I was born in the early 80s which means I’m a lazy, self-important millennial, and when I’m not waxing on about my own self-entitlement, I’m whinging about how hard my easy life is. But it also means that I grew up and came of age during that curious no man’s land that bridges the transition from analog to digital. I watched cassette tapes give way to CDs and DVDs, landlines convert to cordless and ultimately be replaced by cellular. I remember the time without the internet slowly stepping aside to make way for the time not just with the internet, but of it. I remember when Atari was still a big thing.
I am an old millennial.
I also remember a trip with my mother to pick up my older brother at a friend’s house; in the living room, we found my brother and his friends playing Super Mario Brothers, which I’d never seen before. Clearly, this was not Atari. When I asked, I recall my brother's words exactly: “oh it’s something new called a Nintendo.” It was the future, right there in the living room.
I never did get to own one. I had to wait years before my parents finally broke down and got me a Sega Genesis and then let me buy a Super Nintendo (they were not fans). Until then, I had to content myself with my cousin’s Nintendo, plus PC games at home. And that was the chink in the armor: PC games. Dad was a software engineer with an Air Force background in electronics, so we had computers in the home all through the 1980s. Dad found primitive submarine games and let me play them on his computer, along with the early Falcon F-16 simulators. Eventually, Dad started passing on his older hardware to us, the kids, along with more games. I think my parents saw PC games as being more cerebral and challenging. More educational. Still, they were careful not to let us play too much, and the debate on whether video games were good for kids was raging in full at the time (these were the days of Tipper Gore and the Parents’ Music Resource Center). The debate continues today, but not nearly so loudly. Back then it was huge, noisy, and constant. Even I noticed it.
Something else about those old video games: they were hard. I mean really hard. Not as consistently as the quarter-muncher cabinets at the local Chuck E. Cheese, which suck your wallet dry by design, but still, I remember walking away from game after game in frustration because I couldn’t figure it out, couldn’t tell what was what because of graphical limitations, or because of just plain unfairness. Remember those old shooter games that required you to play them over and over again in order to memorize the enemies’ patterns, then hit you with a curveball just to be mean and make you start all over again? Not like today where the instruction manual is superfluous because the game literally teaches you how to play, while you play. Casual gaming is easier than ever when the game offers you both advice and save points as you go. And why not? Fun should be fun after all. After a long day of work, it’s great to collapse and play a game without effort, without really losing, just completely veg out and be a hero with the greatest of ease.
OK, I’m both generalizing and exaggerating quite a bit. The difference is real, but there are plenty of hard games today. Games that take genuine skill to perform, games that take thought and effort to unravel. Games that teach skills and processes easily, but with a complexity undreamed of during those early years. My purpose is not to criticize modern games, but to consider what the old ones forced me to do.
I remember countless hours spent trying to figure something out. My upbringing, in general, was like that: try something, fail, scream, cry, despair, try again, repeat cycle until victory. These games, like a lot of life, were often completely obtuse and obscure in their solutions, and beating them required a beating of another sort: that of my head against the desk. You really had to work your brain to make it through those old Sierra and Lucas Arts adventure games. You really had to work your fingers and develop millisecond discipline to see the endings of those weird Japanese shooters. You really had to just keep trying. You had to want it that badly. For me, computer graphics and visual effects eventually built on top of that. Without those old games, I’m not sure I would have had the perseverance to keep trying to figure out why my digitally rendered George Pal Time Machine didn’t look right, why my Disney Nautilus looked like a fat flounder instead of a submarine. I suppose other kids got their perseverance from sports. Not me, I gave up on those. I didn’t want to be a Basketball star badly enough. Either way, the sweetest victory is the hardest won.
If there is anything good in my work on Voyage of the Chimera the only reason it is so, other than by the grace of God, is that I practiced and practiced. That after every one of those teenage temper tantrums of slamming down my mouse in unbridled fury, I came back again determined to show the computer who was boss. But I wasn’t mastering the computer, really, or even just the art and craft, I was mastering myself. And I still am.
Filmmaking brings the process into a whole different sphere: collaboration. Maybe I should have played more team sports after all? Chimera is a first feature and bears all the hallmarks of such, but even on a movie like this, where I did so much on my own, the whole could never have been accomplished without the many others who graciously lent their own time, talent, and perseverance to the project. I stumbled through the shoot without understanding how to utilize a First Assistant Director, a Production Manager, a PA, and even the cast to some extent, but that experience made me ready for the next one. So I’ll keep going because I love this and want it badly enough.
It’s a funny thing: these days when I’m tired after work, I don’t find myself playing those “easier” newer games. I play the favorite old ones. The ones that were once so hard are now so easy due to repetition and familiarity. They’re so easy now, I can beat them in my sleep, and without the aid of the aforementioned desk, which makes for the perfect relaxing time waster. Enjoy your victories, you’ve earned them.