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  • MJ Newman

My Formative Gaming Moments (part II)

Hello again everyone!


Today I'm continuing my series about the moments in gaming that were not only the most memorable for me, but also influence my creative endeavors even today. We left off around the year 2000 with Perfect Dark, but we're going to take a quick step back to 1998, because I almost forgot something pretty important...

6) Metal Gear Solid (1998)—"You Like To Play Castlevania"


One of my favorite things in almost any kind of media is when the "fourth wall" is broken—that is, the conceptual wall between the work of fiction and the reader, viewer, or in this case, player. When done well, a fourth wall break can be an extremely effective means of capturing a player's attention (or in some cases, completely blowing their mind). That said, it is a very risky maneuver. Drawing attention to the fourth wall essentially acknowledges that the story being told is a work of fiction, which—while obvious—has the potential to completely ruin one's immersion within the fiction. And since immersion is one of the primary goals in gaming, this makes breaking the fourth wall a bad idea most of the time.


But when it is done well....hooooooo boy.


I can think of a few examples of games that break the fourth wall better or more comprehensively than this entry, but this is the first time I can remember it happening in a video game, so it has really stuck with me. And, of course, with many, many other gamers as well. This is probably one of the few entries here that almost everybody has heard of, but I don't care, it's so fun, I am going to talk about it anyway.


Psycho Mantis is one of the first bosses in the "tactical espionage action" game Metal Gear Solid. As a psychic, he can read all of your moves, meaning he is essentially impossible to hit. He floats around, dodging all of your attacks, all the while taunting you by reading your mind. And here's the clincher—he's reading your mind, not the mind of your character, Snake. He speaks directly to the player, reading the data off of your memory card to see what kinds of games you like. The first time he said"you like to play Castlevania, don't you?" because my memory card had Symphony of the Night data on it, I very nearly lost my shit. Then the really weird stuff happens. He demonstrates his telekineses by telling you to place your controller on a table in front of you and then activates with your controller's rumble feature. He even makes it seem like he's messing with your television set by switching to a fake "HIDEO" channel (Hideo, of course, referencing the game's director, Hideo Kojima). And the best part? The way to defeat Psycho Mantis is to unplug your controller and plug it back into the player 2 controller port, so he can no longer read your moves. Only then can you possibly defeat him.

Why yes, I do. How did you know?

In 1998, no other game (to my knowledge) broke the fourth wall so effectively, without breaking the player's sense of immersion. There is a sense here that Psycho Mantis is speaking directly with you, the player, and yet you never lose sight of the fact that Snake is the main character—if anything, there is this sense that Snake's reality is the true one and Psycho Mantis is reaching into a fiction that is beyond theirs. (And this isn't even the only fourth wall break in Metal Gear Solid. Don't ask me how long it took for me to find Meryl's codec number.)


Since then, I've become intrigued by stories that break the fourth wall. Doki Doki Literature Club, and even Destiny ("O, player mine!") are some examples of games I love that effectively break the fourth wall. You can see this influence, of course, in The Path to Carcosa campaign in Arkham LCG—Hastur's influence is the perfect excuse to break the fourth wall, allowing me to have some fun toying with the player's minds without breaking their sense of immersion. In fact, a good fourth wall break only adds to the immersive experience!

7) Resident Evil Outbreak (2003)—Communication Breakdown


Not many people might remember Resident Evil Outbreak, but I do. Oh, I do.


Again, I have to set the stage for this one. In 2003 when this game came out, there weren't many networked multiplayer games for consoles. The few that come to mind were Phantasy Star Online in 2000, SOCOM in 2002, and Everquest Online Adventures (yeah, the PS2 one) in 2003. Not many others. Resident Evil Outbreak was one of the first (and only) games to use Sony's network adapter for the PS2, before the PS3 made such things obsolete with the creation of the Playstation Network and so on. It was kind of primitive compared to online games for the PC, which had become commonplace by then. It was also one of the few games to use its brand new internal hard drive. In other words, the whole thing was rather fiddly. It took hours to find a game, and if your connection was even remotely shoddy, you were likely to disconnect within minutes. There was also no voice/headset support, an important distinction which I will get back to.


But the developers did some really clever things with this game's online multiplayer all the way back in 2003 that I still see emulated in many online games to this day, and what's more, many of the limitations they worked through actually made the game a far, far more effective horror experience. See, these developers knew that they were working under some serious constraints, and Outbreak was not an incredibly simple multiplayer experience. Players had to work together to solve puzzles, split up to cover more ground, trade items to get them to the character best suited for them, all while racing the clock. The developers knew most players in 2003 would not own a headset, and more importantly, they knew that voice chat would kill the game's immersion. Instead, they added a system of short, contextual messages that players could call up with a few button taps. "Here, take this." "Let's go this way." That kind of thing. Preset messages are commonplace these days, but this was pretty new all the way back in 2003 when most online games relied on the player typing their messages into a keyboard. It also ensured that the player always felt like they were in the game world because nobody ever spoke "out of character."


But the most important part of the communication in Outbreak was the fact that as soon as you left the room, you could no longer communicate with one another until you met back up again. They could have easily allowed some kind of global keyboard or voice chat, but they explicitly (and wisely) didn't. This—crucially—made the game still feel like a Resident Evil game. The second you were alone, you felt alone, and it was ten times more lonely because you knew somewhere out there, your partners were fending for themselves, possibly dying or running for their lives, and you were none the wiser. You just had to march on and hope that you would meet them again. And hope that if you did, they would be, you know. Alive. And not a zombie.


And let me tell you. The first time that happens...wow.


Let me paint you a word picture real quick. The later stages of Outbreak were pretty damn big. The hospital and university scenarios in particular forced the players to split up, sometimes for dozens of minutes at a time, in order to solve the puzzles necessary to escape in time. And if you didn't wait for your whole crew before approaching the finale (and the boss), you were likely screwed. But you had no way of knowing where they were, or how they fared. So imagine this. You'd split off from the group to go get a key item you knew the party would need to proceed onward. You'd been using the room you started in as a sort of base of operations, so you hoped that they would be there when you returned, organizing their inventories, waiting for you. But they're not there, and you're running out of time. Your infection meter is at 70%.


Now you have two choices. You can proceed onward without them and hope they catch up, or you can go looking for them. You know where they were headed, so you venture alone into the dark to follow them. You're not the group's primary fighter—you're the girl with the backpack who can hold lots of items and probably should not have gone off alone, but you were the only one with the inventory space to do so. With each door you open, you hope to find your missing teammates. You're calling out for them over and over, but...silence. Then, you hear shuffling. Oh, thank god. It's one of them! You round the corner, and—


Well. It was one of them. Your heart sinks. They stumble towards you with dead eyes. You turn and flee. But then, on your way back, you stumble into another member of your team, crawling towards you, wounded but miraculously, alive! Hope returns like a breath of fresh air. You patch them up with one of your herbs and guide them away from your zombified partner, and together you run to safety.


I love this kind of thing. Other games have dabbled in proximity-based voice chat, such as the recent Phasmaphobia, and I think that's wonderful. There's nothing scarier in a team-based game than losing contact with the rest of your team and the tension of not knowing how they are faring.


In Arkham LCG, we tried to capture this same kind of feeling with Labyrinths of Lunacy, although obviously, it is a very different experience. What I love about this scenario is that, aside from the brief glimpses you get into your friends' game areas, you have no idea how well they are doing. There is a unique tension to knowing that you have a part to play, and that your friends have their parts to play, and hoping that they are faring well. It also encourages you to help them out whenever you can, because let's be honest, you will immediately think of the worst possible situation. In all honestly, I think the best way to play Labyrinths of Lunacy is in different rooms entirely, so none of the groups can even hear one another. You have Resident Evil Outbreak to thank for that.

8) Fatal Frame 3 (2005)—Just a Dream


Fatal Frame 2 is by far the most critically acclaimed of this horror series, but the third game will forever hold a place in my heart for the way in which its entire narrative is framed, and the ways in which that framing affects the gameplay. The previous games in the series were split into linear chapters, and Fatal Frame 3 is no exception, but unlike the previous games, all of the "explore the haunted mansion" bits are dream sequences, and in between each such chapter, you awaken as the game's real main character and explore your very-much-not-haunted house.


Or is it?


You see, these segments are the game's "safe" spots. There are no ghosts to fight, not much to explore, no puzzles to solve, and nothing chasing you that you have to hide from. It is a breather. A nice bit of relaxation before you delve once more into a nightmarish world filled with jumpscares and a chilling, haunting atmosphere. It cuts up the pacing of the game nicely, giving you an opportunity to shake off your fright, chat with some of the other characters, and learn more about the world around you.

See? It's fiiiiiine. Nothing bad here.

But the longer the game goes on, the more your dreams and reality begin to bleed together. You start to see things. And since you are fairly sure that there is no combat during these segments, you begin to wonder if the things you are seeing are truly real, or just a figment of your imagination. After all, you probably just got back from some other incredibly scary section of the game. So maybe your mind is just playing tricks on you.

And then it starts getting weirder. And weirder. And weirder. Sometimes you will be up on the balcony and see somebody downstairs who isn't supposed to be there. Or you'll be downstairs and see somebody up on the balcony. You keep seeing feet everywhere you look, poking out from under doors and what not. Or strange images in the pictures you snap of windows and doors. And then it starts getting absolutely terrifying.


(Warning: Volume. Headphones not recommended.)

Guhhhhhhh.


Scares are scarier when you're not expecting them. But the sensation of not expecting it growing and growing and growing into expectation slowly over the course of many chapters of gameplay is what makes this so effective. By the end of the game, you are left as utterly terrified of waking up as you are of the nightmare itself. The two become inseparable. It's incredibly effective, and to me, makes this game one of the most memorable horror experiences of my life. Silent Hill 4 also did something similar with its first-person hub, and I adore it.


What this moment taught me, like Silent Hill before it, is how important pacing is to effective horror games. If this game had simply been one long nightmare sequence (like Fatal Frame 1 and 2 before it), I have no doubt it would still be a great game, but it would lose this magic touch that made it so, so much more.

9) Shadow of the Colossus (2005)—Simple Complexity


I honestly didn't know what to expect when I first played Shadow of the Colossus. I knew that I liked Ico—Shadow's predecessor—but this game just looked so different, I wasn't sure if I was going to like it or not.


Then I played the demo a few months before the game came out, and my jaw didn't leave the floor the entire time. I'm pretty sure I played the demo at least ten times before the game even came out. There was so much to explore in just that first colossus fight alone, and that was by far the simplest part of the game. From the moment you start to explore the world of Shadow, you know you are in for a treat. This was a game in which you could ride a horse and it wasn't just "press A to go faster." You could shoot your bow from horseback and still control your trajectory, you could leap from horseback onto a colossus, you could stand on your horse and do all of the above, it was so simple and yet so, so complex in terms of what you could achieve. This is a game in which your two moves are, essentially (1) climb and (2) stab; a game with only sixteen enemies in the entire game world, and yet it managed to achieve so much interaction between the player and the game world with just a few button presses.


Shadow of the Colossus, you see, wasn't a fighting or action game. It was a puzzle game. You had to find a way to use your incredibly limited repertoire (bow, sword and hold on for dear life) in order to solve sixteen incredible puzzles, and each of those puzzles was a glorious boss fight against a mountain-sized monstrosity. It was epic...but it was incredibly minimalist in its approach. This wasn't a bloated Zelda game with 30 different items and various spells to collect. You didn't unlock any new moves or items as you progressed. You just had your sword, your bow, and your horse. That was it. And yet, somehow, you were meant to take down monsters like these:

This isn't even one of the bigger ones.
Nope. Nope. Nope.
**This** is one of the bigger ones.

Again, I played the demo almost a dozen times, because I thought there was no way the real game could be as good as that one single short fight, and yet looking back, that first colossus is piddly compared to the rest of them. By the time the game was over, I was practically begging for more. This game had so much of an impact on me. The world was vast, enormous, and yet completely empty. Just you and 16 bosses to find and take down. It made me want to explore even more, it made me want to find the world's secrets, but there really weren't any.


And I wasn't the only one. For over a decade, people searched and searched and searched for a hidden 17th colossus. In fact, this game hid a ton of cut content and secret areas only accessible through datamining or glitching through a wall. It was this phenomenon that really got me interested in the behind-the-scenes process of game design.


(It also really creeped me out. There's nothing quite like breaking through the wall of a game world you've become so immersed in...)

Anyway, Shadow of the Colossus taught me that simplicity can go hand-in-hand with complexity, and that sometimes a minimalist appraoch to a game's design can enhance it, rather than detract from it.

10) Dark Souls (2011)—Ash Lake


When it comes to Dark Souls, there's a lot I can talk about. I can talk about the oppressive, haunting atmosphere. I can talk about the unrelenting difficulty. I can talk about the spectacular level design, or how creepy New Londo Ruins and the Catacombs are. Instead, I'm going to talk to you about what is almost definitely the least important area of the game—Ash Lake.


In fact, Ash Lake is so unimportant to the overall structure and story of Dark Souls that you'd be forgiven if you'd played the game and never heard of it. See, Ash Lake is an entire zone hidden behind a hidden zone hidden behind a hidden door. It's also one of the coolest and creepiest areas in video game history, in my personal opinion. I mean, just look at this place:

They just keep going and going.

This area may be small, but what it accomplishes with just its background alone is stellar. You arrive at Ash Lake first by finding a hidden door inside the giant tree trunk near the swamp in lower Blighttown. That door takes you down the inside of the tree trunk into a hidden optional area called the Great Hollow: a deadly, labyrinthine series of wooden platforms and ramps prowled by deadly basilisks. It's not an easy journey if you are low to mid level, and there's not much to get here. You go into this secret area expecting it to be either nothing—just a room and some loot—or incredibly important. And in the end, it's really neither.

And when you get to the bottom, you emerge from that enormous hollow tree to find yourself on the sandy beach of Ash Lake, below the very firmament of the world, surrounded by dozens, hundreds such trees. (And a big-ass hydra, the only enemy here really worth any salt.)


And that's it.


It is lonely, barren, depressing, and incredibly spooky. The inference here is that the entire world is held up by these trees, or perhaps each tree leads to a different world entirely, and Ash Lake is this sort of world beneath the world, an extradimensional hub of nothingness. When I got to the bottom of the Great Hollow and saw this place, I was just floored.

I had expected to emerge deep underground, in a cavern of some kind, not...here. It was almost dizzying. I had a sense of vertigo, thinking of how deep and infinite this ocean must be, or how far it reaches in all directions. Like in Shadow of the Colossus, I found myself wanting (and yet dreading) to swim to the edge and somehow find myself in another universe entirely. It was deeply unsettling and haunting in a way a real horror game just could not achieve.


And, again, that was it. There was really nothing else there but the aforementioned big-ass hydra and a statue where you could join the Dragon Covenant. When I got down here, I expected a boss or a shortcut to another zone, or something to justify its existence. I was thinking like a game designer—why did they put this here? Why doesn't it link up with anything? Why does it appear to serve no purpose? After all, dozens of people must have worked on this zone. Artists had to conceptualize it. 3D artists had to create its terrain. Animators had to create the few, sparse enemies inside it. Developers had to position what little items there were to find. And that creepy, haunting background had to be rendered by someone. And yet.


Nothing.


And that's when I realized: that was the point. They went through all that work and the point was that it was meaningless, empty, lonely, and yet incomprehensibly vast.


The gravity of this moment, of emerging from the tree and seeing this, I'll never forget. I've said before that one of my favorite things in video games is when you find a hidden area and it turns out to be an entire zone of the game that you never knew existed. Ash Lake is why. I didn't know Ash Lake existed until my third playthrough of this game. And when I discovered it for the first time, guided by just a simple, easily missed message in Blighttown ("invisible wall ahead"), I had to set my controller down and just...look around. It was beautiful and terrible.


I wouldn't feel that same kind of energy again until I played Bloodborne and noticed the pillars looming in the distance of the Hunter's Dream, or better yet, the scrambled, ruined architecture that can be seen in the distance of the Nightmare Frontier.

That looks familiar.
Are those other nightmares, in the distance?

In my own work, I tried to evoke this same kind of feeling in some of the dream sequences of The Key and the Crescent. The Great Hollow and the vast, smooth pillars reaching up into the firmament of the world are quite similar to the trees in a certain nightmare in Act 3, but moreso than that, the idea of a place being an incomprehensible nexus of nightmares and worlds is very much written allllllll over Darkdrifters. Just take a look yourself, and you'll see what I mean...

Well, that's it for this time. I have one more batch of five gaming moments to talk about in my next post, so look forward to that soon! As always, have a great week! ♥♥♥

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