Re: Loss of Surprise in games.
Anyway, I felt like raising my post count today, because apparently Negative can write lists of videogames that are cool and good and not have them get deleted by BerkaZerka, BUT I CAN'T. And I am very upset and I just have to challenge this notion by Cracked-ing it up. Here goes:
Ever had the feeling before that there's a world of magnificent, magical shit out there, and it's up to you to explore it? Of course not, because you are an insect whose purpose is to serve only the many in the future and you will only perform that task marginally, providing no lasting impact to the cold uncaring planet you're about to die on.
But still, remember that feeling you got in your youth when you felt like the devs really did think of everything, and there was nothing you couldn't do, no nook or cranny you couldn't explore, and if you got just an inch further in the game, you'd find another item or weapon or whathaveyou that would completely turn the game on its head? That elusive mew under the truck in Pokemon, or the mysterious fifth sword in Ocarina of Time.
Okay, maybe you've never heard that one, but it was a fairly popular rumor at my Elementary school, that there was a freakin' two-handed scimitar at the end that shot lightning, because the most powerful sword in the first Zelda was a freakin' scimitar that worked in much the same way, so some jackass who never actually completed the game until he was about 18 formulated the theory that there was another sword that came after the master sword, which caused a whole sort of club to form around people who claimed to have found it and other kids who were still struggling to find it.
Anyway, that feeling you get when you're exploring a game, where you're imagining all kinds of possibilities that probably aren't in the game, but are still believable enough, that feeling of mystery, wonder, and unending novelty, that's the kind of feeling I'm talking about when you play these games.
This sense of wonder you get from all games, though, sort of deteriorates at a rapid pace when you take into account your usual video game design tropes and structure. Of course nothing of import's going to be in this hole you're trying to explore, because there's no reason to ever go there other than of your own accord, so putting something game-changing there that you need or that the game devs want people to discover would be douchey game design, right?
That means that I won't be putting games on this list that I felt were vast and mysterious as a kid out of nostalgia, because, given savviness of traditional gameplay and design, it's actually fairly straightforward and the game is fairly limited. Instead, I'll only be suggesting games that require exploration and in-depth learning as part of the experience, and games where mystery and not knowing what happens next plays very heavily into what's going on. For those of you guys who want to dive into the deep end and follow your own bubbles back to the top, I reccommend all this shit.
(And, I mean, obviously don't go looking up everything, just buy or download it at your leisure. A few of these games are freely available these days.)
11. Silent Hill 2
This game is still the best in the whole series. Might’ve been different if Hills actually became a game, but unfortunately, that never happened, and we’re left with only two truly spooky games out of the whole damn thing. Now, the reason this is last is because every goddamn thing about it has been spoiled by the internet, and all the monsters are basically meme cancer at this point as opposed to new and original threats with their own unique presence.
If you possibly can, go in blind and stay as blind as possible. Forget you ever saw triangle man in the first place. It’s a creepy-as-shit game with a big world and a lot of cool and interesting shit, that’ll have you wondering what’s next even during the credits sequence. I’m not going to say it’s a masterpiece or any of that weeb shit, but it is damn cool, enjoyable, and it’s mysterious and intriguing as hell if you don’t have any what’s going on from the outside, just like Late-Tween me did when he played it the first time.
Kind of an honorable mention more than anything, but that’s what last place usually amounts to in a top 11 list.
10. From Software's Soulsborne games:
Ever since Demons Souls, there's only ever really been one From Software Game. It's the grand cult explosion that brought From Software out of the era where it made ballbustingly hard King’s Field clones into the era where it made only Dark Souls, and that’s great depending on you look at it. Now, if there’s one thing Dark Souls is about, it’s learning and exploration. There’s never any one way to play any of the games. The diversity in loadouts is insane, every weapon is different, everything has a limitted and strategic levelling system, and how your build grows is largely dependant on how you manage to survive from the beginning.
But I’m not here to talk about structure. I’m here to talk about childish wonder! And for all its nihilistic attitude and dark plot, It’s a very, very childish-wonder-filled game. I’m serious. Now, think about the first time you played Dark Souls, set aside all the shit that you already looked up on the internet that ruined it for you.
Notice how there’s no definite order to anything that’s happening. Very rarely will you have to have a specific item to unlock an area. Yeah, there’s always one or two ways of getting items that’ll make it easier to do the other areas, but pretend you’re a new player who doesn’t know that. You can do whatever nearby dungeon you want. There’s never just one area available to you. If you’re willing to deal with nearly impossible foes as a fact of the game, you can just go ahead and do it.
You don’t have to wait until you have a suitably blunt weapon and some anti-magic armors to take on Heide’s Tower or whatever it was called. You’re perfectly free to grind your way through with the shit you have right at the beginning instead of coming back later. You’re never screwed over in a cutscene. You technically could’ve beat all of Demon’s Souls the first time around, without even finding that magical afterlife tutorial place.
Enemies are designed to surprise and scare you if you’ve never actually seen them before. Memes aside, I bet you never actually expected to get your ass handed to you by a pack of fucking shrooms before. Nobody expected that jester fucker in Dark Souls 3 to run up and stab them in the back. Bosses constantly exploit and play with the rules you’ve been given over the course of the game. Whenever you find a new foe, if your first reaction isn’t pants-shitting fear of its incredible size and impenetrable-looking armor, it’s ‘Ooh! I wonder what this one does?’
You have to learn, explore, and adapt, and you’ll die A LOT in the process. For a game without any really explicit puzzle-solving, the game itself is sort of a puzzle. You never really know what’s going to happen, and figuring it out is all part of the adventure. It leaves you wondering what’s up ahead, and what it’ll look like, despite all the recurring themes (and bosses) throughout the games.
Everything from the nonstandard control scheme, to the minimal tutorials and complex combos, to the massive and nebulous storyline attached to every little thing in your inventory, just oozes mystery and unfamiliarity, and in turn demands discovery and learning. Hell, their level design is famously enticing. Big castles, mountains, towers and forests form lavish, distant backdrops, and odds are you’ll end up going to every one of those places.
Dark Souls is a very modernised and structured exploration experience. If you’re up for just playing a game to explore its world, but you’d still prefer to have the contemporary conventions of game design and competition pointing you in some direction, you’ll arguably have the least frustrating time with this. If you’ve never played Dark Souls and you’re wondering which one’s going to give you the best Souls experience, my advice is to stop googling and comparing them right the fuck now, and buy the one that you know the least about, because that’s the one that’s going to give you the best Dark Souls experience. You’re in no risk of running out of places to go until you reach the end, (Even then, you probably didn’t go everywhere yet.) and you’ll only get stuck if you meet a difficult challenge, not an obscure riddle or puzzle with no clear answers.
9. Legend of Zelda I:
The argument could be made that Dark Souls is a better executed version of everything this game was trying to do, but that doesn’t change that this game still has the same effect of piquing your curiosity and keeping you hooked on not knowing what to do next. In fact, the reason this game gets further on the list in the first place has to do with the fact that, unlike the Souls games, it’s really not at the forefront of our pop culture anymore.
It isn’t on the front page of gaming channels or in youtube suggestions these days. While a plethora of information on the game is available, including complete and detailed walkthroughs, it’s just harder to end up having the details and surprises spoiled for you. Or, if they have been spoiled for you, you’ve had quite a lot of time to forget everything.
Since it’s a lot more possible to go in blind these days, I highly recommend you try it out. Never look up a walkthrough, just explore the hundreds of screens and use anything on everything. The game’s surprisingly complex for an NES title, and unlike most games, you really do have to search every nook and cranny for little bits that really are game-changing and provide you with the means to proceed.
The game is fairly open-ended, you’re never really railroaded into completing the dungeons in any one order, there’s really only a “first stage” of accessible dungeons, and a second one that you use the items from the previous dungeons to get to. Nothing you get in one dungeon is going to have any guaranteed use in the next one, or in its own dungeon, for that matter, much like the tools and equipment you’d bring on a real adventure. Everything does come in handy at some point, however, in some interesting ways more often than not.
The theme of the game is exploration, and things are obscure because you’re supposed to explore and consult with people on the same stage of exploration that you’re on. Remember, this game was made before the internet had all the answers in a time when gamers still socialised in real life. Miyamoto designed the game to get kids talking about it and building a community around figuring out how the fuck to beat this game.
So, in the spirit of childlike wonderment, if you’ve never actually played the game before, maybe find some friends who’ve never actually played the game, grab an emulator (Nintendo can’t catch ALL of us!) and make a discord chat or something. It’s a good, engrossing way to spend a few day’s worth of gameplay sessions that you could’ve spent getting pissed off at all the unhelpful retards on TF2 trying to get a killstreak.
8. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
For all its faults, the first game is probably the best starting point for the aspiring STALKER, and I still recommend that you go into this game with as little outside info as possible. Just make sure you download the mod overhaul that fixes all the more horrendous bugs and fills in everything the game was missing. Sure, it may be cheating, but it’s not really a complete game without the overhaul mod, in the same way that Vampire game isn’t anything to cream yourself over, but with the overhaul mods that followed, it became a damn good time that developed a huge cult following.
Stalker is a game based on various Strugatsky novels. Mainly Roadside Picnic, the book from which the term “STALKER” is taken, and where the concept of a government-forbidden zone full of scientific anomalies comes from. Except, of course, instead of aliens, the monsters and scientific glitches came from the Chernobyl explosion.
STALKER is an deep and engrossing sci-fi setting with an overwhelmingly awesome atmosphere. You get a real sense of community and loneliness, rebuilding and abandonment, levity and abject horror, as you journey through caves, grounded boats, and burnt-out factories searching for magic items you can sell to the local bartender or use personally despite the cancer risk. There’s a reason there’s such a tight-knit community of Sleebs with their cheeki breeki memes around this game. It’s a good game, and it’s a big game. One that’s thoroughly pleasant to get lost in… Well, depending on how you define pleasant...
7. Dwarf Fortress
This picture above is Dwarf Fortress. I know it may not look very fun to newfag millenial scum like you, but holy shit is it fun. You must understand that in Dwarf Fortress, unlike other games, fun is not an intuitive process. In fact, fun is one of the least intuitive processes in all of time. Fun is obtained after the long and arduous process of learning how to parse everything that’s going on in all those letters and numbers up there. There’s a river, a bridge, a bit of a forest, a hall of statues, and even a bloody battle going on.
Now, I still have no idea about the majority of the other shit that’s happening on the screen, but I can sort of figure it out. Keep at it a few weeks, and you probably will, too. There is limitless fun to be had with this game, in the traditional sense, and also in the sense of the Dwarf Fortress Philosophy.
Playing Dwarf Fortress, you learn to appreciate all the little things in life. You learn how to laugh at yourself. You learn how to laugh at your stupid human errors. You learn that losing is fun. A so-called unwinnable condition is merely the ultimate challenge. The inevitable doom of your entire civilization is not an unfavorable outcome to be prevented and shunned, it is your Ragnarok. And whether it comes sooner or later, you are to embrace it with open arms and share your epic on the nearest forums.
The community is insane. Everything from exploring the best ways to exploit and profiteer on natural resources (And your fellow species…) to constantly evolving sports and dynamic martial arts systems. With incredibly complex combat and physics systems, and it generates enormous, tolkeinian fantasy worlds for you to play in.
Not only is Dwarf Fortress a source of infinite childlike wonder once you really learn how to play, but it’s also one of the only games whose mechanics are complex enough to warrant exploration themselves. Not only that, but, since you are more often than not the unseen dictator of a Dwarven Settlement, it’s actually one of the few enormous, wonderous worlds you can infinitely explore without it actually centering around one lone explorer in a big new world.
Granted, the world is very big and very new, but you play as many, many explorers, each with their own little moments of badass and hilarity. The dwarves even carve procedurally generated political satire! Dwarf Fortress is just one of those games that, despite me being a jaded teenager, can still preserve a feeling of discovery and childlike wonder in me no matter how much of it is spoiled on the internet, and despite the fact that I’ve been consistently playing it (or struggling to play it) for almost a year now.
This is the point in the list where the joys of exploration start to overtake the joys of other types of gameplay. Not that this doesn’t have its fun moments, or that the games up ahead aren’t fun to play from a non-exploratory perspective, but this is where eyeing up your surroundings and talking to what few NPCs you find will take a front seat to action and or even intuitiveness.
That’s not to say that there won’t be moments in this or the other games where you don’t know what to do or aren’t doing “action”-ey things, but Betrayer and the games after this certainly will have a few moments like that. Sometimes only a few, sometimes a helluva lot. Case in point: Betrayer, a game entirely about the long, confused leadup to the Aha moment that makes you feel like you’re a little bit closer to getting back up to speed with whatever the hell happened here.
There is a plot, but no objectives leading you there, and practically nothing establishing it from the beginning. There are NPCs, but it’s hard to find them. There is some pretty good combat, but your enemies are a hivemind, each individually better equipped than you are. So, what else is there to do but put your Sherlock caps on and GIT GUD?
That’s Betrayer in a nutshell, and that’s why I love it. It’s an a very intriguing game that drops you so far in the deep end that you wake up on the goddamn ocean coast in the goddamn 1700s. You have to figure everything out, from the most perplexing plot shit to the infinitely less perplexing controls and economy mechanics.
There will be vast expanses of game that feel like you’re avoiding the action and where nothing makes sense, but that’s eventually followed by a time of kicking ass and learning things about the setting. Such is the cycle of Betrayer, and it doesn’t come easy. This is a very love it/hate it game, without much middle ground, but if you feel the need to dive into something without knowing much about it, you might wanna take a shot at Betrayer.
5. O.D.T. Escape Or Die Trying
This is one of those games that’s a little fast and loose with the “WHAT THE FUCK” moments. It’s got all the turn-of-the-century cheese you’d expect out of an obscure PS1 game, and all the surrealism you’d expect out of a steampunk survival game.
It’s not quite ‘Victorians with jolly good mustaches’ steampunk, it rather leans toward the technological side of the biological/machine scale of the H.R. Giger aesthetics that were prevalent at the time, but you can see plenty of Verne and Alien influences working side by side throughout the game. The design offers a vast and colorful array of adversaries, enemies, and hazards, and a vast and colorful array of options for dealing with them.
It’s pretty open-ended, especially by the standards of the linear plot-hyping era it came out of, to the point where you’ll miss the entire tutorial section if you’re not careful. Pretty much your only directive and explanation is “Find Captain Macguffin”. it’s still pretty impressive for its time, has great atmosphere, and it always feels like you’re feeling your way around a pretty big, bizarrely psychedelic world.
I won’t explain too much further. Not because there’s any big lore worth spoiling, but really because that’s about all there is to say about it. The fun is in the game itself, and to keep on describing the gameplay and stuff would sort of put it in a box that I don’t think would add anything to your experience. If you can get it running on emulator, or you have a backwards-compatible playstation system, I’d definitely recommend picking it up.
Just remember to experiment with the controls and movement styles a lot, early on because it sure as hell never directly teaches you this stuff in-game, and it only gets less forgiving after the tutorial. Even some walkthrough guys make the erroneous assumption that you can’t climb down from a ledge. I had to watch a Let’s Play to learn how to stop breaking my goddamn legs.
Imagine Deadly Premonition, except not a cringey, boring, repetittive, hand-holding, David-Lynch-Ripping-Off piece of dickcheese. And instead of being about a ghost-addled detective, (Spoilers, I guess?) it’s about a mushroom-tripping Lovecraftian mindfuck.
Icepick Lodge is a studio that’s great at making dark games which are obscure and inscrutable at first and incredibly poetic and fleshed out when scrutinized. The game starts out like a stereotypical Russian novel, the setting is grim, the atmosphere is uncomfortable, cynical even, and every person, place, and thing has a symbolic nickname that they’re usually addressed by for the entire game.
I can’t get much into the plot for fear of spoiling the experience, but essentially you’re trying to deal with a city that’s about to get eaten by a horrifying plague, either saving it or yourself. You go around talking to various surreal and eccentric people in an overworld environment, uncovering a bizarre and ultimately mindfucking plot. And I mean ultimately mindfucking.
It’s tough to get right the first time, and you can easily fall into an unwinnable scenario if you don’t use your time and actions right, but some fun mechanics swimming around in a sea of trial and error is Icepick in a nutshell. Be patient, and be open-minded, and keep prodding at anything you think might be a lead. You learn something new and interesting with every death and successful campaign. It’s entirely worth checking out. I’d recommend the HD remake they came out with just recently if you’re not one for acquired tastes, since the translation from Russian sounds more like cohesive English and less like Betaband’s poetry.
Also know that, despite the weird visuals, Pathologic isn’t really a horror game. If it is, it’s very slow-burning, and the point of the spooky aspects is to make the viewer intrigued and/or uncomfortable, but not frightened. It’s more of an Art Game than a gameplay game, and while you can kick ass and chew bubblegum, the game was really not designed for that. Don’t let that stop you from doing that, though! Try everything, because that’s how you move forward in Pathologic!
This is the kind of game you just sit with during a rainy day or a dark autumn afternoon. It’s the kind of game you just sit there figuring out for it’s own sake, and it’s fun that way. There’s no inherent narrative, no quest or great imperative to do whatever you can do. The world is whatever you make it out to be, and you just mess around with shit.
The vehicles are like the weapons in Painkiller, there’s roughly one million of them, and each one has their own little aesthetic, feel, and application. What weapons there are also have their own punch, and the world is sparsely populated by a colorful cast of NPCs and factions.
Whether you’re mining crystals, exploring the vast expanse of interactive universe ahead of you, or just running around trying to see what you can kill, it’s an interesting experience. You can really enjoy the solitude of the icy cliffs and desert mesas at your leisure, and the quirkiness of the various vehicles, the protagonist, the NPCs, and the developer are all readily apparent in their own little ways. The game is peaceful and enjoyable for its own sake, and that’s all it needs to be, but there’s oodles of lore, spookiness and action potential just underneath the surface if you need active adventure. In some cases, it literally is beneath the surface of the planet-platform thing.
For a brief explanation, Zerahypt is an Interactive Story Universe. (Yes, apparently it’s a genre?) made by a single lazy bnasterd, and based on a little sci-fi cosmology he’s been building since he was a kid. It’s amazingly polished and has a surprising amount of lore behind it. SYRSA even still updates it sometimes, which is a marvel for projects this old. Your avatar in this game is Pirizuka, a chipper little snyffer who is more or less a professional tourist. From a certain point of view, it’s your job to mess around with everything and discover the world around you. And with a universe this charming, you’ll probably be all too happy to oblige. Definitely download this if you have no money and feel like you have nothing to do. Because you do have something to do at all times. Namely, play Zerahypt.
1. The Void:
Hey! It’s Icepick Lodge again! Because a lot of the gameplay is HEAVILY contingent on mystery and discovery, and explanation of any kind would likely turn this from a unique experience into more of a droll experience with little mental struggle and satisfaction when you think you’ve figured it out. I’ll refrain from actually getting into describing the game outside of technical gameplay.
It’d be like playing a game about Vampires, and watching the priest do all these bizarre things to fight them off, by swinging wooden swords at them, crowing like a rooster, and telling little boys to piss on the carpet, before herding them (the vampires) up with post-it-notes and rustling them off in a line. If you didn’t have any cultural context to it, this would be an utterly insane and new experience. It would be hilarious and terrifying at the same time. Gradually learning that this hypothetical game was about Chinese vampires, and this was how they worked, would be an interesting and satisfying experience that I wouldn’t want to rob you of.
So, because this game is a bit like the aforementioned Jiangshi game, I’ll just say what I’ve said before: Icepick is really good at creating dark, incredibly fleshed out worlds. You discover new things every time you play, and even though there’s a certain way of doing things, the learning process is the point of the game, not the direct narrative. I will say that this game, like Pathologic, errs on the side of “Art Game” more than “Gameplay Game”, so if you’re there for nail-biting action and surreal horror, know that this is really more of a resource-management game with weird-ass imagery. Exploration and maintenance is the ends and the means of The Void.
Go fuck yourself, you scrolly bastard! I put pretty pictures up and everything!