By Alec Meer on July 7th, 2009 at 3:04 pm.
Oh dear, is it my turn to froth away about the most formative games of my past? All aboard for a magical mystery tour down my winding memory lane, then. I’ll tell you this much: I’m definitely no Jim Rossignol.
UFO: Enemy Unknown
(Or X-COM: UFO Defense if you’re a colonial).
A couple of years ago, I woke up in a cold sweat, with a man’s name on my lips. I didn’t know what I’d been dreaming about (though I was pretty sure it wasn’t sexy), but the name troubled me: “Anatoly Kolotov.”
Hmm. Russian-sounding? I didn’t know any Russian guys. I recognised it, and was quite sure it had been dragged up from the very pit of my memory, but I just couldn’t place it. For weeks, I muttered it to myself, and asked everyone I knew if it meant anything to them. No dice. Google was no help either.
It was some random, otherwise unassociated mention of X-COM that caused the stereotypical punch to the gut/ head rush joy-pain of nostalgia. Of course – now I remembered Anatoly Kolotov. It was a name I hadn’t heard in almost two decades, but one which, it seemed, would never leave me. Anatoly Kolotov was my highest-ranking, most effective soldier in the original X-COM – the lynchpin of Earth’s defence against alien invaders. If I researched or found new armour or some new incredi-gun, Anatoly was always first to try it out. His kill-count was phenomenal. He wasn’t unstoppable – that was never the X-COM way – but he was always the most fearsome guy on the battlefield. He’d been with me since the very start of the game, and was still with me even as we were gearing up for the climactic assault on Cydonia.
One day, Anatoly Kolotov died. I don’t remember how, but I remember the shock. I remember feeling absolutely hopeless – how could I possibly save the world without Anatoly’s help? Something in my brain still has unconscious total recall, I suspect – that’s why I woke up shouting ‘Anatoly Kolotov’ in distress.
I do know I reloaded a savegame. It was not yet Anatoly Kolotov’s time to die, I reasoned. Nonetheless, the trauma of losing a character that felt so thoroughly mine, one I’d nurtured and developed rather than simply witnessed trot through a game’s scripts, was formative. This wasn’t Manic Miner losing a life or having to restart the level in Wolfenstein. This was someone I’d personally invested in, ripped brutally away from me.
Of course, ‘Anatoly Kolotov’ was just a randomly-generated name, and assigned randomly-generated stats that happened to make him a better survivor than his colleagues. There was nothing in any way Me about him. Yet he was an affecting enough presence to make X-COM a startling wake-up call to me – a realisation that game characters could be much more than colourful sprites and catchy soundbites. Mario? Sonic? Lara? Freeman? Nobodies. Anatoly Kolotov is my hero.
This turn-based artillery game – think proto-Worms – was my entrée into the world of multiplayer gaming. Not the namby-pamby two-man, splitscreen multiplayer of the Nintendo and Sega set, but a whole pile of people each out for themselves, rabidly determined to wipe out everyone else with a powerful cocktail of guile, brutality and wind-compensation. Temporary alliances were formed to take out particularly dangerous players, then broken the second they were dispatched. This was my Quake III, my Unreal Tournament, my Counter-Strike.
In truth, it was hotseat-based rather than LAN, but my particular experience of it was much more analogous to the remote multiplay we enjoy today. It was the game of choice in my earliest years of secondary school – age 12 or 13, at a guess – smuggled-in copies on floppy discs, played in the school computer room over lunchbreaks and, stealithy, during tedious computing and maths lessons. 30-odd boys would form into 8 or 9 man groups, then bomb the hell out of each other’s uni-coloured tanks. We’d often play multiple games simultaneously, so while your opponents took their turn on one PC, you’d run over to another game to take your turn in that one. As we returned to class, we’d chatter excitedly about what exactly what we’d done, how close the fight had been, and what we’d try next time.
I wasn’t a popular kid at school, which I’m sure surprises precisely no-one. That didn’t matter when I was playing Scorched Earth. The cool kids, the bullies, the nerds and the dunces were all united a few times a week by the common desire to destroy each other. The lion lay down with the lamb, and the thuggish rugby player with the nebbish bookwork. As long as you played the game competently, you were welcome, whether or not you got your ears boxed yesterday. Games are, it’s true, often about violence and hedonism and distraction and all manner of similarly frowned-upon factors, but increasingly, they’re also about community. That’s not a new thing. Scorched Earth gave me a temporary sense of belonging in an environment that otherwise spurned me. Yeah, it probably made me into even more of a geek than I already was, but hell – here I am.
The weapons were the main draw, of course. They seemed amazingly destructive – daisy cutter bombs and MIRVs ripping apart the landscape with fatal sunsets. A cursory glance at screenshots of Scorched Earth now reveals just how much work my imagination was doing back then, extrapolating primary colours and crude circles into breathtaking future-war.
Scorched Earth taught me strategy, it taught me tension, it taught me vengeance, it taught me cooperation and it taught me smacktalk. Hell, it probably even taught me a little bit of maths.
Legends of Valour
I haven’t thought about Legends of Valour for nearly 20 years. When I was coming up with my shortlist for this piece, I knew something was missing. I knew it was an RPG, I knew it featured buildings, and… well, that was it. Its name, its story, its setting, its developers – everything important was lost to me. I only had a couple of blurred, static images that flickered across my conciousness whenever I thought of it. I needed, somehow, to take a screenshot of my own memory and show it to someone.
I found its name only yesterday, whilst doggedly typing every variation of “90s PC RPG” I could think of into Google. I found a few frighteningly comprehensive lists, but scrolled right past Legends of Valour. The name alone failed to ring any bells. It wasn’t until I found one that included box shots that it hit.
I adored that box. Lavish, embossed, varnished, massive – it seemed as thought it should contain so much more than a mere game. The box was the reason I bought it – second-hand, I believe. I knew nothing about it otherwise, hadn’t even heard of it. I just craved that damn box.
Looks crass as anything now, but I still feel pangs of desire for it. Fortunately, the game itself came up trumps, at least to my ingenue’s mind. I’ve since discovered that it suffered a bit of a critical kicking from some quarters – especially its PC version – but for me it was a profound eye-opener. I’ve a feeling I had played a few RPGs previously, but I don’t believe any left much of a mark – tellingly, the entire Ultima/Ultima Underworld series passed me by. This was certainly the first one I really lost myself to, being set as it was within one (seemingly) huge city, to be explored at my leisure. Legends of Valour is, essentially, the reason I’ve spent the last fortnight replaying Morrowind for dozens of hours – my first encounter with the incredible freedom of open-world roleplaying. What, you mean I don’t have to go there? I can go over here instead? Or here, or here, or here? I’d had some experience of similar with text adventures, but for a 3D world to do it seemed inconceivable.
Imagine the contempt an RPG would suffer today if it was entirely based in just one city. But Legends of Valour made a virtue out of it, squeezing as much visual diversity it could from the town of Mitteldorf’s many districts. Guards here, bandits there, bloody werewolves here… Beneath it all, one giant, bewildering sewer/dungeon. Only a navigational genius wouldn’t get frighteningly, exhiliratingly lost. Yeah, the town planner should have been fired, but it meant endless adventures, endless exploration, endless confusion – and the sheer delight of somehow finding your way home again afterwards. As I wandered, I could converse with anyone, collecting random quests – indeed, fighting was something of rarity here. This was a town to live in, not one in which you’d paint the streets red with blood. Just as well, as the combat was a terrible mess of frantic clicking.
Then there’s the map. Oh man, the map. The Box contained a vast, fold-out poster, but this was not mere decoration. In fact, it’s perhaps the least decorative poster ever made. A simple, top-down map of the city’s layout, its only immediate purpose was to demonstrate where the city’s various districts were in relation to each other. On the left, a list of specific building names – but it didn’t reveal where any of those buildings were. That was my job.
Whenever I stumbled across a hitherto unvisited building, I reach for my pencil, found the structure’s name from the list, then diligently marked its reference number on the map itself. That map was mine – my own evolving cartographical creation, and a personal record of my adventures to date. You’d think shops and taverns would want to be found, but no matter – this was sublime roleplaying. I was my character, keeping and referring to my own notes. I can’t believe I don’t own that map anymore. My delight at finding a PDF copy is tragically immense.
Most of all though, I remember being arrested for vagrancy. Legends of Valour doesn’t have the Elder Scrolls games’ mollycoddled take on survival – food, drink and sleep were absolute necessities. Of course, sleeping in an inn was expensive, so an amateur adventurer such as I would find a darkened corner, curl up cautiously and hope for the best. The guards usually caught me. Bastard, hobo-bullying guards.
The more I read about it now, the more tragically clear it is that Legends of Valour was a massively flawed game. Such critical judgements are scarcely important when discussing formative games. It doesn’t matter now whether it did it with aplomb or not – Legends of Valour taught me the value of making my own decisions, unhooking myself from story and living in the game rather than simply playing it – traits now common to a great many of the games I most enjoy. Stalker, Morrowind, King’s Bounty, even World of Warcraft back when that ‘World’ still meant something: Legends of Valour was my first step to all of ‘em.
Dune II: Battle For Arrakis
History class, circa 1993. Mr [?] clocks that I’m not paying attention. Again. Of course, the rugby kids are making all kinds of noise at the back, but Mr [?] is ferociously proud of the school rugby team, so they get away with it. Scruffy, spotty, speccy little Alec Meer, though – he must not be allowed to while away the lesson by doodling in his exercise book.
Mr [?] walks over to me without my noticing. Grabs my book from my hands, leaving a biro trail down its length as it’s ripped rudely from underneath my pen. Holds it up in front of the entire class. “What’s this, Meer?” “N-n-n-nothing, sir.” “It looks like an aeroplane. Or a bird. Tell me what it is.” “Mmmnithommr.” “What?” “It’s an ornithopter, sir.” “A WHAT?”
Nervously, pathetically explaining what Dune 2 was to 30 sneering teenagers and a short, stern man with a hideous combover didn’t do me many social favours. It also didn’t stop me from compulsively playing Dune 2, the sterling grandfather of real-time strategy. I adored army-building, the steady climb up the tech tree, the vanquishing of rival Houses with my vast army, and the semi-cheat that made a Harvester’s spice load increase by 1% if you clicked on it. More than that, I adored the visual design. Looking at it now, I can barely tell half the units apart, but back then it was a realisation that there was far more to games than high-technology. Its crude sprites told a tale and painted a scene impeccably. When I wasn’t drawing Dune 2 units, I was playing Dune 2. When I wasn’t playing Dune 2, I was talking about Dune 2 – telling tall, exaggerated tales about improbable victories.
A small group of us built all manner of myths around the game, denied an internet to fact-check any of them. Cheats that didn’t exist, secret units that were the stuff of pure fantasy… There was even, one of us claimed, a rare version with a fourth playable House. They were yellow, and their vehicles could cut soldiers’ legs off, leaving them screaming and bleeding on the battlefield, at least until a Harvester ran over them. Oh, how we wanted that version. We knew it didn’t exist, but by God we believed in it anyway.
Dune 2, I suspect, was what made me a PC gamer specifically. It also left a subjective tumour in my brain which means I will never, ever enjoy any RTS as much as I did Dune 2 in 1993. I try, I really do, but it’s no good. This was the first game I ever fell really, truly head over heels for. You never quite get over your first love.
My second-ever published game review (and the first of any decent size) was Emperor: Battle For Dune, in 2001. Funny old world.
My father wasn’t terribly happy about how long I spent playing games (even though it was entirely his fault, his having provided the household with a ZX Spectrum and a BBC Micro a few years previous to the arrival of the 486 SX on which I played the five games listed here). Hearing his 13-year-old son shout “FUCK OFF” at the monitor whilst playing Syndicate probably didn’t help.
Gobliins 2, though, was the game that we could both enjoy, and both appreciate the other for enjoying. The puzzles were smart enough to convince him there was worth to them, and absurd enough to make me laugh. This was co-operative gaming: me at the physical controls, him at the mental ones. He seemed to grasp this French point’n'click adventure’s skewed logic better than I did, but would hint at his supposed solutions rather than outright say them – nudging me towards working them out for myself.
What did Gobliins 2 teach me? I guess that, like most of the others here, it developed my preference for a well-crafted world over precise mechanics. I’m fearful to revisit its pratfall-based gags now, but I suspect its tale of idiots somehow blundering through danger had some effect on my generally irreverent approach to my own gaming adventures. In hindsight, it also taught me that games can be a force for much more than mere hedonism. Like playing Scorched Earth with those Bigger Boys, it brought me closer to someone I (at the time) had a fairly fractured relationship with.
More than that, it was spinning a tale to the two of us, one we both participated in and directed. Television, movies, books – these kept people apart, alone, even when enjoyed in company. Games can bring people together – the shared wonder of pressing buttons to make a tiny world change in front of our eyes.