There was a kind of magical sensation, a sort of delightful glee that would wash over you when, at the edge of Computer Store, you found a powered-on IBM Windows PC. As it towers over you, you hover your mouse over the start menu and your cursor grazes over an icon, firing a nerve impulse the strongest you’ve felt since hiding in a dark room during a game of hide-and-seek, or burning your hand for the first time.
That icon is for SkiFree – each session you’ve ever played has felt as exhilarating as though you could feel the wind in your hair. What a funny game it is, to briefly grant you unlimited freedom, only to cruelly snatch it away in the claws of that terrifying entity, the Abominable Snowman himself. Is this what people older than you considered “fun”, you think to yourself? “Who is this for?”
Unlike the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64, Windows PCs were never particularly designed with entertainment in mind. The novelty of a GUI was so strong in its own right that even Minesweeper felt like technical wizardy. The very idea that you could make games for Windows was indistinguishable for most from trying to make an RPG in Excel. When the popularity of little timewasters like SkiFree reached its peak, it was less about fun and more about wasting time – computers managed to increase efficiency to such a ridiculous degree that the 9-5 office grind now had a lot more vacancies. Data filed, files printed, yet management still expects you to be looking busy – one accidental giggle of joy, a single laser gun sound escaping because you accidentally yoinked your headphones out of the speaker, and you’d find yourself in hot water fast.
What is work, especially when is isn’t for your own ambitions? Exhaustion, burnout, dull boredom. You needed something that kept the faculties sharp, yet was complex enough to keep you engaged, while providing enough frustration to give your face that classic look of consternation that a cartoonishly overbearing manager might believe is the hallmark of productivity. Rodent’s Revenge, Pipe Dream, Minesweeper: they were all games in the same vein as solo card games, ways to keep yourself from falling asleep during the slow parts of the day, with a colorfully Gen X twist.
“No more boring coffee breaks” and “Only a few minutes between meetings? Get in a quick game of Klotski”Wikipedia’s entry for the Microsoft Entertainment Pack
SkiFree was different: it was one of those rare, immersive games that would cause many to yelp out in nervous fear, or express anger as the player was suddenly apprehended at the hands of the eldritch creature himself, furious with you for your transgression upon his home turf. Yet, despite providing a surprisingly groundbreaking mechanism for tension, and effortlessly standing as the noteworthy progenitor of the ‘runner’ genre so often found on our phones for the same time-wasting purposes, your inability to ‘win’ the game served as a perpetual reminder that you are, in fact, not free.
The fun wears off. Your eyes drift off to the clock on your desk as you realize it isn’t even 4 yet, but it’s close enough to the end of the workday to begin to dread rush hour traffic. Within this carpet-clad mausoleum once intended to liberate the American salaryman’s intellect from tedium, no amount of rerouting interactive tools for the forbidden act of experiencing joy in this place can ever help. Nothing will let you truly escape the cyclical purgatory that serves as the foundation for this economy.
Like a daydream or a short power nap, whatever emotions the adrenal exhilaration of digital skiing brought forth are fleeting, as pointless as the reports your turned in at lunch, ignored as your manager indulges in a game of Rodent’s Revenge at the expense of his own responsibilities.
In time, your children will grow up wishing they even had cubicles, envious of the privacy you take for granted within these confined half-height walls. They will live vicariously through streamers, those who play far more entertaining games for a living, their entire work a 5-9 grind where the joy of play is stripped off and sold for ad revenue.
Your grandchildren, if your debt-shackled children can afford to raise them, will wonder what it was like to live in a world where you could ski at all.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice