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The top five moments of my video gaming life, or, Du côté de chez Questor

Austin Grossman’s YOU has been praised in the Boston Globe as “razor sharp…a smart meditation on the nature of gaming” and by Tom Bissell in Harper’s as “some of the most startling, acute writing on video games yet essayed.” Find it in bookstores everywhere or pick it up from your e-tailer of choice this week! We’ll have a full links post of the great coverage for YOU tomorrow–in the meantime, check out the below guest post from Austin on some of the most memorable moments of his gaming life.

This isn’t a top-five-games list, although there aren’t any bad games here.  Instead, it’s a list of the five best moments video games have given me.

Now that I’ve started writing at length about them, this is the part that interests me most. There’s a lot of debate as to whether video games are art, whether they deliver the kind of emotional or narrative or profound experiences associated with the idea of what an art form is.  But if we’re going to see clearly what video games are, we have to think about not just the “text” of the game, the art and code and game mechanics, but whatever it is that happens when game meets player, the ephemeral, collaborative experience that results.

You could say the same thing about any medium but for obvious reasons it has a special bite for interactive media. The best video games don’t just tell stories, they generate them.

Ritual caveats: It’s not really a top five, of course – I’ve done way too much gaming for that, and had too good a time doing it. I only have so much space. I could talk about Braid or SpyParty, but I think those are significant more because they’re good games than for a personal experience I had with them.

I’m also excluding games I worked on – no System Shock, no Deus Ex, no Trespasser (although I could – go ahead and call me on it).  In that regard I’m letting  Flight Unlimited in on a technicality, because I mostly just worked on the manual, and because part of what I’m writing about is the hardware peripheral.

1. Halo: Combat Evolved, Bungie, 2004

It was a little ways after midnight. I was at a friend’s house in Oakland on the couch. It had been a couple of years since I had a proper gaming console and I was catching up with some Halo.

I’d been a little dismissive of Halo during the opening levels back on the Pillar of Autumn – I felt it was standard shooter stuff – but then I hit the outdoor levels, out on the Forerunner-built pseudo-planetary surface and I got the point.  Tactical combat moved outdoors, dynamically modeled vehicle physics, and glorious scenery of the Halo, the kind of vistas that induce a uniquely vertiginous awe, the Ringworld sublime.

I’d been living there a few weeks, house-sitting after bailing out of a living situation that – well we won’t debate the rights and wrongs at this point, but there I was.  I was still in the first half of a doctorate I would never complete, pretty lonely, and for three or four hours a day I needed to not be there in my head. I played every night until I fell asleep.

I was almost halfway through the single-player campaign, partway through “Assault on the Control Room” and bogged down in one of those endless canyons. Dying and re-spawning, frustrated, bombarded, I was getting tired and lazy.

It was snowing onscreen, my human squadmates were dying, and I felt like the miserable WWI infantryman in a Wilfred Owen poem, getting shot by enemies I didn’t even notice.  It took me maybe forty-five minutes of grinding shooter gameplay to figure out that I could knock an enemy off its vehicle, and – if the vehicle survived the crash – I could get on it myself, and fly.

That was the moment.  Part of it was just one of those satisfying clicks where you realize that the virtual world is simulated more thoroughly than I had assumed, that they had opted to make me, Covenant troops, and vehicles part of the same universe, with the kind of robust interoperability that makes a simulated world feel complete.

But then there was the absolutely unexpected somatic thrill of the ground dropping away, like I had torn free from something. I pulled back on the stick and streaked up along the cliff face momentarily free, above the rainy, slushy mess of dying Terran and Covenant troops, right out of myself and Oakland and regret and all the memories of a wasted year.

2. Gauntlet, Atari Games, 1985

I would have placed this recollection much, much earlier but Wikipedia says 1985, which accords with my memory of it happening somewhere in downtown Boston at a science fiction convention (my first!) in a warm, rainy February.

I was a very young fifteen, driven in by somebody else’s parents and was dropped off with a small cohort of geeky teenage boys, some of whom I knew, to roam around. I remember there was an especially pushy/charismatic geeky kid who I admired greatly, who led us to a nearby diner that had the first Gauntlet machine I had ever seen, a multiplayer, 2D dungeon adventure.

When I look at screenshots today, it’s hard to remember exactly why it meant so much. Maybe it was the bright, clean graphic style and all the drop shadows that my gullible eye accepted as 3D.  Maybe it was that you got to decide who you were among four characters – a wizard, warrior, valkyrie, or Questor the Elf – and this seemed at the time like a major life choice. Mostly it was that you could take your friends into the world with you.

I remember that as we walked back to the hotel where the con was, the pushy kid nearly got hit by a school bus, and as it went by him he gave it a jaunty, resounding smack in the rear.  He punched a school bus!  I was still buzzing from that, and the whole day, and I remember thinking that Gauntlet was probably going to be the last video game ever invented, because they were never going to come up with anything better than this.

3. Flight Unlimited, Looking Glass Studios, 1995

Between 1992 and 1995 I worked on and off at Looking Glass Studios which did a lot of innovative work in real-time 3D gaming.  And, apart from making amazing games, they were really conscientious about supporting consumer VR headsets.

You know the ones, the bulky, dorky motion-sensing goggles, that fit over your face and could sense how your head moved, and adjust their view of a simulated 3D world accordingly. They had a limited run in arcade games like Dactyl Nightmare, but they never found a consumer market, maybe because they were too expensive and maybe because everyone looked ridiculous wearing them. They were supposed to be the future of gaming but have long since turned into kitsch, one of the more embarassing relics of nineties dorky techno-hubris. Not even having sexy girls model them in magazine ads made them look cool.

I’m not sure why Looking Glass supported them – the install base was so small, there was no great commercial advantage in it. Maybe it was part of our overall mission to make more immersive 3D environments; maybe it was just an interesting problem, and, in the name of the hacker ethic, it needed to be done.

We were just finishing a flight simulator called Flight Unlimited, a game which is still a slightly overlooked wonder, an early leap forward in photorealistic graphics and realistic physics modeling, clever and absolutely bursting with earnest ambition. It made Microsoft Flight Simulator look three years out of date, and it was perfect for the VR rig.

I tried it out. I wanted to see what the headsets were like, mostly because I had read Dream Park a lot of times, and maybe I was thinking of the sexy girls in the ads and how maybe I would discuss this with them when we all met in the pages of Mondo 2000.

And, kitsch or not, it was amazing. I had a view from the cockpit of a Pitts S-2B, a stubby red biplane, and as I turned my head, my view of the three-dimensional world turned – it was stuttery and low-resolution, but the motion felt thrillingly natural. I looked to my right, and I was looking down the wing and past it to the ground, rendered from satellite photos and terrain data of Denali, Alaska. I looked up into the blue sky and right into the sun, which gave fake lens flare as if seen through a nonexistent camera – the first game to use this effect, and it made me feel like I was living inside a home movie. I felt weightless, and I felt (how do I put this?) like I existed in a world that was bright and alive, and hadn’t after all fallen through a career-hole and into clinical depression and suburban Massachusetts.

I still like VR headsets. They got left behind in the nineties but people are still making them and I have faith that one day soon they will find their consumer niche and price point and killer app, and their moment will come.

4. skate, Electronic Arts, 2009

skate is a skateboarding sim.  I’m a big admirer of skateboarding games.  For their level-design chops, which ensure that no matter where you turn there’s always something cool to do about twenty feet in front of you.  For their practice of letting the game advance by players learning to play better, rather than just by aggregating stats until their characters can kick through the next wall. For being incredibly difficult to master, hard enough that afterwards you think you might want to take up the French horn instead.

The game starts you off in a school playground where you learn some basic moves, and there was something about the fixed, late-afternoon quality of the light on faded pavement that made their school look a lot like the open-plan suburban one I grew up with.

I learned to ollie and nollie and grind, and then cruised over to the edge of the playground, just to test where the edge of the level was. Most video game levels built a little like a curved bathtub – they’re sharply bounded, but as you get close to the edge they try more or less gracefully to steer you back toward the middle. I wanted to see how they worked it out.

I hadn’t realized that skate is a big open-world game like Grand Theft Auto. So I was feeling along for a boundary of some kind – a brick wall or invisible force field – that wasn’t there.  It was like pushing on a locked door that abruptly opened – a simple mistake but it was strangely freeing. I skated and skated and picked up speed and rolled for miles down gently rolling hills and all the way into downtown San Vanelona

There was no reason to stop and it went on and on, and it really did feel like an endless world. There’s a rhythm to the sound – of wheels, then silence as take a jump and you’re in the air, then wheels, then silence.  Nobody thinks of me as a particularly relaxed person, and that was about as good as it gets – it felt like an endless lost summer afternoon that I was getting back to, even though I never had it in the first place, because I always sucked at skateboarding and was too stressed-out to do much of it. An unexpected gift.


5. Ultima III, Origin Systems, 1984

I’d been playing this one and off for maybe a year, a pretty straightforward fantasy quest game, one of the early games that set the pattern for years to come – dungeons to explore, missing items to retrieve, and so forth. It was advanced for its time but still a tile-based, one-move-per-turn affair, on a 2D map laid out with simple but weirdly evocative icons.

I remember a very specific moment of being pulled away from the game by being called to dinner – called from the Apple II we had set up in the kitchen/dining room, placed in a corner because this was an object we hadn’t learned to classify yet – it was still sort of a toy and sort of an appliance.

I had just realized that I was about to win the game. For a long time I hadn’t even thought about that the idea that it would end, that the long succession of quests and cards and shrines and dungeons was summing to something, that there was an order to the sprawling mess of it, that I’d been brought to something, an ending.

It had taken months. until then I hadn’t even had that many experiences that happened in that large a unit of time – the seasons, the school year I never had the perseverance or internal awareness that some kids have, that lets them do long-term projects on their own, but I realized I had done just that. There wasn’t a lesson or emotion to it, so much as a dawning understanding of the medium, and how it had taught me that I could have a long, scattered confusing experience that could then brought into order and become a completed whole – like a term paper, or a novel, or, one hopes, a lifetime.

Austin Grossman is a video game design consultant who has worked on games such as Dishonored, System Shock, Deus Ex, Tomb Raider: Legend, and the author of Soon I Will Be Invincible, which was nominated for the 2007 John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize. His writing has appeared in Granta, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. He lives in Berkeley, California.