As a filmmaker, I am tremendously decisive with my craft. It does not take me long to figure out what I want to achieve with a script, and to develop strong opinions about the best ways to make those goals into realities. When I show up on set as an actor, I come in armed with ideas for a scene, eager to work.
None of this would have been possible without Roberta Williams.
The founder of Sierra On-Line and arguable creator of the graphic adventure game, Roberta Williams is one of the most important pioneers in videogame history. Among her considerable body of works is game called King’s Quest III: To Heir Is Human. That’s right, “H-E-I-R,” not “E-R-R”. This game came out in an era where puns as subtitles were considered socially acceptable. King’s Quest III was the first time I played a game and thought of it as an “escape” instead of just a fun activity. Choosing to skip on sleep and sneak some game time in was the first real decision I remember making purely for myself.
I remember playing through tears one night, and not fully understanding why I was crying.
Growing up, we think the situations we’re in are normal. It isn’t until later in adulthood that we begin to see just how messed up our childhoods actually were. I know enough now to recognize that my mother is a textbook narcissist. Her anxiety and emotional life left little room for me or my brother to develop our own sense of self. She was quick to cry, and quicker still to play the martyr. We walked on eggshells all the time, lest she threaten suicide. She demanded of us children that we become the adult nurturers and take care of her. Managing her anxiety was a 24/7 family job, and so my brother and I were never really "raised" in the common meaning of the term. There are all sorts of basic, functional skills that I never learned: money, cooking, driving. My father refrained from challenging my mother or utilizing his own agency. He signaled to us that the only tactic for dealing with a problematic person is complete surrender.
I have distinct memories of lying in bed and listening for the TV on the other end of the house. If it was on, it meant my mom was falling asleep and would soon stagger off to bed. At that point, I’d be free to tiptoe to the computer, quietly slide the five-and-quarter disk into the drive, and take on the role of Alexander.
King’s Quest III began with a locked-door puzzle – a classic puzzle template. It is a situation where a protagonist is trapped in a room and needs to find a key to unlock a door. Often these are literal, but they can also be metaphoric, as with KQIII. Alexander is trapped in servitude to the evil wizard, Mannannan, and must escape. Mannannan is his locked door, and the key is a magic cookie that will transform him into a cat (cookies: Daventry’s original cat-meme generators!)
Mannannan’s villain MO was hilarious. He would steal babies and raise them as slaves, killing them on their 18th birthday (in the off chance they rebelled.) Then he’d start over with a new baby, presumably going through the laborious process of teaching the new child reading and writing and all of the other skills necessary to be a good wizard’s slave. How he functioned while the child was just a baby remains a mystery. I suppose he cleaned his own chamber pot at those times, though that seems a demeaning chore for a mighty wizard.
What the game glossed over was that, as unpleasant as Manannan was, he was the only reality Alexander knew. In real life, this would lead to trauma. Years of being conditioned to be a servant to a tyrant results in emotional impediments and basic functional limitations. Like me, Alexander would have had no model for conflict, no practical information, and no earthly idea that any of this was abnormal. Yet somehow this didn’t stop our young hero from immediately becoming the absolute picture of perfect nobility once reunited with his parents.
Unlike Prince Alexander, I carried these things with me even after my escape. I still struggle not to feel uncomfortable for expressing a preference that isn’t “whatever you want” or an opinion that isn’t “whatever you think is best, Mom.” But it is a struggle that I gradually make ground in, thanks to games and to art. These became safe spaces – two arenas that my mother knew nothing about and had no interest in. Alexander obeyed my commands. He explored screens that I chose to go to; kicked cats that I chose to kick. It is no surprise that when I graduated into other types of games, I was more drawn to crunchy RPGs and games that required lots of decision-making, and less drawn to platformers and reflex-based games.
Had my childhood been gaming free, I’d have ended up a wishy-washy bohemian type, knowing that I needed to create art but unsure what I wanted to put out into the world – and too anxious to initiate making any of it actually manifest.
I am lucky to exist in a world where I didn’t have to go to war like my father did. I didn’t have to witness my best friend get his guts splattered all over my body – alive one minute and a pile of gore the next. If that had happened to me, I too might have eschewed all conflict. And unlike my mom, I didn’t come from a devastatingly impoverished family where I was forced to take care of my five siblings because my sole parent was entirely checked out. In her shoes, I too might yearn to be the center of attention as an adult.
Many would classify gaming as a childish thing to be put aside. But the childish things that I want to put aside are the inner voices that are constantly cutting me down, telling me that my thoughts and feelings are secondary to everyone else’s – that I must tread lightly, because anytime someone is upset they are going to kill themselves.
For me, gaming is a tool that let me dismantle the baggage of my childhood. It is a reminder that I could find an identity and be a functional human being – even if my father suffered from undiagnosed PTSD from his time in 'Nam. Even if my mother’s childhood left her unable to actually take other human beings in.
Games are where I made things happen, seized control, and outsmarted even the most dastardly of wizards. Learning how to utilize the mechanics of a game in a decisive way opened the door for me to feel comfortable making artistic choices. Knowing exactly how I want to build my party in Might & Magic or Wasteland gave me a model for what it feels like to prefer something without guilt or second guessing. I can’t imagine working for a decade and navigating the insanely complicated process of making a feature film without having first overcome my own locked-door puzzle.
We’re all prisoners of where we came from. Even after overcoming my own locked door puzzle, I’ll carry that lock with me forever. I’ll also carry the key. To heir is human, after all.