Sunday, January 24, 2010

In My Parent's Basement

As a teenager, I spent countless hours in my parent's basement, a refuge for geeks, nerds and the socially inept since the advent of subterranean habitation began millions of years ago. My parent's house had a roomy, bright basement that was cool in the summer and warm in the winter and afforded me the creature comforts I needed: bookcases, sofas and a computer.
Down in the basement, away from the distractions of the outside world, I could think. I internalized my situation at school and bathed in peace and quiet as I wrote whatever I wanted.
Years later I understand what that antisocial space of my parent's basement really was: a laboratory for the person I'd become.
In the early 1980s, the personal computer loomed large as wondrous technology. If you had a computer, you were very fortunate. For entertainment, the computer was in its infancy. Arcade games still dominated the video game market, along with home consoles like Atari, Television and Colecovision. Personal computers were really nerd tools because the only people who understood them were MIT grads with pocket protectors and an encyclopedic knowledge of old Star Trek episodes.
One of the best computers on the market at the time was the Commodore 64, often referred to as the "breadbox" because of its bulky shape. I had a Commodore 64 and played games on it, although they weren't as sophisticated as the coin operated monstrosities that inhabited the arcades.
I played games by a Cambridge, Mass.-based software company called Infocom, which produced a line if text adventures. Instead of graphically depicting the action on the screen and having the player use a joystick, the game consisted of written text. You'd read the story and at the prompt, you'd type in a command for what you wanted to do next. The game responded by describing the consequences of your actions and in that way, you moved the story forward. Think of it as the computer age equivalent of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books.
I can't fathom playing today's console games as text adventures. Grand Theft Auto would be a totally different experience. It would be monotonous to continually type commands like STEAL CAR, DRIVE FAST, and KILL HOOKER.
Infocom's product catalog featured a variety of different text adventures, from their most popular title, Zork, to the science fiction-themed Planetfall, to mysteries like Deadline and The Witness. There was even a text adventure for Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and a ribald space opera adventure called Leather Goddesses of Phobos.
Playing these games wasn't only a fun way to pass the time during the paranoid-infused Cold War Reagan years. It also gave me a set of skills that I use today in my professional career. You might say that I'm the person I am today because I stayed in my parent's basement and scoured the Great Underground Empire of Zork, trying to solve multiple puzzles while staring at a blinking cursor.
Infocom's text adventures gave me a love for reading and the power of the written word to entertain. The games improved my typing skill tremendously. By forcing the user to type commands on a keyboard rather than use controllers suited for hand-eye coordination and motor skill, the text adventures made you familiar with a keyboard's basic orientation. With that familiarity, you just typed faster.
The enduring quality of Infocom games was that they allowed you to use your imagination, something akin to the paper and pencil RPGs that exist today. Imagination is a powerful and unique thing, making each game a different experience for every player.
Zork, Planetfall and the rest were training manuals that set the stage for me as a writer. For the first time, I saw writing used a different way, one that was interactive instead of static. My new hero was Steve Meretzky, who wrote the Infocom titles Planetfall, Sorcerer, Leather Goddesses of Phobos and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the Spellcasting series for Legend Entertainment. I also admired Al Lowe, the creative mind behind the Leisure Suit Larry games for his bizarre sense of humor.
As the years went by, I played more adventure games, both text and graphical. Adventure games were more challenging and intellectually rewarding than simple shoot 'em ups. You weren't just watching blips on a screen; you were steering the course of a character's destiny in a game world filled with puzzles and dangerous obstacles.
Though I liked playing, I wanted to actually write my own adventure games. I got my chance with a program called Adventure Writer that allowed users to program their own text adventures. This was like Prometheus bringing fire down from Olympus! For me, this divine present meant I could write the adventures I wanted to play on the C-64. I wasn't only a player; I'd be a game designer!
I read the 110-page manual, installed the software and began typing. I wrote the locations, the objects and thought out clever puzzles for players to struggle with. I developed my own game world, a distinct place populated by my unique brand of teenage humor. The final product was a horror game called "Night of the Undead Used Car Salesmen."
The game began with your intrepid hero waking up after a raucous party. You befriend an attractive but obtuse bimbo (as in most horror movies) and you both search for your missing neighbor who was abducted by zombie car salesmen who are holding his captive in an abandoned car lot overflowing with rusted Edsels, Yugos and Model Ts. Your hero has to break into the lot, rescue your neighbor and destroy the zombies.
Weird premise, but it was the first game I designed. I still have the old floppies somewhere but without a C-64 to run it on the game is like a fly frozen in amber, a world trapped on a disc.
My professional career path led me to a career in journalism, a far cry from writing about zombie car salesmen. My love for gaming still remains, however. I traded my C-64 for newer, faster computers and game consoles and I regularly play paper and pencil RPGs. This marriage of writing and gaming led to my creation of an RPG called Ravaged Earth, which was published in 2008.
Ravaged Earth was a crowning personal achievement. I've played many RPGs, but the chance to create my own and have a game company publish it was an amazing opportunity and fulfillment of a dream.
All those years in my parent's basement geeking out with rapture to adventure games and frivolous video-induced entertainment paid off. You never know where life is going to take you. Along the way, you're shaped by the most trivial and inconspicuous things. Mine just happened to be a basement, text adventures and a limitless imagination.

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