I woke up with a jolt, my hand resting on an empty bag of generic cheese curls, my fingers still stained orange from eating them earlier. How long had I been out?
I turned my head and faced the red, glowing eyes of the digital clock sitting next to me, dutifully blinking away the hours. It was 3:00 a.m., time to wake up. As I turned my head the other direction, I found myself facing a lonely stretch of rainforest on a mysterious island, drifting in an ocean no one had ever seen before. And, oddly enough, I had breasts.
This was The Longest Journey, a game I had first come to know the year prior. It remains my favorite game, and I love to pop it back in the CD tray for another adventure in a futuristic land now and again. But, months ago, I made a decision to completely integrate myself into the game world; playing the entire thing through; sleeping when April, the heroine of the game, slept; eating when she ate; and living the adventure side-by-side, as I guided her through the cities, forests and landscapes of the surreal world I had been through many times before.
I rubbed at my eyes, slid off the couch and made my body erect … sort of. I hobbled to the bathroom, my mind flashing back to the two-liter bottle of grape soda I downed prior to drifting off to sleep. As I switched on the light, my eyes shut and the world was filled with reddish-white tones passing through my eyelids. I closed the door, thinking to myself that being April Ryan was a lot of work.
This was new territory for me. I haven’t been an avid gamer since I put my Super Nintendo in a cupboard back in the late ’90s. Gaming progressively became more and more expensive and flashier, and lost something of the magic it had when I was guiding a pixelated Mario through a dark castle, carefully jumping, dodging and moving. (Why can’t that damn lava flow just move out of my way! Why? WHY?)
I lost interest, which was kind of a shame, considering my childhood was littered with videogames and gaming systems and Nintendo Power and my obsession with Link and his adventures. As I grew, the flash-bang of next-gen systems started to wear at me, and it didn’t seem worth the trouble (or expense).
Then, purely by happenstance, I heard of a new adventure game called The Longest Journey. Intrigued, and having been a big fan of the LucasArts adventure games, I ordered it. I started to bask myself in it before it even arrived stateside.
I was blown away. Never before had I so been immersed in an experience. Oh, sure, I cared about Guybrush Threepwood, Sam and Max, and Manny Calavera, but with April Ryan, it was more. She seemed real to me, as if one day I might shake her hand, begging her to regale me with her tales of excitement and adventure.
And, no, this is not something that makes me feel ashamed or embarrassed. After all, how many times have people said that they felt so connected to a character up on the big screen? Or, even more so, on the small one? One look at a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan board reveals the true meaning of the word “obsession.”
I suppose, then, this game I was playing is where one of my own fixations originated. As much as I’d like to step into the world of a film for a few days, I can’t. The narrative is lockstep and never strays. With games, however, it’s different. Linear or otherwise, they envelope you in them because you are them, and they are a part of you as well. They’re true escapism.
After washing my hands and cracking my back, making a noise that can only mean bad things for me later, I decided to take a breather from the strenuous task of saving the world and see what was on television, and maybe fix myself a sandwich. A hero’s gotta eat, right?
The first thing to flicker onto the dark glass was CNN. They were re-running a story from earlier in the day. It was about violence in gaming, and its effect on children. A stock interview clip appeared, revealing a gray-haired man, talking with Matt Lauer about the D.C.-area sniper, opining that the then-unidentified person was a videogamer, who trained videogames to learn how to kill.
“Sure,” I commented to the empty house. “I mean, I grew up with Super Mario Bros., and one day, out of the blue, I just started jumping up and down on people’s heads, waiting for coins to pop out their ass.”
I was probably being unfair. After all, the aging gentleman seemed to be dedicated to this idea: If only videogames with such content were placed under lock and key, the world would be all sunshine and rainbows. Problems with family, with school, with feeling isolated, with thoughts of revenge fantasies – none of it mattered. Videogames, they were the real culprits.
Yes, obsession manifests itself in very strange ways.
More recently, Hillary Clinton, no doubt gearing up to be the first party-nominated female presidential candidate, decided to attach herself to videogame violence as her latest cause célèbre.
She said she was drafting legislation that would impose a $5,000 penalty on retailers who sell adult-rated videogames to underage children. She also, skirting the idea that a non-governmental body rates videogames, asked the Federal Trade Commission to see whether the rating of the game that garnered her ire – Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – should be changed from “M” (Mature 17+) to the mostly pornographic “AO” (Adults Only).
A few other states are gearing up to pass legislation like hers. Some already have, though none has stood through federal courts.
There is a bit of a theory in regard to history, and how things progress. They seem to work like pendulums. An issue boils over – the pendulum swings down – and becomes center focus; and then, public interest wanes and it is forgotten – the pendulum swings up.
In the late 1940’s, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (more famously known as the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC) led a witch hunt to root out communists in the entertainment industry, eventually leading to the infamous blacklist of anywhere between 300 and 500 people.
Then the pendulum swung up, and there was no big entertainment industry controversy for a while. Then came the late ’60s and ’70s, arguably one of film’s best eras in its short history. Violence was explicit and splashed across the screen in such master works as Scarface, A Clockwork Orange and Taxi Driver. Would these films adversely affect the youth of America? Or the spirit and soul of the country as a whole? Shouldn’t we do something?
But that hysteria, too, passed.
So here we are, 40 years later, and a new focus has emerged: videogames. No longer a fun, if distracting, form of entertainment, they are now violent trainers for future Columbine shooters and snipers and suicides. There’s even discussions as to whether they deserve the full First Amendment protections we ascribe to books, films and music. The pendulum has again reached the nadir of its eternal rhythm.
I settled back in the black, wheeled desk chair in front of my computer and prepared myself to explore the mysterious island I had washed up on. I used a flute from my inventory to call for my friend, Crow, a talking bird that I had befriended the previous night.
Over the next several hours I met forest nymphs, helped reunite a giant with his crustaceous friends, and joined together two races that were separated by time, evolution and war.
It’s a feeling of pride, having accomplished all that, and in record time. While, in my heart of hearts, I know this is all just a strange fantasy world, I feel comforted by it. I wished so much that I could step onto the mountaintop where the flying Alatien live, or troll around the future-city of Newport, or even just take a breather in the cozy confines of the Fringe Café.
Alas, sitting wearing a stained t-shirt and my boxers in front of a glowing monitor in the middle of the night making jokes about having breasts is about as close as I’m going to get.
I stretched and stood up, watching as April passed out on the floor of the ship belonging to the cryptic Dark People. Come to think of it, I hadn’t really slept all that long, and the couch looked so very comfortable, and I was trying to stay lockstep with April.
Suffice to say, my mind was swimming in the waters of the Arcadian coast within minutes.
Reflecting upon my excursion into the world of Stark, Arcadia, magic, the future, dragons and monsters, I can’t help but think that videogames – the best videogames – combine some of the greatest elements from the plethora of art around us. They absorb an engaging visual storyline from the world of film, a feeling of connection with the main character as in a good book, and music that touches in all the right places.
So, it made me wonder how anyone couldn’t consider these works of art. If Al Pacino can tell you to say hello to his “little friend,” why can’t you crash into pedestrians in a world of little to no consequence to our own? After all, art isn’t all about beauty. Oftentimes, it’s a reflection of us. I play The Longest Journey because I long for a sense of adventure. Others, teenagers perhaps, drop themselves into the world of Grand Theft Auto because they crave some of the old ultraviolence. (I mean, have you actually ever worked at a fast-food restaurant? Trust me, you’d want to kill people, too.) And Mario? Well, he’s just a fun guy.
A more important question to ask than, “Is this art?” is, “If art can accomplish all this, does it cease to be art, and become something greater than its component parts?”
It was the next day, and I was a champion. Truly, the hero of both worlds. Amazing what a good night’s rest and a compulsive affection for 3-D 20-somethings will do for you.
As the game closed, an old woman, gently rocking back and forth in her chair, talked of days gone by. I couldn’t help but think to myself that many would consider my brief experiment a waste of time. Let them think what they want. I got to affect the fate of two worlds, save countless billions and make friends with a bird, all in the space of a weekend.
How often does a person get to say that?
Tom Rhodes is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Ohio. He can be reached through [email protected]