Sometimes, the formative moments in your life happen when you least expect them. One such moment occurred for me in 1997, as I watched my brother pilot Cloud Strife through the ruins of the Forgotten City while Aerith Gainsborough clasped her hands in prayer. We'd taken turns playing Final Fantasy VII on and off for days. He bemoaned my stubborn inclusion of Red XIII in every party and we both developed gambling habits at the Gold Saucer on the outskirts of North Corel. We argued about the validity of Yuffie Kisaragi's existence and watched in awe as Sapphire Weapon emerged from the sea to attack Junon. We laughed. We cried. We experienced a game unlike anything we'd ever played before, but nothing could have prepared us for what happened next.
As a sword-wielding Sephiroth fell on Aerith like an avenging angel, I felt the Earth tilt on its axis. It wasn't simply the unexpected plot twist that left me reeling. No, it was deeper than that. I realized in that moment that the figures on my screen had transcended the jagged stacks of polygons that made them. They had become real to me. The loss of one of them, fictional as it was, cut me to the quick. It was then that I realized what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to devastate people the way I had been devastated. I wanted to build worlds as fantastical as Midgar and populate them with characters as richly layered as Vincent Valentine. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to be a writer.
That seed had been planted years prior to Final Fantasy VII's release, when I was but a wee babe in pigtails, discovering the awesome power of video game narratives. One of my earliest memories is watching my brother scale Death Mountain to defeat the villainous Ganon and save the kingdom of Hyrule. I was entranced. The Legend of Zelda was the first game my family had ever acquired and my brother and I cherished our NES with a tenderness almost unheard of in small children.
We had no idea how the little buttons we mashed manipulated the figures on our TV screen and we didn't care. As far as we were concerned, the NES ran on magic. And, in a way, it did. With the push of a button (and a few puffs on stubborn cartridges), we were transported into fantasy worlds bursting with possibilities. We were pirates. We were ninjas. We were Italian plumbers with a penchant for property damage. We were heroes. If that isn't magic, I don't know what is.
Over the years, my brother and I amassed an increasingly tangled mess of consoles and wires. I saved up every penny I could find in my couch cushions to buy my first PlayStation (pre-loved and refurbished), spent countless hours highlighting titles in the FuncoLand catalog and got into vicious arguments about the merits of various systems. To this day, my brother won't let me live down my overconfident proclamation that the Sega Genesis would stand the test of time better than the SNES (I know, I know -- I don't need to hear it from you, too). We're close enough in age that we didn't get along until we were both legally able to vote, but we put aside our differences when it came to video games. With our powers combined, we conquered every flippin' castle until we found the one with the princess; we cackled over fatalities, animalities and babalities; we took turns battling Dark Link in the Water Temple.
Video games became my way to decompress, even if they sometimes caused their own stress. Titanic: Adventure Out of Time is still the most emotionally harrowing PC game I've ever played (solve this mystery before you meet your waterlogged end aboard a doomed ocean liner, no pressure!). To this day, I can't listen to Chopin's "Prelude Op. 28 No. 7" without an overwhelming sense of foreboding. And that was the awesome power of video games. The good ones wormed their way inside your head and stayed there; the great ones wrapped themselves around your heart and squeezed.
It wouldn't be a stretch to say that I came to writing through gaming. I've been an avid reader ever since learning what those little black squiggles on paper meant, but games taught me as much about storytelling as books did. I don't know if I would have penned the first short story I ever sold -- a little ditty set in a post-zombie-apocalypse world -- if I hadn't traumatized myself by playing Resident Evil in the dark for hours.
Growing up geek made me what I am: a writer. The profession has taken me to some strange places over the years. I had a brief stint as a fashion blogger and made my first writing paycheck as a comics journalist (I have very strong opinions about Batman and his extended family). My career has been a wild ride, peppered with unexpected twists and turns, but I have zero regrets about where I've wound up. I'm glad to be a part of Engadget, surrounded by fellow geeks of all stripes, sharing my words with you lovely people. And I know some of you out there understand why I'm still not over Aerith's untimely demise. Sephiroth, man, why you gotta play me like that?
Melissa Grey can be found on Twitter as @meligrey, babbling about comics, Doctor Who and her desire to live at Hogwarts. She's a Gryffindor, by the way; Pottermore told her so.