I came of age right around the time computers were really starting to make their way into schools—the Apple IIs and the 486s, all shiny and new(ish). Being kids, who are by nature fascinated by shiny new things, my school pals and I immediately latched onto these new devices, exploring them in full when the adults weren’t looking. Games like Wolfenstein, Commander Keen, and Oregon Trail (yes, that Oregon Trail) spread through school networks like viruses that entertained instead of stealing your bank logins. So when one of the magical machines entered our household, my mother brought home a handful of CD-ROM games from the store as well: Epic Pinball, Jazz Jackrabbit, and a little vertical scrolling shooter called Tyrian.
Now, it wasn’t like this was my actual first gaming experience. I’d had a gray-brick Game Boy and a number of games for a while, because my parents discovered a mobile gaming system worked very well for an ADHD kid who couldn’t read in cars. (They later discovered the same thing about smartphones.) But confession time: I wasn’t very good at them.Being bad at games isn’t surprising when you’re a fourth-grader playing things like Castlevania Adventure, a game so Nintendo Hard that its description (“Frankly, it’d be more fun having your gums tattooed.”) from my tattered copy of Jeff Rovin’s How to Win at Game Boy Games sticks with me over 25 years later. And giving me that and Battletoads in a one-two punch was just mean. Most of the games I’d seen up to that point were of the “run to the right” variety—the girlfriend gets kidnapped, and the player character runs through random worlds to save her.
Tyrian was… not that.
Tyrian is a shooter with light RPG elements. After every level, you have the chance to customize the “levels” of your ship—the weapons, shield, generator and armor. You have branching paths that determine which levels (planets) you play, and you have a little option on the menu named “data.” Reading the little cubes gives you an overview of the initial scenario you’re flying into, narrated through the communications from the player character’s boss, friends, and parents. And during the levels, you can collect additional data cubes which give you more narration as you work through the collection of episodes.
Now, wait a minute. Games could have a plot? You mean I wasn’t saving some princess I had no emotional investment in? There are people who aren’t trying to kill my character and actually interact with me? The idea that a game could actually have a story and not just a thin veneer of plausibility was a completely new concept. For the first time, a game wasn’t just a set of button mashing mechanics, but an actual medium that could make you think and feel. I wasn’t much better at Tyrian than I was at my platformers, but I committed to this game, fighting my way through increasingly difficult levels. I flew above alien landscapes while I read their tour guides (and warnings). I fought my way through minefields and asteroids, alternately cursing the enemies and the bosses that put the player character in these situations. If the danger and bleakness got too much, I giggled my way through the antics of Zinglon’s fanatics and vegetable-based weapons. I memorized every enemy on every level that would drop one of those magical data cubes, giving me a further taste of the tantalizing bits of humanity I enjoyed reading time and time again. And when I finished playing for the day and shut off the game, my brain went into overdrive, playing back each bit, ruminating on it, expanding on it and creating my own additions and reactions.
Tyrian was a game that invited me into its creation process, led me in a direction, and then challenged me to make a difference. The primary goal for Trent—the player character—is just staying alive; the secondary one, getting revenge on the vicious mega-corporation that murdered his friend. Just see if you can fly well enough to save that planet from destruction, Trent. And did I mention that, for once, I wasn’t saving a girlfriend or princess? Trent’s not some blank do-good paragon of blankness like many other heroes of the time, but an insignificant, ordinary person going up against half the universe and near-impossible odds. He’s not perfect: he’s relatable. And instead of being “rewarded” by some vague promise of straight romance with a hot(?) girl, your reward for winning episodes is … Trent stays alive. Tyrian didn’t make you feel good about your accomplishments. It made you think.
Not long after, I would pick up a copy of Pokemon Red, which fully dragged my brain into the multicolored abyss of RPG storytelling. I’ve caught them all, awakened Link, quested for dragons, ended the world with you, and said no, surely THIS is the last of the fantasies. (I’ve also played a number that are too obscure to make jokes off of.) But you don’t forget your firsts. And the first isn’t necessarily the first one you picked up, but the first one that was different. The first one that had an impact because it was different. Tyrian was the first game I played that combined narrative with interaction; kind of a big deal for a kid who had been reading and writing stories since she could actually read. Even now, Tyrian remains an old favorite with a permanent spot on my hard drive. And if you’ve a hankering to get lost inside a tiny ship in a big, empty expanse of space, it was released as freeware in 2004, so give it a shot, maybe?