Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Greatest Video Games of All Time, Part II: 1990s

10. Riven (1997, Robyn Miller)

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.

7. Yoshi's Island (1995, Takashi Tezuka)

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.

6. Final Fantasy VII (1997, Hironobu Sakaguchi)

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.

5. Super Mario 64 (1996, Shigeru Miyamoto)

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.

4. Half-Life (1998, Gabe Newell)

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.

3. Grim Fandango (1998, Tim Schafer)

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.

1. Monkey Island 2: Lechuck's Revenge (1991, Ron Gilbert)

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.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Greatest Video Games of All Time, Part I: 1970s-80s

10. Populous (1989, Peter Molyneux)

At the end of the 1980s, just months before the release of Will Wright’s Sim City (and two years before Sid Meier released the first volume of Civilization), Peter Molyneux, a thirty-year-old programmer from Guildford, delivered the original ‘God simulator’. Taking the radical step of allowing the player to build an entire landscape, Molyneux also managed to anticipate the expansive worlds and elaborate moral dilemmas of his later materpieces, Black & White (2001), and Fable II (2008).

9. Midwinter (1989, Mike Singleton)

“'A modern Midwinter’ is a phrase you hear regularly on the lips of wishful gamers,” wrote Jim Rossignol in 2009. “Some day it will happen.” Such hype, twenty years after it appeared on the Atari ST, shows the grip that Mike Singleton (a former English teacher) still holds over the imagination of certain audiences. His greatest game, the 3D-pioneering Midwinter allows the player to explore a huge post-apocalyptic world of ice, following a cataclysmic meteorite strike. In 1989, on the Atari, this was the beginning of 'virtual reality' storytelling.

8. Little Computer People (1984, David Crane)

Released 26 years before LittleBigPlanet, 16 years before The Sims, and 12 years before the Tamagotchi, David Crane’s Little Computer People is the obscure ancestor to a number of more famous miniature-world/life-simulator experiments. While Will Wright admits that he was a fan of the title, no subsequent artist has managed to capture the underlying strangeness of Crane’s original. The packaging insisted that the character inside the disk was real, and alive... Insert the disk, and a stark, empty house appears. After a while, a character appears from off-screen, and begins to inhabit it. That's it. In a key sense, though, they are a unique organism, as explained here at the Software Preservation Society – each title did indeed contain a unique, randomly generated digital character, a binary being, unlike any of the others on the shelf. And after a time, once settled in, they start to communicate with real humans, outside their screen-world...

7. The Oregon Trail (1971, Don Rawtisch)

Don Rawtisch’s 1971 history-class illustration, The Oregon Trail, demonstrates the incredible narrative appeal of interactive storytelling: created with Integer BASIC, the programme simulates the forbidding westward trek of the 1840s, made by so many hopeful Americans. The work was completed a year before Pong, and often falls outside official narratives of ‘video game history’. It remains, however, a truly engrossing experience: the linear stretch of the trail is created largely in the mind’s eye, rather than on screen, but there is still an uncanny sense of distance. Hoping to shoot dinner, or ford one last stream, hundreds of miles from safety, is oddly harrowing, and the resulting mishaps (almost simultaneously) often darkly hilarious.

6. Super Mario Bros. (1985, Shigeru Miyamoto)

An early highlight for the great Shigeru Miyamoto, Super Mario Bros. is purely a Game (unlike so many other titles) and like any great game, it encourages us to play, play, and play again. The physics are flawlessly designed, and the visuals remain perfectly simple and effective today. Chosen by Game Informer as the 2nd greatest game of-all-time, this is a celebration of the unique fun (ideally two-player) to be had within a well-designed digital playground.

5. Weird Dreams (1989 Herman Serrano)

A truly unnerving lost-classic from the Commodore 64, Herman Serrano’s Weird Dreams seems more at home alongside the psychotic comedies of Gilliam and Lynch than standard cartridges such as Rat Race or Frogger. The opening scene greets us with a man etherized upon an operating table, and almost immediately tumbling into space – entering his own unconscious. Packaged with a 64-page novella detailing the events prior to the ‘simulation’ (the character is undergoing brain surgery to stop his nightmares, apparently), Serrano’s strange cartridge was unlike anything else in 1989 (or, with one bizarre 1998 exception, since). The ‘life’ counter is a heart-rate monitor shifting between 75 and 170 bpm, while the ‘levels’ range from a giant candy-floss machine to a horrible desert, via a ‘hall of tubes’. Never has a football seemed so terrifying.

4. Maniac Mansion (1987, Ron Gilbert)

A masterful parody of B-movie horror, Ron Gilbert’s first work throws together a Victorian mansion, a mad Doctor, a rogue meteorite, and a cheerleader named Sandy Pantz. The first game designed with the SCUMM engine, this epic horror-comedy was an early hit of the graphic adventure genre. With playable characters including a New Wave musician, a novelist, a surfer and a punk, the whole thing overflowed with page after page of witty and imaginative dialogue. Despite this fecundity, the title appears uncut as a game-within-a-game on a computer in Tim Schafer’s awesome 1993 sequel, Day of the Tentacle. As miraculous, if you think about it, as the entire manuscript for Billy Budd turning up in a locker among the pages of Moby-Dick.

3. A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985, Steve Meretzky)

The title of Steve Meretzky’s greatest work refers to a description in Wordsworth’s 1805 epic, of “Newton with his prism and silent face, the marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.” Released for the Atari ST and the Commodore 128 at the height of the Infocom interactive-fiction phenomenon, Meretzky’s disk is a science fiction experiment, casting the player as a disembodied computer intelligence, trying to negotiate a physical world it cannot properly inhabit. The scenario is a brilliant inversion of the actual experience of any video game, in which we remain removed from the ‘virtual’ world, able to interact with it only at one remove, finding our way through the ‘strange seas’ of binary data. Highlighting the intellectual element of such interaction, this game is pure text and has no graphic element at all. As with the other great Infocom masterpiece, however (Brian Moriarty’s nuclear-holocaust tale, Trinity), the created world is utterly engrossing, and Meretzky captures the imagination in a way that few visual artists have ever achieved.

2. Space Invaders (1978, Tomohiro Nishikado)

The polar opposite to Meretzky’s masterpiece, Space Invaders is a purely graphical experience, made up of a black background and a series of floating lights. The purity of the end result is astonishing, given that the medium was only six years old when Nishikado developed his arcade machine. Space Invaders was the single game that inspired Shigeru Miyamoto to become a programmer (thus inadvertently giving us Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda and Starfox), but it also remains unnerving and unique in itself. The tentacled menace (made up of just 46 pixels, less than the standard mouse cursor) looms out of the blackness as indelibly as the phantoms summoned by H.G. Wells, or the bombers that coursed into the skies above Nishikado’s own cradle in 1945. And the Invader remains as recognizable as Mickey Mouse today, appearing in graffiti, on clothing, and even rogue crop circles. In 1985, Steve Meretzky made a strong case for the interactive medium as a cerebral, textual one, but at the end of the previous decade, Tomohiro Nishikado had already established – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that it could also be a medium of pure image.

1. Deus Ex Machina (1984, Mel Croucher)

Released a few months before Mario’s debut on the Nintendo Famicom, Deus Ex Machina was an experimental Orwellian art-piece, a million miles from Miyamoto’s mushroom kingdom. Based on Shakespeare’s conceit of the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ (the floppy disk was packaged with a cassette of semi-ambient music, featuring Jon Pertwee and Ian Dury reciting text from the 1599 play As You Like It) Croucher’s short masterpiece follows the life and death of a “defect” in a social machine: a magnificent blend of Jeff Wayne and Classical seriousness. (A mere 26 years on, a sequel is in development, this time apparently starring 'Lord Summerisle himself', Christopher Lee.) The first genuine art/game crossover, Deus Ex Machina remains unexpectedly moving today, culminating with perhaps the most memorable recitation ever of Prospero's "baseless fabric" speech, as we're warned, as at the end of Gravity's Rainbow, that this "screen shall dissolve... being such stuff as dreams are made on". With this forty-minute wonder, that claim seemed at last to bear some weight... In 1984, thanks to Croucher's wildly overreaching ambition, a new medium had defiantly arrived.