.
I really don’t know where I’m particularly going with this article but having those memories kick back up in my head made me really think back and it helped me realize how much I owe gaming. For my sanity, for the inspiration to tell stories, for the confidence it gave me in life. Just so many things. Thanks gaming.