Clicker Heroes (2014)

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The ‘clicker’ games aren’t even ‘real’ games to many. Even to me. And yet, I feel like Clicker Heroes was on to something very real. We have to admit that the game is tremendously popular. Can you name a game with so many players yet so little development costs? You cannot deny that people are spending time on it. And you can’t say it’s because of its graphics or theme. Okay, it’s obviously popular because it drip-feeds you numbers. Every game does that more or less, whether it’s high scores gotten, experience points gained, levels achieved, or cards collected, there’s almost always a number somewhere continuously growing. This program is obviously more of a game than Progress Quest. It’s more of a game than Cookie Clicker and Cow Clicker. Maybe it’s more of a game than Diablo or even Civilization. Could this gaming at its core?

The Sid Meier truism (whether he actually said it or not) is that games are made out of interesting choices. Clicker Heroes seems to understand this. The first one is found in most games of the same genre: do you invest in active clicking or passive waiting? How about a mixture? That’s really the only choice the player has the first round through, and it’s not a compelling one. But after ‘starting over’, the player gets a new currency to spend on so-called ‘ancients’, which boost certain stats. Ah, now we have some real customization. Even though it’s the ‘clicker’ genre, there’s a lot of ways to tackle the game’s challenges. clicking -or- passive I already mentioned. But there’s also: frequent starting over -or- deep runs. A higher average or gaming your luck on chests? An army of stronger heroes -or- one extremely strong one? There are even more parameters, and none of them are binary.

What’s so great about making choices in computer games? I would argue that it’s a form of expressing oneself. The way I grind through Clicker Heroes is different to everybody else. Every choice I make is deeply my own, all the more because it takes years to get through all its enemies. With the game on my phone, the way I play has a lot to do with how I plan to spend my very own time. Sometimes it’s the other way around: how much of my time in reality will be dedicated to maximizing my virtual quest?

The scary thing is, Clicker Heroes is very real. When I played it daily, it was on my mind multiple times a day. It was rather intrusive. I’m actually glad I stopped. I had seen enough. I tried plenty of different ways of expressing myself within the game’s rules. And I’m not sorry I did. It was a wonderful time while it lasted. Most games feel like phantoms to me, playthings I picked up, experimented with, and eventually got bored with. I can’t pinpoint when and where I was busy with them because they were so inconsequential. But ask me about 2014-2015. I remember some of the classes I taught, my girlfriend, maybe a couple of new friends, my trip to Palestine and Turkey. I don’t remember how I spent Christmas, not sure if I followed the NBA that year, couldn’t tell you which books I read, nor the other games I played. But I do have many vivid, exciting memories of triumphs in clicking away. So trivial yet so monumental.

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Arathi Basin (2005)

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When World of Warcraft was first announced, I recall it being a described as a first person version of the Warcraft series: now you were able to play as one of the many units during a match. In reality, WoW became much more like Everquest and Meridian 59, traditional MMORPGs, but I like to believe that the chance to play an RTS from a first-person perspective its best selling point. The end product was close enough: players delighted in storming Southshore, where the Horde and Alliance sought each other out to bash each other’s skulls in. Ask any World of Warcraft player the best of times, and if they played early enough, ‘global PvP’s would be hailed with fanaticism.

Some folks didn’t like their questing being interrupted by random jerks, and so Blizzard decided to make special places for the ‘PvP’ers to seek each other out. The first was Alterac Valley, which had skirmishes lasting hours, if not days, as forty players slowly grinded away against forty others. Again, those lucky enough to have experienced Vanilla-WoW will enthusiastically tell you how much they miss the old ‘AV’.

Blizzard was still experimenting with player versus player content, and designed Battlegrounds with clearer ways to win. Their second battleground was Warsong Gulch, which was basically Capture the Flag. This was more my cup of tea, since I cared little for proving if I was better than another on a one-on-one basis. I had Street Fighter for that. Warsong Gulch was a team game, and won with  communication. Taking a flag while keeping yours in your own base takes planning. World of Warcraft’s classes (each with their own strengths) added to the strategic element. The only problem with WSG was that, as far as I know, the best strategy was to have eight players on defense, and merely two on offense (usually a druid and healer), leading to extremely long games (two years later this problem would finally be addressed).

And then there was Arathi Basin. This is when I decided to play World of Warcraft eight hours a day. On on hand, it was a shame I was Alliance, because of the long waiting times. On the other hand, I was lucky to be Alliance because winning then meant something (Horde teams tended to quit tough matches immediately so they could beat up easier matches instead). I never played for the (delirious) honor-point system. I played to win. And Arathi Basin was the place where champions met to duke it out. To this day, I yearn for a game that would simply focus on this type of game.

The premise is simple: capture nodes and try to hold a majority of them. This gametype was already found in shooters, called Domination (Unreal) or Conquest (Battlefield), but Arathi Basin does it so much better (Note: I could be wrong, and I would only be happy to hear that there’s another game which does this game type this well). The main thing is that there are five nodes. Having three, the slightest majority, is enough to win. But here’s the kicker: having four nodes is worth way more. In other words, getting the fourth of the five flags is the true goal of the game. This makes for a highly offensive and dynamic game.

Now simply holding three nodes will naturally make you win on paper. But in practice, it’s not a very good idea: defending three areas is simply too hard (remember, your opponent has less areas to defend and take care of), and if you are against worthy competition, they will occasionally steal one, or even two! The best way to combat this is to keep your opponent honest and keep attacking, so that 1) their offenses are less effective, 2) you can more easily take a node when you inevitably lose one.

There being five major areas on the map means communication and foresight have to be optimal. Your team of fifteen players is constantly splitting up and regrouping on the fly. Every class (especially in the first edition of World of Warcraft) is good at particular things. Scout out what you need, what you can lose, and attack swiftly before your opponent is on to you. The best competitive games are those where winning is done by outsmarting your opponent. Arathi Basin is exactly that: Yomi stretched out over a battlefield.

Unfortunately, WoW created ‘Arena’, a team-based deathmatch, which was way easier to organize than fifteen player battlegrounds. The honor system, as ugly as it was (due to the insane amounts of playing time required), used to keep players online to help with that. Arathi Basin still exists, but now it’s just something to do if you have a quest for it. And so, here I am, nostalgically typing away how great it was, hoping one day a new game would come to capture its essence. I’ve tried the MOBA genre, and it’s not the same. Here’s to the recently announced World of Warcraft Classic… anybody up for a premade then?

Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003)

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Definitely not as good as the original. The third and fourth installments are also better. Still, this is the Deus Ex I’ve played the most. It is strangely enough, the one closest to my heart. And I really, really love all the Deus Ex games. I like to believe that the reasons I have for loving them so much are candid reasons for other people. Things like agency, politics, emergency, wearing sunglasses at night… what better hallmarks can you ask of a series? Those same reasons are present in Invisible War (except the sunglasses). Granted, they are hard to see, which is why I’ll be writing about them here.

Let me first get this out of the way: I get why this game is detested. There is so much wrong with part two. Immediately, the game subjects you to bad lighting. Every time I pick up the game, I spend minutes toying around with light/contrast/gamma sliders, never happy with the results. Everything looks so cold, square, and blue. The way people stare, move their arms while keeping their legs stiff, never smile… this is a dystopia getting used to. I remember reading in magazines how the advanced lighting calculations would look fantastic and mean enemies could spot your shadow. I think they look ugly and I have never once been spotted this way.
There are also the crowded spaces. While the original delighted you with vast areas to play around, the lack of room in Invisible War severely hampers your player expression. Sneaking around is awkward and often not worth attempting. Circle-strafe? Forget it. I swear, 95% of all encounters can be solved by simply running up to your opponent and hitting them with a stick.
Then there’s the annoying HUD which is supposed to be like an eye-retina but I wouldn’t know if it hadn’t been explained to me. The sounds of the weapons are pathetic. The sound of pretty much everything is either annoying or strangely mute. Ladders are still a problem. Augmentations aren’t balanced. Locations are recycled. The only music is overly ambient or overly obnoxious (NG Resonance’s tunes are simply not convincingly pop artist material). Oh, and that whole Antarctica spoof of ‘The Thing’ doesn’t work: greasels are annoying, not scary.

And now that I’ve proven I’m not sugar coating this game to the extreme, let me get to what makes this game so incredibly great. Most of all, it’s the game’s focus. The designers intended it to be more streamlined than the original. In some ways, they went too far (especially when it comes to area sizes), but overall, they did the right thing. Examples include: only important NPCs, one type of gun ammo, only multitools (ditching lockpicks), only biomods (ditching XP), item management, and most of all: mission duration. The net effect is that Deus Ex 2 gets to the point in less time.
Now what has to be realized is that ‘the point’ is different to part 1. In the 2000 release, it was using your resources and surroundings to your benefit in different ways. In the 2003 release, it was changing the outcome of the story. Players loved it when you could do that in the original, but the times you could do it were few and far between. In this one, you’re doing it all the time, more or less every mission. Better yet, there are often more than two outcomes.
At the time, morality scales were still a relatively new concept in video games. 90s Western RPGs had a little of it, Planescape Torment and Morrowind had a lot of it (if you could get through their weirdness), and Fable and Knights of the Old Republic brought it to the masses. But these never satisfied me much. I personally never cared about karma points. What I did care about is how people reacted to my actions in games. In most RPGs, NPCs usually don’t go into what you actually did, only change their attitude according to your political point score (and often extremely binary: act normal or immediately attempt to kill). Invisible War doesn’t have a scale. It just has a lot of folks reacting to what you just did. Sometimes there will be some foot soldiers sent your way to kill you, but most of time, they respond intelligently. The closest I’ve found this effect in another game is Fallout: New Vegas, but left me feeling way more indifferent.
And it’s for this I keep playing the game. Sometimes I’ll be an anarchist hippie, other times I’ll be a corporate drone. I’ve completed the game not killing anybody, and I’ve done so killing everybody I could. I’ve even once gone through the game’s missions purely by listening to most to women of color and opposing anything white men said. I look forward to doing the exact opposite next time. It’s just a blast seeing how others react. If the toys of Deus Ex 1 are its mechanics, then the toys of Deus Ex 2 are its citizens.

Another feature I dearly love is NG Resonance, the most fascinating NPC I’ve ever encountered. Her deal is that people think of her as a pop star (a la Britney Spears), and can talk to her via jukebox computers. But she quickly reveals herself to be mostly interested in the underground affairs the player is working on. She is in actuality, your best ally. As a global A.I. (the real-life NG is a stupid brat), she picks up information all over the world. Unlike everybody else you encounter, she has no motives. She just wants information. In a sense, this makes her just like the player: an outsider trying to get in. But she’s also clever (just like the player), making sure nobody can take her down. It often feels like the two of you are the only sane people in the world. Luckily, this world is your playground, and you can alter it as you see fit.

So Invisible War has its issues. That’s why it’s not a ten. And the good parts? They’re not even a ten either, since characters will sometimes react nonsensically. But there’s still a lot to play around with. The game quickly has you choosing between two factions, which then sprout to four endings. And then there’s your own way of interpreting things. There’s no morality meter, just an organic world that responds to your actions. Don’t expect anything like Molyneux’s promises for Fable. But take note of how people react to what you do. Listen to the people on the streets. Follow the news. Everything revolves around what you choose to do. If the greatest hallmark of the Deus Ex series is ‘agency’, part 2 has the most of it. And that makes this one the greatest edition of the greatest series. At least for me.

Quake II (PlayStation 1 – 1999)

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First person shooters are a dime a dozen, and here’s me telling you to try a console port of a twenty year old 3D-shooting game. With a PlayStation controller. To understand why, I’ll have to explain two theories. And no, I honestly don’t expect you to find a version of this game, a multi-tap, a working PlayStation, a CRT television, and three other friends willing to join in. But I do hope that reading this will bring new perspectives into what creates excellence in gaming.

There are many traits that define a player. In competitions, certain traits will turn out to be more valuable than others. Mostly, these traits can be practiced alone, which gives competitors a sense of progress. This is fantastic, as they’ll find the will to continue under the belief that if they just spend more time honing their skills, they will eventually get further than others. I once heard the proverb: “You can be anything you want as long as you want it more than anybody else.” Games often adhere well to this truism, especially compared to the fickleness and randomness of real life. Video games do an even better job at selling this dream than sports, since the physicality of sports will often exclude a great portion of the population. But even then, when training mental skills, the best of the best find themselves bound by physical limits: reaction time, memory, perception, button-press speed, timing/dexterity, calculation, concentration, etc. This realization has often had me ponder if there were traits in games that were perfectly mental. So far, I have only found one, and it has been at the core of the competitive games I love the most: Yomi.

Yomi is a relatively new term, often coined by David Sirlin, which Urban Dictionary states as ‘knowing the mind of the opponent’. With time I’ve come to realize that games built on interactivity with opponents are simply yomi with different amounts of padding. By padding, I mean the possibilities in a game. Rock-Paper-Scissors doesn’t have enough of this ‘padding’, and therefore gets tiresome quickly. Pokemon, now with 802 different characters, has perhaps too much. In fact, I would argue that most games don’t really need all that many possibilities. Sirlin’s next game, Fantasy Strike, will be a hyper-minimal fighting game, with less than a dozen moves per character. It works splendidly. Additional padding only means it takes longer before players can meet each other on equal ground to get to where the best bits are: outsmarting your opponent.

Which brings me to Quake II. The PlayStation 1 version. It’s simply pure shooting at each other. Now, Doom deathmatches have proven over and over again that just a handful of weapons and spawn points are all you need. So why not just continue playing good ol’ Doom? Believe it or not, it’s Quake II‘s robotic controls that give the game an edge. You see, the PS1 joypads force players to use shoulder buttons to look up and down. The D-pad (not analog sticks) is used to move and steer. Gameplay is chopped into binary outputs. Although cumbersome to the modern player, they are actually a blessing in disguise. You see, by being trapped in such a restricted discourse, players can’t depend on better movement/aiming to beat others. Actually being able to get an opponent into your reticle takes seconds, plenty of time for them to jump away. And so, a win is earned by knowing exactly where the other wants to be. This isn’t timing, or dexterity, or knowledge of your surroundings. Just you being smarter than the one you’re trying to shoot. It’s Yomi, concentrated.

In practice, this makes the game more like Prop Hunt than anything else, where the first objective above all else is to find your opponent before they find you. Shooting is also important, but mostly won by being mentally ‘a step ahead’. I’ve had countless laugh-out-loud moments playing Quake II with a bunch of friends on a single couch. Common phrases are ‘how did you know?!’ , and ‘I knew you wouldn’t see that coming!’. I honestly don’t know if this game, or any game, can be purely won on tactical acumen alone. But here’s one I wish the world gave a chance as a competition. It not, it’s one worth looking at and building on upon. Preferably with modern frame rates and resolutions. Maybe a few extra game modes. I also wouldn’t mind an internet connection. But keep the joypads the same.

Secret of Evermore (1995)

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Don’t compare this game to Secret of Mana. If anything, compare it to Gone Home. That sounds like a stretch, because it is. There’s perhaps no other game like this. Gone Home has us reflect on the desires of a fictional character somewhat like how Secret of Evermore does. Or maybe it’s more like The Stanley Parable, being a meditation on the truthfulness of a game’s story. Or maybe Bioshock comes the closest: your play a visitor of the ruins of somebody else’s dream world. No matter what, Squaresoft’s American detour is a unique product, one I’ve come to love, even more than any of their other games. And I played it right after Final Fantasy VI and right before Chrono Trigger.

Secret of Evermore received rather lukewarm reviews, and I totally understand why. First of all: it’s not Secret of Mana. Second, it’s weird (more on that later). And third, the first quarter of the game is simply uninteresting, if not unappealing. I recall the GamePro review only having pictures of the prehistoric parts of the game. Power Unlimited didn’t get much further either. Luckily, I also read Nintendo Power. They spelled out how to get through the first, boring, part, and gave a glimpse of how special the second and third acts of the game were (they even had a comprehensive map/shopping list of the marketplace!). I myself was enamored by the ‘weird’-ness of the second part. It had an endless desert, which you actually could cross by foot (every other video game with repeating backgrounds simply repeated forever). The marketplace had all kinds of items which might or might not work according to what the sellers said. There’s even a soapbox madman proclaiming we’re all but actors stuck in a video game (who the player can turn into a goat). The game got even better in the middle-age part, where we meet Cecil from Final Fantasy IV, get a ticket to a freak show (which is genuinely scary), witness a hypnotizing poetic puppet show, and get lost in an alternative Alice in Wonderland. Together with its references to B-movie Sci-Fi movies, I could argue that Evermore was the first game made for hipsters.

The references to Final Fantasy and Alice and Wonderland are not random. By now I started realizing that everything in these worlds was a little bit too much the way they were supposed to be. The Roman era has a coliseum and pyramids. The prehistoric era has dinosaurs and volcanoes. The future, which is the last part of the game, is everything the future should be. At least, a future determined by somebody growing up in the mid-20th century. It’s near the end of the game that everything falls into place: each of the four worlds were made by the four people who participated in the virtual reality experiment that went wrong. Now, the little girl’s Flinstones utopia, and the old professor’s sci-fi dystopia lack the depth of the other two. So indeed, the first part and the last part of the game are a downer. But the two middle parts: an archeologist’s and a librarian’s dream, are wonderful.

I’d rather leave it up to other players to witness the other in-game details that reflect these characters’ desires, but I will share my favorite. The medieval castle, being perfectly clean, is a replacement for the old one. We find out that the true queen stayed behind in its scruffy remains. But its few residents are honest folk. They don’t seem to care much for the new version of their home, probably due to it being built out of thin air. In the new castle, a fake queen rules, while the (true) king is mesmerized by a romantic puppet show. The citizens are kept entertained by (blatantly staged) freak shows and pig races (won by a dog wearing a pig mask). It seems to me that this is the librarian’s fantasy world gone rampant. It’s a dream within a dream. By beating the imposter queen, the citizens return to the original, dirty, town, and are happy to have done so. Things are real again for them.

Of course, the player is aware that Evermore is still a dream world, and all these people are but imaginations. But how far does this realization go? The main character constantly refers to things he sees in the game being like films he has seen in the cinema (where the game begins). During the ending of the game, the marquee sign now reads ‘Secret of Evermore’. The game doesn’t give clear answers, but that’s not the point. It’s about seeing characters live out their fantasies, you being able to be a part of them, and finding out how happy, or sad, they make them.

Ultimately, we see have a science fiction trope (‘are we trapped in a story?’) often practiced in passive media (books and film), now stuck into an interactive medium. Although the game’s set-pieces are varied, it still carries the grind of a typical role-playing game. Since the player spends half their time going through this grind, it’s only understandable that it’s easily compared to other games, games that do a better job of whacking away at enemies. But Secret of Evermore isn’t meant to be played that way. It’s about looking around, being a tourist. This might make one think that its story could be implemented better in a passive medium. But the, however shallow, interactivity of trudging through these worlds helps us better understand what these worlds would be like. Fantasy utopias are rarely perfect. And that’s what this game is trying to say. Secret of Evermore isn’t every gamer’s dream. Nor does it wish to be.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

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Simon’s Quest was my first Souls experience. Actually, I would argue that the ‘souls’-ness of From Software’s games can’t hold a candle to Konami’s classic. By ‘souls’-ness, I do not mean steep difficulty. Super Meat Boy is the opposite of what I mean. In that game, what you see is what you get. Dark Souls on the other hand, is weird. I love it how the game lets you choose a pendant at the start without explanation of what it does. There are a lot of unexplained things going on in that world, and they’re the best bits. They’re the reason players hesitate, become afraid of what’s going to happen next. You never know if the next enemy will kill you in one hit. And even if it does, it still might be the next enemy you should be trying to pass.

There’s a thin line between a game being weird, and simply being broken. Castlevania II gets a lot of flack for its ‘broken’-ness. The most notorious being its horrible translation. But there’s also many strange configurations of mechanics (example: bosses can be too easily beaten, even skipped if you like, yet continuously re-spawn). There are shops in this game, but most of them are hidden away and have to be opened up by throwing holy water on the ground. That doesn’t make any sense, physically or social-economically. The menu seems to be buggy: you can’t use items until you move the cursor around a bit. Even then, it’s often not clear what items do (the townspeople surely aren’t any help!). To this day, I’m still not sure if Dracula’s Ring has any function. Oh, so you have to equip the heart when talking with the ferryman! Kneeling with an orb opens up lakes and summons tornadoes. Placing garlic in the graveyard nets you the silk bag. In short, the game doesn’t make much sense.

I could go on and on, but let me tell you my three favorite bizarre things in the game: 1) In the fourth mansion there are these brown blocks that fall down if you walk under them. They are easily avoided. They don’t appear anywhere else in the game. Passing them just leaves you with a dead end. This badly used, hardly used asset baffles me and unsettles me. 2) In the rightmost area of the game, there is a forest/marsh with fairly hard enemies and an invisible staircase. There’s nothing to do here. Nothing to find, it’s just real estate to walk through and turn around. I don’t know if the staircase is a bug or not. The background graphics seem a bit off. Was this supposed to be used for something else? I just don’t know. But I visit this area every playthrough, hoping to be the first to find its secret. 3) There is a person, gently sitting in their home, who says to you “Don’t look into the death star or you will die”. Star Wars reference aside, the game simply doesn’t have anything for you to look at that will kill you. Or does it? Nowadays I feel confident I don’t have to worry about this so-called death star. But for quite awhile, I couldn’t help but hope to find it while also hoping not to be killed by it.

I love Castlevania II. I understand it’s not a good game, as in, a game to beat. “Beating” a game is a highly subjective phrase. Are you done when you see the ending credits? When you’ve mastered the game’s conventions? When you’re the best in the world? When you get all the achievements? When you’ve exhausted every challenge the game can inspire you to take? I would argue that a great game always has something new for you to find out. Most do this with gameplay challenges. Castlevania II‘s gameplay is easy to ‘beat’. Its finding out what it means that’s its true challenge. It always has something new for you to find out because its identity is as slippery as it gets. In this sense, it’s an unashamed master of its medium. To this day, I don’t know what was going through the designers’ minds. Maybe they were rushed, maybe they were lazy, maybe they didn’t know which way the game should be heading, maybe they were consciously trying to frighten players with its weirdness, maybe Dracula actually cursed the game and warped it into what it is. It sure isn’t like any other game I know.

On a more personal note: I was often very excited by weirdness in games during the 80s and early 90s. A lot of Nintendo (and some Super Nintendo) games lacked a certain polish. They were often cryptic, leading to rumors at school about what was actually supposed to be done (example: what’s with the broken stairs in Maniac Mansion? What else could you do with the magic ‘Spell’ in  Zelda II?). Dark Souls, and other recent cryptic games like Elliot Quest, have tried to replicate this sensation. To a certain extent, they have succeeded. But there seems to be limit they can’t get around. Modern games obviously do this on purpose, and that tends to defeat the whole point. Older games, which could sell thousands/millions without going through extensive R&D/testing, left you guessing. It’s why the (fan-made) remake of Castlevania II doesn’t work (despite having better graphics, sounds, controls, and A.I.): there’s no mystery left to indulge in.

The last time I encountered this authentic ‘weird’-ness was in Thief II. There was an NPC human/robot in somebody’s cellars who isn’t mentioned. It made some funny sounds but didn’t act intelligently. It was just there, and I couldn’t figure out what it meant. I knocked it unconscious, killed it, tried to get other NPCs to react to it, and finally continued with a save game where I let it be able to run outside towards freedom, were it to ever want to do so. This is just another example of the strength of this medium. It lets you play and make up your own reality. Maybe everything I just wrote about Castlevania II is foreign to you. I don’t care, it’s what the game has had me go through.

There’s this quote by Picasso which goes: “computers are worthless, they only give you answers”. In the case of Simon’s Quest, I believe Picasso is totally wrong. This game is the complete opposite. It won’t let me go.

The Era of Discovery (1958?-1985)

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Up until I was a teenager, I had always thought that Pong was the first video game. My father said this was the case, magazines said so too, and all my friends treated it like the birth of a medium. Its simple nature made it easy to believe it was the first of all screen-based interactive entertainment, and I believe that’s why it fits the idea better than Bushnell’s earlier game, Computer Space. Then I found out about Spacewar!, which started its creation ten years earlier. My mind was blown: this game featured different looking ships, five-player simultaneous play, the ability to shoot at each other, and on top of that, gravity formulas for complex movement. I hear that it was so popular, it found its way to pretty much every PDP terminal across the country. In retrospect, it would take another fifteen years before other games reached the same level of depth and artistry of this product.

Around my 20th year of age, I started looking into computer game history and found out about a British microcomputer called the ZX Spectrum. Having grown up in the United States and the Netherlands, I had never seen one as a kid. I learned about fantastic games such as Deus Ex Machina, Rebelstar, iD, Skool Daze, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Pimania, Gerry the Germ, Go To Hell/Soft & Cuddly, and The Feasability Experiment. All of them perhaps too crude to enjoy today, they nevertheless worked out artsy gaming conventions that wouldn’t be common again for games for another two decades. The ‘Speccy’ was cheap to buy and easy to program for, making it perfect for folks to create their own personal designs. The more I read into computer game history, the more I see disgruntled British gamers missing the old days of homebrew zaniness.

Only a few years ago I stumbled upon PLATO, a mainframe computer popular in universities during the 70s. Again, my mind was blown. Thanks to its computing power, 3D shooters (like Spasim and Panther) could be displayed. Thanks to its internet connection, it hosted the first multiplayer strategy games (Empire) and RPGs (like Oubliette and Moria). It turned out that university computers in the 70s also had games like the very first text adventure (Advent/Colossal Cave Adventure), 3D shooters (Maze War) and the first versions of The Oregon Trail (I always thought it was originally made for the Apple II). Perhaps it only makes sense that such ‘advanced’ games wouldn’t make it to home computers or arcades for decades because of the advantages that university computers had, but it still amazes me how such a small handful of programmers would end up making such a large portion of future genres way, way before the masses knew they existed.

I have experienced many other moments of bafflement looking into pre-Super Mario Bros. history. Chris Crawford’s work (Balance of Power, Excalibur, Eastern Front, Gossip, Siboot) makes me feel like the 90s were a dark age of video game advancement. The likes of A Mind Forever Voyaging, Deep Contact, M.U.L.E., Alien Garden, Lifespan, Alter Ego, and Moondust have only cemented this idea. I will watch or read anything that documents computer game history, and it practically always is a commercial narrative: Atari, Commodore, Nintendo, Sega, Sony, Microsoft. Tennis for Two and Spacewar! will often get nods, but other than that, the chronology will only follow where the money went.

By 1985, consumer demand dictated computer game culture so much that hardly anything revolutionary was being made anymore. The Famicom/NES dominated most of the computer game industry and had very conservative ideas of what to publish. The rest of the world went from making their own games on the ZX and Commodore 64, to sticking to pre-made products on the PC, Atari ST, and Master System. And thus ended an era of discovery. Not only for designers, but for historians like me. The good news is that this era lasted for decades. So long, it apparently takes decades to discover all of its gems. And such, there’s no clear point as to when this era actually started, as the discovery of computer games continues to find new starting points.

The Era of Refinement (1985-1994)

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Ah, the good old days. With an emphasis on ‘good’. Look up the term ‘retro gaming’, and you will mostly see images of this era. Ask somebody who has fond memories of gaming’s past, and they’ll mostly reminisce of titles for the Commodore 64, Famicom, Megadrive, and Super Nintendo. To this day, many of the classics from 1985 to 1994 continue to be played, whether it being re-releases, remakes, YouTube ‘Let’s Play’s, or Twitch speed-runs. So what makes this era so beloved?

The simple answer was that programmers were more concerned with software than with hardware. The 8-bit Famicom had a huge playerbase and had most of the tools needed for good gaming. The Commodore 64 and ZX let folks make their own games, leading to a plethora of homebrews (and cheap games). All the other systems, the Master System, PC Engine, Megadrive, GameBoy, Game Gear, Amiga, Super Nintendo, Lynx, Neo-Geo, they were all just expansions of the same idea: more colors, less slowdown, more memory, but nothing radically new. And so, games stuck with what worked well. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, they simply tried to refine it.

This doesn’t mean there wasn’t any innovation. Most great ideas come from successfully combining two earlier concepts. Arcade gameplay + adventuring  = The Legend of ZeldaWarrior (1979) + Super Mario Bros. = Double Dragon. Board game choices + computer mathematics = Civilization. Civilization + real time controls = Dune II. Berzerk + 3D graphics = 3D Hovertank. 3D Hovertank + Castle Wolfenstein  = Wolfenstein 3D. Practically all the technological possibilities had already been discovered before 1985. It just took more time to put them together to reach their fullest capabilities.

It was Super Mario Bros., released in 1985 for the Famicom, that almost single-handidly defined this era. Before, games were either action-packed but short (arcade games), or complicated and slow (computer games). Miyamoto’s greatest work was able to show the true power of the medium, by offering an adventure that would be fun within seconds, but challenging for hours, if not months. Pretty much every game afterwards borrowed elements from this game. And the game to sadly end this era was Super Metroid. In the year 1994, amid the release of all the 32-bit consoles, a revival of arcade spectacle (Ridge Racer / Virtua Fighter), and 16-bit games infused with Silicon Graphics (like Donkey Kon g Country), was when Samus’s third adventure marked the perfection of 2D gameplay. Maybe it was a good thing that the industry had starting looking for new ways to make games: in retrospect we’ve found since then that there was little going forward after this masterpiece.

But also the likes of Chrono Trigger, Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Bomberman, Super Mario World, Day of the Tentacle, A Link to the Past, Streets of Rage II, Doom, Shining Force II, Earthbound, Secret of Mana, SimCity 2000, Mega Man 2, Gunstar Heroes, they’re still considered to this day to be some of the best of their respective genres. The era of refinement was a time that artists could take their time to make the best of what they had. There was less commercial pressure to have the latest graphical possibilities. There was less cultural pressure to make something we hadn’t seen before. Only the pressure to make something people, including its makers, would be wanting to play. We haven’t stopped since then.

The Era of Distortion (1994-2001)

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We let adolescents do stupid things because we understand it’s part of a learning process. In multiple ways, computer game culture was in its puberty in the late 90’s. Both commercially and spiritually, it was trying to leave behind the childlike status it had developed in the 80’s. The early 90’s saw Sega, and later Nintendo, market their craft towards teenagers. Sony, the ultimate winner of the 32-bit wars, marketed their brand with the things 20-year-olds do: clubbing and psychedelics (i.e. the things that teenagers dream of doing).

Design-wise, puberty was also in session. Instead of sticking to what was tried and true, designers attempted to crack the new possibilities of compact discs, 3D rendering, virtual reality, and mature themes. In retrospect, we cringe at many of the products created then, not unlike the way we cringe at the clothing and music we purchased as teens. But how could we know at the time that these ‘cool’ things would be considered ‘foolish’ in a decade or so? Thus we kept trying, hoping to be the ones coming out on top. The likes of Rise of the Robots, Tomb Raider, Inferno, Catfight, Microcosm, Myst, Bubsy 3D, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties, and even re-releases of Dragon’s Lair came out and burned.

The industry was insecure, and the spectre of capitalism fed off these insecurities. Many companies came to their demise (like Ocean, Sierra, LucasArts, Acclaim, Microprose), some got lucky with new ideas (Take 2, Rare, Core, Valve, Blizzard), while mostly the biggest survived (the console wars ended with Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft taking over and never letting go). Hardly any low budget games attempted to focus on the artistic side of the medium, with I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Tempest 2000, Planescape Torment, UFO: Enemy Unknown, and Vib-Ribbon being the only I could come up with worth mentioning. The sad truth was that merely a few designers were allowed to stick to focusing on the interactive elements of gaming while still working with a big enough budget to gain some attention.

Deus Ex was built off the money made from Doom and Quake. Ocarina of Time could only have built with the legendary status of Miyamoto, which is also the case when it comes to Metal Gear: Solid. Ultima Online and Final Fantasy VII rode off of the commercial success of their namesake. And I suppose Gran Turismo was only made possible thanks to Sony having the foresight that a) driving games worked well with 3D and CD’s and b) realistic graphics and physics would sell well. There was Thief and System Shock, great games, but not at all commercial success.

Many games from this era haven’t aged well, and it makes sense. The likes of Half-Life, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Crash Bandicoot, Super Mario 64, Tekken 1, Myst, Carmageddon, GoldenEye 007, they all banked on the latest technologies without having much else going for them. They might have done it better than others at the time, but we now see their merits as fads (mostly 3D graphics, but also pretty pictures and excessive gore). Most of the better games from this era, like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Mario Party, Pokemon, Radiant Silvergun, Street Fighter III, and Starcraft, stuck to old-school gaming conventions, and are the ones most likely to be praised today.

So Zelda 5 and Deus Ex ultimately proved that 3D could be just as good as 2D, as long as games had a big enough budget. Unfortunately, that’s what the industry mostly learned, instead of learning from the few (yet amazing) cheaper titles made. Just like real people and their bad habits developed during adolescence, video game culture would need more time to understand which way there were best headed. Ultimately, the late 90’s were a fascinating time, full of experimentation and drama. In some ways a time best forgotten, in other ways a time best remembered, for being human.

The Era of Diversion (2001-2011)

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In 2003, Edge magazine had two covers telling of the times. One featured a gamer pointing a light gun at their head, proclaiming they were ‘bored of games’. The other simply wrote ‘Mainstream’ and featured happy looking people dancing. And so the tone was set: those who loved video games were in despair, while those who didn’t were having fun. This is the natural evolution of any art form, where later adapters take the easily digestible parts of the medium, and steer production with their cash. With 3D graphics now looking attractive enough to draw attention from the masses, producers had to care about little else in order to make a profit. Luckily, the narrative of computer game progress doesn’t end there. It actually split into four categories, all worth describing.

Let’s continue with the thread that had to do the most with 3D graphics. Remember seeing Halo in 2001? Its images alone propelled the Xbox into competition with the Playstation 2. In actuality, it was for most consumers nothing more than a prettier version of Quake II or GoldenEye. But that’s how the money rolled in, and looking back at all the games made during the 00’s, you’ll find countless generic titles simply banking on the graphical possibilities of the current generation. Gameplay in 3D environments had also improved to the point that they weren’t frustrating anymore (like in Tomb Raider and Resident Evil 1-3). The hugest commercial success of the 00’s is a testament of these times: Grand Theft Auto 3. Basically the same game as the 1997 original, the processing power of the PS2 let players now walk around in a 3D environment. Many people didn’t care about the game’s level design or direction: they just wanted the look and feel of ‘reality’ combined with some guns and cars to toy around with.

The shallowness of most games became a problem for dedicated video game players. Case in point: Deus Ex. Released in 2000, it was an expensive game which took several years to make. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a huge commercial success, mostly because it didn’t look pretty. Game players and developers found themselves in a crisis: if such a fantastic game required so much work to make, but would only sell well if as much time was spent on graphics, there simply was no point in making games like that again. And that’s exactly what happened: until the 2017 release of Zelda: Breath the Wild, Deus Ex remained the best gameplay-driven adventure game ever made. Any company with the budget to create such an excellent experience would instead spend those resources on graphics (consider Halo, Half-Life 2, Metroid Prime, Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto IV, Heavenly Sword). The sequel to Deus Ex, Invisible War, was lamented for its focus on new graphics, which led to small areas, which in turn hampered player expression. There was one exception to this rule, World of Warcraft, which became such a success that it’s still played by millions every day 13 years later.

With traditional games having stagnated due to commercial pressure, artists had to find cheap ways to further develop the medium. Thankfully, this led to a plethora of new gaming ideas. In truth, great video games don’t need much computing power, and there was plenty of it in abundance by the 21st century. This we could see on the internet, where free online games took over the medium artistically. Some titles include: September 12, Facade, the La La Land series, Syobon Action, Cave Story, Passage, Balance of Power: 21st Century, Every Day the Same Dream, VVVVVV, Today I Die, Execution, The Marriage. Also, the Japanese commercial industry had to find artistic alternatives. Now having to battle the USA with smaller budgets, the Japanese used their expertise in gameplay and innovation to create enduring masterpieces. Such titles were: Vib-Ribbon, Ikaruga, Rez, Wario Ware Inc., Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Katamari Damacy, Killer7, Electroplankton, Stretch Panic, Gregory Horror Show, Otogi, King’s Field IV, Phoenix Wright, Elite Beat Agents, and the Western release of Advance Wars.

But pretty graphics weren’t enough to woo everybody on the planet. The games industry pushed for further assimilation of the mainstream with even blander products. Most of these involved avoiding traditional direction-pad and button controllers. Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, Singstar, DJ Hero, and Rock Band all had brain-dead games of simply doing what the screen instructed the players to do, basically a fancier way of playing Simon Says. The EyeToy, Wii, Playstation 3 controller, and Microsoft Kinect all featured motion controls. While many have tried, not a single noteworthy game was released that showed this technology could move the medium forward. In retrospect, it turns out all the investment in ‘casual gaming’ of this era was for nothing: motion controls and rhythm games have now been replaced by the more gameplay driven games on smartphones.

There’s no doubt that this era was full of progress, but it wasn’t to everybody’s delight. The cheaper artistic games might have been magnificent, but they weren’t necessarily attractive to those simply looking for a good game to play. Traditional gamers found themselves looking backwards during this era. ‘Retro’ became a buzzword, as the Neo Geo, Sega Saturn, Arcade board/MAME, PC Engine, and the original Famicom became stars again. We could also see this in commercial releases, with the likes of Alien Hominoid, Metroid: Zero Mission, Mega Man 9, Sega Megadrive Collections, re-releases of Super Nintendo and Famicom games on the Gameboy Advance, the launch of Good Old Games (GOG.com), and folks converting their Xbox’s and PSP’s into emulator machines.

And so, after money starting taking over the games industry in the 90’s, but before money was able to infiltrate every aspect of gaming culture in the 10’s, there was an era of diversion. Gamers and non-gamers found and created their own cultures based around a single medium. It was the best of times and the worst of times, and I personally can’t help being thankful games got to experience such an era.