Warning. I’m about to get a little Abe Simpson here.
Y’know… Back in my day…
It’s only been a short twenty-five years or so since I was that kid hiding out in the basement with my sibs or my friends playing those now-classic video games that shape the memories of my youth.
For context, we had this at-the-time-awesome and state-of-the-art Intel 386 desktop machine, with a VGA monitor and a whopping “you-ll-never-need-anything-bigger” 80 Mb (yeah, that’s not a typo: MEGAbyte) hard drive.
And we loved to play video games on it. No kidding, huh?
Part of the effort to actually play games went something like this:
1. There was no Internet. At least, it wasn’t something that was remotely on our radar as a thing. And it definitely would not have had anything to do with video games. Everything we knew about games came from recommendations or visits to the video game store or most likely: expensive magazines from the bookstore. So, after seeing a scattered collection of printed glossy screenshots in a magazine, pondering the glory of that game for weeks or months, saving our pittance of an allowance, we then needed to convince our parents that a trip to the mall was in order.
2. There were precisely four places in town to buy video games. The video game store at the mall was my preference because they had the best selection, but you could also find a small selection at Radio Shack or London Drugs. If you were really desperate, the little hole-in-the-wall store where we bought our computer system had a couple games mixed in with their copies of Windows 3.1 and WordPerfect.
3. We’d bring the game home, crack open the box, extract a small heaping pile of 3.5 inch floppy diskettes which were numbered for efficient installation, and usually some other goodies like a manual, a cloth map, a paper gadget of some kind that served as copy protection, and a few advertisements. The experience was much more like cracking open a new board game these days, with lots of parts and rules and that anticipation of getting things set up.
4. We’d boot up the computer (because you didn’t just leave it on all the time, c’mon!) and quickly realize that there was not enough hard drive space to install our new game. So we’d spend a good 30 minutes to an hour uninstalling (or usually just deleting the files with DELETE *.* command) of at least one or two other old games (or various files) that were not going to be interesting in the foreseeable twenty-four hours.
5. Presuming all went well in the effort to locate some hard drive space, the installation would begin. This was an epic ceremony that involved feeding a new disk into the drive every five to ten minutes and watching the command feed or the progress bar churn through the copy process. Most games had four to five disks. One, I recall, had a number in the teens. That was an afternoon project.
6. When the installation was complete, it was time to cross our fingers. You’d get into the DOS prompt, type the command to run the game, and hope. It was a 50/50 prospect that the game would run. Sometimes it would just flop you back into DOS prompt with a cryptic message about memory allocation, or a graphics setting, or an incompatible something, in which case the real game would be pouring over the MS-DOS manual for hints on how to edit the config files to redistribute system resources in a way that the game liked. If you were unlucky, this might mean hours of effort and countless reboots as you tweaked the config files, all the time hoping you didn’t break anything crucial. It you were really unlucky it meant convincing your parents to buy a new piece of hardware for a couple hundred bucks… and then you were waiting weeks or months for that to happen.
7. And then maybe, just maybe the game would load. And remember when I mentioned those goodies, like that copy protection gadget? The game would ask you to prove you’d actually paid money for the files by forcing you to look something up in the manual or turning a paper wheel that aligned with a secret code or locating the name of a city on that cloth map you’d been studying in the hours since you’d first optimistically opened the box.
I bring this up for further context because today, in late 2016, twenty-five years later the teenage me would be in awe of the current process to play a video game. Currently my effort to play a game goes something like this:
1. Yesterday morning, as I’m walking up the stairs and out of the underground from the LRT my phone connects to the internet again and in my inbox an email appears. Steam has sent me a message letting me know that “A game in your Wishlist in on sale.” I think “Oh, four bucks, that’s a pretty good deal.” So as I’m riding the escalator I click the link.
2. The Steam app on my phone opens up while I’m standing in line to buy my coffee before work. The line shuffles a little closer to the front, and meanwhile I click the virtual button on my phone, add the game to my cart, and then click another button to complete the transaction. Five seconds later I get an email thanking me for my purchase.
3. I order a black-one-sugar coffee, pay for my drink, and then stand to the side to wait for them to pour it. The Steam app asks me if I’d like to remotely install the game and shows me that my desktop is running back home in my basement. I click ok.
4. The lady calls that my coffee is ready, and as I pick it up (and just before I turn off my phone and slip it back into my jacket pocket) I get a confirmation from the app that the game has been installed and is ready to play.
Sometimes I want to just stand on a street corner and shout out loud: “Welcome to the future folks.” (As an added bonus, Claire would be so embarrassed.)