For a long time, I didn’t play many games. I didn’t grow up with enough expendable income to afford a large game library, and spent much of my childhood playing and replaying the few NES and Super Nintendo games I had—Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong Country, and movie tie-ins of Toy Story and The Lion King.
These stories were familiar if they were good, practically non-existent otherwise. I liked them, but not in an attached way—I played them because they were there, mostly, and because somewhere I got cheat codes and I liked the weird Doom-esque level of Toy Story. They were things to do on rainy afternoons, not things I got very invested in.
It wasn’t that experience that kept me playing games. I liked the feeling of playing with friends—we’d make our own characters in wrestling games or spend entire afternoons sunk into Toejam and Earl, always looking out for secret levels. Books were where I found stories, were where I really connected, but games were social. We’d laugh about the ridiculous things we could do in games and spend time getting nowhere just because it was fun.
I was always playing games, though they were always horribly out of date. I had few positive memories of the Nintendo 64 era due to a huge amount of upheaval in my life—the time spent playing Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie was an attempt to point my mind anywhere other than real life, so much so that they became synonymous with unhappiness. I couldn’t find enjoyment in them anymore, and played them mostly to pass the long hours spent at my dad’s house in Montana with no friends, few books (none that I hadn’t already read several times), and nothing else to do.
And then: Final Fantasy X. I had never played an RPG before. I had no idea what to make of turn-based combat, which I found boring at first. I had never connected with a video game character, because I wasn’t a plumber or a lion or a bear with a bird in my backpack. This was the first game I’d played with a story—a real story, not a connecting thread like a kidnapped princess or stolen banana stash—and I was hooked.
Spira was a world as rich and complex as anything I’d read in a book, and once I made it in I couldn’t put the controller down. I played it until I fell asleep fighting Sin’s fin, controller still in hand. This was what I wanted—games where I could lose myself as completely as I could in books. Games where I could sink myself into them, finding things to admire about the characters. They weren’t like me, but they had traits I could aspire to—Yuna’s vulnerability and compassion, Rikku’s undying humor and levity, Lulu’s general badassery and caring beneath all the belts. I cried at the end, something I’d never experienced before—the only tears I’d shed at a game were of frustration when I couldn’t beat M. Bison after hours of trying.
From there, I couldn’t stop. I sought out games with stories, games that made me feel like I inhabited another world. I connected with characters in ways that I didn’t in books—these characters responded to me, spoke with me. Even as I knew that they were preprogrammed lines of code, they felt real. And when I learned that Mass Effect carried my saves over from game to game, letting me build a world in conjunction with the one created by the developers, I couldn’t believe it. This was so far removed from my initial gaming experiences that it didn’t feel like the same medium. My first games were entertaining timesinks, tests of reflexes and entertaining diversions that, while fun, didn’t pull me in in the same way. I created my own stories. These games, the story-driven epics I missed as a kid (Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, and all the other great story games I didn’t have money for) felt like an entirely new medium.
For a person who routinely felt powerless, underappreciated, and lonely, games were a place of refuge. I could play them and feel not just useful, but like the most important person in the world, and I didn’t have to change myself to do it—for a while, I could inhabit Yuna’s life and imagine what it felt like to always feel like you were doing the right thing, or I could save the galaxy with the kindness and compassion I valued as Commander Shepard. I could experience new stories and make decisions I would never make in real life, bonding with friends over theories and trading the controller back and forth. As much fun as we had with Toejam and Earl, the fun we had discussing Final Fantasy was different, and, even when we grew apart after high school, I kept playing.
For me, it’s never been about reflexes or high scores or beautiful graphics. It’s always been story and characters that pull me in, letting me really live life in others’ shoes. For a girl from a small, conservative town with nothing more entertaining than a dinky movie theater, games were and are a place to sink myself into stories not in a passive role, but as a participant. It’s something no other medium can do in the same way, and that’s what keeps me playing.