Believe it or not, I came relatively late to video games. For the first two thirds of my childhood, my family had no television, and even after we got one — in my teens — we never got a game console. When I came to gaming I came through PCs, and again — I came late.
A lot of the kids I knew growing up had Super Nintendos and Sega Genesises(eseses), and of course when I went over to their houses I would watch them play some of their games. I have especially vivid memories of hanging out in a friend’s basement and watching, with mild bemusement, as she blew vigorously into the end of her game cartridge in order to get it to play. But though I enjoyed watching others play, I never played any of the games myself. Some of it was not knowing how and being a little embarrassed about that — again, I was basically That Weird Kid With No TV — but even given that, I really had no desire to learn how. The side-scrolling platformers that my friends played just didn’t interest me on anything but a very surface level. I didn’t look at them and feel any desire for immersion. They were interesting toys, but I didn’t really want one of my own.
I’ve thought back to that and tried to figure out why this was. I desperately wanted many other things that kids that age are supposed to be willing to trade non-essential organs for. Some of it, I think, was just that I was That Weird Kid. But more specifically, I now think it was that none of those games had any clear story for me to invest myself in.
Now, it’s not that none of these games had any story. In fact, now that I look back at some of the old documentation for these games, it’s amazing how much story there actually is. It just wasn’t obvious to me then, looking at them. The story was tacked on, but it wasn’t an integral part of the game itself. John Carmack, co-founder of id Software, supposedly once said that “story in a videogame is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” At least back then, I think this was partly true.
Not too long ago, my husband and I bought home a box of old Atari game cartridges from his house, complete with the Atari on which to play them. Two things struck me, looking at some of the documentation and then looking a the games themselves. One: these games actually do involve stories, and sometimes the stories — as outlined in the manuals (here are two examples) — can be extraordinarily complex. Two: the stories are entirely incidental to playing the games. You don’t have to know them at all, and if you play the games without knowing the stories already, the gameplay/graphics are simple enough that there’s really no way you could pick them up from the game itself. The story is there, then, and clearly someone expected it to be there — but it’s not there. It’s not in the game. It’s separate and apart. So at least in that era of gaming, Carmack was right: the stories were expected to be there, and might even be extremely complicated, but you could take or leave them when they came to the game proper. They were present, but they were not important.
Bookish little Sunny looked at these games — these games that appeared to be completely storyless — and went “meh”.
That changed when I found Myst.
The point-and-click adventure game format seems pretty well defunct today, and when I went back to replay Myst a few years back it looked very dated; given these things, it’s difficult to express what an utter breakthrough Myst represented, for me and for a lot of other people. I don’t even remember exactly where I first saw it; given that we only had a dinky little Mac IIci that I was barely even allowed to touch at that point, I know it wasn’t at my own house. But I remember being absolutely transfixed. It wasn’t just the sense of there being a story to engage with — it was the sense of being able to fall into another world. The visuals, the music, the overwhelmingly eerie atmosphere… I hadn’t even known these things were possible in a game. Suddenly it was as though the medium blossomed like a flower in my head. Games could be worlds. Within these worlds, you could tell stories. These stories could be every bit as powerful as the stories that you found in books and movies — perhaps even more, because you were in the story. Your actions were causing it to unfold. At least, sitting in front of a PC screen that would look puny by my present standards, this is how I felt. And it felt amazing.
Of course, these were all things that text-based adventure gamers had known already. But I didn’t know it. And again, with Myst, it was visual. It was the most seamless interface I had ever experienced. It was like being there.
I was hooked.
After that, I fell into hard, passionate, joyful love with the beautiful and frightening Zork: Nemesis (bear in mind that, again, I had no knowledge at that point of the earliest text-based Zork games) and the hilarious, Douglas Adams-esque Zork: Grand Inquisitor. These games featured wonderfully immersive stories, and often the writing was top-notch. From them I moved onto more adventure games (Starship Titanic is a prime example — anyone remember that one?), as well as games that edged into other genres. The tie-in games for The X-Files and Blade Runner actively attempted to add to the narratives of both of those canons. Diablo, despite being a lot of pointing and clicking, featured a fairly immersive gameworld — perhaps in part because there wasn’t all that much to its gameplay. RTSs like Starcraft — notably also Blizzard — backed up their gameplay with a solid military SF tale. Whatever I played, stories remained probably the most important aspect of games for me, even if I wasn’t really conscious of it at the time.
Something else that I wasn’t really conscious of: right around the time that Myst went big, games themselves were changing, and that change was a huge part of why I was able to fall in love with them. Carmack’s statement wasn’t so accurate anymore. Stories weren’t just on the backs of the boxes and in the manuals; they were in the games themselves. The games themselves told the stories, and the player was a participant in the storytelling. The gulf between narrative and gameplay was staring to close. The technology was developing, and as the technology developed, so did what was deemed possible in games. And as the realm of the possible expanded, so did the realm of both the expected and the important. Which stories were. Both. At once.
In your FACE, John Carmack.
Jay-kay, dude. Doom was awesome.
That’s actually a good note to end on, since the next hard, passionate, gooey love for me after adventure games came in the form of the FPS, and that’s what I want to focus on next week. Storytelling, shooting things, and why Valve is so damn good at both. In fact, the whole thing might well descend into a morass of Valve fangirling. But it may not. Tune in next weekend to find out.