I’m a nostalgic old fool. Okay, “old” doesn’t exactly apply. But I do like old things, particularly things to which I can relate. Which would explain my choice of entertainment lately. During my recent rediscovery of the fine art of Wolfenstein level design, I went above and beyond the simple recollections that digging up such an old and cherished hobby naturally stirs. When getting into “Wolfy design mode,” I went whole-hog, immersing myself in the year 1994.
After all, it was January of 1994 when I first discovered that making levels for Wolfenstein was possible. (That same month is also when I acquired Doom, making it probably the most important month in the history of my gaming past.) I was fourteen then, and in my final year of junior high school, so naturally I had little else to think about in my life except for computer games. So I lived, slept and dreamt Wolfenstein. That year I sold a set of 60 levels to Apogee Software and started work on 60 more. Besides gaming, there was very little going on around me that I regarded with much more than a sense of disgust or, at most, a bemused half-interest, including school. I was pretty squarely in the zone.
Obviously I can’t afford (and don’t really want) to be so single-minded—almost obsessed, really—with games these days. But, as is the case with many of our childhoods, I wouldn’t mind reliving the feeling of those same carefree days when absolutely nothing mattered except what was fun, what was exciting and what captivated my sense of creativity. I’m extraordinarily lucky that I have a relatively stress-free life as it is, so I have found it somewhat easy to slip into modes of nostalgic hobbyism these last few weeks. And doing so is like taking a slipstream ride ten years into the past.
In the early nineties, I made a lot of tapes. One of my favorite things to do—and one of the most effective ways I’d found to blow off steam when something at school got me especially keyed up—was to take a hand-held tape recorder into our backyard, pick up a sturdy piece of tree branch and whack things with it. Back in those days I created a sort of “one man radio show” (although I did voices for two characters) that served as the vehicle for my nightly recording sessions. I won’t go into details about that here as it might make me sound schizoidal, but suffice it to say, those recordings provided many hours of entertainment that could be relived by simply playing back one of the many tapes I produced. As the years progressed, I upgraded from a $30 mono Sanyo recorder to a $100 stereo Sony TCS-430, which I still own to this day. If this stage of my life had been allowed to continue indefinitely, I’m sure I would have eventually graduated to MDLP minidisc…wow, to hear the ambience of that Michigan backyard through true digital stereo, without the hiss of a cassette noise floor!
So, while I’m sitting around working on Wolfenstein levels, I find it most engaging to take out some of these old tapes and give them a spin on the cassette deck. They make great background noise (I prefer to have something playing while I’m designing maps, but get too distracted by music), and at the same time, like a subliminal message in an advertisement, they have a more subtle effect on me as well. Hearing me rant and babble on about stuff from 1993, 1994 and 1995—stuff that seems ridiculously trivial in this day and age—is incredibly fun. Looking back on the daily crisis of biology class, or the incessant griping of my 8th grade teachers, ten years after the fact…talk about hilarious! Like any of that stuff matters today. Holy shit, my friend Jimmers got an 86 percent on a goddamn 8th grade math paper and got bitched out by the teachers because it wasn’t good enough. I threatened all kinds of ass-kicking that night, and now it seems like such utter hogwash!
Most of my tapes are unlabeled (since I’m a lazy old fool as well as a nostalgic one), but while that occasionally irks me, most of the time it just makes the act of picking out a tape that much more fun. I’ve got five huge bins of cassettes at home, and while every time I change residences I seem to misplace a couple more, most of the recordings from my entire life’s history are there. I’ll just dig my hand into a bin and pull out a bunch of cassettes, none of which usually have any labels identifying them, then pop ‘em in the deck and see what the daily “tape roulette” has served up. I’ve gotten so I’m taking a handful of tapes to work every morning, and only finding out when I get there what their contents might be. It’s certainly a way to keep from getting bored by a repetitive or tedious work assignment.
Yesterday I uncovered a real gem. An entire 90-minute tape I’d recorded during the course of an 8th grade school day in March of 1994. Yeah…I just carried this recorder around and recorded stuff. Just…stuff. Stuff that’s incredibly funny to play back today, in 2004. A lecture about the Olympics and how 1994 was a “transition year” from the four-year to the two-year staggered schedule system. The nasally shrieks of one particularly disturbed kid as he threw a fit over a math assignment, tearing papers and threatening to call his mother. (Yeah guys, and you thought I was a ticking time bomb.) A lengthy science lecture which was SO INTENSELY BORING, and yet so funny at the same time, it was like comedy gold. The droning of a real, honest-to-God film strip on nuclear energy produced in 1973—which still referred to the NRC by its old name, the Atomic Energy Commission—was especially captivating, as it spoke of the “great hope” of nuclear power and all that rot in a pre-TMI world. Approximately one minute into the filmstrip, the tape player broke, forcing the science teacher (who I still maintain has the most annoying voice of anybody on planet Earth) to say “That’s swell,” then read the entire thing herself, which unbelievably ended up being more boring and droning than the voice on the original 1973 cassette. (I felt like I was listening to an episode of Leave It To Beaver. All the while, you hear a bunch of kids, including myself and Jimmers, making jokes and snide remarks. Wow, I was really a little heller back then!
One thing I gotta admit though. On that particular tape, many many instances of the teachers griping, threatening, and disciplining students were picked up. I used to complain incessantly about their poor attitudes and the way they constantly focused on our mistakes, but in retrospect had largely thought I blew it all out of proportion. But jeez…after listening to one 90-minute tape, I began to feel that pain all over again. Six hours every day of listening to a bunch of people who seem to have made it their life’s work to find at least one thing wrong with everything you’ve done, no matter how good it is…yeah, it’s not that great for morale.
Anyway, when I wasn’t bitching about what a fascist injustice the whole concept of school was, or making comedy recordings about peculiar made-up churches that worshipped the God of the Toilet Paper (yeah, I went to a Catholic school, which somewhat soured my outlook on organized religion, to say the least), I was usually talking about some of my gaming pursuits of the day. Wolfenstein, Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Descent…all classic games that seem intensely old by today’s standards, but all examples of titles that immersed me like no game since has ever done (with the exception of System Shock 2). I often made recordings of me actually playing these games while my parents were out to dinner or a concert and I had the house to myself, free to crank up the speakers and hoop and holler it up like I had an audience. Playing these tapes back is like watching a movie. There’s just something so damn enjoyable about it.
So lately, with all this “brain fuel” churning through my tape deck, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m designing almost one full Wolfenstein level each day after work, which is funny actually because it’s the same rate at which I used to design maps back in ‘94. And with each level I design, they just seem to get better and better. I have three levels left in episode one, after which I plan to give my friend Pooch a sneak peek (or sneak playtest, as the case may be). Through the course of all this, though, I’ve discovered something even more interesting…that taking a few moments out of every day to immerse yourself in another time and place, whether it be a moment in your past or a fantasy world you create for yourself, is not only refreshing and invigorating, but is also an amazing catalyst for creative thought. If I were to just come home and surf the web or watch TV all evening, I’d go to bed feeling like nothing had gotten accomplished that day. While I do enjoy my job, I don’t feel like the work I do accomplishes anything even remotely noteworthy in the world or in society, so perhaps I feel like I need to create game levels to make up for that. At least somebody out there can enjoy my game levels, but I doubt anybody gets off over the advertiser lists I design or the email campaigns I create.
So, is this post just a bunch of nostalgic rambling, or a public service message advocating the enjoyment of a bit of “personal time” every day to rekindle your creative juices? Who knows—take it for what you will—but I do know that I’m having great fun for absolutely no money, and in today’s world, it’s sure hard to beat that.