I was a gamer before I became a writer. In fact, I was a gamer before I got out of the fifth grade, before I hit puberty, before I got my first job and waaaay before I lost my virginity (connection there? who can say). Zelda and Final Fantasy and Castlevania provided food for my imagination in a way that only the adventure cartoons of the early 80’s had before. It was one thing to get lost in a world on a screen or on a page; it was another thing entirely to get lost in a world YOU controlled. As a gamer, I wasn’t just observing an adventure play out. I WAS the adventurer.
Between that and the He-Mans and Thundercats and G.I.Joes I grew up with, you can say I developed a bit of a hero complex. He-Man saved the world, Link saved the world, Simon Belmont saved the world. What’s the message there? Cool guys save the world.
After many childhood years of swinging a wooden sword around by the creek near my house, dodging poison ivy instead of wizards and copperheads instead of dragons, I realized that while I wasn’t a world-saving hero in real life, I sure as hell had become one in my imagination. Not enough adventure in the real world? All I had to do was open the pages of my mind, wrap myself in a warm mental blanket and become whatever hero I wanted to be.
In my mind, not only was I a hero, but all of my friends were. Smartest kid at school Brian suddenly became super engineer Brian who built alien-fighting mecha-suits for a team of superheroes. Funny guy Jay became Speed Demon Jay, a crime fighter whose super speed was almost as quick as his wit. My mom even got in on the action, monitoring the police-band radio to let her crime-fighting son and his super-powered friends know where danger was soon to strike.
Though my head was a vast repository of dreams and fantasies, even it couldn’t contain all of the soul-stirring input it was getting from the games I was playing, the shows I was watching and the random oddball ideas I would have while knee-deep in creek water and in desperate need of a tetanus shot.
So what is a boy overflowing with imagination to do? In my case, he put pen to paper and began writing those dreams down. What became an amorphous hero fantasy suddenly became a character, a quest and an antagonist. (For The Pull fans, those were Nick, The Pull, and The Whisper. Yes I started writing The Pull when I was FOURTEEN! WTF)
So a dreamer (let’s be honest, that came first because once a dreamer always a dreamer) became a gamer who became a writer. And then a little game came around that pushed that writer into new grounds of imagination:
That game was Final Fantasy VI. Those of you who are not gamers are probably saying “Bubba Wubbawuh What?” Just bear with me. Final Fantasy VI is the story of Terra, a girl with a mysterious past and mysterious powers who was born to be a hero, but doesn’t want to be one. Joining her on her quest of discovery was Locke, the thief with a secret heartache driving him to recklessness, Edgar the handsome prince who loves his inventions more than he loves ruling a kingdom, and Gau, a child raised in the wild because his father branded him a monster when his mother died in childbirth.
These were heroes. They had adventures. They saved the world (or tried to); yet there was something else here, an element to adventure I had never explored before. That element was loss. Terra mourned the normal life she could never have because of her birthright. Locke was a broken man due to the tragic loss of his first and only love. Gau was a child without a family and Edgar was a man with endless wealth and respect, yet a gaping hole in his heart because he could never have the life HE wanted.
Suddenly I knew heroes didn’t just save the world. Sometimes heroes suffered. Sometimes they cried and sometimes they lost things that were important to them. Sometimes they even died along the way. Adventures weren’t just about saving the day and conquering monsters, they were about enduring suffering as well. They were about being broken inside, hurt and afraid, yet still doing what you had to do to help those around you.
Through that realization I came to another epiphany. The world I was creating, the protagonist I was following was a reflection of me. This much I already knew; but what I HADN’T known up to that point was that Nick wasn’t a reflection of me because he wanted to save the world. He was a reflection of me because he was broken. He suffered. He hurt. He cried and lost and sometimes made terrible decisions and hurt those he loved because of it. The Whisper wasn’t just a demon following the hero in my story, he was the big scary world that I didn’t feel like I fit into. He was the bully that called me faggot and the parent who yelled and the girl I had a crush on who thought I was a geek.
A video game taught me this. A collection of pixels and sprites and code taught me this, and yet it wasn’t just that. It was a story. It was an adventure with consequences and meaning. In the end, it became a life lesson learned through my awkward teenage hands on a plastic controller.
See gaming isn’t just about high scores and shooting things and conquering the last boss faster than your friend. Gaming is about stories in the same way that books are, or movies or television or any other medium. Gaming is about adventure and empathy and learning lessons sometimes hard to learn within the rigid confines of our home life, especially for a child.
I’d venture to say that gaming can foster a writer’s mind and imagination just as much as books can. Sure, I had a book in my hand almost as often as I had a controller, but it was those worlds rendered in pixels where my imagination became my drive to tell a story.
I’m still that kid waving his sword around in a creek full of poison ivy, snakes and scraped knees…and dragons. Now, however, I don’t keep those adventures in those woods or in my head. I tell them. I tell them and, in some very real way, I live them.
As a writer, I want to inspire you the way other writers, storytellers and game developers inspired me. I hope you read The Pull or Feather in the Stream or any other work I create and immediately want to go create a world of your own. I hope you read The Pull and then go run to the creek, swing a wooden sword and then run back home and start your own adventure.
And my playground wasn’t a stream so much as it was a tiny, tiny copse of trees behind my grandmother’s backyard. I’m pretty sure they weren’t actual bamboo because this is upper Michigan, but it was similar and they held up pretty well every time I wanted to play Godzilla…
Finally, VI might be the best one, but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for VIII, silly as that is.
VIII was very good too. Basically if a game makes me tear up or ponder my place in the universe, it gets put on my short list of best games ever. That’s pretty much Final Fantasy IV-X for me.
I’m not a gamer, but can understand how it fired your imagination and inspired you to write. My two girls, the youngest of whom is four, have a wooden sword and whether it’s reading a book, gaming, art or watching tv/films I hope that they, like you, find their creek, swing their sword and have their own adventure.
Thank you, Tina. One of these days I hope to have sword-swinging kids of my own.