Sunday, 30 October 2011

À la Recherche du Jeux Perdus: La Quatrième Partie

Way back in the mists of time, I wrote about how Wing Commander's sense of freedom and power made my childhood self hungry for video games. I finished by saying that I found the next few years confusing as a result. You probably can't remember that. I wish you could do one of those "Previously on Battlestar Galactica" montages for prose.

Anyway, what I meant was that it was a long time before I found another game that gave me that same feeling. In those pre-internet days, I couldn't look up Wing Commander myself and find out what else the developers did, or what other games existed that were like it. I'd never been into a computer shop, and it didn't occur to me to do so. At that age I was spending my pocket money on books, LEGO and stationary (I'm really not kidding, I used to buy sellotape, pritt-stick and those little rainbow-coloured blocks of post-its. Heaven knows what I used to do with them though, it's not like I had any files to organise), and the only video games I'd played just seemed to "exist" on computers. I wasn't really aware of the concept of file storage and transfer, and I was under the impression that games were somehow innate to certain computers, like a person having blue eyes or the ability to roll their tongue.

You see, despite a career in the computer game industry (a three-month career Mary, don't get too excited) and a written portfolio that exists exclusively on the internet, I've never been all that good with computers. I think this is because until about two years ago, I never really experimented with them. At first, this seems strange to me, because I'm naturally curious as to how things work. I always found dissection class fascinating and my childhood shelves were always lined with books with titles like Incredible Cross-Sections and The Way Things Work.

I think what made computers different was the fact that I was scared of them. It's really hard to destroy anything by reading a book, and there's only so much damage you can do to an animal that's already dead. But computers were an unknown quantity, and I was afraid of breaking them if I delved too deeply. I can trace this feeling back to a time a few months after my discovery of Wing Commander, when my parents acquired a new computer.

I say "new", but it was really only new to us and I'm pretty sure it was someone's cast-off. Despite its lack of value, however, my parents were adamant that I stay away from its inner workings. It was an MS DOS computer, and once it booted, you were faced with a screen (in about 5 colours) with a numbered list of all the programmes installed.  

Option 0 was EXIT TO DOS, something that sounded to me like a pretty cool dystopian sci-fi video game. When I first sat down at the computer, my eyes shot to Option 0 (sounds cooler if you say Option ZERO) over clearly inferior competitors such as Option 5 (TETRIS), Option 2 (FROG GAMES) and the pretty dull sounding Option 8 (WINDOWS 3.0). I was right about the last one, it totally sucked.

But no sooner had I typed a "0" in the waiting box (you couldn't use the mouse outside Windows), my parents moved the keyboard away, looked me in the eye and told me very sternly never to "exit to DOS". Of course, that made it sound all the more exciting, so I exited "by mistake" as soon as they were out of the room. Then I had to call them back in and tell them my finger slipped, because their warnings were made manifest, I couldn't get out, and I was filled with a dreadful fear that I would destroy something. Possibly the universe.

They didn't know how to get out of that screen either, so we had to call the man who'd given us the computer in the first place and get him to come over and sort it out. For the next fifteen years, any curiosity I might have had about computers was replaced with fear.

I don't blame my parents in the slightest for damping my curiosity. I was a notorious fiddler, and would generally break anything that had the misfortune to pique my interest. Had I been allowed to fiddle with that computer, I would no doubt have broken it, and their own lack of computing expertise (this was the early 90s, I hasten to add, they're both much better now) would have meant that it wouldn't have been fixed for ages.

Anyway, I hope this goes some way to explaining why I never researched other games that would give me the same feeling as Wing Commander, why I never tried to install any games myself, and why I've almost always been a console gamer.

I don't wish to sound ungrateful. On the contrary, I'm quite glad I spent those formative years reading books and drawing rather than gaming. I still had an awful lot of fun with the DOS computer, and Math Rescue certainly improved my mental arithmatic. My sister was toddling at this stage, and I remember trying to convince her that Math Rescue was a film and that watching me play it was definitely more fun than playing on the computer herself. She wasn't fooled.

So although Wing Commander had sown a seed, it was on stony ground, and it would be a while before some fertile soil allowed it to germinate.

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