Sunday, January 8, 2017

From Defender to Dark Souls 3: Confessions of a Video Game Junkie

  I am 53 years old.  I pastor a church, write novels which really ought to sell a lot better than they do, and teach at a Christian school.  I'm a husband, a father, a rancher, and a collector of ancient artifacts.  I've traveled from Australia to Israel, I've served in the U.S. Navy and rated a Top Secret security clearance - and I am a hopeless video game addict.

  When I was in 8th grade, my girlfriend and I were at a movie when I saw a small, glass-topped table a chair on either side, and lights and sounds coming from it.  I walked over and realized that this was one of those "Asteroids" games I had been hearing about.  I waited till the current player was done, then I sat down and plunked in a quarter, and my addiction was born.  I kept spinning that tiny spaceship around, hitting the fire button so fast my finger was sore, trying to prevent those little chunks of space debris from destroying me and my vessel - and always, eventually, failing.

   Not long after Asteroids, the next generation of arcade games began to emerge - Pac-Man, Defender, GORF (the first video game that actually talked to you, and it was a real smart aleck, too - "You will meet a Gorfian doom, Space Cadet!!"), Dig-Dug, Galaga, Joust, and a dozen or more others.  Every convenience store had a game or two, sometimes a small room full of them.  Video arcades sprang up everywhere. Even my home town of Quinlan (sometimes called the "shallow end of the Hunt Count gene pool" by those of us who escaped its clutches) had an arcade, "Big John's," run by a rather obese senior citizen who loved to talk about how this younger generation was going to hell in a handbasket - even while he raked in our quarters by the bagful.

  Most restaurants that catered to teens also had an arcade game or two, and this leads into a funny story.  My girlfriend (yes, that same longsuffering 8th grade sweetheart who stood at my shoulder and watched me blow a whole dollar on "Asteroids" that first night) and I would go to karate practice together every Monday and Thursday.  Afterward, we would usually go to Pizza Inn and enjoy some beef and mushroom pizza with our friends.  I would order my drink and pizza, and then get a dollar's worth of change and go match wits with GALAGA, one of the more fun arcade games out there.  They invariably brought our drinks out first, and I would get a quick sip of mine before heading to the back of the restaurant to play my game.  I usually got blown up for the last time right as the pizza arrived, so I would head back to the table, eat that first hot cheesy slice, and then slug down about half of my glass of Dr. Pepper before noticing that my sweet, demure girlfriend had dumped about half a shaker of salt in it.  EVERY TIME.  You would think I would either A, get a clue and take a tiny sip of the drink to check its salinity, or B, realize that she was sending me a not-too-subtle message about leaving her at the table while I played a game for 10-15 minutes as we waited for our pizza. But, nope, video games, pizza and heavily salinated soda became my Monday tradition.

  In college, I discovered GAUNTLET, the first game that let you choose between four possible characters to play through.  I got so good at that one that I once played for eight hours on one quarter! Of course, by now my girlfriend was my wife, and it turned out she had no idea where I was - I still say it should have occurred to her to check the video arcade in the student lounge, since I spent at least an hour there every day.

   Eventually, we got our first PC.  It was an ancient beast that still took the 5.5" floppy disks, but it had a neat little game called Robot Hunter - not nearly as good graphically as an arcade game of the era, but hey! I could play it at home, and that made my wife happy.  It also had its own versions of "Pong" and "Asteroids."

  We came into the modern world of internet capable computers around 2000 or so, and along with arrowhead chat rooms and Email, I discovered the next generation of fantasy RPG's.  I played the original DIABLO, an entertaining knockoff of DIABLO called DARKSTONE, as well as WARCRAFT II and III.  I also played several hundred hours on a World War I flight simulator called RED BARON 3D, which had actual film clips from World War I worked into the cut scenes.  You could earn medals, match wits against the great aces, and even become a prisoner of war if you weren't careful!

  But all those games began to get old, and in 2003 I was complaining that I really wanted something new to play.  One of my students, Timothy Smith, suggested that I might like a new game he had just gotten called MORROWIND.  That was my introduction to the wonderful world of The Elder Scrolls.  Although MORROWIND was actually Elder Scrolls 3, it was light years ahead of its predecessors.  A huge, open world to adventure in, fascinating monsters, a complex and well-crafted storyline and mythology - as well as graphics so realistic (for 2003) that you could actually watch weather patterns form overhead, watch bubbles break on top of lava pools, and even levitate far above the landscape.  I was delighted, and frustrated ("Tim!!  WHERE is that stupid Dwemer Puzzle Box?? I've searched the entire ruin and I swear it isn't there!"), and charmed.  Then, in 2006, Bethesda introduced the sequel to MORROWIND, OBLIVION, and I was even more enchanted.  Elder Scrolls V: SKYRIM, is still my favorite game of all time,  In fact, I got so addicted to the Elder Scrolls series I really didn't play any other games for a long time. I tried and failed to get into Assassin's Creed 3, and while I loved the graphics and the storyline, I bogged down in an early mission and never progressed any further.  ELDER SCROLLS ONLINE was a huge disappointment - I simply could not get into it.  One of my students summed it up neatly: ESO was "too much of an MMO for Elder Scrolls fans, and too Elder Scrolls for MMO fans."

  But this spring my dear friend Ellie told me about a game her husband was playing called DARK SOULS 3.  On her recommendation I got it, and found it to be the hardest video game I have ever played in my life!  (It also taxed my aging PC to its limits, so the frame rate lagged and I never was able to do co-op play.)  Ghoulishly awful monsters, hidden chambers, deadly ambushes, and insanely difficult boss fights made me fall in love with this game right away.

   So as I type this, on the table behind me is my brand new PC with 24 gigs of RAM , a 2 terabyte hard drive, and a brand new graphics card.  And while this old machine is indeed slow, laggy, and all the other functions I do will work a lot faster on it, the main reason I invested the dough in this new PC is so I can game better.

   Why do I do it?  Why does an otherwise rational middle-aged man waste time and money slaying digital monsters and seeking imaginary treasures?  Well, the short answer is that it's just fun.  I may never get to kill a dragon in real life, but I have slain hundreds in SKYRIM.  I may never have six digits in my checking account, but I have amassed fortunes into the millions of septims in OBLIVION.  I'm not allowed to taunt people I don't like into attacking me, then kill them and loot all their treasures and move into their houses, but that is acceptable behavior in MORROWIND.  It's old fashioned escapism, pure and simple, folks, not that different from watching a movie or reading a fantasy/adventure novel - except that video games give you a greater level of personal participation than those other formats.  Instead of watching Indiana Jones or King Arthur, you get to BE them.

   So if you hear a blood-curdling yell emanating from Northeast Texas in the next week or so, you will know that I have finally slain the "Soul of Cinder" and beaten DARK SOULS 3. Next, I'll go back and play the original DARK SOULS, perhaps, or explore the world of FALLOUT 4.  So many adventures await!

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