I could soar to new, exotic worlds in my soup-can space shuttle. I could zap nefarious alien hordes with my trusty laser-blaster. I could infiltrate heavily guarded compounds and save the Earth from cosmic death rays. Nothing could hinder me.
Except for the fact that I was 5 years old and defending my bed time instead of planet Earth...
I don’t really recall when or how I began playing Commander Keen, id Software’s 1990 DOS-based side-scrolling action-adventure game. But I do remember it as the first game my nascent mind truly connected with.
An 8-year-old boy seeking out adventure and danger, Keen was a young boy just like me. And I’m certain my ardent connection to the game was heavily, if not exclusively, influenced by this particular age and philosophical proximity.
Regardless, one thing was certain: Commander Keen had guns and aliens and spaceships and real adventure. It was quirky. It was science fiction. It was comical. It was somber. I wasn’t saving some princess from some castle. No. Instead, I was saving the Earth and all of its princesses.
Commander Keen – more pointedly, Invasion of the Vorticons, Keen’s first virtual soiree – was a seminal game for the PC. Yes, games such as Super Mario Bros. constructed the codifiable framework for games such as Keen, but Commander Keen took that framework and made it relevant for a subset of gamers that didn’t connect with the worlds of Nintendo.
Gamers like me.
I’ll never forget blasting my first alien menace in Commander Keen; I’ll never forget the time I rambled through a single episode for hours searching for a pesky door only to find the key for said door hidden behind another torturously massive and impenetrable door, whose (other) key was precariously perched above a malignant maw of flame.
The dread. The awe. The happiness. The anger. All these things Commander Keen elicited in me other games up until that point had not.
What's more, Keen set itself apart from its brethren in its aesthetic and world construct. Gritty and harrowing, Keen's world, instead of singular levels followed by singular levels in a linear progression. It was, in a sense, open for the player to explore. And in a platform of the time, such a thing was nigh unheard of (to me), thus giving the player (me) a greater sense of agency and control over their quest. Which level first? Which level last? Which key? Which door?
Commander Keen relied solely on its “gaminess” for survival: in essence, the game offers little true narrative, but instead opts for a vast and fluid ludonarrative that endears it to those who love it and damns it for those who don’t. By all means, Commander Keen is, by today’s standards, a bad game. For the sake of this piece I revisited its principal episode and, after many years of playing its progeny, it was unsurprisingly lackluster and quite pedantic; the mechanics and paradigms just don’t hold up.
But it can’t and it shouldn’t and it won’t. Commander Keen is a game that I hold in high regard and accolade not because of its inherent value or disvalue, but because of an experience, and perhaps the experience, that swooned me all those years ago and started in earnest my love affair with the medium of games.