For this week’s column, I had planned to run my favorite moments of the decade, but I went in a different direction instead. So here are the ten moments I was going to write about. And don’t be shy, share yours too!
10. Left 4 Dead. Everyone has a story like this. I survived the onslaught at the boathouse. I’m a few feet away from the rescue vessel that will take me away from the zombie-pocalypse, and I turn around – and there’s my buddy, Michael Abbott, pinned down by three zombies and struggling to make it to the dock. I check my ammo and weigh my options. Maybe I could get back and rescue him – maybe. Maybe we’d even both get out alive. But, eh, hell with it. I left him to die.
9. Legendary. This was not a great game, but as a corny horror experience it’s chock full of sight gags and hilarious moments where unsuspecting civilians are grabbed and eaten by horrifying hellbeasts. These gags escalate as the game goes on, leading up to my favorite: you walk into a giant cavern under the street, to see a helpless civilian calling for help – and before you can get to him, an entire city bus drops on his head. Note to studios who are making snoozer-shooters like this one: a little inspiration goes a long way.
8. Baldur’s Gate II. BioWare’s role-playing games haven’t lost their tactical depth, but as they move to a third-person perspective and a more real-time, actiony feel, I find that the nuances of combat get less and less interesting – and the battles feel less heroic. Case in point. I was leading my party of six (remember when you could have six?) through the sewers, and we ran into the vampire Bodhi – too strong for us to handle, probably, but it was too late to turn back. We fight, and Bodhi manages to paralyze every one of my characters except Nalia, a mage-thief, definitely a back-row character that I tried to keep out of harm’s way. Nalia had to face off against Bodhi in hand-to-hand combat.
They went one turn, then another, and another – and somehow, Nalia held her off and stayed alive until the rest of the party recovered and won the day. I’ll never forget her triumph against the odds. The rest of the game was well-written, but the writing couldn’t compete with that one lucky victory.
7. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. For all the guff we give the Wii for its poor line-up and underpowered hardware, everyone has their own favorite “motion sensitive controls” story. For me, I just remember the sweat. In at least two fights in Twilight Princess, the motion controls for combat – the quick swings and heavy blows, the blocking, the whole thing – not only engaged me, they exhausted me. I’ve never had a more satisfying final boss fight than in this game, or a better experience with the Wii.
6. The Force Unleashed. Like a lot of folks who grew up with Star Wars, I enjoyed this middling action-adventure more than I expected, because it actually felt like Star Wars – a dark, troubling adventure right in the vein of The Empire Strikes Back, with a real tragedy woven into the story. Before the final act, the Apprentice character is saying goodbye to the love interest who’s been piloting him around the galaxy, and as they have a final kiss, I was sitting there preying that this game wasn’t going to end as badly as I expected, and that they would see each other again. I think I’ve told you before that I’m a total sap for this stuff, and The Force Unleashed got me good.
5. World of Warcraft. My big beef with Warcraft has always been that the streamlined gameplay tamps down emergent narratives and interesting surprises. But I still have warm memories from my first few levels in the game – including one of the first times I ran the Deadmines instance in Westfall. It was close to the holidays, and the game had started handing out snowballs that you could collect and throw at other players. Halfway through the Deadmines, my party had to stop because our gnome rogue kept rushing in and getting himself killed. So to pass the time, somebody pitched a snowball at my head and knocked me over – and I returned fire, and all of a sudden we had a full-blown fight. It was the only piece of emergent narrative I remember from the whole time I spent in that game.
4. PixelVixen707. When edit-hero Simon Carless revealed game blogger and brainysphere booster Rachael Webster not to be a real girl, but a character in an ARG? I would’ve paid whatever to see the look on his face when he solved the puzzle.
3. Fallout 3. The team behind this game is reluctant to fess up to any overt political messages or themes in the game. But whether it’s a message or not, Liberty Prime is one of the funniest pieces of Cold War satire since Dr. Strangelove. Watching him lurch to the Jefferson Memorial, blasting everything in his path while he spouts anti-Communist propaganda, brings home the game’s vision of an America that still clings to its greatness, its patriotism, and its righteousness – long, long after they’ve vanished.
2. Half-Life 2 Episode One. Alyx is the best supporting character of the decade. There’s no debate. She’s an upbeat survivor who’s grown up in hell, and nothing fazes her – except the one or two times that it does. Early in Episode One, the sight of a stalker stored in a train gives her a chance to show some of the grief and fatigue that she’s had to live with basically her whole life. Then the train flips on its side and the stalker actually comes at her, leading to a moment of panic and a quick escape – but when she gets out? She’s back to normal again, upbeat, making bad jokes and ready to tackle anything. Because that’s how she’s lived her whole life – and this scene is the first time you really understand that.
1. Portal. What the hell – what is going on? The computer is singing? It’s singing to me?! This is the greatest game ending ever!