You always remember the first time you watched what turned out to be your favourite movie. For some, their history is sign-posted by the books they have read or the music they listened to. For me however, no matter where I was, or what I was doing there was always a video game. I played many hours of The Lion King on my Sega Megadrive (aka the Sega Genesis) when I was 6 years old, and was terrified of the Demon when my brother played Doom back in 1994. For every major life event there was an accompanying game. I've made some of my best friends and even met my partner1 through gaming.
I would like to share a list of my favourite games, and how they fit into my history.
I got Starcraft after my parents and I moved to Israel. I was 9 years old and barely spoke any English. It was the first game I ever bought with my own money, and I was obsessed.
Starcraft told the story of three intergalactic races, the human Terrans, the ruthless bug-like Zerg, and the hyper-advanced pseudo-religious Protoss. It was a swirl of politics, drama, romance, combat, and badass spaceships. I loved the characters and their relationships, the complexity of the story and the richness of the universe that the folks at Blizzard Entertainment had created.
I read the manual2 cover to cover. I knew all the units, buildings, and upgrades you could make to your army. Each unit had catch-phrases they repeated during the game. "Job's Finished", "In the pipe, five by five", "gimme some'n to shoot!". I would recite these all day long. It was all just so very cool.
Little did I know that many years later the sequel would enter back into my life in a very strong way. But more on that later.
What do you get when you mix comedy, film noir, Mexican folklore, mariachi and jazz music, art-deco, and a salesman named Manny? You get Lucasarts' critically acclaimed point-and-click adventure game, Grim Fandango, a triumph for legendary director and writer Tim Schafer.
Grim Fandango, affectionally known as Grim, was unlike anything I had seen before. Every element of the game was crafted to support in telling a most unique story.
The game is set in the land of the dead, where the dead dwell on their way to the final resting place, the Ninth Underworld. The journey across the land of the dead is fraught with danger, but if you were good in life you could travel by much safer and faster means. The luxury Number 9 train, crosses the land of the dead in 4 minute instead of 4 years. In Grim, you play Manny Calavera, a travel salesman who must sell enough tickets on the Number 9 to lost souls in order to pay back for an unknown offence he committed in life.
The game is hilarious and beautiful. Schafer's personality shines through with the right blend of intelligent and silly humour. I didn't understand half of the jokes in the game. My English at the time wasn't very good and I was still too young to get some of the jokes. Nevertheless it's more mature tone really appealed to me. The world was so different and had so much depth that I got sucked right in. It also helped that brother also counts Grim as one of his favourite titles.
If Grim had me laughing to tears, Journey made me weep for every other reason. The developers of Journey designed the game by nailing down the ebb and flow of emotions they wanted to create in the player. The rest of the game then emerged from that blueprint. Their plan was a resounding success. By the time I was done with the game I was emotionally drained. Like when you finish a great book or at the end of a good movie. The air in the room stood still and my body was firmly planted on the sit. I will not say much more, for it will ruin the experience.
Journey is short, and easy to pick up and play. I would recommend you wait until you have an hour or two and finish it in one sitting. One of the most impactful games I've ever played.
The Last of Us
Sometimes the relationship between two characters can make a video game a delight to play. You keep coming back just to hang out with them and see how they interact. The Last of Us falls squarely in that category.
The Last of Us follows the journey of Joel, a kind but strong smuggler; and Elle, a scrappy but cheerful teenage girl, in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by the spread of a zombifying spore. The premise is certainly not original but the execution is nothing short of masterful.
The writing, directing, and acting in this game are phenomenal. The relationship that develops between Joel and Elle is captivating and heart-warming. As the player, you feel like you're part of the story. Their struggles are your struggles and it makes an already immersive experience all the more rewarding.
So we are back here; Starcraft once again enters my life. The year was 2010 and I am working at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN). I was sitting at my desk at work unable to concentrate, I was vibrating with excitement. Today was Starcraft II release day. Almost 12 years after the release of Starcraft, the highly anticipated sequel was finally coming out. And I was gonna play it. Unfortunately all I had was a not-so-powerful Macbook to my name. Not that this was gonna stop me. I punched my credit card details so hard I thought I was gonna break the keyboard.
I downloaded the game right then and there3. I ran back to my hostel room and then proceeded to shut myself away from the world and play the game the whole night straight to completion. It was glorious, the graphics were stunning, the character catchphrases had the mix of bravado, strength, comedy, and cool that I'd come to expect from Blizzard.
My affair with Starcraft II did not end there. Over the following months I continued to play online, something I didn't do with the first instalment. By the end of my time with SC2 a few years later I'd logged more than 3000 games and approximately 800 hours of gameplay.
I got into competitive SC2, watching some of the best players in the world compete on international stages for fame and glory (and money). I developed friendships with the local SC2 community in London and attended London Barcraft---like watching the football at the pub except much nerdier and more civilised. I started casting games and uploading the videos to YouTube. I was never very good, but I sure as hell tried hard. It was an amazing time, I got to meet some of my favourite players and even had my laptop signed at an event by one of my favourite players.
LittleBigPlanet was one of the first games my partner and I played together to completion.
Despite it's whimsical appearance, LittleBigPlanet is not an easy game. Every time we finished a level there was a great sense of shared accomplishment. Things got tense, particularly towards the end of the game as the difficulty ramped up. Then we hit the final boss.
A constant gauntlet of sweeping death rays from a giant killer robot. We were on our Nth try, things were going well and we'd managed to make it pass the initial phases. The tension was mounting, the air in the room stood still and everything around us disappeared into the background. Jump, dodge, run, jump. Laser sweep from the left, laser sweep from the right. We were on the home stretch. Then my girlfriend character dies.
Every gamer is familiar with that moment, when your hands just take over. The character on the screen moves as if by thought alone. I can beat this boss.
I kinda had to, my girlfriend was screaming the whole time I tried to dodge those lasers. Jump, dodge, laser from the left, jump. SCREAM!
The final jump; I hit the boss, the giant robot crumbles to the ground. We'd done it. The tension releases and we laugh our asses off in relief and shock at what had just happened. A beautiful moment.
Have a good one. Until next time.
-- Jacobo Blanco
- I invited her over to try out Skyrim, she was nauseous from the first person perspective and was terrified of spiders so I had to kill them myself, but it worked. We are still together, though I never did finish Skyrim. ↩
- This was back when game manuals had useful content. ↩
- It turned out later that the client used P2P, a big no-no at CERN. It all turned out fine. ↩