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Games That Made Me - Part 2: The 90s

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

Ultima VII: The Black Gate (PC, 1992)

Ultima VII was the reason I got into PC gaming. For a 13-year-old who had been weened almost exclusively on Nintendo, the deep dark world of The Black Gate was transcendental. It was clearly for adults, but not in the crass, pandering way most games are now. Blood and sex is all handled in a witty fashion, and you don't get the sense the developers were impressed with themselves simply for having it. It was, just like everything else in Ultima VII, just part of an astonishingly rich world. Ultima VII was the first time I'd ever seen a game with no loading screen, with characters who weren't just signposts, and with party members who responded dryly and dynamically to many of your actions. My love of persistent, seamless game worlds and witty, complex dialogue comes entirely from Ultima VII. Any Elder Scrolls, Grand Theft Auto game, and, yes, most Bioware games are inferior versions of Ultima VII to me.

Final Fantays VI was the first game I played that really moved me. This probably had something to do with the fact that I was an emotionally sensitive teenager, but I think it also had something to do with the game's delicate (and arguably unique) sense of loss and tragedy. Unlike all other RPGs I know you don't stop the end of the world in FFVI. It happens, and it has a devastating effect on the group of characters you have gotten to know. The completely non-linear final sections of the game, in which the player has to slog through a dying world in an effort to pull their friends (kicking and screaming if necessary) back towards hope, remain some of the most emotionally intense hours I've spent with a controller in my hand.

It may be nostalgia talking, but I feel that FFVI's melodramatic indulgences have aged a bit better than many other Japanese RPGs, largely because of the pixel art graphics and understated nature of the characters. Very few games in my experience earn the right to engage in the sort of emotion Final Fantasy VI does, and it's probably the main reason I like melodrama in games but hate it when it's done badly.

System Shock (PC, 1994)

System Shock is probably the most immersive experience I've had with a game, period. To me System Shock isn't so much a game as it is a place, a place I remember going. Though I had a very similar experience with Ultima Underworld (a game which System Shock is basically a cyberpunk re-skinning of), System Shock still looms larger in my imagination as the game which made me consciously realize what a first-person suspense story set in a virtual interactive environment could be.

The implementation of a rogue A.I. as a metaphor for the game's designers was a masterstroke which made otherwise pedestrian use of game conventions (puzzles, power-ups, etc.) into a secret engine which fueled the narrative. Matching wits with the game became matching wits with SHODAN, which allowed for all kinds of devious reversals and thwarted expectations without the player's suspension of disbelief so much as shuddering. This all built towards a sublime final moment in which you literally lock wits--as in, you lock consciousnesses--with SHODAN via a cyberspace terminal connected directly to your brain. Having failed to destroy each other physically you face her on her home turf: as software. SHODAN attempts to overwrite your mind--which is expressed visually as her face overwriting your computer screen, pixel by pixel, while you desperately try to delete her mind from the inside out. It's stuff like this that not only makes System Shock a phenomenally memorable game, but also one of the best game-based examples of cyberpunk fiction that I am aware of.

System Shock also did wonderful things with keeping physical space coherent without resorting to putting the player on-rails. There were no load screens that weren't disguised, no cut-scenes that weren't explained as either remote surveillance footage or recorded messages. None of the games which later borrowed these devices (with the possible exception of Portal) used them as holistically or as consistently as System Shock did. My demand for complete coherence in fictional 3D spaces as well as my taste for environmental narratives--real ones that require detective work, not ones that are handed to you on rails--comes from System Shock. Games like Half-Life, Half-Life 2, Bioshock, and especially System Shock 2 are all inferior versions of System Shock as far as I'm concerned.

Thief: The Dark Project (PC, 1998)

Since stealth games are the closest thing I have to a favorite game genre, I suppose I should include Thief: The Dark Project. Also by the makers of System Shock, Thief was great for a lot of the same reasons, but several new ones as well. The biggest thing I took away from it, I think, was the idea that stealth games are in a sense nerd revenge fantasies. They are about a smart weak person taking down a bunch of strong dumb people. Garrett's internal monologue in Thief is about how I imagined my own internal monologue in high school: full of smug superiority, mute rage, and ample wit. This might be why the dumb A.I. (still smarter than a lot of game A.I.) never registered as a flaw to me: the opportunity to taken down idiotic meatheads was clearly a feature, not a bug.

Aside from this Thief impressed upon me, subconsciously perhaps, the notion that violence in games doesn't have to be a foregone conclusion. The stealth genre is one that is basically predicated on the idea that violence is a choice, which might explain why I find its natural contours so appealing. Violence is after all a brutish solution to any given problem. But Thief wasn't boring enough to suggest alternatives based on moral grounds. Rather it suggested that pacifism can be more about narcissism than morality... an intriguing notion that probably speaks more closely to the real reasons behind the behavior of players (such as myself) who obsessively refuse to kill. It's not about right and wrong. It's about one drop of blood ruining my masterpiece. An artist like Garrett--like me--is clearly above such a thing.

Thief is one of the reasons I'm not particularly impressed by many stealth games, but why I try every one I can find in hopes they will generate the complex set of feelings and ideas that it did. Certain games in the Hitman and Metal Gear series approach this, but none of them quite achieve Thief's sense of exquisitely smug empowerment.

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