Book excerpt: Leigh Alexander's 'Breathing Machine - A Memoir of Computers'
The following is an excerpt from chapter 1 of "Breathing Machine - A Memoir of Computers," by Gamasutra contributor Leigh Alexander. It's available now for iBooks users, and on January 22 on Amazon (pre-order now), Kobo and Google Play.
My earliest memories are of the breathing machines, and they promised me from the time I was born that anything could exist, that all things were solvable, that anything could be brought into striking, vector-lined reality if you had imagination enough. That there was always someplace else to go than here, where I had to do math or wear a neon scrunchie for dance class.
My father had a "home technology" column in the Boston Globe, in the early 1980s when technology in the home was a novelty in and of itself. He wrote about hi-fis, and somehow that led to an uncurated heap of press materials barraging our house continually. We got hardware, software, plastic-wrapped boxes the size, thickness and weight of novels with dramatic sci-fi cover paintings. Vast, elaborate box art on the outside, clumsily-blipped eight-bit shorthand adventures inside.
Dad thought I should learn computers as a child, so as to be employable as an adult. My access to them was virtually uninhibited, except for when I'd get yelled at for accidentally erasing this or that. Otherwise I was constantly enshrined in front of the Apple ][e, mashing keys, engaged in lawless, experimental dialogue with a machine.
From the mysterious boxes piled into our office closet I'd prized black, floppy disks with bright labels and sticky, flimsy black-tape bellies I'd learned never to touch. Each disk was shorthand for an adventure - they were called things like Critical Mass, Mystery House, Ring Quest. Blade of Blackpoole, Kabul Spy, Death in the Caribbean.
Those old things were blunt objects, the kind that make you think about how many tiny corners must have existed all over the surface of the very first wheel. Slowly, a line drawing loads, etching a graphic abstraction of a path, a house, a forest into the black mirror of your boxy computer screen. You are an international spy. You must find the wizard. You are standing outside the house. You are on a path facing EAST. Things like that would be all you were given to know about yourself and the world.
You would type in "N" for North, and often YOU CAN'T GO THAT WAY would be the stern rebuke. "GO NORTH," you'd patiently essay, and if you were lucky you'd get a line or two about how the mountains barred your way, or how the impassable woods sprawled forever in that direction. "CLIMB TREES," I would insist. "CLIMB THE MOUNTAINS."
"YOU CAN'T DO THAT," insisted the world inside the machine, or "I DON'T UNDERSTAND."
Some games understood climbing, some did not. Some let you press "I" to view your inventory (a lamp, a letter, or nothing whatsoever) and some required you type the entire word, INVENTORY. I learned so many words from games: GULLY, SLUICE, BRAZIER, ADUMBRATE, OGRESS, EGRESS (which I thought was another kind of ogre).
And for a child who hated to hear "no" so badly, never did I hear it so eloquently than from the leaden mouths of those ancient worlds. Their blunt denials that kept me up at night, the locked gate whose key I could not locate, the vile and crudely-animated manticore whose appetite I couldn't figure out how to slake, the endless and constant grisly deaths I couldn't manage to avoid.
So often, it was a matter of the right answer and
the precise right phrasing. These games were finicky about their syntax - "TIE ROPE," you'd demand, and "TO WHAT," it would ask, and "TO TREE" would confuse it, but merely answering "TREE" would not. It was always, always possible that you had the right answer to the puzzle, but the wrong words, the wrong verbs.
At seven years old I'd sit bolt upright on the verge of sleep, struck suddenly by a solution in the dark of my room, waiting for morning and the next attempt with uncontainable fever.
I'd imagine what new lands lay beyond the sequences I couldn't complete, so fervently that even now I can't remember if they were real. My neighbor Charlotte (of the scientist father and the basement full of spellbooks) and I would constantly plot, collaborate and imagine, spending those hot summer afternoons when school was out sat side by side at a machine.
At her house lived a monolithic, primitive PC the size of a refrigerator. It was 1988, probably, and there was one particular pizza-sized disk we'd tuck into its shelf-sized jaw at every opportunity. At the command prompt she'd type ADVENT to run it, like a religious hymn.
This particular game was called Colossal Cave Adventure, a text-only network of caves and treasures that sprawled like a tomb of hieroglyphs, so truly massive and confounding that I've not solved it to this day, which feels right.
Today, digital historians call Colossal Cave Adventure the "granddaddy" of text adventure games. A spelunker named Will Crowther made it for his daughters, to help show them his cave-crawling pastime as he endured a divorce with his wife. His work parented Charlotte and I all those summers, in a different era, when it felt like we children could lock ourselves away and go absent for hours without making our parents afraid.
Much of our playtime was spent concentrating on the game itself, rubber-cementing reams of printer paper end to end to map the cave and its strange place names: Bedquilt; the Hall of the Mountain King; mazes of identical, twisting passages, an alcove where a hollow voice cried "Plugh". The virtual cave network contained a Ming vase, a set of batteries, a bent rod crowned with a rusty star, all kinds of objects to be collected for some inexplicable purpose.
The rest of the time, we tumbled forth into our real-life suburban wildlands, the scraggly woods that lay between one grassy yard and another, the tiny duck pond that looms large in my memory. Everywhere, it seemed, we saw a puzzle, a mystery. Why was that bundle of twigs leaned against an old oak? Why did some stones glitter when you struck them, and others stank of gunpowder instead? Under this log, a salamander, and under that, a nest of beetles. There were loamy, unseen living things always scuttling just out of reach. We left notes and signs wherever we could get away with it, and it felt like important work.
This knothole could be a button. Behold this twig stripped of its bark and written in by termites - a magic staff! The things that lay beyond our reach in the digital world seemed to mirror and echo the natural mysteries we found when we played outdoors. At the end of the day, I'd be in trouble for the mud on my shoes or for coming home a little too late, but I always tromped into the front door feeling like I was almost, almost somewhere. Like I'd almost solved it, whatever "it" really was.
There were, there had to be, gorgeous infrastructures beyond what I could reach, just waiting for me to know the right words. The whole world a blinking prompt, daring me, ENTER COMMAND.
"BREATHING MACHINE: A Memoir of Computers" is available on multiple e-reading platforms.