I’m on a boat: When the MCP was just a chess program

I’m on JoCoCruiseCrazy 2, and I’m taking an Internet vacation until I get home. So every day while I’m gone, something from my archives will post here automatically, for your entertainment. I had a lot of fun picking these different things out, and I hope you enjoy them again, or for the first time.

When the MCP Was Just A Chess Program

Originally published November 2008.

My extremely active imagination was forged in the playground fire of a childhood spent weak and strange. I read books while other kids played football; I played and wrote computer games while other teens went to makeout parties. While I couldn'’t get to second base on the kickball field at school or in Justine Baker’'s house, by the end of middle school I had taken the One Ring to Mordor, destroyed the Death Star, and designed and populated countless dungeons.

The real world was a pretty miserable place for a kid like me. I did everything I could to find ways to step out of it: one page at a time in a book or one quarter at a time in the arcade, the more immersive the game, the better. I was never a huge fan of Battlezone’s gameplay, but it remains the closest I’ve ever come to actually driving a tank. I always favored the sit-down versions of games like Pole PositionSpy Hunter, and Sinistar. They felt more . . . real . . . than their stand-up brothers, providing a cleaner escape from the kids at Pinball Plus who took pitiless joy in pointing out that my shoes were Traxx from Kmart, not Vans from the mall.

While game designers and arcade owners did all they could with cabinet systems and sound design (I defy anyone to tell me they didn’t want their Slush Puppy “shaken, not stirred” after a particularly rousing round of Spy Hunter, with music blasting behind their heads, their feet jammed down on the gas, and imagined breezes blowing through their feathered hair), it was our imagination that did most of the work of creating the alternate reality, especially on our console systems at home.

The earliest video games didn’t just encourage us to use our imaginations when we played them, they forced us to. Yar’s Revenge, the best-selling original title on the Atari 2600, has simple yet entertaining gameplay, but it was supported by an extraordinarily rich backstory, turning it into one chapter in an epic struggle for cosmic justice. When I was 9, I wasn'’t just chipping away at the shield while I readied my Zorlon cannon; I was helping the Yar extract revenge on the Qotile for the destruction of their planet, Razak IV, as illustrated in the comic that came with the game.

When I was 10 or 11, I arranged a TV tray, a dining room chair, and a worn blanket to make a small tent in front of our 24-inch TV set. I carefully moved our Atari 400 onto the tray and plugged Star Raidersinto the cartridge slot. I flipped the power on, picked up the joystick, and booted up my imagination as I sat in the command chair of my very own space ship. For the next hour, I was a member of the Atarian Starship Fleet. I was all that stood between the Zylon Empire and the destruction of humanity. Through my cockpit’s viewscreen (developed at great expense by the RCA corporation back on Earth) I blasted Zylon starships and Zylon basestars, and I would have defeated them all, if my meddling mother hadn'’t made me stop and eat dinner!

Over the years, I built bigger and better immersive environments for myself, using transistor radios and walkie-talkies to complete a cockpit with a Vectrex as the main viewer. I made maps of whatever jungle I explored as Pitfall Harry and hung them on my bedroom walls. I created star charts and galactic maps for everything from Asteroids to Cosmic Ark. When I copied game programs out of Antic magazine, I dimmed the lights and did it in the dark, because that seemed like something real hackers would do. (This probably explains a rash of headaches suffered by real hackers throughout the ’80s and ’90s.)

In 1984, after cutting my teeth on the Atari 400 and TI-99/4A, I got my first Macintosh computer. While it had word processing and drawing ability like nothing I’'d seen up to that point in my life, it didn’t have any real games, and its programming environment was confounding to the point of uselessness. There wasn’t enough combined imagination in the world to make MacVegas fun, especially when my friends with Commodores and PCs could show off a game like King’s Quest. I was despondent.

My disappointment softened when I discovered Macventure games by ICOM Simulations: DeJa Vu in 1985, Uninvited in 1986, and Shadowgate in 1987. While these games weren’t as technologically advanced or immersive as some in the arcades, they gave me access to worlds that were richer than the ones I'’d visited before. They felt less linear, less finite, and engaged my imagination in ways I hadn’t felt since I built my first Atarian Starship in our living room so many years before. And when I finished them, I got a diploma that I could print out – slowly –on my dot-matrix Imagewriter.

As I grew older and came of age in the ’80s, I looked to gaming more for stimulation and entertainment than for escape. I was still attracted to immersive environments, though, and loved games like Defender of the Crown and NeTrek. Around 1988 or 1989, an unlikely game captured my imagination and transported me to another world like nothing had before. Maybe it’s because I was such a huge geek, maybe it’s because I’d been reading Choose Your Own Adventure books since I was in fourth grade, or maybe it’s because I was working on Star Trek every day and my imagination was constantly in an excited state, but Infocom’s The Lurking Horror completely pulled me into its virtual world. It was just green text on a black background, and there wasn’t even any sound, but I was Flynn to its MCP. I spent hours – okay, days – exploring G.U.E. Tech and the nightmares therein. My imagination took the words and created something scary and real. I had finally found the totally immersive game I’d been looking for my entire life in my fragile eggshell mind, where I got to control everything from the sound of a floor waxer to the darkness of the steam tunnels. After I finished it, I played every interactive fiction title I could get my hands on, from Zork to Leather Goddesses of Phobos to Planetfall to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (I think I’ll get over Macho Grande before I get over my inability to capture the babelfish without using Invisiclues™.) 

My kids live in a very different world than I did. Their immersive, narrative gaming experiences are the space shuttle to my paper airplane. Several months ago, I showed my 17-year-old stepson some of the classic Infocom games that I loved when I was his age. After growing up in a world where our Xbox 360 is more powerful than every console I owned in my entire childhood, combined and squared, he could appreciate the historical significance but was otherwise unimpressed. (“This is what gaming was for you? That’'s weird.”) I was a little saddened, but it quickly passed. After all, when I was his age, I could only dream of one day putting myself into a living, breathing world like Liberty City. It’s a consequence of progress, I guess, and I’'m sure that one day he’'ll show my incredulous grandchildren these games he used to play that were confined to a television set. (“You had to use an external console, not a wetware chipslot? That'’s weird.”)

As I wrote this column, I got a jones to hop in a bathysphere and spend some time back in Rapture. I already finished Bioshock once, but it wasn'’t the plasmids or the music or the visual design that pulled me back; it was the story. It was a desire to experience Andrew Ryan'’s world once again, to find every single diary and explore every single room, to feel like I was back under the sea in that incredible place.

I played for several hours one day, discovering some new areas and reliving some half-remembered favorites. I eventually found myself under Sander Cohen’'s spotlight, pulled away only when my wife asked me –- for what was apparently the third or fourth time -– to come to dinner. I saved the game and shut down the console. After we ate, I grabbed my controller, and prepared to go back to Fort Frolic.

What I found was worse than a room filled with Splicers: the dreaded Red Ring of Death. To anyone who doubts the narrative power of modern video games, I submit myself: I felt like I was in the middle of a book, only to have it ripped from my hands and thrown into a fire. I felt like I was watching a movie, only to have the film catch and burn through somewhere in the fourth reel. It was fabula interrupta. 

Waiting for my 360 to get back from the gaming doctor and restore my access to Rapture and points beyond isn'’t as bad as one might think, though. I still have all my books and movies and hobby games and other nerdly escape routes. And, I confess, I keep a Z Machine interpreter on my Mac, so I'’m never too far away from an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.

10 thoughts on “I’m on a boat: When the MCP was just a chess program”

  1. I never had a games console because I was rubbish at them (but my neighbour had and I played regularly on his Atari 2600, always losing) and my first computer was a Commodore Amiga 500. Despite trouncing everything else graphics wise on the home computer market at the time, I still liked text adventures best because the environments in my imagination were always richer than 4600 colours could portray.
    Also, being German and learning English at the time, they really helped me building a working vocabulary much better than school ever did.

  2. I LOVED Sinistar! I was also big on other coin-ops like Asteroids, Zaxxon, Bosconian, and Galaga. Had the Trash-80 with the leaderless cassettes, the TI99/4a minus “the expansion box” (aka “the rest of the computer”) and even got to play around with a Timex Sinclair and Amiga at one point (the computer lab at school had Apple II, IIe, and even an IIc). Back in the day, I also had a 2600, 5200, Intellivision and Colecovision (even with the deluxe controllers). While reverse engineering programs like “Eliza,” I played a lot of “SpaceWarp” and “Pyramid.” Oh, the hours spent falling into a hole and dying in the dark because you couldn’t find the vending machine in the middle of the labyrinth, drop coins into, and buy fresh batteries for your flashlight. Since then, I’ve played other people’s console games but was too busy with computer, writing, and other stuff to play many of them (“Konker’s Bad Fur Day” was one of my favorites). Computer games were more accessible and (until the most recent consoles came out) generally had better and more sophisticated game play (Diablo! and Diablo II). WOW just seems like so much of a do-nothing machine that I can’t justify committing serious time to it (and I’ve tried it about four times). I’m anxiously awaiting Diablo III and fully intend to put life on hold long enough to get some serious demonslaying done!

  3. And this ladies and gentlemen, is why Wil Wheaton was the perfect person to read the audiobook of Ready Player One. Especially moreso, with the Zork reference at the end.

  4. Wil, My childhood was very similar, but I wasn’t quite the gamer as you. I read, stayed to myself a lot, and watched TV. I remember running home from school ( school got out at 3:30 and I lived almost a mile away) so I wouldn’t miss Star Blazers at 4pm. Its c so cool that you had a TI-99/4A. My dad was on the TI-99 design team so I had a complete set-up: memory expansion, 5 1/4″ floppy drive, etc. I also had a prototype Intelli-Voice unit on my TI-99/4A that was really cool.

  5. As a kid, I didnt like hanging out with others. I had one friend growing up, and spent time with him. But for the most part, I lost myself in books and video games. To this day, I Still boot up Zork, and wish I had a prybar to unboard that house. I was a regular at the local arcade, had a couple game records posted on the wall. Video games were a fantastic way to get away from the real world, and enjoy another one for a while.
    Many of the games today dont require the use of you imagintion. Its a shame. I like shooters, but I have veered away from them because games like Fallout 3, New Vegas and Skyrim put you into a world thats vibrant, full of interesting people, many more interesting than people in the real world, and you can stay there for many hours.
    I hope you get your console back soon. The chance to get away to a virtual world is very important these days.
    Now where is my copy of Bioshock….

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