My relationship with video games
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to video games. Watching them, playing them, reading about them, you name it. To me, video games have been both a shared social experience as well as a moment for solace and reflection in solitude. Video games have brought me hours of joy, frustration, and lesson learned. In an effort to avoid writing a “top 10 video games” list, I will focus on a few pivotal games throughout my life, as well as the games which occupy a special place in my heart, even today. As an adult gamer, I am constantly trying to re-capture that special feeling that video games brought to me as a child. Some call it nostalgia but I am not trying to bask in the past, I’m enjoying the present.
My first game
In truth, the first game I ever played was Chip’s Challenge on the PC (Windows 3.1x). The game was a top-down puzzle game which centered on a character (presumably chip) and his need to acquire computer chips. A certain number of chips were needed before one could progress to the next stage via a portal. Often times, the chips and portal would be locked behind various obstacles, some static and others dynamic. Keys and other gating mechanisms were resolved by solving puzzles. 6 year old me struggled mightily on several levels. In addition to not knowing what computer chips were, (I thought he was eating potato chips, prickly, gray, potato chips), I also did not comprehend some of the mechanics of the game. Like many other video games from the early days, instructions were sparse and one could spend an absurd amount of time trying to figure things out, contrast this to modern day gaming with all the hand-holding, tutorials, and instructions and it’s easy so see where some of the magic got lost. Modern platforms like Steam, Xbox, and Playstation are embedded with all these “achievements” for all their games. Some games have hundreds of achievements! In the old days, the only achievement was “beat the game”, and “get 100%” if the save screen shows percent completion. The overflow of achievements has diluted their value and minimized the sense of accomplishment. After all, how can you feel accomplished if you did not struggle for your achievements.
My first system was the Nintendo Gameboy. When I first saw someone playing the Gameboy, I was amazed. This small(ish) handheld device enabled you to play video games anytime, anywhere. Sure, there was no backlight in the day but guess what, there’s an attachment for that!
My first game ever was “Kirby’s Dreamland”. I’m not sure why I chose this game but it’s likely because the first game I saw someone else play was Kirby’s Dreamland. I eventually got “Donkey Kong Land 2”, “Pokemon Red”, “Legend of Zelda - Link’s Awakening”, and “Pokemon Silver”, and maybe some minor games that I’m forgetting at the moment. Needless to say, the Gameboy served me well as a trusty companion that I brought with me everywhere. Road trips became the ultimate excuse to whip out the Gameboy and put in some hours. Pokemon was perhaps my most memorable Gameboy game. Pokemon capitalized on the success and popularity of their show and their original games came out with much hype. Every kid at school was playing it and I jumped right on the bandwagon. The pokemon games were unique in the sense that they made two versions of the same game, with minor differences. Mostly, these differences centered around the availability of pokemon in each game. You could not “catch ‘em all” alone; this was the main objective of the game and to achieve it, you would need to make some friends. Of course, the super lonely eventually just bought a second game and system and traded with themselves (losers) but this was very much not in the spirit of the game.
The Super Nintento Entertainment System (SNES)
The SNES was the second system I ever owned. This classic beauty supported two players and what a blessing that was. My good childhood friend got a Sega Genesis and between the two of us, we had access to plenty of games and good times. “Megaman X”, “Donkey Kong Country 2”, and “Killer Instinct” were my favorite SNES games by far. Killer Instinct was my first exposure to fighting games and I was instantly in love. Megaman X was incredible and I never ended up beating Sigma (final boss in final form) until I re-visited the game in my teens.
The N64 was my first introduction into 3d graphics and 3d games. I won’t spend too much on the N64 except to highlight a few games which I hold close to my heart. “The Legend of Zelda - Ocarina of Time” will stand out as one of the greatest games ever made. This game took me on an epic journey equipped with epic quests, characters, stories, and music. The game was full of little nuggets that rewarded the adventurous who dared venture off the beaten path into unknown territory. The use of gear acquisition as a means to unlock secrets in earlier parts of the game made the world worthwhile of constant exploration. The next game I want to highlight is “Super Smash Bros.”. I still remember the original commercial for super smash bros and looking back on it now, it was wild. At the time, my smash skills were pretty weak, I was a kid after-all and mostly focused on the flashy B attacks rather than the more effective air-A attacks. Needless to say, this game tickled my competitive nature and even today, it is a favorite amongst my friends. We have played this game so much that our N64 controllers have loose and wobbly joysticks. That is the sign a truly loved gaming system.
When the Xbox came out, it was in tight competition with the PS2 and the Gamecube. Having only bought Nintendo products in my life, I took the plunge and went Xbox, taking a chance on Microsoft’s first foray into the gaming console space. Of course, 12 year old me didn’t care about any of this, I just wanted to play Halo. Halo was the first iteration of what I refer to as, “modern FPS games”. These games differed from the GoldenEye, Perfect Dark, and PC FPS games in a few ways. For one, the use of two joysticks to control the camera and player independently. This was likely adopted from the PC setup where the mouse controls the camera and WASD are used to move the character but it was a welcome change. No one liked using the “c” buttons on the N64 to look down to shoot Oddball. While Halo and Halo 2 take the cake for most memorable Xbox games, there was no shortage of good games for this system and while the controller was controversial to some, I always found it be very comfortable and intuitive. Some of my fondest memories are of connecting two TVs and two Xboxes and having 8 player Halo parties. That’s something that got lost in the era of Xbox Live. Multiplayer used to mean multiple players on one screen or in one house. Screen cheating, while discouraged, was an accepted part of life.
The Nintendo DS
I want to take a quick moment to recognize the Nintendo DS as a great handheld gaming system. My senior of high school was full of memorable moments but perhaps what I’ll remember most fondly is playing Pokemon Diamond with my closest friends. Bumming through school days so we could gather in someone’s living room to play Pokemon, together. Breaking off into teams of 2 to engage in some 2v2 battles. Pokemon had evolved (heh) a lot since we were young but we (at least I) were eager to embrace the new meta. This sytem was bought exclusively for Pokemon but it had the ability to play Gameboy Advance games too. I always appreciate backwards compatibility.
The Xbox 360
The natural evolution of the Xbox was the Xbox 360 and once again, I got it mostly to play Halo 3. However, the Xbox 360 also delivered “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare”. COD 4 has spawned so many FPS clones in its likeness but the original and Modern Warfare 2 were always my favorite. The Xbox 360 was the last real console I purchased.
At this point, those who know me are probably wondering where the hell all the amazing PC games are. I must confess, when I started this post, I was going to exclusively talk about PC games and why PC is the master race. PC’s superiority is self-evident, but that is not the point. The point is that the video game experience is different for everyone and as long as you are enjoying it, it doesn’t matter what medium you choose. Moms playing candy crush are no different than hardcore nerds playing Starcraft.
Having said that…
The PC Master Race
The beautiful thing about PC gaming is its accessibility. When Steam first came on the scene, no one was particularly impressed with the Valve game store as a platform. Gamers loved Half-Life and Half-Life 2, but no one really knew if Steam was going to be successful or not. Here we stand in 2020, where Steam has dominated the electronic games store space so thoroughly, that competitors like Epic Games are literally giving away hit games for free in an effort to take back some of that user share. It’s a losing battle of course, Steam has had years upon years of sales to bolster their users’ libraries and at this point, no one can abandon Steam. Before the success of Steam, PC gaming was dominated by pirates as it offered games for free, provided you could decipher the README. Games were also frequently sold in CD format with CD keys tied to the purchase. Eventually, people figured out how to generate new CD keys and piracy ran rampant. I will not speak any more about the PCMR but want to share a video that spawned the PCMR meme. Subreddit for anyone who wants to learn more.
And so was born the glorious PCMR meme and community, of which, I am a proud member. And what kind of PCMR member would I be if I did not submit my build and specs.
Without further ado, the following games all hold a very special place in my heart.
Age of Empires II
This game was the first real-time strategy (RTS) game I ever played. At the time, I frequently resorted to the cheats as the game was incredibly difficult for a child to understand and play. Sure, I could get by, but I was nowhere near competent and really lacked any sense of strategy. This game brought my childhood friends and I together and is one that I continue to play to this day. It is seeing a resurgence after being remastered and offered on Steam.
Making a puzzle game is difficult as you are straddling a fine line between rewarding players for solving your puzzles, and infuriating them when they cannot. Portal and Portal 2 seem to have found that sweet spot and introduced a novel mechanic which can be used in many creative ways. Additionally, Portal succeeds in “showing, not telling”, a lesson many modern video games have forgotten. The game then slowly introduces new mechanics which interplay with previously introduced mechanics and the puzzles become progressively harder and harder, while never seeming impossible since there are so many possible options to try. Lastly, the games have a great sense of humor and while there isn’t much a plot or story to follow, it keeps the player entertained as they tackle trial after trial.
Diablo II is a game that consumed much of my middle and high school life. People often wonder where I learned to type so fast and my answer is always the same: “Diablo II”. On the surface, Diablo II is your typical dungeon crawler action RPG. You control a hero with an isometric view, you gain experience which leads to level-ups, to learn new skills and raise your stats… yada yada yada. This is not what Diablo II was about. Diablo II had its own built-in economy centered around loot. This loot was not in the form of loot boxes or any sort of pay-to-play scheme, this loot could only be had the old fashioned way, killing bosses and getting them as drops. Diablo II was so incredibly hard when it first released that I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who made it through Hell on the original game. The available items just weren’t godo enough for it and even a coordinated team would struggle. The expansion brought with it a new Act, two new heroes, and some much needed items for the late game. However, the drop rates for most worthwhile items was so low, players resorted to using bots to run bosses over and over to collect items. This led to a marketplace of sorts where trades were the order of the day, and in order to secure trades and advertise your wares, you needed to type very very fast. Over the years, patches have added new content to Diablo II and it has evolved in beautiful and unique ways. The graphics may be outdated but I choose to stay awhile and listen.
The Bioshock games brought an amazing fictional world to life and should be considered more a work of art than just a game. Bioshock combined modern FPS gameplay with the addition of a sci-fi power called plasmids. These plasmids were a technology developed in the distopian city of Rapture. A city at the bottom of the ocean that was free from the confines and restraints of the world above. Here, scientists and free-thinkers could advance their agenda without hindrance, what could possibly go wrong… Well as you might have guessed, the world devolved into anarchy. I won’t spoil any details about this game but needless to say, the story is very deep and well-developed. Bioshock does a great job of showing you the world you inhabit, giving you snippets of information for you to piece together the smaller details about the world. The first of the steampunk revolution, Bioshock did it better than most of its successors and that is thanks to beautiful world design, excellent writing, and engaging gameplay. Bioshock Infinite brought the player to a city high in the sky, I won’t go into the details of that game but as expected, it delivered in all the same ways.
Fallout 3, 4, NV
I know that there was a Fallout 1 and Fallout 2, as well as a Fallout Tactics. Those are not the games I’ll be talking about, I will be talking about the games that transitioned to first-person. These games all take place in a post-apolyptic world, with scaled-down versions of post-apocalyptic cities. Fallout 3 takes place in Washington DC, Fallout 4 takes place in Boston, and NV takes place in Las Vegas. Basically, the world ends in nuclear war but before that, a corporation has been building bunkers (vaults) throughout the U.S. These vaults are filled with people as nuclear destruction becomes immiment and you, as protagonist, play the role of a vault dweller who surfaces to take on the world. The three games have different styles but all portray a beautifully gray post-apocalytic world, where bottle caps are currency and irradiated humans and super mutants are part of daily life. The political landscape is fractured and several factions fight for supremacy. As a player, you are free to join any of their causes, sew dissent among them, or slaughter them all. This freedom of action, and the numerous conversation options, opens the player up to a near limitless number of ways to play the game. I have always been a sucker for the good guy and usually end up playing that route, but that doesn’t mean I won’t blow someone’s head off if I really like their gear. The developers did such a good job recreating actual cities in this world that I spent more time walking around Boston visiting landmarks than I did questing.
Dark Souls Series
Many know the Dark Souls games for their incredibly high level of difficulty and very unforgiving nature. All that is true, but I really see Dark Souls as a throwback to retro gaming, where games were truly unforgiving and beating them was a battle of will. Dying was not a reason to be ashamed, for with each death, a lesson was learned. Dark Souls expects you to die, a lot. If you are uncomfortable with that, then this game is not for you, but on the brightside, there is minimal penalty for repeatedly dying. This game, like many of the greats, does a brilliant job of showing the player the world, and offering snippets of information throughout for you to fill in the details. The lore is so deep and established mostly because nothing was explicitly stated, allowing the community to infer their own backstories based on any scraps of information they can dig up. The map design, particularly for the first game, was arguably the greatest ever. The world was so well connected, with many shortcuts to previously explored areas opening up as you progress. You don’t even get fast-travel until about 40% of the way through the game. While the learning curve is steep, I would say that anybody willing to take on the challenge and be patient will find the game to be more rewarding than any other. The variety of weapons and playstyles will have you creating character after character to explore all the different builds, and with each build, the game gets easier and easier until one day, you are flying through it, killing bosses that once took you 100 tries with ease, and all the while, feeling invincible.
The world is beautifully rendered and incredibly detailed. The interconnectedness of it all makes exploration feel meaningful and as long as you are cautious, that exploration is rewarded. Perhaps what makes the game so epic is the boss fights. Each boss fight usually begins with a feeling of dread and helplessness. The bosses, often giants 50 times your size, can smash and kill you with one or two hits. They have an arsenal of attacks and projectiles which you must slowly learn, and learn to counter. You will begin to identify when they leave themselves open to attack, and when they telegraph their attacks. Eventually, you will defeat the boss, and you will feel rewarded as you have never felt before. The multiplayer implementation in Dark Souls is also very unique and adds a neat layer without infringing on the core single-player game.
Witcher 2, 3
Many of you are now familiar with the Witcher as it has become a popular TV series on Netflix. We should not forget that this all started with a series of short stories, which were adapted for video games. I will not discuss the first Witcher game as I have not completed it, the controls were kludgy and when I discovered the series, 2 and 3 were already available. What I love about games derived from books is that the lore and story are always top-notch. It is hard to build a world to support a game, but it is much easier to build a game to support a world. The world was already equipped with all manner of fantasy elements, it would have been easy for the developers to take that content and craft an Elder Scrolls-esque type game on top of it. Instead, they took it a step further and actually wrote their own story on top of it. I’m sure they consulted the author throughout the process but the end result is a game which furthers the original story rather than just mooching off of it. These third-person RPGs were rife with political intrigue, romance, side-quests, monster hunting, and most importantly, the freedom to do damn near anything. The Witcher distinguishes itself with its depth. Most games will introduce side quests and mini-games as fodder, things to pad out their game with “x hours of unique content” but each side-quest in the witcher games has more depth than main quests of other games. Nothing is overlooked in these games and that attention to detail is what makes this game special.
Half-life and Half-life 2
Not much to say here. Half-life was the original PC FPS game and Gordon Freeman the original hero. When I first played Half-life, I was young and got stuck in various places. Eventually, I got stuck fighting that stupid Kraken-like monster and could not get past it. In my early 20’s, I downloaded Half-Life:Source, a re-master of sorts, and resolved to beat the game. I realized that the monster was sensitive to sound, and you could distract it by throwing a grenade, then running while it pecked away at your grenade’s explosion, what an idiot… What I also discovered was that I had barely scratched the surface of this game. Eventually, I made my way to alien planets, armed myself with alien weaponry, and proceeded to go ham all over those alients. By this point, I had already played and beaten Half-Life 2 at this point but it in no way diminished the excitement of beating Half-Life. I wouldn’t hold my breathe for Half-Life 3, Valve is too busy counting their money these days to make games.
Mass Effect Series
This is turning into a massive blog post but when it comes to video games, it was hard enough for me to narrow it down to this list, and I could easily spend another 5-6 posts on the topic. The Mass Effect series was my first introduction to Bioware. Bioware prides themselves on player choice as a key component of their games. Players choose and ultimately, those choices manifest themselves later on in the game. For Mass Effect, those choices ultimately determine who your romantic interests are, and what your relationship with your crew will be like. In addition to the stellar gameplay, Mass Effect had great writing and voice acting accompanying it, making your crew feel authentic and providing you with a sense of comradery. You could only take 2 characters on any given mission with you so everyone always has their favorites. You would ideally pick your crew to complement your own class and abilities but anyone who didn’t use Grunt and Mordin are savages. Honestly, Grunt was such a tank and Mordin’s commentary is hiliarious.
Civilization 5 is a turn-based strategy game and that genre gets its own section. The reason I highlight this game here is that is a go-to for me and my wife. We have put close to 300 hours into this game and it has made our marriage stronger. It is a low-stress, low-pressure game, with many options and playstyles to explore. Of course, my wife and I always go militaristic with a “Domination” victory. I have never won using any of the other methods and I honestly don’t even know how to do a “Cultural” victory, whatever that means. All that aside, the game is a lot of fun and perfect for couples who want to start something new together.
Turn-Based Strategy Games
There are many that fall into this category and rather than enumerate them individually, I would highlight the genre as one of my favorites. This is fairly recent as I have traditionally preferred more fast-paced games. However, in my old age, I am finding less time to keep my skills sharp. Instead, I rely more on my mind than anything else, and I find this genre of game to be particularly good at that. I am currently playing “Valkyria Chronicles 4”, a JRPG of sorts. Yes, JRPGs can be verbose and feel like watching a short movie, nevertheless, the turn-based tactical and strategic elements in the gameplay make sitting through their film class worthwhile.
Dota and Dota 2
If every game had a running clock on the total hours spent playing, Dota and Dota 2 would be ranked number 1. Dota is what is now known as a MOBA, or multiplayer online battle arena, but don’t be fooled, Dota is the original MOBA. Dota was a MOBA before MOBAs were a thing, and since I’ve exhausted my daily quota of MOBA usage, I will no longer use that term. Dota began its life as a humble custom game in Warcraft 3. Blizzard fanboys fondly recall the days of UMS (use map settings) games in Starcraft. Back before tower defense was a thing, we had turret defense, we had tug of war, we had hydra ranchers, and most importantly, we had Dota. Dota featured several of the hero sprites from Warcraft 3, equipped with several of the hero skills and abilities. It adopted the hero level-up system and system of experience as well. Dota pits two teams of 5 human players, each controlling a hero, against each other. Heroes are broken up into melee or ranged, can be Strength, Agility, or Intelligence based, and usually fit a role as either a support or a core hero. I know, this is a lot, but we’re almost done. Each team has a base they must defend from the other team, this base produces waves of AI-controlled units which move down lanes from your base to your opponent’s. The waves of units are known as “creeps” and they clash into one another, here is where the battle lines form. The goal is to destroy the other players base, to do so, you will get gold by killing creep or enemy heroes (known as farming), then buy items to boost your powers, and finally push into their base and destroy it. This game, as described, is what a modern MOBA is. I have not played Dota 2 in several years, the reason being that I do not have the time and energy to keep up with the game. The game is constantly evolving as IceFrog (maker of Dota) originally intended. New updates, new heroes, large changes to gameplay keep the meta interesting but make it difficult for old heads like myself to keep up. I will always remember the game fondly but playing pubs (game with all strangers) were some of the more frustrating and toxic moments. The learning curve is steep so expect to get flamed constantly when you first start. Keep your head down, and keep playing, the game gets better.
Perhaps the best illustration of the addictive nature of this game is when my college room mate first saw me playing. It was freshman year and my room mate was a stranger. We got along well enough but didn’t have many shared interests. He would frequently see me playing Dota (old school Warcraft 3 mod) and he got interested. I told him it was a custom game within in WC3 and soon enough, he had bought the game and expansion just to play Dota. He hit that learning curve head-on and eventually became passable with Sandking. We would play together often and I would carry him as best I could. I probably raged at him more than he deserved but the fact I cared that much at all shows the emotional investment this game demands. I wonder if he still plays today…
Starcraft and Starcraft 2
I’ve saved the best for last but won’t spend too much time on it. I intend to write about Starcraft in the near future so I’ll be brief. I first played Starcraft and Broodwar when I was 10. I stayed at a sleep over at my church and a lot of the older kids were having a LAN party and mostly playing two games. In one camp were the Counterstrike players and in the other, the Starcraft players. My friend at the time had played Starcraft before and so we hovered towards that camp to watch them play. We stayed up all night watching Starcraft and when they asked if I wanted a copy, I was ecstatic. They burned the CD, supplied me with a key, and next thing I knew, I was playing Starcraft. I played the campaigns, did some custom games, but I never knew how bad I really was at the game. Concepts like build orders, macro, micro, didn’t really exist to me. Timing and speed were also lost concepts. I had no idea there was a competitive scene and didn’t truly understandd the ridiculously high skill ceiling of this game. Below is a video of a professional Zerg player, he is playing so incredibly fast and with such precision, but this is only what you see him do, physically. In his head, he is keeping track of his army, his economy, the enemy’s army and position.
The velocity of a Starcraft game is so immense that short 10 minute games feel like they span entire lifetimes, where armies are raised, battles are won and lost, and one player has bested another. Playing a 1v1 Starcraft is truly a battle between two individuals, their individual skill levels, and their wiles. The best player does not always win as there are “cheesy” strategies for besting any foe. Preparation and information are vital to the game as a knowledgeable and skilled player will scout their opponents and respond accordingly. When Starcraft 2 released, I picked up the game hoping for a nostaglic trip down memory lane. What I got was a reality check, this game is insane and I was not very good. I continued to play in the hopes of improving but playing the Starcraft 2 ladder is one of the most grueling experiences ever. Your emotional state will fluctuate between elation from a hard fought won, to anger over an unnecesary loss to a lesser opponent using a cheesy build. That being said, those wins are an invigorating experience that cannot be replicated elsewhere. The mental and physiological changes that this game induces are unique and the neurotransmitters that are released after a hard-fought win are some good drugs.
The premise of the game is actually quite simple. You pick one of three races, you start with a base and some workers, the workers gather resources, or which there are two types, and you use the resources to make other buildings, other units, and eventually you fight your opponents and try to destroy their bases. The three races consist of a bug-like hivemind race, called the Zerg, a human colonial species consisting of criminals (think Australia), called the Terran, and a futuristic psionic species called the Protoss. The Protoss and Zerg are creations of another advanced species known as the Xel’Naga. The Zerg overmind was too strong for the Xel’Naga to control and so the story begins. Although the campaigns, story, and lore are all amazing, they serve only as embellishments to the core gameplay.
And there you have it, my longest blog post to date and what an appropriate topic for it. I could write about video games ad nauseum but this will have to do for today. There are many other games that I’ve loved that did not get featured in this post, it does not mean they are not worthy, additionally, I have not played every game under the sun so I’m sure there are many that I’ve missed. The beauty is that I have the rest of my life to experience them.