10 Notable or Influential Games
I get a lot of Facebook notifications - because I'm in a lot of groups, not because I'm popular - but one of them last week was quite interesting. A colleague had tagged me in what was initially a very strange post: it was a screenshot from SimCity 2000 (I recognised that charmingly blocky interface instantly) with the caption, "7/10: notable games. I nominate Jack Parkinson."
It wasn't difficult to figure out that I'd been initiated into one of these Facebook chains. Usually I give that kind of thing a wide berth and act all surprised if anyone asks me if I got their message, but this time my ears pricked up a little. I always want to talk about video games, and actually feel that it's not something I share too much of with my friends, so maybe this could be a conversation starter for some of them. Or perhaps I just saw it as a way to talk about it some more!
The goal of the exercise was to list ten games, one a day for ten days, which are notable, or influenced me. The following is a list of games that I came up with.
Every entry on this list means something to me. Some of them stick in the mind because they shaped my opinions about video games, some of them were compelling and meaningful experiences, and some of them just won't leave me alone.
Of course, this isn't to say that these are the only games that have had an effect on me. I believe that pretty much everything I've played has helped to shape and form one opinion or another, and distilling this into only 10 games has been tricky. But my strategy was to focus on the games that I feel were milestones, that in the long run stand out as I think back on my life and my experiences.
The games on this list span a release period of 20 years, which I feel, at risk of sounding awfully soppy, charts a real journey in my development as a person. Without these games I would not have been shaped in the way that I have, and for better or for worse would not be the same person I am today.
1. DOOM (1993)
DOOM was the first game I ever played, really. I never really understood it and I certainly wasn't old enough, but I tried nonetheless because it was all I had. For all the screenshots you see on this list, I went and dredged up a copy of the game to capture it myself. In most cases, I went on playing too, just to see if the games held up. The thing that struck me the most about DOOM was the sound design: doors and lifts and buttons have very distinctive sound effects, which took me right back to sunny Zambian mornings which were not spent outside, but squinting at an ancient CRT shooting Zombiemen and Pinkies.
2. The Lion King (1994)
I was playing this game since before I could properly use both my hands, sort of. My earliest memories of it were being sat in a bucket chair with my sister while I controlled the arrow keys and she handled jumping and roaring. We very rarely managed to finish the game, so when we did it was an event to be celebrated!
The Lion King is my favourite Disney animation, so as a kid it was a unique experience to be able to live in that world, with the stylised music and the little character nods. That said, I don't think I want to play The Stampede or Be Prepared ever again!
3. Star Wars: Rogue Squadron
This game was gifted to me by the visiting family of Dutch volunteers who worked with my parents. Thinking back, I am astonished to figure out that this was my first ever exposure to Star Wars, so I hadn't a clue what was going on. I do not regret, though, that my introduction was through the cockpit of an X-Wing, with a bird's eye view of a universe which over time (in fact, very shortly after getting my hands on this game) became unspeakably important to me.
I played through all of Rogue Squadron recently. To this day I don't think I've ever played a better combat flight sim, and I'm disappointed that Star Wars hasn't had a flying game on par with Rogue Squadron since 1998. Okay, Starfighter was fine, but the Battlefront stuff doesn't count.
4. Deus Ex (2000)
This was really the first RPG I ever played, and what an introduction!
Once again, I didn't really understand what was going on and I think it took me over a year to complete for the first time, but I still had plenty of fun with Deus Ex. I remember getting to grips with all the mechanics very slowly, like experience points and aug upgrades, which initially were just numbers and blocks of text but eventually all started to make sense. I also remember the discovery that my actions have very real consequences: save Paul and he'll pop up later in the game, that kind of thing. I didn't have access to guides or walkthroughs so I scoured just about every inch of the game looking for little changes I could make just to see what effect they'd have on the story. Deus Ex sucked me in with a huge, organic world with moving parts and - at least on the surface - an evolving story.
5. Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds (2001)
Of all the games on this list, none have influenced me on the path to where I am today more than this one. I must have spent hundreds of hours playing Galactic Battlegrounds, which was all well and good, but it led me to try my hand at more exciting challenges too. Once I knew the game inside and out, I started modding. I only made very simple changes, usually just graphical ones, but the snippets of code I played around with intrigued me. This game led me to be interested in not just playing games, but figuring out what made them tick. It started me on a course which led me to taking a computing degree, so let's just say I have a lot to thank it for.
It also happens that some friends are still modding this game to this day, almost 20 years since its release. Their work is leaps and bounds from the small fry we worked on years ago, and is well worth a look. Find them over on mod.db, called Expanding Fronts.
6. Star Wars: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (2002)
To this day I've only ever played this Jedi Knight game and it's direct sequel (which I did not enjoy) so I don't have a great frame of reference, but Jedi Outcast is stuck in my mind as a landmark game. There is something special about being a Jedi, and I don't think I've felt any other game do it quite as well. Sure, the sabre combat is a bit janky by today's standards, but having played through it recently the core still holds up. The Force Unleashed is clumsy and fiddly, the heroes in Battlefront are shallow, fairly boring and fleeting, and really that's all you get for real-time action Jedi gameplay, unless I'm missing some gems. Jedi Outcast is the game that does it best, and wraps the experience up in a half decent, galaxy-trotting adventure featuring some familiar Star Wars faces. I think it's the way to make a Star Wars game: leaning on the existing content (which is all non-canon now anyway, but nevermind) but able to stand on its own where it counts.
7. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
Yes, the fourth Star Wars game on this list! I got it with a bundle of other Star Wars games and it was the last of the bunch that I tried. I was initially put off by the controls and the turn based combat, something that I'd never encountered in a third person game before, but given that I didn't really have many games at the time I stuck with it. (An interesting attitude. These days if a game doesn't grab me right away then it's getting uninstalled - I wonder how many great games with poor starts have passed me by? Perhaps there's a blog in that!)
I'm glad I kept playing: I enjoyed it so much that it was the first game I ever pulled an all-nighter on! I very quickly became sucked in by the not-quite-but-very-Star-Wars vibe that the game conveyed. The whimsical soundtrack and gorgeous environments feel both Star Warsy and original, which is something spin-offs need to nail. Bioware were already veterans of the genre by this stage and KotOR was a strong entry in their repertoire, boasting an interesting cast of characters and a twist that genuinely got me fifteen years ago!
8. Assassin's Creed 2 (2009)
I'll be honest, I'm struggling to justify Assassin's Creed 2's place on this list! There is nothing in particular about the game that stands out, but I cannot get it out of my head when I think about notable games. It feels significant. I could break this down a bit: the music has got to be some of my favourite in any video game, Ezio is a strong protagonist, Renaissance Italy is a wonderful playground, but even combined these aren't really enough. I was not convinced that I would love AC2 after the first game, and the fact that I gave it a go and ended up loving it seeded a love for the franchise, which I have thoroughly enjoyed through all the highs and lows. But again, is that notable? Ezio was a great character, but honestly I like the grizzled, disillusioned Revelations Ezio more than playboy assassin Ezio.
Regardless, there is just something about Assassin's Creed 2 which has stayed with me. Even after some brilliant installments like Black Flag and Syndicate, whenever I think of Assassin's Creed as a franchise it's always the white-hooded, red-caped Ezio who appears behind my eyes. In my mind, that counts as notable!
9. Mass Effect 3 (2012)
The Mass Effect franchise has been really important to me over the years. I won't get into the little details about which has the best characters or story (or... ending...) because that's not why Mass Effect 3 is on this list. It was a milestone for me because it is the first game that I properly played multiplayer in. Having not grown up with online multiplayer, the concept daunted me a lot, but Mass Effect's co-op sucked me in. To this day I can't put my finger on why exactly, because Mass Effect Andromeda's multiplayer was ostensibly the same thing and failed to grab me entirely. All I know is that the hundreds of hours I spent in ME3 opened up a world of online games and helped me make connections with people all over the world that I otherwise wouldn't have met. It's bloody good fun too!
10. The Stanley Parable (2013)
The Stanley Parable made me really think about what a video game can be. At a time when the market of enormous AAA epics was rapidly growing, and the likes of Tomb Raider and Crysis 3 were pushing their photorealistic graphics hard as selling points, The Stanley Parable was a much needed breath of sarcastic fresh air. It has made me think that if I ever decided to put together a game on my own, it doesn't need to be big or impressive to be significant to people. It just needs to do one thing well, and that's exactly what The Stanley Parable does. Though if anyone can tell me what that one thing actually is, I'd be very grateful, because I haven't quite nailed it down!
Creating this list has been an adventure. I've gone back and played some games which have meant a lot to me over the years and intend to keep playing them in fact, which is just one upside. I feel that it has grounded me a little, too. By making me think about what has been important in the past, I've come to think about the games I'm currently playing or intend to play, and whether they can mean the same to me.
I've noticed that no game I've played since 2013 has appeared on this list, and more than half of the list were released ten years before that. I have wondered whether this is just because I played them during my more formative years, or maybe they've had time to sink in, or perhaps it's purely nostalgia. Perhaps games were just batter back in the old days, and things have just not been notable since - a very cynical thought which I hope to be proved incorrect. I shan't draw any particular conclusions from this observation for now, but am intrigued by it nonetheless.
I encourage everyone reading this to undertake a similar challenge. There's no need to do it over Facebook - I struggled enough myself to find ten willing participants who hadn't already been picked - but even completely privately I think it's a valuable exercise. I've really enjoyed going back in time and reflecting on how much I've grown myself, and have been pleasantly surprised by the positive responses some people have shared with me towards my choices. If you put together a list then let me know, and you'll have at least one guaranteed person to discuss it with!