Sunday, September 27, 2009

Video Games: 1988 to 2001

I'm not much of a gamer anymore. The last console I owned was a Nintendo 64, and it's been nine years since I last bought a high-end PC. But video games were the one piece of pop culture that really marked my childhood--more than books, more than movies and television, more than anything. They remained a central part of my life all the way up to my late teens. So it seems fitting to write a tribute to all those games that made an impact on me.

I must have been about four when I first played a video game. I have no recollection of the event, but I probably played an Atari system, or my cousin's MSX computer, or maybe even the ancient Pong console my uncle used to own. Back then, what drew me to those games was how there seemed to be a world vaster than what I could see on the screen. I played Sneak 'N Peek--a hide-and-seek type of game--and wondered what it would be like to hide under the bed, the legendary bed no one could manage to sneak under. There was also a quirky version of Pac-Man that my cousin's neighbor once showed us: the sprites were huge, and the maze didn't fit the whole screen, making us feel like we were lost inside it rather than having a bird's-eye view. I was amazed when I watched him run through the tunnel--the same tunnel, I assumed, that made the regular Pac-Man disappear from one side of the screen and appear at the other. I had always wondered what it looked like from the inside.

My parents only gave me my first console in 1990, when I was six years old. I've read a lot of posts where people reminisce about their gaming experiences in the 80s and 90s, so I know we all played many of the same games, got stuck in many of the same levels, and hoped we'd get the same consoles for Christmas. I couldn't help but laugh when I saw The Angry Video Game Nerd failing to land the plane in the NES version of Top Gun, something I never managed to do back then. Still, the fact that I grew up in Brazil, far away from Japan, the USA and even Europe, gave a different flavor to the whole experience.

For starters, I didn't play Top Gun on the NES. When I tore up the wrapping paper, I found this console:

For all intents and purposes, it was an NES. Back then, there was a huge unlicensed video game market in Brazil. While Sega had a local representative that produced and sold the Master System (and later on, the Mega Drive), Nintendo seemed to have no interest in the country. That caused clone consoles to surface, the Phantom System being only one among many. No cartridges were officially released either: there were pirated games all over the place. Add that to the lack of publicity for individual games, and kids were initially clueless about what they should buy. In the US, Nintendo sold bundle packages with acclaimed games like Super Mario Bros. 3; in Brazil, the Phantom System allowed us to pick Super Pitfall, Gauntlet, Predator or Ghostbusters. Sure, I eventually rented Mario, Double Dragon, Mega Man and Battletoads from the video store; but they sat alongside a large number of unofficial games.

Without a doubt, my favorite game at the time was Gauntlet. I loved the idea of picking a character (the warrior, the valkyrie, the wizard or the elf) and roaming a dungeon. As anyone familiar with gaming should know, the learning curve was generally a lot steeper than it is now. Nowadays, you're bound to finish anything you play, as long as you invest enough time to progress through a generally long game. Back then, games weren't fine-tuned to provide just the right amount of challenge--they were hard. If you died, you were dead. Gauntlet did have a password feature, but it only took you as far as level 79, so I never managed to see the ending. And to this day, whenever I think of those last levels, whenever I imagine the last battle, I don't see actual video game graphics. I picture places that resemble the manual's artwork. In the absence of anything concrete, my imagination would take whatever it could to fill the gaps.

This leads me to two other points. First of all, I think that this phenomenon was common to most kids, anywhere in the world. But it was somewhat exacerbated in non-English speaking countries, because everything was an enigma. We didn't understand the simplest of instructions. Say an American kid played the beginning of Ultima III, in which the king said:

Welcome, ye four brave souls. Exodus, dreadful devil, is about to wake up now in this region. If so, our world will be covered by darkness. Brave ones, seal Exodus and save this world. Get ready for your journey.

They would at least know what they were supposed to do. But here we could only figure out that we were on a journey. We had no idea who Exodus was, nor that we had to seal him. Because of this, we gave significance to every pixel we saw. We had to look beyond the screen, reconstructing some sort of story from the few visual clues we had, since we couldn't understand anything that was written. I didn't play Ultima III then, but I experienced this with other games for many years, including Ultima VIII later on.

The second point is that my imagination would feed off of video game magazines, just like it did with game manuals. We didn't have Nintendo Power in Brazil, but there were local publications that worked just as well. They weren't very good, but that wasn't the point--I didn't need cheat codes or any of that stuff. What I wanted was to live vicariously through the screenshots and descriptions of games I couldn't play. I remember reading about the cemetery puzzle in Monkey Island II over and over again; the magazine only included one picture of the game, so there was a lot left up to imagination.

My NES phase had many memorable moments. As much as some people hate it, I loved playing Rambo, possibly the only game with RPG elements available in Portuguese. I also enjoyed the level design tool in Lode Runner. But then the Super Nintendo was released. It came out in 1990 in Japan, and in 1991 in North America; but the first time I heard about it was probably in 1992. My best friend and I coveted it for the whole year. I remember going to a video store to play Street Fighter II on their consoles, and even though it wasn't my favorite kind of game, I marveled at the beautiful and detailed graphics. My friend and I bugged our parents so much we ended up getting it for Christmas.

I only owned two games: Street Fighter II and Mario Paint. My idea was to ask for Super Mario Kart for my birthday, but my mother convinced me to go with Mario Paint instead. "It's open-ended, so it won't get boring." I wish I hadn't followed her advice. Mario Paint was just MS Paint bundled with a music editor, and it got tiresome fast. On the other hand, I always rented Mario Kart and had a lot of fun with it. When my brother and I got tired of racing or playing the Battle Mode, we would pick one of the icy tracks and play tag instead. We weren't intended to do it, but the game mechanics allowed us to, so we did.

I liked a lot of games: Super Mario Wold, Pilotwings, International Super Star Soccer, Act Raiser, Donkey Kong Country, Earthbound, The Lion King, Jurassic Park, just to name a few. But when I look back, there are three games that always come to mind. The first is The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The strange thing is that I didn't even really play it; the video store in my neighborhood didn't have it, and one of my cousins (the only kid I knew who owned it) wouldn't lend it to anyone. But once again, I lived vicariously through video game magazines, and I dreamed of being able to play it one day. In the screenshot above, you can see the little witch my cousin showed me when I went to his house. Yes, I remember exactly the parts he showed me.

The second game is Final Fantasy VI. I rented it around the time it was released, but I was told I could only take it home if I agreed not to use any save slots, because other people were close to finishing it. I accepted the deal and started playing it as soon as I got to my room. Not too long later, my neighbor knocked at my door, and he happened to know a little English. So when Terra woke up inside Locke's house and my neighbor slowly translated what they were saying, the two of us could only say: wow. The storyline, the steampunk setting, the brilliant theme song playing in the background--we were both completely overwhelmed.

It didn't matter we couldn't save games. We would never finish it over the weekend, anyway. We only made it as far as the town of South Figaro, but that day it dawned on us that we had come upon something special

Finally, the third game is Out of this World (AKA Another World). Even though I first played this on the SNES, I only finished it when I got my first computer. In a way, this game represents that transition for me--from the SNES to the PC. In Out of this World, we play as a young physicist who has been transported to an alien world after a failed experiment with a particle accelerator. Whereas games like Final Fantasy rely on dialogue to make the world come alive, Out of this World does this with no verbal or written signs whatsoever. For starters, it has absolutely no interface on the screen, not even life points. The fluid animation, the simple but effective graphics, the use of sound effects without music--they all help to convey a sense that we are in a inhospitable world. When the player character meets an alien outcast, there isn't a single line of dialogue to be seen, but the friendship they develop throughout the game is completely believable. This game has a kind of depth that I have never seen in a platformer. It really is a work of art.

Like I said, my next gaming platform was the PC. I still remember the evening in 1995 when my father came home and told us we were finally buying a computer. As it happened, we'd only get it in the middle of my July vacations; so before the semester was over, I asked a classmate to make a copy of however many games would fit on 20 floppy discs. The next day he brought me Out of this World, Sim City 2000 and Ultima 8, and then I just waited for my computer.

By the time I first played Ultima 8, I'd been taking English classes twice a week for about 4 months. I still had a very rudimentary grasp of the language, so it didn't really help me with the storyline. If anything, the game taught me some vocabulary. Either way, I loved it. Later on I learned that it had been highly criticized for being too buggy and unpolished, and lead designer Richard Garriott himself said he had to ship the game three months earlier to appease stockholders. Still, I didn't share that sentiment at all. The sandbox style of gameplay was very immersive, and it didn't matter whether I was doing the right things to further the plot. I only knew I had been dropped near an island by a giant hand in the sky; I knew the island was ruled by a murderous tyrant, Lady Mordea; I knew a mysterious sorcerer acted against anyone who broke the law; and I knew that each character seemed to have his or her role in that universe. So I tried to find my own role myself. I explored the island and discovered its secret places, not because I was sent on a quest, but because I was interested in it. The screenshot above shows the abandoned house I made my own. I dragged chests all the way across town to keep the treasures I'd collected. I brought in potted plants from other houses. It felt like my character truly inhabited that world, just like the blacksmith nearby, or the guards who harassed peasants on the streets.

At its core, my interest for games like Simcity 2000 wasn't so different from that. The genre appealed to me because I liked the idea of being involved with a complex world--in this case not as an inhabitant, but as a creator. Another one of my favorite games was Civilization II, which focused on entire nations instead of cities. I played not so much to conquer the world in a military campaign (or to win the space race, the other official goal), but to satisfy some sort of creative impulse. I enjoyed it in much the same way I had a fascination for maps when I was little--I was curious about the cities, the roads, and the lives in those places. By carefully examining real maps, or drawing maps of imaginary lands, I was trying to reach out to things that went beyond myself. This isn't to say, of course, that I didn't enjoy the strategy aspect of the genre. Warcraft II was one of my favorite games at that time, even if it focused more on warfare than on world-building.

It's impossible to talk about all the other games I played in middle school (1995 to 1998), but they included classics like Wolfenstein 3D, Lemmings, the various FIFA Soccer incarnations, Prince of Persia and Duke Nukem 3D, and less known titles such as Death Rally, Cyberdogs, Conquests of the Longbow and Lost in Time. But there are some I want to talk about in more detail, and Little Big Adventure II: Twinsen's Odyssey is the first one of them.

Back when computers didn't come with CD drives, we had to buy multimedia kits separately, and they included the drive as well as a sound card and a few random CDs. I'll mention the games that came with mine later on; but here I just have to say that my neighbor bought his in 1997, and that he took a while to actually install it. That's why I was able to play Twinsen's Odyssey. Since my neighbor wasn't using any of his CDs, he let borrow them. This is relevant because it exemplifies how we used to find out about our favorite things. We had no idea if the game was any good. We hadn't read any reviews. We hadn't even heard of it before. But we played it because it had found its way to us. I'm not saying things were better that way, but there's certainly some nostalgia attached to it, especially to the way we were so willing to give everything a chance.

So maybe you can imagine how it felt when I began playing this game without any idea of what to expect. It starts unassumingly, when a mean storm comes over Citadel Island, where Twinsen lives with his girlfriend Zoé and Dino-Fly, his dragon friend. Dino-Fly is struck by lightening and falls in the backyard, so Zoé tells Twinsen to go to the pharmacy and buy him some medicine. Once he does that, Twinsen needs to find the lighthouse keeper, who has mysteriously disappeared, so that the Weather Wizard can cast a spell from the top of the structure and conjure the storm away. I'm not going to give much else away, but I can say that this is only the beginning of an ever-escalating adventure, which includes boat trips to other islands, a space mission to the moon, and a trip to a faraway planet with its own inhabitants and cultures. Oh, and the music. This game had some great music.

Along with Twinsen's Odyssey, LucasArts adventure games were the ones I spent most of my time with. I'd like to say I played all of them, but that's not true: I missed out on the 80s titles, like Zak MacKracken and Maniac Mansion. But I did play all the ones released in the 90s from start to finish. My first one was Full Throttle, which retells the story of Ben, the leader of the Polecats. The Polecats are one of the few remaining motorcycle gangs in the country, and they are dragged into a conspiracy against Malcolm Corley, ex-biker and CEO of the last domestic motorcycle manufacturer. The opening lines are just classic:

Whenever I smell asphalt, I think of Maureen. That's the last sensation I had before I blacked out: the thick smell of asphalt. And the first thing I saw when I woke up was her face. She said she'd fix my bike. Free. No strings attached. I should have known then that things were never that simple. Yeah, when I think of Maureen, I think of two things: asphalt and trouble.

Throughout the game, we find more about Ben's predicament, learn about Maureen and her past, and discover how to save Corley Motors from becoming a dreaded minivan manufacturer. Unlike the rest of the LucasArts games, Full Throttle is quite short, so you can finish it in a sitting or two. That doesn't make it any less enjoyable, though. It's got a great plot, setting and characters.

The next game I played was The Dig. The CD had actually come with my multimedia kit, but since Full Throttle had Portuguese subtitles, I ended up playing it first. The Dig involves three astronauts who go on a mission to stop an asteroid from colliding with our planet. After planting a couple of nukes and detonating them to divert the asteroid's path, they find a mysterious underground chamber which acts as a portal to a faraway planet. The premise doesn't sound that different from Out of this World, but those games aren't really alike. Yes, both of them get the whole inhospitable-place mood right, but The Dig is a lot more lonely, which might come as a surprise, since the astronauts have one another. I think this is the case because, in Out of this World, the alien planet at least offers a glimmer of hope--not of ever making it back home, but of building a new life. In The Dig, the three astronauts are stranded in a place where all life was extincted eons ago, and their relationships degenerate to the point they'd be better off alone. It's a great game; in fact, I should play it again, since it's been 13 years and I didn't understand most of the dialogue at the time.

In January 1998, my family took a trip to Florida, and I was able to buy games I had never managed to find in Brazil. I got The LucasArts Archives Vol. 1 box, which included older games like Sam & Max: Hit the Road, Day of the Tentacle, and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. I also got the third installment of the Monkey Island series, The Curse of Monkey Island, which had recently been released.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis captures every single thing that makes Indiana Jones exciting: the exploration of exotic locations, the uncovering of ancient secrets and, of course, the competition with the Nazis. Since I played the game much longer ago than I last watched the original movies, I might be mistaken here, but I remember the game being a much more accomplished piece of work. When I watched the movies again, I thought the pacing was a little off, and the scenes that felt epic to me as a child lost some of their wonder. But somehow I doubt this would happen with Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. I think this is mostly due to the fact that games can last longer, and so the process of investigating and making sense of an ancient mystery is a lot more engrossing.

Sam & Max: Hit the Road is another great adventure game. It is based on the comic characters of Sam and Max, an anthropomorphic dog and a rabbit who work as private investigators. They set out to investigate the disappearance of a carnival's main attractions (Bruno the Bigfoot and Trixie the Giraffe-Necked Girl), and have to solve a series of puzzles all across America. This is another game I should definitely play again. I remember having to pause to read every single dialogue line--by 1998, I could already make sense of the things I read in English, but I still had to make a lot effort. I'm sure a lot of the quirky humor and wordplay went right over my head. What I liked the most about it was the way you had to think in cartoon logic to solve the puzzles. I also liked its surreal portray of Middle America tourist attractions, like The World's Largest Ball of Twine.

Day of the Tentacle, the sequel to Maniac Mansion, is yet another amazing game. The whole story starts when Purple Tentacle drinks the toxic waste coming out of Dr. Fred's mansion, attains great intelligence, grows little arms, and feels like it could "take on the world!" Here we control three characters (Bernard, the nerd; Hoagie, the metalhead; and Laverne, the wacky girl) who try to stop Purple Tentacle's world domination plans. Other than the humor so typical of LucasArts games, my favorite thing about this game is just, well, how it is such a great adventure game. It's set up in such a way that Hoagie travels 200 years in the past in the Chron-o-John, Dr. Fred's toilet-shaped time machine. Bernard remains in the present, and Laverne travels 200 years in the future to find a tentacle-dominated world. Hoagie meets historical figures like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin (and his kite), and influences things like the US Constitution and flag so that Bernard and Laverne can deal with problems that were previously unsolvable. It's definitely among my favorites.

And then there's Monkey Island. In 1998, I played the third game in the series, and then I went back to the previous two. It stars Guybrush Threepwood, who in the first game floats ashore in Mêlée Island in hopes of becoming a pirate. It also features LeChuck the Undead Pirate, whose goal is to marry Governor Elaine Marley, and Elaine herself, who has better things to do than become his mistress. All three games revolve around an adventure Guybrush gets himself into. In The Secret of Monkey Island, Guybrush has to complete the three trials to become a pirate, sail to Monkey Island and defeat LeChuck. Monkey Island II: LeChuck's Revenge starts out with Guybrush telling an overblown version of LeChuck's defeat ("Guybrush, have mercy!") and declaring he is going on a whole new adventure: finding Big Whoop, the legendary treasure. In The Curse of Monkey Island, Guybrush proposes to Elaine and inadvertently gives her a cursed ring that he found in the hold of LeChuck's ship. She is turned into gold and stolen by other pirates, and Guybrush makes it his mission to rescue her. This is the only game in which Elaine could be considered a damsel in distress, but once Guybrush lifts her curse, she immediately punches him in the face.

One of the greatest accomplishments of the series, in my opinion, is that the writers managed to create a game full of nonsensical elements (rubber chicken with a pulley?), anachronistic humor and in-jokes (asking the player to insert non-existent discs in order to enter a maze through a hollow stump), and still convey the feeling of a classic swashbuckling adventure. It would be very easy to end up making the world a simple vessel for the humor, but no, it contains all the elements I used to dream about as a child. It does make you feel like you are sailing around the Caribbean, talking to the locals and completing pirate trials. It does make the world seem alive.

One quick note about the graphics. Even though Monkey Island I and II look dated by today's standards, I still like them. In fact, the thumbnails here look good to me; it's just the low resolution that makes them look old in full screen. Either way, what I meant to say is that I love what they did in Monkey Island III. Some fans complained that the graphics became more cartoony, but I think it's one of my favorite art directions ever. I love the twirling clouds, the environments, the characters, the colors, everything. I don't think Monkey Island III will ever look old. It looks a lot better than Monkey Island IV, whose 3D graphics haven't aged too well. It's a bit like comparing a hand-drawn movie to the early CG films.

But I didn't play Monkey Island IV at that time. The game that closed that era for me was Grim Fandango. In Grim Fandango, all characters (with the exception of underworld demons) resemble calacas. We play as Manuel "Manny" Calavera, a travel agent in the Land of the Dead who is responsible for selling packages to the Ninth Underworld, the final resting destination for the deceased. Depending on how people have lived their lives, they might be eligible to receive a ticket for the Number 9 train, which only takes four minutes to complete the journey. Those who haven't been virtuous have to settle for less comfortable means of transportation: in the opening scene, we see Manny giving a client a walking stick with a compass and wishing him luck. On foot, the journey takes four years, and many souls get lost along the way.

Grim Fandango is based on Aztec afterlife beliefs, and it also features a strong film noir atmosphere. This type of mood fits the plot perfectly, because Manny soon begins to suspect that even his best clients are being denied the travel packages they deserve. When Mercedes "Meche" Colomar, who is practically a saint, is forced to take the four-year journey, Manny uncovers a criminal organization that has been robbing Number 9 tickets from their rightful owners. And thus begins Manny's own journey towards the Ninth Underworld, during which he hopes to find Meche and help her reach her destination. It's hard to find anything else to say about Grim Fandango without spoilers, but it's definitely one of the best--if not the best--adventure games ever made. The voice actors and the dialogue are great. The pre-rendered backdrops are beautiful. The setting is made of awesome. LucasArts did every single thing right. I was sad they stopped producing adventure games, but there couldn't have been a better closer to that era.

When we were in the US, my brother and I also convinced my parents to buy us a Nintendo 64 with two controllers, a rumble pack and Star Fox 64. We played some memorable games (like Diddy Kong Racing, GoldenEye 007 and Banjo-Kazooie), but for now I only want to speak about one of them. It should be easy enough to guess what it is.

I've mentioned how I spent a considerable amount of time in my childhood dreaming of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. I would even make drawings of it. So when I finally got my hands on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, my expectations were extremely high--and every single one of them were fulfilled. I wouldn't say I'm glad I didn't play A Link to the Past first, because it's an excellent game, but Ocarina of Time really was the best introduction I could have had to the Zelda universe. Like A Link to the Past, it's got all the quintessential elements of the series: it's set in the land of Hyrule; it includes an alternate, darker world where the villain Ganon rules; it presents a series of dungeons Link has to conquer to face Ganon; and it features the Triforce, a sacred relic that plays a crucial role in the world's power balance. Link can equip familiar items such as the Master Sword and the Hookshot. He can also collect hearts for extra life, bottles to hold potions or faeries, and lift up chickens in Kakariko Village. Everything that made me interested in A Link to the Past could also be found in Ocarina of Time.

For those who aren't familiar with the series, I might have made it sound unoriginal. But one of the really cool things about Zelda is that one game isn't necessarily a sequel to the previous one. Although the main character is always named Link, the princess is always named Zelda, and the stories are almost always set in Hyrule, there is no clear indication that they are the same characters from game to game. Fans have often tried to put a time-line together, and I admit there could be a convoluted explanation that links all disparate events; but I prefer to think of each installment as a variation on the same themes. As such, playing a Zelda game is like listening to a familiar story reinvented and retold.

Ocarina of Time just happens to be an excellent version. Not only does it have an interesting plot and interesting characters, but it is also a well made video game in all aspects. Although it has a much lower polygon count and lower texture resolution than recent games, it still looks beautiful. You can tell that each location was carefully designed to fit a particular vision. The gameplay is also perfect, and it set the standards for the genre. I appreciate how the Final Fantasy series (for example) has more complex plots, dialogue and character development, but Zelda accomplishes a different goal: it presents a good old-fashioned tale in a familiar environment, and merges it seamlessly with some of the best action gameplay ever made. In short, Hyrule is a memorable world where you can really get lost in.

I played Ocarina of Time in early 1999. The year before that, other than playing adventure games to my heart's content, I also played Quake I online and chatted in a Second Life predecessor called Active Worlds. So when I changed schools and made new friends, I was particularly interested in a game one of them played: Ultima Online. I was thrilled at the possibility of interacting with players like I did in Quake and Active Worlds, except it'd be in a persistent world similar to the one I knew from Ultima 8. My friend would tell me about all his feats, and it almost me order the game myself. I spent a long time looking at screenshots and deciding which skills I'd focus on.

I say "almost" because then my friend stopped playing. He had ordered Everquest, a game that had just come out--a persistent fantasy world like Ultima Online, except for the fact that it was in full 3D glory. Granted, it didn't seem to be as open as UO (no player housing, nor mounts, nor the ability to kill other players), but he convinced me that this might actually be a good idea. Although fun, player killing was a huge problem in UO, and player houses turned wilderness into sprawling urban areas. In Everquest, there wouldn't be any of that.

I remember asking him, "How good does it look compared to Ocarina of Time?" He said, "Better." To be honest, I think he was wrong. Ocarina of Time looks better in the sense that the animations are more fluid, and there is more attention paid to detail. For example, the Kokiri forest (depicted in the first OoT screenshot) has a lot of fairy sparkles floating around, and when Link runs through them, it looks as though the particles are flying backwards, creating a really cool motion effect. Everquest, on the other hand, was a little blocky and stiff. Still, the screenshots I found online made me very enthusiastic. The spell effects looked great, the characters models were diverse, and the world seemed huge.

My computer could not run it, though. While I planned an upgrade, another friend of ours ordered it too, so I would hear their Everquest stories daily. When I finally had my computer ready, and the EQ box made its way to me from North America, I installed the game and entered Erollisi Marr server, where my friends played. One week later, another friend received his copy in the mail. And along with us, our siblings created their own characters to play.

I'm taking my time to mention all this because it shows how palpable our excitement was. It was all we talked about within our little circle of friends. We went to bed and dreamed about the game. To this day, eight years after I stopped playing EQ, I still have dreams about it from time to time. To put it simply, I'm quite sure I won't experience anything like Everquest ever again. I don't think any game will ever match the feeling of entering the world of Norrath for the first time. As a wood-elf, I started in the tree city of Kelethin. It was incredible to follow the path through the forest of Greater Faydark, just to find the imposing high-elf city of Felwhite, where one of my friends would sit fishing by the bridge. He was always the one who would engage in those off-track pursuits. One day he told me that he had discovered a goldmine: buying sharpening stones in another continent, more specifically in the city of Freeport, and bringing them back to Greater Faydark so he could sell them to other players at higher prices. The world was a huge place, and we could do any single thing we could think of.

Looking back, Everquest wasn't that great a game, and that was exactly its greatest virtue: it didn't feel like a video game. Recent MMORPGs seem too concerned about laying out a path for players to follow. You generally enter the world and a tutorial holds your hand through the first couple of levels, earning you a few items in the process. Then the game presents you with a series of quests for you to complete, which give you experience and allow you to work on more advanced quests. It just goes on indefinitely, and you won't be sent to places that are too dangerous, nor find any challenges that weren't designed for you. You meet people along the way, but they are only there to help you achieve whatever goal the game has thrown in your direction.

For all its design flaws--or possibly because of those flaws--Everquest wasn't a glorified one-player game. Every new character entered the game with a note. You had to find your guild master in your starting city and hand the note in--and that was it. The guild master didn't tell you, "Now I want you to do something else," nor, "Go find X in Y." You were free. There were quests around, but they were self-contained and completely optional. You wouldn't be robbing yourself of the whole point of the game if you chose to ignore them altogether. So, ironically, there wasn't much questing in Everquest at all.

Unlike me, who briefly tried out a wood-elf ranger and then stuck with a wood-elf druid, my brother started a lot of different characters. One of them was an erudite--an offshoot of the human race with bigger brains. All the other races had some sort of night vision, but the human ones didn't. That caused them to be practically blind at night, seeing only silhouettes against the dark blue sky. I remember watching my brother play in Toxxulia forest, near the city of Erudin, and those young erudites couldn't see a thing. Another thing I remember is the long boat trips. To go from one continent to another, we had to sit at the docks and wait for the boat. It would take us about 20 minutes to cross the ocean. Yet another memory is of the countryside: although the game was divided in zones due to technical issues, there were griffins and giants who roamed otherwise low-level areas. There was no real sense of safety unless you knew what you were doing.

Today it's almost unimaginable to have a game with those features. The night generally looks more like twilight. You can find safe means of transportation not only from one continent to another, but also across places you would have to run through--and you usually don't have to wait for them, either. Players say, "We only have 30 minutes to play every night. It makes no sense to lose 20 of them going from one place to another just to start having fun." Fair enough, but you see, running around back then was fun. We weren't completing any quests, nor killing anything for experience, but it was an integral part of the gaming experience. It's fair enough to say we weren't thrilled to run cross the Plains of Karana for the 1000th time, but shortening the distance would remove the very thing that made the world interesting. The fact was that Everquest didn't try to make a hero out of everyone. It made you feel small before it, as if the universe hadn't been designed around you.

That was how the first few months felt: the most awe-inspiring and humbling gaming experience I've ever had. Then there was a shift--a shift that I have experienced with other things in my life to some extent. For example, I used to have a visceral reaction to almost any music I heard. Nowadays, I wouldn't say I've lost the ability to listen to music in such a evocative way, but it takes a lot more for a song to move me. Whereas I used to have this very direct and whole experience of sound, now I listen to a song and in the back of my mind I know: the bass is doing this, the guitars are doing that, and hey, it's kind of cool how the drums accentuate the vocal melody. The same happened to Everquest. Over the months, I couldn't help but notice how the game worked. I started figuring out the mechanics behind it, and that was exactly when the world lost a bit of its wonder.

(Before anyone thinks this is analogous to the role of science in the world, I want to say that no, I don't think the analogy holds. Maybe I should write a post about this later?)

In any case, when orcs and giants and frogloks all became mobs, sneaking past brownies turned out to be all about their aggro radius, and gnolls only attacked me because I was in their hate list, the world didn't feel so real anymore. And that's one of the reasons why I don't think any MMORPG will ever capture the sheer grandiosity Everquest conveyed to me in its early days. Those mechanisms might be a little more refined today, but they are still largely the same. I still see right through them, and that won't change until AI is a lot more advanced than it is today. I'm not sure I need every NPC passing the Turing test for a game to recapture this magic, but their behavior does need to be a lot less predictable.

Well, I've explained why I loved Everquest for the first couple of months. But that explanation doesn't really account for the fact that I kept on playing for two years. Once again, it had to do with the fact that it didn't cater to people looking for a fluid gaming experience. If you wanted to log in, jump right into action and then log off, Everquest wasn't the game for you. If you play WoW or Everquest II, you'll find that combat is a lot more exciting--it seems like it never really stops. There is practically no downtime. In Everquest, each combat lasted longer, and hit point and mana recovery were incredibly slow. For most classes, it was downright impossible to do anything on their own. Everquest's mechanics were such that people were forced to band together; and once together, they were given a lot more room to interact meaningfully, because they weren't constantly hacking through monsters. That created a much stronger sense of community than you generally find in more recent games.

I played through the first two expansions, Ruins of Kunark and Scars of Velious, and they were excellent. But when Shadows of Luclin was released in late 2001, it just didn't sound as good to me. I was 17 then, and it was the period in my life when I really started coming into myself. It could have happened anywhere else, but I think it was fitting that I was so influenced by people in a computer game. So there were two things going on at the same time: the Velious era was moving towards its end, and a few friends I had met in-game were also going through their own personal struggles. By the time Luclin was released, the game had moved in a direction I didn't particularly like, and my circle of friends disbanded, each one of us going on to live our own separate lives.

I did try playing Dark Age of Camelot. It didn't hold my attention. I reopened my EQ account six months later, but that only confirmed it belonged in the past. I ended up not playing any games, single- or multi-player, for about five years. Nothing could match what I had just experienced with Everquest, and furthermore, I had other interests to pursue.

I'm not one to see games as "escapist entertainment." When I say I found my way in life and didn't play any games for years, not once does it cross my mind that I had been previously trying to avoid reality. Yes, I do feel that there was a distinction between really living and playing games, or reading books, or listening to music; but none of those things were about pretending I didn't live in some sort of harsh, lonely reality. Quite the opposite. When I was a child, I didn't dream of playing Zelda so I could forget myself. I did it because it gave me a keen awareness of how I wanted life to be. If I hadn't done that, I don't think I'd know nearly as much about myself, nor about the things that make me tick. When I played EQ and felt humbled, I didn't think, "Wow, Norrath is so much better than Earth." I thought, "Whatever it is that incites this feeling of awe, I want it." If my life were hopeless, and the only solution to keep my sanity were to hide away, the last thing I'd want to do would be to read books, play games or listen to music. They'd remind me too much of the life-stuff I'd be trying to ignore.

And so we are almost reaching a conclusion here. Quitting Everquest coincided with the end of a chapter in my gaming career. I did start playing games again around 2006, but I still don't do it nearly as often as I used to. I'm at a point in my life where I don't have as much time to devote to them anymore, though I do make a point of playing a couple of titles a year. Since I don't have any new consoles and my computer is old, I focus on games I never got to finish back in the day. Here is one of the highlights:

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. I did have my reasons to abandon it halfway through back in the day. Majora's Mask doesn't take place in Hyrule, but in the alternate world of Termina, which has equivalent yet different places and characters. It sounded promising, but the problem was that I thought the world design was clumsy. I loved the central area of Ocarina of time, Hyrule Field, but Termina Field looked like an incongruous hub for different regions. It just wasn't a vast expanse of land like Hyrule Field was. Indeed, when I gave Majora's Mask another chance, I never felt I was exploring a vast world. There are snowy mountains, damp swamps and sunny beaches, but they are all thrown together a little carelessly.

What I did discover the second time around, though, is that Majora's Mask is an amazing game. After Ocarina of Time, Link wanders into the Lost Woods on his horse. Deep in the forest, a masked Skull Kid and his two faeries knock him unconscious for a few moments, stealing his ocarina. When Link comes to himself, he tries to jump Skull Kid, but he manages to escape. Link chases him, but that leads Skull Kid to turn him into a Deku scrub, a plant-like creature. At that point, Skull Kid also ends up abandoning one of his fairies, Tatl, who joins Link for fear of being left behind for good.

Link and Tatl find a corridor into a mysterious tower, which turns out to be a passageway to the world of Termina. There they find a mask vendor who has had a powerful mask stolen, Majora's Mask. He says that he will lift Link's curse if he recovers the mask for him in three days. When Link leaves the tower, he finds himself in a town that is preparing for the Carnival of Time, a festival that is supposed to take place in three days. He also discovers that Skull Kid is using his powers to draw the moon closer and crash it into Termina when the Carnival starts. As the end approaches, Link does find a way to fight Skull Kid, but he cannot defeat him. However, he manages to recover the Ocarina of Time, which he uses to go back in time to the beginning of those three days. With the ocarina in hand, he learns the song of healing from the mask vendor and returns to his normal self. But Skull Kid still has Majora's Mask, and he will crash the moon into Termina if no one stops him.

That's Majora's Mask whole premise: Link is to relive the same three days again and again, until he finds a way to defeat Skull Kid. Because of the limited time span, the designers were able to add a lot more detail to what happens within those three days. Each character in the world has his or her own routine. Each place becomes different as the days go by. Clock Town, for example, has an air of excitement with the festival preparations during the first day; but as people begin to realize the world is going to end, an oppressive mood falls over the place. Some of them flee, seeking shelter in other parts of the world. Link can talk to each one of them and learn how impeding doom affects them, and he can change their lives depending on what he chooses to do.

As I finished Majora's Mask, I came to realize it's my favorite Zelda game. I think it's better than Ocarina of Time. Ocarina of Time is one of those games whose world feels bigger than our lives as individuals. On the other hand, Termina feels like a microcosmos of sorts--it doesn't make you as aware that you are in a world with a history that extends back for thousands of years. What it does is focus on the lives of those who are alive here and now; and in a brilliant stroke, it reminds us of how urgent our time is and how impermanent our lives are. In Majora's Mask, Link isn't just the hero who saves the world, and the world isn't just made of its sheer size and history.

That's Majora's Mask's strongest point. The inhabitants of Termina aren't even complex, multilayered characters; most of them are simple people who live simple lives. But as Link gets to know them, he learns about their everyday struggles. There is nothing particularly deep about Anju and Kafei, two kids who were about to get married when Skull Kid arrived, but their story of misfortune is moving and sad. The story of Pamela, a strong little girl whose father meets a terrible fate, is also touching. And Skull Kid himself is a tragic character, but not in the sense that he has been afflicted by an ancient curse--he has been hurt in smaller, human-sized ways. Some think that Majora's Mask is the darkest Zelda game, and while I can see why they would say that, I just think it's the most human.

I had planned to talk about the other games I played in the past couple of years. I was going to speak about Baldur's Gate I, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, and Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal. I was going to mention Civilization IV, Simcity 4 and Monkey Island IV. I was going to plug Another World 15th Anniversary Edition and The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, two excellent classic remakes. I was even going to mention how it felt to revisit the EQ world for its 9th anniversary last year. But no. It feels right to end this enormous post with Majora's Mask.

As you might have noticed, I've always had a soft spot for stories that are larger than life, either because they are so old and epic that they transcend generations, or because they depict a universe so huge or complex you can't help but feel humbled. But if Majora's Mask seems so great to me, it's not because of its timelessness. It's because some time back in 2001 I became interested in people and what they make of their lives. So it makes sense to end this post here, with a game that exemplifies not so much how my tastes have changed, but how they have expanded. It represents the other side of things: it's not about looking at the universe in awe, but about reveling in the knowledge that we have our own place within it, however impermanent it may be.


  1. My friend and I were recently discussing about the prevalence of technology in our day to day lives. Reading this post makes me think back to that discussion we had, and just how inseparable from electronics we have all become.

    I don't mean this in a bad way, of course! Societal concerns aside... I just hope that as technology further develops, the possibility of downloading our brains onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It's one of the things I really wish I could encounter in my lifetime.

    (Posted on Nintendo DS running [url=]r4i ds[/url] DS SKu2)