Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The 10 Game Challenge

Recently, my honourable friend Kunal Mathur of Quixotic Quagmires issued a challenge to several persons, myself among them, to list the ten books that have most influenced their thinking.

It occurred to me, however, that although I have the highest respect and admiration for good literature, not least as a writer myself, my own path has been shaped to a far profounder degree by video games. I could certainly have listed the books from which I have derived greatest influence, but a list of the most influential video games appeared more fitting to my circumstances. It would also be an opportunity to challenge anti-videogame prejudices, and show that games, as much as books, have the worthiest contributions to make to a person's growth and thought. This article, therefore, is my response.

It took me some time to narrow down the list. I should point out that these are not necessarily my favourite video games, though I consider them all splendid or better. Nor is this list like the other I have compiled here, which gives ten examples of video games' excellence as an art form and potential for socio-political commentary. These, here, are simply the eleven games which I believe have had the greatest influence on my thinking, my values, and the person I have become.

You read that right, by the way. Not ten. Eleven.

The list is as follows:

1) Rallo Gump
2) Loom
3) Star Control 2
4) Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
5) Command and Conquer series
6) Discworld
7) Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
8) Pokémon Blue
9) Ultima 7 & 8
10) World of Warcraft
11) Monster Girl Quest

I should also give honourable mention to the following, among others: Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy; Theme Hospital; the Metroid Prime series; Bioshock; the Legend of Zelda games Majora's Mask and Twilight Princess; the Advance Wars series; Little King's Story; Planescape – Torment; and the two games that most directly oriented my path towards Japan: Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon and Okami.

Click below for the specifics.

1) Rallo Gump (Just Softworks/Homebrew Software/Edge Creations Inc., PC, 1994)
So. Anybody remember this?

This old 2D platformer was one of the very first video games I came to know. It has since faded into obscurity, but its impressions have never left me. Whatever imagination generated its colourful world and bizarre aesthetic must have been utterly unfettered by anything resembling rules. Its diverse geographical settings, weird monsters, and even weirder bosses stand vivid in my memory, and I can still hum its catchy melodies off by heart.

It feels as though the world has grown a lot more complicated since the days of Rallo Gump, but this crazy game must have been one of those influences that first opened my vision to vast realms I had never thought to envisage. I have games like this to thank for giving me those chances so early: because it was this that let me build a broader perspective on life from the outset, from which, eventually, to better challenge and critique our broken reality. Ironic indeed, to think so crazy a game helped lay my foundations for sanity in a world gone mad.

2) Loom (Lucasarts, PC, 1992)
A classical point-and-click adventure with a musical twist, both in its atmosphere – the entire soundtrack comes beautifully from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake – and in its interface, by which you weave magical four-note “drafts” to influence the world. Few storylines or settings in the fiction of that time struck me as profoundly as the journey of this young weaver, spinning musical notes to manipulate anything from doors and tapestries to forces of nature and the very fabric of the universe, as the Third Shadow descends upon the Age of the Great Guilds.

Most memorably, the villains remain unparalleled archetypes. I doubt I was the only eight-year-old whose horror lingered for literally years after witnessing the outcome of Bishop Mandible's fiendish schemes. On top of that, though many virtual foes have come and gone on my screen in more than twenty years since, none, I think, have echoed with a chill so far-reaching as that of Chaos, who after all, for want of a sequel, is one of the very few who remain undefeated.

The truly unique experience of Loom now appears to be available on Steam. And after all this time, a fan-made sequel is at last coming together, here.

3) Star Control 2 a.k.a. The Ur-Quan Masters (Toys for Bob/Accolade, PC, 1992)
An interstellar war rages between the Alliance of Free Stars – of which Earth is a member – and the evil Ur-Quan and their Hierarchy of battle thralls. This is the premise of Star Control 2, in which you return to Earth from a secret research mission, captaining a formidable starship, to find the Alliance defeated and humanity enslaved. From there unfolds a magnificent space opera of exploration, alien diplomacy, resource-gathering and blazing combat as you uncover the fates of humanity's former allies and enemies, seek out new alien races, and steadily assemble a new confrontation to Ur-Quan dominance.

Star Control 2 impressed me as a truly comprehensive narrative experience, at times uproariously humorous but also tackling deeply serious themes like slavery and genocide. This game has the power, as I found, to give you new insights and perspectives on such topics that you will carry with you for the rest of your life, as anyone who discovered what made the Ur-Quan that way will attest. And ultimately, the outstanding and diverse cast of aliens, with whom there is hours of dialogue, strikes me to this day as a marvellous kaleidoscope of the idiosyncrasies, and problems, of humankind.

A beautiful high-resolution remake has since been released, which is available for free on this website and which I strongly recommend. An exciting fan-made sequel called Project 6014 is also in development.

4) Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (Brøderbund Software, PC, 1992)
If I – ahem – am capable today of conjuring a map of our world off by heart, and locating all countries, almost all major cities and a good deal of not-so-major settlements and regions to a respectable degree of geographical accuracy, it is for one principal reason: that I played Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego as a kid. In this game you get to be a detective, zooming around the world in pursuit of crooks with peculiar names like Robin Banks or Yul B. Sorry, who have made off with the likes of the Taj Mahal or the Sphinx or the Great Barrier Reef or some such. After gathering evidence to piece together their trail, and learning a great deal of geography and history along the way, you finally track down these robbers and arrest them on sight, be it at Mayan ruins in Honduras or in front of mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

It never got old. And to this day, as I continue to fill in my mental map of the world with the details of peoples and places, so I can better inflict uncompromising but hopefully constructive criticism upon you, your government, your thought systems and your gods no matter where in the world you stand – it is only because Carmen Sandiego did me the original service of unfurling that map wide open, handing me a bunch of markers to get started, and provoking my hunger to learn all there was to know about the continents of Earth.

Despite appearances, I believe this guy is one of Carmen Sandiego's henchmen, and not in fact an Indonesian local government official.

5) Command and Conquer series (Westwood Studios [until they were eaten by EA], PC, 1995-2012)
For almost half my life, Command and Conquer (C&C) was the staple of my real-time strategy diet, and most of its games offered several levels of nutrients. Most immediately, in a Britain that assaulted my childhood with ruthless hierarchies and narratives that young people have no power and no rights, these games presented a counter-narrative. In C&C, you can always fight, and if you fight well enough, you can win. This is because everything has its strengths and weaknesses, and you can overcome any foe by knowing your enemy, knowing yourself, and out-thinking them into the ground. And to this day, though often easier said than done, I regard this as a fundamental fact of the world. No-one and nothing is invincible, no matter how powerful they may seem. All have their weak points. All can fall.

Furthermore, C&C was my clearest lesson yet on looking at all sides of the story. Whether in the classic branch's struggle between the Global Defence Initiative (GDI) and the Brotherhood of Nod, or the Red Alert branch's conflicts between the Allies and the Soviet Union, all C&C games are based upon an “us” versus “them” narrative. Each faction has its own units and structures, its own aesthetics, its own values, and its own narratives in which it is right and its enemy is wrong. And you can lead their armies to conquer the world, or liberate it from the enemy – depending, indeed, on your perspective. But they each have their faults, as well as their justifications and redeeming features: the contrast between black-and-white narrative and shades-of-grey truth could not be starker. C&C lets you see these from all sides, and gives a disquieting taste of how easy it is to fall for the heroes versus villains narratives when it is your own side advancing them – just as in far too many of humanity's actual conflicts.

The peak of the series for me was probably the classic C&C: Red Alert. Soon afterwards the company responsible, Westwood Studios, was devoured by Electronic Arts (EA), under whom the soul of the series gradually lost its integrity and drained away through the later games – although some, particularly Red Alert 2, were still exceptionally good.

Yes, this is you leading the Soviet invasion of Washington D.C.

6) Discworld (Psygnosis, PC, 1995)
The venerable Sir Terry Pratchett is most eminent for his Discworld series of books, though lately also merits deep respect for his courageous contributions to the struggle against Alzheimer's disease and for the right to assisted dying. I was introduced to Discworld not through the books, however, but through this point-and-click adventure game that provides an inspired representation of Pratchett's remarkable world. The game is based roughly on the story of Guards! Guards! but stars the wizard Rincewind, as voiced by another legend, Eric Idle of Monty Python fame. Those who have played it might remember it for the notorious difficulty of its puzzles, that stretched on and on into the impenetrable extremes beyond all recognisable logic, until at last, surrounded by the remnants of your hair, you longed for the sight of a walkthrough.

That said, it was great fun, but that alone did not give it the defining influence on my life to warrant it a place on this list. No, that influence, in this case, came from an extremely specific passage of this game which, quite by...chance? Coincidence? I tread carefully, because although it has been many years, I recall that the choice of words in the Discworld context is no straightforward matter. In any case, the material concerned became the first thing in the world to crystallise my consciousness of something absolutely vital. I will say no more about it other than that it connects, of all things, to sexual diversity, wherein the reader will excuse me if I refrain from being over-particular. Nonetheless it was that consciousness, awakened then, developed over the following decades, and eventually put into social and political context, that now enables me to regularly spin off writings like these on sexuality politics, let alone a freaking Master's thesis on the subject.

I am sure it was hardly designed with such intent. Nonetheless, such is fortune at its best, and for that I owe Discworld a special gratitude and pay my respects by including it here.

7) Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, N64, 1998)
My experience of the game which, in its day, was hailed as the “best game ever” coincided with a transitional period in my life: my arrival in a Britain I had never meaningfully lived in and could not relate to. This was where hell, for lack of a better word, first descended upon me. I had never imagined so pitiless a crisis in relations between adults and children as I found in that country. From adults came blustering authoritarianism; from children came howling barbarity. From both came prejudice: ageist in one case, racist in the other, hateful of difference in both. The world as I knew it became unlivable.

Ocarina of Time was not the only game that gave me an alternative world in which to take up exile when faced with unspeakable consequences in this one, but it stands out as one of the strongest and most timely. Like many of the Zelda games, it was a complete world, populated by diverse races and characters, in which you could undertake a heroic journey: a thinking journey, of friendship, of making mistakes and learning, of challenging injustice, and of overcoming an evil dictator.

It was an immersion in essential themes of life unavailable to me in a toxic society. And where the punitive classroom despots of Britain reduced right and wrong to doing what you were told and fearing authority, Ocarina of Time gave me a space to work my ethics out for myself. It must have been then, thanks to this game and others, that I became convinced that coercion, cruelty, and power relationships based on force and fear are wrong, and that imposed hierarchies can and must be broken. It was games like this that showed me that even without friendship, without dignity, without love, I could know that these were good things, strong things, whose primacy in the world was worth fighting for. No matter how bitter at humanity I went on to become, my ethical compass today remains much as it was after this calibration.

8) Pokémon Blue (Nintendo/Game Freak, Game Boy, 1999)
Oh goodness. Well, this list would not be complete without an acknowledgement that for a time, around the turn of the millennium, I too was one of millions of Pokémon trainers travelling up and down those realms of rustling grass, numbered routes and colour-coded cities, amassing a small army of these mighty but oh-so-adorable creatures Nintendo set loose to conquer the world. This, for a time, was my identity. This was my life.

There is no shame in this admission. Pokémon's abiding grip on fans worldwide, and its legacy on my soul, were well-earned by its purity of concept and the travelling power of its principles. At its core are some of the same themes identified in Command and Conquer: the complex nature of power, by which everything has strengths and weaknesses and anyone, absolutely anyone, can be defeated if these are matched up cleverly enough. This is represented plain as daylight in the basic formula of Pokémon battles, by which each species of Pokémon is of one or two out of seventeen elemental types, each of which is strong against some types and weak against others – an accessible format which nonetheless belies extraordinary complexity. Add to this a basic hero's journey plot, where any player can set out from his or her hometown with a Level 1 Pokémon and gradually develop into a Pokémon Master, and factor in the deep bonds that form between players and their Pokémon (I still remember my original team of six with fondness), and it is easy to see how these games have resonated with the core themes of a thousand peoples and cultures. To travel, to love, and to think your way through challenges – is that not, after all, what it has always meant to be human?

The height of my immersion in the world of Pokémon came with Pokémon Blue, in the opening set of these games. Back then there were 151 Pokémon to catch. Today there are 719. My own Pokémon journey has long since folded back into my overarching journey through a mad Earth, but to all those who are still on their own Pokémon journeys today, I salute you.

9) Ultima VII and VIII (Origin Systems, PC, 1992-4)
Admittedly this is not one game but three, as Ultima VII came in two parts. But these were my abiding experience of Richard Garriott's seminal Ultima series, which like some other games on this list are RPGs set in a comprehensive and detailed world. What stood out for me about the Ultima games, however, was their exploration of complex moral, ethical and spiritual systems, which were pivotal both as narrative devices and gameplay mechanics throughout.

The most prominent was a system of three principles – Truth, Love and Courage – on which were based the Eight Virtues of Honesty, Compassion, Valour, Justice, Sacrifice, Honour, Humility and Spirituality. There was also, for example, the Gargoyle system, with a different three principles – Control, Passion and Diligence – with eight virtues of their own. But for me, the profoundest of all was the more complicated Ophidian system in Ultima VII, Part Two, which had at its centre Balance, and from either side three competing forces of Order (Ethicality, Discipline, Logic) and of Chaos (Tolerance, Enthusiasm, Emotion), symbolised by serpents in a caduceus arrangement. These came in balanced pairs, and if they lost that balance, calamity could (and did) result. This system is well worth reading about at greater length. And then you had the altogether different world of Ultima VIII, where virtues were foregone altogether for rougher elementalisms.

I devoured this stuff like a starving beast. At the time, my main moral and spiritual exposure was to the aforementioned might-makes-right authoritarianism in British schools, as well as to a monolithic Christianity which became inseparable from it. So I thank all that is good for the Ultima games. They let me build a more open and reflective internal discourse about right and wrong and the universe, and showed that alternative approaches were possible, which I could then explore and question on my own terms. It may be in large part thanks to them that I am at peace with my ethical and spiritual identity today, and can think critically about it, rather than being stuck with it out of ignorance or fear.

10) World of Warcraft (Blizzard, PC, 2004–)
Well, anybody who knows me will have seen this one coming. World of Warcraft is one of a kind: more a world than a game, in which millions of people log on and participate. It is ten years old this year and has been fundamental to my life for almost as long. On this blog it has featured on my other list and even in its own article. Where to even begin? Perhaps with the fact that this game saved my life.

Quite literally. I was introduced to it at a time of absolute personal devastation, with nothing left for me in this world but to seek my own death. Instead I found myself languishing around the snows of Dun Morogh and the fields of Westfall, half-heartedly lobbing fireballs at gnolls and kobolds and bandits, knowing that this was at best a short reprieve. Instead, it lasted just long enough for me to meet the last human I would ever love.

My years in World of Warcraft included some of the best moments of my life, and some of the most traumatically horrible. That online relationship I referred to was to end in catastrophe and terminal alienation from the ways of the human race. But for better or for worse, World of Warcraft has become part of who I am. At least half the people I have ever known, I would estimate, were those I encountered and struggled either alongside or against in that game, including the most outstanding heroes and villains in the story of my life. It has informed and invigorated my perspectives on the world, and heavily influences my writing of all types. From the start and to this day, World of Warcraft was never merely a game.

I would not say this was the single most influential game, or work, on my thinking – that honour goes to the next and final entry – but it has certainly been the most influential on my life. It was in this game that I worked out my relationship with human society, and developed and tested my values, including those inspired by the games above. What I emerged with, and brought within myself to Guyana and Japan, has been resilient. Because of World of Warcraft, I endure.

11) Monster Girl Quest (Torotoro Resistance, PC, 2011-3)
This list ends, as it begun, with a spotlight into obscurity. But the reasons could not be more different.

Monster Girl Quest (モンムス クエスト) is not what you would call mainstream. It is an independent Japanese creation, more a digital story than a game, and has featured here in my article about heroism. A fuller description can be found in that article. Suffice it here to say that as far as stories and narratives go, this is to my mind as complete, as masterful, and as thematically pure as it gets. It offers both a consummate example of the hero's journey and a magisterial deconstruction of the very concept. Its characters and their relationships are superbly designed: in particular it features more in the way of complex, diverse and seriously deep female characters than literally any other game, book or film I know of – and that is a serious matter indeed, while the disasters of gender rampage up and down video game culture – not to mention society itself – with unconscionable ferocity.

One cannot help but become emotionally invested in the epic journey of the Fake Hero and the Monster Lord, through a world saturated with some of the most challenging themes in the entire human story. At front and centre are heroism and prejudice. The nature of morality and good governance is inquired into. Terrorism and science are placed under penetrating spotlights. Animism gets involved. But above all, this story is one of the most powerful allegories of Abrahamic religion that I have ever encountered. The magic of it, indeed, is that all these heavy topics are explored through the colliding values, emotions and relationships of Monster Girl Quest's characters, and thus engage you at a profoundly personal level beyond the reach of more abstract treatments.

Another of its themes is sexuality, of which there is a lot. Monster Girl Quest also happens to be an eroge – Japanese for “erotic game” – and therein lies the reason for its obscurity. In our world where ignorance, hysteria and gendered politics have compromised our thinking about sexuality, there are plenty who have dismissed this game as pornography. They are fools. What this game shows you, among its many other strengths, is precisely that sexual content does nothing to detract from the merit of a rigorous, engrossing, serious, poignant, and at times utterly beautiful story. Make no mistake: this is a thinking person's game.

Of course it is not beyond critique – nothing is, after all – and at times the way it is advertised towards a very particular subset of the prurient interest does few favours for awareness of the narrative masterpiece within. On this note, one should warn that it deals substantially with the theme of rape – or more specifically, the rape of human men by part-monster women – although its context and plot significance make it more nuanced in this game than the plain hellish abomination it is in our world.

As such, I hesitated to write about this. There are those it will appal. But to deny it the crowning place on this list it deserves would be an insult to its integrity, as well as a dishonest denial of its contributions to my character. No game, work or story in my life has engaged me as thoroughly as Monster Girl Quest, nor given me such cause to think in ways I did not know how to before. No work has so spectacularly succeeded in breaking through the callused walls of my soul, to make me genuinely laugh, weep, rage or cheer upon the coruscating rhythm of its narrative. Not till I had seen this story through did I understand, at last, the meaning of catharsis. It is, without doubt, the one work that has most influenced my thinking. It is, without exaggeration, one of the best experiences of my life.

And that's my list. Whose turn is it next?

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