In the current gaming climate, people might mean any number of things when they say ‘I play computer games.’ They could be playing World of Warcraft or like Starcraft 2 or something, they could be playing independent Flash games on some media hub, they could be playing FarmVille on Facebook, or stuff like that. Or they could own a sweet high-end PC and be playing stuff like Crysis or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or something.
But when I was a kid, playing computer games meant I took a CD out of a box and played adventure games using a keyboard and mouse. And the paradigm that preceded that was even more interesting, when there were no mice, and graphical limitations meant you were generally navigating weird and visually-crude landscapes through a series of text commands like ‘GO N’ [to travel north], ‘OPEN BOX’, ‘KILL SNAKE.’
Perhaps as a consequence of their simplicity, these games were often sadistic, toned in the voice of a designer who’d made the game all himself as if for the explicit purpose of fucking with people. Oh, hey, you’re in a church, the text on the screen explicitly points out there is a bell rope, and the rope is one of the few well-drawn items on the screen, so you type ‘PULL ROPE’, and hey, wouldn’t you know, that causes the bell to fall down on you, you are dead, want to try again? Hope you ‘saved’ recently.
As a child of six, seven, eight, clinging to vintage games on my dad’s old computers in the finished basement we used as a family ‘office’-slash-laundry room, the experience of playing these relative dinosaurs could be outright frightening. I’d sit stock-still at the machine in the silent cold of the basement room, the only sound the ominous thunder-rumbling of the clothes dryer, presented with minimalist caverns, foreign prisons, a square cursor blinking softly like a beating heart, awaiting my next move.
The thrilling intimidation and wonderment was enhanced by the fact that I was young enough that I didn’t really always know what was going on. I could understand concepts like spaceship airlocks, cannibals and hazardous saloons, but that a Hare Krishna would give me a magazine if I gave him a flower? WTF is a Hare Krishna. Why did I have a knife, how could the ever-increasing list of inventory objects I accumulated possibly be useful in a desert, things like that.
Fortunately, the very nature of these games lent themselves to trial and error. Sometimes you would die if you tried the most reflexive course of action [see: pulling the bell rope], sometimes basic intuition was essential [like ‘GIVE CANDY TO CHILD’] to receive a key or something. Ultimately much of it was wonderfully nonsense – the digital absurd – and yet irreplaceably satisfying. Success, through a combination of provocative experimentation and logical care, felt like subverting some asshole just as much as it felt like I’d conquered the world. Tons of what you’d call ‘retro’ design concepts are coming back into style; I wish people would make some sadistic text-based adventure games like these again.
Escape From Rungistan: Still don’t know if ‘Rungistan’ is a real place. I think you were put in jail by Russians, maybe? In the beginning of the game, you have to catch a mouse as it blinks across the screen by feeding it the cheese from your meal tray. Forget why. Anyway, the premise is you start out as a prisoner in a hostile country, and escape somehow involves getting out of jail and stealing some skis from a cabin for a LIVE ACTION DOWNHILL SEQUENCE that I have never beaten ever in my life despite the fact that the game is still available to play at this virtual Apple site.
Death in the Caribbean: ‘Death’ as the first word in the title is your first clue. This game tries to kill you constantly. Step on an ant hill? Die. Encounter a ghost in a cave? Die. Incorrectly rig a child’s red wagon with a rope? Fall off a cliff. Walk in the wrong direction? Die. Why was this fun, again? Probably because its graphics were ‘sophisticated’ or ‘rich’ at the time relative to the simple line-drawn games I’d been used to in Escape From Rungistan. It had a mysterious pastoral air, a compelling strangeness, with palm trees and an old church [of cursed bell-rope fame]. The game says you have a map, yet tells you DO NOT BOTHER LOOKING AT THE MAP should you try to read it. Play it here.
Gruds In Space: Don’t remember what this game was supposed to be about, except it starts you on some space station and tasks you with figuring out how to type stuff into keyboards. It is where I first learned the word ‘console’. Then later you’re on an alien fuel mining colony. There are little green men with whips. Became fixated with getting the whip from the little green man, think you may or may not have been able to do so by giving him a coin you found lying around in the middle of a cratered planet. Play it here.
Critical Mass: Man, eff this game. I mean this in the best way. This game starts out with the word ‘LITHIUM’ on your office wall – yes, I learned about anti-psychotics from a computer game when I was six – and immediately plunges you into an ‘action sequence’ where you must type the word JUMP at precisely the right moment to save yourself from a plummeting elevator. That elevator thing put the fear of god in me. To this day, I cannot enter an elevator without a fleeting memory of that game – what if this thing plummets, and will JUMP-ing at the right time save me? I have no idea why I played this one so devotedly; the sadistically chipper tone seemed to beg me to defeat the designer, or the game was so cruelly illogical (and so brightly colored!) that I wanted to master it. Just like in Escape From Rungistan, however, my progress was stalled for all time by an action sequence involving waterskis (no surprise: same designer). Play here.
Kabul Spy: When the current war in the Middle East began to make the names of foreign places familiar words through the evening news, I heard the CNN reporter say ‘Kabul’ and I thought, ‘oh, so that’s how you pronounce it.’ I’d been saying it wrong since I was a small child playing a computer game. This particular title, which casts you as an American agent who has to cross into Afghanistan from Pakistan to rescue a hostage scientist, was so terse and difficult that I made little progress at it. But there must have been something about its tone toward relations with that region that resonated with me even then, filling me with ideas about hostile prison guards, roaming brigands and a friendly guide whose company could ensure you safer passage.
Even recruiting a friend to help me puzzle out the game’s maps and traps didn’t much help – but it make us want to pretend to be ‘Kabul Spies’, sneaking through the woods and over muddy suburban streams trying to defeat Khomeni – who we thought was some mystical villain and not a real-world person. Weird. Here it is.