Watching the Director’s Cut of the film Donnie Darko was a strange experience for me. The original was (and remains) one of my favourite movies of all time. I found it profoundly moving and satisfying despite the fact that I couldn’t really have spelled out what was happening with the rabbit and the drugs and the discussions of time travel. I was excited to see what would be revealed once Richard Kelly had the budget and freedom to express his original vision.
It was fine, I guess. If I hadn’t seen the original, I probably would have loved it. The time travel stuff was much more overt, and it was clear that there was now a “correct” way to interpret the film’s strangeness. But a good chunk of the magic was gone. By adding material and making things “clearer”, he had robbed the film of something important and meaningful. At the same, this was a surprise to me.
I’ve been thinking about how similar phenomena apply in games. This line of thinking was precipitated by two unrelated things I’ve happened across recently.
The first was a complaint about Dark Souls that came up on my Facebook feed recently. The poster was arguing that combined aspects of the game – from the brutal difficulty to the lack of tutorial and clunky interface – amounted to bad game design. Clearly, there are contexts where all of these things could be considered to be bad design, and yet they have in no way blunted the critical and player acclaim for the game. Dark Souls’ Metacritic scores are mostly in the high 80s, with only some aspects of the PC version’s port drawing serious criticism. So have the Souls games succeeded despite their “flaws”, or is there something else going on?
This is where the second thing comes in: while visiting my parents over the holidays, I picked up a copy of New Scientist magazine, and read this article about how the readibility of fonts influences comprehension. For those who don’t want to sign up for an account to read the full article, here’s a key quote:
It would be easy to assume that legibility also makes it easier to remember what you read, but in 2010 we discovered otherwise. Danny Oppenheimer at Princeton University and colleagues asked people to memorise a printed list of 21 features that characterised three species of fictional alien. The team found that although groups presented with the list in an ornate font had a harder time reading it, they remembered far more details about the aliens than groups who read the same information in a plain typeface such as Times New Roman. Oppenheimer later found the same effect among school students – they retained course materials better when it came packaged in a brow-furrowing font.
Having to decode the harder-to-read font switches on the dorsal parietal cortex, a section of the brain linked with attention and memory which is inactive when skim-reading text in Arial or Times. Of course, the extra effort involved is likely to cause some readers to give up in frustration, but the rewards are greater for those who do persist.
The equivalent surface layer in games would be the user interface (UI). Could it be that clunky interface elements that make a game harder to “read” actually serve to increase some people’s engagement with that game? Have dedicated players of Dwarf Fortress, for example, or the original X-Com, actually engaged with those games on a deeper level – at least in part – because they have wrestled with obtuse interfaces (and presumably won)? In a game like Dark Souls, which thrusts the player into a purgatory of repeated punishment and resurrection, does the clunkiness of certain UI elements in fact support the theme and draw those players who are willing to commit to to the experience more fully inside it?
Of course this logic extends beyond surface detail like fonts or UI – creative texts and inaccessibility have a long history. Few would consider font choice an essential aspect of a work (although why not, I now wonder?), but there are other ways to put up barriers to ease of “use”. A novel like Ulysses is not celebrated despite its textual density - that density is a fundamental aspect of the work. Many will find the book too challenging, and bounce off it (I confess that – so far – I am one of them); but for those who persist, the book’s chaotic construction is undoubtedly a vital part of the experience.
The reader is forced by these kinds of barriers to be more attentive than they otherwise would be. They may then be more thoughtful about their reading, and thus experience insights or feelings that they would otherwise have missed.
Dark Souls seems to be this kind of experience. Those who put in the time and effort to master its quirks speak about it with something approaching religious fervour, while those who bounce off do so quickly and forcefully. I say this as someone who sits somewhere in the middle – I loved the time I spent watching my cousin play the Souls games, scanning wikis and providing him advice and information to assist him on his journey, but that was a masochistic world that I did not want to personally inhabit.
My current conception of art is as a tool for bringing the irrational and the unconscious into the realm of the rational and conscious. It is a dialogue between creator and audience, and by nature a variable, subjective experience. There are many ways that a game designer (or any other creator) can facilitate the player’s leap beyond the rational, and obfuscation is one of those ways. If there are barriers in place, and we have to work hard to overcome them in the process of finding meaning in a work, then the knowledge we find may be less constrained by the limiting factors that can so easily be imposed by “rational thinking” on the part of creator or player, and the understanding we reach is likely to be deeper and more primal.]]>
Inside our virtual metaverse, The Walking Dead delivered a moving and emotionally-responsive narrative, while Day Z, XCOM and FTL gave players plenty of systems from which to spawn their own emergent stories. Text-game tool Twine took off in certain circles, providing a medium for non-programmers to express themselves through interactive fictions. I plan to play as many Twine games as I can over the holiday period, and report back on my favourites, put here’s an initial recommendation: Cyberqueen, from the most recent Ludum Dare competition (it’s entirely text-based, but probably NSFW if your co-workers have good eyesight).
In my personal world, my company – SeeThrough Studios – managed to win “Best Writing in a Game” at Freeplay 2012 for Flatland: Fallen Angle, which was very gratifying, and I made my first solo game: Purgatorio. (And I started this blog, of course.)
But much of my headspace this half of the year was dominated by game-related narratives that took place in the “real world”.
Most notably, these included heated discussions about games journalism’s cosy relationship with publishers and women’s struggles with the status quo of the industry. Feminism was a strong theme throughout the year, although it did unfortunately bring with it a whole load of ugly backlash, and even backlash-backlash. And then there was Kickstarter – Tim Schafer’s little experiment in crowdfunding fundamentally changed the possibility space in which games are able to be produced, and was potentially responsible for more web copy than any other single subject. (Also, lots of great projects got funded, and a few crashed and burned.)
The meta-story of narrative in games feel like it’s building to something. Even AAA shooters seem to be trying to say something more than “headshots are fun”. Exhibit A is Brendan Keogh’s long-form dissection of Spec Ops: The Line, a game that wants to a be the next chapter in the multi-media lineage that began with Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. And Far Cry 3 is supposedly a reflection on/criticism of the hyper-real nature of videogames, although it is highly debatable as to whether it succeeds (as John Walker’s fascinating interview with the game’s lead writer shows (beware spoilers!)).
Can ultra-violent games like Spec Ops, Far Cry 3 and indie wunderkind Hotline Miami really ask interesting questions about the nature of the medium? Or do they themselves slide too comfortably into the tropes that they claim to be examining? Is the most that we can expect from them that they begin revealing the negative space around what will prove to be far more important and interesting questions about just what games are capable of (beyond glorying in death and destruction)?
If so, then perhaps we can think of 2012 as a cliffhanger in the great narrative of the medium:
Our heroine, Jill Game, peeks through the keyhole set into the Forbidden Door. Her eyes widen in shock. But is that a smile playing at the edge of her lips, or does she have a nervous twitch? Tune in in 2013 for the next exciting installment!]]>
The most appreciative response I got was from Adam Ruch himself, who seemed genuinely devastated by the response his post had received. I was just calling it as I saw it, but he was thankful that someone else was willing to put themselves on the line over this. (For the record Adam and I live in the same city, but haven’t ever met.)
But I wasn’t the only one who was in his corner. Most interesting was seeing his conversation with Leena van Deventer. Leena is probably the most strident, taker-of-no-bullshit feminist games I know in person. Her Facebook and twitter often full of indignation at entitled men. (She also recently co-authored this article on the #1ReasonWhy phenomenon.) If one were to look at the recent gender/privilege conversation in a simplistic way, it would be easy enough to bundle Leena’s opinions in with the opinions of those who were attacking Adam’s article. But people are complicated.
Here’s part of Leena’s conversation with Adam:
@adamruch I hate this. :/ I hate that it’s happening. I don’t think it’s conducive to any good.
@grassisleena Me too. I keep oscillating between detached curiosity and genuine anger. Its very uncomfortable.
@adamruch I’d try and detach more, personally. But it’s a total judgement call. I don’t see the conversation progressing anywhere helpful.
Clearly things aren’t as simple as Us vs. Them.
There’s plenty more shades of grey to dig through. While at least one Nightmare Mode contributor all but called for Adam’s head, Patricia Hernandez – the site’s editor, and the person who originally approved both pieces – was fairly level-headed in her response, if erring a bit on the apologetic side.
And now here’s my own mia culpa – this Patricia Hernandez is the very same Patricia Hernandez whose writing I somewhat rudely critiqued in my very first post on this site. Now, after writing a post calling for people not to judge a writer based on a single, short piece of writing, I feel more than a mite hypocritical. I have since read more of Patricia’s work (specifically this incredible retrospective on Fallout 2, and this movingly poetic exploration of Journey), and can confidently state that she’s a far more interesting writer than I am. So I withdraw my criticism and apologise to Patricia unreservedly. And not just because she’s good. I should never have made the comment I did about anyone’s work – it was juvenile.
The other thing I came across during the course of this was a heartbreaking Twine game by Kim Moss, who wrote the original article that unwittingly led to this mess. At least I assume they’re by the same person – she’ seems to be a bit of an Invisible Woman of the Internet. Her game recounts her struggles as a young girl forced to join the boy scouts. I’m not a girl, and I was never in the boyscouts, but somehow I could totally relate to it. That makes it a true piece of art in my book. Go experience.
The last complicated person I want to mention is the one who sent me the only outright negative response I received in response to my post. It was from the same Nightmare Mode contributor I mentioned earlier, and came in the form of a tweet:
“fuck you, you don’t speak for me.”
I don’t remember ever claiming that I did, but maybe I’m just oblivious – all this is subjective, after all. I’m not keen on people talking to me that way – in fact it generally makes me feel really crappy. But I’m not good at confrontation, and in any case I’m a little confused about how to feel here: this particular person also writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which is my absolute favourite site on the internet, and a huge part of the reason that I am now in the games industry.
Like I said: complicated.
As a side note, the Nightmare mode twitter feed has noted that the massive number of comments on the controversy-stirring posts has led them to switch to an easier-to-moderate comments system, in the process deleting all of the passionate reader comments that sat underneath the two stories. Hardly anything has been said since – you can almost hear the wind pushing the tumbleweeds. I’m not sure how to feel about this – on the one hand, it seems to have diffused the conflict. On the other, it does kind of feel like history has been re-written. (Complicated.)]]>
I’m not sure I’m in the best head-space today to write this. Then again, maybe’s my glumness may be the perfect angle to approach this topic from.
Sheri Graner Ray (co-founder of Women in Games International) gave a great talk at GCAP this year about diversity in the games industry. And one of the main things she tried to get across was that continuing to frame these types of arguments in anger ultimately doesn’t get anyone anywhere – it just leads to backlash and further conflict. That’s why #1ReasonWhy and #1ReasonToBe were so great – they were about acknowledgement of a problem and hope for the future, rather than righteous fury.
I’m a thirty-something white, male human. I’m flawed and I know it. I just want to put that out there up front. Anything I ever say is quite likely to be wrong or at least biased, in some respect or other. This is what makes it hard to be a writer – every time I put anything out there, I have to fight the fear that I’m going to upset people, make myself look stupid or like a privileged idiot, or whatever else. And these things will undoubtedly happen, because nothing I write can ever express every nuance of what I want it to.
This is the problem with committing to publishing written words – cast out into the world, they are suddenly given a level of legitimacy. And there they sit, unable to respond or change as they’re interpreted and picked apart by any passing soul. The only way I will ever get the chance to build on or evolve them is by listening to responses from readers and thus engaging in discussion. (It’s interactive – like a game, or something.)
In this case, Kim wrote a short piece exploring a shortcoming that she believes exists with in-game romancing options, specifically singling out Bioware’s RPGs (probably because they’re among the few well-known games that actually give any kind of romancing options at all). Adam responded with his own piece, criticising aspects of Moss’s piece, while agreeing with others. I (or anyone else) could easily now write a third article in response, agreeing with some of Kim’s and Adam’s points and counterpoints, and disagreeing with others (as indeed I do).
Instead, he was promptly set upon by a number of commentators, accusing him of sexism and attempting to shut down Kim’s argument with his privileged, patriarchal views.
It could certainly be argued (as some have) that Adam’d analytical approach to the issue missed the point of Kim’s article. It could also be argued that there is some patronising phrasing in there, although the main example cited seems to be a misinterpreted attempt at self-deprecation:
“I have written before about very closely related issues, but it was in an academic conference paper in which I use words like ‘agon’ and ‘autotellic’ so is probably not something many people have actually read, so I will probably have to go back to basics here.”
I picked up on the humour in that, but I can see how people could miss it if they’re reading the piece through a different lens. It may even be a cultural thing, more than a privilege thing – (broad generalisation warning) in my experience, Americans tend not to use this style of humour as often as Australians do.
What’s my point? That perhaps there have been some over-reactions here. I don’t want to diminish anyone’s concerns, but it does seem like they could have (in some cases) been expressed in a calmer and more considered way, thus allowing Adam to respond in a reasonable fashion, and continuing the conversation that Kim and Adam had begun without making a pariah of someone who (from what I can tell) wasn’t deliberately trying to stomp on anyone else’s point of view, and thus also alienating anyone who might be sympathetic to his perspective.
Equally, I’d implore Adam to try and understand what led to this reaction, and engage with the people who found his article so offensive.
We’re all human. We’re all flawed. And it would be well to remember that nothing anyone writes will ever contain the whole truth about who they are or what they believe.
I could use a hug. You?
[Update: I've written a follow-up post.]]]>
As a new(ish) media form, it is natural to seek the approval and endorsement of the establishment (not pictured), even if only so that games can benefit from the kind of social support that is received by other art-forms. It is just as natural for the establishment to resist, proclaiming that what already exists is clearly more valuable than what is new. But is there something special about games that has allowed them to become so widespread in our lives, while remaining so utterly invisible when it comes to any acceptence of their cultural importance? There are no are likely numerous factors, but I’d like to look at a couple that I believe to be central.
One oft-quoted perception in mainstram media dismissals of games is content-based – they are looked down upon as ultraviolent and/or for children. But I have a suspicion that this is something of a smokescreen, an excuse laid down to cover the fear of the unknown. My belief is that what people are actually worried about is engaging with media in a new, more active way.
If you’ve ever watched a live show that involves audience participation, you’ve probably seen the reluctance of the average person to actively engage in the artistic process. In the pre-Internet age, we were trained to think of artists as special individuals, set apart from society, who underwent strange rituals to create works that they then bestowed upon us, complete and unchanging, to be passively consumed. This is the position Roger Ebert took when he argued that games could never be art, and this is precisely what makes games so unsettling to people on the outer – games require engagement and active participation. They can not be switched on at the end of a day and allowed to wash over us as we drift towards unconsciousness. They require us to step up, take control and participate.
Many people simply don’t have time or energy left in their lives to devote to yet another pastime, which is totally fine – if you prefer to garden or cook, or go on long walks, then that’s great. But others – even those who have devoted their lives to the study or art and cultural artefacts - can be struck by a kind of performence anxiety, which leads them to disparage that which they fear, instead of exploring it with an open mind (“I wouldn’t be any good at games, even if I was interestested. Which I’m not!”). Which makes sense – playing games is different. Unlike the audience of a film, the player must actively become a part of the story-creation process, become in a sense a hybrid of artist and audience, which seems a foreign concept in a world in love with rigid definitions. From this perspective, it can certainly be terrifying for an old dog to learn new tricks.
Which leads nicely to my second point. The mainstream media itself is in the midst of possibly the biggest upheavel it’s faced since it became a thing. Like games, the Internet was to many an alien planet, a frightening place which strips power and revenue from the grasp of the establishment, and allows (*gulp*) ordinary citizens to have their say (totally uncensored by the Editor). The transition from old media to new has been brutal, leaving many established players behind in its wake, and many others still flailing, their futures uncertain. So when we look at the “mainstream”, we are in fact looking at a thing divided – the shrinking business of print and boadcast television, and their new online counterparts, most of which are still struggling to find their msot effective form. Games probably have little relevence to the older, more traditional audiences of the former, while the latter are only just starting to catch on (see the Penny Arcade Report’s links to NBC). But they should, and they gradually will.
If there’s one thing the press knows, it’s that it needs to find content that people want to read. And here in cyberspace, there’s few subjects that can boast as ravenous an audience as games.
[Everyone interested in this topic should also read Sophie Houlden's blog post, Can Art Be Games?. It's brilliant.]]]>
In games, do you feel that you need to be able to let the players decide for themselves what’s meaningful or important?
CA: I think it’s fine to suggest a theme, and suggest a question to the player, but ultimately let them find their own answer in the environment. New Vegas obviously had one critical end point, but at the same time, the overarching goal of the game was just to find out where you stand with all these factions. Do you agree with their philosophies? All of them have good and negative points about them. Or do you feel that you have a better vision for the world? And if so, just go out and create your own story. I think that’s how you have to approach the narrative of games. Sort of like an open world narrative.
Read the entire interview on Gamasutra.]]>
In case you haven’t heard, there’s been something of a protest/solidarity movement happening on Twitter over the last day or so, with women (and supporters) posting under the hashtag #1ReasonWhy (in answer to “why aren’t there more women in the games industry?”). The tweets have been about bringing to light the rampant sexism and abuse that females have had to deal with due to working in our industry (or even just playing games). Go check out the thread – it’s pretty sobering stuff, although it has brought out a fair bit of love and support, as well (and the #1ReasonToBe tag is providing a more hopeful flip-side).
It’s great to see this stuff being brought into the open. But the discussion needs to keep spreading and deepening if anything is to change on a fundamental level.
I started Digital Spirit Guide with two main intentions – to discuss the ways that stories are told in and through games, and to share the stories of people whose lives have been changed (in whatever way) by games. Importantly, I want this sharing to be inclusive – highlighting voices that are lesser-heard in the mainstream. The voices of minorities within a group can often provide insight and wisdom that are lost to the majority, but which can serve as the catalyst for positive change. But these voices have to constantly struggle to be heard above the self-serving noise of the status quo (and are usually shot down even when they manage it).
It is my hope that this site can play a small part in letting those voices be heard. Katherine’s story was the first step in that direction, and it has been by far the most popular post I’ve put up so far. There are definitely people out there who want to read the stories of people outside the mainstream.
So without further ado, I’d like to invite all women whose lives have been affected by games to contact me and share your story. Whether you work as a developer, in the media, or just like playing games, I’d love to hear your unique tale. I want to hear stories that are positive or negative (or just plain fun); about playing games or making them; about in-game experiences and extra-game events. Feel free to use non-text formats if they suit you better, don’t worry if you feel like your writing isn’t up to snuff (we can collaborate on that), and I’m happy to change names to keep you anonymous, if necessary.
I don’t know yet exactly how I’m going to present any submissions I receive – it really depends on how many there are, what they end up being about, and what specific authors want out of this. But I can promise that anything I do publish will be my best attempt to authentically represent each individual story. And comment threads will be a troll-free zone.
(Note that I’m not being exclusive here – if you’re not a woman, and have an interesting game-related story to tell, please feel free to get in touch! I just felt that it was worth making a special point of inviting women to do so, as they are so often marginalised and excluded.)
Frankly, the more women involved in games, the better for players and the industry. In an earlier post, I talked about how Doom and its ilk killed the adventure game. But with that loss of story-focused games, I also believe there was a parallel reduction of female engagement with games as a creative medium. And that was a loss for all of us. Yes, shooting demons was fun for a while, but I’d much rather make and play deep, interesting games with appeal for both genders. And in order for that to happen on a wide scale, women need to be involved in production to the same degree as men.
Get in touch via the contact page!]]>
This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play.
This is the message that greets the player at the beginning of every episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead game. But is it true?
After finishing the final episode last night, I resisted the call of the pillow and had a bit of a dig around some spoiler-heavy threads on the game’s official forum. Like me, most people had really enjoyed the experience, but there was one recurring negative response. In essence:
“The decisions I make don’t actually change anything! Everything’s the same at the end! Telltale are liars!”
By this stage, I had already read a great deal about how specific elements of the game’s plot were altered based on in-game choices, and it certainly seemed true that most or all of the major plot beats would inevitably occur, regardless of which decisions I’d made. So a part of me wanted to grab a pitchfork and join the accuser brigade. There was only one problem: despite knowing what I knew about the limitations of the game’s plot-branching, I’d still loved the experience of playing, and I still felt as if my decisions had been important.
Thankfully, there were a few forumites rebutting the accusers, and it was through their responses that I realised what was actually going on: The Walking Dead is not a game about branching plot possibilities, it is a game about emotional choices and the relationships that form in response them. It’s just kinda, sorta pretending not to be.
Consider that most videogames are designed to appeal to logical, “left-brain”-style thinkers. Whether based around action, strategy or puzzles, games have always (with a few exceptions) been for the rationalist in us. They give us control, they give us some clear goals, and then they set us on our way. There are some who argue that a game without a defined goal isn’t a game at all, but a toy. These characteristics make sense in the context of the games industry: developers have in the past overwhelmingly been males with an appreciation for logic (that’s what games are built on, after all), and no great reputation for social and emotional skills. When we think of “choice” in games, we tend to think of either unstructured open worlds “sandboxes” or rigid branching story
In games that contain stories, plot is usually treated as one of those rational systems – an A to B journey (with possibly a choice of C) against which the important “gameplay” can happen. Rarely are characters or relationships portrayed with the kind of emotional depth you would find in a film or novel.
In Walking Dead, they are. In fact, the bulk of the gameplay consists of exploring emotional spaces. While the staged “you must decide whether to save character X or character Y!” moments are the most clearly dramatic, and thus get the most attention, the bread and butter of the game is actually the time-limited conversations, where you have to choose what to say on the spur of the moment, often with the result that someone or other thinks less of you. Actions may speak louder than words, but in Walking Dead, the bulk of your actions consist of choosing which words to speak.
Characters remember what you say, and will treat you differently based on how you treat them. And thus – while there obviously aren’t infinite permutations – there are probably at least hundreds of ways this emotional journey can vary from player to player. More than enough to make it feel like this was “your story”, even if everyone is tracing the same basic plot.
In the context of the quote at the top of this story, many are assuming that “story” equals “plot”. Indeed, that was my first instinct. But story has at its core something much more important – producing emotions in its audience. It is about meaning, and plot is merely a narrative shape that helps express that meaning. Branching plot means absolutely nothing on its own, and it is a good way to end up with an unevenly-paced story, and for a developer to spend an awful lot of extra money. On the other hand – if you can focus on varying the emotional journey of your story while maintaining the larger arc of the plot, then that seems to me like a better deal for both developer and audience.
So Telltale have not lied to us. But they have tricked us, by using the word “story” in a way that we are unused to in games. And I believe that they did this for a couple of very good reasons.
The first is marketing. Humans being the conservative beasts that we are, we’re very suspicious of change. We like the things we’re used to, and think they’re the best things that could be. Imagine Telltale had used this line instead:
Your relationships with other characters adapt to the choices you make. Your emotional journey is tailored by how you play.
This could easily have turned off a large portion of the game’s potential audience. Sure, it could also have brought in others (potentially more female players, for example), but the odds are that their original choice was the best way to maximise the appeal to existing “gamers”.
The second reason is that the illusion of a possibly-branching plot helps heighten the emotional impact of the choices that the player makes. But the important thing is that the illusion is just as effective as actual branching would have been. Ben Ebell has already written a great article on this point over on Bitmob, which is worth a read. But I just want to conclude by thinking about this notion of “illusion”.
Some may prefer to call what the Walking Dead does with its plot “cheating”, but in fact all art involves the creation of something out of nothing. And thus all art is – from this perspective – illusion. The trick is in constructing your meaningful story so that the audience can’t see the strings. Or – even better – so that its impact is emotionally powerful enough that they stop caring that there are strings. The Walking Dead is a great game (and in my view a great work of art) because by the time you see the strings, it has you by the throat.]]>
That’s all for this week! If you’re enjoying the blog thus far, then please let your friends know about it. You can keep track of new posts via RSS, or follow me on Twitter @unknownsavage.]]>
For years there has been unceasing and usually negative media attention on video games and the perilous effects they are said to have upon impressionable young minds. Computer games certainly did affect my mind in a profound way, though with a different outcome than that which is commonly feared. One series in particular, a role-playing/adventure hybrid called Quest for Glory, changed my life for the better and convinced me that anyone can help to make the world a better place.
I first started gaming as a young child growing up in the 1980s. Adventure games were my bread and butter; I have always loved to read, and these were like a huge, interactive story for me to discover. My big brother and gaming companion, Michael, let me play alongside him when it was “his turn” on the computer: him typing at the keyboard and me sitting right beside him piping away with “suggestions” (probably closer akin to orders).
As well as gaming, my other major love was music. Showing a lot of potential from a young age, I started violin when I was three and took up the piano some years after that. Practice and self-discipline were part of my routine throughout my childhood. Computer games were certainly allowed, but only after I had finished my other tasks for the day and only if someone else, particularly a parent, didn’t require the computer.
So: gaming, music and the balancing of those two interests were all well-established parts of my life by the time Hero’s Quest (later Quest for Glory) arrived.
I clearly remember thinking that this was a new and different kind of game. It still had the same storytelling element that I had loved in previous adventure games, but it felt that much more personal. It was ME who was the aspiring hero; my journey to discover the land of Spielburg and the problems facing its denizens. And this time I needed to practise my skills (something with which I was intimately familiar through my musical studies), in order to better myself and thus successfully carry out my mission: HELPING PEOPLE.
I completed my first play-through with my brother. We chose to play a Thief, as that was a class of hero we’d never seen in a game before that point. As a thief, we also had enough skill points to develop every single ability; we could sneak around, pick locks, AND lob fireballs at marauding brigands!
Michael and I played through the game, enjoying a story that had a much more humorous bent than we had previously encountered. We helped the Baron, defeated Baba Yaga and became the undisputed hero of the whole of Spielburg. There was a party and everyone came (including some characters we barely knew and some I was fairly certain didn’t like us at all!).
That should have been the end of it, right? Beat the game, celebrate – what’s left?
Usually the answer would have been another game, a different story entirely – but not this time. There was an option to – wait for it – save your character for use in the next Hero’s Quest.
I remember feeling elated with what was, at that time, a novel concept for adventure gaming. Wow! There’s a sequel? I get to continue my adventures using the very same character, picking up right from where I left off? That’s fantastic! Okay – I’m going to play through again and make sure I master every single one of those skills, so that I’m as prepared as I possibly can be for Hero’s Quest 2 (which would by then have become Quest for Glory 2, thanks to Sierra’s failure to trademark the name).
Michael was sixteen or seventeen by then and getting busy with school, so I played the second Thief run-through by myself. I repeatedly climbed trees, threw and collected a multitude of daggers and cleaned the stables until I was fed up with both the stable-master AND the horse. I worked all my skills up to a rating of 100 before saving my game for a second time with a feeling of relief and accomplishment.
I will admit to taking a break after that. But as time passed, the game drew me back in for a third and fourth play-through. Not only to discover new and hilarious story details that I had previously missed – but for the chance to try unique elements of the game that could only be experienced by playing as a Fighter or Magic User.
And so the years rolled by and the rest of the Quest for Glory games were released. Their powerful combination of story, humour, re-playability and a mission that mattered was a winning formula that kept me coming back to the series year after year. The only thing that made me even happier was when they introduced the paladin class at the end of the second game, Trial by Fire. I finally felt that my heroic experience was complete.
My story so far is probably similar to many people’s experience of the Quest for Glory games, and it might have remained the extent of mine, but for a twist of fate.
After finishing high school, I decided to study violin performance at university. I had entertained the idea of undertaking a combined degree in music and computer science, but such a combination wasn’t available at the time. By age 21, my life looked good. My studies were going extremely well, I was an Honours Scholarship recipient and I looked set to graduate with flying colours from my undergraduate course.
Unfortunately, it was at this time that I was involved in a motor vehicle accident. A car crashed into the back of ours and I suffered a whiplash injury.
For the first few months, the injury was concerning, but not horribly alarming; my ability to play violin was compromised and I had to defer my graduation by six months. I worked with physiotherapists and rehabilitation providers, and undertook an extensive pain management course. While I wasn’t healing quickly, I was still fairly confident that things were going to get better. Sadly, they didn’t.
There was some initial improvement to the soft tissue damage, but I was left with unresolved, chronic neck pain. Undesirable under any circumstance, it was definitely not the sort of injury that a violinist can shrug off. Most people would understand the severity of a hand injury to an instrumental musician, but playing the violin also requires the heavy and repetitive use of one’s neck, shoulders and arms. When you have a cervical spine injury, this becomes extremely painful.
It might be tempting at this point to shrug and say “No pain, no gain,” an adage that is often applied to the pursuit of excellence. It’s also worth noting that most musicians, like sportspeople, suffer injuries during the period of their working life. It’s normal and expected and had happened to me before.
This particular injury was not like that. This was a much more insidious condition that caused constant pain, unremitting at times, which was always aggravated after playing the violin. I managed the pain as best I could, but struggled to accommodate its new and unwelcome presence in my life. One of the philosophies of pain management that I was taught is to not give up on your activities and life-goals, and to keep finding things to keep you positive and motivated, but this was unbelievably hard at times. I kept playing the violin and went back to university, but I really struggled with the “positive and motivated” part.
It was at that point that I remembered something that had always filled that niche for me, and I decided that it was time for another replay of Quest for Glory. Immediately, I ran into some technical issues with running the games on newer operating systems, and so went searching on the internet to find a solution. This led me to a QfG-affiliated website called “How to be a Hero”. I started browsing, and took an amusing test to determine which class of hero I was. The result came back as “Paladin”.
I soon discovered the site was much more than a personality test. It was a community of like-minded people, many who were fans of QfG, and some who had just been drawn there because of the atmosphere. I still have close friends that I met through that community, some eight years down the track. It also allowed me to meet the creators of the Quest for Glory series, Lori and Corey Cole; to let them know how great an influence the games had had on my young life, and to thank them.
I completed quite a lot of writing during this period. Some of it was collaborative work, roleplaying and co-writing with others; some of it was pieces of reflection about the role of individual heroism, even at the smallest scale. This work helped me to strengthen and reaffirm my beliefs about striving to be a force for Good in the world.
The discovery of “How to be a Hero” could not have come at a better time. My life had suffered a major setback with the injury; I was dealing with chronic pain, a performing career in jeopardy and a marriage ending – all within a short space of time.
But, for perhaps the first time in my life, I started valuing myself as a person. Not because of my appearance, my talents – or even what I’d accomplished during my studies – but because of who I was inside and what I believed in. I strived to help others, and took small-but-consistent actions to try and improve my corner of the world.
Trying to make the world a better place, in the smallest and most humble of ways, is what gets me up in the morning. It’s what has kept me going through all my struggles with pain. Most of my energies are now poured into teaching, where I try to encourage young people to become not only better musicians, but better people – through kindness, empathy and positive actions.
I owe the Quest for Glory series a personal debt of gratitude for constantly being a force for Good in my life and inspiring me to help others. It has been over nine years since my accident, and I still struggle with pain on a daily basis. The sad fact is that it’s more severe now than it has ever been – I have to take strong painkillers just to function. So many times I have been tempted to give up – give up violin, give up working … even give up on my life.
It is the calling of aspiring to be a hero that keeps me here. So many people reach the end of their lives with regret for opportunities that they missed. If I died tomorrow, I can promise you that I would have none of those regrets. I see each day as an opportunity to leave the world a better place, even if that is as simple as deliberately brightening another person’s day. Kindness and personal heroism can be practised, much like practising an instrument: I say this with absolute confidence, having spent years of my life practising both!
Twenty-three years after the release of their first game, the creators of Quest for Glory have teamed up with a fantastic creative team and to run a Kickstarter (crowd-funding) project to try to secure funds to launch a new series of games called Hero-U (short for Hero University). I have used a portion of my accident compensation to make a significant pledge to the campaign, both as a way of acknowledging the original games’ positive impact on my life, and to hopefully pass on that inspiring experience to a new generation of young gamers (and also to keep it alive for us older gamers – I can’t wait to play!). The world could always use more heroes.
So whenever the media talks about video games as though they’re the worst thing for morals since … that other thing that was bad for morals, I just think of Quest for Glory – and how it inspired me to live my life in a better way.
With fifty-seven hours to go, the Coles still need to raise another $78,000 in order to meet their minimum funding target for Hero-U, which needs to happen if they are to receive their money. If you’re interested in pledging, you can follow this link.
UPDATE: The Coles’ Kickstarter was ultimately successful, scraping past its target in the final few hours. If you’re still interested in contributing to Hero-U, you can pledge via Paypal on the game’s official site.]]>