As far back as I can remember, my father swore allegiance to Macintosh. He grew up in the era before computers and quickly recognized Macintosh computers as "stupid proof". While this may have been true, it didn't make life easy for a budding gamer like me. I had been fascinated by computer games at a very young age and didn't have as much selection as kid PC gamers, but thank god I had Rand and Robyn Miller on my side.
These two were famous for creating the breakthrough game, Myst and the sequel, Riven. Their style was a creative take on the first person perspective. The player was given nonviolent options while solving puzzles in an eerie environment. I was easily spooked as a child (The Country Bear Jamboree at Disneyland made me cry) and the books in Myst that screamed for help and justice were enough to make me shy away from trying to solve the land's mystery. Though, that didn't keep me wandering around the grassy hills and deep forests. I liked looking at the artificial ocean while whimsically thinking about what sort of adventures I could have had if I understood what the hell was going on.
Apparently, Rand and Robyn Miller knew there were budding gamers like me waiting for some sort of white rabbit to chase into a world that was odd, but not beyond a child's understanding. This creation was called The Manhole and I was more than happy to be their Alice. The game starts off with a steel manhole on a slice of a seemingly normal street with a white back drop. Once the steel circle is selected, the cover pops open and what appears to be a beanstalk inches up towards the white sky. From there, well, the Wonderland comparisons are practically endless.
The world is rendered in detailed and beautiful computer graphics with vibrant colors (The 1994 version. The original Manhole game was made in the late 80's before Myst and I had never played it.). You can explore anything from a rabbit's room to an underground river, but one of the most interesting things is that the characters that you meet look hand drawn like they were sketched there on the spot. I had always loved this as a kid, finding it to make much more sense than seeing animals pieced together in the depths of Uncanny Valley. I don't doubt that with today's technology they could accomplish slick looking computer graphics for the entire game, but frankly I wouldn't want it that way. The bright colors and bold outlines of all the animals made them stand out in an already eye catching world. It felt like I was really talking to cartoon characters, a dream I had personally held close to my heart since I was introduced to Roger Rabbit.
And, unlike some other games directed towards kids at the time, The Manhole never treated me like an idiot. Sure, a couple of the puzzles were easy, but almost all the characters talked to me like an adult. Some were rude, impatient, preoccupied or just crazy, but they never babied me. Never looked at me blankly like Blues Clues to try and drum up an easy answer from beyond the television. The world didn't always make sense and I frequently found myself going in circles, but it was true exploration. I could go anywhere I wanted. Hell, I could call any of the characters provided I could find a phone.
What's interesting is that I saw a lot of strange things through my travels, but I accepted it. A lot of the time, things that are made for children can't be comprehended by adults. It's the Neverland Complex. I can go there as a kid to marvel and explore, but once I lost that innocence I could never go back. For example, the dragon below would like to offer me a biscuit and wants me to make myself comfortable. As a kid, I didn't question the fact that he looks like some ex-disco star. I didn't get offended when he called me baby, because he probably calls everyone that.
And, despite everything I learned about taking food from strange dragons, I did want a biscuit.
I hold this game so close to my heart because it taught me early on what I love about video games. I love to explore. I love talking to interesting NPCs. I love when games treat me like an intellectual and allow some breathing room to ponder. Blowing stuff up and shooting monsters is fun and gives an adrenaline rush like nothing I've ever experienced before, but it doesn't mean anything in the long run if I don't get some of the same experiences The Manhole raised me on. Maybe the Miller brothers ruined me. Maybe demanding an escape from reality every time I play a game isn't the point and keeps me from enjoying a lot of mindless fun.
Except, I know that's not true. Anyone who was raised on The Manhole went onto explore other strange worlds. From Ravenholm to Rapture, The Manhole might be forgotten like a fairy tale, but it prepared us for the explorations ahead.