Having launched the Official Xbox 360 Magazine, it would be surprising for me to say that I’m platform agnostic, but possibly more surprising to say that I’ve been a PC gamer all my life. PC wasn’t my first love – that was, of all things, the Acorn where we played multi-player Risk in school lunch breaks – and I didn’t have any games systems myself until a very late purchase of a Master System 2.
I just used to watch friends play them on their systems, Amigas and Commodores, sitting in rambling old farmhouses or sprawling detached houses that the wealthy of South Manchester splurged their money on. In our lovely semi, we did have games, though where we bought them from I don’t know. However, my brother and I only played them on my mum’s office computer (that was when she moved from the Chinese restaurant to a marketing job, so we got to swap ‘eating custard tarts while waiting for her after school’ for ‘waiting for her while playing Monkey Island and Wolfenstein 3D’.) We had to battle the system administrator, who would delete them each time we installed them – we became experts at guerilla warfare, the multiple ways of hiding files amidst other files, through archiving, fake names, even file-duplication to mask directory sizes, or leaving decoy directories in the relative open.
I remember the feeling of getting when we got a PC of our own, Christmas 1990, the joy of it sitting there, buzzing, in the gently-collapsing flat-roofed room we called a conservatory (because it had a screen door and was really badly insulated, so it must be a conservatory). We didn’t really know what to do with it, but it came with some very basic games – the pinball was good, but nowhere near the wonders of Wolf 3D. Then one night, a boyfriend of a gay friend of my mum’s brought us round Ultima Underworld II. For me, in memory, that’s a bright day. (The couple split up soon after and my mum’s friend, a sweet joyous genius, went gradually mad). I loved the game, still dream of it, and have a little memory palace built into my head from it (more on which another time).
Later on that little system was riddled with more viruses than Larry the Lab Rat. The early days of computing’s dark side consisted of dodgy floppy discs or rotten modem connections, that transmitted filth faster than virus-checkers could catch it. I continually upgraded that machine over the years, until it barely resembled the original system, and was heavily over-clocked. Parts of it survived in my later PCs until fairly recently – the last thing to go was the floppy drive, kept on until it filled with dust and the air rusted its lungs.
We played through the demo of System Shock over and over on that machine, that joyous space horror sim plagiarised by Dead Space recently until we finally got the full game for a birthday or Christmas. Again I feel trauma at my lack of memory of all these things, because the Other Reader remembers everything – she knows every present and every party from every birthday, and I just have this looming, horrifying mist in my past, that gets closer year-by-year and that raises concerned tears in her when it’s mentioned.
The pattern of my memories runs pretty awry here, so I’m not sure when Ultima 7 came in, but it cracked my heart into little shards. It was so open, so much more free than the games that preceded it and succeeded it. I’d never played anything like it, but I’m sure we played it after Ultima 8.
This, Ultima 8, was the final ground-breaking title we ran on that computer, the first game we bought on release. For some reason the computer had moved to our divorced dad Dimitri’s (nicknamed ‘Meet’ and ‘Dim’ like a character from A Clockwork Orange) flat, where it sat in our little bunk-bedded room and we wrote newspapers about trolls on his Amstrad (my first steps into journalism). Ultima 8 was bought after much brow-scratching, saving and worrying from all of us, including Meet. We’d just been gouged to have the computer upgraded, and all of the specs matched – except we had no graphics card and were never going to afford one (I borrowed one at university, eventually, in 2000, to play Black & White, and ruin my degree a little more).
But Ultima 8 wouldn’t start. I jiggered and poked at EMM386 and MEMSYS, and something, something sparked. In the depths of the machine the hard drive chugged and chugged. But nothing. We gave up, we reset, I changed settings. For a long Saturday, my 15-year old self scratched at the innards of a computer he barely understood. Then he abandoned it, leaving the hard-drive churning.
The flat was situated on top of Manchester’s Arndale Centre (later to be blown up when the IRA bombed Manchester, so that we could see down from its gardens into the gullies between the shopping blocks, to see the shattered buses and abandoned bags – the flats were knocked down because the blast had sheared their top floors sideways), and it was built upside down, so that the bedrooms were on the ground floor and the sitting room had a balcony looking over Strangeways prison. We went up there, and sat around, and watched the pigeons, and looked for wrestling on the TV.
Then, downstairs, there was a noise… a strong, strange, dissonant chord, a high keening noise, follow by low bells and rough thunder. We ran down, two steep steps at a time, bouncing off the walls for speed. We jammed ourselves into the room, and watched the then-amazing opening cinematic, as the echo-heavy Guardian stretched a rendered-hand out and turned it…
Most of these games were made by one studio, Looking Glass, or Origin. I miss them.