Growing Up Geek – 15 game changers, across all media
I’ve decided to share with you all 15 of the influences I feel helped shape
some of what makes me me. I’ve written these in the order with which
I encountered them in my life (not by importance), and I feel several of them
helped build on those to come in later days. You’ll probably be able to
relate to at least a couple of these, but if not, that’s OK too. That’s part
of the fun of life.
Hopefully these will help get you wondering about how you got to the point
you’re at in life now, and how all the messages and art you’ve seen have
helped shape you as well.
Enjoy, and leave me a comment when you’re done, will ya?
Super Mario Bros. 3 – 1/90
Compiling this list made me aware of something I didn’t know I still had… memories of when I was four. I distinctly remember sitting in the computer room (yes, we had a computer room back then, we were very progressive) and playing Mario 3 on my NES. There was something so intangibly fresh and exciting about this game. It was as if all the random thoughts and ideas that were running through my young mind were thrown before me in an obstacle course that I could “touch” and interact with. Even as young as I was, I knew this game was something special because of the incredibly dynamic way each world embraced a new and often completely game-changing concept… something that would be emulated in one way or another for years to come. It may not be one of my all-time favorites like so many out there, but overall, I think it was one of the most well thought-out games ever made.
H.R. Giger – around 92
When I was young I had little interest (or so I thought) in art. I would often run across images like those from the movie Alien, and although I couldn’t ignore the sheer visceral impact of them, I never had much inclination to dig deeper for years to come. The funny thing about it though, was that even though I blew past this stuff without a second thought, much of the “ambiance” of my childhood seems to live in the realms of art like the cover of the game Dark Seed. Disturbingly dark, macabre creatures and imagery seem ever-present, and yet, thinking back, they really only serve to give that part of my life a deeper character. The discovery of something right in front of you has to be implanted somewhere, and I would say that it may have been the beginning of my yearning to find how deep the “artistic rabbit hole” goes later in life. H.R. Giger’s work has been hugely influential in my life, and often times his touch has been so subtle, I didn’t even know he was there.
Secret of Mana – 8/93
Have you ever run into a game and said “this is it, this is the one that did it perfectly”? Without having a great deal of context in my game-playing life by now, I have to say that Secret of Mana was that for me. At that point I often associated RPGs with things like Dungeons and Dragons or Phantasy Star, often overly wordy dungeon crawls requiring little to no dexterity to get by. Not that I don’t value those traits now, but then I just wanted to fight some shit and level up… and for the most part, there were very few options in that department outside of Zelda. Secret of Mana had the beautiful graphics, exploration, accessible characters, easy inventory management, and catchy music that I was just waiting for to come together into one package. Even to this day I’ve never found another RPG that has come across with the same unpretentious, light-hearted, just overall fun tone. Square even managed to make a world destroying evil something that couldn’t get in the way of your good mood.
Doom – 12/93
I remember most of all how amazing it was to go to computer stores solely so I could ditch my parents and go find a computer demoing the Shareware classic Doom. As a family of early adopting Mac users, (I’ve since reformed for the sake of my gaming credibility) Doom was the carrot on the stick that kept me following the latest and greatest just in case it got ported to Mac (which Doom 2 eventually did). I’d never seen anything like it before (except maybe Pathways into Darkness at the time). I was always obsessed with mazes when I was little, so the appeal of being able to go through them in 3D (and with guns and monsters no less) was about the height of amazing to me then. I guess my mind was racing more with the world of possibilities that arose from such a piece of technology than what was directly in front of me. When it came to the gore aspect, well, it was more that I was impressed by the detail put into what was taking place than being shocked, although I sometimes felt like I should feel guilty to be as young as I was and looking at this very “M-rated” game. I made some rather feigned efforts to not let on just how bad it was, but I probably didn’t need to, since I hardly ever got to play it for quite a while after it came out.
Super Metroid – 4/94
For me, this game did everything for platformers and sci-fi that Secret of Mana did for RPGs. It would be difficult to come up with a better example of what about gaming keeps me interested and always craving more than Super Metroid. Responsive controls, beautiful atmosphere, incredible music, a gigantic world to explore at your own pace… I don’t think I could ask much more of it than that. Yet, through the years, Super Metroid has helped bring me such amazing work as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Eternal Daughter, Shadow Complex, and so many more. I would say that without a doubt, this game is the single largest influence on my gaming sensibilities. The sense of discovery, impending danger, overcoming adversity… those are all present and paced out through some near-perfect level design. If anyone reading this hasn’t played this game at this point, you need to see what I’m talking about to appreciate it fully. It stands the test of time brilliantly and I tend to play it through about once a year or so to see what new path through the game I can figure out. Samus, I’m willing to forget Other M for you, please don’t ever do that to me again.
Marathon 2: Durandal – 11/95
So, when I mentioned all the possibilities that I saw in first person shooters, those possibilities would mostly culminate in Marathon 2 for me. You see, it wasn’t so much the game itself that made it one of my most played games of my youth, it was the toolbox that came with it. Anvil and Forge were my best friends. I learned so much from playing with them it utterly changed my view on game design. These tools allowed me to play with the physics, animations, colors, weapons, textures, sounds, maps… really just about anything you could imagine. I made hundreds of maps and even worked on a total conversion. I actually was so interested that I learned how to use a 3D modeling program to create and animate a new weapon to add in for my TC. Very few games since then have gotten my creative juices flowing like that. The game itself is exceptional as well, but it took me far longer than it should have to realize that given how excited I was by the tools that came with it. I sometimes wish Marathon got a reboot to the series, but at the same time, maybe our cherished memories are better left alone.
A Perfect Circle- Mer De Noms – 5/00
When I think about who I was as a teenager in High School and the “feeling” that went along with that, I am always drawn back to Mer De Noms. The second that first song comes on, it’s like I was transported back in time. I suppose that is a bit cliche to say considering every generation has said the same thing about some album from their teen years, but I guess this would be mine. It’s the album that was playing when I first kissed my first girlfriend, it’s the album that was always in my CD player, it’s the album that made me feel closer to my friends. I’m not sure exactly what it was about it that helped elevate it to such a status, but it is a beautiful album and the vaguely anti-Christian themes probably helped. We as a class were also coming off a big Tool kick, so anything with Maynard James Keenan in it was definitely given special attention. Also when this album was new, the internet was still just starting to get up to speed, so we didn’t have access to nearly the breadth of music we do now, and this was about as avant-garde as we could generally run into. Given that was our one and only shot at finding a sound which somewhat helped define us, I think we could have done much, much worse…
Silent Hill 2 – 9/01
Call it a character defect, but I often times have trouble appreciating beauty in the things that we’re typically supposed to call beautiful. My mind tends to run to things that are more hidden and reclusive, since just the act of being out in the open makes the experience a bit less personal and a bit more common. I find Silent Hill 2 beautiful in a way. There’s an element of it that is hard, cold, and shocking, but there’s another side too, it’s classic and tragic, and full of life. As with most art, it’s hard to grasp just what a piece (and I classify this as such) will mean to you as you are first exposed to it, but over the course of about ten years, I’ve come to find a lot of grace in this game. It’s terrifying, dark and lonely sometimes, but sometimes, so is life. This game helped me understand that beauty is truly a personal thing and sometimes it really doesn’t matter if anyone else agrees.
Grand Theft Auto 3 – 10/01
As far as technology goes, I don’t think I’ve ever lusted for a piece of software as much as I did for this when it was coming out. I had always wanted to see what it would be like to play a game where you could go anywhere and do anything in a virtual city. This was a dream come true for me. In fact, the first preview I saw for it, I must have read over about ten times. When I first got it home, I spend an hour just hanging out in the back alley and surrounding block you start the game in. I was completely engrossed by the concept of day/night cycles and random pedestrians. It was like I virtually lived in this city on a level with which I’d never even come close to experiencing to this point. I was actually a little bit disappointed with the “crime” angle of the game. It didn’t surprise me in the least, and I’m sure it had a great deal to do with the game’s success, but I was hoping for something a little more “human”. I tried to avoid hurting people as much as I could, but the game was designed for you to be an antagonist despite your good intentions. The most fun I had was finding hidden packages and “free-running” to the best of my abilities over the landscape. Of course, this sandbox formula has given birth to dozens of other experiences since this point, yet few have captured my attention to the degree that GTA 3 did.
Spirited Away – 5/03
The fusion of a vivid imagination, brilliant art, and a deep message, Spirited Away for me is probably the most moving motion picture I can think of. It’s rare that you can describe the implications of characterization within a movie as profound, but I have little trouble doing that here. Some of the metaphors vary in their intellectual grounding, but I find the overall package so compelling that I don’t nitpick. Spirited Away to a small degree helped me get over the idea that things dressed up in a cartoonish veneer can’t have really meaningful messages behind them. I’m not sure how I picked up that misconception in the first place, but maybe it had to do with media conditioning and the impetus to fill the role prescribed. As in the movie, we learn and we grow, despite our name or who we think we are.
Katamari Damacy – 9/04
Sometimes in life we run into something that just feels so good we can’t ignore it. Katamari Damacy let me take nearly every object I’ve seen and interacted with in my life, roll it up into a big ball, and shoot it into space. That’s an experience that nothing outside of a video game can provide. The bright colors, beyond catchy soundtrack, and tactile “pop” of each new object integrating into the ball were about all it took for me to be hooked. Beyond that, the collectible items, adorable prince, zany cut-scenes, ostentatious King of all Cosmos, and just inexorably ecstatic, frown-destroying vibe kept me playing for all these years. Katamari taught me that sometimes the thoughts we’re so quick to throw away can be the ones that keep us smiling for years to come.
Gantz – 1/06
As someone who has spent years in art school, I eventually ran into the common artist problem of “how do I find my voice”. I was always scared to push boundaries and I took small comfort in knowing there were artists who simply did not even express a rudimentary awareness of what boundaries even were. The Gantz anime and manga typify that sort of reckless, personal search through whatever voice an artist can find to tell a tale, and to this degree I’m still cautiously envious. Gantz is a brash, violent tale of life and death intermixed with some really deep and intriguing sci-fi conventions. It covers a vast range of moral and ethical quandaries and maintains a very well formed stance on what it means to be human throughout the series. The manga is still running and has become a very long read, but if you have a strong mind and stomach, you absolutely need to see what this story is about. Even when I disagree with a twist or new direction the series has taken, I am still consistently surprised with how many relevant points it makes about the world at large.
Between The Buried And Me- Colors – 9/07
I’m trying my best not to establish a redundant theme, but Colors signifies another point in my life when I found out I was still learning about what I find beauty in and how much things can change in a short time. For me, this album represents a transition into the end of my college years and a time when I could begin to be the one to dictate how I want to live in the world. Colors is an incredible tapestry of dark, technical death metal and serene, calming moments of nearly a dozen other genres. As bi-polar as that sounds, the brilliance is in how perfectly Between the Buried and Me pulled it off. The composition is dense and intricate and the ride it takes you on is nearly unparalleled. After having listened to this album as many times as I have, for as many years as I have, I’m still picking apart little bits of the timing and hearing subtle sounds I’ve never noticed before. I know not everyone can even approach any kind of death metal or it’s derivatives with a good degree of tolerance, but this was one of the most important albums for me to really “get” what they were trying to say throughout the album and how it finds it’s own space in a generally over-saturated group of genres. That’s regardless of if you knew all the vocals (then it only gets better), which for me is a huge accomplishment.
Minecraft – 7/10
Having played hundreds, maybe thousands of games since I was little I sometimes find it difficult to be completely taken off guard by a games premise. However, sometimes with just a little bit of tweaking, a premise like “survive as long as you can”, can take on a whole new meaning, and even become the basis for a new gaming sub-culture. I found out about Minecraft really early in it’s lifespan. Someone had had the foresight to create a YouTube video of their experiences in the early alpha version of the game and the thumbnail image happened to catch my eye from an ending “related” video. From the moment I saw the retro 8-bit aesthetic brought into vivid life from a first person perspective, I knew I would be spending a lot of hours in that world, and I was so very right. To this day, I’ve probably spent several hundred hours – sometimes by myself, sometimes with friends – building, mining, and generally exploring this randomly generated gaming Eden. Few developers have the ability to execute such an ambitious idea and retain so much wonder, but as in life, wonder can be found around every corner, and Notch just found a way to tap into that with every block you move.
Super Meat Boy – 10/10
In much the same way that Minecraft took a simple premise and completely ran away with it, Super Meat Boy distilled down the very essence of what makes platformers fun and took it to a whole new level. Since hindsight is 20/20, a lot of us are coming to the conclusion that we didn’t know just how good we had it back in the dawn of 8 and 16 bit gaming. Now with modern conventions like HD graphics for our sprites and precise d-pads/analog sticks (not to mention achievements and online leaderboards) we can go much further with simple ideas than we ever could in the past. Playing Super Meat Boy is like getting a kick in the head that made you realize just how good of an idea platformers are when they are done this near-perfectly. The balancing, the quirky art-style, the tons of unlockables, and an ever-pressing urge to make yourself better at the game drive you forward in a way that is rarely harnessed in the games industry. Since I got involved in editing and testing levels for this game, I feel like my knowledge of what helps make platformer levels fun has at least doubled. Regardless of if Super Meat Boy ever gets a sequel, (which, sources say it will not) this game will go on to stand the test of time, and I predict SMB will be just as fun long after we’re all dead. For that I say: thank you Team Meat!