Transcendent Moments

Every now and then I’m hit by a powerful memory from some game I’ve played. It’s not always from a game I loved or even liked. Sometimes it’s related to some specific moment that stood out in an otherwise lackluster game. A memory that exists simply because the initial experience was so moving that it was burned into my brain forever. In my opinion, this is a testament both to a talented game designer’s ability to reach the gamer at a fundamental level and of the completely obsessed player’s ability to suspend disbelief–to enter the game fully. It is for these rare game-play experiences–above all other reasons–that I continue to play games. So the list below is not a list of my favorite games; rather it is a list of the games that have provided me with the singular moments that have had the greatest impact on me as a gamer over the years. If you love games, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

The Origin of the Species: Dungeon Master
Let me say that in 1987 Dungeon Master changed my life. I spent several months playing the game over and over, learning every hallway as if it were my home. Many nights I sat in the dark for 12 hours straight, occasionally crying out in surprise, my left hand icy from gripping the mouse for so long. Twice I dreamed about the game, getting the false sense of forward motion that you get after snow skiing all day. Dungeon Master had real-time enemies that moved independent of your actions, and who chased you if you tried to flee or fled if you had the upper hand. The game had an arcane spell system that you had to learn by experimentally assembling a series of glyphs. You could pick up objects from the floor and throw them down the hall. You could lure monsters under a door and smash them by lowering it. When certain monsters died their bodies could be eaten. You had to light torches or cast spells to combat the ever-pressing darkness. Dungeon Master was a masterpiece-completely focused on the innovative elements that made it cool and way ahead of its time.

As I played through Dungeon Master, I always had the feeling that I was being watched and taunted by “the Dungeon Master.” There were notes along the way that are directed to the player specifically. “You will not make it beyond the next room;” that sort of thing. At a certain point, I came upon a mummy, standing trapped in a small niche across a pit. An inscription on the wall read: “This is my prisoner. Let him suffer.” Feeling a strange sense of pity for the undead creature, I zipped a throwing star at it, killing it and putting it out of its misery. The inscription changed. Now it said: “You will regret that.” Suddenly from down the distance corridor I heard a sound. I raced in the opposite direction, trying to make it to the door I knew would deliver me out of the area. I was too late, of course. Behind me and ahead of me, the passages were suddenly filled with the game’s oddly disturbing spiders. The stood as tall as the player and were ferociously tough. By that point in the game I had only faced a couple and each time had barely come away with the lives of my characters. Now I counted at least 14. The battle began as I tried to carve my way out. I could almost hear the Dungeon Master laughing.

Enemy Mine: Carrier Command
Carrier Command was this beautiful game. Simple, yet deep. You controlled a powerful aircraft carrier from the first person POV, trying to build bases on islands in a chain. Your supply network had to remain unbroken along the chain or your resources started to suffer. (Resources included fuel and spare parts.) You could build one of three types of bases: refinery, defense or factory. Meanwhile, a prototype AI-driven carrier-superior to your own-was on the other end of the chain, creating its own bases. Both carriers could launch small fighters and amphibious vehicles. The fighters could be used to scout out new areas or attack enemy bases. The amphibious vehicles were similarly useful, but could also deliver the self-constructing packages that would become one of the three types of bases. The player completely controlled the fueling and load-out of all craft and could switch to their remote views at any time and guide them manually. The game allowed for great ‘way-point’ navigation too; many things could be automated. The unseen presence of the enemy helped the game a lot; you knew he was out there. Though mostly you saw the effects of the enemy-via radar map, which showed who owned each island by color. Actual encounters were rare; you generally won or lost the game by building a good supply network, then cutting off your enemy’s network and starving him to death. But once in a while, in the distance, you would make out the dark outline of the enemy carrier, cruising in your direction. The AI was intimidating-by the time you saw it, the enemy had usually launched his fighters. The computer had no problems managing three or four of the smaller craft at once, while firing laser blasts from the primary ship. Carrier Command was a great blend of resource management, sim, base construction and POV tactical combat all at real-time (way prior to games like C&C and its clones, Uprising or the most recent incarnation of Battlezone).

The greatest moment I had playing Carrier Command was one of those rare instances when I actually met the enemy carrier in combat. As I identified the approaching ship, I fought against a mild wave of panic. I deployed some buoys (to pick up incoming torpedoes) and launched a couple of fighters (to allow me to missile the hell out of the other carrier and to distract the enemy fighters). In the fight, I crippled the enemy’s fighter launch mechanism (yes, the damage and maintenance of the carriers got that detailed), then picked off his airborne fighters one by one. All the while, my own ship was suffering damage that needed my attention. In the end I barely survived the fight and sent one last missile into the enemy carrier to destroy it.

Bridge Over the River Styx: Underworld
Forget about the fact that most of the world only thinks about the obvious game titles when someone mentions first-person POV games. Before Wolfenstein (by several months), Looking Glass and Origin released Underworld. It was, in a word, revolutionary. Its 3d world seemed alive, with plants growing on muddy riverbanks, rats creeping through the mossy halls and the gloom makings itself a constantly-felt presence. Not only was it a cool RPG/immersive sim, but Underworld also let you interact with the game environment in ways that took years to catch on elsewhere-looking up/down, swimming, jumping and even flying were all critical parts of the game. All of this blended together to serve in the name of immersion. Underworld made you react to its environment as if you were actually there.

My favorite moment in Underworld (of many) occurred fairly close to the beginning of the game. I was still in shock (so to speak) because I could not yet accept the full range of what the game allowed me to do. I was creeping around within the dungeon called the Abyss when suddenly I heard running water ahead of me and far below. Advancing a bit, the walls at my side widened and I saw a high bridge stretching out over a river. Suddenly, in the gloom of the far end of the bridge, I detected motion. A form slowly emerged and moved toward me… a goblin. To my surprise, he began swinging a sling around over his head. I backed up a bit, unsure of what would happen. Suddenly the goblin released the stone from his sling and it came sailing toward me. I dodged and the stone missed. It bounced away and fell down into the river as the goblin continued to attack. I tried to dash past, but I lost control and fell off the bridge, down into the river below.

My Night With An Invisible Mutant: System Shock
Back when I was a game tester, I had the chance to work on System Shock. Essentially, my job involved playing the game and reporting to the development team for 10 months straight. I never got tired of Shock; there was always something new to see or do. It added to Underworld’s suite of interaction tools with environmental features like wacky gravity zones, hover-skate physics motion, leaning around corners, crouching, moving in drunken slow-motion. As the player, you were all alone in Citadel Station, a very spooky place. SHODAN, your AI nemesis, was like a spiritual presence within the station, taunting you, sending out its agents to ambush you and seemingly watching you from every corner through its many eyes (the game’s ubiquitous security cameras). The game was an immersive shooter with RPG/adventure game elements. You had to sneak in order to survive, which made for an extremely suspenseful experience.

One night Warren Spector and I were working later than usual. He came by to chat about some things. As he sat on my desk, I moved down a hallway on level 3, up through a grav-lift shaft and into a small cubbyhole. (I usually prefer to “park” myself in some seemingly safe place instead of pausing a game.) As Warren and I chatted in the dark of the QA pit, we were suddenly interrupted by a hissing noise. Looking up at the monitor, I saw that I was under attack by one of System Shock’s manta-like invisible mutants. It had apparently followed me down the hallway in silence, finally catching up to where I was hiding. As it drew nearer, the grav-lift elevated it up into my cubbyhole. Warren and I looked on in reverence-startled by the sudden appearance of the creature and in awe of the game’s systems (and how they worked in such harmony to produce surprising, unplanned occurrences). Instead of shooting the mutant, I simply hit the switch for the grav-lift, turning it off. The invisible mutant sank slowly to the floor a level below. Playing a game by Looking Glass is like looking into the future of virtual reality.

Doom (Cooperative)
To play Doom in co-op mode, with 3 good friends, all within screaming distance, is a multiplayer gaming experience that has, in my mind, never been rivaled. Back at Origin, the cubicle/office set-up was perfect for this activity. Late at night we’d gather in a cubicle “pit,” each player with his back to the others, his monitor positioned in one of the corners of the pit. We’re fire it up and start at the beginning, monsters cranked up to Nightmare mode. We’re scream and laugh and fight our way past the demons. Usually, everyone played nice; occasionally you caught a “friend’s” rocket in the back.

One night in particular, three of us decided to play all the way through-me, Deus Ex designer Steve Powers and a long-time friend of ours named Manny Galvan (a Compaq technician, but otherwise a nice guy). We sat down and started playing, moving through the demon-infested gloom, yelling in surprise whenever we met the enemy, covering each other, then later two of us laughing as the third fell down into the acid. After a time we broke for food. During the course of that meal, Manny got fairly toasted. When we returned to play, he was still drunk. There is something special about watching one of your friends move in the virtual world-some elements of his personality come through even in the simplest character. Watching him bump into a wall, back up, then do it again, all while cursing drunkenly, is an odd pleasure. Watching him fight demons is a riot.

Shadows and bad noises. Bad things growling like lions. Manny not drunk then drunk, in the bad places. Wandering, lost, trying to catch up with the others. The guns cracking then not cracking, away from where I am. Away from where he was. Screaming, growling like lions. Rockets chasing me like hornets that cannot turn and weave like hornets. Someone walks away and the walls melt down.

Neighborhood Watch: X-Com
X-Com holds a special place in my heart. Sure, it was an awesome tactical game. The line-of-sight visual system made squad play important and added to the suspense, since an enemy could be standing nearby, just outside your vision. X-Com made the point that deeper game-play could be achieved by slowing the pace of the game (down to turn-based in this case). But it did much more. It caused the player to develop an RPG-like connection with the characters in his squad. It allowed the player to track the statistics of his squad members and even rename them. X-Com also created amazingly detailed and interactive maps. You could destroy any part of a map solid-walls, doors, trashcans, windows, etc. For a 2d game, it also featured an amazingly three-dimensional world. Its atmospheric appeal was one of its strongest features-darkness lent the game edge and the real-world setting-suburban neighborhoods-was compelling.

Early in the game, while staking out a surreally normal neighborhood at night, I suddenly realized that one of my squad members, Sourdust, had gotten too far out ahead of the others. Using the last of his movement points, I had him kneel next to a filling station gas pump and rotate in place in order to spot any hidden aliens. My worst fears were confirmed; three aliens suddenly popped into view, all standing within a few feet of Sourdust. Realizing that he was toast anyway, I had Sourdust nobly sacrifice himself for his squad-he fired off a quick shot at the gas pump. (I was not sure yet if the game would support this level of interaction.) The resultant explosion, much to my delight, took out all three aliens (even as it incinerated Sourdust). As the fiery “death’s head” explosion blossomed over the scene, I knew I was in gamer heaven.

Take Me Back to the Icon of Sin: Doom 2
The day that I stepped out onto that massive shelf, facing the Icon of Sin, is a day I will never forget. Immediately it began its deep, slow chant-the very voice of evil. When the first cube came spinning forth from the Icon, I was fascinated. I watched as it spun through space, finally coming to rest on the shelf nearby. Then of course it spawned a demon. Even as I began to fight the demon, I could see that the cubes were still coming steadily, one after another. Soon a range of demonic entities populated the area. Some battled it out with one another while I ran around trying to stay alive. After playing through this level a few times I was still fascinated; it was conceived for maximum impact and it was something I had never experienced before. The Icon of Sin was art.

So that’s my list. I’m sure all hardcore gamers would have a different set of favorites. I left off some of the really early games because-though they were fun and cool at the time-I really think that the impact of the technologies of the last decade has (when coupled with good designed) accounted for experiences that are more inherently powerful. Here’s to hoping that we can all add some new “transcendent gaming moments” in the coming years.

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