I'll start by saying that I didn't know when I started writing that this was going to be as long as it turned out to be. I also didn't know it was going to be this depressing. It didn't occur to me when I started that a history of me trying to communicate with other fans would be, by necessity, a history of me trying to communicate, and that's by definition near the apex of dishearteningly inept.
But I was talking about LunarNet with pandorkful a while back, and it got me thinking about my history of interactions with other gaming fans, both online and offline. "Remember when" may be, as Tony Soprano charged, the lowest form of conversation, but it's certainly one of the most comfortable and, judging from the hits that "mall memories" post of mine gets, crowd-pleasing. Also, Tony Soprano didn't live through the 2020s, which make almost any other time in memory seem paradisical to revisit. Here we go!
This wasn't exactly a fandom, but it was my first attempt to reach out to other game fans: I put in a penpal ad in Game Player's, mentioned earlier. To elicit replies, and perhaps because I had been disappointed a few times in writing to these ads, I said I would "answer all letters." I got 150 letters. I did not respond remotely to 150 letters. (I also got a couple pornographic letters that should have been turned over to the authorities, as I stated in the listing I was 12 at the time. My mother just threw them away. It was a different time, but she had horrible judgment about these things.)
The 150 (non-pedophilic) letters were the source of a great deal of turmoil for me, since I promised to answer all letters, yet that didn't seem remotely possible with the number I'd received. My father said I'd have to just reach into the stack, pull out a handful, and discard the rest. This seemed unfeeling to me at the time, but it really was the right solution. Instead, I just tried to answer all the letters over time, and though I wrote back to a great many, I didn't succeed in replying to all. None of my overlooked correspondents complained, except this one teenage guy who wrote back an angry, jerky screed about how I said I would answer all letters but never answered him. My mother advised me to write him and we'd send it express so that he wouldn't be mad (again: she had horrible judgment regarding boundaries, particularly with men). I followed her direction, and the guy wrote back all delighted at the letter, but, for all his rage at me not taking him up on a correspondence, never contacted me again.
I did get a few reliable pen pals out of the deal: a college student in San Diego (who always acted age-appropriately); a girl my age in Minnesota; a Garfield-loving boy in Missouri who became a writer. One of my most fruitful exchanges - and I can't recall whether he first contacted me through the 150-letters ad, or if I sent a letter to an ad he placed - was the first guy to whom I was able to talk really intensively about RPGs. He started the correspondence by sending me a copy of FF3/6 right out of the blue. Nowadays, this would be recognized as a big Giving Girls Free Stuff move, but his letter (about 10 pages long, very knowledgeable and in-depth) honestly commanded my attention more than the gift (which I should have sent back, honestly, but I still have; it's to this day my copy of SNES FF3). He subsequently introduced me to Lunar through a copy of a VHS tape he had made of all the cutscenes (with a long scene-by-scene commentary on each of Lunar II's cinemas and the plot, so I could follow along), so if you're looking for someone to blame for my sites and corpus, blame him. Our correspondence took place in 1995-96, so we gabbed about all the the late 16-bit era titans: looking forward to the upcoming Chrono Trigger; dissecting my progress in unearthing Shadow's dreams in FF6 (he informed me falsely that Shadow was Relm's brother; *dude*); venting about calling Sears to see if they had Secret of Mana and the salesclerk exploding in laughter at the name; talking about PSIV's translation naming changes as reported by Gamefan. I'd send him a lengthy 10-page letter one week and receive one back one back the week following, which, given the speed of the postal service in those days, meant we were writing each other pretty much as soon as we received each other's letters.
Eventually, after about a year of exchanging letters, I didn't get anything from him one week, and we abruptly stopped corresponding. I should have sent another letter asking about him - he could've been ill, or my letter could've been lost in the mail - but I just didn't. Given the timing, I thought he'd gone off to college and found a new, more-enthralling friend group, and as I had to delay my own education due to family issues, I was self-conscious about corresponding with people in my age group who had made it to university. I was also, bluntly, shy and fearful people wouldn't like me in those days - that he had just suddenly *stopped liking me* for some reason - and, given how matched we were, my best guess is that he was, too. (The alternative is that someone in my family, who had been engaging in controlling & abusive behavior I discovered only years later, either wrote him with false information that made him stop writing or intercepted & tore up his letters out of jealousy, but I've discovered enough pain on that front I frankly don't want to think anymore about the possibility.) I still have a wooden box with his letters.
Man, is this a promising start to this feature! Pedophiles and family abuse! Let's move on to something else!
I think the very first "fandom" proper I encountered was on early AOL. AOL was my first step into the bigger online world, outside of sporadic brushes with Prodigy through trials and whatnot. You didn't have fan pages on AOL, but you did have discussion boards dedicated to various individual titles. The first I followed with attentive interest was one dedicated to what we would now recognize as Mortal Kombat fanfics, with posters scripting their own matches in narrative form. I'd never, ever encountered anything like this before, save for a My Little Pony story a first-grade friend of mine was writing when I was five (which prompted a minor tiff after she refused to let me or another friend help with it, which I thought was selfish at the time but now recognize as the decision of a committed auteur). After lurking and reading for a while, I asked if anyone had written a match with Raiden, my favorite character. Someone answered in the negative but cheerfully suggested that I write one. I couldn't, though, as I didn't own the games (either I or II, which were all that was out at the time) and wasn't familiar with the ins & outs of how they played - I just knew the lore through magazine articles and comic books. (I wouldn't have anyway, as, despite my My Little Pony aspirations, down-on-paper full-blown fiction writing just isn't my thing.)
I eventually ran across stories for a dearer property to me, FF4 (or FF2, in those days): about Kain becoming what the fanfic termed a "Paladragoon," or Cecil visiting the world of pretty much every major 16-bit RPG released stateside and gathering heroes with him to fight Phantasy Star's Profound Darkness. These stories were, let us say, extremely rudimentary, though I'm certain the Paladragoon fic handled that and other plot points better than After Years. I don't think anyone cared, though. People were writing further adventures for the characters in the video games I loved!
I really enjoyed the online world of online games, trivia, and communication AOL provided and took to the novelty of being able to discuss video games with people in something resembling real time. I helped a father and son who signed their post "Bob and Rob" get through a sticking point in one of the Hugo grocery-store shareware-rack adventure games. I kvetched about Celes being such a fainting damsel, prompting someone else to post - not directly to me, but as an addressing-the-room, "I won't name names but we all know who I mean" thing - that Celes had had a rough life and that we shouldn't be too hard on her. (There are problems with that assertion, but, as I realized in later years, Locke and the writers' willingness to undermine the nominal heroines to feed his ego is the real issue, so this poster was correct in Celes being not the problem.) As mentioned previously, I kept track of the constant futile efforts to avert Don's fate in Phantasmagoria. I won a chatroom Squaresoft trivia contest! Granted, there were only four or five participants, and everyone stopped caring after I won, but still.
I even got another pen pal, of sorts - a fellow Lunar fan whom I recall being amazed and delighted when I shared my discovery of the Son May Eternal Blue soundtrack. We corresponded & chatted for a number of months when I stopped writing. I don't recall what the reason was on my part. I'm ashamed to say that I think it was because I just didn't want to write anymore. That sounds irresponsible and jerky on my part - and part of me wants to say that that couldn't have been the case, because, as with the 150 letters thing, I did have a strong sense of obligation to people who wrote to me. We weren't as well-matched as my other pen pals - I found out near the end of the friendship that we were very opposed politically, and I recall an incident of him wanting us to prank the stocks chatroom by singing the Monty Python lumberjack song and me following through as promised, out of concern that it would be impolite - but that's not an excuse for dropping a person entirely. The best I can rationalize here is that I'd had such bad experiences trying to create and maintain friendships up to that point that I thought a relationship with me couldn't matter much to the other party, so it didn't matter if I ghosted. That's not an excuse for what I did, though. (This is the overarcing lesson of this post: I am a terrible correspondent.)
Near the end of my time on AOL, I encountered an unassuming ad for Shining Forth, a newsletter/RPG zine sold for $1. I sent away and kind of forgot about it, but what I eventually received was one of the most comprehensive, lovingly-produced chronicles of RPGs I've had the pleasure of reading - professionally-written, with effective text layouts, eventually illustrated by a comics artist. It covered the 16-bit era to the dawn of 32-bit before its creator was, correctly, hired professionally.
RPGs were still treated as an ugly stepchild by gaming publications in this era, with coverage relegated to niche sections. Seeing an entire magazine devoted to the genre was a revelation, and looking back, I failed to appreciate what the zine's author, a fan named Robert Schmitz, did all by himself. An issue typically started with a page of opening chatter, then an overview of the upcoming release schedule by system. The main section was an admirably-comprehensive series of feature reviews by Schmitz of recent major releases, each usually accompanied by an original drawing of one of the characters. (Most of the art was done by professional comics artist John Watkins-Chow.) This was followed by a section of capsule reviews of older 8- and 16-bit games Schmitz had gotten around to playing. Strategies and tips for major releases were also included, as well as other articles: rankings of Schmitz's favorite RPGs per platform, a review of a Shining Force comic in Chinese Schmitz had tracked down, even an interview with Victor Ireland at one point. The issue comcluded with a chatty section of letters/random stuff section, or other articles. The style of writing was concise yet effective.
There typically wasn't a letters page or anything - the zine was, basically and rightfully, one voice - but I wrote Schmitz, and we exchanged views on the day, such as The 7th Saga's disappointing ending or my very-atypical dissatisfaction with FF3/6 (he was a big fan but more way understanding than most). This may have not seemed like much interaction, but it felt very much like a fandom: the zine served as a voice for an underserved community, and it felt very personal, given the care with which the publication was infused. Seeing it in the mailbox felt like getting a letter from an friend. Eventually, as stated, Schmitz was called up to professional games writing at the dawn of the 32-bit era, which coincided with when I dropped out of the then-current RPG scene for a good spell.
There is a not-great side story to this pleasant memory. I was through Shining Forth introduced to a few other fanzines, none of which had the polish of my zine of choice. The better efforts included a couple U.K.-based publications, both of which responded to my initial order asking to submit material (reviews etc.) given my nationality, since the PAL region's RPG situation was even more dire than in the U.S. and I had access to games they didn't. Despite a very nice, sizable letter from the approachable maintainer of one of the zines, I ended up sending a couple things to its competitor, which was the only zine, U.S. or U.K., that approached Shining Forth in the "professional presentation" department and the only one that became an ongoing concern. (Its contributors were extremely inspired by Super Play, which, granted, was awesome for its day.) The original maintainer was fine, but she eventually handed over the reins to a contributor who really hated Americans. I mean really, really hated Americans. (I think he was emulating his idols at Super Play; hating American RPG fans seemed the fashion at the time, since the U.S. was getting all sorts of titles the PAL region wasn't and gaming execs' analysis of market dynamics was clearly U.S. kids' fault.) He'd publish stuff I'd send like soundtrack reviews, but he'd always include some passive-aggressive comments on them in the zine, which always went over my head. I eventually got the message, but the whole incident with this strange, unpleasant person illustrates that nice is nearly always better than well-presented.
Well, that's part one! Will a section end without me botching a social interaction? Stay tuned!