When I was 9 years old, we got our first home computer, and my aunt and uncle sent us a copy of King's Quest 7. It might not have been the best King's Quest, by fan standards, but my memory of it is of an animated film I could play. Not the Chuck Jones cartoon of Day of the Tentacle (which I would only discover as an adult), but hand-drawn animated characters against detailed, painterly backdrops. I became those characters, however little their journey or past history made sense to me at the time.
It wasn't the first game I'd played, but it was certainly the first that made me feel like I was part of a story, like I was discovering a world–however, strange and at times antagonistic. Before KQ7, games were Mario Bros. and Sonic, platformers with colorful mascots and surreal, abstract worlds. Stories in games were about finding out the princess was in another castle.
After we got our computer, I spent hours digging through bargain bins at toy stores in outlet malls, the place where all the games and toys that didn't sell on the main store shelves went for 2 or 3 bucks each, looking for more games to scratch that itch, games that could serve as portals to other worlds. I discovered Civilization this way, playing hours of Civ I's multiplayer spinoff CivNet, inventing my own civilzations–their names, their history, their cities, their rulers.
I also found more adventure games. The best of them was Sherlock Holmes and the Serrated Scalpel. It was a much more serious adventure than KQ7, with a mystery that required real thought to solve, and a map of Victorian London, the memory of which was enough to make me impulse buy the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective reprint decades later. Sherlock Holmes and the Serrated Scalpel is better (although impossible to find these days): unlike Consulting Detective, where the goal is to beat Sherlock to the solution and he is virtually unbeatable, in the Serrated Scalpel you get to be Sherlock.
Like everyone I knew at the time, I played dozens of hours of Oregon Trail (one of two games deemed educational enough to be installed in computer labs in schools across the US–the other was Sim City 2000), living dozens of lives, sometimes manipulating the game's balance to an easy victory, but just as often creating elaborate backstories for my party, and making choices for them according to their characters and interpersonal dynamics.
I found Sid Meier's Pirates! Gold for Sega Genesis in a bargain bin and learned the geography of the Caribbean roleplaying my pirates' lives again and again. There was Dubois, too daring for his own good, who spent more time imprisoned than at sea; and Bamboozle, who took the lesson of Dubois's untimely end to heart and chose instead to seduce governors' daughters and amass his wealth through cunning and manipulation of the sugar market. I had the chance to meet Sid Meier briefly before I moved to Europe, and when I told him how much time I spent playing Pirates! as a child, he said, "I'm sorry. Are you okay?"
In college, I again lost hours to Baldur's Gate I & II, starting each game over and over again, trying out different choices and different party combinations. And then I picked up Neverwinter Nights and lost still more hours learning its toolset and creating my own adventures. Which eventually led to me getting my first job in games (but that's another story.)
Since then, I've lived so many more lives: I've been Manny Calavera and Geralt of Rivia; I've been Commander Shepard and Spider-Man and Batman and a Grey Warden. I've been a Shadowrunner in Seattle, Berlin, and Hong Kong. I've played as dozens of different rulers across multiple medieval dynasties, and I've escaped Hades, only to find there is no escape.
Creating games and playing them are narrowly separated concepts. To create a game is to decide how much space to leave the player to be your co-author at any given moment; to play is to become a co-conspirator in someone else's fantasy. Game writing often feels loose and broad compared to other forms (TV, books), but that's because each game that ships is an unfinished collaboration. The negative space is there for the player to fill in.
Personally, I can't wait to find out who I'll be next.