Some moments in some games stay with you. The right event, the right surprise or the right hats at the right time, and it’s imprinted on your memory forever. I’ve been playing PC games for almost 25 years: I’ve got a million of these, and so have you. I’ll show you just a few of mine if you show me yours.
Night on Cydonia
X-COM: UFO Defense, 1994
Any game can feature an unexpected trip to Mars these days. Most do, in fact. Oh, you’ve not got to that bit in Europa Universalis 4 yet? Back when I was 12 years old or thereabouts, finding my long-serving X-COM crew speeding towards the red planet for a climactic showdown on Cydonia, I could barely believe what I was seeing. I say ‘seeing’, but the reality was a text box, a static image then some yellow terrain. The practicalities didn’t and don’t matter: the concept was what grabbed me. Taking the fight back to the inhuman bastards I’d been battling for hours – the possibility of victory, the sense of achievement for having got this far. I don’t care that the endgame was a giant, stationary eyeball. I care that my team, soldiers I’d given names and trusted with my best equipment, had beaten the odds.
The disappointment when 2012’s XCOM didn’t feature a Mars mission still affects me. It’s a b-movie conceit I didn’t know was a b-movie conceit when I was first experienced it, and as such it remains the highest aspiration for the sci-fi heroes I puppeteer.
Fats Waller of Duty
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, 2007
here we go, here we go, here we go. Back when Call of Duty was only starting to become what Call of Duty is today, it wove moments of thoughtfulness and playfulness into its bombastic melodrama. As gung-ho macho as it campaign might be, the screeching nastiness of some later games in the series wasn’t yet in its blood. But the surprise was once it was all over. A ragtime mode, sepia tones and rinky-dink piano to accompany even the game’s most sombre and sinister moments. It was oddly therapeutic as well as amusing, but then again I suspect I could listen to weeks of ragtime without getting bored of it.
Most of all, it was much-needed levity and appealing self-awareness after all that death and all that bleakness. Sometimes, the smartest thing a game can do is be silly for the sake of being silly. By contrast, the gag that was COD zombies snowballed so far that it became a major marketing factor in later games. Big games doing consciously dumb or strange things that are purely throwaway: more please.
Sid Meier’s Colonization, 1994
I’ve documented this before on RPS, many moons ago, but it remains one of my happiest hours in PC gaming. The War of Independence-focused Civilization spin-off was a game I wasn’t able to complete back when I first played it in the early 1990s, because, er, I didn’t have an entirely salubrious copy of it.
Fourteen years later, I returned. I freed my people from the tyrannical rule of European monarchy. I was rewarded for it. it was the simplest and most obvious cutscene, taken from the Mario playbook but with tricorner hats instead of bobbleheaded child-people, and I suppose it would be considered anti-climactic by today’s narratively excessive standards, but it made 29 -year-old me as happy as he could remember being.
Yankee-Doodle plays. Fireworks explode. Tri-corner hats are hurled skywards in celebration.
It’s everything I ever wanted it to be.
Saving Private Denton
Deus Ex, 2000
First time around, I didn’t think – didn’t even suspect – that I could save Paul Denton. I was used to things in games happening in a fixed way, because that’s what games did. It was a fleeting mention from someone else, rather than my own experimentation with Ion Storm’s ahead-of-its-time cyberpunk toolbox, that twigged me to the possibility of keeping my older brother alive. I was floored by the idea, in awe that my story could have gone so differently.
Crucially, I was also embarrassingly unskilled at first-person combat back then, so my attempts to save Paul from him the rush of UNATCO agents who arrived if I tried to step out the hotel room door were many, and disastrous. Eventually, the right combination of explosives and luck saw me through, and by God I was proud. It felt as though I’d beaten the game, escaped onto a path I wasn’t supposed to be on. Of course, the moment had been prepared for. Of course too, there are easier ways to save Paul. Armoured by blissful ignorance though, I felt heroically subversive.
Might do more of these further down the line. Now, let’s hear some of yours, please.