I have always loved stories. That’s one of the things that keeps me playing video games—this unique medium can tell stories in ways no other medium can, with choices to be made, diverging paths, and deep personal investment thanks to immersion. It’s an evolution of the medium that continues to amaze me as more and more games take risks in their storytelling.
But games haven’t always had these rich, involving stories. When I held a controller for the first time, it was for the blocky old NES and the Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge.
I remember sinking many, many hours into Super Mario Bros., and, even as a young child, something became rapidly apparent: I was awful at it. Platforming was an exercise in failure after failure, like Dark Souls but colorful and less terrifying.
Even then, I could forgive frustrating gameplay for a good story. But, iconic as it is, Super Mario Bros. doesn’t have the most interesting story. It wasn’t until years later that I learned Mario was supposed to be a plumber, and I never made it to the end to rescue the princess. The whole thing was kind of nonsense and surreal—who put those questions blocks there? Why could Mario travel through pipes? Why did these mushrooms and bird-turtles want to kill me?
As a kid, I didn’t know what to make of it. I think that might have been part of the reason I eventually quit trying with Super Mario Bros. (at least until my parents got ahold of Dr. Mario, at which point I found something I could loathe even more than my personal platforming hell). That, and the fact that the game was kind of lonely—I was an only child and didn’t have anybody to play two-player games with. Super Mario Bros. was foreboding with all of these creatures wanting to kill me for no discernible reason, and the princess was always a step ahead of me.
And then there was Duck Hunt.
Super Mario Bros. has been hailed as one of the greatest games of all time. Duck Hunt, even on release, received reviews that said things like, “repetitive,” and “mindless.” Its lasting legacy is one of the earliest gaming peripherals, the NES Zapper, and the dog that won’t stop laughing in your face.
But something about Duck Hunt clicked with me in a way Super Mario Bros. never did. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be, so I could be anybody—most often, I was some kind of badass lady spy on the run from my enemies, trapped in the wilderness with nothing but my trusty light gun to survive. I wasn’t out to kill people or save a princess, I was trying to survive; a very different experience from the more structured, linear pursuit of Super Mario Bros.
And it wasn’t just a story I made up in my head. Duck Hunt was like a LARPing experience for me. I took the bowl of plastic fruit we had in the kitchen for decoration and packed it up as if I was really going on a journey. I was on the run, and this fruit, my gun, and what few ducks I could manage to shoot were all I had for survival. I even blew imaginary smoke from the barrel of my NES Zapper after each round with the ducks, pausing to appreciate my marksmanship and general awesomeness.
Duck Hunt as I was at Super Mario Bros., if not worse. To shoot anything, I’d press my gun right to the television screen. I knew it was cheating, but I’d die out there in the wilderness if I didn’t do it. And, if I didn’t starve to death, I’d be laughed at by the infamous Laughing Dog—a fate arguably worse than fictional death.
Mario‘s scenery was interesting with its fluffy white clouds and lava pits, but Duck Hunt‘s scenery was soothing, particularly for a spy on the run. My favorite was the Game C setting, in which you shot clay pigeons (a confusing term, to a very young me). The sky was a beautiful turquoise, with green mountains on the horizon and several bushy trees scattered in a field. It looked like somewhere I might see outside my window—I’ve lived a rural part of the Pacific Northwest all my life, and my life has always been filled with rolling emerald hills and evergreen trees. There was something tranquil about that simplistic pixel art, and it was easy to imagine myself in the more peaceful times of my alter-ego spy life, practicing my marksmanship on whatever clay pigeons were and training for the danger that was to come.
It certainly was, as critics claimed, mindless and repetitive. But for me, it was also open and free—through that emptiness, I got an early exercise in writing my own stories. It wasn’t until years later that I played my first RPG—Final Fantasy X, sometime during the early 2000s—but the comparative emptiness of Duck Hunt let me write the story myself.
Now I like my games more on the Final Fantasy end of the spectrum, with characterization and story to guide me along and make me feel invested. If I picked up Duck Hunt today, I’m sure I’d find it as repetitive and mindless as critics did back in the day. But back when story wasn’t something games needed to include, I was content to write my own, letting each new session be a continuation of the last, turning my shallow, bizarre spy tale into an epic that spanned hours and hours of playtime.
I’m happy that games are including stories, challenging ideas, and new perspectives; it’s the natural evolution of any medium. But it’s that emptiness of Duck Hunt that first got me hooked not only on games, but creating my own stories to fill in the gaps—a hobby and fascination that endures today.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.