Thursday, 7 July 2011

À la Recherche du Jeux Perdus: La Deuxième Partie

When I was growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to pilot a spaceship, Skywalker-style between planets: making friends, saving civilizations on and falling in love under a technicolour sky. I devoured books on space, built rockets out of Lego and wrote stories of adventure amongst the stars on small square leaves of paper from the pad that sat by the phone.

My parents were only too happy to indulge my enthusiasm, and childhood was punctuated by scale models of lunar landing craft (thanks Dad), spaceship-shaped birthday cakes (thanks Mum) and trips to the Science Museum. So it was only logical that when Apollo 13 was released, I was taken to see it at Portsmouth's first multiplex cinema.

As I gazed up at the enormous screen, my certainty about my future career path began to waver a little. It wasn't the fact that Lovell, Haise and Swigert were in mortal danger. Quite the contrary, all the stories in which I was the hero were filled with peril. No, it was the fact that the story quite clearly took place in the real world. Despite the intelligence and bravery of all the characters in that film (whether in the stricken vessel or in the control room back on Earth), the mundanity of their everyday lives jarred with my previous understanding of the life of an astronaut, most of which had been gained from reading Bruce Coville's "Rod Allbright Alien Adventures" series.

Of course I knew that real spaceships didn't have hyperdrives. I knew that humans hadn't visited other planets or made contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life. I'd spent enough time assembling Air-Fix kits of the Vostok capsule to realise that real space craft didn't look like the USS Enterprise. But Apollo 13 made clear something that I had been trying to deny up until that point. If I wanted to throw caution to the wind and break free from the rigid barriers of society, being an astronaut just wasn't going to happen. The sheer discipline exhibited by those exceptional people portrayed in Apollo 13 was entirely at odds with my childhood dreams of space travel and intergalactic adventure.

It was around this time that video games first entered my life.

In one of many creative environmental decisions they made over the years, my parents built, some time around my seventh birthday, a large garage in the bottom of the garden. Rather than keeping cars in it, they strung tyres and fenders from the rafters on one side (making an excellent swing set) and turned the other side into an office.

This office, an insulated plywood womb later christened "The Chartroom" served as the base for my parents' personal enterprises for several years. To facilitate these, a boxy grey Amstrad computer was installed from the wall using a metal mount which swung out majestically over a desk covered with navigational instruments. Although the household's first computer was an exciting event in itself, what drew me to it was its surroundings.

The Chartroom was windowless, lit only by a heavy angle-poise lamp. Compounding the sense of temporal distortion brought about by the lack of natural light was the fact that, as a room within a room standing alone at the bottom of the garden, The Chartroom felt far removed from the world outside. It got its name from the numerous nautical navigation charts that papered the walls, annotated in fine red pen with strange symbols that I never understood. In this strange environment, the Amstrad took on a mystic quality, and became transformed from a piece of office equipment into the cockpit of a spaceship.

So overactive was my imagination, that this illusion was not dulled by the fact that the only game in evidence on its dusty drives was a copy of Mah-jongg.

I don't think Mah-jongg was the first game I ever played, but it's the first one I can remember playing completely by myself. It wasn't so much Mah-jongg in particular that got to me, rather the hypnotic quality of gaming itself. The strange detachment of mind from body, the narrowing of the distance between what I wanted to happen (the moving of a tile from the top of the pyramid to the side) and what happened. By making the tiniest motions with my fingertips, I could change what was in front of me in a way I had never experienced before, and doing it in that otherworldly room at the bottom of the garden gave it an almost meditative quality.

Of course, this isn't entirely healthy. Games should do more for our minds than simply numb them. But that sense of being outside myself wasn't something I'd ever experienced before, and I wanted more of it. Besides, enthroned in high-backed office chair opposite a glowing monitor made me feel as if I was finally piloting my own spaceship. With no outside noises to dispel the sensation, I could be whizzing through the stars, if I wanted to be.

Eventually, however, Mah-Jongg began to lose its lustre. When it got to the point where I could clear all the levels without thinking, I knew I had to find something else. Though I knew little about games, or even computers, a fire had been lit. I realised that spaceships wouldn't take me where I wanted to go, but maybe, just maybe, video games would.


  1. Another great post, Mary! When I was a kid I wanted to be a detective or an investigative reporter, like Nancy Drew. We didn't have video games back in the Dark Ages--at least none of my friends did--but by the time I was in college they had started to catch on. I was living out my Nancy Drew fantasies as a journalism major at university, writing bad sci-fi in my free time and bopping to early Madonna and the B-52s. (Yeah, I'm old.) The game that sucked me in was Infocom's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a text-based interactive adventure played on a ca. 1984 Macintosh. Even with the deductive skills of a girl sleuth, I was never able to beat that game but, like Mah-Jongg, it opened the door to a whole new world.

    Thanks for the memories. :)

  2. Thank you Stella.

    I can definitely imagine you as a detective, and I imagine most people who have read your walkthroughs will agree.

    I wonder how much our routes into gaming shape the kind of games we end up playing as we get older, and how much is to do with our personalities. When I see my younger sister playing with her Wii, I think how integrated computers, technology and gaming are with children's lives now, and how only 13 years before, I was sharing shareware floppy disk copies of BioMenace with my friends.

    I like to think I would have had the werewithall to seek out games myself had I been born a bit earlier, but if I hadn't, I'm sure I would have been perfectly happy playing D&D with like-minded individuals.

    I would love to read your bad sci-fi...