In 1994, writing for The New York Times, Edward Rothstein mused, “I am standing in a garden, lulled by the sound of waves from the nearby ocean. The light is eerie, crisp and slightly unreal. In the midst of this pastoral paradise there is a sense of surreal antiquity, recalling early science fiction.” At the end of the ensuing 3,000-word piece, praising the new work of virtual reality, Rothstein concludes: “Myst defines a new genre, which moves beyond cinema.” If this article slightly pre-empts mainstream acceptance for the new art-form, then just three years later, the Texan brothers Robyn and Rand Miller truly earned it, foregrounding the subtle surrealism of the world that Rothstein admired, and removing the clunkiest puzzles that marred their debut, with the masterful follow-up CD-ROM, Riven.
9. LSD: Dream Simulator (1998, Osamu Sato)
The only title ever to really approach the madness of Herman Serrano’s Weird Dreams (1989), Osamu Sato’s LSD: Dream Simulator stands alone in the history of digital culture. Released exclusively onto the four-year-old Sony PlayStation, Sato’s project was a sort of interactive diary, documenting his own (frequently chemically enhanced) dreams and nightmares. Divided into ‘Days’ rather than levels, the player wanders into each simulated dream with no instruction (like an unfortunate character in a Kubrick film), trying to find their way through giant tongues, fields populated by deformed lions, and terrifying deserted houses. If this wasn’t all bizarre enough, the experience is occasionally interrupted by inexplicable ‘real-life’ videos, such as this…
8. Flashback: The Quest for Identity (1992, Paul Cuisset)
In this ambitiously-titled French classic, Paul Cuisset takes us to the year 2142, introducing us to an appropriately named wanderer ‘Conrad’. Through meticulous hand-drawn backgrounds, we take a journey into a metaphysical Heart of Darkness, as our jungle-stranded hero struggles to regain the various memories which he has stored on a holocube. Flashback is a key example of early graphical rotoscoping, for which the animators copied their body movements directly from film negative… This technique dates back to early masterpieces such as Cab Calloway’s dancing spectre in the Fleischer Brothers’ 1933 masterpiece, Snow White. Here the revolutionary approach provides a powerful realist edge to Cuisset’s thoughtful sci-fi.
A decade (precisely) after Miyamoto released Super Mario Bros, the plumber-franchise reached its 2D apotheosis with the stunning Yoshi’s Island. Departing completely from the graphical style of the original titles, Miyamoto allowed director Takashi Tazuka to adopt a strange, crayon-drawn style, which fits perfectly alongside the new mechanics of the game. Mario is reduced to a helpless baby, while the player guides him through a warped world using a relay-series of dinosaurs (Yoshis). This colourful title represents Nintendo at its finest, even though it would soon prove to be a swansong for the 2D medium.
Featuring vast Wagnerian steam-punk locations (including ‘Nibelheim’), an epic score by Nobuo Uematsu, and glorious painted backgrounds (such as the four seen to the right), Final Fantasy VII was the title that finally sold the PlayStation to the world, and put an entire generation under the spell of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s epic imagination (much as Hayao Miyazaki would achieve in the Ghibli films of the following decade). More than just a carefully crafted cinematic world, however, Sakaguchi’s seventh Fantasy also revolutionized the role of interactivity in storytelling, most unforgettably in the moments in which the villain Sephiroth assumes control of the player, forcing against their will, and directly inverting their actions, causing irreversible harm to more sympathetic characters. Never before had a designer thought to challenge interactive control to such a disturbing degree, and the influence would be seen throughout the following decade.
Recalling the first unveiling of Nishikado’s Space Invaders almost 20 years earlier, Miyamoto’s release of this game, in the summer of 1996, granted audiences a previously-unimagined glimpse into the future. A decade and a half later, the sound, colour, and glorious motion of the title are still hypnotic, an open world of star-locked doors, and 64-bit beauty. Within days of the release, nobody could recall the masterpiece that was Yoshi’s Island… 3D, apparently, was here to stay.
Half-Life remains, in its bang-boom way, one of the most revolutionary titles in the history of storytelling. Where previous ‘first-person shooters’ (such as Quake II, released only months earlier) had provided a series of violent ‘levels’, through which the player progressed, surviving if possible, and obtaining a score at the end, Gabe Newell succeeded in crafting a truly interactive narrative. From the opening titles, scrolling across New Mexico’s ‘Black Mesa’ monorail, to the mysterious close of the game, there are no scoreboards, cutscenes, or interruptions. Instead, working alongside author Marc Laidlaw, Newell delivered an unprecedented, immersive, 12 hour movie. Given that Laidlaw apparently extrapolated the entire work from a 1963 episode of The Outer Limits, that is quite an achievement.
In Mexico every year, on November 2nd, falls the Day of the Dead. Haunted by the grotesque paper calveras and calaca-skeletons that line the streets throughout the festival, Tim Schafer set to work on this, his second solo game (following his work alongside Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman). In the wake of Miyamoto, of course, the game needed to be made in 3D, and the resulting graphical work was the most sophisticated of any Schafer game to date, fusing the grotesque language of the carnival with the Noir stylistic idiosyncrasies of films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941). The aesthetic was (and remains) unlike anything else in the genre. Alongside the visual flair, Schafer delivered an epic four-year narrative, following the journey of a dead soul through the afterlife, from the city to the petrified forests, and even to the bottom of the sea. Informed throughout by his conversations with the late Alan Dundes (folklorist at Berkeley), Schafer’s world is filled with precise details from Aztec mythology, alongside an inspired 1940s set-up. Our hero, after all, is a lowly travel agent in this crooked Land of the Dead.2. PlaneScape: Torment (1999, Chris Avellone)
Following the acclaimed Fallout (1997), and its stunning sequel, the Scottish/Californian Black Isle team moved into the unlikely territory of fantasy. Disliking the escapist ‘high fantasy’ of elves and goblins that Tolkein favoured, director Chris Avellone famously took to calling the work-in-progress an “avant-garde fantasy.” Viewed on a large monitor (ideally with the various mods installed), exploring the gigantic Planes is like stepping into a moving panel by H. Bosch. And alongside this visual scale, as with the two Fallouts that preceded it, Torment turned out to contain an enormous text-based narrative, stretching to 800,000 words of dialogue – almost three times as long as Melville’s Moby-Dick. This linguistic excess has led to some rather grand claims for Avellone’s work in subsequent years, including Kieron Gillen’s assertion that the title was “worthy of real literary consideration; the videogame equivalent of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.” As far-fetched as that sounds, Gillen is perhaps on the right track – although, as a bleak comic study of the curse of immortality (and the terror of amnesia), Torment is surely closer to the work of a more modern writer than the Russian epicists: the paradoxical allegory could have sprung straight from the twisted imagination of Jorge Luis Borges.
If there was a division in the 1970s/80s between visually driven work such as Nishikado’s, and the exclusively verbal creations of Steve Meretzky, that artificial barrier collapsed in the early 1990s. In the second Monkey Island title, Steve Purcell’s magical hand-painted background designs are matched with the endlessly absorbing, subtly comic strangenesses of Ron Gilbert’s writing. The world is profoundly realized, with everything from a swamp to a library card catalogue being minutely detailed and visually magnificent. More unnerving, perhaps, are the frequent (and rather Brechtian) assaults on the ‘Fourth Wall’, as the veracity of the 1720 setting is repeatedly undermined. Recalling the anecdotal account of the work’s inspiration (Ron Gilbert’s desire to leap from Walt's ride, and remain in its imagined Caribbean), the narrative constantly hints at a more modern ‘real’ world outside the simulation, most awesomely Lynchian at the moments (below) in the final tunnels. A haunting, hilarious masterpiece, Monkey Island 2: Lechuck's Revenge is the supreme accomplishment in the history of the medium.