I, as Neil Gaiman says, am a dark and stormy Nightmare. I have the voice, frightening, growling, ready to attack, like Mercedes McCambridge as the demon Pazuzu in The Exorcist. I carry the sword, the long, heavy magical blade called SoulCalibur. Within my chest is a jagged maw. It is forever open to reveal a blood red beating heart engorged after devouring the countless souls whose bodies I chopped and cut with the burdensome SoulCalibur. Always, I wear a black iron mask for I am awesomely ugly and evil. So don’t mess with me. You will not survive. Give me more souls. I need to snack.
In real life I am thin and bald, sometimes cute but never handsome. I have Crohn’s disease and am often half- sick. In my life, I would not punch you or cut you or even insult you (at least, to your face). I would be respectful, understanding, and nice, if somewhat cynical. Inside, I would despair and worry. But when I am Nightmare, I am nearly invulnerable. I feel alive and optimistic, full of life, healthy and strong.
I know one thing. Sick or not, sometimes I can’t stop playing. Time ticks away, the half hour, the hour, the whole evening, and then, it’s three a.m.; I’m in the zone, just as I am when writing. Normally, I like to savor a game rather than manically tsunami through it. But I remember spending hours just nosing around in BioShock, the scariest, best game of 2007. At the beginning of the first level, which evokes the first episode of TV’s epic Lost, I was tossed from a crashing plane into the ebony ocean, where what seemed to be the skyscraper- tall fires of Hades burned all around me. Panic came over me, and then, a feeling that did not mimic real life, there was beauty in the danger. To gawk at the fireworks that played off the grim, foreboding water, I kept swimming even though the gasoline- induced flames kept shooting deep into the defenseless body that was the night sky. Dream. Reality. Beauty. Nightmare. Give me more.
Briefly as I play, I even feel immortal.
I am not the only one.
You probably have felt some visceral connection to videogames as well, no matter how old you are. In the dank confines of the arcade or the corner dive when the lights were low, you were the plumber who saved the dainty princess in Donkey Kong. As your fingers ached and your joints stiffened, you were the one who couldn’t stop playing Tetris. You even had visions of blocks falling softly as snow as you slept. In front of a nineteen- inch TV, you went long and completed the Hail Mary in Madden football. As Master Chief you saved humanity from the gross aliens of the Covenant.
You know it is just a game, a videogame on a plastic disk that bears the computer bits and bytes, endless numbers that meet with a chip to turn you into Nightmare, or Mario or Sonic or Master Chief. But within that disk is magic as big and entertaining as any movie or TV show. And when that disk spins, it is a Sufi dervish who makes celestial pictures and sounds that are an extension of you and me. So forget this sordid keep- up- with- the- Joneses life, with its e-mail spam, inane tweets, bills, mortgages, and recessions. Down the rabbit hole we go to control it all as the hero, for in every videogame there is a hero. We admit it. We are junkies who must save the world. But we’re game.
Believe it or not, we’ve been gaming for more than fifty years. Man, how it’s grown, prospered, and evolved. The videogame industry in the United States is now a $20- billion-a-year juggernaut, surpassing movie, music, and DVD sales—combined. Just one game, the Houser brothers’ Grand Theft Auto IV, earned $500 million in its opening week, far outpacing the movie industry’s biggest force, James Cameron’s Avatar, which earned less than half that amount. Forty- two percent of Americans have videogame consoles. If you add computer games, 68 percent of us are gamers. And the average age of today’s gamer is thirty- five. Almost half of online gamers are female, and they play games with competitive zeal and attitude. And videogame consoles are now the guardians of the living room beyond games. They play DVDs. They stream movies from Netflix. They connect to Facebook and Twitter. That’s entertainment.
And videogames have correspondingly become an unstoppable force in popular culture, one that constantly influences other forms of entertainment. From 30 Rock to South Park, videogames are the subject of crucial plot points and full episodes. Even more important, they have changed the way blockbuster action films and TV programs are shot. Cars that blow up in Transformers roll toward you, coming at you like they’re alive, like something out of Need for Speed or Burnout Paradise. Car commercials feature the characters and monsters in World of Warcraft. Beverage ads are informed by Grand Theft Auto. Sonic the Hedgehog and Pikachu are featured balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, flying high and proud next to Spider- Man and Buzz Lightyear. Mark Ecko designed a full line of clothing devoted to Halo. And the phenomenon is worldwide. You can even buy a box of Pokémon- branded milk in Thailand.
How and why did this happen? As a journalist, I’ve watched the growth for two decades now. I’ve seen the cycles come and go. I’ve seen the Nintendo dominance end and begin again, more powerful than before. But as the trends come and go, I keep thinking about the big riddle of videogames: How did we get here? How did videogames rise to take over popular culture? I’ve watched in amazement as the videogame industry, like that Energizer bunny, keeps going and going. How does it get bigger every year, even as mainstream media continue to turn up their noses at videogame culture? (And isn’t that utterly idiotic? Why aren’t games reviewed alongside books, movies, and pop music?)
Those questions have always fascinated me, but another process—that of an individual game’s creation—only really captured my imagination when I worked for two years as editor in chief of Sony Online Entertainment. There, I was witness to the fascinating if sometimes daunting way games were made. I helped with the words to many games and I helped test them too, including the massively multiplayer online role playing game of elves and ogres, EverQuest, often called EverCrack because of its insanely addictive nature. I was absolutely intrigued by the creation of games, utterly entranced by even the smallest nugget about, yes, how they were made, but even more, why they were made. There was nothing better than being inside that womb of knowledge. I felt the same way at VH1, where I wrote the daily GameBreak blog and worked on Viacom papers full of techspeak to help the company soldier forward during the casual game revolution. After those experiences, when a game struck me as ingenious—a cut or two above the rest—I wanted to know all about it and the people who imagined it. Questions for the game makers would drop into my head like those constantly falling blocks in Tetris. What could the game have become if you didn’t have to worry about sales? What did you fight to retain when those heavy- handed executives from the megacorporation chimed in with their say? Overall, why did the game work? Why did it tickle and charge my neurons, axons, receptors, and thalamus, making me completely and utterly bliss out? Was it because the game itself was a triumph of the craft or because I could feel comfortable living in the game’s world? Was my nerdy perception exactly on par with the game makers’? Or did the game permit my own imagination to grow and flourish in ways that I previously believed only books and music could? And finally, when a game was really terrific, when it grabbed my heart and soul just like Alice Sebold did with The Lovely Bones or Joseph Conrad with Heart of Darkness, why could I not stop playing?
There have been other books about videogames, books that talk about facts, money, and technology, books that personalize the experience of gaming, books that detail trends, books that simply tell you how to play a game. I’ve read many and have enjoyed some of them. But there have been few books that, to rephrase Robert Frost, began with delight and ended in wisdom, few books that led me to feel those completely exciting aha moments of creation and camaraderie, of theorizing and implementation, of process and panic, of wild success and looming deadline doom, that I know from experience go into making the fi nest games. Most of all, there have been none that convincingly told me how we got here.
That’s what I’ve tried to capture in these pages. You will find out how the world of game making profoundly affected those artists and craftspeople who made Super Mario Bros., Pong, Myst, Spore, EverQuest, BioShock, Shadow Complex, and more—and not always in a positive way. Each of these changed videogames forever, and the untold facts, fascinating anecdotes, and heretofore buried details about these pieces of popular art tantalized me. But I also wanted to explore the larger question: How in the pantheon of games did each of these help the medium evolve enough to keep you and me excited for all these decades, these crazy fifty years?
I don’t try to look at every moment of videogame history in these pages. And I won’t I look at every great videogame franchise. For that way lies madness . . . and redundancy. Instead, I’ve chosen to detail some moments of supreme discovery and utter failure by the brilliant inventors and craftspeople who gave innovation, personality, and even drama to an industry that altered my life (and, when you think about it, made a big difference in yours, too).
If you know games, you know what I mean. If you don’t, I hope that, in the course of reading these chapters, you will feel it like I so often feel it, with surprise, pleasure, panic, awe, goose bumps, and exhilaration.
Excerpted from All Your Base Are Belong To Us: How Fifty Years of Video Games Conquered Pop Culture by Harold Goldberg. Copyright © 2011 by Harold Goldberg. Published in the United States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.Purchase All Your Base - In the U.S.:* Amazon* BN.com* Borders
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