This past weekend I watched a movie review show in which the critics outlined the films that had inspired them to become critics. I was reminded that despite the negative connotation often surrounding the word “critic,” ultimately these are most commonly people who have a passion—unhealthy though it may occasionally be—for that which they critique. Criticism, at least the good kind, stems from a source of love and admiration, and though it can be hard edged or even unreasonable, what you often find are people seeking greatness.
I liked this particular episode because the critics were not saying, “Here’s an arbitrary list of what I think are the so-called ‘best’ movies.” They weren’t even saying, “Here’s a list of my favorite movies in some kind of artificial order.” It was a much more intimate and personal accounting. These were films that for one reason or another had shaped them into who they are today.
I immediately began thinking about the games that made me the gamer I am today. Not the best games—in some cases, deeply flawed games—or even always my personal favorites, but the games that shaped me and made me want to become some kind of critic myself. Here, then, in no particular order, is what I think are the games that made me the gamer I have become.
Ultima VII The Black Gate and Serpent Isle – As a boy, I played Ultimas II - IV, and they formed a solid foundation for my love of PC gaming, but then I went through a period of my life spanning more than a half decade where I abandoned video games entirely. The Black Gate was the game that brought me permanently back into the fold, and probably for that reason is the most important game I ever played. Having missed years of evolution, Ultima VII was the first game that showed me the depths that a computer story could tell, beginning with a murder mystery that ends up being entangled in a massive story involving religious fervor, a society in decline and grand fantasy. While I could have picked any number of games from ‘93 or ‘94 to highlight here—including X-Wing, Tie Fighter and Wing Commander: Privateer—this was the one that brought me back.
EverQuest – When I first started to think about this list, I figured that World of Warcraft was a no-brainer, but if the measure is which game made me into the gamer I am today, then EverQuest far and away trumps WoW. I still have a Pavlovian reaction to the jangled sound of leveling up, like a trash can lid being dropped on an electric guitar. Even the background sounds alone of a place like the haunted woods of Kithicor Forest, or of night in the Field of Bone as cackling skeletons cavorted, evokes in every sense of the word an almost physical response. Just as Ultima instilled in me something I’ve never been able to quite get past, or want to, EQ made me a hopeless addict to the MMO treadmill grind, a happy slave.
Deus Ex – Just mentioning this game means that I will inevitably go back to play it again soon. A massively overwritten, convoluted and melodramatic epic tale densely packed with just about every sci-fi cliche and conspiratorial theory one can imagine. Short of JC Denton going back in time to assassinate JFK, there seems to be nothing off limits to the wild tin-foil-hat machinations of Deus Ex. And yet, that’s part of what makes the game such a joy for me. It is so reckless, somehow dancing on the razor-thin edge of self-parody. But, what is really great is that married to this twisted story is a great game mechanic that genuinely provides a sense of augmentation and was among the first of a kind of game that allowed for multiple methods of play.
Front Page Sports Football – This is a personal choice, in part because my unhealthy obsession with the ever declining genre of NFL football games is a direct result of my time with Front Page Sports, and in part because I have fond memories of sculpting my own imaginary team of gridiron heroes. I’m far from thinking this is the best football game I ever played. It was, however, the first, and is the direct source from which my ongoing toxic relationship with Madden stems. Graphically impotent, this was a game that engaged my obsession with statistics. The non-interactivity of actually playing the game made me feel more like a coach than a participant, and as a result created far more of a sense of identity within the game than most sports games have since. Even the weird role-playing aspects of becoming a player that have cropped up in sports titles over the past few years fail to really engage me the way FPS did with its spartan interface and simplistic design.
WarCraft II -–- As long as I live, I’m not sure I will ever quite feel the thrill that came with a cadre of bloodlusted ogres rampaging through an enemy’s base in the realm of real-time strategy. I shouldn’t be surprised that much of this past summer was a complete loss to Starcraft II’s story, multi-player and skirmishes. In many ways the game revisited the simplicity defined by Blizzard ages before in WarCraft II and hearkened back to a design that, for me, emphasized the fun. Though, in many ways, I like Rise of Nations slightly more as the pinnacle of RTS gaming, I discovered more about the genre and the complexities of its play within the tighter, more simply defined realm of Azeroth. Also, it doesn’t hurt that I became pretty damn good at the game.
Alpha Centauri -- Originally I had Civilization II here, and there’s no questions that I hold a deep and special love for the more traditional of Brian Reynolds’ Civ classic, but in thinking about what made Civ great, my mind turned naturally to Reynolds' superior Alpha Centauri, which took all of those elements and added a depth of creativity, inventiveness and sense of wonder. Everything about AC was just more interesting to me, from the leaders, to the setting, to the mindworms to the very nature and ultimately the personality of the planet itself. This is a game that showed me how something already great can be massaged into something even more grand. It is a sacred text, a game that I actually never want to see remade or reimagined.
As I look back over my foundational games, I realize that mine tell the story of an unapologetic and inflexible PC gamer. These games define who I’ve become as a gamer, and I embrace them not as the best games ever made (at least not in all cases) but as the works that hold a special place in the story of me.