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.
Here we are, then. The big one. The game of games. The game that made me, that defined me, that opened my mind to new frontiers and possibilities.
Except it isn't.
Were I inventing my own mythology rather than recounting my history, it would be. To claim this game as part of one's own identity is to pin a medal on one's chest - "awarded for services to cultural achievement and for having a mightier intellect than your peers." Long-time X-COM players are prone to thinking we're smarter than the average bear, that we appreciated something the rank and file could not. That we are so very special.
I loved this game then as I do now, but it would be a barefaced lie to claim that love had any consequence, that this game somehow rewrote my perception of games, culture and the world. Truth be told, by 1994 the bulk of my growing up was complete. I've learned much, I've gained far more self-awareness and, particularly, I've softened a great deal in the 20 years since I first played an X-COM game, but fundamentally my course was set by that point.
To put it another way, the damage was done. Even X-COM couldn't save me from me. Games were and are an escape, but I don't believe they were still teaching me to think differently. 1994 me was a callow, spotty youth with few friends, no evident aptitudes and zero experience of the opposite sex, but while I've since been able to achieve societal norms and be significantly less concerned by my own failings, fundamentally I'm still the same emotionally paper-thin, awkward nerd I was back then. And I still love X-COM. Enough that the below is the only game in this memoir that I've dedicated two chapters to:
UFO: ENEMY UNKNOWN
DEVELOPED BY MYTHOS GAMES, PUBLISHED BY MICROPROSE
Strategy game in which your small army attempts to defend Earth from increasingly aggressive alien invasion. Known as 'X-COM: UFO Defense' in some territories.
I had little-to-no conception at the time that I was playing a landmark game, or even a great game. Whatever else may have changed since 1994, back then every game I played was of essentially equal stature, because it was a game that I was able to play. The mere fact of owning a game was enough to make it my obsession for weeks at a time. UFO was simply the next game on my list. It was only years later than I realised I could recall scenes and sounds from it far more readily than almost anything else I'd played in the first half of the 20th century's final decade.
There was, in hindsight, one clue as to the import UFO would eventually have for me, and that something about it spoke to me more convincingly than most other games did. (I have recounted this story on this site before, so my apologies if you're encountering it again. I suspect it has morphed slightly too, given that its details exist only in my increasingly unreliable memory).
The first hint I ever had as to its existence was on the cover of a PC magazine. Not a games magazine, but a hardware/software one, and not taking up the cover but a small image squeezed into its corner. The cover itself was some beige monolith, and its text blared about word processor reviews; it was not a magazine I wished to spend my minuscule savings on. The problem was that it promised me free games. The solution was that acquiring them involved calling a phone number. I didn't have to buy the magazine, or so I thought.
The magazine contained a code, which if read into this automated phoneline and accompanied by your name and address, would result in your being sent one of three demos on floppy disk. One was UFO, one was Sim City 2000, the other I'm afraid I can't recall. It's a testament to the effect UFO's mere cover art could have on a young boy's mind that it seemed almost as appealing as the hallowed Sim City 2000. Even then, I knew of Sim City, that 2000 was a huge deal, and that I craved it. But the small cover image of UFO was this:
It's a giant alien lizard-bug with spaceships for hands! Of course I had to have it. I've never quite recovered from the disappointment that no such thing ever appeared in the game, but the blow was softened enormously by what was in UFO. Still, Sim City 2000: that would get me bragging rights. I'd have to find out more about this UFO game some other time.
In my haste and excitement to get to a telephone, I neglected to realise that I had to turn to page a-hundred-and-something to get the code, and simply scribbled down the phone number which was printed on the cover. One agonisingly long (45 minutes, as I recall) bus journey later, I was home, at the phone, my blood frozen as a robotic voice asked me for the code. I'd already excitedly read my address into the receiver and shouted 'SIM CITY' when asked for a choice of demo - victory was in sight. Not without regret, however. That image, that rocket-handed extraterrestrial, stayed in my mind even as I imagined littering an urban landscape with arcologies. Suddenly, it was all academic anyway. Code? What code?
I spluttered something in panic - God knows what it was - and hung up. Foiled.
A week later. The postman. A package. A disk. Oh my God.
I presume whoever had to go through the recorded messages to that automated phone line heard my whimpering, high-pitched voice (I was terrified of phone conversations, even with robots) and took pity on me. Not pity enough to send the game I'd asked for, though. Instead, that disk bore a now-familiar image.
Spaceships for hands.
I got lucky, though of course I thought otherwise at the time. I'd play Sim City 2000 a few months later - a copy provided by a classmate, as always - but while I enjoyed it, especially wreaking elemental or alien destruction on my citizens, it didn't cast whatever spell it is that seems to embed a game deep inside one's brain. It was no UFO: Enemy Unknown.
Next week: why.