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If this were a video game, the screen might first show a stranger. He arrives in a rainy city. Text unscrolls. Claude Comair, we learn, is the stranger's name. The rainy city is Vancouver. Here, Comair founds a school, DigiPen (short for Digital Pencil), where youths learn a kind of magic: teaching video-game machines to tell stories. But Comair's apprentices must overcome formidable obstacles, such as 65816 Assembly Language. Only then can they teach the Super Nintendo Entertainment System to spin a yarn of their devising. Will they reach their goal?
Now the gameplay begins . . . Emory Georges pitched his video-game idea as he rode the SkyTrain, high above Vancouver. "It's called Vampyre Hunter," he told David Yan. From the elevated commuter train, they could see across the city to the Coastal Range, plunging to Burrard Inlet, where cruise ships glided toward Alaska. But they ignored the scenery.
Dark and gothic, Emory said. That would be the game's setting. It would be like Castlevania, a classic from their childhoods, in which the hero fended off cartoon ghouls with a whip. His idea also had roots in another golden oldie, Bionic Commando, where the hero swung across the screen like Tarzan on a liana. But Bionic Commando's hero moved at only two angles. Emory's Vampyre Hunter would swing all over the screen. The concept was definitely cool, David agreed, a good final class project. He promised his vote.
Build support. Emory (p. 97) had learned such strategies playing video games in Princeton, British Columbia, the copper-mining and lumbering hamlet where his father was the school district's secretary-treasurer. He and his friends had been aces at the consoles. Thumbing buttons and joysticks, they sent pixel heroes-simulacra of themselves-into onscreen struggles against trolls or space aliens. At stake might be the earth itself.
When it was time for college, Emory hoped to train for a career in the $15-billion-a-year video-game industry. The United States alone generated annual sales of $3.5 billion a year, approaching Hollywood's $5 billion or so box-office take. Across the country, kids (and adults, too) are entranced by these games in every format. Fans are still flocking to arcades and are glued to TV screens at home (where the little black console box and joystick offer access to everything from Super Mario Brothers to Final Fantasy). And they are sitting rapt before their PCs, another conduit to this compelling world. But, Emory found, North America had no video-game school. Stymied, he enrolled at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, majoring in computer science and English, planning to teach.
At the end of his sophomore year, he read in Nintendo Power Magazine that a new game-programming school, DigiPen, with ties to Nintendo, would open in 1994 in Vancouver, the inaugural class set at 30 students. Emory was excelling at Simon Fraser. Even so, he rushed an application to DigiPen. So did 1,200 other eager students. But Emory was among the lucky. During his two-year course of study at DigiPen, he would see applications jump to 1,800 for the second class, then to a staggering 12,000 for the third class of 77 students. Applicants needed high grades. They also had to pass surprise telephone quizzes. "What," the voice from the school might ask, "is zero's cosine?"
DigiPen turned out to occupy two floors in a downtown office building. Students housed themselves, most sharing apartments. The class's sole girl stayed at a YWCA. Teachers were professional programmers and engineers from the industry. Courses proved intense. Emory was at school from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., year-round, including Saturdays.
For a year and a half he studied Boolean algebra and logic circuits. He learned storyboarding and game concepts, transforming old myths into game plots. He wrestled with coordinate geometry and 3-D object representations. He mastered languages like C++ as well as programming techniques, from ray-tracing algorithms to sprite construction.
Just before his second Christmas at DigiPen, Emory wearily put down his head on a classroom desk and napped. He awoke with the idea for Vampyre Hunter.
Riding the SkyTrain, he pondered the action, or "gameplay," …