The big joke of my tenure as co-host on Podcast 17 has been that I am the in-house literary expert. The only way that this has really made it onto the show thus far is that I knew how to say some German word, and that I knew what a Cthulhu is. Well, I helped with the story contest too, I guess, but my involvement in that was no more than a rank amateur graphic designer.
The genesis of that initial role, however, came from wanting to see how the modding community could grow in ways to create better narrative experiences. This is why I’ve found myself attracted to mods like Dear Esther, Radiator, and others of that ilk, as opposed to games that focus squarely on the gameplay.
I have always had a mind that is geared towards enjoying and creating stories, which is why I have tried (with variable success) to be a storyteller in a few different mediums. From a young age, I always tried to emulate the narratives I saw in a new way. I would have to say that playing games as a child was one of the largest sources of inspiration for my young creative mind.
My childhood took place in what, I suppose, can be called the liminal stage of the gaming age. I was far removed from having to endlessly pump my parents’ quarters into a machine, but things were still a long way away from the Triple-A cinematic experiences that deliver near-human-retina levels of fidelity.
Visuals were still blocky, sure, but thankfully there was at least a depth of field implied with some basic 3D graphics (or at lease some 2.5D tricks). You heard dialog take on a more meaningful role than snappy one-liners, and music take on a more dynamic, fluid nature.
It was during this time that games really started to move away from just being graphical skill challenges. The story of a game was a flowing part of the experience now, not just a prompt that got you in the correct mindset for play. There were characters that you could identify with, that would change and grow as the stories unfolded. When the limitations of the engine could not convey the proper narrative transitions, then a pre-rendered cinematic would step in to take on the job.
This was the time when things got potentially interesting. I say potentially, because it would take a while before games were able to fully exploit this new ability. For a while, things were still a part of the status quo.
Along those lines, I had played a few games as a kid that immersed you into the action of the aptly-named Busytown, or into a circus run by Mickey Mouse that still proudly presented the old MS-DOS emblem. But nothing of this kind was truly revolutionary, of course. As I grew out of that level of gaming, I was destined to find a game where, suddenly, my identity as a gamer would finally “click.”
This game took on the form of a masterpiece that can only be described in five words and a colon:
Star Wars: Rebel Assault II.
A sequel to a game I never played, 1995′s Rebel Assault II chronicled the adventures of a star-pilot with the handle of “Rookie One,” and his attempts to thwart the secret plans of the Galactic Empire. It ran on the INSANE Engine, which used video compression to create real-time animations from pre-recorded sources.
To help myself recall my memories of this game, I just watched a compilation of all the cut-scenes in it, and it’s not pretty. The cut-scenes were filmed with bit-rate actors wearing ill-fitting costumes on loan from Skywalker Ranch, while being juxtaposed into some truly dreadful CGI.
The gameplay doesn’t hold up too well either, not even having the grace to be a true rail shooter. The Player character didn’t so much move as he was motionless against a dynamic background that was variably dangerous. Movement for aiming or cover was built in, which was pretty clever for the day, but the whole effect still shows its age.
It’s so easy to hate on bad acting and an outdated engine, but do you want to know what it was besides all that? It gave the power to be the main character of a Star Wars movie to a child.
Think that over for a second.
Sure, I know how there’s a lot of dialog in the community about how games need to stop emulating movies and books to become something for themselves, which is a valid point. But let’s be clear here: I was a child who dreamed of being just like Han Solo someday, and Rebel Assault II let you fly a ship that looked suspiciously like the Millennium Falcon.
That was a personal dream made manifest. If I had known what a bucket list was, I may just have crossed something out that day. I became closer to something that informed my life in a way that I had never felt before.
What drove this point home even further was that my dad hooked up our computer to the ridiculously huge rear-projector TV he scored from his old job at Sony for me to play on. That was the same TV that I had watched the Star Wars movies on for the first time.
And not only did I have this amazing screen to use, but I would record myself playing Rebel Assault II on a VHS tape. I would then take that VHS and watch myself play the game, over and over.
To be clear, VHS was something important back in those days. You found movies on VHS tapes, with stories of all shapes and flavors that could instruct and entertain, and what I was able to do with a game could stand toe to toe with that. It was right there for anyone to see: Jonathan was a part of Star Wars.
The barriers between audience, actors, and storyteller were torn down, and it set a young mind ablaze.
That emotional grounding is what has been indelibly linked to my understanding of games ever since. Gaming became this all-encompassing spectacle that I could actively take part in. I found a place where a gifted storyteller could guide me through an arc that I could never have dreamed of before, while giving me the ability to be the sole impetus of the action. After a while, I would stop being a player, or Jonathan for that matter: I was someone and somewhere else.
That is a feeling that I would always want to keep around.