Mar. 31st, 2015

cislyn: (distant worlds)
I feel like talking about my history with games a little bit today. This will be a ramble. You have been warned.

The very first video game that I played by myself was Moraff's Revenge. I was 11 when Moraff's Revenge came out - my dad belonged to a Shareware of the Month club. He got floppies in the mail, and it was a thing I looked forward to. Most of the programs were nothing I was interested in - there was a typing program I found kind of fun, but mostly I just watched my dad tool around on the computer and used it to write my school papers (I was sort of insanely proud of being able to type my book reports and print them out).

We didn't have any game console systems. No sega or nintendo. No atari. I didn't have any friends who had those things - or at least who let me play on them. We also didn't have cable tv, because we lived way the hell out in the country with my grandparents. When I wanted to play a game, I had board games available. But, again, I was an only child living pretty far out in cow-pasture country. My grandparents were not interested in playing games - they had Adult Stuff to do. My dad would play uno or chess or connect four with me some nights, when he wasn't too tired. Usually, though, I played by myself. I became the queen of parcheesi, happily inventing different people to be the other colors and ascribing different stakes and motivations for the invisible gamers I was playing with. Usually, they were just Me from different timelines or universes.

That's not to say I didn't play some computer games. There were a few educational computer games we played at school - there was the ubiquitous Oregon Trail, and a trivia game which had a Great Awk. Camen Sandiego. That kind of thing. I think there was pong installed somewhere. And I treated the shareware typing program as a game, which goes some way towards explaining my 100+ wpm typing rate. Heh.

And then there was Moraff's Revenge.

Moraff's Revenge is a very basic dungeon crawler. It came out in 1988, so the graphics are very minimal. On one side of the screen is a top-down view map which gets filled in as you explore. On the other side is a 4-panel 3-d kinda view of the dungeon as you explore. As you walk down the dark corridors, you'll see monsters in the distance, and have the choice to run away or go forward and engage them. You could also spot things like doors at a short distance, if I'm remembering correctly.

I loved that game so much.

The computer was in the formal dining room, a room we never, ever used. Not even once. There was this huge big heavy rectangular wooden dining table, and two different cabinets filled with fancy china, and my grandmother always had some sort of big fake-flower arrangement on the table. The chairs were big and heavy. We always ate at the round table in the living room, comfortable and close and informal. The computer desk was shoved up into a corner of the room, up by the door into the kitchen. The printer was down below the desk, a snaky mess of cables. My dad had brought home a small cheap black office chair, and I spent way too much time spinning on it. I called it the Twirly Chair. When my dad was on the computer, I'd pull up one of the formal dining chairs and sit beside him, and my grandmother would stick her head in from the kitchen and frown at us both because she didn't like things to be moved around in that room. My dad showed me Moraff's Revenge the day he got it in the mail and I was literally on the edge of my seat as he rolled a character and got started in the dungeon. He looked over his shoulder at me and laughed a little and said "you want to play?"

Oh hell yes, I wanted to play.

Your choices were warrior or wizard. I chose warrior, and started my career bashing in monster brains and collecting copper coins and turning them into Jewel Pieces and storing them in the bank and gaining experience by sleeping at the inn. And in the back of my head I was already thinking about how this world worked, about an economy based on jewels when all the foes you encountered carried metal coins which weighed you down (gosh, the cheaper ones were heavier) and this dungeon which allegedly contained the fountain of youth. I thought about 'levels' and getting stronger by bashing in monsters, about running a shop or an inn (there were three to choose from - and the fleabag motel had a high likelihood of making you sick and/or getting your stuff stolen). Where did the potions and pills found in the dungeon come from? Who made the armor and weapons? What motivated the monsters to attack me?

I had all these questions, and I loved the game. I was devoted to this game. I pictured dungeon maps in my mind when I went to bed at night. I was helping out at my dad's office some days after school and on weekends, and he let me install it on the office computers too, so I had multiple games to play.

And I realized pretty early on that one of the things I was so fond of was that my character was never pictured.

The representation of the player on the slowly-revealed map is an arrow, pointing the direction you're facing. The views as you're walking through the corridors of the dark dungeon are sort of what your character is seeing. Your character is never in view.

It was great. I could imagine my character to be any damn thing I wanted. I imagined some days that I was one of the pixelated hobgoblins such as those I encountered in the dungeon. I could be female, male, a green slime that could shape itself such that wearing armor and wielding weapons made sense. I could be anything and any shape. There was always armor that fit me, if I had the JP to spend.

For a young lady becoming increasingly annoyed with and aware of her own shape and form this was amazing. I could be an adventurer. That could be me, leveling up. Making poor choices about where to spend the night. Getting new goodies and going deeper into the dungeon. There was nothing that said it couldn't be me. It could be me.

My dad subscribed to the shareware thing for a long time. There were other games that came across that little desk in the formal dining room. Commander Keen. Tetris. Once my dad realized how much I liked playing games on the computer (and how much he enjoyed it too) he started scouring the sales racks at stores and came home with Ultima games. Wing Commander. SimCity. Populous.

I started figuring out what I liked and what I didn't in games. And as much as I enjoyed a strong story element - good writing, good characters - what I found really engrossing were games where I could make up my own story. Where I could decide where I, the player, fit into the narrative. What was my character? What was I doing? Why was I doing it? And that was always easiest when there really wasn't much of anything representing the player on the screen. The Sim games and Populous were favorites - it was great fun to be able to play around with wide concepts, to build things. But Moraff's Revenge remained my favorite game, despite all its problems. Despite the fact that really it was quite tedious. Despite the fact that there wasn't much variety in monsters, equipment, dungeon levels, any of it. Despite the fact that 'winning' the game and finding the fabled Fountain of Youth at the bottom of the dungeon just gave you the chance to start it all over again with a slightly more powerful character.

I didn't care. I kept playing. Because it was minimal and allowed me to tell the widest range of stories. Because there was nothing keeping me from seeing 'me' in some version on the screen. Because dungeon crawling is damned fun, and it was fun to imagine ways it could be more fun, to mentally stretch and say "this game would be better with" and play with game design concepts. Its failings were its strengths and kept me engaged for years, sneaking out of my bedroom at the back of the house to tiptoe into the formal dining room and turn on the computer late at night, muting all the sound and playing when I couldn't sleep. Braving my grandmother's tsks and frowns to sit down in the Twirly Chair at the computer after I finished my homework (or at least after I said I did) to play just a few more levels before dinner.

I was in highschool, a senior, before I ever played a game on a gaming console. It was space invaders, and I blew away my boyfriend's score in one sitting. He was more than a little surprised, since I'd told him I'd never played any games on an atari before (I think it was an atari. Please don't revoke my geek license if I've got it wrong. I only played it, like, twice). I kept playing the things I liked, and had resigned myself to nobody having heard of Moraff's Revenge, or enjoying it if they had heard of it. I figured it was just one of those things. I played more games. I branched out a bit.

And then, a few years later, I discovered rogue-likes. This was everything I'd been looking for in Moraff's Revenge, and more. My character was represented with an @, and I loved it. When Todd showed me nethack for the first time, he was a little apologetic about that, saying that the graphics weren't fancy but... and I just nodded. I got it. No problem. And it was a dungeon crawl. Yes indeed. I've played a lot of roguelikes - a LOT of roguelikes - over the years, and found something to like and love in almost every one of them. Even the ones with fancy tile sets or graphics that put a representation of the player on the screen that's a little more sophisticated than an @. But what drew me in was being able to imagine whatever I damned well pleased. A D was the biggest, baddest, most intimidating red dragon I could imagine. And hey, y'all, my imagination is pretty great. I didn't have to rely on a graphic artist laying out, pixel by pixel, just what should intimidate me. I could see the monsters however I pleased, my character could be a chubby sorceress flinging fireballs (why don't we ever see any overweight mages? They're all skinny, I swear. At least the ladies are - I've seen a portly mage dude or two, complete with bushy beard over a gut, but I guess if you're a femme magic user you've just GOT to swank, for some damn reason) or a turtle person slowly trundling along in heavy armor or a bird-headed spirit waving around a staff. Anything I pleased.

I've seen a lot of conversations about representation in video games these days - well, in all kinds of media, honestly, but video games is getting the most pushback, from what I can see. I think about these games, the ones that showed me the world of possibilities inherent in games on a screen. I think about the text adventure games I played, the numerous dungeon crawlers (Mordor: Depths of Dejenol, I'm looking at you. Sooooo many hours sunk in that little game), the RPGs. The long conversations about story structure, about game design, about inventory management and what do levels really mean and the power-balance of magic versus brute force.

And I remember Moraff's Revenge, and how thrilled I was as an 11 year old girl to be given the freedom to imagine anything I pleased. Representation matters. What those games did for me - what nethack and other old-school roguelikes and many other games still do - is give me a chance to see myself in the game world, if I want to. I didn't have to rely on a programmer to think of me, to get it right. I didn't want to play 'games for girls' inasmuch as there were any available back then. I didn't want things branded pink, and I found bikini armor and half-naked ladies kind of laughable and sad in these worlds where violence was the answer to every problem and just about everything you met was going to try to impale you with something sharp and pointy. I don't mind level grinding. I really like dark dungeons. And if I ever make a game (and I've been talking with a good friend about doing just that thing) I hope I can make something that has even half the impact that Moraff's Revenge had on me. Something that gives people room to think, to imagine. To see themselves. To see a world where they could be the one who saves the day, or even just the one who completes the quest and levels up. It could be you. Why not?


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