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.
1992-1994 was the most formative period of my life in terms of gaming, and there are many people my age who’d claim similar. The bulk of this series will concern itself with those few years as a result. There’s a reason why the early 1990s are considered a golden age of PC gaming, given the explosion in breadth and scope. The audience was there, the technology was there, and even the biggest publishers were still too naïve to have a fixed sense of audience demographics or a reliance on focus grouping. If it could be made to sound spectacular, people would buy it.
The simple fact of a game concerning itself with aliens and dragons or wizards or cars or trains was enough to make young men (or so it seemed at the time, at least – my peer group was entirely devoid of women, so I simply cannot attest to whether there was any similar excitement amongst them) desperately crave them. Everything was exciting. Nothing yet had a category. A driving game was as appealing as a shooting game or a platforming game, or a flight simulator, because they all offered escape into impossibility.
I mourn the loss of this universal excitement, that part of me that found the idea of driving a race car as intoxicating as saving the world or destroying another. I mourn that so much has become humdrum due to ease of access, and my own entrenchment into perceived likes and dislikes. Back in 92-94, it was a whole new world opening up, one so much better than a life of homework, enforced sports and dinners spent listening to my parents arguing bitterly. It would be another two years until they separated, and home life grew ever-more toxic while my sister and I waited for that to happen.
Perhaps I’d never have turned to games quite as much as I did had we been a stable, happy family. I doubt it, somehow – the urge to tinker with technology and the inclination to obsess over the ephemeral is hardwired deep inside me.
Despite all the bombast of those emerging games, and despite a determination that I’ve since lost (hence eyeing something like Dota nervously) to try any and everything, I quickly developed a safe space. Point and click adventures didn’t ask too much of me in terms of skill (my inability to keep up with my peers’ fighting game aptitude had become bruising), seemed to offer the ‘best’ graphics and fed me funny lines to awkwardly repeat at school.
They, most of all, felt as though I’d gained entry to a place meant just for me. The reality, perhaps, is that they were a halfway house between cartoons and the grown-up television and movies I wasn’t quite ready for. They were safe, harmless, with only entry-level subversion. Training wheels, the colour and preposterousness of child laced with just a touch of something adult. This is why going back to them now always proves unsatisfying – to appreciate them, I need to devolve my sense of humour into something far simpler, far more innocent. For a time, I could enjoy them on the vapours of nostalgia alone, but increasingly that seems so very empty.
I played so many, lived for the release of a new one, and was at the time too unaware to associate a particular developer or publisher with more or less quality. Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist might well have come from the same people as Monkey Island, for all I knew. There was a dim sense that Simon The Sorcerer and Discworld might be British rather than American, but that was only because they starred Chris Barrie from Red Dwarf and Eric Idle from Monty Python respectively.
I can’t entirely separate out what I played in full and what I only experienced as a demo, because when it was a demo I played it through so many times that it lasted at least the length of an entire game. The Legend of Kyrandia; assorted Leisure Suit Larries and King’s Quests; Gabriel Knight. What’s clear to me now is that the ones that made the most impression came, inevitably, from Lucasarts, and the ones I did not think of again came primarily from Sierra. This is not an uncommon state of affairs.
It was Max, of Sam & fame, that I doodled on my exercise books, not Freddy Pharkas’s silver ear. It was the Monkey Island theme tune I somehow recorded onto floppy disk, not a refrain from a Quest game. I wasn’t aware of this distinction at the time, and yet I can conjure up an impeccable VGA version of the Sierra logo just by closing my eyes, so clearly something was sinking in.
Oddly though, it was the Goblins series that sunk deepest into my young mind’s wet clay. It was not a favourite of anyone else at school, but (as I have previously documented) it was one of very few games I played with my father. He and I were not close at the time; in fact our relationship was mutually antagonistic, and there are lasting effects on me to this day. I choose not to elaborate upon that now because he has been working hard to make amends, and to be the best grandfather he can to my daughter. All I’ll say is that to find something we could do together, and both enjoy, back then, was rare and precious. And just so happened to be a French point and click adventure game in which big-nosed cartoon monsters solved elaborate, often timing-based puzzles in order to progress to the next surrealistic area.
Gobliins, aka Goblins 2, was our going to the football. My fascination with the digital and his talent for analytical thinking combined naturally – he suggested solutions, I made them happen. We’d bicker like siblings too, as his idea proved wrong or my timing was off. We got there. We completed it together.
Goblins 3 (also known as Goblin’s Quest 3, due to Sierra belatedly coming onboard) was one of very few games I bought, and the first game I had to actively search for and request rather than simply stumble across, because I wanted to do that again. It didn’t happen, perhaps because domestic discord had risen too high, perhaps because he didn’t want to be part of that world – mountains and cars were his loves – or perhaps because it had one, rather than two, protagonists. Harder to share, in a way. I myself took to 3 more than I did 2 – I think its lone hero, with his tendency to transform into a werewolf at just the wrong moment, spoke to my increasing solitude. I loved his temporary animal friends, and mourned when a new screen did not feature them.
Goblins 3 marked an endpoint of sorts for my fascination with adventure games, perhaps because my father’s rejection of it cemented a sense that I must close the door on childish things. I’d return to the genre a few years later for the dramatically more mature Grim Fandango, but as I grew slowly older, I didn’t want cartoons any more. I wanted blood.