My Formative Gaming Moments (part I)
This week, I wanted to take a break from talking about Darkdrifters and Arkham Horror: The Card Game to talk about something near and dear to me: the moments in video gaming that made me drop my jaw and completely blew my mind. In some cases, these are games from my youth—the formative gaming experiences that sold me on the very concept of games as a form of art or storytelling. In other cases, they are more recent, playing instead upon my expectations as a longtime gamer. In both cases, each of these moments sparked for me a love and passion for gaming. These are the experiences I look back on and draw inspiration from; the emotions that I want others to feel in my work. Well, let's take a walk down memory lane, shall we?
In case it isn't obvious from the topic, this blog post will contain spoilers for each of the games I talk about, ranging from mild to heavy. It's pretty much unavoidable, considering the subject matter. I'll make sure there's enough space in between the name of the game I'm about to talk about and the spoiler so that you can scroll past it if you haven't played it before (although there will be images, so keep that in mind). And since I'm covering a few truly mind-blowing gaming experiences, I recommend you do just that if you've never played the game in question! Also, for the sake of keeping certain secrets...well, secret, I've ordered this list from oldest (and therefore least obscure/spoilery) to newest. Read on!
1) Super Metroid (1994)—After Mother Brain...
The very first of the entries on this list is also the earliest formative gaming moment of my life. Super Metroid released during a time when video games were almost entirely childish and silly, and it taught us that they could be so, so much more. Super Metroid was brooding, lonely, and incredibly atmospheric. It told its story almost entirely through gameplay, with very little in the way of written narrative or dialogue. So when it went out of its way to sell a story beat, it was really memorable. So imagine this. You are 8 years old (as I was when Super Metroid came out). You have spent weeks upon weeks getting to the final boss, Mother Brain. You finally destroy it, thanks to the sacrifice of the now-adult Metroid you came all this way to recover...and then, you see it, completely interrupting the victory fanfare:
This probably freaked most kids out the first time they saw it because UMMM ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I ALREADY BEAT THE BOSS!! And yet, it was cunningly foreshadowed in the very first segment of the game, which made you flee from a similar self-destruct sequence on a much smaller scale. What follows is a hectic three-minute-long flight back through many of the zones you've become familiar with. It's not particularly difficult, but it does challenge your awareness of the game's map and is pretty tense if you're not expecting it. A lot of the moments on this list encapsulate one of the things that is the best about gaming—that it has the capability to make you feel the same emotions as the character you are controlling. I've talked before on this blog about the concept of "ludonarrative," that is, the intersection between narrative and gameplay. Well, this is what is called ludonarrative harmony. This is the first time I think I ever encountered that kind of visceral emotion in a game—that exact moment in which I suddenly jumped and reached for the controller because holy shit the game isn't actually over yet and now I only have three minutes to get back to my ship before the entire planet explodes and oh my god am I going to make it back in time and which way was Crateria again was that the path to Brinstar or up to the ship ahhhhh—see, in that moment, I am Samus (albeit a lot younger and a lot more panicked). And damn was that cool.
If you're a fan of Arkham LCG, you've likely seen this same sequence before, because I just love it that much. I can't resist it. I just keep coming back to it. And if you've read The Key and the Crescent, you will recognize my love of Super Metroid there as well. Poppy is only a couple years older than I was the first time I played Super Metroid, and it's as formative for her as it was for me. The futuristic bounty hunter is also Poppy's favorite video game character, to the point where it even influences her way of interacting with the dream-worlds she traverses.
2) Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)—Turning Expectations Upside-Down
I re-play Symphony of the Night every year or two. Not an exaggeration. That's how much I love this game. (Super Metroid, too, for that matter.) But I'm not too proud to admit that I didn't play the second half of this game for over a year after the game first came out, because I literally didn't know it existed. Because they hid it from players.
In order to explain how ridiculously gutsy this move was back in '97, let me set the stage. Nowadays most of a game's secrets are known before it even hits stores, and you can look up an entire playthrough on YouTube within hours of its release. But back then, the internet wasn't nearly as prevalent as it is now, and if you wanted to learn a secret about your favorite game, you had to either be told about it or look it up in a rare magazine. (Actually, some puzzle and point-and-click adventure games in the early 90s and late 80s had phone numbers you could call to get hints and walkthroughs. How cool is that?)
Enter Symphony of the Night. You're shown pretty early on that previous Castlevania protagonist Richter Belmont is now the master of the titular castle, and when you finally reach the throne room, you're certain there's nothing left of the castle to explore. You've been everywhere. It's all led to this. So you defeat Richter, and then...that's it. The game ends. But you're left wondering...is that really it? No Dracula? No epic finale?
It's not unless you view Richter with a special set of equippable glasses that you realize he is under the control of a dark priest (whose actual name is Shaft, which................okay) whom you must defeat in order to unlock the game's true ending. But it doesn't just unlock a new ending, it unlocks the entire second half of the game, which takes place in the same castle, but flipped upside-down, filled with new items and enemies, culminating in an epic confrontation with Dracula.
Considering the time this game came out, this was incredibly risky. I'm sure a lot of players, like me, got to the game's false ending and just assumed that was all there was to it, believing the game to be short and even a bit unsatisfying. To literally hide half the game's content and rely mostly on word of mouth to allow players to find the rest was unheard of.
Now, I've never managed to pull off this same kind of bait-and-switch in a game I've designed, because I think if players opened a box and over a hundred cards were hidden somewhere inside, I would be some kind of sorcerer. And I've always wanted to bring back the word-of-mouth quality in gaming that the internet has made obsolete. But, that said, the image of Castlevania flipped upside-down above its mirror image can definitely be seen as the inspiration for a certain scenario in Arkham Horror: The Card Game...
3) StarCraft (1998)—Mission Three
Before StarCraft, the story mode in most real-time strategy games consisted of playing the same mission—blow up the enemy base—on variable maps interspersed with occasional bits of narrative in the form of written dialogue or campy FMV (full-motion video) cutscenes. StarCraft was unique in that it presented a variety of gameplay situations throughout its story campaigns, the first—and perhaps most important of which—occurs all the way back in mission #3 of the Terran campaign, "Desperate Alliance."
How do you introduce an existential threat like the Zerg? We're supposed to be absolutely terrified of these swarming, world-devouring monsters, but as the Terrans, we're pretty badass ourselves. We have huge futuristic exosuits, guns, cannons, and dropships. We can blow up pretty much whatever we run into, right? Well, StarCraft answers this question pretty handily with a single objective:
Now, okay, in retrospect, this mission isn't actually that difficult, and I'm sure my experience was colored largely by the fact that I was only 12 when I played it, and not particularly good at strategy games. I remember the first 20–25 minutes or so being pretty tame, and then all hell started to break loose. The enemies were nonstop and relentless, assaulting my base in such numbers I couldn't possibly hold them off for long. By the last minute, my screen was filled to the brim with zerglings. I was floored. I'd honestly never seen this many units on a game screen before. I suddenly understood, as the Terrans did, the threat of the Zerg. And then the dropships came, and just like the climactic scene of Starship Troopers, bailed my troops out at the last possible second. Again, ludonarrative harmony: I felt such incredible relief, pride at my success, and stress about facing such overwhelming numbers again in the future. After all, this was only mission three. Yikes.
While not quite the same effect, in Arkham, I often like to give players objectives that sound inscrutable or ominous on paper. To me, there's nothing more chilling than the simple sentence "Objective — Survive," or "Objective — Escape."
4) Silent Hill (1999)—The Opening Sequence
Resident Evil (1996) was my first gaming experience with horror. Actually, no, it was my second. Alone in the Dark (1992) was my first, but it doesn't really count, since—and this is true—I never actually made it out of the very first room of that game (the attic), because I would shut the game off the very moment I was scared, which always happened within five minutes. Resident Evil was formative for me because it was the first horror game in which I felt like I could fight back. It had this delicate balance between player power and fear. Resident Evil coined the term "survival horror," and was influential not just for me, but for the entire gaming industry. So, by the time Silent Hill came out, I considered myself somewhat of a young expert on the genre of "survival horror." But I was just 13, and Silent Hill was about to make me eat those words.
At home, I mostly played video games in my basement with my brother, and we often played horror games together, either trading off lives or—more frequently—him playing, with me doing passenger-seat-navigation. I actually don't remember who was playing Silent Hill that fateful day. I'm pretty sure it was my brother Dave. I honestly can't tell you anything else about that day, because the only thing that I recall is this series of events.
We're in the moody, lonely, mysterious town of Silent Hill. There is nothing around. Not a single soul. All of the buildings are empty. A deep fog permeates the town, obscuring much of our sight.
We see our daughter, Cheryl—who we are here to find—turn around a corner. So, naturally, we give chase. And, as we do, the camera pans behind our character as it often does in third-person games.
We dart through back alleys and eventually open a gate that leads to—
Oh. Okay then.
Now like I said, I was no stranger to gore or disturbing imagery in games by this point, having played through Resident Evil and its ilk, so no big deal. We proceed onward. And as we do, the camera does something we'd never seen it do before. It moves. Not just hovering over our character or following behind us. It moves intelligently. It moves in such a way as to creep us the hell out.
I can't really show you this in screenshots, so I encourage you (once you're done reading this whole bit) to actually watch this entire sequence for yourself. You walk forward, toward the camera, and instead of cutting to a new camera like it would in Resident Evil, the camera slides up above our protagonist, looking down on them as they pass through the narrow alleyway, then sneaks back behind them, sinking low to the ground as it watches him venture onward into the dark. Games just did not do this kind of thing before Silent Hill came out. It made us feel like we were being watched. Like there was...something out there. Waiting. Stalking. It freaked me out.
Then, the true Silent Hill began. An air raid siren pierces the quiet, lonely ambiance. Slowly, we hear the industrial noises and irregular drums that are so iconic of the game's style of atmospheric horror. The daylight turns suddenly and dramatically dark—so dark that our character must take out his lighter in order to see. And when he does, things are...not as they should be.
The alleyway twists and turns nonsensically, leading us down a route that can't possibly exist in a normal town, littered, strangely, with gurneys, wheelchairs and other objects one might find in a hospital—an allusion to events yet to come. There are metal fences everywhere, for some reason, blocking our path. The noise now is overwhelming. It is loud. Unnerving. Stressful. God, I am getting goosebumps just writing about it.
Then we turn a corner, the camera low and facing our protagonist so we cannot see what he sees, but we can tell this area is covered in blood and viscera, and then—
I don't think I will ever, ever forget the impact of this moment. This hideous, unrecognizable corpse, strung up on barbed wire, haunted my nightmares for weeks. And then, as if that revelation wasn't bad enough, a bunch of bloody, murderous, deformed children suddenly attacked us from out of nowhere and unceremoniously killed us. Not in a cutscene, but in gameplay. We had no way of knowing what we were supposed to do. We could not escape. We had no weapons. We were being taught firsthand that this was not Resident Evil. This was Silent Hill. And we weren't ready.
So we died. And then we awoke. It was all a dream. Or was it?
I can't begin to describe how formative this moment was for me as a fan (and future writer) of horror. It wasn't the blood or the gore. It was the pacing. The slow, unnatural build-up of creepy atmosphere. The incremental effects—first the fog, then the camera, then the darkness, the sounds, oh god the sounds, the gurney, and then, finally, the reveal, and then the sudden onslaught.
Silent Hill taught me that horror, like comedy, is about timing. It's not enough to just show something that is scary. Horror requires investiture.
Now, obviously, I have never made a horror video game. And while the style is not quite the same, I hope that I've taken this lesson to heart in my writing—most especially in my long-form writing (that is, namely, Darkdrifters). Without spoiling much, this sequence reminds me in particular of the first nightmare sequence I wrote in The Key and the Crescent: Charlotte's nightmare in Chapter 7. I remember the day vividly—it was November 4, 2018, and my writing location of choice was a local coffee shop down the street from my then-brand-new apartment in NE Minneapolis. I know because I was keeping track of my writing on Twitter and on that day wrote, "I think I was subconsciously moving slowly because I knew this particular section would be tough to get through." Why was it tough? Because I was trying to recapture this very same feeling that I got from watching the opening minutes of Silent Hill. The sudden and oppressive loneliness. The mysterious, haunting atmosphere. The slow introduction of elements that are not as they should be. The build-up of intense, unsettling creepiness. And then, suddenly, almost from out of nowhere, a moment of stark and shocking body horror that shakes the reader to their core, made even more stunning by the affection that we feel for the characters trapped within this nightmare. If you haven't yet read my book, I hope that this perhaps inspires you to do so! (And for those of you who have, I hope I have recreated this intense emotion in my writing!)
5) Perfect Dark (2000)—Doing Literally Whatever We Wanted
My last entry for part 1 of this series is quite different from the rest: not a particular story beat or moment of gameplay, but rather, the complete absence of any curated story. Or, perhaps more accurately, the substitution of our own fun in the place of whatever the game was trying to make us do.
When Perfect Dark was released, the first-person shooter scene for consoles consisted of very few games, with GoldenEye (1997) being the standout example. I had played several shooters before it—Doom (1993), Descent (1995), and Quake (1996), to name a few. But what set GoldenEye apart was its incredibly fun (and ubiquitous) multiplayer mode. Playing GoldenEye until the wee hours of the night was a fixture of gaming sessions and sleepover parties with my friends in middle school, and Perfect Dark made the experience a hundred times better with the inclusion of an almost absurd, then-unheard-of level of customization. We had the capability to change not just our characters and the map we played on, but the game mode, the teams, the weapons and powerups that would appear, and who had access to which. Our imaginations were engaged. So 14-year-old me did then what 34-year-old me does now. We made our own modes. We iterated. We playtested. We came up with our own games to play within this game.
Aliens vs. Predator? We can do that. The Marines have access to rifles and the laptop gun, which can be placed on a wall as a sentry turret. The Predators have access to the invisibility powerup, this melee weapon, the enhanced radar powerup, this energy blast that resembles their plasmacaster, and so on. Tools for hunting. And the aliens? They have just one weapon, a melee weapon like a grinder that kills pretty much anybody it touches in less than a second. But they have super speed, low respawn timers, and 2 people on their team instead of 1. You know, to make them feel more like a swarm. Oh, but what about the screen-looking problem? It's too easy to glance down at somebody else's screen to see where they are. Oh, I know! We can tear up this lid for this old Monopoly game and tape it to the TV screen and then each sit in a different spot so we can't see each others' screens. (We actually did this.)
I still remember this game mode, twenty years later. That's how important it is to me. We made dozens more modes, too. Dozens upon dozens upon dozens. In its own way, Perfect Dark let me do what I didn't know I always wanted to do: game design. The joys of experimentation, of iteration, of exploring our creativity, of finding that EUREKA! moment when it all came together, and then the excitement of sharing our discovery with the rest of our friends at school—to me, this was one of my most formative experiences. I don't think I really need to explain why.
Well, that's it for now. The first 5 of my most formative gaming experiences. I hope reading about the moments that inspired my passion for gaming has also sparked something within you, as well. I think this series will come in either two or three installments, so look forward to seeing more soon!