35 years of play

This piece first appeared as part of Zoë Jellicoe's amazing Critical Hits collection

This is how it all started. The good babysitter was busy, so my folks had to hire the bad babysitter. Roisin was her name, and she would tell me tales teenage drinking, of the boys she was seeing and the various infatuations she was nursing.

When I was seven, I asked her if she would go out with me. She said I was too young. When I asked her if she would go out with me when I was older, she said I would still be too young, but that I would meet girls like her when I got to her age. She told me about how she had no dad at home. How her parents had just had a one-night-stand. She told me of her adventures and exploits.

She had let me stay up too late, again. A key turned, and my parents cascaded into the house, boozed up and excited, and then, freezing when they saw me. They were carrying a secret, something that they had wisely planned on slipping by me. They had a computer.


My father’s courier company was doing great, and he had picked up this wonder to bring into the office. They planned on being the first in their field to begin digitising. The machine had cost a fortune, but hey, he was newly wealthy, and this would put them ahead of the competition. All they had to do was get it to the office without me seeing it.

When they walked in that night, I immediately assumed it was a gift, launching into an explosion of excitement and gratitude. My father, adoring as he was, just fell in with it. It was the first time I had ever seen my mother cry.


The computer was set up in the bedroom I shared with my brother. My father told us how computers would be everywhere soon enough, and that if we learnt their mysteries, we would never want for work or money. He brought home thick tomes on programming, and we sat for hours transcribing the arcane basic into the machine. With everything in we hit return and, more often than not, we would get an inscrutable error message. But sometimes the code would run, and we would be treated to an image or a piece of music, and once, a fireworks display. No matter how hard I thought about it I could not figure out how these letters and numbers made fireworks.

Before long we sought games. My father’s business partner had a son who was savvy with technology, and had a mountain of disks brimming with bootleg goodies that he brought us. Assembled in front of the machine, my brother Ben and I dutifully trawled through the library. We entered the anointed words into the flashing command prompt and, if the file had not been corrupted, something would spring to life. Without manuals or boxes it could be tricky to figure these things out, but eventually we found a few things to love.

One of our favourites was *Elite*. A titanic game in which you could explore the entire Milky Way. You could trade, fight, explore and, much to my father's delight, become an interstellar space courier. Of course, we had no idea how to play it as intentioned. It was wildly complicated, with every button on the keyboard doing a different thing. Instead, we’d close the curtains, and turn off all the lights. Then, with the *Elite* cockpit up on the screen in the corner there in our bedroom, we would pretend to be the daring crew of a spaceship, creating characters and scenarios, occasionally walking over to the computer to navigate a menu or look at the stars. It was magical.


I remember rolling the dice. ‘Your grandfather is very good at this game,’ my aunts would whisper to me. ‘That is how he got so rich.’ Like everyone, we played a semi-functional house-rules version of Monopoly. I was always the dog, thinking him cute. The browns, Crumlin and Kimage, were my favourite to purchase and develop, and each game I would bid huge money to secure them. ‘This is where I want to live when I am older,’ I told my family. ‘No, no’, they corrected me, ‘here is where you will be.’ pointing at the purples. I remember being so excited the first time we visited Crumlin. We enjoyed the game so much that no one ever wanted to land the killing blow. Instead we would endlessly lend and extend loans just to keep the game going.


Monopoly was great and all but it stopped coming off the shelf the day Hero Quest arrived. In hero quest you were not trying to buy a hotel, or put words down or answer questions or any of the other things, now so boring. In hero quest you could be a wizard or a barbarian, journeying into dark dungeons and tombs to battle orcs and zombies. Even better, you could be a Dungeon Master and run the game for your brother and sister. You could even make your own dungeon.


I remember the first time my family went broke. The courier company was gone, sold in a bad deal, and the buyer was not paying. We were on the ropes. My grandfather was dying of cancer, and my parents would not dare ask for help. Of course, my siblings and I had no idea the coffers had run dry. Instead of our usual outings to the zoo or to the cinema, my father would now bring us to ECCO every weekend, a local environmental museum and education center. They had an Apple Mac, and a room where you could watch nature documentaries. It was a wonderful place. Our home computer no longer worked, and so I was thrilled to be back in front of a keyboard. Playing *SimCity* for the first time was extraordinary. One of the volunteers there showed me how to lay roads and houses. It was alive! I had played dozens of games before, but nothing like this. It was spellbinding to see the cars move as the citizens went about their business! How could it be so detailed? I played it week after week, asking the staff not to delete my saved city. It was only years later that I realised we were going there because it was free.


My grandfather died, and my family imploded. I got a Game Boy for Christmas and tapped away at it as aunts and uncles wailed around me. My father and mother fought constantly. Everything was changing; we might be selling the house, we might be changing schools. My siblings were miserable, my father distraught. All the while, I line up blocks. I clear lines. I jump over gumbas. I save April O’Neill for the hundredth time. I was numb. Just a mind, a screen and some buttons.  


A few years later my parents are separated and I lived with my mum and siblings in a big, new place. We had no heating or running water, and it was full of holes. I slept on a mattress on bare floorboards in a freezing, gigantic room. I hated it, and missed my old comfortable bedroom, a little warm nook at the top of the house. I missed my dad and I missed my friends. Amongst all this darkness, though, we did have a Super Nintendo. With my brother and sisters we played and replayed *Super Mario World*, and then we played it again. I don’t know any game better. Even now it’s secrets are scored into my brain. We would gather round it, this explosion of Nintendo colour, in our new collapsing home.


I desperately wanted to own a computer again. Not a console, but something I could modify and explore. Something I could learn and master. Finances were still way too tight to buy a new one but, JOY, an old 386 that would not boot was being thrown out of my Mum’s catering kitchen. They assumed is was broken, but I was convinced I could get it running, and my new friend Richard shadily passed me DOS install disks that he had secretly copied at home. It took weeks, but with Richard’s help I get it running, and a world was opened up to me once more.


I devoured the LucasArts adventures one at a time, but it would be god games that fully devoured me. Seeing the Settlers plant their crops and cut trees filled (and fills) me with the same wonder as the cars in *Sim City*. How, oh how, do they do it? It all feels so real. There is something incredibly calming about watching the citizens walking to and fro.


Time passed, and I burned out the 386 – another computer dead before my hungry hands. Things got better at home as business at my mum’s cafe began picking up. Before I knew it, we were able to get a *brand new computer*. This remains one of the most exciting shopping experiences of my life. We got it home, and immediately installed the amazing games I had been missing out on like DOOM and Sam and Max. As my teenage years begin to take hold of me I meet new friends and get exposed to whole new ideas and activities.


With Richard and Sam and Billy I learn, much to my surprise, that attendance at school is actually optional and that one can decide what to do with one’s own day. On the days we decide not to go in we wander fields and parks, chatting and messing and inventing new games. One of the first is called *Right Now*. Whenever someone said “Right Now” to you, you had to let the group know what you had been thinking about. The fun came from waiting until someone looks like they were having a particularly juicy or deep thought before springing the snare. It lead to a profound intimacy and honesty between us in that time. Eventually we were caught and school became mandatory once more.


It’s 1995 and I’m in a jail cell. I have been arrested for shoplifting and I am utterly petrified. There is an older guy in the cell who asks me what I am in for, and I try to act calm. I’ve seen this movie. He’s tells me he’s there for shoplifting. I tell him I am there for the same. He tells me he steals designer and expensive home ware to sell on to people in his neighbourhood for good money. I am desperately embarrassed, trying not to give away how I had been picked up with a bag stuffed full of stolen *Warhammer* miniatures. In my pocket I clutched a Dark Elf ballista tightly in my fist, just in case he tried to attack me. My mum was furious when she picked me up from the station, and for the next three months I was not allowed to leave the house. I used the time playing games and painting miniatures.


A year later I am free, the arrest not talked about at home. My friends of course still slag me about it and mock my gasp of, our now abandoned, shoplifting skills. I am playing a whole lot of *Quake*. The game would take over my life, as I spent weeks exploring gothic and gory castles. I began to have dreams set in its levels, and every day at school was spent discussing our latest findings, secrets and strategies. Years later, walking the same halls in virtual reality feels so very odd. It is at once familiar and alien, and more than a little nauseating.


The strangest thing about *Quake* was not the demons, the bleeding, crucified monsters or the rocket jumps. The thing I still cannot get over are the Nine Inch Nails NIN logos that popped up in every level. Until that moment, it had never really occurred to me that games were made by *people*. And to see that they were made by people who liked the same music as me was so odd. I realised then, all at once, that I desperately wanted to make games. So I installed a map editor that came on a bursting demo CD, free with some awful video game magazine. The flat grey interface of dozens of buttons with indecipherable symbols brought me right back to my first experience of programming. I realised that this was not something I would be able to figure out, and felt really disappointed.




Another year later we had a party in my house. It was nothing savage or brutal, just a slow, very persistent session that went on for two weeks. At one point, my friend Oisin wanted to hear Aeris’s theme, so he started a fresh game of Final Fantasy Seven, playing it up to that scene, his favourite version. The music blared for two days before someone managed to convince him to change it. Any time I hear it, it takes me right back to my bedroom, sitting in the dark with the murmur of my friends’ voices swimming round the house.


Soon afterwards, I was almost finished school and I could not wait to be free. For the last 10 years I had deeply resented the entire experience. Sitting in a classroom each day felt like an affront to my being and the impending expanse of time was intoxicating. I huffed and puffed my way through the corridors those last months and weeks. My marks were all terrible and my appearance in class was scattershot. All I cared about was trying to make it through with a pass, so that I could get on with my life. I spent my time sitting with friends in the park, drinking coffee and wandering around town. When I was home I would just play Sim City, slowly growing a utopia in my computer to the smooth jazz soundtrack. The final exams came, and I crashed and burned in everything except for Geography. It turns out *Sim City* came to the rescue once again. With everything the game taught me about city planning, civic policy and industrialisation was able to get a B, the highest mark of my results by far.


Shortly after graduating, I met an amazing woman that studied strange languages in college. She was the smartest person I had ever met, and more than a little odd. She worked in a video shop, and we bonded over old PC games like *Commander Keen* and *Monkey Island*, as well as our favourite books and movies. I lent her *Baldur’s Gate*, and it became our obsession. Her name was Char.


My dad was off traveling the world again, so I moved into his house with my stoner friends while he was away. We’d play hours and hours of a small PlayStation game called *Hogs of War*. Jetpacks and sniper rifles on an all-island level as our favourite match-up – but our real obsession was Jenga. One of the local off-licences had been giving out free sets, and we accrued quite the collection, exploring every corner of the game, reaching Jedi-level skills. We invented new rule sets, variations and styles of play. Massive towers built from 2 or even 3 sets. Variations that had you stack the blocks vertically to build towers over 5 feet.


Free from school, my plan was to set up a stall in the local market selling shamanic plants. I had saved money from my job in a furniture shop for my first bulk order, and I would be able to place it in three weeks when the supplier got back from South America. To pass the time, I decided to enrol in a local multimedia course with the plan of dropping out when the first shipment arrived. Instead, it became the first time in my life that I felt good at something. I was getting high marks and teachers were openly praising my work instead of mocking and deriding it. I graduated with a distinction, a small interactive portfolio and the ability to code basic interactive pieces in Flash.


Char and myself remained together, and, like all other Irish people were doing back then, we moved to Australia for a year. We lived in an amazing house in Sydney weighed down by thick ivy. There were junkies in the basement, a drug dealer landlord upstairs and ginormous spiders in every room. I wonder now if he even owned the place, or just popped it open one day and threw up the hand drawn addes we saw taped to a lamppost. I rented a computer so that I could earn some money making web pages for local businesses, but mostly I played *Morrowind* – well,  *we* played Morrowind. Char and I would take turns to explore the fantastic world filled with mushroom towns, insect striders that carted tourists around and hidden bands of thieves and brigands. All the time the doorbell ringing with local teenages here to pick up goods from our strange landlord.

In the first moments of the game, I walked out of my jail cell and struck off in a random direction, quickly finding a dead wizard on the ground in possession of a scroll that bolstered my jumping by 1000 points. I read it, I used it, I jumped. For a moment, I soared up and saw the world for miles. Then I came crashing down and died. This is, for me, the very best moment in the history of games.


Char and I decided to go leave our home in Sydney and go to the far north of Australia, into the jungle. Traveling like this felt very much like playing a game. We would crane over a map to pick a new destination, talking of the various merits and potential adventures of our different options.

We eventually found ourselves in a Rainforest Retreat Centre. A set of beautiful longhouses perched atop a mountain of jungle, accessible only by 4x4. The complex was littered with hammocks, cushions and Backgammon sets, and we  played game after game after game, developing a lexicon for the moves and strategies we favoured. I become obsessed with ancient games, eventually making my first Go set from scraps and beads. I was gobsmacked by the beauty and history, and both the simplicity and complexity of these games. These games have outlasted religions and stories and civilisations, and it was easy to see why. They wrap themselves around your brain like an octopus, filling your days with ideas and plans. I taught Char how to play Go. At first, she provided little in the way of challenge, and I batted away her crude incursions. But it was not long before her mind subsumed the game and she began trouncing me solidly and consistently. This is the way in most games we learn together.


We got back to Ireland, and while Char looks for and finds an amazing job, I become lost, trying to figure out what to do with my life. I floundered around doing odd jobs fixing computers and making websites. Eventually I stumble into the good sense to go back to college. A new course had sprouted up, one which taught game design. It seemed like a ridiculous thing to do, but I thrived there, getting grades even better than before. The old idea was rekindled – *Maybe I *could* work in games?* In this pre Indie Game landscape games were giant things made overseas by huge teams of geniuses and workaholics. I couldn’t see myself there.


In 2005 the Xbox 360 came out. I picked one up to play the sequel to our beloved Morrowind which was to be named *Oblivion*. Instead become obsessed with a section called Xbox Live Arcade. Every week they would release a small little game. These gems were more interesting and personal, and clearly made by small teams. The concept of ‘Indie Games’ had been born. *Braid* was released, and it became the poster child of this new wave. This, again, was something new, the likes of which I had never played. As I advanced through it I could feel my *brain*, feel the actual organ itself for the first time. I could feel it churn and move and reconfigure as I manipulated time and space. I feel like it was changing me, turning me into some sort of future being. I did not know that games could do this.


Desperate to enter the games industry, I became a QA tester in Vivendi. It was without a doubt  the worst job I had ever had. Worse, than working on a gold mine in Queensland, worse than serving breakfast rolls after two hours sleep in my mum’s cafe, worse than working in a call centre. Every day I arrived to my desk at 9 am, and waited for a build of what ever crap we were testing. We were not allowed leave our desks, in case a build arrived. It rarely would, and so I’d sludge home having achieved absolutely nothing, my mind as stiff and my legs and back. When the build eventually did arrive, usually on a Friday afternoon, we were told to crunch out the playtest, working through the weekend. And so the cycle would begin again on Monday. I didn’t mind the playtesting, but I hated the time spent waiting. Vivendi was sold to Activision, and I dive-bombed my interview to be retain the horrendous job. I decided to quit games, and to focus on general IT work, where the money was good, and people didn’t waste your time.


A few years later Peter Molyneux was giving a talk in the Dublin Institute of Technology. I wasn’t really playing games much those days, but decided to head along anyway. His early god games like Populous Dungeon Keeper were important to me growing up and I wanted to say thanks for the peace they brought to me in bumpy times past. Also, I was still curious about how those big games were put together. I confess, I went in with a lot of cynicism, the wave of backlash for Molyneux’s work was already underway. To my surprise and delight he lit that room right up. He remains one of the best public speakers I have ever seen. By the time the night was over, I was so excited about games again that I signed up to DIT’s Masters in Digital Games that very night. It was there that I met my first team: Robby, Basil, Ralph and Paul. We worked together, forming bitSmith Games towards the end of the course. We even launched our final project, Kú, in the App Store. I ended up staying in that college for many years, eventually teaching and then, with Hugh, the fellow who had brought Molyneux over, architecting their Game Design degree.


I went to my first GDC in 2012. For years I had dreamt of going, but the cost was always far too exorbitant. With the help of a newly launched government grant, designed to stimulate the local game industry, I was finally able to make it. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my professional life. I stayed in a hostel with many of my heroes and, of course, felt like a complete fraud. Thankfully I met some wonderful people, who I’m still friends with today, who invited me to join their groups and shepherded me through the experience. In one of the more delightful incidents, Richard Lemarchand, the designer of the Uncharted Series and Legacy of Kain ( some of my favourite games ), excitedly dragging me to a raucous club where he was DJing. This was about  30 seconds after first meeting him. Richard remains, not just my favourite person in the industry, but one of my favourite people. I often ask myself, what would Richard do, in times of social confusion. I learnt so so much there about design and development, but my main impression was of how smart, kind and playful the people from the international game development community are. That alone is a good enough reason to get involved. I came home determined to help build a local community inspired by these wonderful folk. I wanted to have something as wonderful ad that back in Ireland.




It is past midnight in the spring of 2012 and I am speaking Elvish into my Kinect. I was at home playing *FEZ*, and trying to solve a puzzle. A beautiful pixel art door lights up when the games moon comes out. It is clearly fashioned after the the one in *Lord of the Rings*. The door to the Dwarven kingdom of Moria. In the movie Gandalf opens with that secret phrase in response to the inscription: ‘Speak friend and enter’. The Xbox had a panel of one's friends. Maybe I need to do something with my that? I starten opening and closing it. Then I started trying to speak elvish in to my Kinect. I had gone quite mad, surrounded by scribbles, notes and theories. Years later I would tell the game's creator, Phil Fish, about this. He laughed pretty hard, and say that maybe he’d put it into another version. I happened to have my crazy notes with me and he was delighted to see an example of one of his players madness up close. He signed them and gives me a hug. I think maybe  *FEZ* is like a virus. It gets under your skin and into your synapses. If you go all the way it turns you into someone else. It is impossible to penetrate its deepest puzzles as a sane person.


I am in hospital. My father had been sick for years, and was getting sicker. He spoke of people spying on him, of balls of light emanating from people chests and a ship leaving soon that he had been invited onto. I had heard the term bipolar before, but I did not know what it meant. Hypomanic episodes were new to me. I was there for hours, waiting in the emergency room for something, anything to happen. I was utterly terrified and completely out of my depth. For the previous two days I had tried my best to care for him at home. During that time I kept expecting it to blow over. For my real father appear. The worst thing is I was right. Every few hours he would lift his head and be himself again. He would ask me about where we were and express dismay at his behaviour. Then he would be dragged away again on some thread, to be plunged once more into his madness.  Eventually I had the wisdom to bring him to A&E and I was told they *might* have a bed for him there. If not, I was going to have to take him home and I had absolutely no idea what I would do with him. What could I do? So I waited for news. I played *Threes* to keep my mind busy, sliding little numbers together to keep myself together.  It reminded me of *Tetris*, clearing lines as the world fell back when I was a boy. Finally, he got a bed. I collapsed into broken of tears and wailed like a beast on the floor. It took me months to recover.


After a month in hospital, my father was released, hollowed and shy, embarrassed by the crescendo his sickness had reached and the hurt he had caused his beloved children. It was our first time back in his house, and I was nervous as hell, hyper vigilant for any signs of creeping relapse. His efforts to communicate his newfound sanity were awkward and clunky, trying to reassure us without showing weakness. When the board game hit the table it was a welcome distraction. No more having to try and think of what to say. No more trying to find a place to look. Once we all understood the rules he came alive, rolling dice, whooping with joy and challenging us. He won some, he lost some, but we all laughed and enjoyed it. It wasn’t forced, it was real. He seemed like himself again for the first time, after months of strangeness.


In August of that year, Char and I finally got married. Out in a sprawling field under the stars, our friends and family gathered to celebrate our love. We found our way to a teetering tower of giant Jenga blocks hewn special for the day. as the night wore on we played more and more games, our old skills and habits reawakening.


In the winter of that most eventful year my sisters come over to play some boardgames and catch up. The game is Spartacus and my wife and sisters cackle in glee as they gang up on me to decapitate my gladiator. I plead for mercy but they are not having it. “Take him out now” they scream! I don’t know why but this sort of playful familial abuse is always a source of deep comfort to me. I feel the love in their obliteration of my plans.


After graduating college in 2011 I was firmly planted in the games industry. Over the next few years my profile grew and I began to be invited to speak at events. One such event was Quo Vadis in Berlin. I was giving a talk the emerging Irish game industry and it was painful dull. While taking a break out in the sun, wondering why I had agreed to attend, I was told that there was something called A MAZE going on down the road. This other event, I was told, was the punk rock younger sister to Quo Vadis. I hopped on a train and shambled my way to a sprawling complex of experimental games, talks and indie developers hanging out. I my delight I met Thorston, the leader of this mad circus, holding court in a dilapidated concrete Berlin garden. As I wandered through the exhibit of selected games, my mind was opened once again to what this craft could be. The space was full of delights. I game that you played by plucking lasers in the air, another that you had to climb on to a great barrel and roll it with your feet. In one you had to venture alone into the dark and dusty basement, armed only with a phone, and there you hunted for ghosts through the camera.It changed the way I thought about the games, and set me on a new path.


Later that year I got my first Arduino board. These cheap circuit board could be programmed simply with basic commands and with it you can make your own electronics. I was trying to get mine to talk to a game engine. I had an oculus rift on the way and  I had become obsessed with the notion of making a game controlled by breathing. For over a decade I had managed bouts of depression and persistent anxiety with breathing exercises and meditation. I wanted to make a meditation chamber in VR that would respond to my breathing, gently getting me to slow down as i chilled out in my personal sensorium.


To my delight I pulled something crude together. An underwater world with a shoal of fish swimming around you. I had hacked together a controller with the Arduino and it tracked your belly breathing. As you inhaled you moved up in the world. As you exhaled you floated down, just like in real life scuba diving. I called it DEEP after the idea of the deep sea as well as the deep breathing. The intention is that is would be a small side project. Something just for me. Maybe I would bring it to one local developer event.


Muh to my surprise DEEP snowballs. In 2014 it was invited to the Playful Arts Festival in the Netherlands where I showed this early version of the game. There I was introduced to Niki Smit, a visual artist and game designer with a passion for experimental and chill out games. After a quick discussion we realise we are a good fit and decide to work on this game together for a while. To see where it goes.


The next year we are back in the Netherlands at CineKid, a festival for families about science, technology and creativity. They have commissioned a multiplayer version of DEEP to be a central part of their main exhibit. To makes matters even stranger the team has been joined by a wonder bunch of behavioural scientists for Radboud University who will be testing the game's effectiveness as an intervention for kids with anxiety. I had worked without a day off for the last two months to get it ready and I wept with joy and exhaustion seeing the kids swim with delight through the now beautiful underwater wonderland.


The partnership with Radboud secured funding for DEEP, and at long last, I was able to attend therapy. Over the course of a year I explored by habits and patterns and gained new skills in coping with myself and navigating this life with more grace. How wonderful that this game I made to calm me down, now paid for my healing.


The last year has been one of hard work, both for me and my wife Char. She had became a writer on a  huge sprawling RPG called Divinity, not unlike the Baldur's Gate that we bonded over all those years ago. Each night we huddled together on the couch and cautiously crept through the haunting world of *Dark Souls 3*. It reminded me so much of the best of our travels; strange gods and stranger folks; beautiful crumbling ruins hinting at a glorious past; breathtaking vistas. I gaped in awe as Char vanquished Aldrich, the Saint of the Deep, after I had failed so many times myself. He whoop of victory filled our tiny home and I beamed. More than anything I am thankful to have someone so wonderful with which to share this playful life.