A Mind Forever Voyaging

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Guest post by Grant Chastain

“Wait… back up a sec.”

It was clearly him.  Completely out of the blue, in perhaps the last place I could have anticipated his appearance.  The first time I’d seen him in better than a decade.  Hell, the first time I’d seen him in digital form at all in perhaps TWO decades.

“What is it?”

“That painting… did you do that?  Where did that come from?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“The painting on the wall in your house.  Is that a standard painting?  Or did you create that yourself?”

“It’s standard.  I mean, you create the PAINTING, but the DESIGN is just something that’s standard in the game itself.  You construct a painting and that’s what you get.  Why, who is that supposed to be?”

I peered at it thoughtfully, and smiled.

“That’s Graham.  He’s a character from a game I used to play called ‘King’s Quest.’”

She frowned slightly, clearly trying to work out in her mind why the sudden appearance of a 30 year-old relic would have necessitated the temporary interruption of the grand design of her newest Minecraft home.

“So… okay.  So what does it mean?”

I looked at Graham and couldn’t help but smile at my forgotten friend.

But I have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer to her question.

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The answer to my daughter’s question couldn’t be answered quickly – and after careful consideration, I’m not certain that it can be answered at all.

“What is it” is a relatively simple answer, but it’s not truly the question my 10 year-old progeny really wants to know.

The “what” of the simple glyph on her Minecraft wall depends on your point of view.  To her, it’s a simple 12×24 RGB-style pixel painting, featuring what might be a man, that occasionally adorns a wall beside a roaring fireplace, or hiding a secret passageway leading to – more often than not – an exceedingly elaborate dog kennel.

To me, though, he is Graham, a young adventurer who would one day be king of the land of Daventry.  Noble of heart and quick of wit.  As adept with a blade as he was a riddle, possessing of a kind heart and heroic poise in the face of danger.  And, coincidentally, star of an extremely popular series of PC games in the early 1980s called “King’s Quest.”

He’s  a bold adventurer, and a cunning warrior.  He’s also a good friend.  No mean feat for a simple 12×24 set of RGB pixels.

When I knew him, Graham had no voice, no eyeballs, and no back-story.  He started his adventuring day without an elaborate introduction sequence.  What we knew of him, we drew from either his outward appearance or his interactions with others.  We weren’t given the luxury to customize his outward appearance, his skill-set, or his demeanor.  His actions were all we could control, and only that inasmuch as keeping him from being set upon by the myriad number of Graham-killing forces in Daventry.

And die he would.  Time and time again, poor Graham would find himself drowning in the moat.  Falling off a cliff.  Tormented by wayward wizards.  Crushed to death by ogres.  Mugged by dwarves.  Baked in a witch’s oven.  Pricked by poisonous brambles.  Drowned by mermaids.

Yet on I adventured, and slowly I came to understand that Graham – and later, his children – were cut from a special kind of cloth.  As gamers, we ascribed emotions to actions, all the better to round out the story.  Which was kind of the point of the games upon which I found myself cutting teeth – as the players, we were not only the catalyst for the story the developers wanted to tell.  To a certain degree, we filled in the gaps of these early stories, becoming just as much the storytellers ourselves.

The founders and developers of Sierra On-Line may have set the stage for the puppet show, but the gamers moved the marionettes.  In doing so, they set the stage for game developers the world over.

As I watched her dutifully begin the slow and arduous task of building a rollercoaster track outside of her home… I wondered if my daughter would enjoy that same experience.

And then I wondered if it truly mattered at all.

Did it?

I’m still unsure.

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I am almost 40 years old.  My first day in my fourth decade is coming up, and fast.

There are days when I feel like I’ve got a good bead on what I’m doing in all the roles I play.  Father.  Trainer.  Writer.  Dad.

Other days, there are clearly more questions than answers.  With the “wisdom” that 40 years brings me, I can definitively say that the one thing I wish I’d known when I was 20 is that you may never find the answers you seek… but the questions just keep piling up.  Today, I’m more sure than I’ve ever been that I know much less than I want, or need, to know.

All I can rely upon to answer the questions I face… are the answers that have served me in the past.

I thank God – or whatever clock-maker exists in our universe – for the gift of an active imagination.  Sometimes it helps me forget that I know much less than I want, or need, to know.

Of the small and unexpected gifts that have been bestowed upon me… the lessons I learned from these early games have paid me such interesting dividends.  These small stories told by masterful craftsmen and woman, working within the amazingly limited parameters of their medium… resonated within me.

I can see her now, from the corner of my eye, putting the finishing touches on an especially crafty-looking twist in her rollercoaster track.

The original King’s Quest was a whopping 9.1 megabytes in size.  In comparison, this blog entry is already twice the size.

It’s tempting to feel as if the limits of one’s creativity are tied to one’s relative medium.  The truth is really anything but.

As I watch her from the corner of my eye, building a dazzling and endless Minecraft UNIVERSE before my eyes… I realize the question I am asking is irrelevant.  She is CREATING.  She is, in the words of Wil Wheaton, “getting excited and making stuff.”  It doesn’t matter to her that the architecture of Minecraft would look well at home on a PC in 1990, running “Doom.”  It doesn’t matter that the form factor isn’t sophisticated.  It’s a platform for creativity.  And even if she’s not slaying dragons, fighting Nazis, or saving the universe… she’s kind of doing something more impressive.  MORE heroic.

As a proud dad… what more could I possibly ask?

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As of the writing of this blog entry, we are now a month removed from the world trailer-reveal of the relaunch of King’s Quest.  A new title, now 30 years removed from the original.  Still featuring Graham, but looking considerably pluckier than the 12×24 RGB sprite I remember so fondly.

The developers of this new game, The Odd Gentlemen, were joined on-stage at the 2014 Video Game Awards by Ken and Roberta Williams, creators of Graham’s original adventures.  Retired for many years, the Williamses opted to step back out onto a brightly-lit stage to applaud and encourage the relaunch.

There’s a nostalgia that burns within me for the icons and glyphs of my youth, and so I will undoubtedly play this game.  If for no other reason than I owe it to 9 year-old Grant to follow up on the goings-on of a former hero.

I showed both the original game, as well as the trailer for the new edition, to my daughter… but neither of them stirred especially strong feelings in her.  She will likely play it with her dad, perhaps out of a sense of obligation to indulge me.

And in 30 years time, a small child may ask her what kinds of games meant something to her.  She will undoubtedly show this child Minecraft, and delight in showing this younger version of her the proper way to dig for minerals… build shelters… hide from zombies.  This child – my grandchild – will undoubtedly be non-plussed.

But that’s how it goes.

And it’s awfully fun to see the delight in her eyes when that rollercoaster ride ends the way she designed it.