The earliest memories of video games within the home I have is the devices my friends had, whether it be an Atari VCS or spending ages typing in the code from a magazine to play some game on a ZX81. Those ZX81 games always had lofty ideas behind them but were just variations on blocks moving around the screen in black and white. It was all imagination.
I always wanted an ATARI VCS due to it being one of the first machines with conversions of arcade games: Space Invaders, Asteroids, Missile Command, Donkey Kong, Defender, etc. My own VCS was never to be and I entered into gaming under my own power with a Commodore VIC-20.
Over the course of this time there has been a number of gaming experiences that went beyond being just a game. These are those games.
I transitioned from the Super NES to the PlayStation, probably like a lot of people did at the time, and instantly found that I had to persuade myself that Destruction Derby was something more than a tech demo.
It was the original Tomb Raider game that threw me full on into the PlayStation world.
Tomb Raider came along at a unique time. It was released in the year I got married and we’d not long been in our first home. It’s sort of odd that the franchise celebrates its 20th aniversery in the year I’m beginning to deal with being seperated from my wife and the divorce will probably be finalised (it looks like the paper work may tip it into 2017 now). They even had a load of people from the original development of the game at PLAY Expo this year.
It’s inevitable that Tomb Raider would appeal to me, because it’s essentially pulp transposed into the modern day. It’s Indiana Jones with a female lead in a contemporary setting mixing up pulp archeaology and conspiracy theories. What isn’t there to like? Okay, looking back at it now the graphics are basic, but great for the time. The story was probably basic and quite routinely delivered compared to the cinematic tour de force of a modern game like Mass Effect. It was also an experience shared in that my wife and I would talk about the game while we played and she’d offer advice.
I’m not exactly sure where my liking of kick ass female lead characters come from, beyond the obvious male attraction, but Tomb Raider was probably one of the first. I realise the criticisms at the time, the large breasts, the tight shorts and the all round sexualisation had a valid point but I was fine with that as I didn’t see any difference when compared to say the ripped shirt of say..Doc Savage. It just seemed all part of the pulp genre of the piece for me. I love the new, realistic take on the re-launched series, but neither did I have, and still don’t have, any problem with the characters appearance in the original game (and by this I don’t mean every use outside of the game, such as the general, dubious advertising of the video games industry that was rampant in the 90’s).
In many ways, the appeal of Tomb Raider went beyond my liking of the actual games. I’m having trouble remembering exactly which ones I played. I certainly played the first two and I think Tomb Raider III was the one that broke my interest in the actual games? Yet I’m pretty sure I remember the main enemy of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (IV), so who knows? I did want the films to succeed, as there was no reason, despite their gaming origins, that they couldn’t be as succussful as the Indiana Jones or James Bond films, but alas it was not to be.
Final Fantasy VII
This game was a complete aberration, because I’ve never been able to consistently play a Final Fantasy game since! I’ve tried. I can’t remember which ones, but there has been at least three attempts I think, all have fallen by the wayside.
This wasn’t the case with Final Fantasy VII, as I pretty much completed it in my mind. I say ‘in my mind’ because I didn’t see the end or kill Seperoth. I was pretty sure all that remained for me to do was grind more levels so I was powerful enough to enter the end sequence which was sat there waiting for me if I’d ground it out. I suspect this is where my dislike of grinding comes from, as I didn’t do it then and haven’t really done it since.
I did love Final Fantasy VII up until that point though.
I was swept along by the story. The techno-magic world. The relationships between the characters. I loved exploring all that. While that was happening it didn’t feel like grinding as I was following the narrative for the most part. It’s hard to remember the details now, but it was just wonderous. None of the Final Fantasy games I’ve tried since then have felt the same. The narratives have just been a bit…weirder. The story less of an integrated experience and instead following the concept of story as a reward for playing often through cut scenes that never felt tightly woven with the gameplay.
Final Fantasy VII also includes one of the few character deaths that had an impact on me. The death of Aeris. It helped, or didn’t help, depending on how you view it, that I’d used Aeris in my ‘group’ since she arrived on the scene. I was well into the Cloud and Aeris romance and I had no idea the death was coming. This was a time well before easily or mistakingly accessed spoilers. It hit me hard. The first videogame to have suffucient story and character attachment to generate an emotional impact.
Yeah, for me, Final Fantasy VII was unique and awesome.
World of Warcraft
Like many people, World of Warcraft was my first MMO. It was a great, and at sometimes tumultuous experience, and it also came at a unique time in my life. You see I started playing World of Warcraft when I’d returned from Australia after we decided not to go through with a damned fool crusade to emmigrate there (not something for here).
I remember we were living in a 2-bedroom marina flat and it was snowing and I walked in a veritable blizzard (hahha!) to get the damned game. I’d heard the stores were selling out and I wanted to get involved with others who already had a bit of a head start.
I loved the exploration and levelling of Warcraft by and large. Exploring the world, seeing new places and killing new things. I had my moments where it got a bit of a drag, but overall it was fun exploration. I also enjoyed early adventures of The Dungeoneers (frickin’ awesome guild name), which was formed from an extended range of friends. Those early days doing the pre-raid dungeons was pretty fantastic.
There was a period of time where World of Warcraft wasn’t just a game, but actually part of the fabric of my social interaction with the gaming group outside of the actual gaming sessions. This was pretty awesome. This sort of feeling wout come again with the Distant Worlds expedition many years later.
I guess raiding was mixed. It started great. Then the need to progress meant more people in the guild, a different attitude, it felt a bit more like work. We merged with another guild, which was a disaster. We experienced all the guild dramas that you have to experience in order to have the authentic experience. Then it was done. It was a great journey though. I’m tempted by the new expansion to get back into it, but I just know it’ll be hard to carve out the time.
A bit like Final Fantasy VII, I never went on to play another MMO (well, Elite: Dangerous, is a bit like one, but we’ll get to that).
What can I say about Mass Effect? It is my single best gaming experience in my gaming life. It didn’t just provide this in one game but succeeded across three games in what is essentially a space opera epic that I rate better than a lot of films. Mass Effect would be there in my top space opera experiences. It’s that good.
What Mass Effect gets right is it throws you into a story in which you are the kick ass antagonist who has to make all the hard decisions, some small, some personal and some on which the fate of worlds, species and the galaxy hang on. The strength of the series is it makes those decisions feel important, heartfelt and impactful. Mass Effect is the perfect amalgamation of game and narrative, pulling you along through a brilliant merger of both.
The Mass Effect experience was defined by the running series of pay offs. Individuals lived and died by my decisions. One of the best, extended sequences of the game, narrative and choices in the original game involves your character choosing to sacrifice one character over another! Hell, species lived and died as a result of my choices in the final game. While other games offer their narrative as a reward, Mass Effect wove it so well into the sweeping dramatic space opera it was an almost breathless experience in which you hovered your thumb over those dramatic choices.
The experience of Mass Effect finds its way onto this list not just because of the story, but because it represents the perfect role-playing game experience as far as I’m concerned. Just like tabletop role-playing games have wresteled with what baggage to keep or throw away, so have computer role-playing games and for me Mass Effect is pretty much perfect, dropping a lot of stuff I dislike while keeping the good bits.
It’s not perfect, but in practical, realistic terms Mass Effect is the perfect computer role-playing game experience for me. It’s doubly sad because I suspect this is never going to happen again due to the introduction of open worlds, the MMO-isation of everthing and busy work tasks infiltrating games. This makes the experience even more poignant.
Elite Dangerous (Distant Worlds)
This one is slightly different to the others because it’s not the game itself that has provided one of my gaming moments but a player organised event within the game. Elite: Dangerous is a space sim in which you fly around in a spaceship trading, exploring and shooting up other ships for various reasons.
I shouldn’t like Elite: Dangerous. It has everything I hate. It’s actually a grind. It has no story. It’s an open world sandbox a thrase almost guaranteed to make me really dislike a game. You don’t level up so much but you earn money to upgrade your ship to buy another ship and upgrade that and so on.
Yet It’s a game I’ve played for an extended period only beaten by World of Warcraft, so far.
I was just getting bored with Elite: Dangerous when a fleet of a thousands ships decided to travel from one side of the galaxy to the furthest point on the other side via the galactic core. They called it the Distant Worlds expedition. This is no small undertaking. It would take three months and is a feat of endurance in parts since once you get to the far side space darkens due to the lack of stars.
It was an amazing experience that involved seeing great sights, albeit virtual ones. Socialising with new and interesting people at the fleets waypoints. The challenge of it also worked, such as the new skills learned in the game in order to complete the journey. The feeling of it was also fantastic, the thought of hundreds of ships on a lonely planet literally on the furthest edge of the spiral arm, was oddly romantic considering it’s just a game.
It probably came along at a good time as well. My wife abruptly left the home without warning and ghosted me at the end of June 2015 and I was living alone so Distant Worlds was one of the things that helped me deal with the new solo living thing in the first quarter of 2016.
It was also good to be able to just say that you did it and you where there. This is especially true now, as the task is getting easier with players being able to modify their drives with greater jump distances, a space station closer to the core and rumours of a rapid travel network based off using nuetron starts or some such. I did it when it actually meant something.
I waited ages to play Until Dawn because I refused to pay full price for it. It was an interactive story experience and, while I like those, I find it hard to pay £50 for them. When I eventually did play it I realised it was well worth the full price. Until Dawn is the game on this list that most directly defines the word experience.
Key to the Until Dawn experience is the fact it is as dramatic as any film. It is great watching scenes just…play out. The game is one of the most dramatically strong games I’ve ever played. While the main protagonists are graphics, they’ve used the motion capture so cleverely they completely avoid the ‘uncanny valley’ and they draw you but you get to make the choices. It raises the experience of a horror film to another level. It helps that two of the characters are played by well know actors in genre TV.
The Until Dawn experience was so strong it’s one of the best horror ‘films’ I’ve experienced.
I know enough about games design, and the fact it’s a trick in running tabletop role-playing games as well, that a lot of Until Dawn is illusionism, in that the story doesn’t change that much on who lives and who dies but I was really invested in the ‘who will live experience’. In my play through only two of the protagonists survived and it is testement to the game you can both be impacted by their loss but also enjoy the experience of having lost them in a horror genre sort of way.
Until Dawn was also a uniquely solo experience. It’s the only game on this list that comes after my wife left, so it was a distinctly solo experience to the point it didn’t involve her as a person to talk about it with. It was played in a room on my own, in a house on my own feeling at times enthralled, other times tense and also scared. It was geniunly scar at times and it did make me jump. It probably worked more because of my situation at the time. Would the experience have been as intense if there was someone else in the house? Probably not. It’s weird that while games like Tomb Raider was in some way defined by her presence Until Dawn was defined by her absence from it.
The Common Experience
It seems there are three common elements across these experiences:-
All the games have at least one of these elements, some of them a couple. While Mass Effect is largely narrative, Tomb Raider is narrative and exploration and Warcraft has no story of any real worth, but it delivers on the exploration and social factors. Elite: Dangerous is a game that totally survives on exploration and social elements, as everything else is sort of anathema to me.
What’s missing is liking any of them for what constitutes their ‘game’. This is best explained. When the game elements start to become more important than the narrative, exploration and social I’ll be turned off. Take the God of War series, I was drawn into the narrative idea but it was too much of a game in terms of beating its bosses and the like. This reasoning is why I adored Until Dawn but don’t stand a chance of getting through something like Dead Space. I’d not even try a game that prides itself on its main focus being ‘game hard’ such as Dark Souls.
It goes without saying this crosses all forms of gaming. I don’t do tabletop games that are purely game experiences either, narrative has to be woven through them in some way or they need to be a social occasion to some degree.
What Will The Next Experience Be?
No idea. If I was to be honest I’m not sure I’m that positive about the direction video games are going in. Despite the power of modern machines and consoles there are actually less games I’m interested in rather than more. I also think the big, single player experience is on the way out in favour of open worlds.
In a way, every game is becoming an MMO. There is certainly an MMO-isation of everyhting thing going on. This is disapointing. I like my big, grand Hollyood-esque film, single-player action and adventure experiences and more narrative slanted role-playing games. I really don’t like the trend to make everything more of a competitive multi-player game or an open world full of busy work.
Mass Effect: Andromeda would be the next big gaming experience. Yet I’m ambivalent about it because I suspect it’s going to follow the model of Dragon Age: Inquisition, offering a grand ‘galaxy’ to travel around in and lots of busy work to do rather than it being a gand, scifi epic narrative. I may be wrong, but Dragon Age: Inquisition was loved, won awards and these open worlds are easy to fill with simple, repetitive content.
I’m crossing my fingers.