My Source Code

I would like to take a moment to reflect on some of the media I grew up with. I was part of the first online generation, and I remembered some of what it was like before. I was fortunate enough to have a chance to explore and experience this as a child, and I hope I can encourage even a few adults to dive into this. I'd like to detail how things were in that last decade before the internet.

Movies and television series were primarily on VHS cassette tapes, rented out from local video stores. Some public libraries similarly lent out videos to members. CDs were present, although audio cassettes were still commonplace. I once played with a few cheap tape recorders, but these were soon eclipsed by other media.

As a kid, I lived through the console war between the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. My family got a Sega, while my cousin had an SNES. I rarely got a chance to use it, so I missed out on that entire gaming generation. While I'd heard amazing things about Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, I went far stranger places with the Genesis.

I played a few standard games, like Sonic and Mortal Kombat. During my dinosaur obsession, I threw every Jurassic Park game I could into that console. However, there is one psychedelic game that was stranger than a drug trip. That was Ecco the Dolphin and its sequel, Tides of Tide. The plot involved a time-traveling dolphin battling biomechanical aliens, with a synthesized soundtrack that was as eerie and mystical as the 16-bit system could provide. Some of it still creeps me out today.

My family did not get a PC until later on in the decade, but it was around the time we upgraded to a Sony Playstation. I got into PC gaming just in time for junior high. That was when I plunged into strategy games, both real time and turn-based. The first one I played was Command and Conquer, itself a reflection of 1990s ideas: the developed world-backed Global Defense Initiative in an asymmetric war with the shadowy Brotherhood of Nod. I later played Command and Conquer: Red Alert, loving its combination of alternative history and creative units. Frank Klepacki's music truly sealed the deal, and I still listen to his tracks today. What truly got me addicted, though, was Sid Meier's work.

I was introduced to turn-based strategy with Sid Meier's Civilization II. The premise is you take turns building up a stone age tribe to a modern superpower, with two primary ways to win. The first was to establish a space colony, and the other was to simply conquer everyone. Needless to say, I preferred the first option. Those games were long, but rewarding. Being a young, competitive preteen, I leapt into faster-paced games.

Those games were fast, furious, and fun. I played the hell out of a Doom demo disk I had (pun intended). I battled killer mining robots in Descent. I hurled through eras to the Iron Age in Age of Empires. Little did I know that there was a common thread behind them, a designer whose interests I'd come to share. That man was legendary game designer Sandy Peterson, a longtime fan of the Cthulhu mythos. I'd eventually come to similar things, but I did learn a few interesting things from those games.

Civilization had an in-game encyclopedia of all the technologies, units, cultures, and figures present in the game. I'd enjoy reading it out, to greater understand how the modern world came about. Age of Empires 1 and 2 had a thick game manual that doubled as a mini-history book. I recalled playing in-game scenarios based loosely on historical battles. One of those stuck out in my mind: the Imjin War scenario, where the player controlled Joseon Korean forces. That was my introduction to the greatest navy commander in history: Admiral Yi Sun-shin.

At the time, I was just getting into anime, manga, and Japanese pop culture. I read into the country's history, and I was more than aware of the Japanese Sengoku of warring samurai and daimyo warlords. However, this was my first introduction to the Imjin War, where Hideyoshi launched ill-fated invasions of the Asian mainland through the Korean peninsula. Korea, and Ming China, were both saved by Yi Sun-shin.

Using Encarta and what research I could, I read about a man that few of my peers even knew existed. Admiral Yi was not even an admiral to start with, but a border commander out on Joseon Korea's frigid frontier. When the Japanese invaded, he found himself using the Korean coast to assist a flotilla of increasingly sophisticated warships. He refined (although some believe he invented) the turtle ship, an early ironclad driven by oars. He'd use them to repel Japanese boarding attempts, while rows of cannons would unleash broadsides on enemy fleets. In that way, he independently arrived at a similar tactic to the galleass prototypes used by the Venetians at the Battle of Lepanto. However, early Korean naval commanders were similarly innovative, chasing off pirates with early gunpowder weapons in the preceding centuries.

What I admired the most about Admiral Yi was his combination of courage and innovation to save the day. He was willing to risk himself to save his allies, diving into the thick of enemy fleets and never losing a single ship. Those were traits I aspired to. I'd also gained an appreciation for Korean history, and for exploring stories I did not learn in school. At my mom's behest, I read a thriller by Matthew Reilly, Temple, which got me reading "adult" novels. This included a lot of Michael Crichton, James Rollins, Douglass Preston, and Lincoln Child.

That continued to shape my choice of media as well. I didn't have internet access at home, so I dove into single player epics. I explored lost civilizations in Tomb Raider. I battled mad mutants in Parasite Eve. I was awed by the spectacle of Final Fantasy VII. I battled gods and giant robots in Xenogears. However, these Playstation games were blown away by a single entry on the PC.

That one was the spiritual sequel to Civilization: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. In Civilization II, the science victory involved setting up a colony on Alpha Centauri. This game resumed when the spaceship arrived, and the crew fractured into different ideological factions. The fictional alien world, Chiron, was exceedingly well developed. Each faction leader was perfectly written and voiced. Thanks to the works referenced in the encyclopedic manual, I read Frank Herbert's Dune, Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I still ended up getting most of the games I missed in elementary school. I played Half-Life and Deus Ex once my family got a better PC. Chrono Trigger and the SNES-era Final Fantasy games (IV-VI) ended up getting ported to the Playstation. Thanks to my cousin, I also saw Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion (including End of Evangelion). No matter how impressed I was, though, a far stranger experience waited on the other side of that summer: High school.