When I was still young, I was out on a walk with my father in the woods next to my great-aunt's house. The woods were an offshoot of the Devil's Hopyard state park, which meant that they were old and vast. As the family often congregated around the house, there were a number of paths we knew that wove their way through the forest, but I remember where we always stopped, and I remember the day when I asked what was further along.
My dad grinned, and we kept walking. It was about ten minutes from there to a beautiful, moss-covered waterfall that was right on the edge of the state park, with an alcove just large enough that I could squeeze underneath the falls. That sticks with me every time I start up a new game, because that was when I started to really wonder about where paths might lead. Everything leads somewhere. Finding things out is one of the things I love, probably what attracted me to video games in the first place.
The first console I ever owned was an Atari 2600 in a neighborhood where everyone else had a Nintendo if they had anything. We had no manuals, there was no internet, and we had a game called Solaris. Everyone else in the house gave up on it almost immediately, since it was the sort of game custom-made to require a guide. I couldn't get enough of it. I would play quietly and intently, trying to figure out how the game worked and where everything was. It was an exercise in finding things and putting together the game on my own terms, at my own pace.
It was my aunt that first introduced me to RPGs by her own love of the genre. She passed along her NES when the SNES came out, along with a collection of games that included Dragon Warrior. That game proved to be such a relentless timesink that rules were put into place about how long I was allowed to spend on the console per day, as my mother was starting to worry about me becoming totally fixated on the game. Not that it helped, since I just wound up devoting my additional time to maps and reading about the game.
Back in those days of gaming, most levels had time limits and any number of things that would kill you. They told you who you were and what you were doing and gave you strict limits. Dragon Warrior let you tell it what your name was, and it let you take the game entirely at your own pace. The idea that you could choose to not follow the game's main story, that you could wander about the world and never bother rescuing the princess -- that was eye-opening.
Small wonder that I found myself almost immediately hooked as soon as the concept of pen-and-paper roleplaying was introduced to me. Between that and Magic: the Gathering, my life up through early high school was awash in stories and game systems and numbers. When I was just thirteen, I was introduced to Final Fantasy VI and Secret of Mana for the first time, with the former having an unbelievably immersive story and world, and the latter actually offering a slight multiplayer aspect by letting someone else control one or both of your other party members.
When I was in high school and finally had enough money to buy consoles and games for myself, it was 1999. That was the same year that EverQuest was first released, and I still remember walking into the store and seeing the display. It promised adventure. It promised exploration. It promised somewhat clothing-impaired elven women to a teenage boy. I looked at the box, thought carefully, and then asked, "Who the heck would be interested in this crap?"
For some players, EverQuest looked like something amazing. To me, it looked like generic fantasy that I was burned out on from far too many RPGs, with graphics I found unimpressive. And the idea of paying money every month for a game I wasn't even sure I would like made me roll my eyes and toss it right back on the shelf.
What brought me around was Final Fantasy XI. Sort of. By that point I still had it in my mind that MMOs were pretty dumb and not fun for anyone, having heard the infamous horror stories about EQ and having zero desire to experience it. I had more or less written off the eleventh game of the series, and then I happened to sit down with my then-girlfriend and my roommate at the time to watch the tech demo.
The girlfriend immediately piped up that I should totally buy it. And when I mentioned that I didn't know anyone else who would be playing anyway, my roommate volunteered. I'm not totally sure I've ever forgiven him.
After a few months, I was ready to quit. Except that was right around when City of Heroes was coming out, and I had to admit, it sounded like a lot of the problems I had with Final Fantasy XI were sidestepped in that game's design. By the time I was cooling on that, World of Warcraft was being released, and my friends online were raving about how excellent it was...
By the time I had left Guild Wars and had resubscribed to FFXI with a renewed appreciation of the game's design elements, I found myself increasingly interested with the genre on its own merits. I had tried taking a break from MMOs entirely for a little while, and there was something indefinably missing. Every other sort of game had a certain finite quality, certain boundaries that I couldn't articulate well. They were still fun, but they weren't quite the same.
And by the time I was back to World of Warcraft, my fiancée and I were spending time together after a long hiatus. We had been best friends all through college, and so I offered to buy her a copy of the game so she could see what it was that I liked so much about it. At the time, we weren't yet dating. We would just log in together and play, running through Mulgore and then the Barrens, talking and growing closer and closer.
That was three and a half years ago. And I'm still playing, and still exploring, and still trying whatever strange combination of stats and abilities appeals to me, figuring out how to make even the bizarre combinations work once I've gotten them in my head. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't -- but it still leads somewhere. It's a hobby, a job now, and part of my personality and history.
Besides, it beats scrapbooking.