Raised By Screens is probably the closest I’ll ever get to a memoir – glancing back at the games I played as a child in the order in which I remember playing them, and focusing on how I remember them rather than what they truly were. There will be errors and there will be interpretations that are simply wrong, because that’s how memory works.
Something had gone terribly wrong: a PC had arrived in my house, primarily for use as a word processor, and for the first time it had seemed like I might be bang-up-to-date for gaming. Instead, the opposite had happened.
It just wasn’t cool, and that crushed me. I already knew on some level that it never could be – look at it, all beige and huge and keyboardy while everyone else was showing off their svelte black Segas and Mario-festooned Nintendos – but I didn’t expect something which seemed actively retrograde with it. Sport was not for me, and I lived deep in the countryside, too far to see or make friends, and so games were already becoming my soul food. I needed this. How could it have gone so wrong?
No sound, other than tinny bleeps and lifeless squawks. It was as though this 486 SX that had found its way into the corner of the lounge actively did not want to be used for games. It arrived hamstrung, without onboard sound, without the capacity to bring games to life. It was the clown who would not smile.
It was a huge let-down. Listlessly I played a few shareware shoot-em-ups and puzzle games, while the installation of Windows 3.1 a short time later provided temporary shelter in the arms of Solitaire and Minesweeper. I always eyed that Microsoftian pair with suspicion, despite giving them hours of my lonely time – there was an ugly whiff of maths to them, an educational wolf in super VGA sheep’s clothing.
I pestered and moaned at my parents. I reported with wildly exaggerated dismay about how the one other kid at school who had a PC had an Adlib card and how it was the best thing and how I was getting bullied for not having one too. A birthday loomed. A yellow-brown jiffy bag arrived from God knows where, and while I knew full well that the Soundblaster Pro 2 inside it had been bought to shut me up rather than as an act of mercy, by God I embraced it like the highlight of my young life to date.
That Soundblaster Pro also marked the first time I’d ever installed or otherwise modified any hardware myself. It was an important learning experience that I took to with relish, and is no doubt why I refuse to buy an off-the-peg PC or ever give up on a hardware or software fault to this day. It set me apart from those peers whose technical knowledge began and ended with ramming a cartridge into a cartridge-shaped slot, and I now regretfully suspect that it’s an aptitude I could have also applied to car maintenance or DIY if only those wells didn’t seem so poisoned by my father’s enthusiasm for them.
There was something else in that yellow-brown jiffy bag. Far too many disks, a manual, a yellow cardboard wheel carrying the names of diseases.
MONKEY ISLAND 2: LECHUCK’S REVENGE
DEVELOPED AND PUBLISHED BY LUCASARTS
Comedy point and click adventure starring a hapless pirate wannabe.
Monkey Island 2 was the first visual adventure game I’d ever played, though I’d been through a few text adventures on the Spectrum. The verb-based interface simply made sense as a result, and the very idea of seeing the scene play out in lavish colour was what sold me on MI2 far more than did the ghost pirates and spitting competitions. The rich, incidental detail-packed environments seemed like paintings to my inexperienced eyes, and with sound and music added to the mix I was, at last, in no doubt that the family PC was generations ahead of those Mario and Sonic things I’d once so craved. Monkey Island 2 is not a game I care to ever play again, but because it casually escalated what I’d thought games could look and sound like, and because of its confluence with system-building (and all the inevitable problems that come with system-building), Monkey Island 2 is what made me a life-long PC gamer.
I played the theme tune from the start of the game again and again, amazed by what I could hear, watching those damned monkeys dance and dance until the calypso beat was seared into my dreams.
I even recorded it onto cassette tape with a microphone, and tried to listen to it on a cheap and nasty Woolworths portable tape player at school. I’m sure it must have sounded awful, both at source and when copied. The ugly white speakers my father had picked up to accompany the sound card had as much bass as a basket of kittens. They also lacked any magnetic shielding, so there were invariably concentric half-circles of rainbow colour at each side of the screen, but I found this more fascinating than distracting – how far could the distortion spread before the monitor was unusable, or destroyed?
The funny thing about Monkey Island 2 is that I don’t remember finding it funny. I loved it, and played it through twice in quick succession, but my focus was purely on solving the puzzles and trying everything with everything, not on laughing. Some gags flew over my head I’m sure, but either I was too fixated on progress, and understanding this new world my screen and speakers were showing me, or… well, maybe Monkey Island 2 is more successful about maintaining a broadly comedic tone than it is at all-out jokes.
What finally dragged me away from seeing it as little more than a string of pretty puzzles was the game’s final sequence. The still-controversial suggestion that the events of both Monkey Islands were all in the imagination of a young boy at a theme park (writer Ron Gilbert has never shared the truth behind that reveal, though a different writer attempted to retcon it in Monkey Island 3) ate at me for weeks.
The fiction I’d consumed, be it on the page or on the screen, up to that point had been straightforward, reliably offering easy answers, heroic victories and everything neatly tied up with a bow, or at the very least a To Be Continued. To pull the rug from under me like that, and to leave question marks hanging, was something I’d never even conceived of. What was perhaps intended to be whimsical, and nodding to Monkey Island’s theme park ride inspirations, seemed impossibly dark to me. Was that boy OK? Where was he really? If he was in some hell, how could he escape? What had I just been doing for the last few hours? Had Guybrush Threepwood been lying to me, whether knowingly or otherwise?
I’d encountered an unreliable narrator for the first time. Could I trust anything?
Well, yes. because almost every other game at the time was narratively as straightforward as could be. To this day, very few games are prepared to toy with their players like Monkey Island 2 did. It was not the ending anyone wanted, but it was, perhaps, the ending that a silly game about ghost pirates needed.
There’ll be a new chapter of Raised By Screens every Thursday at 1.30pm UK time, until it reaches its end.