I called you again today. I couldn't help it. I knew I had to be quick – my parents were downstairs, but they could have come up at any second. Or, far worse, they might have picked up the extension and heard you talking. I know it's a cliché for someone my age to say, "They just don't understand!" But they really don't. I'm too young to be able to go out on my own, too old to play on the streets, so the weekends and holidays stretch out in front of me, silent, blank, achingly dull. Boredom is always the trigger for our very worst behaviour.
The funniest thing is that it was really my dad who introduced us. I remember when he brought home the new computer (which had a soundcard!) and plugged it in. The warm air on my bare legs as it hummed, the comforting whirrs and beeps as it booted up, the sound of the CD drawer sliding open, the screen he cleaned with his sleeve causing crackles of static. I fell in love.
In the evenings it belonged to him, but during the summer months while he was at work, that baby was all mine. I played the games that came with it – Beneath a Steel Sky, some Star Wars thing, Doom – and was hooked. I started pulling my dad into GAME in Kingston on Saturdays, entranced by the boxes on the shelves – Theme Park, Sim City – and the magazines that promised, and quite often delivered, cheats that made games loads more fun, but only for a couple of hours. I didn't want to know everything; I just wanted a couple of hints.
Then, one rainy Sunday, I watched the son of my parents' friends play The Secret of Monkey Island for three hours in his dad's study. The next week I convinced my dad I needed this game in my life. Being the amazing father he is, he indulged me. Monkey Island was unlike any game I'd ever played before – so funny and so smart, it was pure escapism. But oh my god it was hard, and for some reason cheats for the game were never featured in the magazines I bought.
I would reach points where I couldn't work out what to do for months and months, stuck going round and round the island, systematically trying every item on any man woman and child I came across, getting increasingly frustrated with (main character) Guybrush Threepwood's response: "I don't think I can do that."
Can't you at least try, Guybrush?
I wanted to reason with him, to bargain. Inevitably, I would just keep trudging around the forest until the next time I was sat in my parents' friends' study, when I could quiz their son on what to do next. The solution would always be something that worked because of a pun, or was the punch line to a joke – something I would never have been able to work out for myself.
But sometimes even he couldn't remember the solution. Those were the dark days.
It was after one such occasion I started rifling through the box the game had come in, desperate now, hoping maybe there would be some sort of cheat sheet. And there it was, at the back of the installation booklet, written very small: your telephone number. I stared at it, I couldn't believe it – this would make everything so much easier. But it was a premium number. I knew it wouldn't be included in our BT free calls, and that it would show up on the telephone bill. The telephone bill that my mum had begun going through with a highlighter, asking my sister and I to explain the numbers she didn't recognise. She had two daughters, one a teen, the other not far off, and this was the golden age of the landline – can you blame her?
I'll just call it for a second.
I'll be so quick.
My hands were shaking as I dialled the number, then a recorded voice played down the phone, "Welcome to the helpline for LucasArts games." You started reeling off names of games, OH MY GOD THERE WERE SO MANY GAMES. My heart was pounding. Finally you sighed, "Monkey Island," and I pressed the number. "If you need help with the first part of the game..." You sounded so bored, but of course you had the luxury of being bored – you knew all the answers.
I wish I could say that I only ever called the hint line once – that it was enough and I used my own guile and wisdom to complete the game. But that would be a lie. I called many, many times. Never for longer than a couple of seconds, but enough that I had to pay my parents back in instalments (they were really nice about it). But I still carried on calling. Eventually I could just fly through the intro section, the confident caller who knows the extension number they need. I still play Monkey Island and its sequel, LeChuck's Revenge, regularly, at least once a year. The beauty of the game is that it's so complicated that it never really gets boring, and I still always get stumped. Only, nowadays I just Google a walkthrough. It's not the same.
Sometimes I think about myself playing Monkey Island at a time in my life when I knew only one other person who loved games. I felt so isolated – it's weird to have an interest you can't really share with your friends – but now I love the idea that other kids were feeling the same way, sneaking off to a quiet area in their house to call the hint line, heart pounding. Listening to that voice, then slamming the phone down as quickly as possible. I know some of those kids now, and it's a wonderful thing.
I miss you, hint guy. Do you ever think of me?