donderdag 3 maart 2011

my game design story, part 1: early childhood

When I was thinking about what to post on this blog, I figured that it would be interesting for readers to learn how I got where I am now. This might inspire readers with similar ambitions to get their hands dirty, and to start working instead of dreaming. In a series of (possibly long) posts, I will tell you how it all started for me, some 20 years ago. This is the story of my life, and my life-long dream of becoming a game designer. Since my memory is pretty much a swiss cheese with more holes than cheese remaining, my timeline or recollections might be a bit vague; however, I will do my best to be as precise as possible.

My first contact with video games came through my father. He was always obsessed by modern technology, and this spectacular new invention called the "computer" quickly caught his attention. It was no wonder then that, from an early age, computers were prevalent on our houshold, and thus in my life.

My dad, an amateur programmer himself, programmed some basic BASIC applications to let me toy around with the computer, and learn some stuff in the meantime. My first contact with computers was a fact. After that, some educational DOS games followed, as well as the first "real" games I got in contact with: the King's Quest series, the Leasure Suit Larry adventure games, and a freeware (yes, in 1990) ASCII game called Castle Adventure. I, being a wee lad at the time, could hardly understand anything that was happening, and obviously (and perhaps fortunately), the erotic undertone of the Larry games was also lost on me. But these "computer games" surely fascinated me, and I quickly got the hang of randomly clicking the screen until something happened and then clicking some more.

From then on, games would be a constant, but not yet important part of my life. I would be playing games casually all throughout my childhood. Some stuck with me more than others. I will now briefly discuss the games that, in retrospect, influenced me most, in the order in which they were released. This was the golden age of adventures, and adventures were pretty much the only genre my dad played at the time (he also never bought Lucasarts adventures, so I missed those - caught up with them since then though). Most of the games in this list will therefore be adventures.

  • Prince of Persia (1989) was a first in many ways. It was the first game to use rotoscoping (a form of motion capture) for its protagonist, resulting in unparallelled realism in animation. It also invented a new genre of platform games that is highly popular up to this day. It was also the first game that really got me hooked. I recall playing this game with my nephews whenever we were together and a PC was nearby; we played this game for hours on end, trying to figure out each level piece by piece. I played this game so much as a kid, that I can still finish the game at first attempt when I replay it today. For years, this was the game I wanted to make, and wanted to improve on. Many of my first attempts at making a game of my own were (failed) clones of Prince of Persia.
  • King's Quest 5 (1990) is the first adventure I recall that I somewhat knew what I was doing. I had figured out how the inventory worked, and how I could solve puzzles to advance the game. The story was lost on my, since I could not read or understand a word of English at age 6, but I understood the main plot line my looking at the pictures. I could follow along with the epic quest of King Graham to get back his castle and beloved family, and boy did I get immersed for the first time! The cursed forest at the start really had me running scared, as did the creepy end sequence where you sneak around the house, avoiding patrols and setting everything up for the grand finale, which was an epic spellbattle with the evil wizard Mordack. Since I did not really know what I was doing and ignored all the hints scattered throughout the game, this was by far the most difficult scene in the game.

    It's actually quite surprising that I finished this game at all (I also don't recall exactly how much I did myself, and how much my dad did), since this is considered one of the most unfairly difficult adventure games ever made, full of totally illogical and senseless puzzles which can stop any smart adult from ever completing the game. To be honest, the hint book I found in the box (I still have every game) also might have helped.
  • Lemmings (1991) was a very smart puzzle game, which required quick reflexes, out-of-the-box thinking and a lot of patience. This game, developed by what would later on become Rockstar and make one of the most succesful game series of all time (GTA), truly was one of the best games of the time. Along with Prince of Perisa, it had me hooked playing the game for hours with my nephews every Wednesday when we would get together at my grandmother's to eat pancakes and play (videogames). Not so much a huge influence as a huge time sink to me.
  • King's Quest 6 (1992). Now we get to the big one. If I would have to give one pivotal video game from my childhood, this would be it. By that time, I was old enough to understand the story and the context rather well (still without understanding a word of English), and I was old enough to immerse myself in the experience completely. This inspired story of prince Alexander, who would set out to a far away island penisula to save a princess, only to get caught in a web of local politics, conspiracies and mythical lore, is lauded as one of the very best adventure games of all time, and rightly so. It contains many fantastical characters, and mashes together some of the most interesting myths and fairy tales of different civilizations into a surprisingly adult game about death, betrayal and love, with different endings depending on how you play the game (a first in video games?).

    Playing this game at age 8 was like walking through the fairy tale stories of your childhood, while you were still a child! Whether I was exploring the maze of the minotaur, fixing the relationship issues of the red and white queen of chess, deceiving the seven dwarves or talking to death himself: this game captivated me from start to finish. As much as Prince of Persia inspired my first game design endeavors, King's Quest 6 inspired my creative writing and drawing.
  • Eco Quest 1 (1991) and Eco Quest 2 (1993), two somewhat educational adventures written especially for children, also influenced my imagination greatly. The first one was set in a polluted sea, while the second one was set in a polluted rainforest. In both games, the player played a young boy who would set out to solve the problems of the local population and take care of the evil men who were destroying their ecosystem. These games were quite a lot easier than the King's Quest series, and brought me a lot of fun as a kid. Several iconic scenes, such as the one in which you explore the lost Indian City of Gold (called El Dorado) or the one in which you explore a sunken Greek-like city which was re-inhabited by marine animals, have greatly increased my already quite vivid fantasy.
  • Robin Hood: Conquest of the Longbow (1992) was another game that really pushed my fantasy into overdrive. This game (loosely) tells the story of Robin Hood, reimagined by Christy Marx. It contains all the parts of the classic Robin Hood story, but imbues it with a rich story, interesting, multifaceted characters and a bit of celtic druid magic. This game was quite dark at times, featuring some pretty dreadful imagery and adult themes (witch burning, oppression of the population, corruption, religion fanaticism). The puzzles were smart, and imaginative, featuring things as hand reading and magic gemstones. (This is probably where my fascination for different gemstones started). This game is also regarded as one of the best games of the adventure era, and is a must-play for anyone to date.
  • Laura Bow 2: The Dagger of Amon Ra (1992) is a horror detective game set in an Egyptian museum were suddenly a horrendous murder takes place. The building is locked down, and anyone is instructed to remain inside until the murder is solved by a detective on the scene. However, more murders happen, and eventually Laura Bow (the protagonist) must solve the mystery on her own lest she be killed in a violent fashion as well. This game, while a very good (and absurdly difficult) detective game, is only mentioned in this list because it first confronted me with another emition: terrifying fear. When I watched my father play this game late at night, one of the murder scenes got me so scared that I could not sleep for the entire night. In retrospect, the scene is quite silly, but it really shocked me to death as a child. This is the first and last time in my life that a game, movie or anything else got me so terrified. No horror movie, horror game or shock movie on the internet shocked me so deeply as this game. Which is, I guess, quite an achievement on its own, and a reason to put it on this list.

The Game Boy, while released in Europe in 1990, did not get to me until a while later. It would mark the start of the second part of my childhood, and will be discussed in the next post. By 1992, I had also started making games of my own: on paper. I will also elaborate on this is the next post.

4 opmerkingen:

  1. ik wacht ongeduldig op deel twee! less-early childhood? :)

  2. Karel, de blog is materiaal om te Twitteren en Strawberry Cow Bear kan je als 'bedrijfje' misschien al plaatsen op LinkedIn. In Twitter ben je met de hashtag #indiegames onmiddellijk vertrokken.

  3. Why didn't your father ever buy LucasFilm Games/LucasArts games? They were said to be extremely excellent! Zak McKraken, Maniac Mansion, Grim Fandango ... I wish I could play these right now.

  4. No idea. Grim Fandago is too recent thought, at that time I was already buying all games myself.