Aliens and Adolescence: Playing X-com With My Dad
My alarm goes off at 2:15am exactly. I don’t exactly wake up, as that would require having actually been asleep, but I am roused from a half-dream of aliens and shotguns. From underneath my bed I produce the two towels I had secreted away there earlier in the day. One I roll up and place against the bottom of my door, the other I drape over my massive beige computer tower. I unplug my speakers, just to be sure.
Then, I start up X-com: UFO Defense. I was on the second part of the final mission, a tense invasion of the alien base on Cydonia, when a particularly bad report card saw my computer privileges revoked for a week. I couldn’t let that stand, so under the cover of darkness, heavy cloth in place to silence any angry fans or furious keystrokes, I head back under the dusty sand of Mars to blow up the alien hivemind and conquer the game that has been haunting me for months.
The next morning at breakfast with my family, I’m jittery and unsettled. I know that if I told my father about my clandestine victory, I’d get grounded even more. The guy who gave me the game, who watched the ferocious glint in my eyes as I killed my first Sectoid with a 25% auto shot, could never know about my final epic Blaster Launcher shot straight into the final room, ending the alien menace on Earth.
I wouldn’t tell him for nearly twenty years.
We sit in my parent’s living room, curtains drawn to keep the wonderful California sunshine out. My dad has the controller this time, holding it in a kind of claw grip that belies his discomfort with the device. He’s a PC man at heart, that’s for sure. Despite this, he handily orders his assault trooper to dash across the map at my suggestion, unloading a shotgun into the face of a particularly troublesome Thin Man who’s managed to poison his entire team. A hearty “Yeah!” escapes him as he bounces back into his recliner. The dog skitters out of his lap.
From the other room, my sister exclaims “So this is what boys do? Haven’t seen each other for a month and you just play video games, eat pizza, and drink beer?”
We both look over at her, blinking away the bright light of a room where normal people are leading normal lives and answer, in unison, “What else would we do?”
My dad is visiting a friend from work when he discovers computer games. He loves fighter planes, our shared history studded with glossy color books of airplanes and half-painted models of F-17s, so his friend decides to show him this new flight simulator that had just come out called Falcon.
That was his moment. Until that point his love of tactical board games and dalliances with Dungeons and Dragons had never coalesced into the kind of full bore nerdiness that had conquered many of his friends and coworkers. He had always stayed slightly off to the right, tinkering with his motorcycle or going on hiking trips, maybe playing a game of Aces to Aces or putting his hands to work building his own molds for models of sailing ships. It was Falcon that broke him.
Nevermind that it never actually ran on our computer, which was hardly powerful enough to manage the original SimCity. It introduced him to a company that would dominate both of our lives for nearly a decade – Spectrum Holobyte or, as you probably know them, Microprose.
I watch my family walk off through the dusty streets of “Gold Country” in California, excitedly discussing their plans for the day. There will be horse riding, panning for gold, spelunking, and some much needed opportunities to escape the dry heat in the shade of a rustic golden tree. The kinds of things that made up the halycon days of my parent’s respective youths. Summers spent among cousins and family, eating hastily made bologna and American cheese sandwiches under the watchful eye of not-entirely-sober adults.
For them, it’s childhood. For me, it’s misery.
The hotel we’re staying in, a cute little converted home with beds that are authentically uncomfortable and radiators that burn unsuspecting children who grew up with central heating, doesn’t have TV. No cartoons, no movies, not even the local news. Just blissful silence, a rocking chair on the porch, and your favorite book. None of which sounds good to a 12 year old.
It’s a turning point for my family, when they determine that tearing me away from my media saturated life at home is more trouble than its worth. Experiences that they adore and cherish, that they’ll recount during dinner for years to come, just weren’t important to me. There were dungeons to conquer, monsters to defeat, and Doom II levels to design. Columbia and its dusty streets could wait.
While I sit there, bitterly drawing the anarchy symbol in the loose dirt, my father sits on the side of a creek, watching my sister and mother exclaim in joy as they pluck worthless nuggets from muddy water.
I’m five years old and sitting on the cold tile outside of my parent’s bedroom. It’s 8pm and very likely past my bedtime, but I’ve got a damn good reason to be awake. My parents had come home with the bulky black box that every kid my age dreamed of getting. They had bought a Nintendo Entertainment System.
I would later learn that they hadn’t bought it from the store, but instead obtained it from my uncle, the perpetual bachelor, who was enchanted with the idea of playing Mike Tyson’s Punch Out but found the entire thing to be too cumbersome for his swinging lifestyle.
Their attempt to sneak the thing into the house had failed miserably. As I sit, much like a dog who heard the jangle of his leash being grabbed, all I can think about is a good excuse to open my parent’s bedroom door, to catch even a glimpse of my future as a Nintendo Owner. I mean, it’s not fair that they should get to play with it first, right? They’re not fans of video games. I’m the kid, it’s my thing!
My youthful self-control overwhelmed, I burst into the room, the barest of excuses escaping my lips. Sitting there on the edge of the bed is my father, the hilariously small controller in hand, playing Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
He doesn’t entirely notice me, his eyes still locked on the screen. It’s the first time I would see my father play video games.
My first year of college and my first extended return visit home for holiday break. It’s a hazy thing, watching my mother leave for work while I sit at the dining room table drinking coffee…on a weekday. Christmas is still a few days away, so she’s still trudging out every day. My father, unemployed after getting hit by a nasty wave of lay-offs at his company, shoots me a knowing look as the door clicks shut.
He slides a game across the table, Grand Theft Auto III. My Christmas present for the Playstation 2 I had bought with my high school graduation money. I produce a copy of a flight sim he had been eyeing and we silently nod towards each other before heading to our respective rooms to indulge in a heady day of illicit gaming. We only have a scant few hours before my mother returns home for lunch and the jig is up, so time was of the essence. Breakfast could wait, I had hookers to kill.
I don’t think, to this day, that my mother knows about our long-planned decision to give ourselves one day with our presents, weeks before they were officially exchanged.
I sort through the pile of magazines I’d brought with me on our annual camping trip. Most of them are copies of Nintendo Power, but there are a few red bordered game guides in the pile. One catches my eye, my latest addition: Secret of Mana. I grab it and walk out into the woods, hoping to spend a few hours on a moss-covered log, the closest I would ever get to playing the game itself, not owning a Super Nintendo. But I could dream, right?
My father intercepts me before I can escape the camp. He’s got an idea, that we should both go off into the woods together and spend a night “roughing it.” This means no air mattresses, no sitting around the campfire eating s’mores, and most terrifying of all, no bathrooms. We’d pack our bags, throw them on our backs, and hike out to a nice spot he’d heard about.
I last one night before doing everything short of demanding we go back.
It was the mosquitos that did it. I could handle the hike up there, the backpack straps cutting into my skin. The food, a freeze-dried rice and cream sauce dinner in a paper packet, was decent enough. I didn’t even mind sleeping on an incline, my bag in a constant battle with gravity. But when I saw the walls of the tent pushed inward from the pure force of the cloud of mosquitoes that hovered around it, I was done.
My dad was miserable as well, but for him it was the kind of misery that you endure and then recount back at base camp while sharing a beer. The suffering that brings people together.
I just wanted to get back to my tent, zip it up, and spend the rest of the trip reading about other people’s adventures.
I’m grounded again, this time for getting a ‘yellow ticket’ from the yard duty at my elementary school, and my father comes home from work, the noise of loose floppies in his briefcase a sound not unlike the ringing of Pavlov’s bell to my tiny ears. It could only mean one thing: a new game. He unpacks the pile of disks, each bearing the Microprose logo, and spreads them out on the table, counting them all to make sure they’re all there. He takes out an equal number of blank disks and, while my mother cooks dinner in the adjacent kitchen, starts making copies, labeling each as it comes out of the drive. Master of Orion.
I didn’t know it then, but we never actually owned most of the formative games from my youth. Most of them came to us directly from a guy he worked with named Rich, a heavy duty board gamer who my dad played Squad Leader and other Avalon Hill games with. It was Rich’s boxes of Star Trek, tucked away in our closet, that got me interested in miniatures and Warhammer 40k. In a weird way, I have him to thank for everything.
That night, after dinner, my dad sat down to play “MOO”, as he calls it with a laugh. Being grounded, I wasn’t able to take command of any interstellar fleets or planetary management bars, but I could watch and advise. “Dad, pick the bug dudes, they look totally awesome!”
The Klackons? Still the best race in the game. My dad agrees.
We’re both standing in the aisle at Fry’s Electronics, ogling over the latest video cards and laughing to ourselves about how woefully unprepared the sales staff are. My dad has a Voodoo 3 box in his hands, turning it over to examine all the pertinent stats and graphs about its performance. There’s a new version of Falcon out and his computer, a massive beast so loud my mother forbids its use during primetime TV hours, is starting to chug. It’s the Voodoo 2 in there, a card that can handle everything he throws at it but the latest texture patch for a modern flight simulator.
I plant the bug in his ear. Future-proofing, new games, recent price drop, all that. My goal is clear: get him to upgrade, then reap the fact that hardware always flows downhill. My personal computer, which can barely run Baldur’s Gate, let alone Quake 2, could use some hand-me-down love.
He thinks for a moment and then, his voice a mixture of gruff assurance and fiduciary uncertainty, tells me that he’s going to do it and walks towards the cashiers. Behind him, I pump my fist in victory.
Twenty years later, while sharing beers on his patio, I offer him my old GeForce 460, an act of contrition across the ages for all my ill-gotten hardware.
My car, a ’91 Ford Taurus, has a blown head gasket and I’ve got a blown wallet. I turn to my father for advice, who, spotting a chance for me to meet him halfway on one of his interests, agrees to pull the engine, resurface the gasket, and put it back together again,on one condition: I help him. He finds me a jumpsuit to fit the extra few inches I’ve got on him, shows me how you can cover your arms in soap to make it easier to wash off the oil and grease later, and then we get to work.
It takes weeks.
By the third or fourth day of work, my willingness to suck it up and help out rather than play Diablo 2 is spent. I throw a hissy fit and asked him if I could stop wasting his time and do something else. Looking back on it, my father probably wasn’t being diplomatic or dismissive when he let me go inside that day, he was probably disappointed.
The car never ran the same again, and ended up being sold for scrap a few months later.
My mother is out for the night, one of her rare opportunities to escape the two very trying men in her life, and I hear that tell-tale sound of plastic scraping against plastic. He’s got a pile of oddly labeled discs, each with a different label and handwriting. This is new, not like the retail copies we had gotten before, giant boxes packed with massive maps and elaborate manuals. This was illicit.
This was Doom. I had seen Doom only once before, on a display model at Fry’s. I knew why this was a big deal.
My father looks around for my younger sister, making sure that she’s safely ensconced in her room among her dolls, and then leans down close and gestures for me to come near him. He tells me that this is my one shot to play this game, that I’ve got a few hours, and that if my Mom ever finds out…
He doesn’t need to finish. I’m already installing the game.
We’re all sitting on the patio together, me, my mother, my father, and my sister. We’re drinking beers and talking about how things are going for each of us. My sister talks about the documentary she’s making, I talk about my writing. My mother gives us details about the trip to France they have planned for the summer, excitedly explaining all the cool places they’re going to go. Their new dog darts about underfoot, a cute little mutt that’s a hybrid of practically every small breed of yippy beast.
This is what family looks like for me now that I’ve got a wife, a house, and a career. My father, usually somewhat silent during these visits, suddenly looks up.
“Did we save the game?” he barks, rushing into the living room. There’s a moment of silence as we all look at each other, caught off guard by the fact that he wasn’t at all involved in our conversation. Slowly, I get up and follow, equally concerned about losing all of our progress that day in the new Xcom: Enemy Unknown, which I had gotten him for Christmas.
As I’m entering the house, my mother lets out a sigh at our willingness to end the conversation so abruptly. I look back at her, shrug, and say “What else would we do?”
My dad is inside, and he’s started playing again.