1. Origin Story
Every game needs a hero, a larger-than-life figure adept at slaying every challenge thrown their way. Think Solid Snake from the Metal Gear series. Ex–Green Beret, special-ops good guy who demolishes nuke-carrying baddies.
You also have Master Chief from the Halo games, who shows up just in time to save the universe. And Mario, who rescues the princess.
Every childhood needs a similar kind of real-life hero who makes the world safe from monsters and their mayhem.
Mine was no exception. With four older brothers and sports legends like Yaz, Esposito, and Havlicek, who cast their shadows across Boston and its neighboring suburbs, including North Andover where I grew up, I had plenty of choices. But none measured up to the man who assumed that role for me—my father.
Take this one example: I was almost a teenager, hormones stirring shit up inside me, and I wanted to be a ninja warrior. No mutant jokes, please. This was serious stuff. I didn’t want to be a ninja warrior. I became one. So did my friends Rick, Chris, and Mike. We found a catalog that offered authentic ninja outfits—black tunics, baggy pants, a cowl with cutouts for our eyes, and the split-toed shoes that ninjas would wear—pooled our paper route money, and bought the requisite outfits.
We also got a few shuriken, or ninja stars. Rick already had nunchucks. We were going to be truly badass.
Two weeks later, the stuff arrived. Since it was summer, we didn’t have school, so the days belonged to us, and we blazed a trail on our Sting-Ray bikes to our secret fort out in the woods. There we excitedly transformed ourselves into the baddest clan of mercenary fighters ever to declare themselves ready to raise hell in suburban North Andover, Massachusetts. We were the way I imagined the band KISS was the first time they saw each other in full makeup and rock regalia—freaking ecstatic. Look at us. Holy shit.
We high-fived each other, posed, snarled, snorted, karate chopped, kicked, and were, as was popular to declare at the time, ready to rummmmmble. Oh, fuck yeah.
We acted as authentic, cool, and fierce as we looked—sort of. I was sneaking out of the house one night around three in the morning to rage with my friends when my brother Jeff came home from a night of heavy partying. I could see he was drunk, and I didn’t want to get into anything with him. Quietly, stealthily, I crouched in the far corner of the dark front porch, hoping he wouldn’t see me. He didn’t seem to. He reached for the door handle and, without turning around, he said, “Hey, Cliff, what are you doing?”
“Uh, I’m doing my paper route early,” I said.
“It’s too early,” he said. “Go back to bed.”
“Okay,” I said, before heading out to join my fellow shinobi.
A group of rival ninjas existed about a mile from us, over on a street like ours called Bridle Path. Like us, they also had a fort in the woods. We taunted each other, arguing about whatever was going on: Ray Leonard versus Tommy Hearns, Reagan versus Mondale. One day the tension reached a breaking point and war broke out. Our dojo versus theirs. The fighting took place over several days. We ambushed each other without warning. We threw rocks and screamed threats and lodged complaints. Dude, not in the eyes. You almost hit my eye.
It was a miracle no one got hurt. Then late one night, being the true ninjas we were, my friends and I snuck out and trashed our rival ninjas’ fort.
That ended the war.
My friends and I regrouped in our fort. While guzzling large bottles of Gatorade, we recounted the battles and compared welts and bruises from where rocks had hit us, or we had slid taking cover. Once our exploits had been thoroughly rehashed, our version of Hesiod’s classic telling of the Titan wars, we moved on to the real raison d’être for our fort in the woods—this was where we kept and maintained our stash of porn magazines, Penthouse, Oui, Playboy, even the stray issue of Swank. Every religion has its holy book. These were the sacred scroll of puberty. And we were studying them with great intensity when all of a sudden my father paid an unannounced visit to our fort.
The lot of us looked at one another, frozen with a mix of shock, fear, confusion, and panic. Our magazines were everywhere.
I poked my head out, and he motioned for us to step outside.
“Safety check,” he explained. “I want to take a look around.”
After we had filed out and my father had gone inside, my friend Rick leaned close to me and whispered, “Dude, what the fuck?”
I shrugged. I didn’t know.
“This really sucks,” he said.
My father probably wasn’t inside the fort for more than a minute, maybe two at the most, but the wait was interminable. When he stepped back outside, his expression was unreadable. He stared at each one of us. We were shaking in our sneakers. I’d spent my entire life decoding his looks and I had no idea what he was thinking about the glossy display of breasts and vaginas he had found in the fort. Finally, just before one of us developed a nervous tic, my father winked and said, “It’s all good, boys. Everything looks fine. Carry on.”
I watched him walk away. A total hero.
I loved my father. He wasn’t cool. He was a dad. Serious, responsible, funny, stern, and occasionally crude, Walt Bleszinski was an engineer at Polaroid who married my stay-at-home mom, Karyn, and created a picture-perfect middle-class life in a quiet neighborhood that was pretty much straight out of Stranger Things, minus the parallel dimension and monsters. My parents were Catholic. They hoped to have a girl at some point, but every time my mom farted out a kid at Mass General, the doctor saw another baby boy weenie. Greg and Jeff were the first two, followed by Chris, and then Tyler and me.
Forgetting about the fact that after they saw me, they either said “Ugh, that’s enough” or “Finally, perfection,” the fraternal dynamic was important and inescapable. Greg was the original prodigal son, the home run, who attended West Point. He was buddies with Jeff. Growing up, I had zero in common with either of them. They were eleven and eight years older than me, respectively; in fact, Greg and I have the same birthday, which meant I ruined his party by popping out, and took away some of the spotlight every year thereafter. Chris, the middle child, was the black sheep of the family. Do the math. The two eldest sons paired up, as did Tyler and me, the two youngest, leaving Chris on his own and adrift.
He got sent home from eighth grade for showing up to class drunk and setting off a fire extinguisher. He fought constantly with my father, which caused serious discord in the house. In high school, he came home one night so hammered that my parents called an ambulance for him. Another time I woke up on a moonlit evening and saw a shape shambling out in the backyard, moving between the bedsheets on the outside clothesline that my mother had put up, and it scared the shit out of twelve-year-old me. I woke my parents and told them there was a ghost in the yard. It was Chris, unable to even find the door. Another time he crashed in Tyler’s and my bedroom, and I awoke to the sound of him pissing on a director’s chair we had in the corner, thinking it was a toilet. Then there was the time he totaled Jeff’s brand-new Nissan on his way to get a fresh can of dip. The cops asked my father if he wanted to “let this one slide.” My father shook his head no, his face a picture of frustration, his voice the hollow sound of resignation, and told them to take his middle son to jail for the night. Happily, Chris eventually got his shit together.
As the youngest, I had a unique vantage. Early on, I saw that raising five boys was rough, even on an engineer’s salary. When our septic system at the house needed a repair, my father decided to fix it himself. To help him dig up the leaching field, he enlisted us, his sons, who were collectively referred to as “the boys.” “The boys are helping me,” he told my mother. We watched in disbelief as he put on a hazmat suit and climbed down into the tank, where he scooped up buckets of raw sewage and handed them up to us. We dumped them down the hill, into our neighbor’s yard.
With one exception. Tyler accidentally sloshed one of the buckets over as it was being pulled up—they were heavy, and we were kids—and an ample amount of shit poured straight onto my father’s face and into his somewhat open, astonished mouth. No words can capture the look of curdled disgust on his face as he was forced to taste the waste of the entire family of seven that had been sitting in that tank.
Growing up in the eighties, I enjoyed a freedom that today’s kids may only know through movies and old farts like me. On Saturdays, I left the house after breakfast and hooked up with friends on Sting-Rays the same as mine. We went to the playground. Not some protected, prefab plastic; the slide was metal, and on hot days we burned our ass going down it. We spun the merry-go-round so fast it flung us off. If we found a hornet’s nest, we threw rocks at it. Leftover fireworks in the woods were golden. I hunted for frogs and snakes in the woods.
It was fucking awesome. We rode our bikes all day, recovered the random porn magazine sticking out of someone’s trash, played street hockey, lit fires with magnifying glasses, and only returned home when my mother summoned me with a voice that seemed to echo throughout the neighborhood.
At age ten, I got a paper route. As a first gig, it was pretty good. My route consisted of about twenty homes, and it wasn’t a morning edition, so I didn’t have to wake up any earlier than I normally did to get my ass to school. Winter was the only time the paper route was rough. New England is famous for its brutal winters, four to six months of snow, wind, and ice—and those are the pleasant days in the dead of winter. Riding a bike through that garbage was a war to survive. Papers were dropped off at the end of my driveway. They came with the regularity of clockwork. Even in the worst blizzard, the stack of papers waited for me.
If I wasn’t quick enough, the snowplows came and buried them and then, after futilely poking around in the snow like a member of the ski patrol looking for bodies buried in an avalanche, I said the bad word I had learned from my older brothers that is perhaps the most versatile word in the English language—fuck!
I trudged back inside the house and called the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune. “Yeah, this is Clifford Bleszinski and I need another stack of papers so I can do my route.”
Eventually spring came, the enormous snowbanks blackened with soot, mud, and grime melted, and all across the front yard there would be stacks of newspapers, slowly emerging from the deep cold, a benign facsimile of those stereotypical scenes in horror movies where the jogger finds a body after stumbling over a foot sticking up out of the leaves. Ironically, and in another of what I would term heroic episodes in his role as head of our household, my father went through a phase where he wasn’t making ends meet. Five boys were expensive. So he got himself his own paper route.
Unlike my two-dollar after-school job, he signed up to put the venerable Boston Globe on several hundred people’s doorsteps before sunrise. At four a.m. every day, he woke one of us boys, guided us half-asleep into the shotgun seat of his Ford Fiesta, and drove to some pickup spot in Andover, where we loaded the papers and then barreled through the surrounding neighborhoods, quietly delivering the morning news. Sundays were a killer. Those papers, weighing at least five pounds each, were the big boys.
Like most kids, I loathed every minute of that exercise, which left me physically drained before the day had even begun, though in later years I admired the way my father had worked himself to the bone in order to provide for us and was enormously grateful for the work ethic he instilled in me. He did it all with humor and few complaints. He came home from work interested to know how the day had unfolded for each of us. He sat at the dinner table still in his shirt and tie. Only afterward did he loosen his tie and settle on the couch to watch TV while cradling a bowl of popcorn drenched in a full stick of melted butter and half a shaker of salt. The bowl never left his lap.
The amount of butter he consumed night after night bothered us. Heart disease ran in the family. His father had keeled over at age fifty-three, and he’d had his own bypass surgery following a mild heart attack of his own as a young man of forty. After that, he quit smoking cigarettes—though we were pretty sure he snuck one or two or three a day—and ran five miles three or four times a week, always “to the blinking-light intersection and back,” as he proudly reported back to us.
If we mentioned the butter or the scent of tobacco on him, he got pissed off, so we left him to his vices. As the youngest and perhaps the most concerned of our brood, I sat close to him on the couch until he said it was time for me to go to bed, which was usually after Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show monologue and opening guest.
Before I went upstairs to the bedroom I shared with Tyler, who was already asleep, I kissed my father good night.
“Sleep well, Clifford,” he said. “I love you.”
He did, too. He listened patiently when I, at a mere six years old, came home from my friend Mike Melvin’s house gushing about the new high-tech gadget he had in his basement, an Atari 2600. “We played Space Invaders,” I said. “On the TV!” I fired at alien soldiers, I explained. I nailed the pink UFO. I defended the Earth.
My father smiled at the way I was unable to contain my enthusiasm. For him, it was an atta boy moment straight out of Happy Days or Family Ties.
But for me, it was a pivotal event, the instance when the switch flipped in my brain. I went from a kid who had sat passively in front of the TV, watching shows like H.R. Pufnstuf, ThunderCats, The Muppets, and Charlie Brown specials, to being able to move the images on the TV screen. I could move the images on the TV! Suddenly, I was in control. And I liked it. I was a budding little control freak.
I wanted more. I wanted to make everything do what I wanted it to do. It was mastery of the idiot box. It was phase one of that glorious addiction of controlling the screen that would eventually lead me to making video games.
A few years later, my friend P. T. Luther, who had all the cool toys before anyone else, like the seven-foot G.I. Joe aircraft carrier, got a Nintendo Entertainment System with Super Mario Bros. I was incredibly envious. Nintendo’s TV commercials had successfully, irrevocably permeated my brain. “Now you’re playing with power.” Those ads were genius. Nintendo positioned itself as an entertainment system, not a video game, and it worked.
They reignited my interest in video games after I had lost interest in them, as had the rest of the world, due to Atari flooding the market with too many crappy games. My dog, Jazz, had chewed up my Atari power cord, so I couldn’t even use it anymore. Not that I wanted to. Then Nintendo entered the fray and suddenly the entire world fell back in love with video games. But it was more than love.
It really was the power. I experienced a head rush the first time I made Mario jump onscreen. After finding a hidden block with an extra-life mushroom in it and hearing the subsequent 1-up sound, I was beside myself with excitement. “What kind of sorcery is this?” I exclaimed.
With my mind blown, I raced home for dinner and announced at the table, “It’s in their living room!”
I told my family all about this pudgy little Italian plumber, running left to right, under crystal-blue skies, battling walking mushrooms, turtles, spiky desert-looking crawly things, heck, even a pair of upright turtles that, for some odd reason, could toss an infinite number of hammers at you. My parents smiled, amused but clueless as to what I was talking about when I told them about the extra-life mushroom I had discovered. “I mean, do they want us to find these secrets? Are they accidents? Or am I good?”
I continued to ramble about the game.
“The graphics are incredible,” I said.
“Shut up, Cliff,” one of my brothers snapped.
“It’s as good as an arcade,” I continued.
“Shut up, Cliff.”
“You don’t get it,” I said.
“No, I do. You’re annoying. Shut up.”
Sorry, but they really didn’t get it. I was obsessed. I went to bed with the game’s music—that reggae island chiptunes song—still playing in my head. I can still hear it.
For Christmas, I saw a box under the tree and knew it was an NES without needing to unwrap it. It was for me and Tyler but mostly for me, because he was more into sports and chasing the neighborhood girls than video games. I wanted to hook it up to the color TV in the living room, the best set in the house, but with a family whose lives were deeply aligned with the ups and downs of the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and anything else related to New England sports, I knew better than to suggest something that would prevent them from watching the game. Even talking during the sports report on the local news was met with an onslaught of “Be quiet” and “Shut the fuck up.”
My mom found a tiny black-and-white TV for the NES and let me take it up to the bedroom I shared with Tyler. We had bunk beds, and I drove him crazy by playing it with the sound up just enough so that he’d barely get his REM sleep. It was an early version of brotherly torture. I kept track of the games I vanquished. I taped a poster board on the back of the bedroom door where I wrote GAMES THAT I’VE BEAT (Deadly Towers, Ghosts ’n Goblins, Contra, Solomon’s Key, Mighty Bomb Jack) and I put hash marks on my NES the way a World War II fighter pilot kept track of his kills.
For the record, I didn’t cheat in any of the games. I saw it as validation. While my friends fantasized about becoming the best baseball or basketball or ice hockey player in the world, I wanted to be the best video game player in the world. I wasn’t going to get there by using the cheat code.
I took it seriously. As Nintendo’s reign continued, the graphics got better, the games grew more complex, and my ability became sharper and more sophisticated. I went from simple Mario Bros. jumping on a block to Contra, a side-scroller that had these two buff dudes with crazy sci-fi guns fighting aliens, to 3-D Battles of WorldRunner, where you just run and jump over chasms and goofy enemies in what was Nintendo’s take on Sega’s arcade hit Space Harrier. Then Nintendo hits its stride with Zelda.
I topped it off with weekly visits to the public library and never left without a stack of books, including every title I could find about computers. I wanted to know everything about PCs. I was obsessed with RAM and ROM and cathode-ray tubes and how it all worked. One day I used a black Magic Marker to draw knobs and lights on my brother’s aging 8-track tape machine to make it seem more computer-like. I pretended to code.
Then came the day I no longer had to pretend. My father brought home an Apple IIc and placed it in the living room. As an engineer, he saw the way PCs were becoming essential to the way people worked and younger people learned. He also heard me yammer about all the time I spent on the Apple at the public library and on my friend Rick’s Commodore 64, on which we played The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that is until his parents upgraded him to an Amiga and we burned through Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat, Shadow of the Beast, and everything we found from Psygnosis, the rock-star development team in the U.K.
But the Apple IIc was like parking a Maserati in the living room. I am pretty sure my father intended this fancy home computer for Tyler, since he wanted my brother to be thinking about college already and perhaps this new machine would help him get into a good school. But Tyler was too busy making out with girls in the woods, so I claimed it as my own and took to it the way the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, intended: no instructions, no problem.
I saw myself as a natural. One Friday night, my parents stopped for dinner at a local pub before dropping me at the mall. As my father enjoyed plates of potato skins and fried mozzarella sticks, I buried my face in the latest edition of GamePro magazine, which had the Gradius side-scroller on the cover. My mother, bored of watching my father stuff his arteries with unhealthy apps, pointed at the magazine cover. “Clifford, how come the games don’t look like that?” she asked. Not sure what to tell her, I shrugged and said, “Wait thirty years.”
Lucky guess? Maybe not. Each month, I devoured the latest issue of Scholastic’s Family Computing magazine, a publication containing computer-related articles, software reviews, and my favorite, pages of code for simple games and screensavers. I retyped each page of code, thinking I could train myself to be a coder, and over time I learned how to parse text to a small degree. Though I wasn’t smart enough for that fancy poke and h=plot (_) graphics stuff, I was able to produce simple ASCII art on my own.
My masterpiece was a crude dagger. During the summer, I spent one entire day writing the code. Getting all the backward slashes, parentheses, underlines, and semicolons in the exact right place made me dizzy, almost nauseous. But I stuck with it until the fancy handle and the blade with all its variations in shading was perfect. It was my first real solo project. I printed it out on our loud dot matrix printer and eagerly held it out for my dad to inspect after he got home from work, looking up expectantly for his reaction.
Like any kid, I wasn’t just looking up because my father was so much taller than me. I was looking up from the vantage of being the youngest of five boys. I was looking up over the heads of my four older brothers. I was looking up for a glimpse into my future. He wanted me to go to Northeastern and get an engineering degree like him, and I wanted to hear him say I was on the right track. Ultimately, I was looking up for his approval. He was the smartest man I knew and the person I respected more than anyone else, and a nod from him or a pat on the back meant everything to me.
He had taken off his suit jacket but was still wearing a shirt and tie and dark slacks. Come on, Dad, I thought. Finally, after examining the image from all angles, which took at least a minute but felt like ten, he handed me back the printout, smiled, and ruffled my hair with his hand.
“That’s great, Clifford,” he said. “You’re getting into graphics.”
Yes! I held on to that moment for as long as possible. I had made him proud, and for the first time, I sensed this computer stuff might go somewhere.