I've got kind of a love/hate relationship with video games. On the one hand, I'm slightly embarrassed by the amount of time I've spent playing them, feeling far, far prouder of the times in my life when I've been making things, rather than just consuming them. On the other hand, I've spent a cumulative 700 years of my life playing video games, so there must be something there.
It couldn't just be that I'm a colossal loser. Could it?
And when I think back on it, I can recall a few perfect, totally pure moments of gaming pleasure, moments that couldn't possibly be found in non-interactive media, moments that make gaming special. And note that I'm not speaking of tightly scripted moments, events, and experiences that were programmed specifically into a game. Not that those aren't worthwhile; a lot of scripted moments are really, really good. Think of the delight in seeing the moon in Portal 2, getting scared shitless by the window dogs from Resident Evil, or Samus Aran revealing that girls can do things too in Metroid.
"But if a girl could do all that, maybe I'm wrong about the cooties thing too?"
No, what I'm thinking of are those unscripted moments that come up organically, moments when the game is just trying to be a game, and only by accident does it convey something more. These are obviously going to be highly personal and subjective; you'll have played the same games and have similar stories, but all of our little moments are going to be unique. Here's my top five.
Half-Life is a superb first-person shooter filled with great moments, both scripted and organic. Most of the organic ones are based on the extremely good level design, which provides both a great sense of place and an incredible environment for shooting baddies.
Except for the mine tunnels. The mine tunnels sucked.
Long, tedious, and painful, the video game equivalent of a root canal being performed rectally.
Yet that's where one of my favorite gaming moments took place. In one of those tedious passageways, something appeared in front of me. It was a tiny little white and red something, like a bug, or maybe a torch, and it was getting a bit bigger, and oh shit, duck.
It's coming right at us!
What I was seeing was a rocket that had been shot at me by some asshole at the other end of this miles-long hallway. I moved to the side, and the rocket sailed past me, but another puff soon appeared. The video-game literate among you will recognize that, as I was now pressed up against a wall, if this next rocket missed, it would still hit the wall behind me, hurting me with splash damage. In short, this was a spectacularly bad environment for dodging rockets, and I think I was supposed to retreat at this point and loop around to catch this guy from behind or something.
Instead, I charged him, moving toward the rocket but away from where it would strike, watching it miss by a few inches and hit the tunnel walls well behind me. I opened fire with my submachine gun, which had an effective range much less than the mile I really needed for this situation. Another rocket sailed past. I reloaded. Four more rockets. I kept shooting and reloading, and when that gun was empty, I switched to another. Twelve more rockets came by. It was a long fucking hallway.
Somewhere a mighty oak sprang from a tiny acorn.
Recall that this was an era of FPS when health kits and ammo were a little rarer than they are now, and it wasn't unheard of for a player to beat a section of the game, only to reload an earlier save and try to do it again more efficiently, to save ammo. And what I was doing was just about the least efficient way possible of dealing with this situation, dumping every bullet I had into a single enemy. This was dumb, and there was a better way, and yet, when I reached the end of the tunnel, dry-firing an empty gun at what was now just a bloody smear, I knew something special had happened. Two men, 20 rockets, 7,000 bullets, and the principles of splash damage and geometry had combined into something beautiful. I didn't retry that shit.
Even if it meant spending the next half hour getting slaughtered while lamely flailing my crowbar at people.
Fallout: New Vegas is an open-world game that by design is going to throw up a lot of great gaming moments. Mine occurred relatively early on when I entered a small town. I found that all of its residents had been killed or enslaved by some jerks from Caesar's Legion, which is an army of assholes that dress like Roman legionaries for ... there must have been some reason.
"Have you guys seen those 'pants' things everyone else wears?"
"Yeah. They look dumb."
"Right. I was going to say they looked dumb, too. I just wanted to know if you thought the same."
Anyways, the intent of this scripted moment was to introduce these assholes and a semi-important NPC to me, and also to underline just how harsh this particular world was. Although it's an open-world game where I could potentially do whatever I wanted, I wasn't expected to do much more than watch here; the townspeople present were beyond saving, and the Legion members vastly outnumbered and outarmed me. Attacking them would have been foolish.
So I attacked them foolishly.
Mainly by shooting and then scampering away in terror several times, just like the professionals.
This had a couple of interesting side effects. For one, I now felt really proud of myself, unusually so for someone playing video games in a smelly, darkened room. I was now the badass vigilante justice dealer of the desert, and all would tremble before me.
Much as they do when smelling my video game room.
But this also turned the most powerful faction in the game completely and irrevocably against me, to the point that they started sending squads of assassins after me every half hour or so. That early in the game, I was in no way prepared to face twice-hourly squads of assassins, and I spent basically the rest of the game limping and scurrying from town to town trying to avoid them in a decidedly ignoble manner for a badass vigilante justice dealer.
No regrets, though. Fuck those guys.
The Grand Theft Auto games are also open-world sandbox games, jam-packed with the toys to make organic gaming moments. Everyone who's played them probably has their own favorites. But the one that always sticks out in my mind is from GTA III's vigilante mode, where you're given a very tight time limit to race across town and murder a criminal.
I've just realized a lot of these are about killing. Sorry, Mom. Sorry, Dad. On the plus side,
at least my rage issues are no longer undiagnosed.
The GTA games are packed with ways to murder people, but these missions were still a little tricky, simply because the bad guy was almost always in a car and the player had limited means of both keeping up with and stopping a car. A typical vigilante mission soon devolved into a clumsy sequence of ramming and randomly sprayed bullets.
And thus lacked much of the formal elegance that has given GTA a reputation as the "chess of video games."
On this particular mission, however, I simply didn't have the necessary time for clumsy ramming and spraying. I only just managed to catch up to the guy with a few seconds left on my timer (after which murdering him would have been illegal). So, with the usual tactics ruled out, I used the powerful lateral thinking skills that all gamers have (for murdering) and noticed the large patch of blue to our right -- the ocean, filled with the curiously fatal water of early GTA games. By that point I had never seen anyone but me die in the water, but with little time to do anything else, I gave it the old college try, and I rammed the guy toward the side of the elevated highway we were driving on.
What am I going to do? Not try to murder him?
It worked, spectacularly well. That poor bastard Dukes of Hazzarded off the edge and into the water, a glorious THREAT ELIMINATED splaying across the screen as my clock reached zero. That I received $2,000 for this seemed almost an insult for a murder so creative and well-executed.
Really the game should have stopped for the mayor to give me a medal.