This is the final article in the Where We Came From series.
"When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn't the old home you missed but your childhood." (Sam Ewing, 1992)
* * *
I was obsessed with video games during the first decade of my life. I remember having many dreams that ended up at a video game arcade; it was a particular place that my dream-self knew well, although it did not exist in the waking world. I never really played much there, as I usually woke up pretty quickly after I grabbed the controls of one of the machines. It was more about the signature of the arcade than its function, a perfect amalgamation of every arcade I'd ever visited.
But, in time, this place eventually slipped out of my dreams and I forgot all about it.
Years later, I dreamt of a beaten-up old building, all peeling paint and boarded-up windows, holding court on a strange disconnected island in a sea of wild grass. I explored inside with a friend and found some dilapidated, broken arcade cabinets. I realised that this was that old dream arcade.
I had been given one last chance to say goodbye.
* * *
Somewhere in your teens, you become aware of history as something you have existed in as opposed to something you have not. Some of us deal with the knowledge of time's arrow better than others. I'm terrible with it and suffer vertigo when I look back across the yawning chasm between now and the start of my life, seeing the past as a sequence of experiences that are locked and cannot be revisited. For this reason, Jason Rohrer’s Passage was a gut punch to my soul. For this reason, Noah Kalina’s “Everyday” was deeply moving.
Five years back and I’m excited to build a new life back in Britain. Ten years back and I’m in Japan with an exploding social life and more freedom than I’d ever had before. Twenty years back and I can see my student existence, learning about abstract mathematical substructure and squandering time in a big way. Thirty years back and I slam into the Atari home computer.
Steve Hunt and I often get lost wandering through Atari game videos on YouTube. In addition to this, I also toy with an Atari emulator from time to time. For me, the purpose of these activities is not to have fun but to torment myself that I can’t reproduce that childhood joy.
The truth is I've not been telling you the history of 80s gaming over these last three months, I've been indulging in my childhood. This is video gaming as Joel Goodwin saw it. You’ll notice a significant lack of articles on the Commodore 64, the ZX Spectrum, the Amiga, the Atari ST, the Oric-1, the Dragon 32, the TRS-80 and the VIC-20… where are their stories?
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In April 1986, A.N.A.L.O.G. Computing published a program called Paperweight by Curt Cox. The accompanying text opens:
“Atari Corp. has released the access procedure for the 400/800 self destruct vector (SDV). Why should you use the SDV? Being put into a closet to rot forever is a degrading death for an elegant machine. Hari-kari is a far more fitting and dignified death.”
This joke program was an early example of using software as art. It made the point that the 8-bit Atari was being redefined, in the latter half of the 80s, as nothing more than an expensive paperweight. This was the dawn of 16-bit computing but many of the original home computer pioneers felt no need for “more powerful machines” and didn't want to throw away all of the knowledge and software they'd accumulated over the years. We believed this technology was for life.
And herein lies the great paradox: the pioneers themselves began to oppose new technology, becoming curmudgeonly sticks in the mud. I remember sniping at the new, younger machines that were coming out and rubbishing the game consoles that were starting to take over from the home computer boom. I thought of these consoles as silly obsessions with pretty graphics and sound, the “game” being just a shallow afterthought.
I finally broke out of this conditioning in the early 90s after experiencing Sonic the Hedgehog on a Sega Megadrive for the first time, astonished at what console gaming really was. I closed the book on the Atari and never looked back.
* * *
History is an educator but its dark twin is nostalgia, which is history as inertia. It is easy to over-romanticise and talk about the golden days of [insert personal hobbyhorse here].
Rob Beschizza’s engrossing piece “Nomen Ludi" got a lot of play, which told of the author’s search for a long lost game title and its damaged, reclusive developer. It tapped into that 80s pioneer-era magic and the comments gushed:
“One of the most touching pieces of games journalism I've read for a very long time"
"It's really exciting to see games journalism maturing!"
"Nicely done. Is this a true story?"
No. It was fiction.
* * *
The PC is a safe haven, the forever machine that never has to say goodbye. Many MS-DOS era games are still playable thanks to efforts like DOSBox. Perhaps in my mature years I've abandoned transient fly-by-night consoles so I don't have to say, yet again, goodbye to a beloved platform.
It's a false sense of security. The free-to-play space continues to grow and mobile gaming is massive. The more serious threat is in thin-client services such as OnLive. They are poised to usurp console and PC as leading game platforms. Maybe not today. But definitely tomorrow. The PC gaming revolution could yet be replaced by the latest corporate-walled garden.
But where do you want to live? In the past or the future?
* * *
David Fox made the point that we can appreciate old films within the context they were made and implied this extends to video games. But it’s more than just accepting a past in which Mario saves a hopeless princess in yet another castle and putting Lara Croft, Alyx Vance and April Ryan aside. I would counter that the element of interactivity is more problematic: given the choice most Facebook users wouldn't want to go back to the days when they had to write individual letters to friends on paper. New game design makes old design feel slow and frustrating.
Kyle Orland decided to explore Atari 2600 games for The Escapist as they were before his time. I was suspicious when Orland offered observations such as "I barely cared that the games mostly looked and sounded like something the cat dragged in" especially as pixel-chic has been all the rage the last few years. It was clear that Orland had no personal connection with the games of the early 80s but there is nothing wrong with that.
However at the article’s conclusion, Orland throws in: “I feel my beloved NES games have aged better than the Atari 2600 titles that are, to me, just a few weeks old." It was a statement of gut and not something that emerged through analysis. He'd fallen victim to the very problem he was trying to understand.
Everyone has a gaming childhood and the siren call of retro touches every generation, not just the children of 80s pixel poverty.
* * *
The 80s video game experience is travelling away from us into the distant past. Emulators let newer generations simulate the old technology but, in the absence of proper context, retro play cannot convey the cultural significance of video games or the impact they had on individual lives. Simply manhandling a few old curiosities leaves the modern player with a coarse, low-resolution impression of our 1980s low-res existence, a broken framing of the decade in terms of what video games couldn’t yet do, rather than what it was doing for us.
And so we write furiously to save this secret history.
* * *
I’ve been writing for three months about where we came from: childhood. It is irrelevant which of the last four decades you were born in, as we have all had our own, unique video game upbringing. I’ve shared with you some of the stories that created mine and what has happened to the people involved.
But it still wasn’t enough. I wanted to turn those difficult feelings – the joy of childhood and bereavement at its passing – into something tangible, something I could share. So a few weeks ago I set out to create a video eulogy for my Atari childhood.
Here it is. A small boy dreams of an arcade…
Only you will be able to tell me if it works. But at least now I can say I’m done.
At least now I can say goodbye.