I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that my love of storytelling didn’t come from literature, or even film. Not originally, anyhow. A lot of it came from video games.
It bothers me to no end that I have to defend games as a medium. Truthfully, I don’t even like to call them games. I’d sooner call them interactive media or the like, but that just makes me sound like I’m calling porn “adult entertainment.” But many people, gamers included, see games as mindless fun. Nothing more nor less. And that they should be defined as mindless fun. To try and elevate the medium is pretentiousness, right? It’s trying to justify a time-wasting hobby as being nourishing.
Listen: It is nourishing. Between exercising the mind’s problem-solving skills to reflexes and hand-eye coordination, not to mention the increasing social aspect, there are a lot of positive qualities to even the most actually mindless games. All in moderation of course–you shouldn’t be skipping school to play World of Warcraft, but when something interferes with a healthy life, that’s an addiction, or a disorder, and it’s not limited to games.
I could go on forever about the medium. But I’m here to talk about one game in particular, and how it influenced me growing up.
It was called EarthBound. A cult RPG on the Super Nintendo about a thirteen-year-old kid in contemporary America (called “Eagleland” in the game) alongside his best friends, saving the world from cosmic horrors. It’s one of the goofiest, trippiest games to come out of Japan at the time, and that’s saying something. In a time when most RPGs were sword-and-sorcery fantasy, along comes this game where the hero uses yo-yos and baseball bats, orders pizza from payphones to heal, uses the ATM to get money, sleeps in hotels, travels via buses and bicycles, gets homesick, goes backstage of concerts, and fights hippies, taxicabs, pedophiles, ramblin’ mushrooms, wild ducks, possessed tents, and more. All done to a jazzy, ‘60s-’70s Western pop music inspired soundtrack. You can practically sing the Beatles lyrics along with some of the game’s soundtrack.
All this plus themes of courage and friendship and adventure. It was about leaving home and seeing the world–and not your usual fare of dark forests and magic castles, but of suburbia and big cities and wintery private schools and beachside vacation destinations. Sure there was a lot of weird, fantastical stuff too, like going to the dinosaur land or exploring the protagonist’s dream or the Lovecraftian future or the mirrorized city or the haunted town. But there was a real grounding there. Ness, the hero, came from a small house in a suburb with his family. He had a baseball cap and a scruffy, cowardly (but loyal) dog. He was me. And he had best friends that he saw the world with. This was my On the Road in the 1990s.
It was the first game that I’d played that was so chock-full of text that I might as well have been reading a pile of books. It had a quirky, but heartfelt story that I fell in love with. And from then on, I needed my games to draw me in with the story and the setting and the characters–a fact that continues to this day. “Fun” is secondary to aesthetic and narrative. I want art and I want story. Games got me drawing and they got me reading and they inspired me to create my own stories.
When I was in grade, oh, four or five, I did one of those reading evaluation things that teachers give you. And I was told that I read on a college-grade level. I was a quiet little kid who had little use for books, but I read more than most book-lovers, simply because all the games I loved were filled with words, back before everything was voice-acted. My reading skills came from games. And EarthBound was the start.
It’s my favourite game of all time. I will defend it to the death. It made me want to run away and have adventures. It made me write screenplays about psychics and mad scientists and aliens invading the suburbs. It made me play with my toys such that I had continuity and Homerian epic storylines. It made me want to build a house in the woods and let my friends move in. It made me love the saxophone and the Beatles. I can think of so many beautiful, iconic moments in this goofy kids game that I could make this post go on and on and on.
Ultimately, EarthBound gave my mind a fictional wanderlust. Ironically, despite being an electronic video game, it made me appreciate the beauty of the world outside my house, even if I could never run away for real. I look at the stars or smell the earth after it rains and I remember this dreamy feeling of wanting to put on my trusty baseball cap, leave home and save the world. Games like EarthBound provided this imaginary escape–the same kind books like Huckleberry Finn would do for readers instead of gamers. It was freedom. And that freedom is why I play games. And often, why I write.