My sister and I were separated when I was 12 and she was 8. At first, it wasn’t an actual physical separation, but one due to the fact that our family had just moved to Korea, and in Korea, middle-school students were supposed to study until midnight. I had no time to play, let alone see my sister. When not at school or at after-school schools, I was cooped up in my room. When I turned 16, I moved to another city to attend a private high school; a few years later, when I entered college, my sister moved to the United States and we have never lived together since then. As a result, all my memories of playing games with my sister are from elementary school.
I got to know my sister all over again a few years ago, but it was strange because she was an adult, and many things had changed. We were only able to spend time together for a few days at a time, once or twice a year at most. We would meet in a third location and travel together, or visit each other. When I moved to Boston two years ago, we saw each other more frequently– perhaps once every two months.
Among the many discoveries I made about my sister, I found out that we both loved computer games. It was a pleasant surprise, though it shouldn’t have been, since we had always loved games as children and thanks to our computer scientist dad, we had always been close to computers, although we were never allowed to have an actual game console. The interesting thing, however, was that we had completely different tastes when it came to games. I loved adventure and puzzle games with surreal graphics and sci-fi plots. She liked games with cute rabbits who have big appetites. I liked Starcraft and empire-building games; she was obsessed with time-management games like Cake Mania.
We found a common interest, however, in Plants vs. Zombies, and while we traveled in Spain and Portugal for two weeks this summer, we spent a lot of time bonding over the game. We had played separately before the trip, but during the trip, I was the only one with the computer, so when not playing games on her iPod, my sister would play on my computer and I’d watch. The thing that makes Plants Vs. Zombies worth watching is that it is very much like chess or Starcraft in that the player must make very strategic moves.
For those not familiar with the game, it is a game of defense. The player owns a house and must plant different species of botany to defend zombies who try to get into the house. What makes it different from the popular tower defense et. al games is that each plant and each zombie in the game has a very distinct role and character (unfortunately, not sound) and one must choose one’s defenses wisely and differently with every “round” of attack.
We shared enthusiasm over the game itself, but it would always lead to some new personal information about my sister that I had never known. For instance, I loved the sunflower, and would try to bop my head from side to side like the sunflower does in the game. My sister then showed me that she actually has a huge smile just like the sunflower; it was a broad smile that split her face into two and I had never known that before. That led to a discussion about the size of our mouths. I found out that my sister has a mouth almost big enough for her fist whereas I, regardless of my loud voice, have a tiny mouth, which is why I have to squash a hamburger before I eat it. I would never have known, because when her lips are closed, they aren’t that big.
A musician, my sister also pointed out interesting things in the music. She knew I’d interviewed Laura Shigihara, the composer for the game, and told me, “I love the music in the game because there’s a lot of cool improvisations.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Well, in one song she [Laura] does this circle of fifths and it’s cute because it kind of comes unexpected.”
“What’s a circle of fifths?”
And that would lead to a conversation about composing, music, her music, her music friends, and so forth.
Playing the game together also revealed a lot about our personalities. She felt bad about the Wall-nut because it makes a sad face when it’s being munched on, reflecting her sensitivity for people/things that are disadvantaged; I realized I preferred plants with a smiley face than a frowning one, even if it were strategically important (come to think of it, I always fall for men who have killer smiles). She played by ear, whereas I tried to figure out how many peas it would take to sever the arm of a zombie. I found out that we had different preferences for characters and different preferences for mini-games. I really liked the vase-smashing games, which require very quick response to unknown situations. She liked the game where the player becomes the zombie trying to attack the house. That game has the cards all out on the table. I watched her take her time over her moves, calculating and re-calculating her choices.
Through Plants vs. Zombies, I was able to get to know my sister better and share details about myself that are difficult to bring up out of the blue. The experience was so rich, I started to wish that the developers would make a multi-player strategic game using the same characters. Wouldn’t that be great?
When I first bought the game, I was slightly hesitant because I wasn’t sure I was going to play all that much, but for $20, I think I got more than my money’s worth. I probably won’t be able to see my sister for another few months, at least, maybe even a year, but until then, I know I’ll be humming the catchy tunes from the game, remembering how we sang them together in Spain.