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Video game game-changers

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Flashback took the familiar platform genre and did remarkable new things with it.

Flashback took the familiar platform genre and did remarkable new things with it.

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

38 comments so far

  • Final Fantasy VII changed my view on games. I've always been a gamer since I was a little child, but FFVII opened my eyes to story telling and epic scenes in a video game. Combine that with Pokemon and my love for JRPGs was born. Before that, I didn't have a choice on the games I had. I had some really good ones like the Super Mario Bros series or Zelda, but FFVII was when I first went "Wow!" and started becoming more picky about the things I got.

    Another series to have a big impact on me was Persona 3. I loved the depth of the storyline, how it merged the occult with the modern day and I loved all the intricate details. I looked up Tarot cards and found out how accurate the game was. Persona 4 similarly blew my mind when this came out afterwards. I've always been interested in Shin Megami Tensei before but never took the plunge. After Persona 3 I've been getting every SMT game I can get my hands on.

    There are a few others but I can't think of them right now.

    Commenter
    Raito
    Date and time
    April 12, 2013, 6:16AM
    • Flashback was an amazing game, though I never quite finished it. If I recall correctly, I got stuck on one of the last few levels where I just couldn't get past an area and gave up.

      As for games, there are a few.

      Double Dragon 3 on the NES is the only game that my heartbeat increased immensely during gameplay, due to the last boss fight. I felt like I had been doing some major exercise, given the speed of my heart. No other game has given me that intense feeling physically.

      Fez: I showed my brother this last year and his head spun. Mine did too initially. It made me realise how a simple gaming mechanic can change your whole experience and view of how a game should play. I know that such things have been used before but I think for me, I had forgotten about it all until then.

      Commenter
      Joka
      Date and time
      April 12, 2013, 7:59AM
      • Hard to tell with so few pieces, but my guess is 'Flashback'.

        Commenter
        Sam
        Date and time
        April 12, 2013, 8:43AM
        • Ah damn, someone beat me to it! One of the first few jigsaws where I've been reasonably confident from the start >_<

          Commenter
          Schmole
          Location
          Syd
          Date and time
          April 12, 2013, 10:02AM
        • Hehe good one. Nice to have such a good laugh today!

          Commenter
          Joka
          Date and time
          April 12, 2013, 12:39PM
      • Descent- The first time I was shot from above by an enemy craft, I looked around me in a 360 degree circle looking for the assailant , realised they were up above me, but by the time I looked up for it, the craft was already moving below me and shot again, I was blown away almost literally. It was the first game I played where you could move in every direction freely and it blew my mind.

        Commenter
        Verecious
        Location
        Waiting for the weekend
        Date and time
        April 12, 2013, 8:56AM
        • When I was younger, just about every new Amiga game for me had a moment of "Wow! computer games are amazing".

          However, I'd probably have to say that the first time that I loaded up Morrowind was the time that I genuinely went "THIS is exactly what I'm looking for". When I walked out of the first house that you start in, and realised that you can walk anywhere and go do anything in any order in such a vibrant 3D world.

          Commenter
          Swordfactor
          Date and time
          April 12, 2013, 9:21AM
          • You know what a lot of these games have in common? A great opening COUGHhintCOUGH.

            Oh, by the way, don't forget to submit your top 10 list for your personal 10 favourite game openings! Answers to screenplayvote@gmail.com

            Commenter
            luverly_5pam
            Location
            garble
            Date and time
            April 12, 2013, 9:39AM
            • I took a sabbatical from games during the early 00s. Played my 64 and some retro titles during this time but didn't jump into the PS2/GC/Xbox gen. Finished my degree at uni, and had some money saved up from work - in 04/05 bought a 2nd hand Gamecube with a bunch of games. Because of a game.

              It was Resident Evil 4 that really re-lit the fire in the belly though, got that new mailed via an on-line games shop before the 'Cube arrived. I thought, now that's a game-changer.

              Commenter
              Leigh
              Date and time
              April 12, 2013, 9:45AM
              • The Settlers. My friend and I would spend 12 hours straight on that game every other weekend, building huge self sufficient colonies. I'd never played any games that were that involved. Your objectives sort of morphed and changed depending upon the available resources, the lay of the land, and where your opponents were.

                Battlefield 1942. Anyone else remember how epic the original was when you first played it? My first introduction was actually at a LAN and I had a feverish, insatiable desire to get a copy (but had to wait 5 days till my next payday, it was hell). It wasn't just a mindless deathmatch for or some awkward game mode wedged into a map designed for deathmatches. It was built from the ground up for conquest and then went and put vehicles in there, and it all worked beautifully. I wound up playing so much of Desert Combat I was weaving Apaches between trees during strafing runs.

                Wing Commander Privateer: A whole galaxy to explore, full of pirates, merchants, bounty hunters, smugglers... You'd go to the mission board and just pick jobs like you were searching a newspaper. You could go investigate that lead you picked up or stick around making cash to upgrade your ship. Why won't anyone make another one of these? Maybe I should track down a copy of Tachyon and give it a go again. I know it wasn't perfect, but damn you for making me think about games that were so fricking awesome, DexX!

                Commenter
                Lucid Fugue
                Location
                Melbourne
                Date and time
                April 12, 2013, 9:56AM

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