Twenty years ago, a game came out that may or may not have changed the world of videogames but certainly changed my life. The game was Wolfenstein 3D, developed by id Software and published by Apogee Software. id Software at the time was six people: John Romero, John Carmack, Tom Hall, Adrian Carmack, Kevin Cloud and Jay Wilbur. Later on, an ad in my PC Gamer magazine would tell me that John Romero was about to make me his bitch. He didn't. But he would be indirectly responsible for the creation of two of my favorite games: Deus Ex and Anachronox (the latter headed by Tom Hall). A couple years later, when I was nearly fifteen, I would start seriously composing music because of a link I found on John Romero's personal website. When I was sixteen, in my junior year of high school, I talked to John Romero on MSN for several hours. He was friendly; he had heard a couple of my game music arrangements and kept sending me Daikatana music. The next day at school I felt strong stirrings of discontent for the world around me. The conversation I had the night before seemed to render it all meaningless. I signed my name in my first program that year with the title of "Ace Programmer and Future Rich Person" as a tribute to Romero (I had learned that was how he signed his programs through the book Masters of DOOM, which I read feverishly).
My family's computer had the full six-episode version of Wolfenstein, through some odd circumstance. The most logical explanation, looking back, is that it was pirated by the people who built our computer, the employees of a place called "Computer Jeff's", located on Main St. in Mt Vernon, Ohio (a pretty few blocks which has greatly dwindled ever since Wal-Mart took hold of the town). They could have also been responsible for some badly compressed images of naked women draped in American flags hidden on some folder on the computer that greatly confused me. Later on I would get a copy of The Ultimate DOOM from a different computer store that had opened in the same space. It was my first cd-rom game, and I had to wait one very long week to play because of some problem with the cd drive. I must have read the instruction manual ten times. I was very excited that you could apparently blow up the same barrels that obstructed you in Wolfenstein.
I spent several months not playing Wolfenstein 3D, because neither my brother nor I could figure out how to open the first door. We thought the game was just some kind of strange demo, and that maybe it didn't go past that first room. Besides, it seemed kind of clunky-looking and not worth our time. I was much more interested in Commander Keen (also by id Software), which was like Mario but funnier and more mysterious. I fell in love with it after watching a friend play several of the Keen games on his computer. His name was Sam Kerwood. He lived way out in the country, his driveway a literal half-mile long strech of dirt path. Where he lived seems very beautiful in retrospect, in a rare, completely non-fake way. I can't lie and say that there isn't a big part of me that wants to live in a place like that. He was homeschooled with his brother by a weirdo hippie/likely Christian mom. His dad was a chain-smoker who listened to Rush Limbaugh. I have no idea what happened to Sam or his family. The last time I saw him he was dressed as a woman at a Halloween party. I was confused and disappointed at the time to find out that he hadn't become a woman. But who knows, maybe he has now. I have, after all, at least on the surface (I've always been one on the inside). The first Commander Keen had caught my attention partly because of the main character using a pogo stick, and partly because the very first level had a dramatically illuminated exit sign in a mysterious alien language, which I never saw explained or translated. For a long time I only owned, and was very happy with, the fourth episode: "Goodbye Galaxy!"
Everything changed when one of my brother's friends at the time was over at our house. His name was Eric Green. When we dropped him off back home, his house looked beautiful from the outside (I never saw the inside). I'd later drive by it every day when coming home from high school and hear his name in my head, though he obviously didn't live there anymore. He was amazed that we had the 6-episode Wolfenstein (he must have only had the shareware version) and gave us a very puzzled look when we told him you couldn't get past the first door. He probably thought we were idiots. He showed us how to open the first door, and then what was beyond that first door. It was a revelation. I never saw Eric Green again. But nearly 20 years from that moment, I'm still living in Wolfenstein 3D.
What could I really say about this game? The original DOOM had twenty-seven levels, all individually named. Some were really generic videogame stage names ("Command Center") or highschool freshman-level references to Lovecraft or the Bible ("Mt. Erebus", "Sever The Wicked"). At least a few are a really accurate foreshadowing of the experience of playing them (like "Halls of The Damned" and its confusing blinking-lights maze). Wolfenstein has sixty levels. None of them are named. I wish I could give them all names right now. They deserve to be seen in that light, and not the commonly-held one that says they're a bunch of gray rooms that all look like each other.
Videogames used to make the news for putting people into the "zone", a zombie-like state of hypnosis. Now most people spend a majority of their lives staring at glowing screens, so it may be hard to look it through the eyes of a person observing that sort of phenomenon for the first time. But one recent experience of mine might offer a small window into a power that's become such a reality of modern existence: Lying half-asleep a couple months ago, my mind started free-associating and images from episode five, level four started appearing in my head. It's as if it were forming the background to all of those thoughts. As if it was current floor my mind was on at the time. Maybe if I had been thinking differently, I'd be on level five, or level three, or even in an entirely different episode. But at that point I was on this particular map: a small, almost entirely symmetrical (down to even the placements of the guards) series of rooms. It's a sort of parable for the game, which is both very simple at its core and extremely disorienting, both very "videogamey" in approach, but also deeply disturbing.
Recently I've attempted to sort through the mess of these thoughts and write some detailed analyses of a few levels in Wolfenstein 3D. They're interesting exercises for me, and a way to communicate about game design using examples I know really well. But my experiences also seem cheapened by reducing those levels to a point-by-point analysis. I intensely fear moving into the territory of the kind of psuedo-academic writing I despise, because I don't really know how much what I'm saying can get to the heart of my actual experience with the game, or anyone's experience with any work of art. What I really remember is piecemeal: landmarks, exits, unknowns shrouded in mystery. I saw those long halls as if they were rooms in my house. It seemed like if I only kept searching, I'd find the piece that connected Gambier, Ohio with them. Maybe Gambier, Ohio did really have an exit elevator if I looked hard enough. If I could only just get in, I'd find myself in a completely new place. And then, after being plummeted into complete darkness, I'd feel that feeling of disorientation from a new world shifting around me.
Then an image would suddenly flicker onscreen. The first thing I'd see would be of a guard, his back turned to me, wandering in the opposite direction, through a door and into oblivion