Ever since my dreamy childhood spent being raised by Pong machines in pixel-land, I've been consuming electronic entertainment. These days, I figure an educated games journalist is a better games journalist, and what better education than playing anything and everything, all day, every day for decades at a stretch? It's a dirty job, but hey...
Yet not all games carry equal weight. Some, like that influential lecturer or inspiring teacher, have had a disproportionate effect on the whole. There are a few games that stand out as bright psychic landmarks in my personal history, the high-water marks of my education. While there are too many to mention in an article as brief as this, there are three in particular which I want to talk about, because they have direct relevance to the opinions I have about games today. If you're a developer whose game I am reviewing, then it is these rudiments, these embryonic versions of our modern gaming archetypes, that I will, however unconsciously, end up comparing your game against.
Each of these games taught me something. Significantly, they taught me that looking forward is more important the looking back. Sure, I'm going to talk about how great and important these old games were, but what I want you to take from it is that old games have something to teach us about where the future may lie. I am not one of those navel-gazing retro-heads who pines for lost pleasures of yore. No, I pine for the future I was promised by the past. Here's why.
First: Midwinter on the Atari ST. The 16-bit spy game blew apart my sense of what games could be and, at the same time, imbued me with a startling sense of where they might be going. Midwinter seemed to contain a fragment of future games, something that I recognized for the first time as a youth. Sure, Elite had been a stunning vision of open-ended play in previous years, but suddenly, right here, was a palpable world I could explore. I got hold of vehicles, interacted with people. I was inside something recognizable. It was my first taste of a kind of game in which the act of moving, through travel and exploration, was central to the experience. It pointed to magical possibilities of creating worlds I might escape to. Before then games had been Defender, Smash TV, Gauntlet, Tempest. Now they were something else.
Midwinter had taught me that one of the futures for games would be about freedom. That future wouldn't just make toys for us to play with. Instead it would deliver something more akin to places for us to visit, as well as challenges in those places for us to overcome. My personal love of games would grow because of the way these places captured my imagination. I went on to identify in my own mind the descendents of Midwinter - not the direct genealogies of what inspired who, but the games from which I personally can extrude this special kind of experience. Hardwar and Operation Flashpoint, Outcast and System Shock all act as imperfect examples of what I've been looking for since Midwinter. Most recently, possibilities seem to be opening up again with appearance of GTA3, the MMOGs and, I hope and pray, with the forthcoming Chernobyl wasteland game and spiritual inheritor of the Midwinter mantle, Stalker. None of these games have quite managed to create the future that they all promised. But we're getting there.