I was going to do game reviews at some point, so I typed this thing up as a pre-amble, to show the direction that I would be coming into the reviews from. That idea’s lying in a storage chest these days, so this page is now only here largely for my friends to read because, well, it’s already typed out.
I have been PC gaming since 1995, when I was 11, and my family picked up an i386. We didn’t have the Internet until 1997, and no cable until 1999, so a lot of my early games were just whatever I had on DOS/Win 3.1/Win 95, and whatever dad brought home. Over the past 20 years, I think I’ve spent at least 4 hours a day gaming on average, though it may be closer to 6.
I never had a console or handheld growing up, so I missed out on all the classic early console games that were formative for many gamers of my generation. Even now, while I do own a PS4 and a New Nintendo 3DS XL, I am primarily a PC/Steam gamer and that is what this blog will mostly reflect.
The next few sections talk about my likes and dislikes when it comes to game genres. Or it would if I ever finished it. Like everyone else, I have far more interest and experience in some types of games than others. You can read all about that, since you are here. Or, you can jump right down to the Formative Games section, where I talk about games that had a particularly deep impact on me growing up, and friendships won and lost.
I haven’t decided exactly how to do this section yet. It’s a placeholder that may never be filled.
Formative Games - Might and Magic
My early gaming days were a heady mix of Chip’s Challenge, After Dark’s Lunatic Fringe, and strange independent freeware/shareware games on bootlegged CDs.
In 1997, I skipped out of an overnight astronomy camp with two guy friends, and went to one of their homes in what would become a very important life event. We ended up watching him play Might and Magic VI, a game far beyond anything I had played at that point, from a series I had no idea existed. Before long, I had a copy of the game myself. That was my gateway into RPGs and AAA-gaming in general. My siblings and I played Might and Magic VI to VIII to completion multiple times. I still have some guide webpages that I had saved off the web in 1998 kicking around in my archives. I even had a character named after me in VII from winning some contest on the NWC forums. I don’t remember where she is. Shiara Fire-something.
Alongside that, we checked out the companion games to M&M – Heroes of Might and Magic. Though we thoroughly enjoyed the first two games, Heroes of Might and Magic III from 1999 is where it came together for me. It offered tons of replayability, many different campaigns, discrete factions that played differently, and tons of treasure! Besides being my first foray out of RPGs into 4X’s and the wider world of gaming, it was also my first experience with modding, once we discovered the 2004 Russian fan-made expansion, In the Wake of Gods.
Formative Games - Compilation CDs
Two interesting compilation CDs dominated my early years. The first, circa 1997, was a possibly-bootlegged disc long lost to time, simply labelled AO55 (or A055). It had hundreds of titles on it, and was my first foray into freeware and shareware games in general. It also contained a game that we were really fond of, Spelling Jungle (aka Yobi’s Basic Spelling Tricks).
The other compilation CD we had around 1998 was EA Compilation, which came with 10 games, a thick manual that we read for fun for years, and copy protection on the games! The game we played most from that series was Savage Empire, followed by Ultima Underworld, Ultima VII, and Populous II. While EA in its modern day form is characterized as the big bad, back then playing those games would plant a seed that later on led me to try other formative games from them.
Formative Games - Early Internet (MUDs)
Around the same time, my family had upgraded our internet from pesky dial-up to fully-fledged cable, and I started exploring the Internet to see what was out there. I quickly found Telnet-based chatroom game worlds, and tried out quite a few MUDs, MUSHes, MOOs, and other similar MU*s over the years. While I tried out a good number of them, three in particular stood out for me.
The first is Medievia, a hack and slash MUD. I came back several times over a 10 year period or so (1999-2008), and made my first few online friends there, all of whom I’ve long since lost touch with, and joined my first ever online guild there. That game was particularly interesting because it was where I learnt a bit of scripting and discovered my love for spreadsheets. The game was not well documented in terms of player resources, so I made an enormous folder of paper maps listing rooms, monsters and items, and eventually built a giant Excel database that my MUD client could read and query and find items from, which I used in a particular in-game scavenger hunt. It was also where my first PVP experience was.
The second is Forgotten Kingdoms, a light roleplaying MUD, back in 2002. I remember not particularly liking the staff nor some players, though I loved the setting (Waterdeep). However, there I met the person whom I consider to be my first Best Friend. I’ve had the fortune of having many good online friends, some lost and fondly remembered, some still in daily contact with, but to make the jump from good friend to best friend takes a certain sort of kindred spirit that I consider myself fortunate to have met five times in my life thus far. She was 10 years older than me, but took me under her wing. We explored different MUDs together, chatting about life and love, hopes and dreams, for months, until she finally drifted off when she was expecting her first child and stopped gaming. Though this was 20 years ago, her exuberance and confidence in dealing with other people was a huge influence on me when I was still confused and impressionable.
Finally, the third is Winter’s Edge. This was a heavy roleplaying MUSH that I frequented in 2003-2004. It was a fairly close-knit community with really interesting plotlines set in a custom 3e/3.5e world, and involved things like having to write up a summary of some sort at the end of each character level before you could level up to the next one. The place and people really allowed me to experiment with character ideas and discover my writing style, something up till that point I had not really done before, the concept of being in character and writing out their interactions with others instead of killing monsters, and the shared experience of writing collaborative stories. I had a couple rhyming verses I would recite for every spell I cast, won a mini-competition to rewrite one of the room descriptions after it burnt down and got rebuilt, became the first player to join a new prestige class that they were introducing via an in-game plotline, and wrote up a long lore piece about astrology for world-building.
Formative Games - Early Internet (Browser Games)
But the internet was not all just Telnet games. I tried out lots of browser games over the years too. Two in particular stick out, though I would go back to neither one today.
First up was Utopia, a game that changed hands several times while I was playing it in 2000-2002, and then again in 2011-2012. I went into the game expecting a happy building simulator, but it was a brutal war simulator that involved scouting out targets from a huge list of players, waking up or being available at specific times to launch coordinated attacks against other kingdoms, lots of inter-kingdom politics, ever-vigilantly defending against unknown threats, trading targets on ICQ group lists, and being thrown in with a group of people and forced to work as a coherent unit. It was very interesting to see a.. different side of the internet, one of constant strife and hatred and helplessness, but yet a strong sense of loyalty and coordination and planning.
The other browser game that kept me interested for a long time was Neopets, before it turned into a dumpster fire. What started off as a pet simulator turned into an intense love-hate story that lasted from 2004 through to about 2007. This place turned me on to two things that still interest me very much today – trophies, which directly correlate to needing Steam achievements, and the in-game economy. Underneath the veneer of casual flash games was a really interesting economy consisting of snagging and buying incredibly rare items from the various NPC markets and a player trading/bartering system that was full of interlocking parts and terminology that was unique to the game.
I also found a nice and very different group of friends here, as the target demographics of this game were very different from most other games. The players in the group I joined skewed toward females of all ages, so there was always a sort of gentle parental feel about the place. That was neat. It wasn’t until years later that I really realized how creepy a couple of the people actually were, and that some of the pictures people were exchanging with others in IRC there were simply lifted from the Internet. This was also where I had a pensive dose of mortality, as one of the people that joined us (along with her mom) was a girl with a terminal illness, who passed away after a few months. She was very friendly and really intelligent. Bless your soul, wherever you are, Maple.
Formative Games - alt.binaries.games
Another thing that the Internet did was allow me to expound on my interest in offline gaming. Once I found newsgroups and figured out how pirating worked, I was able, in a pre-Steam and pre-job environment, to download and try many games. This then let me figure out which games I liked, what genres interested me, and subsequently what games to actually look out for and buy, as gaming review sites were not on my radar at all then.
This led to an era of game experimentation, and discovery of entire new genres and developers. Some of the games I really enjoyed (and owned physical box/CD copies of) from this period include Rise of the Triad, Civilization III, Red Alert 1-2, The Sims 1-2, and more.
Formative Games - Indie Games
alt.binaries.games is also where I originally met a dear friend that will feature prominently elsewhere in this blog, with any sort of luck. I downloaded my first two of what I considered fully-fledged indie games from here, both around the same time – Uplink from Introversion and Startopia from Mucky Foot. I own both games now – several times over in the case of Uplink – but at the time there was no way I knew of to get games like that, and it was absolutely fascinating that I was suddenly exploring the worlds of cyberspace and outer space.
While I am now a huge indie game fan, I credit those two especially for really kickstarting my interest in going out of my comfort zone of heavily-franchised games, and just trying new things.
Another indie game that majorly influenced my early gaming days was ADOM. A roguelike that until recently hadn’t changed much since the late 90s, I was really impressed by a great online guide written by a fan that detailed every single aspect of the game, and still have a saved copy of that around. That also showcased the amazing amount of detail that ADOM had, and I really enjoyed the roguelike new-character feel and the gobs of random loot and events in the game, as well as reading up about crazy secret endings that I was eventually able to emulate with a healthy dose of save-scumming.
Formative Games - MMOs (Part 1)
My first taste of MMOs came about when I started working (after graduation) in 2006, and my boss at my first job was an avid player himself. Once he found out I enjoyed D&D, he introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons Online. I was immediately hooked. Since I was already very familiar with online social norms, I struck out and joined a guild, made some friends, and had my first taste of some successful raiding! And even though my first character was a rogue, this was where I discovered I really enjoyed playing healing classes as well.
The guild was also noteworthy, as it was my first guild that actually used voice chat to coordinate. I wasn’t comfortable with that and would not mic up until many years later, however I picked that guild because I had joined a group of them who needed an extra rogue or cleric to clear a dungeon, and realized that their leader was a bright and bubbly lady, on voice. That gave me an immense sense of comfort, so I stalked them in the game’s LFM listing and saw them advertising again the next day for another member. I joined their party again, hung out with them, and soon after joined the guild that way. I rose to become guild treasurer, using lists and spreadsheets to track DKP and loot, and I eventually left the game with a ton of great memories when the next game below launched.
However, the most valuable treasure I actually gained from the game wasn’t a piece of loot at all. I struck it off with the bubbly guild leader, and we really bonded for several months in late 2006-early 2007. She became the second person to take on the mantle of Best Friend. We would fly up to the tallest reaches of the city, settle down on top of a chimney or roof, and chat for hours. It was amazing. And then we would go kick a dragon’s butt. Like the others, she had a huge influence on my life, nudging me to think positively and teaching me how to be a lady.
And yet for as much as Turbine’s DDO gave me in one short year, their next game (Lord of the Rings Online) literally gave me ten times more. Being quite interested in the setting, I jumped on board as soon as the game went into Beta, paid for a Lifetime subscription when I could (best money ever spent), and then spent the next 7 years or so making friendships that would last a lifetime. I researched and joined a social kinship (guild) a week after launch, that I would stay in for the next three years, becoming one of the senior officers and meeting a steady stream of new people. At the same time, I would join a rag-tag alliance of players from many different kinships that was raiding together, also eventually becoming one of their main healers, and the one keeping track of gear progression and such.
I eventually said my goodbyes to the social guild to join the raiding one after a couple years, once the core group of raiders had coalesced into a group of not only competent players, but also good-hearted people. We knew each other very well at that point, and I spent far more time with them than my old kinship, but parting ways was still bittersweet. I still fondly remember a nice tribute that one of the other officers had said to me, that the brain of the kinship was our kin leader, but that I was the heart of the kinship and would be sorely missed. Still, we were still on the same server and would still occasionally attend events together and chat, even ten years after I left.
But the kinship I joined in 2010 was something else. We ended up becoming a consistently server-first and sometimes world-first raiding kinship, while remaining a nice group of people to be around, and having the luxury of being able to recruit similarly-minded people from the server. Even now, ten years later, many of us are still together on Discord, chatting to each other as we walk the roads of life.
Amongst the many great people here, I also met my third Best Friend. She is very important to my life, and taught me to be kind and graceful toward others, something I still struggle with sometimes. She is very upbeat and virtuous and is also the one that I have known the longest, having given me a guiding hand through some dark times. Even though both games have changed greatly since their start, my nostalgia for them is so strong that I still visit these games every now and then.
Formative Games - MMOs (Part 2)
Outside of those two, I did get around to playing a number of the other popular ones for varying lengths of time. Warhammer Online was the first one I ventured out of the Turbine ecosystem for, and also the first one that I went into with pre-existing friends from prior games. The entire game utilized a Realm vs Realm system that was utterly new and exciting to me at the time. We started a guild and our leader started publicly blogging and theorycrafting builds and gaining followers. That was an interesting perspective I had not gotten up till that point, how external popularity affected things like our guild/officer relationship, and the types of people that joined the guild, or the things people on both sides would do playing in the presence of a “big name”.
This was also a place where I first saw the existence and effect of large inter-game guilds. While I knew that some guilds in DDO and LotRO had presence in other games too, just by virtue of friends playing other games, I had never really seen guilds that spanned multiple games at the same time, with huge armies of players that they could mobilize for a new MMO’s launch. The game was unfortunately plagued with engine problems and was shuttered a few years after launch, but I had a good few months in Warhammer Online through 2008-2009.
Another huge game for me was Guild Wars 2. It was my first tryst with a three-way World vs World vs World system, an extension of my Warhammer RvR experiences. I really enjoyed it because it was my first (and only, so far) group PVP experience where scouting as a support role was actually critically important. I built myself for speed and evasion, and felt like a tornado chaser, the way I would find and follow or escape from enemy raids and their counter-scouts.
There were two important events that happened in this time period. The first is that as I got involved with the World PvP, I volunteered to become a site moderator for our server forums, used for mass organization. One thing led to another, and I ended up being the only active server moderator, and also the only person one could meet in-game to get verified, granting access to the community forum, which was fairly critical at the time. I was pulling really strange times in order to meet people from all the major time zones, NA, EU and Asia/OCX, and ended up meeting and approving about 900 people over a 7 or 8 month period in late 2013-early 2014, on top of forum moderation, handling drama, and chatting with large guilds that were transferring in or out. There was basically an entire political landscape on the server that had to be balanced, with server loyalists, large transfer guilds wanting respect and concessions, a couple guilds that liked to bend the rules, and everything else in between.
I fondly remember two particular positive experiences with me from this time period – one was a veteran player whom I really respected, gushing about my “awesome” scouting in her Southern drawl during a training event in the server’s Mumble. I was actually asleep then, but listened to that part of it the next day as I was idle in the server, recording the event. The other was some kind words from someone I had had heated exchanges with in the past on the server forums. When I had announced that I was stepping down and leaving the game, he posted that he didn’t think I could do it when I had first volunteered, but that he had come to gain respect for me over time. I really appreciated that, and it goes to show how much power a positive gesture toward someone else can have long-lasting effects for them.
Anyway, the second important event that happened was that I found my fourth Best Friend.
Formative Games - MMOs (Part 3)
In 2014, I joined a guild of GW2 friends and acquaintances as they were preparing to jump ship into ArcheAge. We hit the ground running, a small guild allying with several other mega-guilds for control of the server, against other huge multi-game guilds and streaming guilds on both our realm and the opposing realm. The game left many lasting memories on me, and was simultaneously one of the best and worst games I’ve ever played. It was chock-full of drama, harassment, cheating, whales, unbalanced game mechanics, and ugly, ugly politics, and I have never seen so many guilds, large and small, publicly implode and crumble as I did in this game. Real life betrayals, love triangles, jealousy, hate, sabotage, backstabbing, racism, the community was ridiculous. And yet, amidst the chaos, there was astonishing rays of light, too. Unexpectedly kind gestures from strangers, house-visiting truces with the opposite faction, rescues against incredible odds, heists, ship chases, tree farms, incredibly rare items that you could find, moments of glory in the justice system, and small victories everywhere. The game eventually became very unbalanced, but there was a time period early on in the game where everybody was pretty much even, and the interlocked game mechanics really came together in a way that I hadn’t felt since Medievia.
Though we had been good friends already, a number of acrimonious events in succession led to me and my fourth Best Friend to really come together. Like ArcheAge itself, the relationship was tumultuous and emotional, forged in steel and ultimately rewarding. She taught me about pride and humility, love and loyalty. She’s also the only one of them I’ve met in real life (thus far).
As the guild was imploding, we left to Final Fantasy XIV, before eventually going our separate ways. That game was surprisingly well polished to me, very immersive, and I enjoyed all the world events, which reminded me of Warhammer, as well as the storyline, collaboration events, raids, the complexity of the crafting, and the sheer number of mechanics the game contained. The housing was visually the most stunning of all the MMOs I had ever played, deposing Wildstar as my favourite at the time. I also really enjoyed the dungeon and raid mechanics, as I felt like it had been a while since I had played full-length, well-crafted dungeons in an MMO with the holy trinity of classes, pretty much all the way back to Lord of the Rings Online.
I roamed through several servers and guilds through my time in Final Fantasy XIV, as at this point my life felt aimless and dark. It was around this time that I met my fifth Best Friend. She was a light in the darkness on my travels, and we bonded as we levelled our latest characters. She listened to me, encouraged me, filled me with positivity, and taught me to love myself. We then branched out and away from MMOs, to trying out Steam games in general.
Formative Games - Steam (and elsewhere)
Ever since I joined Steam in 2010, my gaming library has burgeoned thanks to sales and bundles, to the point where choice paralysis can make it very difficult to pick a game some nights. But outside of MMOs, many a game has accompanied me on my evenings, watching the sunset slip by while listening to podcasts or watching a stream. There are far, far too many games to list here, but the most formative game I personally played on Steam outside of the games in the next category, and one of the first games I bought, is Civilization IV. While the base game (with DLCs) itself is amazing, there are a number of incredible mods for the game that added a ton of replayability and mechanics. I tried out and really liked several of them, but the Fall from Heaven 2 mod really blew me away with the work it did with the full-length campaign and multiple factions, making it a cohesive and immersive experience. The music was especially haunting and yearning, as though the lands were crying out for help as they burned, while forces of Hell slowly broke down the barrier between the two worlds. While I do own and eventually did grow to like Civilization V, Civ IV still holds the beacon as my favourite 4X game.
Another of my favourite games that merits a mention here is Deus Ex: Human Revolution. That game amazed me and made me realize how much I loved the modern-style cyberpunk genre and aesthetics, the neon-lit night cities and glitzy mega-corporations overlooking the downtrodden citizens, while heroes with cyberware and other powers struggle to subvert the authority and make the world a better place. While the society and backdrop of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was a little bit too gritty and depressing, and had other problems to boot, Human Revolution hit a really sweet spot for me and has led me to play through the entire game three or four times.
I would be remiss to not mention the Mass Effect Trilogy either, although it took me several aborted runs across a few years to actually, finally, play the series from start to end. Although the combat was always janky and I felt that there was a bunch of filler content in terms of the planet/crew building stuff, and their missions were often hopelessly linear in progression, the number of deviating choices that you had to make in the game, that would have other effects later on in the game or in other games in the series, was great. My favourite parts of the game definitely involved walking around the Citadel, however, as it was mystical and majestic, and yet realistic according to the rules of the world, and left me pining for the world they had built, and wishing that there was a Citadel simulator where I could just walk around in and live my life.
There are dozens of other games I love that I could name here, especially more modern ones, but that would be an impossibility without making the page several times longer than it already is. The last section of this Formative Games section will specifically talk about games that made me cry, and everything else will have to be content with a place in the Genres section!
Formative Games - Games that made me cry
This list is a brief nod to games, big and small, that have touched me enough to make me weep. I may not have much to say about each individual game, as I think everyone’s emotional experience with each game will be different, and it’s hard to discuss most of the games without spoilers anyway. However, I consider each of these games to be a minor life event, as I’d like to think that I came out of each experience stronger, and more determined to be a good person.
In alphabetical order:
Alter Ego – This was a somewhat rough text simulator I played a long time ago, when I was much younger and lost. It got me thinking about different paths in life and how you can often never go back and try another door.
Blue Lacuna – This is a surrealistic text adventure. I liked it so much that I sent the creator a nice email. I have forever linked this game with the song Heartbreaker (Dionne Warwick).
Life is Strange – This one had multiple break points. I could only play it one chapter a month. I played most of it “with” someone else using Steam broadcasting, which made it doubly impactful.
Mass Effect 3 – That last farewell DLC was a perfect send-off to the series.
Nier: Automata – There were.. certain.. ‘events’.. in the game… that were really tough to get through. If you’ve played it, you know which ones I mean.
Tales of Berseria – The ending was great, and caught me very much off-guard. The entire story was great, but it really, really captured me starting from Velvet’s arc onward in the midgame.
︎The Sexy Brutale – This one had a very unique vibe and setting that’s hard to describe. The game stretched a little long but the ending took me by surprise, and I was aghast when everything fell together.
To the Moon – This one made me bawl. I really feel for people that are born into dire circumstances not of their making that they cannot control. Just like The Sexy Brutale, this one had that magical moment when everything simultaneously came together (the Aha! moment), and also simultaneously crumbled (because the Aha! moment was so upsetting).
Transistor – I played this during a time period in my life where I actually wasn’t able to speak. That was very apropos