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Hi, I'm Tess. I'm thirty something and live in London. Dances with Squirrels is a blog for my collected stories and stuff. My books are available on your friendly regional Amazon in paperback and e-book. Comedy fantasy, The Gatekeeper on the Docks is here and The Ghastly London Ghost Stories Omnibus is here. If you'd like to follow me on Twitter, I'm @TessStenson

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

A Love Letter to Shareware

My earliest gaming memories are not my own, not really. They're simply of watching my big brother play Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on our ancient ZX Spectrum. Even when my family got an 8086 IBM machine, I'd still just watch others play Boulderdash as much as I'd experiment fumbling with the controls myself. That's all it was back then, experimenting. Seeing what fit. I was a young naïve pre-gamer; I didn't know that you would come along and shake me to my very foundations. You, Shareware, you were my first true love.
I'd seen you hanging out before of course; on those five and a quarter inch floppy disks that my father sometimes brought home from work. I saw you there, amongst the program listings. You looked ravishing, but you were out of my class back then. I didn't really understand what you were about and what made you tick, but I knew even then that there was something about you that was very special. In truth, I'm not sure I could have treated you well at that time. You were always so generous, giving large chunks of your games away for free and encouraging people to share them with friends. You're trusting generous spirit was a shining beacon, and you always let people know how to go about purchasing the full games without pestering or nagging. If only everyone could have been so thoughtful. Sure, I had some good times with a timed demo, but it would only be a fleeting fling. With you, it would be something more serious.
Purple blobs hate men with moustaches, especially in Bio Menace.

I remember the first time we truly met. It was a summer’s day shortly after I left junior school. I was heading to high school in the new term; I was ready to grow up. At my friend Gareth's house, we were introduced. You were in your handsome Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons form. The Marooned on Mars shareware episode. Oh, what fun we had, the three of us. I knew then that I'd met something wonderful that I wanted to know better. But you were still out of my reach as I just didn't have the computer infrastructure to take care of you in the way you needed. In the way you deserved. I had to suffer getting calls from Gareth to tell me exciting anecdotes about how the two of you went to new levels in Marooned on Mars, how he found the ice levels at the Mars poles or the thrilling way in which the game ended. He went on to get the full version of the game that boasted two more episodes; The Earth Explodes and Keen Must Die! I'm ashamed to admit it, but I was insanely jealous.
I was so happy when my family got a 386 PC because it meant that I could finally take you out myself. An office supply store in Gloucester stocked little heat sealed plastic blister packs with a single shareware disk game on for just 99p. A lovely little treat to get with my pocket money. The frustration of opening those little packs made playing the game all the more rewarding. That one day I myself was marooned outside that store whilst I waited for my ride mattered not; I had a selection of exciting looking shareware games to experience when I finally got home. My mind was swimming with anticipation and I'd forgotten that I'd arranged to be picked up elsewhere. Never mind; I had you to look forward to. The shareware episode of Commander Keen: Goodbye Galaxy will remain very special to me. It was my first. The first computer game that I can truly say I discovered by myself, with your help.
All hail the Poison Slug King.

The agony of waiting for the program to install on our 386 was palpable. Watching that blue screen with the white progress bar simply filled my imagination with thoughts of the fun beyond it. The thrill of loading the game for the first time and seeing the stylish title screen and enchanting menu, complete with a miniature version of Pong to try. Oh yes, I was smitten immediately. The game itself was everything I hoped it would be. Exploring the Border Village level and coming across the underground room with a giant slug monument, I knew that this was the beginning of a long relationship that would bring real joy to my life. Eventually I bugged my father to order the full game for me after I poured lustfully through the shareware catalogue on the game disk. Reading those fanciful descriptions of these incredible sounding games filled me with awe. I watched avidly as my father carefully typed in his credit card details onto the Apogee online store and then passed control of the old 386 to me when the mammoth sized two megabyte download croaked over the line and snuggled itself into the deepest reaches of the computer's hard drive. Somehow I was surprised when I loaded the game up and didn't see the message reminding you that it was the shareware version of the game. Somehow I missed it, but the game was wonderful. I owe that little slice of happiness to you, Shareware.
You opened the flood gates and showed me so many different worlds. From the monster bashing side scrolling of Bio Menace to the war torn streets of Traffic Department 2192, you never let me down. You gave me my first taste of Doom whilst babysitting the Hanson's kids down the road and you took me on a mind warping journey in Xargon. It didn't matter to me that you propagated an inaccurate image of rodents in Lemmings or that I was so overcome with options that I never got around to trying Descent; you gave so much and asked so little. I had such fun with you.

Xargon always felt like a higher class of game, you can tell by how serious it took its jumping.
You helped me try new things. Remember how I installed an Ad-Lib soundcard just so I could finally get some proper music in my game time? The theme tune to Wacky Wheels is still the best games theme tune in my mind. You got me interested in computing and encouraged me to make it a worthwhile hobby. You even helped me in developing my love of sci-fi and pushed me gently into looking closer at storytelling techniques. You made me a savvier buyer with my pocket money. I'd already seen the game that came to define so much of my early game playing time in the local game shop; Format, on Westgate Street. I'd not seen it before or heard my friends mention it before so I'd no idea if it was worth the price. “Why not try it first”, you whispered sweetly. Yes, shareware Rise of the Triad: The HUNT Begins. It was a marvel. And a marvel with a new trick; the shareware episode was made up of unique levels not from the full game, a full and riotously fun game all by itself. I had to share this wonder with my friends. We all found ourselves playing ROTT. We all bought the full game (I confess, in total I believe I've bought it thrice over the years). My friend Dan and I even spent a long time making our own levels in the level editor. All the while, you looked on, smiling at how happy you'd made us by introducing us to this game.

Rotten good fun and ludicrous gibs in Rise of the Triad.

Oh goodness, I can't help but feel like I'm engaging in an emotional affair and cheating on my boyfriend. I'm sure he'd understand though. He knows you well too and I’m sure he has his own stories about what the two of you got up to. I’m not jealous anymore; you’re just a wonderfully gregarious thing. Some may call you promiscuous, Shareware, but we know better. People may misunderstand your generous nature but you were an important part of my childhood, and for so many others people’s childhoods. You may not be around as much as you once were, having passed the torch to other forms of demo, but I still love you. You made our personal computing machines great. Shareware, you're the best.

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