Mingwei Gu

writings on business, meditation, technology, markets, sci-fi, organizations

21 Sep 2020

How I learned about Rocky Horror in fourth grade

I’m a millennial. Most of my generation learned about 70s American culture from parents or older relatives.

Me, I’m a child of immigrants. And I grew up a quintessential geek. So naturally what I learned about the 70s came from the internet.

Case in point, I learned about the Rocky Horror Picture Show in an online RPG, Barren Realms.

What’s a MUD?

Like most RPGs, Barren Realms asks you to create a fantasy-themed character. And as the character, you explore the world, fight monsters, get loot, level up and learn new skills.

More accurately, Barren Realms is a MUD, or multi-user dungeon. Think World of Warcraft but text-only. No graphics or sounds at all.

You read descriptions of the areas and rooms. You read what happens. And you type actions for your character in a terminal. Which direction to go. Which monster to attack. Which armor to wear. Who to heal.

Fostering friendships

A childhood friend showed me the game in fourth grade. I struggled at first. I was confused how to control my character through text commands. And how to even figure out what was happening in the game.

But soon enough I was hooked. There were three of us who went over to each others’ homes to play. Imagine three eight olds sitting in front of one computer with three terminal screens open. Each jostling to enter commands on the same keyboard.

Rediscovering the thrill

A few weekends ago, I played for the first time in almost twenty years.

Of course my characters from two decades ago had long been deleted. So I had to create a new one. It’s a small miracle that the game server was even running.

Throughout the evening, I experienced the thrill of battle, reading in real-time about my characters’ slashes, dodges, parries and kicks. I was proud when my character levelled up and learned new skills. And I felt both a sense of mystery and nostalgia in exploring a world I once knew but had forgotten.

Interactive fiction

The games’ more dedicated players designed mazes, crafted the monsters, and wrote descriptions to create a variety of areas for your character to travel to and battle.

Some of areas are fantasy-themed: a hideout of evil goblins, a gnome village, and even the Dragonriders of Pern. Others draw from very contemporary influences: a three ring circus, Candy Land, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

First encounter with Rocky Horror

When I was in fourth grade, I simply saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show area of the game as another area to fight monsters.

I mistook the parody as the original. I saw Rocky Horror as a Frankenstein’s monster. Riff Raff as Igor. And Frank N. Furter as Dr. Frankenstein. And I had to fight them all and take their loot.

And of course the word “transvestite” just flew right over my head.

It was only seven years later when I saw the film the first time. And it all clicked. I was sixteen at Mathcamp (another story) when one of the other campers put together a screening, filled with callbacks and the whole nine yards.

Power of simplicity

Can you imagine a blockbuster, graphical MMORPG these days where each area depicts a different movie, book, etc.? I mean, their lawyers would be sweating bullets.

And the visual inconsistency would give the game designers a heart attack.

Before MMORPGs existed, Barren Realms and thousands of MUDs like it were spaces where players could congregate and help build together. Because the content was all text-based, it was simple to contribute.

And because MUDs were generally free to play and quite small (comparatively), the area builders would have enjoyed much creative freedom to adapt their favorite works into the game.

Though I wasn’t a builder myself, it means I could get exposed to aspects of 70s and 80s American culture even without having American relatives.

Parting thoughts

Oh what a strange and wonderful place the internet was in the nineties.

And if you’re a third culture kid like me, you probably found out about cultural phenomena in the most unlikely ways.