How videogames changed the videogames

X-Wing screengrab shamelessly stolen from the internet

I recently watched Charlie Brooker's How Videogames Changed the World and moderately enjoyed it. Brooker essentially did a chronological countdown of not the best games ever, but those that have had the biggest wider cultural appeal and therefore the biggest impact on the world, rather than just the world of gaming. While I didn't necessarily agree with his choices, I was relieved that it wasn't just another programme about someone's debatable favourites. But it got me thinking - what games have most changed the world of games?

Anyone who grew up playing games will have their own list, but for me, these are the games that changed what games could be.

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Stunt Car Racer (1989)

Stunt Car Racer was the first game I saw that had any kind of 3D graphics. I remember seeing screenshots of it in magazines and being captivated by the simple, jagged lines that represented the rollercoaster-like racing circuits beneath your car's wheels. It was a whole new world of graphics, and it was also the first first-person perspective game I can remember.

Once I finally got my hands on a copy it was even better than I had imagined. The bouncing of the car on its suspension as it landed hard after a jump and the feeling of helplessness and slight nausea as I frequently overshot or missed a jump was an experience a computer game had never provided before. Even today I still fire up a C64 emulator every so often to experience it all over again.

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Supercars 2 (1991)

There were so many great Amiga games, but Supercars 2 was a clear standout for me. It looked fantastic (at the time), it played brilliantly, the AI was ruthless, there were cool weapons to upgrade your car with... but most important of all, it had a two player splitscreen mode for direct competition. It might not have been the first game I played with this feature, but certainly one of the best. I have many happy memories of going over to my best friend's house to spend hours playing through it together, over and over.

And listen to that intro music! You know it's going to be good.

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X-wing (1993)

X-wing was the first game I remember playing that felt like I was actually in control of something. I wasn't just steering and shooting, but sitting in front of a whole bank of controls - throttle, directing energy to different systems, weapon selection, weapon firing configuration, even the admittedly useless but hugely satisfying ability to open and close the X-Wing's iconic s-foils - all contributed to a feeling of control I'd not experienced before.

Take all that and wrap it in Star Wars and the appeal was obvious, but the aspect that held that appeal once play had begun was far subtler. Instead of the space superiority experience I'd expected, blasting TIE fighters all over space like any other shoot 'em up, the game put you inside a slow, weak little ship, constantly struggling against overwhelming odds and running low on energy. This cultivated perfectly the feeling that the game needed - that the player was part of the Rebel Alliance, struggling against a massive superpower, outnumbered and outgunned.

Although sequels to the game added new ships, features and better graphics, I remember none of them with the fondness that I had for X-wing.

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Command and Conquer (1995)

The original Command and Conquer was the first network game I ever played. Suddenly I could play against someone else without sharing their screen. Not content with introducing me to such a novelty, Westwood also saw fit to add in strategy, tactics, base building, a near-future setting (I'm a sucker for a near-future setting), snazzy graphics and a compelling soundtrack. The result? Meetings in the kitchen at 2am to discuss the outcome of the last game, and half hearted attempts to refuse to play another.

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Interstate 76 (1997)

During the mid-nineties there was a trend for games to be "interactive movies". What this was didn't seem exactly clear, although most games developers seemed to think it involved a lot of live action video cut into the game. The result was a lot of games that were more movie than game and didn't look all that great either. Interstate 76 wasn't trying to be an interactive movie, but for me it came closer than any other game at the time. The story was told through in-game cutscenes, slotted in between driving based missions that carried the plot along in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways, but still leaving the player with a feeling of freedom of movement.

It also had layers and layers of 70's style and a great soundtrack to go with it.

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Starcraft (1998)

I'm listing Starcraft not because of its broad appeal and smooth refinement of the real time strategy genre, but because it was the first game that had a good enough AI to play against with friends. Up until that point network gaming had been all about beating the other person, but suddenly here was a game good enough to allow something totally new: team up against the computer. We would win together or lose together - the only resentment after a round would be due to not being able to help each other quickly enough, rather than how sneakily someone annihilated someone else.

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Half Life (1998)

Until Half Life came along level design in first person shooters seemed to be just a series of rooms with monsters in them. Half Life was the first one I played that tried to immerse the player in a believable environment. Yes, Duke Nukem 3D got there first, but Half Life provided a (near) seamless transition between areas, rather than having a series of distinct and obvious levels. The environment was also subject to change - walls would suddenly explode, lifts would drop, lights would go out.

Enemies wouldn't just run straight into your gunsights, either. Their behaviour was varied and at times complex. Sometimes they would even fight each other, leaving the player to decide how to intervene or avoid. Sometimes there wouldn't be any enemies at all, but the level itself became the enemy, challenging the player to find a way through it. Half Life showed what could be done with the first person shooter genre, and it was never the same again.

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Knights of the Old Republic (2003)

KOTOR had the appeal of Star Wars mixed with the freshness of an (almost) entirely new set of characters and locations, but the thing that made it really stand out for me was the story. If it was a book, it probably wouldn't have been so compelling, but travelling to different worlds and interacting with the characters in your party along the way drew me in until the twist in the tale (which I won't spoil) left me speechless.

KOTOR was also the first role playing game I'd encountered, offering choices about not only what equipment my character should carry and wear, but who my companions should be and how I should treat them. Sometimes the outcome of a situation could be dramatically different depending on how I decided to proceed, offering complex decisions as well as moral choices.

Also, lightsabers.

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Lego Star Wars 2 (2006)

Right up until Traveller's Tales got involved, no one seemed to know how to make a videogame out of Lego. They were generally dull and failed to take advantage of any of the things that makes real Lego fun to play with. Enter the minifig based games, themed around popular Lego lines such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Batman. Suddenly everything was better. The character played as a minifig, running through Lego levels, battling baddies, solving puzzles, smashing bricks and using a simple action to build pre-designed Lego models.

The true brilliance of these games (setting aside their terrible bugs, which I will rant about separately*) was that they were designed for kids from the beginning. Although your character can be 'killed', they instantly reappear - the only penalty being the loss of some of the small Lego 'studs' that the player has collected during the level. This means kids can enjoy the game without needing to be any good at it, while adults can explore the myriad of secret elements hidden throughout each game, from new areas to explore, characters to unlock and vehicles to collect.

What really stands out as an achievement for many of these games is that if you ignore the Lego for a moment, many of them stand out as excellent games within their chosen theme. Lego Star Wars 2 isn't just a great Lego game, it's also one of the best Star Wars games you'll play - certainly one of the best Star Wars platform games.

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Portal (2007)

Of course, Portal! How could I leave Portal off this list? The game that not only dared to give the first person perspective genre something more imaginative than a gun and some enemies to shoot, but threw in a fascinating puzzle based environment, brilliant characters and an intriguing world, all with a sense of humour (something that very few games have managed). In the seven years since its release, it hasn't been bettered.

Portal 2 was just as brilliant, but felt strangely like a remake rather than a proper sequel. Maybe the novelty of the premise only works the first time around, but it threw in plenty of new stuff to keep it fresh and interesting.

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Fallout 3 (2008)

There are games that have frightened me. Games that have filled me with joy, or dread, or nausea. Games that have thrilled me and made me laugh. Fallout 3 did all of these things and more. It made me sad. It made me happy. It made me paranoid. In one extended sequence in one of the expansions, it left me with a bewildering sense of violation. In another, a feeling of naked helplessness. In another, loss. At many times it presented situations with no obvious right or wrong answer, sometimes even managing to obfuscate which was the lesser of two evils, leaving me confused and ultimately dissatisfied with my choices and the consequences they had on the game's world and characters.

When a game can do all this and also provide a compelling story wrapped around a vast and intricately detailed world to explore and master, it's something special.

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Plants vs Zombies (2009)

Plants vs Zombies demonstrates that if you are talented enough, you can make even the most overdone game concept work. It's been tried before and since, but never as well. Popcap decided to squeeze as much into their game as possible, and it shows. PvZ gets a special mention here for being so addictive that I recently had to force myself to uninstall it - even though I'd already completed it twice and unlocked everything in it. There's nothing particularly original here - it's just done really, really well.

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Faster than Light (2012)

FTL is another game that takes a seemingly simple concept and builds an engrossing, varied and interesting game from it. It manages to simulate the feeling of being a starship captain like no other game has ever managed - basically, the game I've always wanted to play. I could say more but there's little point - if you've played it, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't played it, you should.

I'll put it this way - it's next on my 'must uninstall I'm not getting anything else done' list.

The rest

There are so many other great games that I've played over the years, but the list above still stands out for me as those that pioneered or perfected something specific, something special that I've not experienced elsewhere. What does your list look like?

*The problem with Lego games

As I said earlier, most of the recent Lego games are fantastic, but even the newest ones continue to be plagued by terrible bugs, which the developer seems to be either unaware of or simply unprepared to patch. Consistent bugs include the following, across platforms.

  • Characters can get stuck on or in bits of scenery, sometimes requiring a restart.
  • The game will sometimes crash completely, either through a specific action carried out by the player or by a set event. Lego Harry Potter part 1 crashed consistently at a certain point until I finally thought to turn down the graphics settings, which allowed me to progress past a particular point and get on with the game.
  • Keyboard awareness issues. Even the newest games will frequently forget your keyboard exists and will fail to respond to any commands. Lego Harry Potter part 1 also has a bug where a single keypress while navigating the menus counts as two presses, making accessing certain menu options completely impossible.

Seriously Traveller's Tales. Sort it out.

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