Realizing I haven't posted a blog entry in well over a year is kind of becoming an annual event here in my Retromags world. I'm not as active as I should be, as I'd like to be, and much as I wish I could promise to change all of that, I don't make promises I can't be certain of keeping. One of the most recent things I blogged about was the question of what happens when one's desire to keep up with gaming flounders, and as it turns out, there's still no cut-and-dried answer to that. Playing video games used to be my go-to hobby, something I maintained with an excessive interest. I followed up on new systems, stalked new releases, anticipated new console systems, read magazines and books and really anything I could get my hands on that would tell me more about my favorite hobby.
Now? Well, now I'm a woman in her early forties for whom gaming is still exciting, but only in the familiar sense. I am a "gamer" only insofar as I own video game systems and will occasionally turn one of them on to play for a bit. An hour or so of "Dragon's Crown" here, a two hour stint with "Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance" there, and the occasional play-through of an RPG from the 16-bit era that brings back all the memories of what being a gamer in the 90's meant: lines at arcades for Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat machines, the console wars, EGM vs. GamePro vs. GameFan, and so forth.
I'm more interested in what was than what is or what will be. In other words, I'm clinging to a past which recedes further away from me with each passing day, and in the worry that one day I will have only memories to occupy my thoughts, I'm struggling to pack my banks full of all the good ones. The best ones. The ones that made me who I am today.
I'm also feeling the same way about a lot of other things in my life, especially music. Music hasn't always been enormously important in my life, but once I realized what it was, what it could do, and how much fun it was to make it, I've been obsessed with it. Not obsessed in the way that, say, a vinyl collector will obsess over finding a perfect-condition LP, but rather obsessed with it in the sense that I use it as a landmark, to recall feelings and put me back in the frame of mind I was in when something happened.
"How does that relate to gaming, Areala?"
I'm getting to that. Be patient.
Welsh singer Donna Lewis released her first album, "Now In A Minute" in May of 1996. If those names don't mean anything to you, then maybe the title of her hit single will: "I Love You Always, Forever" was the most-played, most-requested song on pop radio stations the year of its release. If you lived ANYWHERE within earshot of the FM band, you heard this song. Maybe you hated it, maybe you loved it, maybe you were indifferent to it, but I fell into the second camp. Her voice mesmerized me with its breathy, ethereal qualities. To this day, it conjures up memories of the summer between my Freshman and Sophomore years of college, where I spent a lot of time back at home and travelling with my mom and my brother to visit relatives. He'd just graduated high school, after all, so everyone was eager to lavish attention on him before he moved off to college.
One of the things I loved to do back in my high school and college days, as far as video games were concerned, was get online and play one of the text-based Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs, that you could find all over the place before "Everquest" and later "World of Warcraft" pretty much wiped them out. MUDs were free, online, open-world games that used an Infocom-style parser to input commands. The difference between a MUD and a normal text adventure was that when you quit playing "Zork", everything about the world stopped because you were the only denizen. A MUD, on the other hand, was always on (except during server upgrades or maintenance periods), and open to multiple players at all hours of the day and night. I spent a considerable amount of time in college, and even afterwards, MUDding.
Most MUDs didn't have sound, and the ones that did used it for very small things, like a quick MIDI tune when you accessed their login screen, or a few bloops and beeps when you gained a level or died. Therefore, while MUDding, I often would put in my headphones and listen to a CD. And that summer, it was Donna Lewis more than any other band which dominated my listening time when I got online to interact with my friends.
While "I Love You Always, Forever" is a catchy pop tune, and is the obvious choice for a hit radio single, I've always felt there were much stronger songs on the album than that one. If I had to pick a favorite, it wouldn't be that one. I love every track on the album, but the one which always stood out to me, mainly because of my background as a gamer and love of fantasy role-playing, was "Agenais."
Much of the meaning of Donna's music is left up to your own interpretation, but this is clearly based on an idea or a dream she once had, perhaps a story she read that fired up her imagination. It's the closest I think I've ever come to closing my eyes and believing, honestly BELIEVING in my heart, that I truly was somewhere else. "Agenais" was every special area of every MUD I ever played on, where other people just like me came to congregate, tell stories, and live separate virtual lives unencumbered by the weight of reality and released to realize our fantasies. It truly was, in Donna's words, a "beautiful, magical place".
What always fascinated me about the story she relates within the lyrics, however, is how one arrives at Agenais. You don't go soaring up into the clouds, you don't climb a mountain, you don't jump on a rocket ship and blast off to a different planet or sail across the sea to a new continent, or walk into the trunk of an enchanted oak tree.
To reach Agenais, you float to a golden crystal palace, lit by blue flames, where dancers twirl, wearing long, silver veils and white lilies woven into their air. You reach Agenais by closing your eyes and floating down. Like you were in a dream.
Lewis's song is fairly basic, but infused with so much imagination that I've been in love with it for twenty-plus years. MUDding, for me, was floating down to Agenais. What else could it be, with carefully-crafted underwater cities, treetop mansions, dragon lairs, and all manner of pixies, fairies, goblins, elves, dwarves, wizards, halflings, gnomes, warriors, clerics, angels, thieves, bards, and all the rest?
Lewis's final, whispered refrain, the minor-key musical notes accompanying it, have always carried an air of finality for me. As we get older, the fantasies of our youth become harder and harder to hold on to. Other things in life take priority, and many of our hopes and aspirations are put on hold while other things happen. In "Agenais", however, I have a four-minute remembrance of good times past. I link it to friendships made across thousands of miles. I link it to sleepy car rides back to Indianapolis late in the evening. I link it to my virtual persona, who now slumbers away in the database of some disconnected server, a collection of bits and bytes which, like all of us, slowly decay as the years go by.
All that is left of her now is my memory, and the memories of those who knew her. In a hundred years' time, it will matter to no one that once, "Areala" existed in a realm called "Land of the Lost Unicorn", in the guise of a pixie cleric who followed the tenets of Moradin's True Neutrality in an effort to bring balance to the land. The people she met, the friends she made, the adventures she had, the enemies she fought, the puzzles she solved, the gear she obtained, the lives she touched, will not matter. She, in a sense, has already gone "floating down to Agenais".
It's a somber thought. But not a bad one. Because, though the life of "Areala, Priestess of Moradin, wife of Carla, antagonist of Cougar, friend of Aspenamy, compatriot of Quenthel, nemesis of Belial, and Mayor of Lost Unicorn Village" may one day be meaningless to everyone else, it will have had value to me. And one day, hopefully later rather than sooner, when I myself find myself floating down to Agenais, I will carry that memory and many others with me into that labyrinth of golden rose-red colours.
I'll have Donna Lewis, and music, and video games, to thank for that. And people like you who visit Retromags and help keep the retro dream alive for the rest of us who all have our own private visions, our own personal Agenaises, our own unknowable memories of what gaming meant. Thanks for reading. I'm heading to bed.