Digital Life


Video game game-changers

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We won't be having a jigsaw this week, I'm sorry. Last night, the solid state drive on my PC, the drive with Windows installed on it, decided to play hide and seek with my BIOS - either that or it just plain died.

Whatever the case may be, I have temporarily been shut off from Illustrator and Photoshop, and therefore I have not been able to make a jigsaw this week. Theoretically, things should be back to normal next week.

In place of our regular Friday jigsaw, this week I am posing you all a question, a conversation-starter of sorts. Have you ever played a game that made you say, "Whoa, I didn't know games could do that!" These are the games that open your eyes to the broader possibilities within the medium of video games, the ones that change the way you think about them and realise there are so many more things we could still explore.

I was reminded of this yesterday while attending Ubisoft's Digital Days event in Sydney. Held in Europe a few times, but being run for the first time in Australia, this is the event in which Ubisoft will show off their upcoming download-only titles - Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, iPhone and iPad, etc.

One of the games revealed yesterday is a remake of 1992's Flashback, made in the Unreal Engine and modelled after the original without being a direct copy. Flashback was one of these aforementioned game-changers for me. I played it in 1993, during my second year of university, and I was blown away by it.

I had played platformers before, of course, some with strong storylines, such as Eric Chahi's genre-redefining landmark title Another World in 1991. Flashback was different, though. It was cinematic in all the best ways, and told the intriguing story of an escaped amnesiac who learns that before he lost his memory he was fighting to expose a dangerous government conspiracy.


Even more than the story, though, was the sense of place. Flashback was the first game I ever played where I felt like I was exploring a world, rather than just playing through a series of purpose-designed levels. It was heavily pixellated and made up of only a handful of colours, but the dystopian city of New Washington felt like a believable place. It even had a train system, which would keep running whether you were riding on it or not.

I suppose that was Flashback's great illusion: it felt like a place that existed before I loaded up the game, and would continue to exist after I quit. Two decades later, game developers still struggle to nail that feeling, and I wouldn't play more than one or two games a year with a really solid sense of place.

Playing Flashback, I felt my mind opening up. It had never occurred to me that somebody could create an explorable world in the format of a platform game and use it to tell a complex, nuanced story. Flashback opened my mind to exciting new possibilities, and not many games do that.

To finish up, I'll list a few more of the games that were personal game-changers for me, and a little about why. please share your own examples in the comments below.

Half-Life - The first game I can ever remember which told you the story by directly involving you in it. There were no text screens, no cinematics, just you in a dynamic world, watching events unfold around you. Half-Life also did astonishing things with co-operative AI that had never been attempted before, and which is rarely done so well even today. The first time the two friendly guards I had following me around had a brief conversation amongst themselves, I was gobsmacked.

Hitman: Codename 47 - It was such a small thing, but it completely changed my gaming experience: strolling through a public space in the first Hitman game, people would turn their heads to watch you walk past. It sounds trivial, but it did more to make the world seem vivid and real that anything else at the time.

System Shock - I had never hated the villain in a game as much as I hated SHODAN, deeply and personally. She was not simply a series of in-game problems to solve: she had wronged me, tauted me, and attacked me, and I was mad. I didn't want to win System Shock; I wanted to defeat SHODAN. This landmark title made my actions in the game feel deeply personal, and later I was amazed at how visceral my reaction had been.

Bioshock - Three words: "Would you kindly?" Bioshock was the first major mainstream game that held a mirror up to itself and said to the player, "Why are you doing this? Why are you here? Why are you solving these problems and killing these people? Why are you so readily following the directions of this voice in your ear?" It was deeply unsettling, and utterly brilliant.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare - While the Call of Duty series gets dismissed by critics as shallow, mindless violence in a jingoistic military fantasy land, those who have played the single-player campaign know just how wrong that is. Modern Warfare was the first (as far as I know) interactive essay on the pointless horror of war. Sure, you mow down legions of bad guys, and you do take down the big villain, but the cost is terribly high, and the game ends with your character alone, having watched everyone he cared about murdered while he was powerless to stop it. I also loved its restraint; it prompted players to think about the pointlessness of nationalism and war, but never got preachy about it. It's an incredible piece of storytelling.

Portal - It's tempting to say that Portal is a very funny game and leave it at that, but that would be selling it short. Portal used comedic writing to incredible effect, with a hilarious script and ingenious vocal performances that enhanced the novel problem-solving without distracting from it. It set new standards for video game script writing, and I don't think anyone has topped it yet (though Portal 2 came close).

Please share your own landmark games that changed your ideas about what games are capable of doing in the comments below.

 - James "DexX" Dominguez

twitter DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez