Thursday, January 10, 2013

I Was a Teenage Gamer

 In the world of fringe arts, perhaps no group gets the least respect than games. It's classic, really. Anything creative that is made for the purpose of engaging its audience with entertainment will almost always get overlooked. That's why comedy and horror eternally get the critical cold shoulder versus drama, even though one could successfully argue that most dramas are just as emotionally exploitative. But that's another article. Growing up in the 90's, there were key things that made the hormonal hell of adolescence and public school more tolerable. Movies/movie books and magazines were number one, with music, especially bands like The Cramps and Roxy Music, being a close second. But right behind was something that still gets, I think, critically bypassed as a legit means of expression; computer games. (Video games too, but since I was always more of a computer gamer, we're sticking to that for today.) 

 If you think about it, it takes an unbelievable amount of creativity and technological savvy to create a great computer game. Artists aren't typically thought of as having the Type A brains to utilize complex technology. (In fact, this Type B brain hurts just even thinking about what it took to create games back in the frontier days of coding and even DOS.) But yet, some amazing games emerged in the 80's and 90's that could not only satisfy both types and even better, fully engage your own imagination. In some cases, they can even engage your emotions. Yet, other than within the hardcore gaming community, you're rarely going to see a lot of these vintage games get the appreciation and coverage that they deserve. It's this sort of weird snobbery that I like to rally against, as if anything that provides someone happiness is instantly not respectable, which is absurd. Elitism has never brought anything but mal-informed misery, especially in the arts.

While I can't move mountains, just yet, I can give a little tribute to the games that inspired me during the 1990's, ranging from extremely well written adventures to strategy to first-person shooters. Without further ado....

-Doom (id Software, 1993) Doom, for a lot of people, was the granddaddy of first person shooters. It wasn't the first, but it took the groundwork laid out by games like Castle Wolfenstein 3D and turned it into something that a gun-happy cenobite could love. In fact, both games were developed by id and shared main programmers, John Romero and John Cormack. Wolfenstein was good but Doom was incredible, creating a tangibly creepy atmosphere, between the unforgettable shrieks and growls that emitted from the gnarly assortment of demons, to the often gruesome displays of humans that were less fortunate (and less armed) than yourself. Take a touch of dismemberment and a couple of splashes of Satanic imagery, some amazing gameplay and you had one fun as Hell ride. Any game that has levels with titles like "Knee Deep in the Dead" and "Shores of Hell" was destined to find a place in my horror kid heart. Who wouldn't love the chance to attack various infernal creatures with weapons ranging from a chainsaw (nice "Evil Dead" reference, btw) to the ultimate in carnage-havoc, the BFG9000. (You can probably guess what that acronym stands for.) 

While I never got to play any of the many user-altered levels, I still remember reading about them in PC Gamer, where they had a fantastic still shot of Barney the Dinosaur replacing one of the monsters in the game. That would have been fun! But still, Doom to this day is my favorite first person shooter and for anyone that still thinks that games like this are a seed of real-life violence, know that the person writing this article is a pacifist vegetarian. So munch on that.

-Jagged Alliance (SirTech Software, 1994) I've always had a soft spot for a good strategy game. While Jagged Alliance didn't initially get some of the acclaim that games like Syndicate (Bullfrog, 1993), Masters of Orion (Simtex, 1993) or Sid Meier's Civilization (Microprose, 1991) (all fantastic games, by the way) did, it built up a cult thanks to its smart gameplay and action-film ready storyline. Your job is to assemble a group of Mercenaries, who range wildly in nationalities, abilities and price range, and take back the Island of Metavira from Lucas Santino, a former scientist who wants sole control of the small nation. The reason? The island contains Fallow trees, which are indigenous solely to Metavira. These trees produce a sap that can be used to cure every disease. Jagged Alliance is the best of both worlds, allowing you to indulge in mercenary action but also employing your noggin at the same time. Plus, the fun and challenge of managing a diverse and occasionally motley crew of mercs is hard to beat.

Ivan, my favorite of the Mercs. 


-Lost in Time (Coktel Vision, 1993) & Virtual Murder 2-The Magic Death (Creative Multimedia, 1993) There is one big thing these games have in common. They both employed an early version of full motion video, which may seem like nothing in the high definition landscape of today, but back in the early 90's, it was a big deal. Of course the quality back when these games were released was barely above camcorder as far as video goes, but given that just a few short years ago computer games were text based and crude pixels, this was pretty amazing. 

Lost in Time featured an intriguing storyline where your character, Doralice, has inherited a coastal mansion, complete with a mysterious ship. She ends up traveling back in time, which tends to happen on weird inherited ships, only to discover the its slave trade origins, as well as some of her family's strange lineage. Created by the French company Coktel and released by gaming giants Sierra On-Line here in the States, Lost in Time's unique story, coupled with some lovely graphics and some odd puzzles made for a fun and memorable gaming experience. 

  The Magic Death, comparatively, was a little more simple, both in terms of graphics and gameplay. But what it may have lacked in visual panache, it more than made up for it with the premise, involving the murder of a promising grad student named Elspeth Haskard. Elspeth's specialty was Haitian Voodoo, making her the darling of the academic world. It also made her a target of jealousy. Mix a complicated love life and one sketchy brother into the mix and you get a fun murder-mystery cocktail. Featuring three different endings, The Magic Death is a game that has a warm place in my heart, partially because of the whole mixing of Voodoo and the tense world of upper academia. The woman behind this game, Shannon Gilligan, also created a couple of related games, as well as a number of Choose Your Own Adventure books back in the 80's. Which given the very nature of The Magic Death, makes total sense.

-Phantasmagoria (Sierra On-Line, 1995) It's not just a really terrific, underrated album by The Damned. (Seriously, it's a fantastic album. The Damned will never let you down.) It was also a breakthrough computer game. Along with Wing Commander 3 (Origin Systems, 1994) and The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery (Sierra On-Line, 1995), this was one of the best uses of full motion video ever. It featured good computer graphics, sharp gameplay and a tight-wire thriller plotline. You play a writer named Adrienne, whom along with her husband Donald, moves into a gorgeous old mansion that was once inhabited by a deranged and murderous magician by the name of Carno. Turns out ole Carno was a fan of the dark arts, which is none too surprising coming from a magician with a name like Carno. It practically screams consorting with the Devil. Anyways, his dabbling released a demon that not only possessed him, but also drove him to murder his multiple wives. (The most grisly death involves him force feeding one highly unlucky spouse entrails until she chokes to death.) It is only a matter of time before the demonically sullied spirit of Carno takes a hold of Donald, leaving Adrienne to fight for both her life and that of her husband's.

Phantasmagoria has all the dark wonders, ghoulish delights and Grand Guignol charms of the 1700's form of lantern theater for which it got its name. The story is great, as well as the acting from the two leads, Victoria Morsell and David Homb. At the time, Phantasmagoria was shipped on a total of 7 discs, which was practically unheard of. But switching them out during gameplay was well worth the hothouse of thrills and overall spooky ambiance that the game provided. It was a highlight for the long respected work of Sierra On-Line and perhaps the biggest jewel in the crown of its creator and Sierra's co-founder, Roberta Williams.

The game was so popular that it spawned an unrelated sequel, Phantasmagoria 2: Puzzle of Flesh (Sierra On-Line, 1996), this time created by Lorelei Shannon, noted author and computer game designer. While Shannon had some good ambitions and ideas, the game fell way short, with having a nebbishly unlikable lead character being a good chunk of the problem. Going from such a strong heroine like Adrienne to some uncharismatic nerd named Curtis who still inexplicably gets laid was too big of a leap for many gamers. There are some good side characters, including Curtis's gay best friend and some intriguing ideas that, in the end, would have made for a better book than a game. That can be one of the most difficult things with incorporating good writing into gaming. Sometimes it can work without harming the gameplay and in the most ideal cases, even enhancing it. But others time, it can end up being an unhappy marriage.

There is one Mecha-Godzilla sized exception to this rule, which is....

  The Beast Within:A Gabriel Knight Mystery (Sierra On-Line, 1995). Out of all the games I have ever played, this is the one that has stayed in my consciousness all of these years. The second of the Gabriel Knight trilogy, The Beast Within was an instant standout for a number of reasons. For starters, its blend of the supernatural theme of werewolves, repressed sexuality, a lost opera from Richard Wagner and the mysterious death of King Ludwig II of Bavaria was nothing short of brilliant. The amount of research that creator Jane Jensen did, especially regarding Ludwig and Germany in general, was unparalleled in an non-education related game. Even better, was the deftness in how well the research is integrated into the story, as well as the game.

The gameplay is very smooth, featuring a smart questioning system, but also a number of challenging but halfway realistic puzzles. Meaning while being somewhat intuitive with puzzles is helpful, you don't need a degree from MIT to solve any of the them. (As opposed to say games like Myst (Cyan, 1993) or even some of the puzzles that would appear in The Beast Within's sequel, Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned (Sierra On-Line, 1999.) The game also makes stunning use of the German scenery, utilizing photos and enhancing them, portraying an accurate yet near-dream like view of such sites as Ludwig's most famous castle, Neuschwanstein, as well as Marienplatz, Munich's main square.

Then there's the full motion video, which surpasses even “Phantasmagoria” in terms of look, as well as consistent acting. Even the bit actors in The Beast Within are pitch perfect. For anyone who played the first Gabriel Knight game, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (Sierra On-Line, 1993) , there is no actor who could have fit the physicality of Gabriel better than Dean Erickson. The first game was pure graphics, with the CD-rom version featuring voice acting from Michael Dorn, a pre-fame Leah Remini, Efram Zimbalist Jr and Tim Curry as the titular character. While everyone and their mother should know the pure, undiluted awesomeness that is Tim Curry, the Gabriel of The Beast Within was, pun totally intended, a different animal. Erickson not only looks like Gabriel, but nails the character's mix of hero, cad and schattenjager (German for shadow hunter and the name for a long line of fighters against the evils of the supernatural). In addition to Erickson, there's also Joanne Takahashi as Gabriel's sidekick, the more sensible and knowledge driven Grace Nakimura. Takahashi's all brass balls with vulnerability as Grace. 

You can't have light without the dark, hence the group of characters that are all members of the Royal Bavarian Hunting Lodge, whom may or may not have connections to the strings of murders around the nearby countryside. The biggest standout is Peter J. Lucas as the lodge's charismatic leader, Baron Von Glower, who is less villain and more old world warmth with a past. One of my favorites is the delightfully hedonistic and potential BDSM enthusiast, Otto Preiss, played with refined yet sleazy relish by Clabe Hartley. For my fellow fringe film enthusiasts, keep an eye out for the late, great Nicholas Worth (“Don't Answer the Phone”) as the gruff police chief, Leber. 

Part of what makes The Beast Within so special is that in addition to being the best computer game I have ever played, it is also one of the best stories I have ever read. The plot is intricate and compelling, but even better, the characters are so well fleshed out and layered. Again, the detail, in all of its multifaceted glories, shines jewel-like in this game. There's never been a game that has matched or surpassed all of these elements together quite like The Beast Within.

There you have it! A peek into all the major games that made their individual imprints into my heart, consciousness and sub-consciousness. Whether it's cloven hoofed uber-demons, Russian mercenaries or German werewolves, I hope all of these games will continue to live on, as we maybe encounter a time where games are critically examined as creative works. Pop culture, after all, is still culture. 

Copyright 2013 Heather Drain