I’ve posted my list of television that made me, but as I reflected upon there, after Sesame Street, not much else had a huge impact on me till the mid-90s. By contrast, I grew up with video games, the medium developing as did I, conveniently about as complex (or not) as I was (or not) at most given points. And thus whereas my list of television is full of austere, brilliant shows that make most people’s Best Ever lists, my list of video games that were important to and/or for me at the time is more eclectic, while also serving as a developing history of my interaction with games. In chronological order:
My Dad went on a lot of business trips when I was a six year-old in England, but many of them pivoted through Hong Kong, meaning he’d come back with first-rate goodies for my brother and I. Game and Watches were a particular hit. I must’ve spent hours upon hours with Popeye, Octopus, Fire Attack, Oil Panic, and Donkey Kong I, II, and Jr., though Popeye was my first. I can even recall the plastic buttons getting softer due to (over?)use, and their subsequent slippery feel under my thumbs as I tried to level up even further and further is probably my earliest tactile memory. The games were fun, but they were also important totems, given that globalization wasn’t yet in hyperdrive, and Dad brought the games to Surrey before importers did. Consequently, friends or not-yet-friends would watch intently over my shoulder, ask for a turn, get a turn, and marvel at this leap forward in gaming, helping to turn me into a tech wizard of sorts, even when my accent otherwise bothered them and made them wary of me.
2. Moon Patrol
Atari systems were catching on like wild fire, but we never had one. Instead, after the Game and Watch it would be arcades that would come to host my game play. Truth be told, we rarely got into many of the bigger and better ones, since my Mum thought they were hotspots for gangs, violence, and so forth, but little outcroppings of arcade machines had a way of finding you if you were a kid in the 80s. Gauntlet and 1943: Battle of Midway were great for playing with a friend, I still love Arkanoid, Spy Hunter was superb but mostly when I had it on our Apple IIe, and Dragon’s Lair always amazed me yet scared me away with impenetrable game play and a higher charge. But Moon Patrol is a favorite, with just enough elements (boulders, pits, space ships) to make it challenging but not too many to waste my coins, with a super-catchy, ear-wormy song, and with strong, gaudy purples, oranges, and blues.
We got our first computer when my dad brought one home (now to Perth, Australia) following another business trip. Not easy to pack, but my Dad could always find a way to pack the oddest things. Henceforth began a year of trying to learn DOS, and laboring to code a simple command, until subsequent business trips led to a better system and some games. One of the earliest games I fell for was Decathlon. I probably killed our Apple IIe mashing buttons, or challenging my brother to duels on the other side of the keyboard, all to make tiny, poorly rendered stick figures run, jump, pole vault, and more. Decathlon also plays a particularly key role in a major memory, as my brother and I were playing it when we were summoned (now living in Singapore) for “a talk” with Mum and Dad; the competition was heated, and we didn’t want to finish it, but we both knew what this summoning meant, and we left it off, to go and be told we were moving again to Hong Kong. That killed the game for me, but luckily Hong Kong would provide many, many replacements.
4. Ultima III – VII
Hong Kong was a great place to live in the 80s. Long before Amazon and eBay, it was probably the one place in the world you could get anything and everything. And what pre-teen Jonathan wanted most was a lot of pirated 5 ¼” PC games. My best friend and I would schlep out to Sham Shui Po to the Golden Shopping Arcade where our beloved Diskeyland owner would happily let us slide into his tiny store and play games all day long, till we’d decided which we wanted to own, paid up, and headed home till next week. One day he excitedly told us about a game called Ultima, but insisted that we should wait to play it at home since it would take more time. Sure enough, Ultima and several of its sequels commanded much of my time. I’d stopped playing Dungeons and Dragons by this point, so all my residual needs for paladins, rangers, clerics, and so forth were satisfied by Ultima, probably the first game I loved that couldn’t be played in one sitting, that required endless moving forward, bit by bit. I can’t stand RPG games now, I should note, and it was even a later Ultima that was my tipping point, as VIII was too involved and complex, too 3-dimensional, too arduous, and I tapped out forevermore.
5. The King’s Quest series
Diskeyland also sold me King’s Quest and many of its sequels and followers (the Space Quests, the Police Quests, and scandalously Leisuresuit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards). These were some of the first games I played in which the environment seemed truly interactive (though by today’s standards, they were of course very much not so), and each sequel seemed to edge the graphic possibilities of the medium forward and forward, in resolution (characters’ shoulders transitioning from blocks to smoothly rounded little things), color use (as the EGA baby blue gave way to the VGA’s full palette of blue, etc.), and the amount of time and effort poured into rendering each and every screen. Even now, searching for screenshots of these games treated me to a lovely arc of graphics across the late 80s and early 90s.
6. Sid Meier’s Pirates!
Alas, Diskeyland’s owner was simply not there one day. This was before raids were common, so I have no idea what happened. We were such good friends with the owner that I worry to this day – he would’ve told us if he knew he needed to close, and everything in the store seemed to be there, just no owner. Then, two or three weeks later, it was emptied out and replaced. I found another store, whose similarly kind owner let me install myself in her store as long as I copied games for people on another computer while playing (she showed me how, in effect making me her paid-by-games assistant). Her operation was a lot slicker, though, as she’d go on trips to North America (indeed, a month after moving to Vancouver, I was delighted to bump into her in a computer store there) and bring back lots of boxes, copying them too to give her customers the material feel of the actual game. I stuck pretty steadfastly to the disks alone until I fell in love with Sid Meier’s Pirates! I loved the open world aspect of the game, the ability just to sail and explore on some days, to complete missions and quests on other days, to take over ports aplenty on others. And, map aficionado that I was (and worrying that an atlas wouldn’t necessarily be game-accurate), I gradually penned a huge map of the Caribbean.
Licensed games have existed from the very beginning. Even of this list. But none of the early ones did much of anything to truly put me in the worlds in which they were supposedly set. I loved Popeye, but pressing the left or right buttons to catch things in a boat hardly exposed me to more of the diegetic universe of Popeye, nor did standing next to a ghost and mashing buttons as a supposed Ghostbuster. X-Wing, though, was a landmark in actually porting me into a beloved world, here that of Star Wars. Granted, it hit me just as the last flames of childhood were around to still put me in the imaginative space, but I loved moving from X-Wing to A-Wing conducting missions to aid the Rebel Alliance. Remember, too, that Star Wars was in a lull at this point: the last movie was almost a decade earlier, and thankfully Jar-Jar was nowhere yet to be seen. So this was my way in. A superb game in its own right, taking the (to me) profoundly boring, stake-less genre of the flight simulator that was so hot with everyone else at the time, and giving it galactic significance, purpose, and laser weaponry.
My videogaming life was heavily sponsored, as #1 above suggests, by my Dad, but also by my brother, who became a first adopter to beat all first adopters, bringing me along for the ride and often willing me tech when he was done with it. That’s how I got my first Play Station and games. As much fun as it was to duel him in Tekken 3, using Yoshimitsu (against Yoshimitsu!), the game that stuck was FIFA once I learned I could create my own players. And thus, as a grad student living in Gypsy Hill in London, one of the only things I did other than work was play seasons of Premiership football with my own team of theorists. Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin (who had a wicked scissor kick), Stuart Hall (amazing goal-keeper), (the surprisingly fast) John Fiske, and more seeped out of my books and into high-stakes derbies with cross-town rivals Chelsea, Arsenal, or Tottenham. And when I successfully defended my PhD dissertation, I came home, shared a bottle of champagne with my roommates, then as they went back to their rooms to work on their own dissertations, my day’s achievement led to the anti-climax of playing a few more games with my team. But that team served me well, partly because I was wise enough to keep one actual Premiership player around, super-sub Ole Gunnar Solskjær (whose synergy with Umberto Eco was beautiful to watch in extra time), partly because it saved my wallet and liver other costs that London was ready to inflict.
9. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
My first post-PhD job was at University of California-Berkeley. I adore Berkeley and the Bay Area, but sweet lord was it expensive, even after London. The lone luxury I allowed myself was a Play Station 2, with GTA: Vice City. GTA has a bad name out there, but Vice City was a great mish-mash of Miami Vice, parody of Miami Vice, biting satire (via the talk radio. E.g., “being poor is just a state of mind. My book will tell you how not to think you’re poor” or some such line), Hall and Oates, and one of the best open world games around at the time. It’s probably the first game I knew with top flight voice talent too – Ray Liotta, Luis Guzmán, Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper, Danny Trejo, and even scoring Tubbs himself, Philip Michael Thomas. Just as Ultima fell apart for me when it got too lifelike, or just as I can’t handle the contemporary FIFA games, in time GTA lost its parodic-satiric edge and became disturbingly celebratory of the kinds of characters Vice City jabbed at. But I played this one a lot, and even remember its key cheat codes (in both my head and fingers).
10. Katamari Damacy
What’s not to love about a game that lets you roll up cows, bears, cute erasers, ramen bowls, and motorboats into a massive ball that you’ll then turn into a star? My wife and I had great fun playing this together. It’s so gloriously odd, and we still occasionally invoke The King of All Cosmos, or make reference to “the cousins.” All of its songs are major earworms, too, not least of all for being very funny in their appropriateness (“I know you love me, I want to roll you up into my life”) and varying styles. For all the games out there trying to be ever so realistic, and trying to take leaps and bounds forward in realism, crisp graphics, and such (many of which, as noted above, turned me away from gaming), it’s nice when some embrace being totally whacked, non-sensical, and even call for a different use of the controller to mark their oddness.
11. Red Dead Redemption
But I’m not totally down on graphic development, and Red Dead Redemption’s beautiful vistas were a key part of what drew me to the game, and of what kept me there. The game took forever to finish largely because I’d happily eschew the missions just to explore the vast expanse of its fictional American frontier. As such, and perhaps counter-intuitively for a game which is effectively Wild West GTA, I found the game remarkably zen and really valued its ability to take my brain down a few notches into slow-running mode, a needed reprieve from ever-stacking-up work and responsibilities.
12. Last of Us Remastered
I’ll add this to the list since it did two new things for me as a game-player (even though I rarely play games any longer). First, in its play-through set-up where you learn how Joel, one of your two key characters, lost his daughter in the early days of the zombie outbreak, it made me tear up. Last of Us follows its Naughty Dog Uncharted series brethren and really cares about plot, script, and acting, and the squeal that Joel’s daughter gives as she dies chilled my new parent heart. It’s a pretty stunning moment for capturing some players’ identification with Joel. The second moment, though, comes from its “Left Behind” DLC/add-on, when I realized Ellie was gay. I felt ashamed for not knowing or caring more about her, for being a classic straight white dude interested in the straight white dude character (and seeing her as just a kid, just a foil of Joel’s biological kid), and oscillated between being pissed off that the game introduced this fact like J.K. Rowling telling us that Dumbledore’s gay after the fact, and being impressed that in doing so it forced me to go back and play the whole thing again so that I could now watch and consider her journey. Both of those moves invited a different form of interaction with character than I’d ever had with a video game, hence it nabbing my twelfth spot.