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I often tell people I can barely remember what my life felt like before I fell in love with video games. There are probably a lot of folks in the gaming community who share that sentiment, but in my case, I’m actually describing a romance that blossomed just four years ago, soon after I had reached the ripe old age of 25. I probably don’t need to explain to anyone that 25 is rather late in life to start a gaming obsession. (I’ve learned that most gamers’ formative years take place from the 5th through 12th grades.) Admittedly, I can’t entirely claim to have had absolutely zero exposure to games growing up. I did play quite a few ancient DOS games in kindergarten and elementary school. My father, like many Asian dads, was a computer programmer. And even in the late 80s, when we lived in squalor as recent immigrants, we had our very own personal computer. My father loved games, so I was treated to Monkey Island, the most pixelated Duke Nukem in Duke Nukem history, and more obscure games I’m sure no one remembers anymore, like Dark Ages and Jill of the Jungle. Later on, I had my little mind blown by Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max Hit the Road, The Neverhood, and some game that I swear must have been a predecessor to Machinarium but whose title has forever slipped the surly bonds of memory.
As for console gaming, my dad owned an Atari, an NES, then a Sega, and a Super Nintendo, but the puny, almost nonexistent library of games we actually purchased for these was beyond sad–Duck Hunt, Aladdin, Ecco the Dolphin, Sonic 1 and 2, and some weird, random Japanese fighter pilot game.
So what derailed me from my seemingly promising path towards gaming maturity? Why, the seemingly promising path towards Asian maturity, of course! And keep in mind I’m talking about Asians circa 1995-2002, not the crop of Asians who have effectively made StarCraft the new national sport of South Korea. Life was soon consumed with grade grubbing at school, joining 20 extracurricular clubs, and doing the bare minimum to nab the VP/P position in each (look – I’m not proud of what I did), running in circles on a track field so I could include a sport on my high school résumé, attending piano school on weekends, and crushing the competition towards rank #1. Each day was a highly regimented routine that progressed like clockwork and I suppose I didn’t detect it then, while I possessed the vigor of youth (wish I had some real Vigors), but I was slowly snapping the tension cords, popping the cogs, and overwhelming the pressure valves that held my psyche together. Collapse was inevitable. By the time I actually made it to the Promised Land, a proper Ivy League university, there was pretty much nothing left. But I shan’t bore you with that period of my life–my own Dark Ages, if you will.
It wasn’t until I met my husband, who relentlessly worked to impart his love of gaming upon me, that I saw the light and became a born-again gamer. With what magical title did he finally win me over? What fantastical gameverse possessed the power to reawaken my spirit and thaw the long forgotten imagination? Trumpets, blare! Drums, roll! It was…Tim Schafer’s celebrated classic–Psychonauts! All hail the mighty, meaty minds of Double Fine and their fearless leader! (Yes, I also stand by their 2009 release, Brutal Legend; if you want to fight me on this, bring it on in a stage battle in the comments section below.) In retrospect, this all makes sense, since Schafer was one of the comic geniuses behind Monkey Island 1 and 2 as well as DoTT. I had finally come home.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Everything wasn’t coming up daisies right off the bat. For though you might think that my former youthful dalliance with the above-mentioned PC and early gen games would’ve greased the wheels for falling head over heels for more advanced titles, the chasm between point and click/side-scrolling adventures and 3D adventure first person shooters/third person action titles is actually—for countless folks—virtually unbridgeable. Unless there is an extremely motivated and convincing person there to push the poor uninitiated soul, kicking and screaming, to that first precipice and to force a confrontation with the formidable black abyss of inexperience (what I call “next gen controller anxiety”), s/he shall not pass. In short, I couldn’t wrap my fossilized mind around having to use one thumb for movement while controlling a camera with the other. So in infantile stubbornness, I ignored the right stick for as long as I could. I imagine a lot of people who have been in my situation understand the disaster of which I am speaking, especially if they tried their hand at an FPS right off the bat. You’d have the character moving forward while staring at the sky above or at the ground below until s/he walked into either an obstacle or invisible wall; only then would you know to attempt changing direction. And let’s not forget how challenging the left stick can be as well! To proceed in a straight line or to be able to judge depth successfully instead of constantly missing or overshooting those infuriating platforms was not an easy thing for me. (To read more about my own experiences staring at ceiling and floor textures, please come back for my piece on the second game featured in my “Basic Braining” program–BioShock, in which I literally had to practice walking around rooms and pointing my camera at various objects my husband would call out.)
As a result of these challenges, I felt like a stumbling stroke victim trying to recover motor skills and that’s often what my unfortunate characters looked like on screen. (Poor Raz.) But something about the world Tim Schafer had spun from his beautifully crazed imagination kept me moving, kept me searching for those mental cobwebs and figments and PSI cards and later in the game, my camp love interest, Lili, as well as, of course, all the lost brains of my fellow PSI Cadets.
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