Written By: Erika Haase
THE UNSKIPPABLE INTRO CUT-SCENE
In October of 2016, I found myself standing in the historic Jane Hotel in Manhattan. I was surrounded by violin players, candle-lit ambiance, and banners reminding me that “Karnaca Needs You.” PCs playing demos of the now infamous Jindosh Manor level of Dishonored 2 lined the walls. I was nursing my first gin and tonic of the night, while snagging bite-sized grilled cheese sandwiches from the catering staff. I could have been sitting on one of the red-velvet couches in the several common areas, but instead, I found myself thoroughly engaged in conversation with a man named Stephen Russell. We’d been introduced earlier in the evening by Dishonored 2’s Creative Director, Harvey Smith. After some amiable conversation about Stephen’s role voicing Corvo Attano, I circled back around later in the evening to find this veteran voice actor standing alone, simply watching others enjoy a game that would go on to earn several Game Of The Year nominations and awards.
After having brought life to the voice of Garrett in the original Thief games, the Synth Detective Nick Valentine in Fallout 4, and countless other roles in legendary gaming titles like System Shock 2, Fallout 3, and more, you might have thought our conversation would have centered around Stephen’s talent, or even his writing and acting career outside the gaming world. Instead, something else happened: I landed up talking about myself. Stephen has a disarming way about him, with an introspective mannerism that makes you comfortable enough to share a part of yourself. Maybe that’s why he’s so good at bringing other people’s stories to life. Maybe I just like to talk a lot. Probably both.
The result was Stephen’s encouragement to share my experiences with gaming, and how the medium has grown to mean so much to me through writing. That polite”would you kindly”nudge gave me the last bit of inspiration I needed to do exactly that, and I hope you enjoy it as my first article here on Big Cheshire Grin.
SOURCE CODE: A:\, B, C:\, DIR, .EXE
The year was 1993 and I was 9 years old. It was a glorious age of being able to run rampant around my father’s office building with my younger brothers in the after-hours of the nine to fivers because my mother wanted us out of the house, and to make sure my father came back home at a normal hour. While he was putting in over-time as a database administrator at Sun Chemical, the grey carpeted hallways and endless cubicles of computers with screen savers of flying toasters were just begging to be tampered with by three bored kids. Since we’d already figured out the way around the ultra-secure “key card required” locks into the server rooms and gotten yelled at, we changed tactics to who’s PC we could get into. The goldmine was finding a .EXE file in a Directory read out from the C drive. DUKE3D.EXE, DOOM.EXE, ROTT.EXE, and WOLF3D.EXE made Minesweeper, Solitaire and Ski Free look like exactly what they were: child’s play.
So it was that I landed up in a tiny cubicle as a 9-year-old, playing Wolfenstein 3D, surrounded by guys old enough to be my dad cheering me on as I killed Nazi after Nazi until I finally took down Mecha-Hitler and learned what the word Auf Wiedersehen meant. It was my first FPS. This memory stands out for a lot of reasons. Mostly because I should have been getting yelled at for being on someone’s work station, and all of those people in retrospect were long over-due to getting home to their own families. I was distracted, however, by the fact that as a child I was being encouraged by adults to keep going. I have this distinct memory of the way the hallways moved by so fast in first-person view, or how every elevator I got in took me to a brand-new area. The idea that I might never run out of places to explore was staggering. No one told this little home schooled girl with a pony-tail, and some hideous outfit ensemble compiled by a conservative Christian mother, that she shouldn’t be shooting Nazis and taking down Hitler. They only told me how to do it. I remember getting patted on the back. I remember that feeling was power.
I got in so much trouble when I got home (but so did my father for not “paying attention to what his kids were doing. Killing Nazis? Really?”).
In my father’s line of work, ultimately, bringing a computer home was inevitable. The FPS greats of the 90s were already ready and waiting, hidden away in the C Drive, or the 3.5” discs simply marked ROTT or DUKE that were snuck in like contraband inside my father’s Oracle manuals for his use. Funny how those went missing and my brothers and I discovered the physics of flying eye balls in Rise Of The Triad. Whoops.
FINISH HIM – GOING IN FOR THE KILL
The slippery slope of my insatiable curiosity was steep enough to even erode my conservative mother. Like the best drug dealer, I got her permission by offering a sample – shareware disc compilations from the local supermarket on the cheap. When those didn’t turn us into the violent Satan worshipers that Focus on the Family radio shows promised it would, the approvals became faster with less and less time in between. Battles raged over the balance between my piano practice time and computer game time. We weren’t allowed to have any video game consoles, though. That was too much of an admission of guilt on her part for allowing us to enter this ultra-violent world of hellfire and damnation. What would the church ladies think if we had one of those Nintendo systems? Instead, we were out of sight, out of mind in the basement. Gameplay consisted of asking strippers to “shake it baby” and telling aliens I was all out of bubble-gum in Duke Nukem 3D. I was following guide-bots as the Material Defender in Descent. I was planning out where to plant a gun so I could get past the pat down in Hitman: Codename 47. I was frozen in fear, sitting in a dark basement, terrified to face the five pinky demons and countless imps waiting for me at the bottom of an elevator in Doom reminding my young self “It’s not real. It’s not real.” The occult whisperings in the background of Heretic gave me chills. My brothers and I defeated Shinra and mourned the death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII.
And then one day, in a COMP USA, I discovered Tomb Raider. To be specific, it was Tomb Raider II. Apparently, the original Tomb Raider had been kept out of my view.
Like most hypocritical religious families, violence is considered more acceptable than sex. In my mother’s various trips to the washing machine and dryer that would rumble behind us as we played countless games filled with death and destruction on the computers in our basement, there was a silent understanding that it was alright as long as there wasn’t anything sexy on-screen. I swiftly learned that “sexy” meant “female” which was another way of just saying “not appropriate.” My biggest battle getting a video game into the house wasn’t for Doom. It was over a game about a female archaeologist who could take care of herself in any situation, because she happened to do it in a skin-tight body suit, short shorts, with huge boobs. And just like the time where I was being cheered on to keep going in Wolfenstein 3D, I was reminded that games have something. Power.
I’ll never forget my father telling me that I wasn’t allowed to have anything with Lara Croft in it. I remember staring him down in that COMP USA and saying “I will have this game somehow. I’m telling you that right now.” It was now 1997 and I was 13.
The next year marked me ending my time being home schooled and entering a public high school. Already an outsider from the get go, my first best friend landed up by some miracle being the one other “girl gamer” on the entire planet as far as I knew. She had a Playstation, and all the Tomb Raider games. She also went to the Dominican Republic for the entirety of summer vacation with her family. I humbly offered to babysit her Playstation for her while she was away. Just like that, without breaking any of my parent’s rules (we won’t buy it for you), and without breaking any rules placed on me (you can’t have anything with Lara Croft in it), a video game console had finally broken the Iron Wall of my home. It was borrowed of course, but that was the technicality that got video games into my house. PC games were also starting to get too expensive to keep up with. It was 1998 and one of the best years ever for gaming. I had finally properly met Lara Croft, and I was in love. To this day, I have played every single game in the series. Sometimes, simply of out spite. (I’m looking at you Angel Of Darkness.)
In my Senior year of high school, the final blow was rendered to my mother’s crumbling conservative bastion. It was the end of 2001 and Final Fantasy X, Silent Hill 2, Max Payne, and more were exploding into the “need to have” lists of every person on the face of the earth. I convinced my mother to buy us “just one” Christmas present that year – a Playstation 2. I got her to cave by contributing $100 of my own to the purchase of my own present, and promising that “one gift” would be fine for both me and my brothers. “You see, I’m actually saving you money.”
EXPANSION PACK – ADULTING
In 2002, I graduated high school with no idea how college was going to work for someone whose parents had three kids and no plan to put any of them into college. I walked into an EB Games shortly before graduation, looking to buy Ico and Twisted Metal: Black, and there I met the second female gamer I’d ever met in my life – my future boss for the job that I would have for the next six years of my life.
Life took a lot of twists and turns after that point, but there was always one constant. Games. Working at EB Games helped me pay for college. Becoming a manager got me access to E3 in 2005. Reading the manuals in video game cases helped me find the phone number for Rockstar Games corporate headquarters which landed me my internship at Take-Two Interactive in 2008. I have made countless friendships, built confidence, and found my personality through the medium of gaming. I don’t know where it will take me in the future, but it’s gotten me to 33 in 2017. I don’t have to fight anymore to get games in my own home. I don’t have to convince anyone that the gaming industry is a “real job.” I don’t have to worry about people, for the most part, looking at me funny when I say I play games as a hobby.
I’ll never forget the early days, though. I remember Wolfenstein 3D and I will never forget that feeling of power – the power of shared experience, camaraderie, friendship, wonder, and equality. It was what made games great then, and it’s what keeps them undefeatable to this day.
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED – BEST ENDING?
Now maybe I was right when I said at the beginning of this article that I just like to talk. However, truth be told, I’m not sure I’d have had a fire lit under my digital behind to put this portion of my story out there. There’s lots more I’d like to share in the future, of course. My reception as a female gamer by men and women. The impact gaming has had on me as an art form. The way it has been something to cling to during some extremely dark times in my life, but that’s for another time. This is as much of an introduction to what makes me tick as anything else I could possibly write on the topic.
This site will be a collection of my observations of “nerd life,” random reviews of things I want to share my love of, art pieces I do that are inspired by titles that have moved me the most, and above all, anything that gives me my own big Cheshire grin. My hopes are that it will do the same for you as well. (I promise there will be more pictures & video in the future.)
Going back to that amazing night in October of 2016 and my long-empty gin and tonic, Stephen Russell had just finished listening to me explain much of what you’ve just read, and simply said, “You should write about your experiences. You have a real way with words.”
And when Garrett, XERXES, Nick Valentine, Mr. Handy, and Corvo Attano tell you to do something, you listen the first time.