This week on Gaming Made Me, games journalist and scriptwriter Will Porter remembers less a particular game and more an era - when PC games arrived thick and fast, each one a bewildering new delight. Also, James Pond, GTA and Craig Charles.
When RPS asked me if I fancied adding my own memories to their growing pit of guest writers’ formative games I found it hard to choose. So many memories, each one untidily spread-eagled in a dusty compartment of my brain and all a few neurons away from associated thoughts that are in turn wistful, happy and occasionally sad. Music has the power to instantly transport you back to your old self – your old thoughts, your old situation and your old emotions – and as I’ve become older I’ve increasingly realised that video-games have the same power over recall.
When I think of the games I used to play I don’t just remember that the cheat code for James Pond is YngwieJMalmsteen, I remember the way life was while I remembered how to spell it. Without wanting to overly critique the approach my RPS overlords take to this, there is no way that gaming ‘made’ me. It’s a soundtrack to my life - and an interactive and a brilliant one. (Even if, with hindsight, Rebel Assault isn’t quite as interactive or brilliant as it once seemed.)
Although, thankfully, all thumbs are currently angled upwards - over the generations my family has had what can only be described as a rich and colourful adventure with mental illness. I don’t want to over-dramatise, whether the casebook is open or closed countless others go through similar experiences – some milder, some far worse. Looking back to the formative games of my early teens though, when my newly minted 486 was above all something of an escape mechanism, the emotions that get conjured up aren’t something that can be neatly summarised with a thousand words on the scary growling noise that Pinkies make.
When I think about the original Grand Theft Auto my first response is an almost Pavlovian triggered memory of the unholy ruckus that the noise of its sirens triggered in our household. On the, very odd, occasion that I think of Ignition (a top down Micro Machines-esque racer from 1997) I don’t recall its wacky zaniness – I remember the time I played it while directing typically adolescent and bloody-minded verbal barbs at a distressed loved-one.
It’s minor chord in a longer melody, and one that would soon hit crescendo with a long period of hospitalisation, but somehow it’s become my go-to recollection of one of the most difficult times of my life. It’s one of my most raw memories, infused with a large degree of personal guilt, and it’s framed by a fucking top-down arcade racer. Which I strongly suspect wasn’t even very good.
I’m not alone in this. When you first encounter them games are of a specific time and of a specific place. They’re a direct link to your past. Perhaps Speedball 2 instantly reminds you of a lost loved-one whose sweaty funk you shared in intense shared-keyboard sessions in 1991. Perhaps the very mention of Operation Wolf whisks you back to the arcade in Megabowl: that awful carpet at your feet, the smell of popcorn in the air and the first vague stirrings of adolescence bouncing off your insides as you furtively glance away from the plastic gun and over at the pretty girl in a shellsuit that’s putting 50p into The Simpsons arcade machine.
Games of every hue are mental anchors – lumps of code that occurred at regular intervals in your life that you can hang your memories around. The reason retro gaming has such an appeal is because it provides a direct and unchanging channel to your past self – someone probably very different to the person who struts around with your body hanging off him today. For many (and overall, of course, for me) the skies weren’t only bluer, the grass wasn’t only greener and the world wasn’t only simpler in games of yesterday – so too our memories of our lives while we played them.
So, returning to the subject at hand, which game made me? Which game provided the digital beat that set me on the course to doing what I do now – itself a strange mixture of games journalising, consultancy and script-writing? Hard one that. When I was at university Grand Theft Auto 3, Powerstone and (oddly) Wacky Races on the Dreamcast were formative. When I met my wife to be (and this is a story for another time, and nowhere as incriminating as it sounds) it was an abandonware erotic adventure called Vida: Interactive Girls. When I lived in America it was Half-Life and Deus Ex. They all nudged me down this very particular rabbit-hole where Pokemon trivia is rampant and the drinks are sometimes free.
What made me though, what genuinely changed my life, wasn’t necessarily a game – it was the magazine PC Zone and its monthly cover CD. I’ve bored you to tears about that magazine before, but it’s not so much its written content I’m talking about here – it’s the remarkable demos that were strapped to its front from the 486-era onwards. In the early-mid nineties every game was a revelation – and in the PC’s shareware purple patch vast chunks of games like Doom, Quake, Duke 3D and Descent could rub shoulders on the magazine racks in Tesco's.
I look back with something approaching pure and unadulterated happiness to when I’d sit on the bus on the way home, fondling my beloved issue and feverishly imagining what the games would be like once I’d reconfigured my autoexec.bat and config.sys. That anticipation was key. That feeling of knowing that you’re living through something as wonderful and fast-moving as the PC gaming golden age and, more than that, that you had the keys to a creative expanse that most around you did not. It was pretty special.
Everything was new, and everything was shiny. What’s more, somewhat unlike modern times in which when many gamers seem to knuckle down in favoured genres, back then you just played everything. Or at least the demo of it. A pool game where you control the cue with your mouse? Amazing. A Sensi-clone in which dogs and lady streakers could interrupt the flow of play? Jaw-dropping. A soldier voiced by Craig Charles? Mind blown. A top-down war game in which you have the control of individual tanks, apache helicopters and funny laser obelisks that fry all and sundry? Stop the clocks, we are at the start of something truly fucking magnificent. (Until around about the time of Red Alert 2, anyway).
Gaming got me through good times, and got me through bad times. Much as, I’m guessing, it did you. It’s not my hobby, it’s not a lifestyle and I don’t go around acting like ‘gamers’ are the oppressed minority that so many bleating internet automatons would insist. It is, instead, a vital part of me – of who I used to be, and who I am today. I wouldn’t be the same without it. And I certainly wouldn’t know how to spell Yngwie J. Malmsteen.