So, I like computer games. I have established this in previous posts. I also like, comics, poetry, books, films, photography and music. The reason I like all these things is … well that’s for another post but one of the main reasons is what my ex ex Girlfriend and I used to call ‘Wow Moments’. They are exactly what they say on the tin. I have had Wow Moments in real life, like, maybe twice but get them far more regularly in art. And dammit all of the above listed ARE ART. This is what this post is about as I am going to talk about two WMs of my own. One brilliant one I had recently but also one I had a long time ago. They both involve computer games. This will hopefully relate to non-people-who-play-computer-games (I hate the phrase ‘Gamer’) why games can be great and important and everyone should dip their toes in and stop being snobby.
- Hybrid Heaven
Hybrid Heaven is a game for the N64 from 1999 and is my favourite game of all time. You can put that on the box art, Konami. It’s a funny game and polarised opinion on release and has been pretty much forgotten in recent memory but I love it. Why? A little background first…
Konami have a reputation for making odd and genre pushing games; Castlevania (a game that spawned an entire genre), Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill and Killer7 to name but a few, they have also made some shit. But the fact is they are a solid games company with a loyal following. Hybrid Heaven received a modicum of hype prior to release due to it being one of the earliest and embryonic styles of games called ARPGs (Or Action Role Playing Games for the layman). This manifested in it being about beating people up but the combat being turn based where you can ‘level up’ and learn new moves. Anyway on release the general consensus was that this element didn’t work and we should forget all about it and move on with our lives. I had read a little about it and I wanted it based solely on a description of the plot I had heard. So I asked for it for christmas. I got it. God bless Ma & Pa. That week until just after New Year I barely emerged from my bedroom. And some of that time I was playing the game! (Ba-Dum-Tish) I loved it and still have my N64 just so if I feel the need I can dig it out and play it again. I could probably get an emulator but where’s the fun in that?
Why do I love it? Like I said, the plot initially drew me to it. Here is the opening cutscene;
So from there you begin the game as the villain. This intrigued me to begin with and only got weirder as you walked round a strange underground lab populated by people who all greeted you nicely while you silently went around avoiding security devices and unlocking cages filled with hideous monsters. Slowly your former colleagues, a colorful array of weirdos, realise you are up to no good and send you deep into the bowels of the complex to have you ‘processed’. You are then kidnapped by a mad scientist to take part in ‘research’ and from there the plot goes even more doolally. But what I loved about the game was that nothing is explained outright. Japenese games love En Medias Res. This is when you are dumped in the middle of something and left to figure it out and catch up. It’s great for games because it means you are dumped straight into the action but also means you can create suspense by not revealing everything. In this case they solve the “I have amnesia” plotline by just drip feeding you info. Where are you? WHO are you? What are you doing running around destroying things? Why is there a giant monster chasing you? And this is the main reason I love this game; The Atmosphere.
The mystery is very immersive but it’s the environments that I love the most. Every room is vast and empty, footsteps echoing hollowly around you as you run silently deeper inside an alien facility. Neon lights glow dimly along floors as you snatch occasional glimpses of ever larger areas about you. You battle a colourful and inventive array of creatures in the much touted turn-based fist fighting which I found equally immersive. Essentially that is the game. Run through stunning location to stunning location via traps and one on one encounters but due to the eerie sound effects, sparse music and twisty-turny plotline you never feel like you are running from room to room for no reason.
The turning point for me came when your were kidnapped for ‘research’ which involved running away from a giant monster you can’t fight via increasingly hazardous methods, culminating in a breathlessly intense race down a long corridor where the camera suddenly switches from being behind you to being side on as you run, watching the creature get ever closer. That was my Wow Moment. I then got another as you run past a set of jet boosters the size of Big Ben, as the camera again suddenly switched to side view. And then I got to the end and sat back slack-jawed at the bonkers, slow-burning yet gripping and intense game I had just played and started it all over again. It is, to this day, the only game I have played and completed on every difficulty setting.
It ain’t perfect. The movement system is a piece of shit, the camera has nothing but contempt for your desire to look at things like an abused spouse who can’t look at you, there are waaaaaay to many fights with room after room being just encounter after encounter, the nadir of which being a part in the middle with four controller-breakingly frustrating bosses one after the other with no save points in between. The traps range from bewilderingly easy to the harrowing and the puzzles merely consist of “find the thing that regenerates your key card but here’s a couple of fights while you do that”. But despite all this the game still grips me and I love wandering for hours in its empty, cathedral sized halls and sublime ramp towards an epic battle at the bottom of the elevator shaft you came in on wreathed in fire at the very end of the game.
It’s not perfect but for all its faults it is a gripping and immersive experience.
- Half-Life 2
Okay I’ll admit, I was late to the party on this one what with it coming out in 2004 and I only completed it last week but considering it is the game that game nerds frequently ejaculate thick, black, geeky, love wee over, I had given it a wide berth. I remember seeing a tech demo of the Source physics engine Valve invented for it and being impressed but thereafter ignoring it whole heartedly. Slowly, as years passed, more and more brilliant games used the Source engine (Bioshock and Arkham Asylum being the two that sold me on it) so my curiosity was piqued. It was only when I played the utterly sublime Portal and decided I had to have it I bought the ‘Orange Box’ which was on sale on Steam. This included Team Fortress 2, Portal and Half-Life 2. So I downloaded it and played Portal over a very enjoyable weekend. That is another game I love but I wanted more and whilst I love it, it is short, so I thought I might try Half-Life 2 finally after all these years…
The best thing was, despite it winning every game of the year award and the equivalent of 10 Gaming Oscars, I knew nothing about the game other than that nerds LOVED it. It is unsurprising then that I now love it too. The first HL revolved around the main character, Gordon Freeman – an inexplicably, badass action hero who also happens to be an MIT physicist that looks like a beatnik, causing a portal to open up in a research facility and letting in hideous creatures from another dimension. It ended with a master stroke which I won’t spoil but basically he is put in stasis until he awakes bleary-eyed 20 years later in a dystopian future where the alien creatures have taken over the entire planet and are ruling it under a machine gun wielding jackboot. However, your sudden arrival turns out to be what the people of earth were waiting for and so begins your journey to free earth from the evil dictators.
What begins as a few skirmishes with well armed Stormtroopers and the odd, hauntingly visceral, zombie encounter escalates slowly (occasionally punctuated by a frenetic helicopter battle) from enclosed gutters and darkened alleyways, slowly and carefully expands until it becomes an enormous, epic battle for freedom, rallying the masses for revolution as you tumble through destroyed streets and along rooftops battling giant tripod gun walkers. The pacing is frankly exquisite, almost poetic in its rise towards its gut clenching conclusion, the voice acting is better than most performances in mainstream cinema, the concept design is sparse yet detailed, the staging is utterly brilliant but the best part of it is the sound design. From the rattling of empty shells, and shuffle of troopers armour out of shot, to the earth shattering boom of the shotgun the sound in the game is beautifully subtle. The nuances are what make it so immersive. The distant call of birds, the Taos-Hum of outdoors, the subtle changes of reverberation depending where you are, the gut churning wail of the poor souls encased by the head crabs, the ear-splitting screech of the Striders, the bowel loosening silences all contribute to the feeling of reality which so many games overlook. You are normally bombarded with a score and flashy effects and quips galore throughout a game but HL2 is stingy with its gifts so when you get them they make that much greater an impression.
I wish I could tell you which was the biggest WM for me but I think it was just the whole game from start to finish. It is pretty much the perfect game. And I mean that sincerely. It is utterly engrossing, to the point where I could only stop when I realised I hadn’t eaten or I was so close to the screen I could no longer see what was going on. I enjoyed it so much I am going to buy it on xBox so I can play it in the comfort of my living room not at my computer desk. I can find no fault with it and it came at just the right time for me.
In summary, I love games that aren’t necessarily about gameplay or graphics or other nerdy things, I like those games for the same reasons I love books, photography, music, films and poetry. Their artistry and the fact they really move me and grip me and let me escape and feel the giddy thrill of excitement or the heart in the chest, the lump in the throat or that gasp of shock and awe and tingly goosebumps when you are truly surprised. You know. The things everyone enjoys. which is why I hate that computer games generate such contempt in so-called “intellectual” circles. They aren’t rubbish, they don’t lack intellect, they aren’t all noisy and violent. You just haven’t found the right game yet.
I have. I found two.
Is it that time again? I must be going now. I’ll see you up ahead.