The “Gaming Made Me” series of video game retrospectives started by Rock, Paper, Shotgun came from games industry writers, journalists and the designers that make them. It’s become a kind of collective autobiography sourcing the video games that shaped who they are.
Of course, the cynical part of me expected this community-driven effort to consist of mostly name-dropping key titles from the history of video games. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response of webloggers that have taken up the mantle where Rock, Paper, Shotgun left off1.
So now I feel the need to contribute, because I think it is absolutely necessary for anyone who loves to play or write about video games to recognize the ones that got them into the hobby. Or in the case of game designers and professional writers, what made them get into the industry itself.
I have been into computers since very early on in my life, and playing computer games was a natural extension of that interest. However, I had no idea that this hobby would result in me creating a website to talk about them. I’m no industry figure, weblogging personality or budding game designer – I’m just a guy that loves to play video games, and write about them. For the people that truly love video games, they are as important as the books they read or the movies they watched when growing up.
For any game weblog, I’d say that writing something like “Gaming Made Me” is more essential than an “About” page. It’s important to let readers know where the author is coming from, and what games influenced their lives and opinions of what makes a great video game. It provides context for the reviews and criticism they produce.
At this point in my life, video games are no longer just a hobby. They have made me a writer, and they have taught me to be critical of things beyond video games. Both video games and this website have become such immutable aspects of my life, that I can’t imagine it without them.
It was hard to come up with this list. So hard, that I had to split it into two. I wanted it be a list of games that shaped me as a player of video games, as well as my viewpoints on what makes a great video game, instead of simply rewording a “favorite games of all time” list. So I’m not going to list off the Zeldas, the Half-Lifes, the Thiefs, or the Rainbow Sixes. That would be too easy for me. No name dropping of the classics and pretending as if they meant something to me in my early development as a gamer. The following list of games got me started in the hobby, tempered my opinion of the medium, and introduced me to the genres I love. Most importantly these are the games that eventually led me to write about them2. They are the ones that left an indelible mark. And for that, they must be recognized.
Alley Cat (1984)
Bill Williams’ Alley Cat was one of the first games I got for my IBM clone desktop PC when I was nine years old (it had been out for a few years). The PC had no hard disk, and I had the game in PC Booter format – it booted right into the game without the need for an OS. The computer and game arrived in my house at the same time a lot of my friends were getting NES consoles for their TVs. I thought the whole home arcade thing was stupid. I could do more with a computer.
Except that all I had for my computer was a monochrome monitor. So I could play Alley Cat in black and green, or black and orange, or black and pink, or black and white. That’s some variety! Who needed the NES and its 8-bit graphics and low-fi chiptunes. I had a PC speaker.
Obviously, these experiences established my allegiance to PC gaming at an early age.
I played the living shit out of Alley Cat, mostly fueled by a white-hot jealousy of the friends that had an NES and Super Mario Brothers. So I got good at it. And for what appeared on the surface as a game for kids, it’s actually pretty hard. Jump into a window in an apartment compex, play a mini-game: a maze in a giant piece of cheese, a fishbowl with electric eels…it was pretty surreal and often frustrating. One of the mini-games involves seducing a female cat to increase the difficulty level, after which the other mini-games could be replayed. Alley Cat helped me define “keyboard bashing.”
Alley Cat was the first computer game I remember committing myself to, even if was for the wrong reasons. I consider it the start of both a rewarding and extremely damaging relationship with video games.
After the success of Will Wright’s SimCity, there were a series of games developed to leverage the “Sim” brand, which included SimEarth, SimLife, SimAnt, SimTower, SimTown and SimTunes. Little did we know this was just the beginning of a publisher’s business model built on the sales of expansion packs!
SimAnt is generally considered to be a critical and commercial failure for Will Wright, as it seemed to be too eccentric a riff on the SimCity formula. Instead of focusing on large scale empire building or ecosystem shaping, SimAnt was about digging tunnels in the ground, collecting food, managing population happiness, defending the colony, and avoiding lawnmowers. Most gamers weren’t ready for that.
A friend gave this game to me to try, because he thought it was cool. I was 12. I was so past the age of thinking bugs were interesting, so why would I want to create an electronic ant farm? The whole concept seemed ridiculous. Nevertheless, the game gripped me for months. It was better than SimCity: this game taught me about sustaining life3. I was so captivated by my ant colony, striving every day to keep my Queen alive so that it may prosper, that I began to assign my own narrative to it. I would later use these ideas to write a short story for my school’s creative writing contest, where I described a lowly ant’s adventures in saving his colony. I won fisrst prize for it, too. People thought it was such a creative and original concept. If they only knew it was inspired by a video game.
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992)
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is my favorite game of all time4. It made me love computer games, and electronic games in general. It made me appreciate good scripting, dialogue and voice acting. It made me believe that an original story based on a well-known property could actually result in a good game. It also made me wish it had been made into a movie.
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis was the first game that helped me break down the barrier between “toy” and “medium” for video games. It is a game I go out of my way to play once a year, like watching a favorite film or reading a favorite book. The endgame brings sadness because I know it will be over soon. I have yet to encounter a video game that instills these feelings. Fate of Atlantis made me realize video games would be part of my life forever.
Diablo II (2000)
After finishing Ultima VIII: Pagan, I needed something similar. The game had captivated me with its isometric viewpoint, simple combat, epic quests and inventory management (really! I would have to leave excess stuff in people’s desk drawers and then come back to get it later). In response came Blizzard’s Diablo. While I would have to wait a year to play it (didn’t have the horsepower in my PC), I knew it was The Answer. See, Ultima VIII still had elements of adventure in it, as the world of PC RPGs hadn’t yet made the transition to the action-ready clickfests most of them have become. And you can thank Diablo for that.
Though Diablo was just the beginning of an obsession for me. The claustrophobic setting of a church with stairs that go down, down through relentless packs of monsters, down straight into hell, would occupy most of the time I spent with my computer. With Battle.net, Blizzard gave us multiplayer and co-op and (theoretically) endless replayability with their randomly generated dungeon levels, but it started to get tiresome. And with the release of Starcraft, the teaser trailer for Diablo II included on the disc confirmed its existence. It also gave me my reason for being as a PC gamer.
The wait for Diablo II was torture. It was the self-inflicted hell that the hero at the end of Diablo endured. My appetite for news on its development would not be appeased. I looked at screens, learned rumors of the new class types and the expansive maps that we would be treated to. The scheduled release was Spring/Summer 2000. I waited.
Closer to this time , I went to a local electronics superstore and asked for a specific street date. The woman who worked there looked at me funny and said, “You’re the 14th person to ask me about this game today. What’s so special about this Diablo II?” I had to bite my tongue at that point. Clearly society would never understand the cultural impact of video games.
I was away at University the week the game came out. I had to wait until the weekend to pick up my reserved copy, which was back home. After waiting over two years, you’d think that a few extra days wouldn’t matter. But knowing that it was there, waiting for me, just made it worse. Incidentally, I vowed to never pre-order a game after that. It hadn’t yet become as widespread a trend, but I could see that pre-ordering at a specific location tethers you to it. It provides no advantage over picking it up at any other store. Instead, you are made a prisoner with your own money and the con artists laughing at you from behind the counter.
But we are talking about Diablo II, the computer game.
The night I picked it up, I installed it on my parents’ computer. Over that weekend I must have logged close to 20 hours and stayed up way too late. I put the savegames on a diskette and packed up the CDs to go back to school. That week, I finished the game. In all it took me about four days, completing every quest and visting every random dungeon. I had beaten Diablo again. But where was Baal? The solid prospect of an expansion pack after I had finished the game helped sustain the euphoria of victory. These would be the best games ever made.
Of course, I was able to look past the hideous low resolution graphics (releasing a game in 640 x 480 game in 2000? Really, Blizzard?), the repetitive nature of the quests, and the game’s nefarious ability to make you want to collect things while in the perpetual loop of clicking a mouse button. Diablo II would provide the model for Blizzard’s own MMORPG, and an entire genre would be dominated by this game in the years after its release.
There’s no arguing Diablo II‘s impact on computer games, and video games in general. The simple “Click-Kill-Reward” concept had never been used to such devastating effect. This was a game I could install and play like some would play Solitaire, to pass the time. Everything became mindless, reflexive. I don’t think I’ve finished a game so many times as I did Diablo II. Hardcore mode provided an outlet for the experienced Diablo II player, where the character dies permanently. Losing my level 43 Sorceress stacked with a selection of rares and uniques to some pack of Fetish Shamans casting Inferno forced me to new depths of humility.
Diablo II was also responsible for something else. Back in that summer of 2000, another game was released. It was called Icewind Dale. Creating a mostly storyless dungeon crawler with the familiar rules and deep game mechanics of Baldur’s Gate had me equally gripped after I had finished Diablo II. So I decided to write an essay comparing the two. I thought Icewind Dale was the better game. I used pathetic excuses like “deeper”, “better soundtrack”5 and “nicer looking graphics”. I published the article on a website dedicated to games that didn’t last long. In time I realized I had betrayed a game that provided so many hours of enjoyment, and created stories I could share with the friends that also obsessively played it. Diablo II galvanized my love of PC gaming, and video games in general. Video games were more than a distraction to me at this point. I thought about them all the time, about their multiple layers of presentation, and how they were quickly establishing themselves in our cultural consciousness.
I began thinking about a proper website. I would have to write more about these things.
This is the first part of a two-part series. Read “Part 2: Critical Mass”
- Read the posts by Matthew Gallant, Michel McBride and Nels Anderson. Thanks for getting things going, guys. ↩
- Good or bad, the games that mean something to you always leave a lasting impression. Duncan Fyfe said it best in “Prometheus Unlocked”. ↩
- Incidentally, this is the game that gave Will Wright the idea for The Sims. ↩
- I know I’m breaking my own rules here, but my piece “Remembering the Fate of Atlantis” at Game Set Watch is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. ↩
- To set the record straight, Diablo II has the better soundtrack. I still listen to it. ↩