I “borrowed” the idea for this post from a recent feature on Unbound Worlds listing five books to read again, for the first time. I am, of course, working on my own list for that one, but while considering books, I started thinking about the games that rocked my world, the ones I wish I could go back and play again for the first time.
I’ve played a lot of games and this list could get unwieldy if I started at the very beginning. When thinking about early adventures like Zork (played on a Compaq with a little green screen and fold out keyboard) or Asteroids (or anything on the Atari), I acknowledged the greatness and moved forward. I don’t really want to play any of those games again. Instead, the earliest game I’d really like to rediscover is:
Sim City is the first game I binge-played, meaning I sat in front of the computer for more than thirty hours, mumbling, “One more year. Just one more year.” If I had to pinpoint exactly what I loved about the game, it would be the pleasure of tending a To Do List that forms the core of any good simulation. I love completing tasks and reaching goals. Half the time I don’t even need a tangible reward. Just moving that item out of my queue is good enough for me. This behaviour is detrimental in open world games, but in something like Sim City, or any of the city building games such as Rome, Pharaoh or games that combine city building with world domination, like Age of Empires and Sid Meier’s Civilization, it’s an asset. I am dogged, and my citizens will love me, damn it.
I have on occasion recaptured that feeling of blissful numbness, the zone where all that matters is one more day, one more year, one more century. When my Sims or citizens will be the happiest, best educated, most well-adjusted and long lived folks in any virtual world ever. But mostly, I don’t have the time. Also, I’ve already reached all these goals more than once and it’s never quite the same the second time.
It took me a while to get the hang of Real Time Strategy games. I am not a fast thinker. I’m a plotter and a planner. So, I’m not going to be the player who has all the resources mined five minutes into the game so that I’m ready to march across the board, obliterating my enemies. I just… can’t. I don’t know how people do that. So, I turtle. The terrans make great turtles. They have bunkers and nukes. All the playable races have turtling tools, but they’re so much more aggressive. I mean, the zerg were made to swarm and the protoss are just bastards. My husband likes playing the protoss…
The moment I can never recapture, which I’d like to recapture, is perhaps the fifth game between me and Jay. Because I am SLOW, he usually gave me a head start. Sometimes up to fifteen minutes, which was enough time for me to build something for him to knock down. Otherwise it was boring for both of us. This particular game, I not only managed to build a few defenses, but I also got a bit of an army together. So, I, um, attacked him.
I wasn’t given a head start after that.
The other wonders of StarCraft were cooperative play—which I hadn’t tried before—and player against player, which was also a new concept to me. I’d always played by myself, for myself. StarCraft was my gateway to a bigger world of gaming and that of course led me to:
World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft changed everything about the way I game. All of a sudden, ticking items of a To Do List wasn’t enough. Instead, I had to level up… at the same time as everyone else. And if I wanted to keep playing with them, I needed to get some good gear. Hello, farming. That I would become an obsessive farmer should have been obvious. I have the genes for it, and the proper gaming history. And so my days became rigidly structured: up at five to farm for herbs and fish for primals. Get the kid ready for school. Back to the computer to complete my dailies. Do whatever else it was I did with my day. Make stuff online. List it in the auction house. Prepare for the raid that night. Chat some with the guild, run newbs through the lower dungeons. Level up one of my six trillion alts. Do the family thing for a bit, get the kid to bed and then raid.
Friday nights at Molten Core were my favourite. Forty people cooperating to clear one dungeon. Together. Forty relative strangers organised into effective teams. We were yelled at when we failed, cheered when we succeeded. Then told how we could do it better next time. And we did it all for nothing more than a new weapon or armour piece, in game. A week of prep and upward of ten hours in a dungeon (over a couple of nights) for no tangible reward. Nothing we could actually touch or put on a shelf.
WoW also introduced me to the more social aspect of gaming. I’d played MMOs before, but never with people I already knew. I didn’t really make friends in Ultima Online, or Second Life or The Sims Online. I was too busy figuring how to do stuff, or hiding from people who already knew how to do stuff and wanted to do it to me. I started playing WoW in beta with my husband and a couple of friends. We basically co-oped our way through several months of intense role play. Conquering BFG with strangers isn’t quite the same as playing it with people you know. WoW was also the first time I participated in voice chat with my teammates. Before, we’d either yell across the apartment or text each other. Now we could talk and we did. While hacking and slashing our way to glory we talked about our partners and kids. What movies we’d seen. What we were reading. What other games we’d like to play if our souls weren’t bought and paid for by the WoW gods. And as our fledgling guilds expanded, we made new friends, and then we met them in RL, because why not, they lived just down the road, and these friends became a permanent part of our lives.
I played WoW obsessively for five years. I tried to quit once and failed. The second time I quit it stuck, but I continued to get edgy, to think about returning, for nearly three years afterward. WoW was such an all-consuming experience. I’d never been so immersed or so connected to a game. Never had a game mattered more. Really, it’s a bit frightening, but it was also amazing and I’ll never forget what it felt like.
For a good long while I said I was waiting for the next MMORPG that would change the shape of gaming, but I honestly don’t think I could do an MMO again. I did really enjoy SWTOR, but I didn’t do a lot of multiplayer content. Mostly, I played out the fantastic stories and if I ever go back to that, it would be for more story rather than cooperative play.
Dragon Age: Origins
Speaking of story… DA:O might be the game I most wish I could play again for the first time. This game wrecked me several times over. First, I played as Kelly Cousland and when Alistair broke my heart, I actually felt like I’d been dumped by my very first boyfriend. I was DEVASTATED. It was ridiculous. Me, at 40-something, crying into my pillow over a pixelated man. In my subsequent 17 or so playthroughs, I kept Alistair firmly in the friend zone. On my third time through, I sacrificed my Elf Chick Rogue for the good of Ferelden—and after watching her funeral, I backed away from the computer in such a messy state my husband was actually worried. I sobbed for three days.
Then I found my way through the conversational bug with Leliana and became obsessed enough with Aedan and Leliana’s future (and that of Ferelden) to go on and write over 600,000 words of fan fiction.
Beyond all of the romancing laid a story I became completely invested in. Ferelden’s history was so rich and all of its characters so real. I lived and breathed this story for about four years, through multiple playthroughs, fan fiction and post by post role play. I drew my characters, I commissioned art, I wrote articles for the Grey Wardens, I spent a month calculating the distances across the map and charting them for folks like me who lived with one foot in Thedas. DA:O was my first real introduction to fandom too. I’d participated a little in the WoW fandom and I was a member of a Sims 2 competition building team for about half a year, but I’d never been this obsessed before.
Last year I tried to go back and replay DA:O and quit before I even finished one of the main quests. The plot holes were enormous and the interface seemed horribly clunky, even though I loved it at the time. When they retooled combat for DA:II I complained bitterly. I missed the turn by turn, highly customizable party interface where you could literally plot each step of your companions in battle.
I didn’t mind DA:II. I liked the story, but execution was seriously flawed. I liked Inquisition better, though I had major issues with the story. From time to time, I think about playing that again too, but… nothing will ever equal that first time playing Dragon Age: Origins.
Mass Effect 3
The Mass Effect trilogy is my holy trinity of gaming. The perfection of story, character development and gameplay has yet to be equaled by any other series. My favourite of the three is the third game. Like Dragon Age: Origins, I found playing ME3 to be a profoundly moving experience. I got a little sniffly in the previous two, but in ME3 I cried—during the opening cinematics.
A part of this is due to the amazing marketing attached to the launch of the game. BioWare encouraged fan participation in a Twitter and Facebook campaign that was part story, part hype. Fans were so ready for this game that they were just about prepared to look up and see Reapers. For realz. Then there was the game, which I thought was amazing. I really didn’t get the upset over the original ending. I loved it. I also believed that anyone who’d gone into this story believing their Shepard would live to see the end was somewhat deluded—or playing an entirely different game to me.
There is so much I could say about Mass Effect. The world building is phenomenal. I role played on an ME forum for a while and wrote a little fan fiction and the array of tools available to people who wanted to exist in this world far outstripped anything I’d seen for Dragon Age. It was HUGE.
And the music. The sound track.
I loved how each game had a unique soundtrack that seemed to grow out of the previous game, adding in the layers of story, becoming darker, but also with this amazing note of optimism. So beautifully done. Also, I cannot listen to the soundtrack without wanting to play the game again. All the games.
I did play them again. I’ve played the entire series through twice. Once for each game as they came out, and then a complete playthrough of the entire trilogy. By the time I got to ME3, the final game hit me even harder than the first time through. I’m pretty sure that’s an experience I will not be able to duplicate.
So What’s Next?
What all these games have in common is the wow factor. They all introduced me to something new—a new way of playing, a new community of gamers and stories that transcended the experience of button pushing. I’ve played a lot of stellar games that I didn’t list here: I’ve written extensively about Assassin’s Creed, Fallout and The Witcher on my blog and I love, love, love these games. They do all of the above very well and have even improved on many of the factors I look for in a new game. But they weren’t the first, they’re not the games that made me catch my breath so I could start raving. (Actually, I’ll rave about just about anything I’ve played and enjoyed, but, yeah, whatever.)
I will say the next game I’m looking forward to with almost sleepless glee is Mass Effect: Andromeda. I’ve pre-ordered, of course, and all going well, I should have a clear enough schedule to throw myself headlong into a new, but hopefully familiar world. I’m really hoping to experience that awe of playing another life changing game for the first and only time.