Sometimes we don’t think enough about why we love the things that we do. After all, do we really need to know why? The fact that we like or dislike something is really all that matters, right? Well unfortunately for me, the matter of “why” came up recently during a job interview at a game developer. My resume referred to the fact that I was passionate about games (as it should if you’re applying to a developer/publisher), but I never thought about why. As my luck would have it, that’s exactly what they asked, and I rambled an answer out, somewhat unprepared. Needless to say, I spent the afternoon pondering that question for clarity.
For me, it has several answers. But perhaps the one thing I like most about video games, is that they offer virtual worlds and experiences that I can safely get lost in. This is something I already knew to some extent. I always thought of myself as an escapist, but I guess I never really reflected on it. So I started thinking back about how this developed throughout my childhood and which games contributed to it the most.
And I gotta say, it’s been an enlightening exercise; one that I would encourage any fan to do for themselves. I’ve not only gained a deeper appreciation for some of my favorite games, but I’ve also learned a lot more about myself- particularly about how I think. So with all that said, here are the titles and franchises the played the biggest role in my love of digital worlds.
Super Mario World (1991)
This wasn’t my first Mario game. But this was the first that (aptly so) felt like a real world of some kind. Each major area of the map had imaginatively detailed levels with so much going on. Additionally, the world was made of a single map, unlike the disconnected worlds of Super Mario Bros. 3. Plus there was just so much to see! The game featured layered backgrounds, secret paths (and even a secret part of the world map), amazing artwork, and great music. It was the complete package, and it’s the first game that I can remember getting completely lost in.
Mega Man X (1993)
As with Mario, this was not my first entry into this franchise. But again, as with our famed plumber, it was the first entry that, to me, felt like a real place within the game’s universe. It first hit me with Storm Eagle’s stage, which takes place at an airport. There are runways in the background, structures that look like air-traffic-control towers, and by the end of the stage, you’re fighting Storm Eagle on an airship. This was a big deal for me. Airports have nothing to do with the Mega Man experience, but that setting was enough to make me think of this game as occurring in a living world. In older Mega Man games, stages were just random empty areas with enemies and themed decor. But after X, these same elements had context, and in regards to the story, potential consequences. It’s a paradigm shift that changed my play experience completely.
Panzer Dragoon (1995)
Speaking of paradigm shifts, the 32-bit era introduced fantastic new ways to build immersive experiences- and the first one that really floored me was Panzer Dragoon. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to break any new ground. It’s a 3D rail shooter, with the added benefit of 360-degree views. But what the game did bring to the table, was art direction! To sum it up, it’s flat-out amazing. Even despite the butt-ugly graphics of the Sega Saturn, it still holds up today. The creature designs are imaginatively detailed, the world has a moody post-apocalyptic design that’s reminiscent of Dune or Mad Max, and the score elegantly matches the action on-screen. It was a cinematic experience like nothing else before, and I seriously hope it gets remade someday.
Nights into Dreams (1996)
On the other end of the Saturn spectrum was Nights into Dreams. This was an entirely fresh experience from Sonic Team that revolved around the player controlling a flying acrobatic jester within the dreams of two children. To call it unique would be a severe understatement. It was unlike anything I had ever seen or played before, and honestly, I was OBSESSED. Its strange world design was bright and colorful, and it featured many details that, for the most part, go unnoticed during the game's primary flying mechanic. Consequently, I explored every bit of the level maps on foot, despite the fact that the game punishes you for doing so. To date, it remains one of my favorite games of all time, and if you’re interested, I have an article dedicated specifically to my experience with it.
Final Fantasy VII (1997)
I was perfectly content to be a Saturn owner. …that is, until Final Fantasy VII came out. I remember just being curious at first, given all the hype surrounding the game. Then one day a friend of mine let me borrow his PlayStation so I could check it out, and holy crap was I blown away. Here was a sort of miniature cyber-punk fantasy world that I could get lost in, filled with towns, cities, and secret locales- each with their own places to explore and people to talk to. Plus all of it was just a background for a deep, complex story spanning several characters and sub-plots. I was absolutely hooked. After FFVII, RPGs became my favorite video game genre, and it still is, even now.
Halo Combat Evolved (2001)
Halo was the game that I wanted to hate. It was the killer app for the Xbox, Microsoft’s new foray into the video game space, and everyone was raving about it. But as far as I was concerned, Microsoft was an outsider. It had no place in the hallowed console games industry- a place meant only for esteemed veterans like Nintendo, Sega, and (ironically) Sony. Then I played Halo and immediately ate my own words. The game’s titular ringworld was built in a way that felt like a real place, somewhere that could really exist in some remote, forgotten corner of the galaxy. And while immersion-breaking sparseness was a common feature during that console generation, Halo’s relative emptiness felt appropriate and almost natural. It was refreshing in that sense, and it reminded me that great games are made by artists and not the game companies that publish them.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)
Like everyone else, I was drawn to Vice City by the music. No, this isn’t the most immersive title in the series. Nor is it even all that immersive for its time (remember what I said about sparseness?). However, I can think of no prior game that pulled off a period piece like this. To play Vice City is to FEEL like being in the 80s. Would I know first hand? No, of course not. I was 2 years old in 1986 when the game takes place. But there ain’t a damn person alive that can convince me the period wasn’t full of drugs, neon glow, and flying Lambos. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City IS the 1980s, and that’s that.
Half-Life 2 (2004)
Ironically, this game is only on my list due to a technical feature, the Havok Physics Engine. As far as plot and world go, sure, this game is fine. But what really sold it for me, was how realistic the physics were. I know it sounds kind of odd, but like with anything in life, the details can make or break something. In the case of HL2, it definitely made it. Destructible environments, loose debris, and random objects all moved freely and realistically in a way that made me forget I was playing a video game. There’s nothing like riding a speedboat, taking out a bridge, and watching as enemy soldiers and wooden debris fall realistically into the water below. HL2 introduced a new level of realism into games for me, ultimately growing my expectations for what a game experience could be.
Madden 2006 (2005)
Later in life, I would come to believe that games have an educational, transformative power. It’s something that I experienced first-hand with Madden 2006. At the time, I was going through a football phase. I’d never cared about the sport before, but at this time, I felt a need to fit in with some of my more masculine friends. I know- it’s a dumb, superficial goal. But strangely enough, playing this game helped me achieve it. I started a season with the Green Bay Packers (the only team I remember having an affinity for in my childhood) and learned everything I could about the sport via simulation. Before long, I found myself holding my own in barroom conversations and game-day barbecues. I could finally follow along when officials threw flags, or when quarterbacks would do something unusual like running on 4th down. You see, the Madden franchise doesn’t have a world, per se. But playing it allowed me access to a place in the real world. For this reason, it holds a special place in my memory.
Assassin’s Creed (2007)
Speaking of educational, Assassin’s Creed is a series that has continually walked the line between game and encyclopedia. In fact, the historical aspects of it are what hooked me during the first game. Well, that and the addictive stealth gameplay, but let’s focus on history. While other games might feature locations patterned around well-known or famous cities, Assassin’s Creed is the first that I know of to feature real-life ancient cities. It’s a strange feeling, having no intention to ever visit the holy land, and then suddenly being thrust into a detailed (albeit fictionalized) simulation of it. I clearly remember climbing around the Dome of the Rock and wondering about the accuracy of the model. Then I would explore other cool-looking buildings I’d come across. And then others and others. Yes, there was a game to play, of course. But it was just as fulfilling to just walk the streets and explore. With this game, I didn’t have to just read about far-away places, or look at pretty pictures. With this game, I could actually be there. It was an unexpected, but wonderful surprise, and in my opinion, the overall strength of the series. Later entries would include facts and voice-overs highlighting specific landmarks, but that attention to history all started with their very first game.
Mass Effect 2 (2010)
I sometimes tell people that there are three great science fiction works: Star Trek, Mass Effect, and Star Wars, exactly in that order. You might be surprised to see me put Mass Effect ahead of Star Wars, but honestly, the world-building in these games is THAT good. I started with the second game in the franchise since I only had a PS3 when the first game was released (an Xbox 360 exclusive). Initially, I found it to be nothing more than a semi-interesting sci-fi shooter, but then I discovered the in-game codex. While browsing it, I came across the entry about the Hanar, a race of pink, jellyfish-like beings. I found the lore about their dual names, extreme politeness, and precursor-based origins incredibly fascinating. After that, I continued to read every passage in the codex, then attempted to explore all the planets, complete every side mission, and speak with every NPC so that I could absorb as much of the world as I could. I spent HOURS doing all of this. It was so engrossing that I couldn’t help but feel sad when it was over. Among all the fictional worlds I’ve ever played in, the Mass Effect universe has been the most fleshed out and the most enticing. I’ve yet to play anything else like it.
Yakuza 3 (2010)
Back on the subject of seeing far off places, is Yakuza 3. I picked this game up on a whim after seeing a review for the Japanese release of Yakuza 5. I was intrigued by the reviewer’s praise of fun beat-em-up action and weird Japanese humor, and I figured that maybe the third entry would have some of the same charms to offer. While it certainly did, those traits weren’t what had me glued to my TV. Instead, it was the game’s detailed representations of Tokyo and Okinawa. As an admirer of Japanese culture, I had always had a mild desire to visit the country, which was notable considering my disinterest in travel during that time. However, every time I played this game, I found myself longing to see it with my own eyes. If you’ve played any recent game in this series, you might know what I’m talking about. The fictional neighborhood of Kamurocho (as well as any other areas featured in-game) is so detailed, that I often found myself walking around and just looking at things. Each store and business is unique and has a look all its own. It’s as though each is its own space, with occupants and a purpose- just like a real place in the real world… Of course, you can only enter a handful of them, but the level of detail makes it so that you can’t tell just by looking. Years later, I would finally end up taking that trip to Tokyo (twice, in fact), and I gotta say, the game isn’t far off. It’s close enough that even today, I’ll occasionally fire up a Yakuza game to take a virtual stroll through Tokyo.
Persona 4 Golden (2012)
Have you ever built a friendship with an in-game character? I guess it’s not so uncommon to form attachments to NPCs. Hell, some people even try to marry them. But for me, the first time happened with Persona 4 Golden. Upon the PS Vita’s release, Persona 4 Golden was almost universally agreed upon as the best game for the system. So naturally, I picked it up. Long story short, it’s the best RPG I’ve ever played! I’m still not entirely sure how it happened, but I got completely lost in this game. I mean yeah, clearly it’s the characters, but that’s why it’s kind of hard to believe. The game’s world isn’t all that fleshed out, the fictional town of Inaba is small and lacks places to explore, and the dungeons are mostly just stylized hallways with black blobs to represent enemies. Yet thanks to the level of interaction that’s offered to the player, I never once felt like I was playing a tedious video game. There’s just SO much to do! There’s a calendar to keep track of, chores, schoolwork, battle mechanics to manage, a Pokémon-esque system of monsters to tweak, and of course, a bunch of different fully-voiced characters to talk to and befriend. Playing this game literally FEELS like you’re taking part in a story, and not just spectating. Sure, that’s the aim of just about every RPG. But no title has pulled it off quite like Persona 4.
Va-11 Hall-A (2016)
One of the greatest things about video games is how it’s becoming a free art. The tools are cheap or even free, and so now anyone can express themselves through the magic of gaming! It’s the reason for the recent explosion of indie games, and consequently, the reason for the next game on my list- Va-11 Hall-A, Cyberpunk Bartender Action. This is a simple game, but one that has had me completely absorbed in it. You play as Jill, a bartender employed at the titular establishment, during which you serve drinks and listen to the problems and musings of a colorful cast of revolving patrons. It’s an eclectic mix of relaxing gameplay, good writing, and great music. The developer, Sukeban Games, has produced something so special and unique, that I’ve already purchased the game on Steam and PS Vita, and will probably buy it a third time once it ends up on Switch.
Bonus: Cyberpunk 2077 (2018)
Last, but holy-Jeebus not least, is yet another futuristic, dystopian game, Cyberpunk 2077. The game isn’t out yet at the time of this writing (so maybe that’s cheating), but I already know it’s gonna swallow me up. The 48-minute gameplay video has pretty much cemented that into fate. At the moment, I don’t know much about the franchise, and even less about whether or not it has any of the qualities from the games on this list. But what I do know is that it promises to dunk me head first into a Blade-Runner-Akira-Ghost-In-The-Shell-esque universe. Something that is looks to pull off very well. It has a wealth of cool, futuristic ideas and the sort of questionable social-ethical issues that makes sci-fi great! Again, it’s not out yet, and only time will tell if this ends up being a permanent addition to this list. But it looks friggin’ amazing, and I’ll be damned if I don’t try to squeeze out every bit of world-building goodness from this title!
…and if it doesn’t work out, well there’s still Animal Crossing on Switch, right?