By John Walker on February 15th, 2011 at 12:30 pm.
Yesterday, as you may have noted, Dr Rossignol began our lecture series on the most important PC games of all time. Much like The Christmas Lectures, The Reith Lectures, and the TED Lectures, this definitive series has been a part of our institution as long as the Earth has borne stones. In this second part Professor John Walker explains the varying importanceness of a second collection of the most important games to have graced the PC in the last 150 years. Read on for one fifth of the elements necessary for enlightenment. And doffs of hats to Intel’s AppUp developer program for sponsoring this most critical of series.
Hello students, one and all. Please make sure you’re sat in a seat that doesn’t squeak, have your pen and notepad ready, and put your phones on silent. And for goodness sakes, Andrew, pull those headphones out of your ears. I will be narrating a Power Point presentation of one fifth of the games deemed to be Important. Do not worry if a game you think should be listed does not appear. It may have been in yesterday’s lecture, or any of the following three. Also, stop being so impertinent. Right, pay attention.
PLEASE NOTE: I’ve ordered this list by how many letters there are in its title, because it’s the only way that makes any sense.
RELEASE DATE: 2007
Portal’s importance in gaming history is oddly not to do with its incredible puzzle design, its hilarious story, nor its ability to make a detached voice one of the most entertaining and chilling game characters of all time. Its importance is a lesson that’s still waiting to be learned: short games are a viable choice for development. Gaming has got itself stuck with eight-hour blockbuster action and “episodic content”, where a regular game is needlessly chopped up into bits that end up costing more than a regular game would in the first place, or being abandoned halfway through. Portal, at perhaps three or four hours long in its first play through, is the novella of gaming – something that’s only matched for length by the most elaborate mods or ambitious indie games. The last four years should have seen a torrent of copycat games from major publishers, mid-priced offerings for games that only need to be mid-length. Had this gem – this most exquisite puzzle game – been any longer it would have outstayed its welcome. It had a series of challenges to set you, a stunning twist in the final third, and at just the perfect moment bowed out with a song. Will anyone ever learn the lesson it’s screaming to teach? It’s looking ever-increasingly unlikely. But you can always play Portal again. And again.
RELEASE DATE: 1995
We’d only just started getting used to 3D! Not the stupid 3D that’s currently making us all watch films in muted colours, endlessly having poles stuck in our faces. The 3D where games on our screens looked like they had depth. It was only 1995, we were still acclimatising. And then Descent decided to make it way more complicated. Six degrees of freedom. You were flying in a 3D space, able to turn upside down, the game keeping your ship level and spinning the world around you. In fact, it wasn’t even really in 1995 that this was happening to us. The shareware version came out in 1994, only a year after Doom. We weren’t ready! And better, it was really in 3D – not Doom’s cheaty 2.5D deal. We felt motion sickness. We had to grow new fingers to maintain all the keyboard controls with this newfound Z-axis. And we loved it, became adept at it, shooting virus-infected enemies and rescuing hostages, before belting it out of the centre of whatever it was we were about to blow up. That’s what we were up to.
RELEASE DATE: 1991
I am unable to speak with authority about February 1991. I was 13. I was unable to speak with authority about anything at all. So I cannot satisfactorily describe to you the games that preceded Lemmings, nor its immediate influences. What I can tell you is that it was bloody brilliant. I discovered it at my dad’s friend Ted’s house, when they went off for some boring conversation about Ultima or something, and I was left in front of a PC with a copy of Lemmings running. The reason everyone said of World Of Goo that it was the game to succeed Lemmings was because it had the same magical sense of discovery. Seemingly impossible tasks of leading the suicidal blue/green creatures to the exit door would be realised as you experimented with the available tools. Working out which Lemmings to sacrifice in order to save the many. Digging through walls, blowing up dynamite, launching umbrellas, and most importantly of all, assigning bookends to stop the buggers pouring off the side and splatting into the sea below. Every puzzle game after it wanted to be the Lemmings. That’s importance.
Dragon Age: Origins
RELEASE DATE: 2009
Dragon Age is one of the finest RPGs of all time. I’d say (more safely now it’s 2011) that it’s the best of the last decade. That makes it important. Bloody brilliant 100 hour epic constructions of passion and emotion, war and death, romance and religion – they don’t come around very often. The scale, the depth, the history – it’s all a remarkable work, and one that seems to far too often be taken for granted. And that’s the issue with Dragon Age. It feels like the last of something, rather than a pioneer of anything. It’s such a stunning example of the genre, and a massive pleasure to play, but is it the final word on the matter? I think Mass Effect is the direction the RPG is heading in, and your Witchers and your Dragon Age IIs, are relics. Dragon Age is a wonderful relic, and one of my favourite games of all time. But it’s hard to put it forward as a text for gaming’s future.
Duke Nukem 3D
RELEASE DATE: 1996
While I don’t think I could intellectually defeat anyone who argued that Doom or Quake were more important games to the FPS genre, there’s still a part of me that really believes Duke Nukem 3D is more so. I may be able to rationalise this with talk of its destructible environments, the way locations could be completely changed by crumbling cliffs, or any of the many technological advances its engine brought. But I think it liberated games. It was childish, naughty, puerile and rude, but at the same time as being a really excellent shooter. So rarely are the two combined, one compromised for the sake of the other. In making a genuinely great game, it must be tempting for developers to take not just the creation of it seriously, but the content too. DN3D risked being filed in the “not to be taken seriously” category, for not taking its content seriously. But that misses quite how much work went into this. It was an extremely serious project. And it gave permission to others to do the same.
Call Of Duty
RELEASE DATE: 2003
My goodness, can it really only be seven-and-a-bit years ago? It feels like Call Of Duty should have been with us since the beginning of gaming, a side-scrolling WWII shoot-em-up on the Amstrad, a blip on the screen of an oscilloscope. But it wasn’t until 2003 that Infinity Ward split from EA, invaded Poland, and triggered the biggest action gaming series of all time. Clearly it is now synonymous with the loudest controversies and biggest marketing campaigns in all of gaming, but it began as something incredibly special. Call Of Duty’s depiction of conflict was unlike anything else we’d seen, even the Medal Of Honour games that preceded it. This was the terror of war, surrounded by allies who would die around you, fighting as scared teenagers surrounded by other scared teenagers. It was a game whose intensity of trauma meant I could only play one mission at a time, before having to quit to recover. It didn’t glorify war, but was horrified by the brutality of it. The effort was focused to make it clear this was about people, not amorphous armies. It was about death, and fear, and trembling in corners. Never mind what it’s become – where it began makes it one of the most important PC games of all time.
See also: Call Of Duty 2
World Of Goo
RELEASE DATE: 2008
IMPORTANCENESS: Stuck to our hearts forever
It makes me happy. Some games cheer me up, others keep me interested, many move me or inspire me. But World Of Goo makes me happy. It makes you happy too. And that makes it extremely important. Sometimes it’s tempting to think that all the great ideas have been thought of and executed, and that gaming’s doomed to iterate for the rest of its existence. And then two guys in a coffee shop come along and release the best puzzle game in two decades. Attaching balls of goo like a model of covalently bonded atoms to build flexible towers, bridges, structures, is a damned good idea. It alone, performed in a collection of cunningly designed puzzles, would have been enough for brilliance. But World Of Goo isn’t satisfied with that. It imbues everything with personality, from the goo balls to the sign posts to the menu screens. It pops and giggles, bright and delightful, as hypnotically pretty as Cbeebies evening programming, and as cunning as seventeen hundred foxes. The music, the design, the puzzles, the glee, the colour, the thick, black edges, the jokes, the twists and turns, the evolving challenges – they add up into something spectacular. It made its creators deservedly rich, and marvellously they’re doing their best to use that to help others in the indie realm. They pioneered “pay what you want” sales, and told people they didn’t care about piracy. They’re still making people’s days.
RELEASE DATE: 2005/2006
The tragedy that is the story of Psychonauts’ UK release is too sad to even retell. What should have been one of the most popular platform adventures of all time still lives in relative obscurity, more read about than enjoyed. This is one of the most wondrous games we’ve ever been lucky enough to play, and almost no one did. The tale of a summer camp for psychic children let us explore a vivid and gorgeous world, between explorations of the minds of its residents, uncovering psychological disorders in bright, Nickelodeon colours. Each brain entered wasn’t only thematically different, but also changed the way the game was played. Each could have been a satisfactory game of its own, but Psychonauts threw them aside as if they weren’t a masterstroke that most developers would sell their legs to think of, making room for the next. Its remarkable darkness, the Burton-esque design, and Schafer’s masterful dialogue means what looks like a kid’s game is in fact remarkably adult. The depiction of mental illness, despite visual puns, ludicrous design, and outlandish characters, somehow remains sensitive throughout, whether you’re being chased by bulls inside an emotionally distraught artist, manoeuvring through the multiple tiers of a Napoleonic complex board game, or exploring the twisted insanity of a paranoid schizophrenic. Some shoddy edge detection, and that Meat Circus level aside, this outdoes all the more successful examples in the genre in a way that’s frankly unfair.
Sim City 2000
RELEASE DATE: 1994
IMPORTANCENESS: Core to gaming’s infrastructure
I don’t like management games. If I have to look at graphs, I’m at work. I want to be at play when I’m in front of a videogame. So why did I spend a frightening amount of my time playing Sim City 2000? Please, someone here contribute something. Why? It couldn’t be graphier. Why did I not only not mind but thoroughly enjoy laying down all the water pipes beneath my sprawling towns? What was wrong with me that I was delighted to place electricity wires one by one so my metropolis could be powered? How come I cared about those Sims and their happiness, such that I’d work out the correct levels of taxation to ensure appropriate funding without punitively affecting the poorer members of my society? Why was I content with sorting out public transport infrastructure? Maybe it contained some sort of evil hypnotic power, that trapped my defenceless 17 year old brain. Oh, and why is it important? Ha ha. It’s because it was the first game I ever wrote a published review of. That’s why. Oh, and it had some sort of impact on the management genre that’s still unmatched today.
See also: Sim City 4.
City Of Heroes
RELEASE DATE: 2004
IMPORTANCENESS: World saving
As someone who has never been charmed by another MMO, City Of Heroes holds a special place in gaming for me. But I’d argue it holds a special place in the larger scheme, too. It was a game that understood that MMOs should not be all about grind, but rather about action and reward. While decent travel powers not arriving until level 14 may have felt a bit of a slog, it was fantastically early compared to its contemporaries. And then you were leaping, flying, teleporting or speeding around its lively cities at such a tremendous pace that you really felt like a hero. It was a game where it was just magnificent to stand on a window ledge high above the city and watch. Since I think it has filled itself with so much extra that it’s muddled, and the experience is no longer the same. And clearly others have tried to mimic its successes, but none has quite managed to replicate its early glory.
Beyond Good & Evil
RELEASE DATE: 2003
IMPORTANCENESS: High, to the beating heart of love
It takes quite a phenomenon to oust a book by Nietzsche as the top brain result for its title. And yet a phenomenon of sales it was not. While someone watching one of the more action-filled sequences from a mid-point in the game may be forgiven for not seeing a distinction from your Jak & Daxters, they’d be missing out on something crucial: heart. When you first encounter it, spending half an hour photographing animals and chatting with creatures around a lighthouse feels like some form of madness. Later on, as you’re rescuing your pig-uncle from space, it created a tone that’s inescapable throughout – a brilliant third-person action platformer where the relationships between the protagonists actually matter. That it was released for PC makes it something of a rare treat. If it influenced anything, it was the continuing works of those producing the console’s finest examples. And if the much-delayed sequel doesn’t come out on PC, expect riots.
RELEASE DATE: 2009
IMPORTANCENESS: Should be a squillion times higher than it is
If you’d asked me a year ago how important this game was, I’d have constructed scaffolding on the roof of Canary Wharf to to hang a banner that reached the ground reading “GOODNESS ME, SO IMPORTANT”. A year later and every driving game released in its wake, even by the same developer, Criterion, has been so enormously disappointing. Not necessarily bad, but falling short of everything that Paradise got right. Which suggests that no one understood its mix of really fine arcade racing, and gleefully stupid smash-based abandon. To see Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit appear with such a beautiful yet characterless world was devastating. I can return to Burnout: Paradise again and again, always delighted to start over from the beginning. To see that island refilled with bright yellow gates and bold red posters for me to smash through on the way to competing in the hundreds of impromptu races and challenges (and indeed midway through leading to my abandoning my current task) is like a brand new box of assorted delicious biscuits. It’s a game that understands joy – a lesson that doesn’t seem to have been learned, even by its own creators.
Day Of The Tentacle
RELEASE DATE: 1993
IMPORTANCENESS: Across all of time
Clearly everyone has their own favourite point and click adventure, and this one happens to be mine. But why do I consider this to have such importance? Because while it was not seminal, beyond a much improved SCUMM layout, it was hilarious. Funnier than any other game in the genre had been, and I’d contend has been since. People may respect Grim Fandango’s narrative more, or rate Monkey Island’s genre-defining ways higher, but for me this set standards in terms of puzzle design as comedy that are the target for all others to aim for. Also, it was damned clever. Solving puzzles across three time zones, affecting the future to complete challenges. The voice acting was utterly wonderful, the character design still gorgeous to look at. It’s stupid to call it a “masterpiece”, obviously. It’s a masterpiece.
Tomb Raider: Legend
RELEASE DATE: 2006
I understand if people disagree with the choice of Tomb Raider here. It’s very definitely unfair not to pick a Core version of the game they invented, and I think most will fall into the camps of Tomb Raider 1 or 2. I’m a 2 man myself. There are few games that can match Tomb Raider II for its imagination and level design. One of those games is Tomb Raider: Legend. I think it’s a better game. I think it’s Lara’s finest moment. It’s a bit of an oddity. Crystal Dynamics had no small task in front of them, picking up the pieces after Core’s spectacular blow-out on Angel Of Darkness. The direction the chose was to take Lara out of isolation, and give her a team. Not accompanying her, but chatting through her headset. And it’s the only game of the trilogy they’ve made that included this. But what it meant that joining some absolutely breathtaking design – intricate puzzles on an enormous scale – was a wit that the series had really lacked (although it was alluded to in Chronicles). Alister Fletcher and Zip chatting in her ear were frequently hilarious, and humanised the star who’d become an unnecessary goddess. The sequence exploring the Arthurian museum in Cornwall is one of my favourite moments across all of the Croftian games, and it was because the banter (Alister’s horror at the inaccurate depiction of Arthurian legend, and Zip’s merciless provocation) rather than the leaping and tumbling. It added depth to one of gaming’s best platforming series, and still has lessons to teach.
RELEASE DATE: 2005
IMPORTANCENESS: Wheely high
Instant restart. I’ve said it before. I definitely will say it again. TrackMania knows the importance of the instant restart. If your game is about attempting to negotiate a ludicrously complex track in a car barely aware of the rules of physics, then you do not want to be watching load times to get back to the start. You want to be dropped back in place, and starting. That’s the rule. For goodness sakes, will everyone else just learn it? Trials did. But so many have not. Learning a track, incrementally figuring out each corner, leap and gap, is a multiple stage affair, that gradually lets you feel brilliant. That first corner that took you fifteen retries to get past? You glide past that effortlessly now, on your way to figuring out how the shitting crikey you’re supposed to clear the following gap. You build that up as you progress further, until you find yourself obsessively repeating the same track dozens and dozens of times, trying to shave off a vital tenth of a second to receive the next medal, wondering at how your brain can withstand the repetition without opening up the top of your head and walking off in a huff. That’s TrackMania. And Sunrise was the prettiest.
The Longest Journey
RELEASE DATE: 1999
IMPORTANCENESS: Vital to the balance of the universe
It’s easy to let my love for The Longest Journey become parody, such that it’s detrimental to the reputation of the game. The reason it’s important to me is because it changed my life, changed my imagination, opened pathways in my brain down which I’m still walking. But the reason it’s important to gaming is because there’s no one – not a single person – currently working in serious adventure game development who doesn’t recognise it as one of the most significant works of the genre. Yes, definitely, some of the early puzzles suck. You know what? So do some of the puzzles in Sam & Max Hit The Road. But I have yet to encounter anyone who cares about adventures who doesn’t want to shake Tørnquist’s hand and thank him for the game. The story of April Ryan, and her attempts to play a part in the restoring of the Balance that keeps the divided universe in working order, is one of the brutal invasion of reality that accompanies leaving teenage years and entering adulthood. Wild themes such as dragons, talking crows and floating libraries are matched by the grounded reality of forgotten childhoods, capitalist oppression and severed imaginations. Children’s drawings capture lost fantasies, while adult responsibilities threaten realising new dreams. It’s about being in that midpoint between fantasy and reality, and the struggle to understand what to take from each. It’s a beautiful struggle, and one I’m ever grateful it reminded me to fight for.
See also but less so: Dreamfall
Thief: The Dark Project
RELEASE DATE: 1998
If I hadn’t recently replayed the original Thief, I may have made the mistake of rating the third game, Deadly Shadows, above it. Deadly Shadows is an incredible game, and of course contains one of gaming’s all-time greatest scenes – The Cradle. But as terrifying as that sequence may be, it doesn’t match the non-stop dreadfest that is the original 1998 game. Having recently completed Dead Space 2 without feeling a pang of fear, it’s fascinating to try to understand why a 13 year old game with its 13 year old graphics can still make me quake and yelp like an abused puppy. I think, if I’m to generalise, it’s because Thief understood that it was about what you don’t show, rather than what you do. When the danger is being worked on by my imagination, it’s always going to be far more effective than even the most grotesquely designed and realised alien monstrosity thrown at me through a wall. Thief also stands out to me for its difficulty levels. Rather than making people more difficult to kill, or weakening your character, or overloading levels with more enemies, instead it let you kill less. Steal more gold, find more objectives, and do it all without murdering the guards. The game required you to be better at being a thief. That mattered. It was a vast, beautifully sprawling game, that still has the power to make you terrified of light after a couple of hours play. You’ll be walking down the street, dodging lampposts and shuddering at oncoming headlights. For goodness sakes, start playing this game right now.
See also: Thief II: The Metal Age, Thief: Deadly Shadows
Knights Of The Old Republic
RELEASE DATE: 2003
This was the game that properly defined how one should produce gaming choice. Yes, there are lots of other ways, and yes, other games did it before this one, but I am still giving the credit to KotOR because it did it so damned well – it did it in the way that other people should be copying. Because KotOR offers one path. They had a story to tell, and they knew what they wanted that story to be. The genius of this Star Wars RPG was to set it 4000 years before the rubbish films, and to let you experience that single, linear story in a way that makes it completely unique to you. Sprawling alternative paths means diluted effort. One singular route that can be encountered in emotionally different ways is focused. Playing through, making evil choices, takes you to no different places than a goodie-two-shoes encounter, but wow do you feel like you’re playing a different game. You still complete the same quests, but you approach them differently, cruelly, spitefully. And the reaction to your actions defines your impact on the world. That’s proper smarts.
Mafia: The City Of Lost Heaven
RELEASE DATE: 2002
IMPORTANCENESS: A significant hit
Well goodness, here’s another example of a game whose importance suddenly took a frightening perspective dive in the light of its own sequel. If even Mafia II didn’t get it, then who will? But Mafia did, and it’s still every bit as moving, thrilling and engrossing as it ever was. Playing Tommy Angelo, you follow a man’s life as he changes from taxi driver to made man, and his eventual death. It’s a tale that took its inspiration from those obvious waypoint Mafioso flicks, but presented something unique. Confused with its contemporary GTA III, at the time some struggled to understand why you’d create a large, open city, and then only let you trundle about it in wobbly crate cars at 30mph. But it was because it wasn’t trying to be an open world game. It was a mission-based linear narrative that just happened to be set in a world that was open. It was bold – seriously fucking bold – to put that much effort into a backdrop. It’s tale is gripping, the unfolding tragedy compelling, and the long, loooooong missions offering some really fantastic suspense. I think I could play the airport level again and again and again, day after day, and never get tired of it. It’s a real shame that no one else has had the guts to try to create something similar, but for the same developers. There’s a lesson that no one else needs to learn though – make sure your story is bloody brilliant if your game’s going to focus on the story.
Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge
RELEASE DATE: 1991
IMPORTANCENESS: It’s the second most important adventure game I’ve ever seen.
There is no questioning the importance of the second Monkey Island. The first, while an interesting game, didn’t do much to change where LucasArts had already reached in their increasing dominance of the adventure genre. It was the sequel that made everyone realise they’d taken the lead from Sierra. While I’m sure many attending students would wish to tear me apart with wolves for observing that the first Monkey wasn’t actually very funny, it remains the case. In fact, it’s a pretty weak game amongst its peers. But in the second edition the magical genius appears. You already have your favourite memories from it, and you don’t need to know mine. What you do need to know is that almost everyone involved in games development has theirs too, and it’s influenced them. It’s tremendous that you can now play it in a superb remake with shiny new graphics and fantastic new voice acting – you should probably do that.
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time
RELEASE DATE: 2003
It was going to take a lot to steal Lara’s thunder. Not even Indy could manage it, despite Ms Croft having robbed his every relic. It was unexpected that it would be a revival of Mechner’s platform series. I remember going out to see this game pre-announcement, in darkest Montreal, sat in front of computers along with half the gaming journalist fraternity of Europe. The concept was explained to us, but it didn’t sink in. The significance was lost on us. We had to play it and not get it in order to be able to understand it. In a platform game, especially of the Tomb Raider style, you attempted jumps, and if you failed, you reloaded to an earlier position. Those were the rules, and we abided by them. But Sands Of Time broke them. It took falling off a platform to my death, and a developer behind me saying, “You should have pressed rewind then,” for me to understand. And the next time I fell, panicking, fumbling for the correct gamepad button, I stabbed it just in time and watched my folly undo itself until the Prince was safely back on the platform that had launched his ill-timed leap. And a window opened in my brain. This was how it was meant to be. I remember writing in PC Gamer at the time that this was a device that every other third-person action game would have to mimic from now on, as anything else wouldn’t be good enough. But then I thought all FPS games would have to include a gravity gun after Half-Life 2, so what do I know? Not even the Prince Of Persia series ever managed to get it quite so right again, eventually collapsing into a puddle of purest awful by the time Prince Of Persia 2008 came along. Let alone anyone else.
Jedi Knight: Mysteries Of The Sith
RELEASE DATE: 1998
Why the expansion pack, and not the original (confusingly named) Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II? Jedi Knight was an exceptional game. As was Dark Forces before it. As I argued a while back on Eurogamer, LucasArts were making some of the most remarkable FPS games of the 1990s – a fact that seems to have been strangely and unfairly lost over the time since. Oddly MOTS offered something less than Jedi Knight. The morality choices were gone, fixing you on a path of light, which meant a deal of the Force powers were no longer available. But what you got instead was a far greater emphasis on the light sabre, realising it as one of the most exciting in-game weapons ever, along with a depth of narrative that was – at this point – rare in the FPS genre. LucasArts were pioneers of the FPS, and it’s time for that reputation to restored. This is perhaps their finest moment.
See also: Dark Forces
The Operative: No One Lives Forever
RELEASE DATE: 2001
A lot I had to say about Duke Nukem 3D applies here, as strange as that may seem. While the two games bear little in common, other than both being first-person shooters, I believe that NOLF carries the same proof that a game can present itself as silly without forgetting to take its development seriously. If only Monolith had remembered that, before they went all grumpy-trousers and forgot about having fun. NOLF is a lovely spoof of the James Bond genre, with its gender-switch approach, and gleeful nicking of Flemming’s gadgets, vehicles and plot structure. Cate Archer makes for an excellent protagonist, peculiarly snooty and unlikeable in some ways, while defiant and ass-kickingly pleasing in others. The pleasure of using gadgets to approach situations in your own chosen way is immense, with a good mix of stealth, action, driving and narrative. Flavours of Hitman, Deus Ex and Austin Powers made for an interesting cocktail. One that really worked, and is still damned fun to play now. Sadly at 10 years told, it was also the beginning of the last comedy FPS series – a gap that no one has taken seriously since.
Please note that this post is but one fragment of a larger list, which in total covers over 100 of what RPS feels is the PC’s most important games (but not all of them). You can find the other parts to date here. More is yet to come.
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