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Friday, August 26, 2011

Videogame Memories 12 | Justin Macumber

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The earliest writing I ever did were adventures for my friends to play through in Dungeons & Dragons. We were just kids, and we couldn't afford store bought modules, so I saw it as my duty to create stories that we could all have fun with. Plenty of monsters to fight, dastardly arch-villains to overcome, kingdoms to save, and priceless treasures to uncover. For a kid not even in spitting distance of his teenage years, it was a thrilling undertaking, and one that I didn't take lightly. As I grew older I branched out into short stories -- even giddily contemplated writing a novel -- and fantasy was the genre I stuck with. Most of the books I read where fantasies, as were the movies I enjoyed, the comic books, and the cartoons. It was a genre I felt really comfortable with.

But, around the time I entered high school, relatives suggested that I give horror a try. King and Koontz were the authors they recommended, and I was quickly swept away. It was an amazing thrill to pick up these new authors and discover the joy of being terrified out of my mind. My writing, as you might imagine, followed suit.

One genre that I never dared tried to write, though, was science fiction. My favorite film of all time, Star Wars, is a science fiction movie, but for whatever reason I grew up thinking that only brilliant people could write the genre. I mean, it was right there in the name - SCIENCE fiction. What did I know about science? I barely knew where the moon was, so how I could write about people in far flung places doing things I couldn't begin to understand or describe. Science fiction was a genre I adored, a genre I consumed with an insatiable appetite, but it was the one genre I didn't believe I could write in. That changed when I played the Wing Commander series of computer games.

Now, I'm a 38 year-old guy, so I'm of the first generation that really grew up with video games. I fondly remember playing Berserk and River Raid on my Atari 2600 using a small black and white television. When I would go to my uncle's house, we would play Warlords and Kaboom on his big color TV, and that was like a revelation. On long drives I always took my Pac-Man mini arcade game and annoyed everyone in the car with the incessant beeping and booping. How they stood it, I'll never know. And in every mall I ever walked into I always headed right for the arcade to play games like Gauntlet, Altered Beast, Afterburner, and Tron. It was an amazing time to be a kid, watching technology grow and grow right before my eyes.

Unlike a lot of my contemporaries, around the time the Nintendo came out I was too deep into computer games to notice. I didn't play Zelda or Super Mario Bros. much. I was busy playing Ultima, King's Quest, and Sid Meier's Pirates! on the Tandy 1000 SX my family owned. That baby had two 5.25" floppy drives and was capable of outputting 16 colors! Simultaneously! The number of hours I plunged into those old games is mindboggling to think about now, but it all went into my brain, shaping who I was and who I was becoming. Computer games were my life's blood.

Sadly, the ol' Tandy couldn't last forever. Though I'm sure it still works for whoever it was we ended up selling it to, when 1993 rolled around it was just too old. All of the newer games needed more memory and processing power than it could provide. So, using money I earned from my own sweat and tears, I bought an Acer computer. I wish I could remember the specs on it now, but suffice it to say it did everything I wanted it to and more. And, it came with a CD-ROM drive, which opened a whole new world of experiences. Now able to play the new games, I dove in headfirst. It was a heady time, but the defining moment came when I saw a magazine ad for the upcoming Wing Commander game. It was Wing Commander 3: Heart Of The Tiger. I hadn't played the previous Wing Commander games because my old computer wasn't powerful enough, so I had no idea what they were about, but all I had to see what that picture of Mark Hamill in the ad and the text that said the game featured loads of video footage that told the game's story in a cinematic way never before imagined for a PC game. I was sold. Mark Hamill, star of my favorite movie of all time? Acting in a science fiction video game? Where I got to fly a starfighter around and blow up giant alien cat creatures? Oh hell to the yes! I was nearly vibrating with anticipation.

Thankfully, the game more than lived up to my expectations. Not only was it amazingly good, but the cinematic cutscenes were jaw dropping. I couldn't believe my computer was capable of such wizardry. I played it over and over again, an addict who couldn't get enough. The next game, Wing Commander IV: The Price Of Freedom, was somehow even more amazing. There were new villains to fight, new ships to fly, and new crewmates to fly with, not to mention loads of new cutscenes to enjoy. I was in sci-fi geek heaven.

Once I was done with Wing Commander IV, I didn't want it to stop. I was too jazzed, too filled with ideas of what-if and how-about. So, to give myself an outlet, I decided to write the game's developer, Origin Systems (R.I.P. dear friends), and offer them my take on where they should go next. It was a grand story about a secret project to create A.I. piloted drones capable of fighting the enemy so that human lives could be saved, and how the project went awry, becoming a new threat humanity had to face. You know, the classic tale of our hubris biting us on the tuckus. I followed that up with an idea about a new alien threat coming from beyond the galaxy, but these aliens were far more strange and terrible than the cats we'd fought before. These new threats actually had living ships, coming in shapes large and small, capable of war in ways we never dared think possible. Again, a classic tale of the unknown and our greatest fears.

At the time they seemed like fantastic ideas, and I was excited to write about them. Without even realizing what I was doing, I was writing science fiction. I spent days upon days outlining, plotting, researching, and writing. When I sent them off to Origin, I was pretty certain that I'd be getting a call shortly telling me to move to Austin where they were located and get to work helping them chart the future of Wing Commander. One thing I didn't lack for back then was confidence. I wish I was so cocksure now.

As you can probably guess, that call never came. No messengers arrived with contracts, no emails flew to my inbox. I was disappointed, to be sure, but after awhile I moved on. The only time I became angry was when the next Wing Commander game came out, Wing Commander: Prophecy. It was supposed to be the start of a new campaign with new characters (though Mark Hamill was still in the mix) and a new enemy. To my shock and horror, that new enemy was from beyond our spacethat used living ships. And, the new fighters the humans used were called Tigersharks, which was the name of the new fighters I'd created for my out of control A.I. story. I was dumbstruck.

Now, did Origin steal my ideas? At the time, I was sure of it. There were just too many similarities for that not to be the case. I don't think so anymore, however. Living starships isn't something I'm the first person to think of, nor am I the first person to name a fighter plane after Tigersharks. When I was young I thought I was breaking new ground, but one of the benefits of age is perspective. Plus, I'm sure Prophecy was well under development before my little idea package was put in the mail. Computer games as big as that one aren't made over a weekend. It was merely a case of certain minds thinking alike and coincidental timing.

But that wasn't the end of my love affair with Wing Commander. About a year or so after I sent that package off, I stumbled across some people at AOL (my internet provider at the time) who had a writing club centered on the Wing Commander universe. It was like a chain letter fan fiction club, and I begged to be let in. They were kind enough to do so, and that began my real writing life. Over the course of several years I wrote them enough stories to fill at least two novels, and together we took the club in bold new directions. By the time we disbanded, my character had risen to the rank of Captain and was in command of his own ship of privateers. We loved, we fought, we laughed, and we wrote. I would not be the writer I am today -- for better or ill -- were it not for the Wing Commander Pilots Club. I owe them a debt I'll never be able to repay.

I'm not much of a science fiction writer anymore, but it's not out of any loss of love for the genre. I'm just trying to spread my writing wings and see else I can do. But, science fiction is no longer the boogie man it once was to me, and it's something I'll always love and return to. And I owe that in large part to Origin Systems and their amazing Wing Commander computer games. Much like Star Wars nearly twenty years before it, Wing Commander opened my mind and filled it with wonder. And wonder is the foundation upon which every great story is built. Thank you, Origin Systems, and thank you to my old friends at the WCPC.

Now I see it as my duty, and the duty of every writer out there, to pay it forward and pass that same sense of wonder on to a new generation through the stories we create and the characters we breathe life into. Not all of us will succeed, but we have to try. We have to create and built and explore the strange reaches inside of us. We have to write.

- Justin R. Macumber

Justin Macumber is a happily married fella in his late 30’s, and right now he’s a full time writer and podcaster. He lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex with his lovely wife of eleven years, and with them is a motley pack of dogs and cats that they think of as their children. Right now he has to say that he is happy, though getting published would go a long way toward making him even happier. Find his work at:

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