I'm in a sort of video game limbo. Since I'll be leaving for a few months, in less than a month, it feels pointless to be working on (working on seemed more appropriate than playing) an MMO or trying to climb any of the various FPS/RTS/Fighting Game ladders that are around.
Without this distraction I haven't been too sure what to do with myself. So after announcing my boredom to several people on MSN/Google Talk, refreshing Kotaku several times and seriously considering maybe doing some actual work, I decided to write something. I'm now about two paragraphs in and I still don't actually know what I'm writing about..
I let my mind drift to the topic of video games, and immediately there are a few that stand out, and so I think I've found my topic. The most memorable games of my gaming life (so far).
This isn't about graphics, innovation, game play mechanics or even popularity really, it's simply a list of the first games that come to mind when I let my mind wander, and why I think they were so memorable. I'll attempt to list these in reverse order, but the order is more or less random!
Super Mario Bros.
The original Super Mario Brothers was in many ways responsible for making home console gaming what it is today.
The music, the sound effects, watching less video game inclined relatives instinctively thrust the controller from side to side as they jumped. Mario was an unlikely mascot and an unexpected hit. I suspect this one would be on many people's lists.
My personal reason though, is that the original Super Mario Brothers was the first, and last game that my dad ever finished before I did, and so it will always be a game that sticks in my memory more than most.
Kings Quest V
Adventure games were a dime a dozen in 1990, and at the time they were my genre of choice. Having not played any more traditional role playing games at this point, these were the first games in which the story really meant something. Understanding the story, and the world you were living in was really what the game was all about.
King's Quest V didn't have flashy graphics or even really interesting game play, but it had characters that I cared about and wanted to help, a story that I wanted to see through to the end, and for anyone who has ever played it, a song that will forever haunt your dreams. I'm not sure what emotion it evokes whether it be disgust, terror, happiness or sadness. But everyone that has played through this game will remember the ant song for the rest of their lives both for the ridiculousness of it, and because it is that wonderful moment in an RPG when you realize that your previous actions will have an impact on what happens in the game later on.
In case you're curious, somehow there's a video of it. The ants are about one minute in.
If you haven't played Lemmings, which is entirely possible, do yourself a favour and play it online since trying to get an old MS-DOS game to run now may be a terrible experience.
Note: Sounds seems to only work in Internet Explorer, and I highly recommend playing with sound, it has some great MIDI music.
Lemmings is at it's core a puzzle game, but it's wrapped up so well in the hearts of each of the tiny green haired inhabitants that you really want them to survive. Solving the puzzle is secondary to saving your Lemmings, and it's part of what made the game so fun.
Although there were a number of sequels, I don't recall any of them being interesting except possibly Lemmings 2: The Tribes.
I'll always have a soft spot for Lemmings because it allowed me to see puzzle games in a new light, and because there's something strangely endearing about those little blue guys. I remember my grandmother watching me play Lemmings for hours on end, just as happy as I was to see them reach their destination at the end of each level.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
While there are those that would bring up Ocarina of Time, or Wind Walker, there will never be a better Zelda game for me than A Link to the Past. The iconic Zelda theme song is the version from A Link to the Past, and in a time when you weren't able to simply look things up on the Internet, it was a wonderful exercise in exploration.
Zelda made exploration and discovery fun, opening a chest was like Christmas, getting new items felt like obtaining super powers, and the character advancement was based on progress so there was never a desire to simply grind experience; a problem that somehow still plagues modern RPGs. Beating A Link to the Past without looking up spoilers in Nintendo Power was a testament to your patience, and memory.
Looking back on the hours it took to complete the game plays out like a silent film. There was a story, there was mystery and suspense and everything else in almost every area you explored, but outside of a few paragraphs of text at key points it never really had to be explained. Even though everyone that played through this game took almost the same path, it always made each player feel like this was their own personal story and so beating this game still gave me more of a sense of satisfaction than almost any other. At one point I even tried to record myself playing through it on VHS in an attempt to allow others to experience the game as I did.
It would be hard to complete a list like this without Doom. While my trusty 386DX 66Mhz computer was good enough for everything I had thrown at it so far, Doom was another thing entirely. Many nights were spent across the street at a friends house, playing Doom on his blazing fast 486dx2 66Mhz with 8mb of RAM. The silky smooth way the walls bobbed up and down as you ran from grey corridor to grey corridor, the snarl of imps and demons in full stereo sound. Doom was the Crysis of the x86 generation, bringing most computers to their knees, and the game that not only validated PCs as legitimate gaming platforms, but changed the way games were made across the board.
Of course I didn't know any of that at the time, but what I did know and what made the game so memorable to me was that it was the first really atmospheric game that I had played. In side scrollers and the like, nothing was really a surprise. Being in first person and fighting demons from Hell no less made the whole experience truly frightening at times. At one point I remember being so startled by something that I slammed on the down arrow key with enough force to push it into the keyboard permanently.
Doom was the first game that made me realize that games too can draw you into their world just as much, if not more than a movie could. It was Doom more than any other game that solidified video games as my preferred form of entertainment. Even though today's first person shooters are much more advanced, there's still something special about playing through a few levels of Doom. If first person shooters were ice cream Doom would be vanilla, and current games would be Chunky Monkey - vanilla with a bunch of extra crap mixed in.
Diablo was like Warcraft III on a more personal level, you were an army of one. While Warcraft III kept me indoors during the summer, Diablo kept me awake until it was light out with the soothing sounds of acoustic guitar. In true Blizzard style Diablo took someone else's concept and mastered it on their first try. Just like no one remembers that Warcraft was a Dune II clone, no one remembers Rogue or Mystery Dungeon which were the real inspiration for Diablo.
Diablo really wasn't a very complex game. Most of it was randomly generated and the combat was the now commonplace click, click, loot formula that I've talked about before but at the time it was revolutionary. Traditionally games like this had been in turn based territory and so transforming a dungeon crawler into a real time game somewhat reminiscent of Zelda, only with a much darker and more mature theme turned out to be a winning formula.
As fun as it was there was really one thing that made Diablo truly memorable and really contributed to it's success; Battle.net. Blizzard's online gaming platform was easy to use and more stable than anything else out there. The fun factor in Diablo increased exponentially while playing online with friends.. or enemies. My current addiction to all things MMO can be traced quite easily back to Diablo and the sense of progression you felt when killing a notorious PK, or obtaining a coveted item.
Diablo had it's issues, but it was really one of the pioneers of online gaming. It's rare for a game to come out now without online play, and at least some of that is due to the success of Diablo.
Now with the release of Diablo III looming, some of the most rabid fans on the Internet are foaming at the mouth. I'm so jaded that I'm able to avoid getting too excited, but I have a confession to make... I almost responded to a forum post expressing my excitement for it's release. I was almost one of "those people" on the Internet, even more than I already am and it's all because of Diablo.
This is probably an odd one for most people. Killer Instinct never became truly mainstream and so I would expect that most people probably never cared about it. Allow me to read your mind, you're probably thinking "That game sucks, you just press one button and do a million hit combo".
If that's what you were thinking... remind me to slap you the next time I see you, partially because you're judging a book by it's cover and also because you just insulted my religion.
Killer Instinct, yes even more than Street Fighter II was what gave me a new respect for fighting games. To me the problem with most fighters is that as good as you may be, it's still possible to be beaten by a drunken hamster with it's feet taped to the buttons. Killer Instinct on the other hand required knowledge of different openers, combos, combo breakers etc. and most importantly the only people I would lose to are people that actually knew what they were doing.
Enough about the game for now though, as I could write pages and pages about that and if you didn't like it then I'm not going to convince you now. The real reason it ended up being such a memorable game for me was because of the fact that there was really only one arcade in Toronto that had it, which meant that twice a week I would take the hour long trip just to get to the arcade with a pocket full of quarters and hone my skill. Even though that arcade is now long gone and been replaced with a Sporting Life, I still look towards that corner of the mall and remember playing for hours on end. Killer Instinct was a crowd pleaser in arcades, the announcer screaming about huge combos and the iconic "c-c-c-comboooooooooo breaker!" often brought people over to watch. When two good players went at it there was always a crowd, and sometimes even some gambling.
I loved playing that game in arcades and was obviously one of the first people to pick up the game when it made the transition to the small screen on Super Nintendo. Sadly the SNES version was really nowhere near as epic as the arcade version and while I spent many nights intensely fighting with my friend Malcolm who was the only other person I knew that appreciated the game the same way I did, it was never the same as when I played in the arcade. If I ever settle down I'm not going to have a room for a baby, or an office, I'm going to have a shrine for my Killer Instinct arcade cabinet.
To this day whenever I happen past an arcade in bowling alleys or other cities, I always look for a Killer Instinct machine and even though all I can really still pull off is an ultra combo with Glacius, it's still music to my ears and enough nostalgia to last me until the next time.
If there was one game that enthralled me more than any other it was Chrono Trigger, and I still spread the gospel wherever I go. In fact as we speak my Nintendo DS is in the hands of a friend's ex-girlfriend as I convinced her that she absolutely had to play through Chrono Trigger.
Technically speaking the game is nothing special, it's a mostly typical JRPG that was released for SNES in 1995 with the standard Active Time Battle system popularized by most earlier Final Fantasy games. But Chrono Trigger stands way above the crowd and is forever remembered by anyone that played it for several reasons.
Chrono Trigger remains the bar to which I raise every RPG I play, and even some movies and books because it remains the only story that I've experienced that was able to introduce time travel without getting ridiculous. Even with the ability to travel through time, Chrono Trigger never felt confusing and was never plagued with those "But why can't I just go back and kill this guy when he's a baby?" questions that inevitabely crop up in every game or movie that involves different timelines. Time travel in Chrono Trigger was mysterious, fun and added a sense of urgency and purpose to everything you did in the game, as if time really was ticking away as the story came to a close. Your attachment to all the people in different timelines always left you considering the effect your actions would have not only on your party, but on entire civilizations that may be affected by a change in the timeline.
The characters in Chrono Trigger are interesting not because they are extremely deep but because they are not your stereo typical RPG characters. There's no chosen one with a hidden power, there's no evil empire to be vanquished by a poor boy from the slums, and the main character has no deep seeded psychological issues that he has to work through over the course of the game.
You're not just filling the shoes of one character and experiencing the game from his point of view but watching a story unfold with characters that meet, interact and care for each other realistically, all while allowing for your actions to change the direction it takes. Once you really get into the game your interest is held not only by the individual characters but by the overarching storyline and the amazing world in which it takes place. No one playing through the game could predict where the plot is going or how it would end because it's as well written and complex as any that you would find it more traditional media.
In the past few years the term role playing game has come to mean simply that the characters in the game have statistics and attribute points instead of what it originally meant which was that you were playing the role of a character in the game. In Chrono Trigger you feel as though you are playing the role of a silent member of the party, never involved with dialogue and never seen on screen but an important part of the world none the less, a feeling that no RPG I have played since has been able to replicate. With several different endings, all of which are satisfying and completely reasonable, Chrono Trigger is an RPG that will leave you wondering what would have happened to this world and these characters if you hadn't been a part of it.
There is one last aspect of Chrono Trigger that cannot be overlooked; the music.
Chrono Trigger continued Square's tradition of composing exceptional, emotional music for it's games. In my opinion Chrono Trigger to this day has the best sound track of any video game. Not only was it one of the largest sound tracks developed for a game, and despite the eerie similarity of one of the tracks to a song we all love to hate (You can listen here if you're curious) the Chrono Trigger music is adored by every fan of the game, it even has it's own separate wikipedia entry to cover all of the different versions and covers that have been released over the years.
I still regularly listen through the Chrono Trigger soundtrack and am amazed to find that it doesn't remind me of any specific part of the game, but of how I was feeling when I first heard it. Playing through the soundtrack takes me through a range of emotions that are so intense, I quietly laugh at myself when I realize it's all because of a game I played fifteen years ago. If you think it sounds ridiculous, play through Chrono Trigger on an emulator or on the DS and when you're finished with it we'll see how you feel about it.
Chrono Trigger is not my most memorable game of all time, but over all these years it has remained my favorite gaming experience.
I'm sure this one is a big surprise. Everquest was for better or for worse the game that shaped my attitude towards every game after it, and in many ways my attitude towards real life and the people I interact with. It is rare for more than a day or two to go by without some memory of EQ popping up.
I've written up a far more detailed (and more lengthy) synopsis of my time in Everquest here so I'll do my best to keep this short.
To the video game world at large Everquest was the first 3D massively multiplayer game, a game that inspired many copycats none of which were more successful than EQ itself until World of Warcraft some five years later. At it's peak EQ had roughly 300k subscribers, for a time when many people still used modems this was a huge number. It is currently still running, and spans eleven expansions that unfortunately get progressively worse. In it's glory days Everquest was more of a hobby than a game to me and most of the three hundred thousand people that played it.
Technically speaking the game was a mess. It wouldn't run in a window, the UI was terrible, the graphics were mediocre at best but really none of that mattered. Everquest was one of the first games to require an Internet connection to play and experiencing something like that in 1999 was incredible. I remember my friend Zack playing at my house, grouped with a party of other players from across the globe running through The Greater Faydark when it began to rain. "This is wild..." he remarked, and I smiled and nodded in the nerdiest way possible. It was at that point that I realized how special this game was, and could really see the potential it had.
Everquest has been the topic of social studies, essays and blogs all over the Internet, magazines and television and was largely responsible for spawning the Gold Selling Industry as we know it. It consumed eight years of my life and although that may sound insane to someone who didn't play, I don't have even a small amount of regret about spending that time in Norrath.
I could go on and on about the game but in an attempt to stay on topic; EQ was memorable to me because it was a part of my life - no, it was my life for several years and because even though I haven't actually played for about ten years I still regularely talk to many of the friends I made in EQ. It was the game that taught me to stop seeing people online as nameless avatars and see them as actual people, with actual emotions invested in what they're doing online. It changed my perception of online interaction and allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of people and their motivations in real life as well.
As a game it was memorable to a degree, and even if it weren't for the people it would have been on this list, but only because it was a precursor to the online gaming revolution. The only reason it is solidly number one here is because of the people I met, and the experiences I had with them in game. I know now why it was so hard for me to understand why my grandfather always told stories about when he was young, since none of them seemed particularly cheerful to me. It was because for him it was never about where he was, or what he was doing, it was about remembering the people he was with and how they made him feel, and since I didn't have that connection to the people in my grandfather's stories I could never understand why they were so fun for him to talk about. Similarly to how you probably don't understand why I look back on sitting in front of a computer in my basement, playing a poorly designed game for five years so fondly, it's because you don't have the same connection with the people that I do and without that it's just not something that can be fully understood.
From time to time I feel like I miss playing Everquest but when I look back at it objectively I realize that it was really never very fun, and that what I am really missing is the time I was able to spend with my friends, and the opportunity that the game allowed to make new ones every time you logged on. Everquest was a role playing game like no other, a role playing game in reverse. I was not playing the role of Tiluvar the Druid, but Tiluvar was striving every day to be the Matt that I wanted to be in real life. Through Everquest I was able to discover a lot about people, especially myself.
When I started writing this I really had no idea where it was going, but looking back over the list I have come to realize that what makes a game truly memorable has nothing to do with game play mechanics, sound effects or graphics. Sure a game that excels in all of these areas will be fun to play, but what makes any video game something you will always look back on fondly is how it made you feel while you were playing it.
Far too often these days games are made to be distractions. They are built around the idea that a game should never pause to allow you to reflect on what is going on, it should be completely immersive and offer non-stop excitement, so much so that the emotional element is often completely forgotten.
I played through God of War III on the weekend and while it was a lot of fun while I was playing it, looking back on it I don't care about Kratos or anyone else in that world. God of War never made me question myself or ponder anything outside of exactly what was on the screen. In fact the only reason I was able to play as much as I did was because I enjoyed the company of the people I was playing it with. Had it not been for them I would have stopped playing an hour into it simply because it wasn't a memorable game, it was fun but that's not what it's all about - at least not for me.
To real gamers there is no question that video games can be an art form but to the mainstream that idea is laughable. It seems that maybe part of the problem is that they're trying to evaluate games like they would hand out awards - best graphics, best story, best music - if it gets a 10 in all of them then maybe it's art?
Some time ago on a trip to Russia I saw a painting by Henri Matisse named The Dance and took a poorly lit picture of it. Every time I look at this painting I can't help but wonder what it's doing in an art gallery? Unlike some other paintings I feel absolutely nothing when I look at it yet it is widely agreed upon by professionals as true art. I imagine this is how the general public looks at games; they see the graphics and hear the sounds and the music but they feel nothing and so the idea that games could be art is ridiculous to them. It's not because games can't be art, and not because The Dance is a bad painting, it's because I don't know enough about the painter, the method, the time period etc. to really understand the whole impact of the painting and similarly people who are just casually observing a game don't understand the story, the characters, the setting etc. well enough to allow it to have an impact on them, and the odd time they attempt to try it's with something like Modern Warfare 2 or Halo and not ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, or Chrono Trigger.
So what am I even getting at here? I guess the point I'm attempting to make is that games need to take a step back and realize that it's not realistic explosions and ragdoll physics that make good games - sure they can make fun games but don't fool yourselves into thinking that just because you shipped three million copies you're somehow furthering the art. It's only an attempt to dig us further into this hole in which we've already dug as deep as we can (There was a chest full of Rock Band instruments at the bottom).
Currently it's my biggest fear that developers mistakenly attribute the community and emotional attachment people develop for games as somehow their doing, without realizing that it's not the games, but the fact that these days they're all online with real people that makes people enjoy them as much as they do.
Taking a game online is an easy way to create the kind of emotion that makes games memorable without having to actually make your game interesting enough to do it itself. I would be amazed to see something as deep as ICO be transformed into a multiplayer game. The online revolution is good for games, but only when developers use it to make the games themselves more emotionally involving and not just as an excuse for only having five maps and no story and then expecting the gamers to fill in the rest.
Video games are in a unique position as an art form. I know for a fact - especially after making this list - that they can bring about the same amount of emotion and reflection as any other form of art and on top of that, they are interactive and have the ability to let people experience them co-operatively or competitively. There is no reason for games to be stuck in this rut, churning out mindless games year after year with only a small handful able to actually capture people's imagination.
I have no doubt that at some point in the future games will be seen as a true form of art, but right now there are precious few developers who set out to make games intended to make you actually think about what you're doing in a way that can impact not only what button you press next but how you feel and what decisions you make in your real life. At the same time we the audience have to stop evaluating games as if their ultimate achievement is to be able to detach us from reality, and instead by what they should be doing - building on top of it.
I don't have a point
In the end I believe a list like this would be completely different for anyone that attempted to make one, and maybe that's why the question of whether or not video games are art is not easily answered. Especially when you consider online games, the experience from one person to the next is so vastly different that what is an emotional experience for one may be boring and uninteresting to another.
I suppose like any art form, people have their tastes and opinions and you can't really argue with that, so what is it that makes the Mona Lisa so widely agreed upon as a masterpiece? or Final Fantasy VII so adamantly defended as JRPG perfection? I think the answer to that question would take another twenty pages or however long this has been to think about, or maybe it's just our innate ability to tell when an artist or in the case of video games, a team of artists fully devote themselves to something and through that devotion we are able to derive emotion from whatever it is we're viewing. I guess that could make anything art, even what I'm writing - but probably not, it needs more realistic explosions.