Alec suggested we do Gaming Made Me – ooh – last Friday? Being RPS, we only got around to working out anything on Monday morning. It takes until Tuesday to realise how special it feels, and we should pursue it. Also, we realise that since there’s only four of us, it totally means we’re lacking a post for Friday. So we quickly drop a mail to a number of RPS contacts in hope that some of them could say something by Friday. And some of them totally did. In fact, some said so much we’re extending the run of articles until at least Monday. But here’s a punchier panel, where developers like Soren Jonson, Paul Barnett, Rod Humble and Erik Wolpaw and journalists like Tom “Tom Bramwell” Bramwell and Quinns talk about their formative games. And, of course, more if any devs care to write in and share, do so.
Soren Johnson (Designer Civ4, Spore)
Legacy of the Ancients: Although heavily influenced by the Ultima series, LotA was a lot more accessible and had an interesting twist – no experience points! A few quests rewarded the player with better attributes, and equipment of could be upgraded, but I never had to wander the wilderness gathering up XP from hapless monsters. After slogging through all of Bard’s Tale over a period of months, playing LotA was a revelation to me. The focus was on exploration and adventure, not grinding, so much so that as soon as I beat it, I sat back down and finished it again in under eight hours. I learned from LotA that we don’t need to make players “earn” their fun with camouflaged treadmills.
Seven Cities of Gold: I was a Spanish conquistador discovering the New World – except it wasn’t the Earth that we already know. Instead it was a new one, randomly generated inside my computer – different enough to surprise but similar enough to feel real. Further, the suggestive allure of my Commodore 64 spinning for multiple minutes creating new continents and mountain ranges and river valleys was immense. It was the future, and I knew it. I learned from Seven Cities that the best game content didn’t need to be hand-written.
Adventure Construction Set: I finally got to make a world of my own! Too bad it’s locked away on a floppy somewhere in my parent’s basement, but the experience of building my own little game definitely made me dream of doing it for real someday. More importantly, ACS showed me the value of a data-driven design – new games could be built entirely on top of a fixed code-base. The design space was defined by which parameters could be altered, which raises an interesting question I am still trying to answer about who it the primary author of a game – the programmer who exposes the variables or the designer who fills them in?
Quintin “Quinns” Smith (RPS’s Roaming Reporter)
Red Alert 2: It was my Fight Club, really. We walked into school every day nursing these crushed egos, the adrenaline still slouching around our brains, and we never breathed a word of it to anybody outside the clan. We’d sketch out battle plans in French and my 2v2 partner and I would have whispered debates in Chemistry. Finally the lot of us would go home, sit down at our desks, sweep all of that shitty homework into one tidy corner and get online.
To this day, Red Alert 2 is the only game I’ve ever become really good at. I mean party piece good. No obvious reason why, it was just a case of the game being in the right place at the right time and being solid enough to continually reward a sustained investment of time. But the lesson it gave me was concise enough. You can escape from anything, if you’re willing to dig. There’s nothing exciting in the design of Red Alert 2 except for the art, but we managed to elevate it to something holy that gave our miserable days meaning through simply giving a shit.
That said, I’m not entirely sure giving a shit in the long-term worked out for me. I mean, I’ve since become a games journalist who, due to price considerations, currently owns eyeshades instead of curtains, while my 2v2 partner is now a highly-paid banker in the Square Mile.
You want a reason for the economic crisis? It’s that guy. I’m sure of it. He never could get his economy going as quickly as me.
Erik Wolpaw (Valve Writer, Ex-Psychonauts.)
Mine was the original handheld Mattel Football. I got it for Christmas 1978, and it launched me into a manic, obsessive several-year period of graph-paper-based handheld led game design. I cooked up some really ambitious ones that featured like seventy buttons on the casing and required LED technology that *still* doesn’t exist. In 1996, I parked my Tempo right in front of Chet’s neighbor’s driveway in a blizzard, and Chet’s neighbor called the cops, and the cops towed my car all the way from Cleveland to Chicago because I’d bought it out of state and never managed to register it in my name. My entire body of LED game design work was in the trunk. So thanks to Chet’s stupid neighbor and Ohio’s complicated vehicle registration process and probably somehow Chet, it’s all lost to history. That’s tragic, but I asked Gabe Newell if we ever make Portal 2 could it be a handheld led game and he didn’t say no. In fact, he didn’t even acknowledge me, which made me think I might have died and I was a ghost, which made me think I guess I don’t need these pants anymore and then Kathy our human resources lady told me to put my pants back on before any women or lawyers saw me. So on the bright side, I’m not dead.
Rod Humble (EA Play head)
To write about how gaming influenced my life is a simple matter, to do so in a complete way is harder. Games are my mountains, always present, ever distant, becoming more mysterious and grander as the mists of nostalgia thicken, forming exquisite clouds around their lofty peaks.
I only have time for one. I am on holiday in England, returning for the first time in many years, and my younger days are already on my mind, so writing something will perhaps help the deed. If you are looking for the others – equally meaningful but I have not the time to write the commentary on – then please seek out: Fort Apocalypse (Synapse, Atari 800), Dictator (DK Tronics, Spectrum), Kick off (Anco, Atari ST), Air Warrior (Kesmai, PC), Steel Panthers (SSI, PC).
My pick is one that I have been replaying recently anyway as I look at various future game concepts, so often I come back to this game and the place it has in my life, time to speak well of the old dog, he has some tricks yet to teach us.
Alternate Reality – The City
Best played on the Atari 800 this game suited my mood when I played it as an angry young man, only later did I realise just how great a design it was. Released in 1985 Alternate Reality has its fiction put you (the player) as kidnapped by aliens and dumped in a new world where you make a life. The angle of giving the player permission to pretend he would become the hero is an underused one, it was successfully employed by “Quest of the Space Beagle” and “Nomad” but little else to my knowledge.
This is no kind game. You are dumped into a city of fellow refugees and monsters, you survive or more likely not. You must find food, water and shelter to avoid death and also the many violent ways to die.
The game was realtime, standing at a street corner you would be mugged or have encounters. You started with bare hands and some food and money so your first encounter was likely to be trying to claw to death some hostile rat with your bare hands. If you survive the first encounters then it might start to rain, you might get cold and tired. Finding a place to sleep would be very hard considering you had to map the game out yourself on pen and paper and the City of Xebecs Demise is vast.
If you survived a night or two then you might try and start building a life in this world, getting a job to earn some coppers perhaps. But always you have the cold streets to return to and the mystery of The City to explore. Such a harsh game world made its rewards all the sweeter. When you wearily entered a Tavern taking shelter from the damp night outside with howling wind there was a lovely feeling of hearth and hospitality made all the more real by the songs and oh the music the music. The songs and lyrics contributed to the game world more than anything I have played since. The tunes were authentic and it was compelling to read the lyrics because they were so good. Sitting in that tavern with fellow abductees you nodded in truth at the song writers mournful turn.
“the waves at home are pounding on the shore
the snow here’s falling just outside my door
and all i want’s to be with you once more
but i’m told that this is one thing that i best stop hoping for”
So what was the point of the game? It was free form, you just had to find a way to survive and explore for as long as you could, in other words you had to live. This made the game seem larger than it really was. If there had been quests or missions then it would have constrained the belief you had as a player that this was a massive developed world.
For me the game arrived at a time when I felt thrown into the world with little but my luck and wits to rely upon. It was easy for a young man whose childhood felt wrenched away to relate to this fiction , where every hand seemed indifferent or hostile. The world of Alternate Reality – The City points me towards the memory of how it felt to be leaving the teenage years into a new world. Maybe that’s what art does even when it is accidental, perhaps if it was not this game it would be something else, a building, a book, a birdsong.
Maybe even considering such matters is a reminder that youthful time of challenge and trepidation is now gone. I am cozy inside the warm familiarity of middle age now but with the cold draught of old age coming through the door, gently now, surely with greater and greater insistence in the years ahead. I wonder what games will remind me of these happier times and how I will remember them.
Paul Barnett (Mythic Creative Director)
A rubber keyboard spectrum made me feel less like my life would be forever trapped in working class shit, it made me feel like I had a chance at something other than someone who was destined to dig roads for a living.
Tom “Tom Bramwell” Bramwell (Eurogamer Editor)
I had a few stabs at trying to write something for this on Wednesday, and on Thursday, but ultimately failed. It’s such an expansive topic I could probably witter on for pages and pages, and I keep losing myself in spiralling megapoints that draw on more themes than my limited brain can ravel together eloquently. I’m sure much brighter and better folks than I will do a good enough job of that, though, so I’ll keep it simple instead:
Counter-Strike – I toddled through the SNES, but this was my real gaming childhood, skipping down the streets of cs_italy and dropping fools in the sand of de_dust, abusing people for not running with the knife and learning angles to throw flashbangs, the best vantage points, when to run and when to fight. I remember stuff about playing CS with my clan, Eat Electric Death, as vividly and fondly as I remember the magical mystery of what was over the tall fence at the side of the cul-de-sac where I lived until I was five, and things like that. I spent loads of time playing Quakeworld (god bless Wireplay and bonded ISDN) and Unreal Tournament, but CS 1.6 had the most profound effect.
Project Gotham Racing (or any of its sequels) – Specifically, cone challenges. More specifically, doing this sort of thing: chaining the whole level together in one Kudos streak. I’ve been a sort of superman in games like PGR, SSX, TrackMania and Trials HD, and that absurd pause-and-restart perfectionism (twitch-resurrection, if you like) is something I haven’t discovered in anything else in life. Wouldn’t, couldn’t be without it.
ICO - I’ve finished it about 78 million times. I don’t cry while playing games, really, or even watching films, and this isn’t the bit where ICO is an exception, but it has come closest, on the beach at the end. Otherwise I love the sense of place, the atmosphere, the whimsical visual filters, the music (especially the save tune), Ico and Yorda’s vocalisations, the puzzle design, the bizarrely counter-intuitive hidden bonus weapons…
Tetris - As Kieron himself would put it: because, y’know?
Thanks to all our panel for their time. Also, the opening photo is of Tomer Gabel’s collection, used under a Creative Commons licence.