Origins: Orbitting the Hobby

Origins is a series of posts in which I reflect upon my earliest gaming memories as well as the events that shaped my tastes and understanding of games. The rest of the series can be found here.

I think it’s fair to say that I circled the hobby for a number of years before I ever got to play.

As a child, I was not what you would call a big reader. It’s not just that I didn’t read for fun, it’s that I would point-blank refuse to pick up a book. Even for school. Reading was something you did at school and reading at home just seemed like a sinister ploy to make school encroach upon one’s home life. I remember one teacher would give out extra credit to anyone who wrote a report about a book they had read in their own time. Most kids realised that this was a way of off-setting bad grades with easy good grades obtained for reading stuff they actually enjoyed. By the end of the year, I was the only kid in my class not to have written a report and the teacher wound up writing a letter to my parents complaining about my refusal to do the optional homework assignment.

I seem to remember that the conflict dragged on for a while and ended with me finding an old copy of Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja (1980) at a car boot sale, claiming that I had read it, and writing a report about it based upon the plot of the film American Ninja (1985). My reluctance to read fiction lasted well into my teens, the only exception being the Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Fighting Fantasy series.

I suspect that I was drawn to the Fighting Fantasy series by their covers. Growing up, my parents were not exactly attentive when it came to my media diet and I could easily get through two or three age-inappropriate VHS rentals on a typical summer’s afternoon. I don’t remember most of the films I watched in those days but I can remember having a particular fondness for the kinds of low-budget post-apocalyptic and fantastical exploitation films that were made in Italy after the Spaghetti Western had run its course and Italian studios were scrambling for something to do with their sets.

I remember that my first encounter with a physical roleplaying game was in a local bookshop that tended to keep their range of Fighting Fantasy novels on the same shelves as they kept their RPG materials. I can remember flicking through a D&D Module with a suitably garish cover and concluding that it was nothing but an entire book made up out of the tedious and incomprehensible bullshit they had at the front of every Fighting Fantasy book. Taking notes? Keeping track of numbers? Doing sums? It all seemed rather too much like school for my liking.

I spent my early teens drifting between age-inappropriate films and the types of games that got released on the Amiga in the late 80s early 90s. A lot has been written about the upbeat surrealism of early Nintendo and the thrusting adolescent machismo favoured by Sega but Amiga games were different in that the platform was ostensibly ‘open’ to anyone who could get their product into shops and without anybody worrying about brand identity or target demographics, Amiga games were often a lot weirder and darker than anything available for home consoles.

One of the weirder aspects of early home video-gaming was that there were no tutorials. Most games would have detailed instructions and a few paragraphs of text informing you about who you were and what you were supposed to be doing, but those were always in the leaflets you got when you bought the physical game and never in the games themselves. This was all well and good for the people who had enough money to actually buy games but I was barely a teen and like most of my friends, I got most of my games in the form of illegal copies.

The industry’s reliance upon paper leaflets to ‘teach’ players how to operate games meant that that the second I moved beyond simple sports and arcade-style titles, gaming became this weird existential search for meaning that involved wandering around alien landscapes, pushing buttons, and trying to reverse-engineer enough information about my character or the setting to actually play the game.

For example, I can remember an entire summer spent obsessing over the game Kult: The Temple of Flying Saucers. Kult was somewhere between a point-and-click adventure game and a sandbox-style RPG in that you woke up on an alien planet and immediately started collecting objects. These objects could then be used on people and things in the hope of advancing the plot but any transgression of the game setting’s unwritten rules would end the session as alien guards would turn up “en masse” and beat you to death. Given that thirteen year-old me refused to read books, it is perhaps unsurprising that, despite being able to speak French, I couldn’t work out what was meant by the phrase “en masse”. The closest my group of friends ever got to understanding the game over message was when someone half-jokingly suggested that it might mean ‘whilst masturbating’ and we were so horrified and amused by the image of a load of coppers running at you with their cocks out that we came to view the game as being set in a some kind of sexual dystopia where minor social transgressions would result in your character being gang-raped to death by the local constabulary.

I mention these kinds of oddball games and our even odder reactions to them as I genuinely think that they laid the foundation for my interest in RPGs as the absolute opacity of game narratives meant that I didn’t think in terms of stories but rather in terms of which actions individual games allowed me to perform. Regardless of which game I played, the range of actions always seemed both restrictive and arbitrary. Discussions with friends would often focus not only upon the frustration of not being able to do action X in situation Y, but also upon wanting to wander off and explore new areas of the games’ fictional worlds. In those days, we dreamed not of becoming heroes and winning battles but of exploration, mystery, and the kinds of freedoms that most adults take entirely for granted.

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