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games Posted 2005-03-01 02:06:09 by Jim Crawford
Here's the followup to favorites, my favorite PC games. It includes spoilers for Day of the Tentacle (descriptions of and partial solutions to two puzzles) and Deus Ex (a plot point from about a third of the way through the game), so if you haven't played one of those and don't need me to convince you to play it, you might want to close your eyes for its description.

Again, this list disincludes the non-best titles of any given series.

PC Countdown:
10. System Shock 2 (Irrational Games, 1999) - System Shock 2 is the most stressful game I've ever played that supports arbitrary saving and loading. This might be considered a good or a bad thing; I've certainly debated that issue with myself, especially while playing it. One factor that informs this stress is the intense atmosphere, especially the voice logs you find scattered throughout the ship. It's astonishingly effective at establishing a place. When I play System Shock 2, I'm really on a spaceship that's been taken over by a mad AI. I'm also really about to die.

Another factor is the depth of gameplay. The game is a shooter, but it's built around resource management. You'll end up killing most of the enemies with melee attacks because you're always sure you'll run out of ammo in the next battle. You'll put off using your skill upgrade points because you desperately need upgrades in every skill, and you're never sure which one you need most. And it doesn't help that the game denies the concept of clearing out an area, because it spawns new enemies -- not often, just enough to make sure you never feel safe.

I'll admit it, I've only ever beaten System Shock 2 using trainers.

9. Day of the Tentacle (LucasArts, 1993) - When I was growing up, I loved the Sierra adventure games. It was only later in life that I discovered that their creations were stuck in the 1970s in terms of adventure game design. Infocom blew them out of the water in the 1980s, and LucasArts blew them out of the water for the second humiliating time in the 1990s. Whereas Sierra games gave you unforeseeable death traps and read-the-designer's-mind puzzles that seemed intended to sell the 1-900 hint hotline, Infocom and LucasArts games were fair to the player and their puzzles made sense -- at least within the context of the game world. In fact, in LucasArts games it was impossible to get stuck, or even die! Admittedly this limitation precludes certain valid kinds of puzzles, but it was certainly a refreshing change from worrying whether or not you screwed up the game five minutes after it started and had to restart from scratch.

It's interesting that I'm touting this feature when I was singing the joys of stress just a few paragraphs ago -- but System Shock 2 has a different kind of getting stuck. In System Shock 2, the getting stuck is emergent from a very general ruleset that you fucked up five minutes after starting, and in fact you're not really stuck, you just have to play really well to win. In an adventure game, you're really just stuck. Time to restart. It's also interesting that I'm two paragraphs into this explanation and I still haven't said anything about Day of the Tentacle.

Day of the Tentacle was probably the best LucasArts game of its era. The time travel theme was not just an excuse to put the Ben Franklin and a world taken over by Tentacles in the same game: it also factors heavily into the puzzle design. Most puzzles have a time travel element involved. One puzzle has you convincing George Washington to chop down a tree in order to get someone down from the tree 400 years later. Another one has you inserting enough quarters into a laundry drying machine to keep it running for 200 years, to transport a wet sweater into the future.

The dialogue is great, very funny. The genius of the traditional tree system of conversation is that you can have six punchlines to the same joke. And the player always gets to pick his or her favorite.

The music is great. The iMuse system that Michael Z. Land developed for LucasArts provided a level of interactivity in game music that I have yet to hear equaled (though a lot of the credit should go to the composition; you hear a smooth transition between songs regardless of where in the song you are, and it must've been an insane amount of work to write all the transitions), and the OPL2 FM patches they developed for the masses to hear on their lowly Adlib-compatible sound cards actually sound better, IMO, than the “high-end” Roland MT-32 sound system that the games also supported. The music itself is not the best that LucasArts has done -- that honor goes to Monkey Island 2 -- but as I said at the beginning of the paragraph, it's great.

The art is also great. It's a winner overall, huh.

8. Varicella (Adam Cadre, 1999) - Text adventures didn't stop with Infocom. Well, commercially successful text adventures did. But now that you can't make money at it, everyone involved in the community is in it for the love. More text adventures are released each year now than Infocom released in its history, and a lot of them are better than anything Infocom ever did.

In Varicella, you play the Palace Minister of Piedmont, essentially a glorified interior decorator. King Charles has died unexpectedly, Piedmont requires a regent, and your goal is to take all other potential claimants out of the picture before they take you out -- which happens in less than 150 turns. Varicella is essentially an optimization puzzle. It's not so hard to figure out a way to kill each person, and there are usually several ways for each. The hard part is figuring out how to do it all quickly enough to get rid of them all, without letting any one solution block the following ones. It's a game that you're expected to lose over and over again, and you don't mind because play-throughs are so short.

The fun part, though, is exploring the depth of implementation. There are perhaps 10 important characters in the castle, each one with a unique history and personality, all of whom you can interact with as deeply as I've seen in a text adventure. Then there are perhaps 10 guards, each one also with a unique personality, though they're usually more superficial because they don't really factor into the story.

And if you don't want to do even that much work, even if you just feel like exploring the easily-accessible parts of the castle and looking at stuff, the game is still worth playing, not just because of the rich world Adam Cadre has created, but because the protagonist's perception of reality makes even the most mundane object's description fun to read. For instance:

> examine floor
“You can only assume that the thinking here went as follows: chess is a high-class pastime; therefore, chessboards are classy; and thus, making the floor of the palace look like a chessboard -- only with many, many more squares -- will lend a certain cachet to the place. Instead, it lends the foyer the air of a petrol station water closet. How unseemly!”
Do I need to say more? If so, download Varicella from Adam Cadre's Interactive Fiction page, load it up, then pretend I quoted what you read.
7. Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (Remedy, 2003) - Max Payne 2 has the best and most sophisticated design -- and the best writing -- of any straight shooter I've played. The gameplay is perfectly tuned, the level design is excellent and varied, and the story is intricate and moving. There are so many brilliant individual ideas in here it's not even hilarious. I've written more about Max Payne 2 here and here.

As, for the original Max Payne... well, I'll just say that it's not a good sign when the most memorable part of a game is the guy who shoots you point blank in the head with a shotgun the frame you open the door, and you just have to keep quickloading until he happens to miss.

6. Anchorhead (Michael Gentry, 1998) - Though the Lovecraft world seems to be one of the most common settings for adventure games, there still seems to be a dearth of Lovecraft-related works just because there are still so few good ones. I loved Infocom's The Lurking Horror, despite the sometimes goofy vibe; the Infocom developers were still growing out of the Zork phase and its inherent goofiness. Anchorhead was made in the era of the text adventure as a serious competitor to straight prose, and has no such incongruous goofiness. It's straight Lovecraftian horror with all the trimmings.

Barring spoilers, I guess the only further thing I have to say about Anchorhead is that it's huge. It's as big as Varicella -- 500k, most of which is compressed text -- but feels bigger because it uses the size in service of being epic rather than being detailed.

Anchorhead is available for download via the IF Archive.

5. The Curse of Monkey Island (LucasArts, 1997) - This game was the best LucasArts adventure game of its era, but that's nothing particularly special because it was the only LucasArts adventure game of its era. In 1997, it proved that games don't have to be 3D to look stunning. Unfortunately, with Grim Fandango they went to 3D and even more unfortunately, they stuck with it for Escape from Monkey Island. Grim Fandango was still a very good game, and even a good-looking one, because they picked an art style that fit their limitations. Escape from Monkey Island I never played, because the screenshots I saw made my eyes bleed.

A lot of people have said that the Monkey Island series has been all downhill since the first, but I don't see it. The writing has always been strong, but it's shown steady improvement.

My only real gripe with this game is that the ending is bad. The final puzzle is unfair and the sequence that follows it is anticlimactic. Quite a disappointment after the great most-of-a-game that preceded it and especially after the excellent final puzzle and mind-bending ending sequence of Monkey Island 2. Hell. Maybe I should've given this spot to Monkey Island 2 after all.

4. Half-Life (Valve, 1998) - In case you weren't paying attention when it came out, this game blew the competition out of the water when it came to style and presentation. The story isn't even that great, but the setting is one of the most perfect video game settings ever conceived, and the way the setting is revealed, with the tram ride, the experiment and ensuing disaster, not to mention further spoily bits that happen later on, is brilliant.

Half-Life 2 was good as well, with several very nice set-pieces, but the gameplay felt quite unpolished. For example it has the buggiest “walking around” physics in any FPS I've ever played. Additionally, though the atmosphere was very nice, the storyline was weak, adding up to very close to nothing in the end.

3. Photopia (Adam Cadre, 1998) - I'm somewhat reluctant to include this one on the list simply because it barely qualifies as a game; there are some puzzles, but it's really more of an interactive short story. I suppose that's why they call it “Interactive Fiction” now, rather than “text adventure games.”

What Adam Cadre has done with Photopia is take an emotionally-charged short story idea that might be melodramatic if told in straight prose -- might, I say, I don't know -- and make it effective by turning it into your story as you play it. This is the essence of adventure games and even RPGs, really, but Photopia forgoes any vestige of game, leaving just the story part, and it's a hell of a good story. I don't want to say anything more for fear of spoiling it, so I recommend you just play it. The whole thing takes about half an hour and is available for free at Adam Cadre's Interactive Fiction page.

2. Nethack (The Devteam, 1985-2003) - An incredibly deep game with near infinite replayabality that's been in development constantly for the past 20 years. Winning at Nethack is one of the most satisfying feats in gaming, requiring both luck and hard-earned expertise, because when you die you have to start over entirely, and it is oh-so-easy to die.

Note that when starting over, you're not playing through the exact same game again. Not only are all the levels generated new each time, the items are randomized too, so you have to relearn what each one does. For instance, a scroll named READ ME might be a scroll of teleportation in one game and a scroll of amnesia in the next. There are several classes of items, potions, wands, scrolls and rings, that each have dozens of different members, and identifying the important ones is a big part of the early game.

The really great thing about Nethack, though, is that any given problem has half a dozen solutions, at least one of which is likely to be available to you now or in the near future. You just need a little bit of luck to stumble across it, and the expertise to recognize it when you do. If you're like me, you'll spend thousands of games in your youth just getting a feel for the myriad potentially fatal problems, and the myriad solutions to them.

1. Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) - One of my fondest memories of Deus Ex is Tracer Tong's bunker in the Luminous Path compound. I've narrowly escaped from my previous job at the Evil Empire, and here in the headquarters of the resistance, I find two of my co-escapees, Alex and Jaime, hard at work reverse-engineering the cure to the Gray Death epidemic, a cure that the aforementioned Evil Empire was previously working to ensure only went to corporate executives and government officials.

Part of it was the futuristic Snow Crash vibe -- though I hadn't read Snow Crash when I first played it; I just thought of the vibe as Futuristic Awesome. Part of it was the music, the Hong Kong Market/Luminous Path Compound music being by far the best in the game. I'm listening to it now to set the mood. Look at me! I'm in the future, and my friends and I have found a more deserving home for our expertise. We're working for the rebellion and we're saving the world! Hell yes.

There were so many cool elements in the game. They seem to have thrown just about every conspiracy theory they could think of into the mix: Grays, the Illuminati, Area 51, the Knights Templar, Men in Black, Roswell ... and amazingly, it all works. The best part is that much of this back story is completely optional. You could visit a certain Illuminati leader's home and leave without ever finding out that there are not one but two hidden rooms each containing a fascinating sentient entity that he employs as a tool.

One problem is that the gameplay suffers from loose direction, probably caused by the two independent design teams that worked on it. The sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, is much more directed, paring back a lot of unnecessary elements. The sequel is a winner too, despite what you may have heard. It's less polished in some respects -- the interface being a big one, it having been implemented to run both on Xbox and PC -- but much more polished in others, and well worth playing.

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Posted by Anonymous (bad boy 05) on 2005-03-04 06:39:38
email me or else but if
you send me a virus i will defeat you
and i will smight you with my mighty 2 ton fists i am the one. i have beaten
up neo of the matrix and i caught sadamm
heuisien i shot binladen 3 times in the leg still wanna send me a virus?

you incompident imbaseel
read me or else
Posted by Anonymous (bad boy 05) on 2005-03-04 06:43:41
i am the one i will beat you up if you send me a virus you neckrofediac

i have to emails
Posted by DefHo on 2005-03-07 12:54:35
Nice lists. I didn't realize Adam Cadre's games ranked that high for you. I think The Secret of Monkey Island (#2) was the best in the series though. Curse was a little too silly for me. BTW who is this "bad boy 05"?
re: faves
Posted by Jim Crawford on 2005-03-07 16:49:31
Curse of Monkey Island was too silly? Are we talking about the same series here? :)

I don't know who this bad boy 05 is, but I suspect he's the same one who posted a similarly incoherent message under the name "tom clark" on the earlobe ball thread. I tend to remove comments that I don't think provide any value, so this should give you a sense of what my standards are.
Posted by DefHo on 2005-03-09 13:04:39
 Curse of Monkey Island was too silly? Are we talking about the same series here? :)

Hmm... Maybe silly is the wrong word. But it wasn't made by the original creator of the first two.
re: silly
Posted by Jim Crawford on 2005-03-09 22:51:05
 Hmm... Maybe silly is the wrong word. But it wasn't made by the original creator of the first two.

True. I would love to see a true Ron Gilbert sequel. I read an interview with Ron at one point in which he said that what they wrote definitely wasn't what he had in mind. Specifically, he said that Elaine should never have fallen in love with Guybrush.
Ron Gilbert
Posted by DefHo on 2005-03-10 14:29:54
 True. I would love to see a true Ron Gilbert sequel. I read an interview with Ron at one point in which he said that what they wrote definitely wasn't what he had in mind. Specifically, he said that Elaine should never have fallen in love with Guybrush.

Ooh. Sounds interesting. Do you have a link to it? I never did think Elaine loving Guybrush was very believable.
re: Ron Gilbert
Posted by Jim Crawford on 2005-03-11 17:12:07
IIRC I read it in an actual magazine, but there's some info here:

I'm not sure if this is the text of the article I read or just a summary.
re:re: Ron Gilbert
Posted by DefHo on 2005-03-12 14:17:37

Interesting. Written by a Finnish person too. I find that funny because they made all the same grammatic mistakes that my girlfriend's parents make. :)
re(3): Ron Gilbert
Posted by Jim Crawford on 2005-03-13 17:33:00
 I find that funny because they made all the same grammatic mistakes that my girlfriend's parents make. :)

Neat that you can tell the ethnicity of a person by the kind of mistakes they make. I wonder, if you became fluent in, say, Esperanto, would you be able to recognize Esperanto written by a Finn using only your experience with English written by Finns?
re:re(3): Ron Gilbert
Posted by DefHo on 2005-03-13 19:00:17
 I wonder, if you became fluent in, say, Esperanto, would you be able to recognize Esperanto written by a Finn using only your experience with English written by Finns?

Well, if I read Esperanto written by one Finn, I might be able to recognize it if I saw it again. But I doubt I could base it solely on Finnish to English mistakes... Then again, who knows? Maybe my powers are stronger than I think!
not really ron gilbert any more
Posted by Jim Crawford on 2005-03-13 21:48:08
I guess an easier way to do it would be to become fluent in Finnish.

Just think, though. There are likely going to be interesting artifacts resulting from a native speaker of any given language writing not-quite-fluently in any other given language. If N is the number of languages in existence, there are N squared such sets of artifacts! So that's yet another interesting chunk of knowledge that I will likely never internalize.

So high, so low, so many things to know...
re: not Ron Gilbert
Posted by DefHo on 2005-03-14 12:50:32
Ah, useless knowledge. My favorite kind!
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