Back in 1995, the SNES and Genesis were graced with the precursor to modern, online console networks, in the form of XBAND, a service that let players dial each other up with modems for their game systems via a central connecting service, which also hosted player profiles and allowed for email exchange. Not having anything in the way of PC games at the time, I manged to pester my parents into getting one for my Super Nintendo. Little did I know how much it would change my life.
Things were simple enough, at first. The only game I really owned for the thing was Super Mario Kart, but I'd rotate rentals between Mortal Kombat II, Super Street Fighter II, and Killer Instinct, playing a few matches here and there. I even gave WeaponLord a shot when it came out, which most of you probably never even heard of. Mario Kart stayed my primary jam, however, and I had a respectable reputation with Luigi and Koopa Troopa amongst a reasonable slice of the mid-Atlantic region.
One day, I dropped into Battle Course 3, finding myself toe to toe with someone playing as the Princess. Given my own tendency to fire her up on occasion to fool players regarding my gender, I assumed that either that was the case, or that, since girls don't play video games, this would be an easy win. You'll understand why my first reaction, upon getting my ass handed to me, was to invite my opponent to post-game chat and ask what the hell was going on.
The person behind the princess was either brave enough or foolish enough to admit that yes, she was a girl, and she liked the stuff in my profile text. Admittedly, I'd merely quoted a slice of the lyrics from the translated lyrics of one of the Ranma 1/2 theme songs, but whatever. We got to talking, and it turned out she was a surprisingly avid RPG gamer, in part thanks to her older brother who had a job and could afford systems, had just started watching Sailor Moon, and did equestrian while considering an eventual path in veterinary medicine. I'd been kind of fascinated by horses as a kid, and had begun religiously taping Sailor Moon each weekday (since it aired after I had to leave for school) to watch when I got home, so there were definitely some talking points there. Being thirteen or fourteen at the time, and kind of lacking in prospects amongst my classmates, I started becoming a bit smitten, whether I knew it or not.
The games continued, and the chats continued, until one day, we got a sizable phone bill. Such was the price of long-distance connections, given that the whole thing was direct dial-up to play, and her living on Long Island put her not so close to the Philly suburb I called home. I had to help pay some of it out of my allowance and what little money my paper route made me, and I was told to keep things mostly to messages, with one ten-minute-or-less chat a week. To my surprise, after she learned of this, my new friend (whom we'll call Rydia for the remainder of the story) asked me for my address. Not long after, I got a mysterious letter in the mail, smelling vaguely girly and clearly featuring some glitter clinging to the envelope.
We became pretty solid pen pals for a good year and change after that. We'd write about school, our pets, stuff we were playing, whatever. I told her how my crappy, mary sue Sailor Moon fanfiction* was going; she sent me a photo of herself with her horse, and her waist-length, dirty blonde hair just accelerated my nerd-crush on Sailor Venus a thousand-fold. It didn't help when she threatened to get a red hair bow for exactly that reason, either. I'd discuss my Japanese classes and how I thought they'd help me with a future in the games industry, and she'd tell me about her crazy brother's antics, freaking the mundanes around her town on Long Island. Eventually, as waiting for the mailman got to be too much, I managed to strike up a deal with my parents: I could call Rydia for up to two hours, once a month, so long as I kept XBAND matches to no more than two a day, and no chatting afterward.
This resulted in what was the first, and I believe the only, instance in which I may have been mistaken for a sex offender. My voice dropped fairly early and was pretty deep, and Rydia's immediate reaction to my first, "Hello?" was, "You sound like you're 20-something." But we quickly got over that hurdle, and two hours barely proved enough time to talk. Forcing myself off the phone after a back-and-forth goodbye/talk to you soon/later session that lasted a good ten minutes on its own, I sat down on my bed and had to admit it - I was completely infatuated.
This would go on for another two years, monthly calls of varying length, while the letters continued as well. I remember laying back and flipping through a magazine as she spoiled sections of Final Fantasy VII for me, which she was playing on the other end while we talked. One night, she had this crazy dream featuring herself and me as a ninja, which I later reworked into a story, and inspired a little keepsake she made and sent me, based on this amulet we formed together in the dream. I kept that thing on me more than I can recount; somehow, no one ever found it and asked me why I had a tiny, plastic container shaped like an eighth-note with a couple of plastic rock things in it. And the entire time, I kept trying to find ways to get up and visit her, none of which tended to pan out.
By the time our senior years in our respective high schools came around, things were starting to look a bit shaky. She'd been under pursuit by plenty guys, though she claimed not to be interested in them, for the most part. I finally had the stones to look into taking a train up and getting permission to crash at her place for her 18th birthday party after she invited me, which coincided with my prom weekend, but ended up being a much less depressing time. Her parents turned a blind eye to a little underage drinking, her brother got me hooked on Gran Turismo, and I spent most of the weekend wondering why some dude showed up with a softball bat, which he left propped against the end of the couch most of the time he was there. Turned out he was practically her boyfriend and the jealous sort, though thankfully, I seemed harmless enough, especially after Rydia paid him scads more attention than me the entire time.
And that was it. Some explanations, an awkward hug the following afternoon, and I was on the rails again, homeward bound. There were some tears on the ride back, and we mostly fell out of touch after she left for college, in part due to a lack of dating much in high school (because of the whole, nebulous thing we had going) leaving me ill-prepared to handle rejection. We chatted a bit on myspace a couple of years back, mostly because I had some questions about gelding and horse retirement (I can't remember why, either), and saw she was still on the veterinary track, so I imagine she's doing well. Personally, the whole affair pushed me to finally stop being lazy and get into shape, and the writing she often inspired, while thematically lame, gave me plenty of practice and got me in touch with a passion I wasn't entirely sure I had before then. It also showed me certain aspects of myself I needed to refine, especially in the aftermath.**
Video games were certainly the last place I expected to find a first love, but it just goes to show you that playing online can be just as effective and emotionally potent a social forum, sometimes, as any bar, workplace, or other "real world" event.
* - No, I'm not going into any details on said fic material. The last vestiges died along with Geocities, and I'd prefer it stay that way.
** - On the off chance you ever read this, I'd just like to say, I'm sorry about a lot of things I said and did when things fell apart. We should do drinks sometime and catch up.