Wednesday, 1 December 2010

How Rachel Learned About Death.


Believe it or not, I used to be a little kid. And a pretty cool one at that. I could read at an eight year old level before even going to school and because of this, I chewed up information like there was no tomorrow. For this reason, my parents gave me a lot of computer games to keep me occupied, even though they were quite expensive at the time.
One of these games was simply entitled ‘Creatures’. At first glance, this game seemed like a cutesy little virtual pet game. The player interacts with a disc world called Albia through their avatar, a floating hand. They can activate objects, carry things around, type in and say words and other commands and, most importantly, interact with their ‘norns’, the inhabitants of the world that they aim to breed and take care of.
As the hand, a player can also explore the world of Albia with their norns and defend them from the ‘grendels’ – creatures that were advertised as vicious but, after looks at their genetic coding and such, clearly just wanted to be friends and didn’t know how to go about it. The graphics were quite pretty for the time and still make me feel a little nostalgic and the game play was lots of fun.
To this day, I’m sure that Dad raised my first two norns to maturity before I got near the game, because I remember staring at the world for the first time and being faced with two horse norns (a male and a female). I know for a fact I called the female Sally, because I called everything Sally as it was clearly the bestest most awesomest and fantasticest name in the world. No idea what I called the male, though. I played with these two for a while before clicking a button and realising that I could hatch more cute ickle norns. Right: Horse Norns.
The first norn I hatched myself was a female fox norn called Alicia. I named her after my baby cousin. You have to understand how much of an honour this was for the norn. I’d named her after my cousin and that was very, very special. I hatched a couple more norns after that, bringing my total up to five, but I don’t recall any of their names, either.
You can see where this is going by now, but I’m going to explain it all anyway. One thing that differentiates Creatures from many of the virtual pet games you might’ve encountered is the fact that the creators went to painstaking effort to create virtual life. Norns (and grendels and later ettins) have complex internal workings and systems and possess needs and drives, rather than arbitrary measurements of hunger to be displayed on a profile. If these needs aren’t met, norns can get sick and die. When they die, a horrible little whimper is played. That sound would later work its way into my soul and feed on my innermost terrors. Left: a baby girl Fox Norn. This is essentially what Alicia looked like.
Yes, you can definitely see where this is going now.
In the first few days of playing, there was no indication that the whole death business might take place. I had immense fun watching my norns wander their little world. I wandered it with them. I beat up a grendel or two in my time. I taught my norns a fair few new words, such as carrot and ball, and was then unimpressed when they started to call cheese ‘carrot’ and the spinning top ‘ball’. I bonded with them. They were like my pets. Everyone knows how well a four year old can take care of living pets.
The inevitable day came. Allow me to properly set the scene. In the house we used to rent, we had what we called the computer room, but it was not really divided from the living room – the back of the couch was its fourth wall. If one was sitting at the computer, the couchwall would be on their right. About three meters behind them would be the door of the kitchen. Walking straight through the kitchen would take one into the dining room. This stuff’s important, so remember it.
I should also tell you that in game, there was a ‘norns’ menu. If you clicked on it, a drop down list would appear, featuring every norn’s name and sex. For example, Sally (Female). I knew exactly what male and female meant, so this was never an issue for me. In fact, it helped me remember which norns were the girl ones. They were prettier. Shut up, I was four.
Imagine my shock when “Alicia (Female)” changed. The word in the brackets was one I’d never come across before. I frowned at it for a while, trying to figure out what this word meant. It was a long one by my standards. To try to get to the source of the problem, I clicked on her name and was promptly taken to where she was in the world. I saw her in the cave that she’d often been in before – it’s a spot in Albia where a submarine stops off at the island. If you’ve ever played Creatures, you’ll know what I mean.
Something seemed off. She was lying down on the ground with her eyes closed, as if she was asleep. Strangely, though, there were no little white ‘Z’s floating and swirling away from her head. No snoring noise played, either. This was all very, very weird. Quite unsure of what to make of the situation, I turned my head to Dad, who was sitting on the couch, and enquired about the new word.
“Daddy, what does ‘Deceased’ mean?”
“Dead.”
“Oh.”
I don’t think Dad knew I was playing Creatures right then and there. Blankly, I stared at the screen for a while. Okay, so ‘deceased’ meant ‘dead’. That was a fancy was of putting it. It was a lot more letters than ‘dead’, wasn’t it? Maybe ‘dead’ was short for ‘deceased’? Clearly, the news had not sunken it. I sat and stared some more as the point slowly wormed its way through my ear and into my brain, looking for some little neuron that would actually be able to make more than a token effort to register what had just happened.
My norn was dead.
I know for a fact that my face stayed the same. My features didn’t move at all as I took the mouse in my hand and pressed the little ‘x’ in the top-right hand corner of the screen that made all the problems of Albia go away for a while, ready to be dealt with later at the push of just another button. I proceeded to stare at the desktop for a while. The desktop stared back at me, too.
For a while, I stayed there like that. It was a rare moment of silence for me. Finally, though, I was able to get up and start walking. I’m not sure if I really had a plan, I just walked. Out through the kitchen and into the dining room I went, ending up in front of the dining room table, where Mum was packing my new stationary ready for my upcoming first day of school.
“See, look! You’ve got lots of pretty coloured pencils,” she said, listing off the items one by one. There were lots of things in there and she was right, they were pretty colours. But I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t even off in my own little world as I so often was (...and still am, if I’m being honest). I was right in the middle of my first ever Heroic Blue Screen of Death.
“And you’ve also got a lot of textas,” was the last thing Mum said before my emotions caught up with me and I started bawling. This caught Mum by surprise.
“What’s wrong with the textas?” she asked frantically, trying to calm me down. I was crying too hard to be able to explain that my computer pet had died. Instead, I think I got something akin to “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA” out at her. This part of the ordeal continued for a while.
Finally, when I had regained the ability to coherently choke out the words ‘norn’ and ‘dead’, Mum got the general gist of what was going on. It turned into a long talk about how although it was sad, I should try to be happy to celebrate the great life that the norn had led up until her death. Let’s ignore the fact that by norn standards she probably had a terrible life with a child as her keeper, because that’s beside the point.
The point is that I had my first experience of death in conscious memory when I was sitting at the computer playing games. It’s stuck with me for well over ten years and I don’t think the memory’s going away any time soon.
Rest in peace, little norn.
In hindsight, I have no idea how I missed the little 'DEATH' marker that turns up at the bottom of the screen when a norn dies.
TL;DR: Creatures is vastly inappropriate for a sensitive little girl who hasn’t even started school. Thought you should know.

Edit: to Americans, a 'texta' might be known as a 'marker'.

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