When I was a child, there was always a computer in the house. I grew up with an interest in games, however most of the games my parents owned were violent; DOOMs and Quakes which I was permitted to watch being played but never to play myself. They wanted me to grow up some more before I was allowed to shoot demons in the face. However, I wasn’t banished from the computer entirely; whenever there was some free education game with a box of cereal or something small and non-violent I could play along. I want to tell you of the first ever virtual worlds I was allowed to explore. It’s not a story I’ve ever told anyone, but in me, and maybe in you, it may remind of that original, childlike wonder that all games had when we were young.
My parents both had a penchant for gaming so our Windows Computer was always fairly up to date, and what this meant was we always had a graphics card. Graphics cards came (I wonder if they still do come?) with technical demos, little ornate worlds as beautiful as the hardware could manage, showing off all the latest glossy 3D effects, but in every other respect utterly pointless. Virtual architectural follies whose only purpose is to demonstrate how realistic we can make surfaces look with this latest piece of technology.
I remember it vividly now, the purple marble tower, humming with some hidden energy, the deserted Egyptian mausoleum, the player would have a lazily executed jumping function, with gravity always wrong, spiralling particles, everything glimmering (or seeming to glimmer) with beauty. They were empty mazes to explore, endlessly, pointlessly. There was no objective, no secrets, just more rooms to visit, walls to press oneself against, jumps to make and fail to make and stairs to climb again and again. It was the simplest dreamscape, I remember I would tirelessly search every corner of these little ornate worlds, looking for every secret, even when I knew I would not find one. It was an imaginary space, it was -my- imaginary space, no-one else ever bothered to look at these things, I would be sat upstairs in the computer-room all alone, inhabiting this little folly of a kingdom of mine.
Maybe you remember the sensation, inhabiting the fascinating little world of Hyrule in some Zelda game, maybe for you it was Ultima, an Elder Scrolls, even some platformer, a Mario or a Spyro. It was the feeling of being in a place that you could understand, that you could explore and inhabit at your own place..having a home in an imaginary realm. I have never felt that wonder, that excitement and that sense of home in any game ever produced with a plot, or a purpose, more than in those early few tech demos of my youth.
What is the meaning of those experiences? Were the games some electronic Wendy Houses, is this nothing but a wave of nostalgia overwhelming my senses when I compare a tech demo to games established as the most meaningful and important of all time? I don’t think so. I believe the simple pleasure I found searching for the secrets I knew didn’t exist no less legitimate than the fun to be had in Zelda’s or Daggerfall’s purposely designed playground worlds. What all those tech demos had in common was they were fantastical, they were alien to me utterly, exciting just for the childish mind to have to play with. It was a reality utterly detached from our own, with its own rules loftily applied, rules which had no meaning or purpose in their writing. That I could jump so high, or launch a fireball that had no purpose but to disperse on the wall it hits, these were not tools for any task. Purely by accident of design there was a dark existentialism to these worlds, inhabited by a child. There was no purpose to these places, nothing was being proven, all they were being was being inhabited. And yet they were wondrous and kept me happy for hours on end, day after day and in some strange way I find myself missing them.
So raise your glass to the game without meaning, the world without reason and the home that never existed. Your designers may not have cared about you, but I do, and more than any high-minded RPG or philosophical adventure game, I think you’ve inspired me to do what I want to do with my life.