30 Days of Gaming: Day 24, Favorite Classic Game

I’ve given this one a bit of thought.  I grew up at the end of the Atari age, played Pong, and had an NES.  While PacMan was my first game and I love it for introducing me to pixels, it’s not my favorite classic game.  I’d have to say my favorite is the original Legend of Zelda for the NES.

This may be a surprise to those of you who know about my love of classic Metroid.  Yes, I played it, and played every other Metroid game to come out on all of Nintendo’s systems to date (except for Other M.  We do not speak its name here).  I haven’t played all of the Zelda games; I’m nowhere near halfway through Ocarina of Time (blasphemy, I know), never played Twilight Princess, and didn’t finish Wind Waker.  I didn’t play the SNES Zelda game.  And yet, I think the original top-down scrolling Legend of Zelda would stand as my favorite classic game.

If PacMan taught me about pixels and introduced me to a love of video gaming, Zelda introduced me to what it meant to have a fandom and to be a fan (and that it was dangerous to go alone).  It was a complex game with a fairly simple, now-stereotypical story, and yet for some reason my 9-year-old self loved it.  I loved the land of Hyrule, and the settings around it.  I loved Link, the protagonist destined to save the princess from the grip of Ganon.  I loved finding the Triforce pieces.

But most of all I loved finding ways to start integrating my creativity into the land of Hyrule and the story of Link and Zelda.  Zelda led to my first forays into fanfiction.  Every year my elementary school had young author’s day, and we students would write books that would then be on display for our parents and peers.  I wrote a book set in the Zeldaverse, involving the original character my Barbie would portray whenever my best friend and I roleplayed Zelda with our toys.

I remember sitting through after school episodes of the Super Mario Bros. Super Show Monday through Thursday, bearing the antics of the Mario Bros. just to get the 30-second clip of Friday’s Zelda cartoon, and then calling my best friend so we could analyze it.  Yes, 9 and 10 year old girls analyzing clips of the Zelda cartoon.  Not sure if I’m laughing, cringing, or considering going after the brain bleach!  But anyway, when Friday rolled around I’d run from the bus stop and get inside and sit down and watch, reveling in every minute of it.  And once it was over there was the high of having seen it combined with the letdown of knowing I had to wait another week for the next episode.

Looking back now, the cartoon had little to do with the game; the game wasn’t about story.  There was a token story to lend context to why you were traversing all over this map finding items and solving puzzles and gathering items.  The cartoon had to fill in, but I think that’s what I liked about it.  It filled in what we didn’t yet know, and when it all went off the air, it left questions that couldn’t be answered by anything other than fan speculation.

So in the end the original Legend of Zelda stands as my favorite classic game not because of its merits as a game: but for what it did for me as a fan.  It taught me about being a fan, and made fandom a part of my life early on.  When fandom became a concept that was real and applicable to me as an adult, I already understood what it meant, thanks to Zelda.

Next up: Day 25, a game I plan on playing.

30 Days of Video Games: Day 3, Underrated Game

I’ve gone to PAX East for the last two years, and am always amazed at what companies put into their advertising. Last year, the main entry boasted a huge display from BioShock Infinite. This year the exhibition floor touted larger-than-life sized sculptures for Borderlands 2, and companies doling out swag in the hopes of peaking gamers’ interests. Through all that, it’s easy to find the games that become overrated: games whose advertising schemes outweigh the real appeal. But what about those games whose developers don’t spend a lot in advertising, don’t get announced or flaunted at things like E3 and the PAX conventions, and mostly slide quietly by, generally unnoticed in the chaos?

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in the NES generation. There were gaming magazines, like Nintendo Power, but not the same kind of hubbub that exists today. Games were advertised on TV, sometimes stores had posters up, but generally the advertising was low-key. The big franchises certainly got their share of exposure, but the smaller games, not so much. It was during this time that I, as a 12-year-old gamer girl, saw a single commercial for the game Battle of Olympus. At the time I was obsessed with Greco-Roman mythology (still am), and that one ad, showcasing the potential to play through mythological settings with mythological creatures, excited me. Luckily my brother’s birthday was coming up, so I asked my parents if we could get that for me. I mean him. Right.

Battle of Olympus is a side-scroller in the same style of Zelda II, Link’s Adventure. It was released in North America in 1990 for the NES by Broderbund. It played nearly the exact same as Zelda II, down to the animations. It didn’t get much publicity, and didn’t get a lot of hype, and even now when I bring it up, most people don’t know anything about it. Imagine my glee when I mentioned it to Bard and he not only knew of it, but also has a copy!

The game had several settings from ancient Greek myths, and dealt with such mythological creatures as Gaea (mother earth), the Hydra, the Centaur, and the Minotaur. One section had you, as Orpheus, traversing the labyrinth of Crete in a quest to find your beloved, kidnapped by Hades. You could call on Poseidon’s dolphins, or play the lyre at the shrine of Apollo and call Pegasus. The worlds were bright and colorful, the game play fun, the mythological references awesome (if a bit skewed, as I now know from my experience teaching it), and most of all, it had the best music.

If I search Youtube for Battle of Olympus now, I can come up with many videos of the music and the gameplay. It brings back many memories, all of them fond. It reminds me of a time before God of War, before xbox, before all this financially-based advertising craze. While that’s all necessary now, remembering Battle of Olympus reminds me of what it was like to be excited for a game’s release for the very first time ever.

I never saw another ad for Battle of Olympus, and it seems to have been lost to the annals of gaming lore and legend. There are some who know of it, and understand how great it really is. But the vast majority haven’t ever heard of it. It’s for that reason that I think Battle of Olympus rates as a truly underrated game.

Tomorrow: Day 4, Your Guilty Pleasure Game

30 Days of Video Games: Day 1, Very First Video Game

I’ve been gaming for nearly all my life; I’ve had some gaps in it, times when gaming wasn’t a priority. But when all’s said and done, I’ve spent more of my lifetime gaming than not, and it all started when I was five years old and played my very first video game.

My very first video game was Pac Man on the Atari 2600. I was five, and my family was moving back from Montana to New Hampshire. My mother flew from Montana to Boston with me, age five, and my two-year-old brother, while my father drove a U-Haul cross country. I have a lot of impressions of that trip: my great aunt picking us up at Logan, and taking us for Chinese on the way “home”… and what “home” was for those first few weeks.

While we waited for my dad to arrive, we stayed with my mother’s middle sister and her family. I got to meet three cousins, and in the process, met their Atari. Prior to this, I knew nothing about video games. But when I saw the pixels and heard the simple music and sound effects I was hooked. There was an allure to avoiding and evading the ghosts while trying to gobble up the dots, and a certain tense excitement that came from advancing through the increasingly difficult mazes.

I remember staying inside while my brother and cousins went outside; I had to advance to the next maze. I had to eat the pear, and then it was the elation at having to get the pretzel and the banana. It was methodical and hypnotic, but far from mindless. I remember the increasing tension, and the way my hand would get sweaty as I gripped the joystick. And the way my knuckles turned white and my eyes widened as I tried to navigate a tricky passage. I was just five, after all.

These days my Pac Man experiences are limited to arcades, though I’ve gotten a Ms. Pac Man app on my Nook. However, the experience isn’t the same. I find playing certain games on my xBox is a closer experience to what I had at age five, because of the level of concentration and engagement I have in it. Pac Man and Ms. Pac Man weren’t just games for me, at that age: they were experiences. They were also what flipped the switch in my brain that got me gaming.

It’s fitting that this first prompt asks for the first ever video game I’ve played. My time playing Pac Man was quite formative for my personality as a gamer. Would I still game if not for that? Probably. But the fact I did play Pac Man, and become so immersed into it, is definitely what kindled my gaming fire.

Tomorrow: Your Favorite Character (or JayRain is like a kid in a candy store)…

In Defense of Fanfiction

As a writer and a geek, it goes without saying that I’ve dabbled… okay, more than dabbled in fanfiction.  At one point I thought that once I started in on my original work in earnest I’d set aside fanfiction in favor of my loftier goals.  Now with my MFA under my belt and armed with the tools to get out there and make that work I find that I’m actually writing more fanfiction.  And if I feel like I get strange looks or polite nods when I say I write speculative fiction, I get them even more when I admit to writing fanfiction.

Urbandictionary defines fanfiction thus:

A piece of fiction within a fandom utilizing characters and situations from a pre-existing work including (but not limited to) books, television programs, films, and comic strips.

Typically separated into het, slash, and general genres. Often used to play out AU scenarios and/or various romantic pairings not found in the original work.

Distributed via mailing lists, blogs, and zines. Heavily archived online

Fanfiction raises some interesting issues for writers.  First and foremost, we can’t make money off of it.  For writers who write to pay the bills, it makes sense to eschew fanfiction.  Intellectual Property laws forbid us from selling our work; our only payment for fanfiction is self-satisfaction, wish fulfillment, and if we’re lucky, fans of our work reviewing.  Second, it’s not our material.  To quote bearonthecouch, “[they] built the sandbox; I just play in it.”  The world, many of the characters, the settings?  They all were created by someone else and someone else gets to make the ultimate calls and ultimately the money off of it.  So why would a writer want to write fanfiction?  And, does all of this mean that fanfiction is a lesser form of writing?

Looking back at my past and what I was like growing up, I think I was writing fanfiction as early as third and fourth grade.  We had young authors’ day back then, where we spent a unit learning how to write stories, and then the culmination was writing it out in our best handwriting, getting it plastic-spiral bound, and displaying it.  Fourth grade was the height of my Legend of Zelda love.  My best friend and I had storylines and original characters.  Well, I did, she always played Zelda or wrote about Zelda.  My story was about my original character in the Zeldaverse trying to save the day, while harboring unrequited love for Link.  Oh the angst (and I was only 10). 

I remember that most of the other kids’ stories were original and because a lot of them didn’t know about Zelda, or weren’t into it the way I was, my story didn’t get a lot of hits.  It was disappointing, but a good early lesson for an aspiring fanfiction writer.

I began writing fanfiction in earnest when I finished with my BA in English back in 2002.  I’d discovered Lord of the Rings that year, and shortly after started in on Harry Potter.  At that time the latter series ended with book 4, with a promised book 5 on the horizon but nowhere in sight.  I wanted to know what happened; I wanted to speculate; I wanted to see what other people thought.  In short?  I discovered fanfiction.net.

Fanfiction.net, or FF.net, is I think what generally gives fanfiction as a genre, and fanfiction authors a bad name.  It’s nice because anyone can post there, but it’s not nice because anyone can post there.  The site is so huge there’s no real way to enforce quality of work, so visitors to the site often run into stories with poor grammar and spelling and ill-conceived, iller-executed plots.  When this is coupled with the general attitude that fanfiction is ‘lesser’ writing because it’s not original, it’s natural that fanfiction gets a bad name for itself.  It takes a discerning mind and patient attitude to sift through the chaff in order to find those rare kernels of well-done writing.  And when you do, it’s worth the time and effort you took.  You learn to be more discerning.  But in our society of instant gratification, few are willing to put such time and effort into something like finding a story that will be well-written and appeal to their tastes.

There are those gems on the site that are on par with, if not better than the original work.  There are authors who gather a huge following due to their talent and grasp of the material.  There’s work that’s silly, work that’s bad but the author really tried and meant well.  It runs the gammut.  And a lot of authors are willing to be in that gammut because, plain and simple, they’re writing for the love of the fandom and of writing itself.

I tried to explain fanfiction to some coworkers once.  Though they were skeptical about the whole thing, especially about why writers would write about someone else’s work while knowing full well they’d never get paid and it’d never go anywhere, they did listen.  One asked if fanfiction/fanon ever makes it into canon, and saw that it might be useful for the owners of the original IP.  One said, “It’s just practice writing then, right?”

Both arguments have given me pause on a regular basis.  Currently on the BioWare Social Network boards (BSN), there ae those of us who entered a Dragon Age short story contest and are nervously awaiting the results.  Some have suggested that it would be really cool if the writers took some of the concepts from entries and made them codex entries or side quests in future game installments.  The argument arose that perhaps if that occurred BioWare would have to make reparation for using our ideas; however, since we’re writing about their intellectual property in the first place, they don’t really owe us anything.

And somehow that led to the discovery of a very interesting now-scandal.  Apparently there was a DA fanfiction that had a large following.  The writer of it allegedly even sent it to David Gaider asking for it to be published under the auspices of EA/BioWare, which he naturally refused.  Shortly thereafter it appeared on Amazon.com as a downloadable Kindle book, though it was ‘original fiction’.  As fans looked into it, it became painfully clear that it was a case of “find/replace” with the names of people, places, and things.  That wouldn’t have been too bad, but when called out on it the author insisted she’d never heard of nor played Dragon Age.  Even when confronted with evidence that she wrote the fanfiction first, she denied everything.  Now David Gaider himself is involved and there’s a huge discussion going on on the BSN boards about it.

It brings up the point about fanfiction being “practice” writing for people who want to be “real” writers.  Only I wonder, does it have to be?  Even if we’re using others’ IP we still have to craft our own story utilizing those parameters.  One of the things Gaider mentioned in a respose to a review was whether or not fanfiction translated to original fiction was a good idea; he gracefully said it was up to the readers of the work to decide, and it was clear his stance was against the denial of plagiarism.  The idea brought me to this blog post and brought me to some thoughts about my own history with fan and original fiction writing.

Since I’ve been out of grad school for almost three years now and my thesis passed, I have no problem admitting that Seven of Wands started life as a Harry Potter fanfiction.  I’d belonged to an RP that was original characters only, and we had some good storylines going.  I crafted my character and her backstory, and we had a lot of fun playing in that sandbox.  I decided it’d be interesting to write her story from beginning to where it ended in the RP.  I posted it on ff.net where it was largely white noise, but that was fine because I enjoyed writing it, which was the important thing to me.  But when I wanted to write a sequel in roughly 2005/2006, I thought that maybe if I was going to spend so much time with these characters I could try fitting them into my own world.  The more work I did the more the world built itself, and I had a sequel that was very original and bore little resemblance to the Harry Potter world of the fanfiction-first novel.  And when I thought to go back and rewrite the original, I wound up being in grad school.

In my case fanfiction was a means to an end, but even though I have an original novel written and in the process of queries and such I’m by no means done with fanfiction.  When I discovered Dragon Age, its emphasis on story and character gripped me so much that I couldn’t help but dive back into fanfiction again after a five year hiatus.  I think it was just a matter of finding a fandom that I felt comfortable writing in.  But also, I’ve found that just because it’s fanfiction, I don’t slack off.  I put as much effort into the writing craft in my fanfiction as I do my original.  Why?  Because in both cases I’m writing for a public audience, and they deserve my best work.  It’s about integrity as a writer.

While fanfiction can help aspiring writers improve, it’s not just practice writing.  It can be a means to an end, but it can be an end in and of itself.  Just because it’s fanfiction doesn’t mean that the story has to suffer, or tenets of writing can be ignored.  Just because we’re not making money off of it, nay we can’t make money off of it, doesn’t mean that as writers we aren’t bound by our integrity and duty to our audiences to give the best we have to offer.  And it doesn’t mean that fanfiction as a form of writing should be disparaged.  There’s as much good fanfiction out there as there is bad original fiction.  It takes talent to tell a good story, and to tell it well, whether that story is original or not.

But I Want to Play With Toys!

Tonight my friend MLHawke posted a motherly confession: that she enjoyed playing with her daughter, Kender’s, toys.  That got me to thinking and I realized that I have made forays into Toys ‘R Us, or through the toy section of the local Target.  I have looked at toys and hoped people think I’m looking for a gift for a child.  The reality is I look at some of these toys and wish it wouldn’t be perceived as sketchy for me to buy them for myself.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do buy some toys for myself.  I have a large collection of Harry Potter Legos; this summer I purchased the Hagrid’s Hut set from the Lego Store.  I have action figures, and for a time was known for the LOTR figures on my car’s dashboard (RIP Nerdmobile).  I have stuffed zombies.  And we all know I have gaming consoles that get frequent use.  But why is it strange for adults to want to play with toys?

Not going to lie, today’s toys are pretty cool.  In a world where toys compete with television and videogames for kids’ attention and imaginations, the toys work to step it up.  Some toys I don’t understand, and probably never will given that I’m not a child.  But there are some toys I see and my imagination goes haywire.  I think how cool it might be to play with them, and then make sure no one sees me thinking about it:

It brings me back to being a child.  When I was young we didn’t have iPods or iPhones or smartphones… or heck even cell phones that we were constantly glued to.  I had Nintendo that I played fairly frequently, but I also read a lot, and above all, I had toys.  I played with Legos; I had model dinosaurs; and while I had Barbies and did play some typical Barbie roleplaying with my best friend, we (and I alone) also played with our dolls and made costumes out of existing clothes so they matched the images of made up heroines we’d created.  My first official fandom was Legend of Zelda, and looking back now with my older, wiser, nerdier eyes, I see that what she and I were doing was writing fanfiction and creating original characters, as well as roleplaying.

Playing with toys forced me to use my imagination and become creative.  And because of some of the elements of play that we involved, I think it was also integral to forming who I am as a nerd today.  We saw our dolls through being typical teenagers… or characters in the Zelda setting… or with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Or any other scenario.  It made me act, made me think, made me be creative with what I had.  I was always grateful that I was able to learn to entertain myself, and I think my parents were, too.

Plus, my toys were cool.  I had Legos.  I loved my Legos.  To this day I sometimes wonder what happened to all of them.  One year between my brother and me we had the entire Lego Ice Planet series.  That was my space year, seventh grade I think.  Prior to that, I was totally obsessed with horses (which may be why I reload to save my horse.)  Oh, I had Lego horses.  The first Lego horse I had was brown, and came in a small set with a stable to build.  And you’d better believe my dolls had horses.  My favorite was this one:

The corral, the cardboard diorama, all the plastic grooming devices… they were epic in my mind.  I asked my mom for some instant potato flakes to keep in the feed bucket, and would fill the trough with water.  I would also use my brother’s Lincoln Logs to create jumping courses for my horses.  Hedges, oxers, double oxers… I read a lot about showing and horses in general, so I knew about jump courses.  Building them was a huge source of fun for me.  I had the Blinking Beauty horse in the picture; if you “pet” her mane, she blinked and had these long eyelashes.  But later on I also got another horse that went with another doll set.  This horse had legs jointed at the knees and fetlocks, and the head moved up and down with a neck joint.  It also came with a riding outfit for the doll.  Now that? Was AWESOME.

Evidently those were some very important and formative elements of my childhood.  I openly confess to still looking at doll horses and fondly recalling the days when it was okay to spend my time letting my imagination roam free and manifest in dressing up my dolls and taking my toy horses through their fake paces over Lincoln Log jumps.  And when people like my friend say they want to play with their child’s toys I don’t laugh or scoff, I agree. 

People are quick to point out a standard about what it is to be grown up.  Pay your bills, live on your own, find a relationship, get married, have kids, don’t get married… and when it comes to having fun the standard becomes very interesting to look at, especially if you’re like me and your definition of fun doesn’t coincide with “their” definition.  In one episode of How I Met Your Mother, Marshall and Lily decide they need to have grown up fun, so they have people over for a wine tasting.  The episode plays up the dull nature of things until both hosts finally escape through the bathroom window and meet their friends, leaving the “grown ups” waiting for the wine to breathe.

Of course knowing what those characters are like, it’s funny.  But there are people like the “grown ups” who do find wine tasting enjoyable, and I don’t fault them for it at all.  I appreciate that that’s where they find entertainment, even if it’s not for me.  For me fun is making costumes; dressing up; walking around in public in a Medieval dress or like a zombe.  It’s playing D&D every week and video games in between and doing things that stimulate my imagination.  And I’d appreciate not being faulted for my definition of fun.  We’re all different, and age shouldn’t be a factor. 

In the end, I don’t buy the cool toys, mostly because I don’t have the extra money or room.  But I do have my Legos, I do have an army of MegaBlocks Spartans from their Halo collection, and I do have two Halo Reach Spartan action figures.  I will probably play some xbox when I finish writing this.  Hey, my bills are paid and my work is done; I’m going to play with my toys!