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Raised By Screens - Chapter 1: The Hobbit

The first game

I've written before about the games that 'made' me, but really that refers to a specific type of touchstone, the sort of game which informs the games I most enjoy today. There were many others whose formative effects are perhaps less certain, but at the time they seemed boundlessly important to me. They raised me. They helped fire a young imagination into life. They carried me away from problems at school and at home. They are, I suppose, family, and just like family, I don't necessarily have to think they're wonderful in order to know that they're important.

This is probably the closest I'll ever get to a memoir - dancing through 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.

Whirr. Click. Squawk. A tape plays, a screen flickers into life, a memory is born. A first memory of a computer game, of an introduction to what computer games were.

It's a hazy memory, and like so many of our earliest ones it's more a series of still images entangled with strange emotions and stitched together by the mind's own internal Chinese Whispers than it is a replay of events. The edges of those images are fogged out, like viewing a map by torchlight, leaving only hints of context.

A suggestion of a forgotten but familiar room; the outline of a wood-framed television set that seemed impossibly vast at the time but would no doubt seem like a dollhouse decoration next to the monstrous monoliths that rule our living rooms today; a father watching me carefully and curiously as, for the first time, I pressed my young and clumsy fingers to the alien rubber rectangles of his ZX Spectrum's keyboard. A cassette tape of course, and something tells me its label was yellow-orange. That cassette tape started something lifelong, something that began with two words:


1982, ZX Spectrum
Developed by Beam Games, Published by Melbourne House

Illustrated text adventure based on J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy novel for children. A powerful sentence recognition system and unpredictable behaviour from its non-player characters set it far apart from the simple commands and routine outcomes of other adventure games.

The Hobbit was a book. The Hobbit was Gandalf and Bilbo and Gollum and the trolls who turned into stone. The Hobbit was words and adventures, but to me it was also this cover:

It's extremely difficult to reconcile what I saw on a cinema screen recently with that image.

I didn't feel that same disconnect when I played the Spectrum game which bore the same name. Instead, that game almost immediately became an intrinsic part of the meaning held by 'The Hobbit.' To me, then, it expanded the definition of Tolkien's book and Tolkien's world, rather than robbed it of life and plausibility, as those vapid and - perversely - videogame-like Jackson movies do.

In truth, I don't remember much about the original game - still images again - but I remember the excitement and confusion of meeting Gandalf. I was talking to Gandalf, who I at the time regularly conflated with Jesus, and he was talking back to me. This was not possible. This was incredible.

This was a computer game, my first computer game, asserting itself over reality, becoming reality. This was a game doing all the things we now look to games, and the billions of transistors in the machines which play them, to do. Except it was doing it with this:

Bag End. Inconceivable. The hot pink carpet and apple-green door didn't seem the faintest bit unusual: I was beholding reality. I was transported.

Screens are everywhere now. One reach into our pocket and we can be transported to another place, have all our aspirations switch in a heartbeat from mortgages and lovers into dramatic battles and escalating points. Perhaps a child today will experience from Angry Birds or Minecraft the same shock and wonder I did when I was first shown that comfortable tunnel like hall, but more likely they will already have some concept of screen-as-portal even before then. I look at my phone too often in my one-year-old daughter's presence - she has no words, but she knows full well I'm going somewhere else whenever I fix my eyes to it. I hope her first game will startle her like The Hobbit did me. I hope it will suddenly fling open the doors of possibility and imagination for her. I hope she isn't already taking that for granted.

Next: Repton 3

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