Based on Kadomi’s list, let’s talk about videogames for a moment. Specifically, let’s talk about the fifteen videogames that have left indelible marks on me over the years, for one reason or another. Note that this isn’t some list of Objectively Best Games Ever; there are some great games on this list and there are, admittedly, some… not so great games. But these are the games that changed me. That turned me into a gamer, that showed me something new or, honestly, just let me lose myself in something different for a while.
Also, to preempt the obvious: I’m a PC gamer, yes. The few console games that are on this list I played the PC port versions of. So… yeah. No Marios or Zeldas here, folks. They’re just not franchises I grew up with.
1. King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella (1988)
Special mention goes out to this entire series, but King’s Quest IV is the one that makes the list on account of it being the first game I remember ever really playing. And when I say “really playing” I mean “really watching dad play”, because the inputs in KQIV were text commands and, well, when you’ve got all the spelling skills of a five year old, that’s a little tricky.
KQIV is also my “representation matters” game. Even if I don’t remember all that much about the game itself after all these years, the one thing that did stick with me was that it was a game about a girl, written by a woman, Roberta Williams. Williams’, whose picture featured on the back of the box for the game, was My First Videogame Designer.
Games could never not be “for girls” after that sort of a start, no matter what anyone tried to tell me.
2. Return to Zork (1993)
We got Return to Zork for free along with the very first CD-ROM drive we ever bought. Though it’s incredibly hokey by today’s standards, actually seeing pre-recorded actors (which was The Style At The Time) and hearing them talk in a game was pretty freakin’ revolutionary back in the early 90s. The fact that half the dialogue here is so catch-phrasey and memorable sure didn’t hurt, either.
Asides from the usual “use item X on object Y” adventure game puzzle interface, Return to Zork has a mechanic wherein you could take photos of locations and voice recordings of dialogue, and then present these to other characters to comment on. The mechanic isn’t just a gimmick; at least one puzzle and one major piece of foreshadowing are presented this way.
Return to Zork also gets a special shout-out for being the very first thing I ever encountered that presented “modern day” fantasy. It’d never really occurred to my child self that “wizards and pickup trucks” was a combination that was “allowed”, and finally learning that it was not only made going back to medieval fantasy difficult, but probably contributed in a big way to my general obsession with this series.
3. Myst (1993)
I was about ten when Myst came out and I don’t mind saying it completely baffled me. I loved it, but I didn’t get it. At all. I remember being able to unlock a few Ages by myself, but I never actually figured out what the “point” of the game was. Fortunately, I nagged and nagged my dad and eventually, for Christmas, he bought me the hint book (that was a thing that existed prior to the internet, kids). Said hint book is almost as memorable as the actual game it was based on, given that it was written as a narrative novel, giving the game walkthrough from the point-of-view of an explorer on Myst island.
I still have that book. Somewhere.
The other thing of note was Myst was the first time I really remember noticing sound design in a game. I can still hear some of the music in my head, or the sound a linking book makes, or even the Cyan logo “theme tune”.
More recently, I bought the iOS version of Myst. I’m still just as rubbish at it at age 30 as I was at age 10. Some things never change, I guess.
4. Zork Nemesis (1996)
The Zork series in general is, at its heart, a satire of dungeon-delving fantasy. Whether it’s wizards trapped in lanterns or characters with puntacular names, the series doesn’t, in general, take itself too seriously.
And then there’s Zork Nemesis.
This game is dark, not just for a Zork game but for a mid-90s adventure game in general. Temporarily reanimating severed heads? Sure. Child sacrifice? No worries. Dubious medical experiments, drug addiction, madness, religious zealotry? All here.
Zork Nemesis is also a lonely game, with other characters appearing mostly only in non-interactive cutscenes and the copious journals lying around (I was really obsessed with the font said journals use for, oh, basically all my teenage years). It’s up to the player to piece out what’s going on from these flashes, and–without spoiling too much–the denouement of the game uses a trope I’m particularly fond of and have recycled in my own writing often enough.
Actually, the Wyrdverse in general owes its existence to this game: Zork Nemesis got me obsessed with alchemy as a kid which, in a roundabout sort of way, lead to Pandemonium City and to Loki and, eventually, to Liesmith. And yes, that’s sort of a spoiler for the book, I guess but… meh.
As with a lot of games of this vintage, Zork Nemesis is available online. Sadly, this digital purchase won’t net you the awesome little “investigator’s journal” that came with the original, and is still one of my favourite pieces of videogame ephemera from this era.
5. Diablo (1996)
First played at a friend’s house, Diablo marked my transition from the dying adventure game genre into more action-y titles. It was also the first game I remember downloading cheats for online. I used to have this Secret Floppy Disk with my save game editors, which I’d make sure to only use when dad wasn’t around (dad was paranoid about malware, as well as generally scornful of cheating in games).
It was also the first game I ever played co-op, dialling into another friend’s modem so we could kick demon ass together.
I spent many, many hours playing and replaying Diablo, all with my invincible hacked characters who–perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly–were called Loki and Sigyn. I even had fanart.
Yeah. I’m nothing if not predictable, I know.
6. Final Fantasy VIII (1999)
Pretty much the most universally-reviled of the Final Fantasy games, particularly coming on the heels of FFVII, FFVIII is still the game that makes my list not just for being the first JRPG I ever played, but for being the first game to teach me that, yes, boys could be eyecandy too!
FFVIII was also one of the first series I ever read–and wrote–slash fanfic for. I never finished that fic (surprise surprise), but even now I still occasionally get people pinging me asking me what happened to it or mentioning how much they enjoyed it. And there’s really nothing like that sort of feedback to plant the seeds of, “Well… maybe I could be an author” in the mind of a teenage girl.
So I guess if you want to blame anything for my current authorial career, Final Fantasy VIII will be pretty close to the top of that list.
7. Planescape: Torment (1999)
Seriously. Just do it. I don’t care if you’ve played it before; play it again.
This is the first, and quite possible the only, game with a plot twist that literally made me shiver and say “oh shit” out loud. Like, I can’t even
It’s a classic for a reason. Seriously.
8. Bejeweled (2001)
This plus my then-boyfriend-now-husband’s Palm pilot (they were the precursors to tablets and smartphones, kids) was basically how I kept awake through university.
‘Nuff said, really.
9. Silent Hill 2 (2001)
Here’s another one that’s probably not too surprising.
Silent Hill 2 was not just the first Silent Hill game I had the “pleasure” (read: terror) of playing, but it was the first real horror game I ever played.
It’s also the first game I’ve ever actually had to physically force myself to finish, in ten minute bursts, with the sound turned off and jpop playing in the background.
I guess the whole “body horror in the mist” thing is a bit passe now, but it’s passe because of this game. Everything about SH2 is terrifying, and it’s terrifying in a way that doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares. Which isn’t to say there are no jump scares to be found (there’s a reason I never knock on toilet doors in games any more), only that they rarely predictive of physical harm to your character.
Mostly, this game is just atmosphere. Endlessly tense, grinding, unrelenting atmosphere.
And the music, man. Don’t even get me started on the music…
10. Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines (2004)
I spent most of my teenage years playing White Wolf games, so obviously I have a soft spot for Bloodlines. It’s actually VtM’s second foray into videogames, though the only one actually worth talking about.
I replayed this recently–it takes a little bit to get it working on modern computers, but it does work–and it’s held up well despite its age, mostly thanks to its strong writing and the clarity of its tabletop RPG-based setting. I think some of the later levels fall apart a bit, trading story and dialogue for endless mazes of enemies, but I guess that’s what
noclip is for.
11. Мор. Утопия (Pathologic) (2005)
What do you get when you combine Russian surrealist/existentialist horror, an almost unreadable English translation, and a first person FOV with a nausea-inducing footstep motion? I have absolutely no idea and I really, really wish I did.
Pathologic is the only game on this list I haven’t actually finished playing. Actually, I barely even started it, and even that was an endurance test. And that’s not even getting into the actual game mechanics of hunger, thirst, exhaustion and infection, all wrapped up in a remote industrial town crawling with a literal dehumanised working class and impossible geometric structures jutting up out of the ground. That no one really seems to find abnormal. I think. (The translation makes it a little hard to be certain.)
There is nothing out there quite like this game. And if someone knows of a good Let’s Play, send me the link. Because seriously. What the hell happens? I need to know!
12. Dragon Age 2 (2011)
Vying with Final Fantasy VIII on the unpopularity stakes, Dragon Age 2 is a game that’s almost universally reviled.
But not, it must be said, by me.
Sure, its combat is a bit sucky and it reuses locations over and over–so I sure hope you like brown–but it’s also one of the very, very few games to deal directly with the concepts of privilege and oppression. And not in the Bioshock Infinite, white-guy-kills-mountains-of-black-guys-because-lol-racism way, either.
Really, I think DA2’s most “unforgivable” sin in the gaming community is its ending, which is quite unapologetic about not letting you be a hero. Not even an antihero, or anyone particularly important, despite all the supposed status and wealth you’ve spent the rest of the game acquiring. DA2 takes that all away with a quite literal bang, leaving the player feeling like the observer in another character’s story (specifically, one of your companions-and-possible-love-interest’s story).
DA2 is flawed, but I love it. It tried to do something different–something a lot of games promise but don’t actually have the guts to deliver on–and because of its failure, I think it’ll be a long time before we see anything quite as thematically ambitious coming out of a triple-A studio for a while.
For bonus points, the large roles played by Gideon Emery and Greg Ellis will ruin 99% of all other videogames set in Generic European Fantasy Land for you forever. Torchwood fans may also recognise Eve Myles, and Felicia Day pops in to play… herself in one of the DLCs. So there’s that.
13. The Secret World (2012)
Look. Obviously I’m going to love any MMO where the intro involves helping an expy of Stephen King fight Viking zombies possessed by Cthulhu-esque sea monsters, summoned by an Illuminati-infiltrating Loki using the sword Excalibur, in order to distract from his plan of using Mayan blood magic to start Ragnarok on behalf of a Scientology-meets-Satan self-help cult by breaking one of the mechanical engines that keep the Earth clean from extradimensional space pollution.
No. Seriously. That’s what happens. In the first zone. And it just gets weirder from there.
The Secret World is the kitchen sink of urban fantasy/horror MMOs, which pretty much puts it right up my alley. It also has what I think is some of the best writing in any MMO currently in operation, and quite possibly any game currently available.
No, that’s not hyperbole. It is really, really good. Plus it also includes the modern descendent of the oldskool puzzle adventure game, in what it calls “investigation missions”. Instead of the usual killing of ten (space-filth infested) rats, expect to be using the in-game browser to search Google and Wikipedia on such topics as classical paintings, names of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, and crash courses in Arabic and Hebrew.
TSW is also frustrating in that, as a game, it’s almost perfect. Where it falls down tends to be where it tries to emulate more traditional MMOs. It has, for example, some of the worst combat I’ve ever had the misfortune to play through, and the gear-grind introduced as filler/spacer in some of the more recent patches mean that, unfortunately, I probably won’t be playing future updates (I don’t have the hundreds of hours to invest in the repetitive grindy combat required to continue the plot… bah).
Still. Play it for the story.
14. Guild Wars 2 (2012)
Where The Secret World is narratively pretty much perfect, so is Guild Wars 2 to mechanics. This game is just so slick, perfect and polished, and almost entirely free of all the niggles and tedium of other MMOs.
Now. If only ANet and Funcom could join forces somehow, I would probably never leave the computer again.
On second thought, maybe it’s good they don’t.
15. Gone Home (2013)
Saying anything about this game pretty much ruins it, so I’ll try and be sparse.
What I will say–other than that it’s definitely worth the cost, even if you’re not a “gamer” per se–is that Gone Home is…
Gone Home was me.
As in. It was my childhood. Literally. Almost every single set piece from this game felt like it was ripped straight out of my own awkward teenage years, from the red hair dye to the mix tapes to the… Jesus. To the style of shitty pseudo-anime art used for in-game artefacts (q.v. screenshot, above, specifically on the left picture on the pinboard).
And it’s just, like… I’m not used to seeing that. To seeing my life and my story so blatantly presented in media like this. Gone Home isn’t very long–it’s easily the shortest game on this list, even compared to a Bejewelled marathon–but it’s the one that impacted me the most; I played it all in a single sitting one evening, and by the time I was done, I was bawling.
I think Gone Home is something people are either going to “get” or not, and sadly the people who don’t “get” it are probably the people in most dire need of doing exactly that. Because the game so unapologetically presents a narrative that’s almost never seen in media in general, let alone in a videogame. This is not “generic white space marine guy shoots aliens” or “generic white cop guy shoots zombies”.
And that’s perfect.
And we need more of it.
Because, twenty-five years after I played my first game by a woman with a woman, representation still matters.