I was a little kid whose favourite game for a solid 11 years was "pretend". Neverwinter Nights was an early RPG that gave your character absolutely no backstory and encouraged you to fill in the gaps. Clearly, a match made in heaven.
Lead image: Remember these arseholes?
Last year, I flew to Atlanta to attend DragonCon. On the first of four days, a panel of BioWare developers answered questions from the crowd, one of which was how they became gamers. Jess Hara Campbell, a level designer at BioWare Montreal, said her love started, as it does for most gamers, with one game she played as a kid. For her, it was Neverwinter Nights.
Neverwinter was my first game, too, and as I looked around the room, I saw several others nodding along as she described how it hooked her. For me, Neverwinter was a great equaliser. Unlike most fantasy books, I could play as a woman — a woman who didn't just conveniently duck into and out of the plot, but who got to lead the party and drive all the action. Also, I was eleven when I first played and really into mermaids, so I had to write an elaborate backstory about why the sea elves sent their champion to the surface to save the city of Neverwinter, only to be betrayed by the first landlubber I met (pictured above).
Fighting with the power of purple.
The groundwork for my eventual love of RPGs was laid before I discovered Neverwinter: my favourite books were the Dragonlance series, and my favourite pastime as a kid was writing additional characters to plug into TV shows and books (many of them mermaids, even in the Wild West setting of Bonanza).
But I was slow to join the gaming world; my two-person family was dirt poor and couldn't afford a console. My mum saved up and got me a PS1 for Christmas in 2002, two years after the PS2 came out. Neither of us realised that the console didn't actually come with games, so we trudged out to Wal-Mart two months later, when my birthday rolled around, and bought a racing game. I have no clue what it was.
But before I took on the racetrack (where I was awful; spatial awareness is not my thing), one of my uncles noticed my growing love of fantasy and gave me his copy of Neverwinter Nights. I popped the CD into our computer, realised I got to write my own character, and suddenly had a new favourite hobby.
The first Neverwinter Nights game came out in 1991 as a multiplayer universe. It ran on AOL for six years, and the player community filled it with guilds and alliances. In 2002, BioWare released the next Neverwinter Nights, a campaign set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, and hoped to attract the initial game's fan base. The player started in the city of Neverwinter, which was suffering from a plague called the Wailing Death. A paladin, Lady Aribeth, and the player worked together to cure the plague and hunt down the cultists behind it.
This was also my introduction to BioWare's famed romances — a female PC could start a relationship with Aarin Gend, Neverwinter's spymaster.
The entire campaign clocks in at about 60 hours, and in that time, the player cures a plague, thwarts a cult, fights to defend a city, and dukes it out with Lovecraftian horrors. Throw in Aribeth's betrayal (gasp!), and you had a story that was worth revisiting many times.
The story BioWare wrote in Neverwinter Nights has plenty to keep the player engaged, and the ever-evolving nature of the main antagonist keeps an aura of mystery around the game from start to finish. The atmospheres are excellent — the music, forests, dungeons, and ambient sounds created excellent immersion even with 2002-era graphics.
A friendly chat in your neighbourhood bestiary.
It was the characters, though, that made Neverwinter my favourite, and for many years only, game. I replayed the main campaign four times, and the expansion packs many more times than that. The NPCs were fun, flawed and downright weird (kobold bard, anyone?). Perhaps more importantly, the PC was entirely up to me. I don't think gaming would have become a passion for me if I'd been forced to play as a Muscular Male With A Sword. There's nothing wrong with that archetype, but he and I don't have much in common.
Gaming is different things to different people: some want to role-play as someone else; some want to be a better version of themselves; some people just want to swing an axe. But what sets gaming apart from books and movies is that the player has a hand in creation: we get to decide which of those things to be. And getting to write our own stories is pretty powerful.
I loved Neverwinter so much that I branched out into other genres of games, everything from Bejeweled to finally turning on that racing game I can't remember. The combination of heartfelt storytelling and having the chance to make a story my own drew me into the gaming world, and I haven't left it since.