Yes, I am a horrible blogger. I do have some excuses why it took me more than a month to finish part 2 of this series, but they can’t really explain all the delay, so I won’t even start. So, let’s just ignore it took me 40 days to finish this post, and, without further ado, just dive in:
9. Starcraft (1998)
For being one of the few (and the last) RTS game I played through without getting bored.
RTS games came at a weird time for me. I was still attached to the old-style point-and-click adventures, and 2D platformers. But when Command & Conquer came around, I played it quite a bit. At least I played the single-player campaign. Because back then, in 1998, there wasn’t much multiplayer gaming around that didn’t involve split screens. But soon enough, RTS games bored me. Always the same: build up some structures, amass an overwhelming force, then attack and crush your enemy, and all of that wrapped in a repetitive story. Until Starcraft came around, that is.
Back then, the story-telling within an RTS was amazing to me. Every mission, every cut scene seemed to have an insane story turn. I’m sure that my memory is exaggerating this in hindsight, but I remember that I believed that the story was awesome. It was what kept me playing. Because, at its core, it was same-ol’-same-ol’: build up structures, amass an overwhelming force, crush your enemy. Except for the special missions. Those had an almost RPG-like feel and were quite fun. But after the single-player missions, I was done and moved on to other games. With fond memories, and a short return for Brood War, sure. But it seems RTS as a genre is not for me, if not even the game that was played professionally for over a decade could keep me interested long-term.
10. Half-Life (1998)
For being one of the few FPS games I played through, and for showing that FPS can tell a story.
In the first part, I said that FPSs never interested me much. Partially because I didn’t like their twitch gameplay, partially because I sucked at said twitch gameplay. But mainly because most of them came with godawful single-player “storylines”. (I needed to put that in quotes, because, really.) Half-Life was different. It started with a normal work day (sure, in a very much non-normal work environment, but still), and there was no shooting at all in the first half hour; instead, the time was spent on telling a story. The hero was an unlikely candidate for an FPS (and, granted, required some suspension of disbelief to work), and to top it off, there was a sense of mystery with that suitcase man appearing and disappearing.
Thankfully, I could *cough* procure a US version of the game (statute of limitations! Plus, to cover my shame, I actually bought the game a couple of years later, when I got the chance to get an English version), because the release fell into the “Dark Ages” of German game publishing: Because the rules on computer game violence were so strict and well-enforced, and because game companies feared loss of sales more than changing their games for the German market, Half-Life was changed. Extensively. Basically, all enemies were changed into robots, because shooting robots is cool, obviously (won’t somebody please think of the poor robots?!), and all non-enemy humans “fainted” when you shot them. I don’t even know what story they came up with for the robot invasion… thankfully, it seems that these days, the overbearing censorship has been dialed back quite a bit. Haven’t heard of a game being changed for the German market in some time. Maybe the publishers realized that teenagers don’t buy games anyway if they want to play them, and being put on the index doesn’t hurt much.
11. Grim Fandango (1998)
For being one of the best stories in point+click adventure games and a swan song for the genre, and for its great visual style.
With the 90ies coming to their end, the classic adventure style of point+click faded from the limelight, too. Lucasfilm Games and Sierra stopped producing their hallmark series, and it wasn’t until some time later that smaller studios surfaced to fill the gap with quality replacements. Grim Fandango was maybe the last jewel by one of the large players. The story of love, betrayal and financial and political scheming is set in the Land of the Dead, which (I was told) is modeled after Mexican folk tales of the afterlife. It was a captivating story, but that wasn’t everything. The game was so perfectly set in a mixture of only-possible-in-dreams architecture and real-world Art Deco, with a soundtrack to complement that setting, that for style alone, this game would’ve earned a place on the list of best adventure games of all times. I mean, just look at that wallpaper!
Grim Fandango may have come closer to perfection than any other adventure game I ever played. And in some way, it is fitting that the game is set in the Land of the Dead, and ends with the way from there into the underworld. Because after the swan song of Grim Fandango, the curtain for adventure games on the big stage fell for good.
12. Diablo II (2000)
For playing so excessively that it probably single-handedly cost me at least one undergrad semester.
When I picked up Diablo II in the summer of 2000, I was underwhelmed at first. Sure, it looked like a nice game, but the graphics resolution was so low that it hurt, and it just felt very incremental, nothing new and shiny, just a bit more of everything that had been there in Diablo (and maybe I had played the first installment a bit too much in the late 90ies). For a year, the game spent most of its time on the shelf, until the expansion came around, which, among other things, featured higher-resolution graphics. That did it for me, and from that time I was hooked.
I spent endless nights (and sometimes days) bringing my mage up to high level, then my paladin, then… at some point, I started collecting unique items compulsively. I even had a list of every unique and set item in the game, and ticked off every new item I got. My goal was the “holy grail”: find one of each of these items. Needless to say, I never finished that. I spent a lot of time on it, though. (Fun fact: did you know that only a handful bosses could even drop unique versions of the Sacred Armor type, and to add insult to injury, there were two unique Sacred Armors, with one being 8 times rarer than the other? I must’ve been crazy back then, thinking I could ever finish the grail.) I probably spent half a year playing Diablo II most of my waking time. Only WoW came even close to that obsession later. I also never seriously played online. I tried once or twice, but it never appealed to me. I stayed a single player.
13. Ultima Online (1997)
For keeping me away from online gaming until WoW came around.I was a latecomer to the MMORPG party. I found it unfathomable that, if I wanted to play a game, not only would I have to buy it, but then also have to pay a fee. Every month! The craziness! These days, there are many people who’d rather do that instead of getting interrupted by annoying advertisements, or by obviously disruptive game mechanics that try to have you pay at every corner.
My natural curiosity, however, made me try out one of those strange games when I moved out of my parents’ and into my first own home. For the first time, I had a sizable amount of money available to me every month, much larger than the pocket money I had before (yeah, I was lucky my parents financed me and I didn’t have to work while studying other than as research student assistant because it was interesting and to earn some nice-to-have extra money). Of course, I had to finance everything out of that, but I lived frugally and had leftover money to buy all sorts of entertainment crap if I lived off cheap food. So, which game would be better suited to an Ultima fan to try out an online game than Ultima Online? It sounded great: a living, breathing world to explore and live in!
Of course, my curiosity is only one of my natural traits. Another is a stubborn insistence to not to things the easy way and how everybody else does it, but to do them differently just for the sake of being different. So, obviously, I decided that I didn’t want to become a fighter in UO, because I could do fighting in most other games, right? (The fact that I was killed by a rat the first time I entered the Britain sewers might have helped with that decision.) I decided to become a merchant. To do that, I’d have to craft stuff to sell. And to do that, I’d have to gather materials. I thought smithing sounded nice, so off I went to mine. And I mined. And mined. And mined. And soon I was so horribly bored out of my mind that I couldn’t look at cave walls any more. I wasn’t used yet to what we call “grinding”. This was supposed to be the great online experience? In retrospect, I think I just did it completely wrong, but I didn’t know better back then.
I stopped playing within a week. I was not going to pay this outrageous monthly fee to play the most boring game I had seen in ages! And that was that for online games for me. I barely considered any other online titles for years. Until…
14. World of Warcraft (2004)
Oh, World of Warcraft. Where do we start? You were an important part of my life for six years (as sappy, or pathetic, depending on your point of view, as that sounds), and to me, you are what Everquest is to the older generation (or to those that started playing online earlier): the first hit whose rush we’re chasing after, trying to find it elsewhere.
After the letdown of Ultima Online, I wasn’t convinced I’d ever try an MMO again. For several years, I ignored the genre, and it wasn’t until my year in Tokyo that I picked up a copy in a shop in Akihabara, the nerd nirvana. (The irony of starting to play WoW in Final Fantasy XI’s country of origin does not elude me.) To make a long story short, I found a great guild, we had lots of fun, guild broke up, guild partially reunited, people moved on, I moved on, game lost its charm some time during Cataclysm. So much, so normal and boring.
But there are so many things that I can’t forget, maybe similar to what other people experienced, maybe not. The first time I left the Valley of Trials, and I realized that that area was just a tiny part of a zone, which was just one of dozens; when it hit me that this world was seriously large. My first, utterly incompetent dungeon run. Being picked up by my later raiding guild around level 30 after a Scarlet Monastery run (“I don’t know if I want to commit, I might stop playing again soon” — “just try it out, no hard feelings if you leave”). The headrush when I finally killed my last demon for Rhok’delar. And of course our guild’s high point in Vanilla, killing Nefarian in the autumn of 2006 (the picture is from that night). And so on, and so on. I still have contact with some people from that first guild. But what am I telling you, half the blog is based on some memories from my WoW days. You find them peeking around every corner. And finally, without WoW, you couldn’t even read anything here: my leaving in 2011 was one of the reasons I created this blog. It says so in my very first post ever.
15. Portal (2007)
For showing that short and small games without lots of content can be great.For a long time, I was stuck in the “blockbuster mindset”: the bigger and longer a game, the better it must be. That’s strange in a way, because I started shying away from the blandness of blockbuster movies early on. I was always more a Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch guy than a Steven Spielberg one. Nevertheless, there is a certain logic to the thinking: with a movie, the difference between a 90-minute and a 150-minute movie isn’t significant enough in time to make you consider the “money-per-hour spent” ratio too deeply. With a game, it can be quite important whether you’ll get 6 or 60 hours out of it, especially if the price is the same.
Portal was different, though. As far as I know, it was a lucky random occurrence, thought as a mere bonus to Valve’s orange box, a collector’s-edition-like version of Half-Life 2. But the game developed a life of its own, and I’m probably not the only one who bought the orange box specifically because of Portal. (I don’t think I ever played Half-Life 2 for more than two or three hours; though that might not be fair, because I heard the game is actually quite nice.)
The thing with Portal is that it is so good exactly because it is so short: you can easily finish it within one extended sitting on a weekend evening, maybe taking a short break in between, like they have at the extra-length movies, just without someone asking you whether you’d like an ice cream (it never hurts to have some in your freezer, of course). Being able to finish the game in one sitting and witnessing its story unfold in those few hours gives the game the sense of immersion and immediacy of a good movie. The story isn’t watered down because it’s frequently interrupted by those pesky work days that keep you from playing. You absorb it in one go, and then can ponder about it later, if you want to.
I still haven’t played Portal 2 (though it’s been in my Steam library for ages… story of my life, and everybody else’s, it seems), but I heard it’s not as condensed and takes longer to finish. I wonder whether it can still deliver the same feeling of immediacy that the original could.
And that’s it! Here we are. 15 games, 25 years. If I ever get around to it, I might make a small “bonus post” with a list of games that I wish had influenced me, but didn’t, because I didn’t get around to them until years down the road.