Video Games I Have Loved, and That Have Loved Me Back:
Part Two

by Michael Channing


Civilization box art I'm not sure how Joe got this game. He had it on his Macintosh but didn't have the manual. So everything about the game was a mystery. It kept surprising us with new military units, technological advancements, diplomatic strategies, and world wonders. We discovered Paper, and that led circuitously to Democracy. The technology tree kept growing and branching, and every limb was a new, exciting possibility. I wanted to play the thing all night. Joe wanted to meet up with a guy who knew a guy who could hook him up with some LSD.

He kept checking the time and saying he wanted to go. I kept telling him I would not go with him to buy drugs. So we kept playing. Joe would mention how late it was getting; he was gonna miss the guy. I shrugged and built the Hover Dam. But the guy's gonna be mad. I invaded Russia. Eventually, it got too late. When I drove home that night, I cranked the radio to keep me awake. "All this science," Elton sang, "I don't understand." I didn't either, but I knew what friendship was.

Lemmings 2: The Tribes

Lemmings 2 box art What do you do the summer after graduation when your friends knock on your window after midnight and coerce you to slip out for a joyride? You go to Walmart, of course. At least that's what we did. It was the only place open. We wondered around and were drawn inevitably to the Electronics section. Here's something that may surprise you: Walmart used to sell computers. There were three demo machines set up and plugged in, so we, as was our right as teenagers, turned them on and started messing with them.

There was no internet then, which meant three minutes of Solitaire and Mine Sweeper pretty much exhausted the computers' possibilities. So we took games off the shelf, broke open the seals, and installed them on the computers. No one stopped us or even looked our way. It was 3:00 a.m. at Walmart; they weren't getting paid enough to care.

The game I chose was Lemmings 2: The Tribes. I had never heard of Lemmings before, despite the fact that it was one of the most popular series in the 90s. A Lemmings game works like this: You are tasked with guiding a tribe of little green-haired creatures from their starting point on each level to the exit. They walk in a conga line in one direction until they meet something that affects their forward motion. If they hit a wall, they turn around and march the other way. Or they splatter off a high cliff, or drown in a body of water, or get devoured by a ravenous beast, or are otherwise mangled by whatever snare is their path. They won't do a thing to avoid death until you, the player, tell them to. You do this by assigning individual lemmings skills. You can have them build bridges over obstacles or across gorges, dig through stone walls, fill in holes with sand, or any of a number of different jobs. The different tribes all have unique visual motifs and skill sets. The Sports tribe can throw shot-puts or pole vault over pits. The Space tribe has magnetic boots to walk up walls and lasers to blast through them. And if you screw up the level and need to reset, with one press of a button every lemming on the screen explodes in a burst of rainbow confetti. But when you successfully guide them to the exit, they leap to safety with a satisfying "Yippee!" It's a fun, addictive game.

Joe and Brian eventually abandoned their games and stood beside me to help solve the puzzles. There were 120 levels, so we would save our progress and return later to continue the game. I would wait up for Joe and Brian to tap on the window every night that summer. They didn't always, but when they did, we often ended up at Walmart playing Lemmings. My mom didn't mind. She trusted me and my choice of friends, but it was more fun to act surreptitiously even though I had unspoken permission.

When I tell folks this story, they often look bewildered. "You were eighteen, out of school with no responsibility, and you went to Walmart? Why weren't out partying?" I always want to say, "I remember what we did. And none of us got hurt. Can you say the same?" But I don't. I just back away and wait for them to explode in a spray of confetti.

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

Wizardry NES box art This was the original dungeon crawl. I spent hours roaming the labyrinths of this game one step at a time. I mapped out every level. There was something Zen-like about counting each space in the maze then drawing the walls and doors on my graph paper. Here was a world fully contained in a grid that I could explore, map, and know from corner to corner. The levels all looked the same, identical stone walls and wooden doors repeated over and over. But as I progressed, my party got stronger. We found better weapons and armor, learned stronger spells, gained enough experience through sheer survival to overcome greater and greater foes. I wasn't thinking this deeply into the game as I played it in my cinder block basement, but that is a wonderful metaphor for adolescence. Stronger every day, as long as you can survive the grind.

I translated my gaming experience into a short story, used the backdrop of the dungeon crawl as metaphor for discovery and growth. It almost worked. Though it wasn't any great piece of literature, my eleventh-grade teacher liked it. She recommended me for Governor's school, where I got a taste of academia, cafeteria living, and I fell in love every girl that called me a poet.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy computer game box art I love text-based adventure games, and Infocom made the best. You got the challenge of solving some insanely difficult puzzles plus the rich prose of a decently told story (some of the earlier titles had very little plot), starring you. And as I've said before, the illustrations drawn by your imagination are vastly superior to any modern-day graphics engine. Hitchhiker's is still considered to be one of the hardest games of all time, and I beat that bad boy all by myself. Which means I solved the babel fish puzzle on my own. That is something worth bragging about.

But beyond being a great game, this title brought Douglas Adams to my attention. I bought the novel on which the game is based hoping it would help me solve the puzzles. Beyond the suggestion that I learn to enjoy horrible poetry, the book was no help. But dear god was it funny. I tore through it and the other three books in the trilogy, reading them on the bus and during the boring parts of school. I constantly found myself laughing out loud and having to clamp my mouth shut to avoid detention. I went on to read the two Dirk Gently books as well, and they were just as great. When Mostly Harmless came out in 1992, Craig bought copies for everyone in our clique as Christmas presents. I have read all the Hitchhiker's books four or five times a piece. They're a riot every time. I always find something I had forgotten since the last read that cracks me up.

From an unknown game I spotted in a Radio Shack catalog, I found one of my favorite writers who supplied me with hours of enjoyment and entertainment, and I passed the books around to all my friends and got them hooked. So yeah, much love flows both ways between this game and me.

Dragon Warrior III

Dragon Warrior III NES box art I'm playing this one now. Have been for about nine months. It's a long game, but not nine-months long. So why am I so slow? I only get to play maybe an hour a week. If that. An hour may be all I can squeeze in, but it's a sweet hour when I can. One brief session at a time, I've explored the world, killed monsters, commissioned a ship, delved through dungeons, freed kidnapped children, laid to rest a troubled ghost, revealed an imposter king, and reunited lost lovers.

I played this game and its two predecessors in high school, and every time I sit down to play now, all those memories come flooding back. The joy of taking part in all those story lines, of increasing my character stats, discovering new weapons and armor, overcoming an ever-strengthening army of monsters. The game world keeps expanding. The quests pile up. These things are just as exciting now as they were back then. It's just as just fun to while away a bit of my time in a fantasy kingdom righting wrongs, slinging spells, clashing swords. It feels like my youth is still within reach, and my imagination is still firing on all cylinders.

Thank you, video games for keeping my memories sharp, my heart light, and for making the years flow in reverse for a few short, bright moments.

Love Shines in Many Forms

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