Harry Potter, Moulin Rouge, Final Fantasy 7, Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Ani DiFranco, Ender’s Game, Rent: these things were huge among my friends ten years ago. Their impact was broad, but more importantly it was deep. Music, movies, and video games are treated as Entertainment in most newspapers, and that makes sense because Work and Family override all other emotional concerns for adults, and they care about Politics and Business as much as those can affect the same: Entertainment is a way to relieve stress on weekends. Adolescents, though, don’t have the same responsibilities and pressure and don’t have the same reasons to care about Politics and Business, so the role of “Entertainment” is much bigger. Naturally, the more exciting, stimulating, and skillful the art is, the better…and the more persuasive it is. For me, the arts [including games] were teachers. They showed me colors and worlds and feelings I’d never seen before, things that couldn’t be contained in the four walls of my home or the four corners of my town. Phrases like “art imitates life” or “life imitates art” didn’t make much sense to me because what was on the screen sometimes felt so much more real.
I don’t mean it’s immature to deeply appreciate art: otherwise, orchestras would never get standing ovations. The engine for some of my best friendships has been people sharing with me the music, games, and art they loved. Art is always important, but perhaps the way you relate to it changes: When you’re older, it takes you back, and when you’re younger, it drives you forward. It’s easier, when your experiences are less broad, to say “THIS is what it’s all about” or “unless you see this, it’ll be hard to understand me,” or to see something that changes who you are forever.
For me, it was a game. It was the summer between junior high and high school.
This opening video got me so excited that I started my game right away and saved over my little brother’s file, which already had 30 hours of work on it. I hope I can make that up to you some time, David!
In the end, most adventure games boil down to good and evil, and this one does too, but the best bring something extra. Lunar had humor, Final Fantasy Tactics political intrigue, Xenogears baroque complexity, Final Fantasy 7 gritty realism, but this game is about limitless adventure. Justin is a young man who “adventures” around town with his childhood friend Sue: your first task in the game is to find a “legendary” sword (a broom) and shield (a trash can lid). They go to visit Grandpa, a retired adventurer, and while spelunking in nearby mine discover that it has the ruins to an ancient advanced civilization, and that The Empire happens to be making a military-motivated archaeological dig as well…one thing leads to another, catapulting Justin and Sue out of their town and into the real world, which just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. The picture above, of the three looking over a jungle during sunset, comes after you’ve scaled a massive, massive wall called “The End of the World” and you’re looking out over the other side. So it wasn’t the end after all: in fact, most of the game is still before you. Eventually it’s too much for Sue, who has to go home, but by then Justin is already close to Feena, a girl a couple years older than him who’s already a famous adventurer…and things go from there. As my friend Jericho says in the comments, a boy becomes a man.
I didn’t realize, when I played this game, that I would turn out so much like Justin. I didn’t realize I was growing up in a time when it was easier than ever to travel the world and immerse myself in different cultures. Or that the Internet was making society more open than it ever was before. It didn’t occur to me to go to college out of state, or to live in Spain, Japan, and Taiwan while traveling to a dozen other countries: no one I knew did that. It didn’t seem possible.
But the game opened up my mind. I knew while I was playing it that there wouldn’t be anything else like it. I felt like they made it just for me. Every new scene, new city, new race, and new character got me more excited. The environments were vast and expansive, with so many trap doors and treasures hidden in corners: it gave a feeling of freedom that wouldn’t be topped in an adventure game until Dragon Quest VIII. The cities were huge and bustling and full of people whose lines and lives changed as the game progressed, and sometimes you could help them out, so you wanted to talk to everyone. Grandia took 60 hours to finish, but I played it twice. It was exhilarating.
I have wonderful parents, and I grew up in a beautiful town, but kids need to push against something even when there’s nothing there to resist. I wanted to be a legendary hero. Ironically, I didn’t do a lot of physically thrilling and dangerous things then, not even roller-blading or skateboarding – I’m not that coordinated, and it was faster for me to take journeys in my head than to get the hang of those kinds of things. I was into Matt Christopher sports stories, then fantasy novels like LOTR and Redwall, and most of all video games, where the bright worlds, creative creatures, and dramatic scenes were animated right before me, and with my controller I was a part of it.
Like many people, the first game I ever played was Super Mario Bros. 3, at my teenage next door neighbor’s house. I was 6. I loved watching them play so much that once I came into their house uninvited to ask if we could play. The family was in the middle of a barbecue with friends. That didn’t go over so well. My parents noticed me looking at a picture strategy guide for Mario 3 every night, and Santa Claus gave me a Super Nintendo with Super Mario World that Christmas. It was my happiest December 25th ever. I was a little like this guy.
I spent a lot of time playing outside, sometimes sports but more often imaginary adventures. My friend Brian and I spent hours outside making up our own adventures, and then we’d play video games inside to get more ideas. When Brian wasn’t around, I played by myself. I filled hundreds of notebook pages with pictures and stats for imaginary video games and stories, rather derivative of the games I was playing, but the scholars will forgive me: I was 8!
I had imaginary adventures at school recess a lot, too, and sometimes a few friends joined in. Once I turned “Killer Instinct” into an adventure and two friends and I jumped around punching air for 20-hit combos for a week. One time it was raining, so we had indoor recess in the gym, but in my mind I was in the desert, so I was crawling around on the floor saying “Water!! Water!!” People thought this was hilarious so eventually 20 boys were doing it. Then I wanted to move to the next stage of the game, and they were like, “Huh?” I liked the attention so we went back to the desert.
A few years later, after I’d had a couple relationships myself, I started to really appreciate the relationship between the two main characters. Do opposites attract, or should you be with someone who’s like you? I think the answer is “both.” He’s more reckless and she’s more prudent. Her emotional intelligence is way higher, but she also has more anxiety, and he can reassure her. Most importantly, they have the same goals and passions, and so it’s natural for them to spend the rest of their lives together.
At first, he’s not thinking about love at all. The love song I included is beautiful but idealizes what actually happened on the beach: she wanted to tell him her feelings, and he was all “Feena, what do you mean?” I was jumping up and down in my chair as he continued to not get it. But then, I felt like I -needed- love at the time. Someone can instead be so happy with his or her current life that romance isn’t even on the radar. Then a deep friendship, and perhaps a life-changing event (5:00-9:00), can make life even better.
When I was in Japan, I bought a PlayStation and the Japanese versions of the games I played in school. It’s my sentimental collection. I won’t have time for them unless I want to, say, teach my kids Japanese, but they helped me get where I am now. I’d like to let the creators know that some time.
Postscript: Another explanation of why video games are so popular
It’s important for people to get a feeling of achievement from somewhere. Kids, especially. Some are good at sports, and some are good at school, but everyone needs to be good at something. In a vibrant, connected community, kids can try things like arts and crafts, music, science projects, and building model airplanes, so maybe everyone finds something they can do. Games make a great substitute for everyone, though. The best are mental challenges, no different from puzzles. When you succeed, you feel happy about it. It was because you worked hard, organized well, or had a good idea. When you fail, you can move past it. One of the rough things about team sports and school competitions is that everyone sees you fail, and it’s embarrassing, but in a game, your defeats are private. Grandia, for example, had a great battle system. It was unique and had a lot of freedom, but the underlying structure was still strong: it felt like there was something to achieve, but achieving it wasn’t that frustrating. If you lost a battle, it was because your strategy could be better: there was always a way to win. Ideally, young gamers can find work and other activities that give them the same positive experiences. A lot of people my age are going to play games their whole lives and also be very successful.
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