Wizard101The next interviewee from the field of gaming in my Games & Books & Q&A series is Sam Johnson.

Sam aspired to be a game designer as early as high school, and he began his career as a writer for Shadowbane. Now, as Lead Creative Designer for KingsIsle Entertainment, Sam creates and writes the storylines for the company’s massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, which include Wizard101 and Pirate101.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

SJ: There’s a few ways I could answer this, given the nature of video games today. I’m one of the old guys, who actually remembers the birth of the medium – I’ve seen a lot of stuff come and go. So I’ll cheat and give you 3 answers, one for each of the major platforms:

Coin-Operated stand up: The first video game I ever played, ever, was a coin op — it was a black and white game called Tank: Think of the main tank game on the old Atari 2600 Combat cartridge, but not in color. No narrative, graphics beyond primitive, sound crude as well. For all its crudeness, I remember how fun it was, in a visceral way — the competitive nature of it (I think you had to play against another player — no AI tanks on screen) instantly amped everything up. It didn’t matter that my collection of little squares barely looked like a tank, or that the shots from my cannon barely traveled faster than my tank did. As soon as a match started, my heart was racing and my adrenaline was through the ceiling. I remember trying to dodge the little obstacles without getting stuck on them.

Console Game: The first game I played in the comfort of my own home was Pong. Yup, straight up Pong. It was on a console the size of an Atari 2600, but there was no cartridge — the game (and like one or two variants) was hard-wired into the thing. I remember how responsive the controls were: if you spun that wheel too fast, you’d miss the little square ball and lose — it was my first experience of having to get zen and concentrate in a video game — the heart-racing that was so fun in Tank was counter-productive.

Computer Game: The first computer game I had was Ultima III: Exodus on my good old Apple 2. What I remember about that one was how big and rich the world seemed — new mysteries would open up all the time: dungeons I missed, or hidden cities that were illustrated on the cloth map but that I couldn’t find for the life of me when I stomped around that tiled landscape. I also remember thinking it was silly that they pluralized “Orcus” as “Orcuss” — I played DnD, so I knew “Orcus” was unique.

CB: What did you like to read when you were a kid? What did you love about it?

SJ: I’d have to say comic books more than anything. They actually taught me a lot of vocabulary, and the old Marvel ones were fraught with little literary nods: “Ours is but to do and die,” “The Light That Failed,” that kind of thing. I also read a ton of classics comics — to this day I haven’t managed to finish The Odyssey and I haven’t read a word of The Count of Monte Cristo, but I know those stories because of what I read. I also dearly loved science fiction, as much of it as I could get my hands on. I loved learning words, and seeing how you could make such awesome phrases and sentences out of them. I ended up a writer, go figure.

CB: What book that you read while growing up had the most influence on who you became as an adult?

Lizard MusicSJ: Boy, that’s a tough one. It all depends on what you mean by “when growing up.” So again, I’ll give you two answers:

Elementary School: Lizard Music, by Daniel Pinkwater. I really identified with the main character — he was a nerd like me, an outsider, with his distinct loves (Walter Cronkite, pizza) and the things he worried about: getting the glue right on his model airplane, or the pockets of superhot cheese that might be lurking under the surface of that piece of pizza. That book taught me it was okay to be me. Also, the mystery and the adventure he got into helped me really cherish my imagination, and hang on to the idea that I could find really wondrous or special things buried under ordinary life if I looked at it through the right eyes.

High School: The Stand, by Steven King. I felt like I knew those characters, like I’d lived with them my whole life. They turned into my role models. I learned about love in that book, and devotion, and faith, and endurance. Stu Redman taught me to do whatever it takes, and how to endure hardships without despairing. Looking at Stu, I saw the grown up I wanted to be. Harold Lauder showed me the dark side of the nerd I was growing up into, who I might end up if I let jealousy and ego consume me — he taught me what kind of man I did not want to be. I’ve had some really hard times in my life, and the example of all those characters helped me come through them intact. And I have to say, at the darkest moment in my life (I was still growing up at 23), Glen Bateman’s realization and sacrifice literally saved my life.


I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.