Traveling…

Over the rest of the year I’m going to be traveling, with limited access and time for posts. As a result (and to not stress myself out over the holidays with the blog), I’m going to be on hiatus until the new year.

I hope everyone has a good close to 2015, and a happy set of holidays. I’ll be back in the new year, recharged and with more nonsense gaming blather for your feeds.

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The Best Games of All Time (Part 7: Why Didn’t I Include…)

In the last week of research and writing about various games to put together my list of “The Best Games of All Time”, there are a number of game types and genres that I didn’t include much of, if any. In the same way that I talked about specific games that didn’t quite make the cut, I also wanted to talk about sections of the gaming medium that didn’t quite make it either.

If you’ve looked at the previous list, and wondered “why didn’t Tam include…”, read on.

Racing/Sports Games

Racing and sports games have a long history in video games. They’re some of the first games we made, and we make LOTS of them. Both genres are built upon slow, steady iteration, taking the boundaries set by predecessors and gently nudging them outward, but rarely if ever pushing well past them. innovations are subtle, small things: enhancements to UI, control sensitivity upgrades, improved physics, better customization. For a lot of people, the “best” racing or sports game is the one that got them into the genre; individual years blur together.

Additionally, racing games diverged very early on between the “arcade” racer and the “simulation” racer, and the choice between the two has long since been a matter of taste. With two fairly divergent schools of design that nonetheless heavily affect one another, slow but steady iteration, and the blurriness between the various iterations, I don’t know that I could pick out games that really stand out.

Classic Adventure Games

I’m talking here mostly about the point-and-click puzzle story games– the ones made by Lucasarts, Dynamix, Sierra, or a variety of other studios. So many of these kinds of games came out and iterated on each other so rapidly that it’s hard to establish a starting point or connecting threads, particularly once you reach back into text adventures or forward into action-adventure games. I think these games are important, but I also think they’re important as a whole, not individually. I don’t think it’s possible to pick out King’s Quest, or Full Throttle, or Day of the Tentacle, or Sam and Max, or Kyrandia, or Quest for Glory, or Police Quest as a particular stand-out.

For myself, I can come up with compelling arguments for pretty much any of that previous list, but it’s questionable how relevant any of them still are. We’re starting to see a resurgence of adventure games– Telltale’s games, Broken Age, Dreamfall Chapters, and others, but many of them define themselves by how far removed they are from the old style of point-and-click.

BBS Games

The predecessor to the modern MMO, BBS games and the MUDS/MUSHes (and eventually MMOs) they evolved into are certainly notable in gaming history. Like some of the above categories, however, there were a lot of them released in a very short period of time, with very similar feature sets. While popular for a time, very few of them endured beyond dedicated hobbyists, and most of them are notable only because they were online with other people, but did very little else well in the context of games as a whole, especially for their time. Perhaps the most notable one would be DIKUMUD, just due to its lasting influence on role-based games, but frankly even that I have a hard time holding up compared to its contemporaries.

Certainly important games, but difficult to claim as Best Games Ever.

Real-Time Strategy

Command and Conquer or _____craft? The two represent very different philosophies for RTS games, and while they both sit fairly high in terms of quality, they also tend to be somewhat monofocused. Given my own criteria, the vast majority of RTS games don’t make the cut, with Starcraft being one of the only notable exceptions, though Warcraft 3 developed the now popular concept of the “hero” unit. On top of that, RTSes as a genre have been sputtering out in a lot of cases, particularly with the rise of e-sports and MOBAs.

The RTS is such a divergent design model that it’s done relatively little to affect things outside itself, and there are very few serious stand-outs.

Shmups/Bullet Hell Shooters

This is another genre like RTSes, that has kind of absorbed into itself and doesn’t really cross-pollinate that much. It’s kind of an evolutionary offshoot that has its own subset of games but rarely breaks into the overall gaming consciousness nor really affects the medium as a whole a lot. There are many great games that fall under this umbrella, but it’s hard for me to recommend any of them as a “Best Game of All Time”.

Side-Scrollers

I use this term to describe games like Metal Slug, (older) Ninja Gaiden, Streets of Rage, Contra, Battletoads, and a variety of TMNT games, many of which appeared first on arcades. Other than people playing them a whole lot, though, most of these were overshadowed by the real stand-outs of the 16-bit era, and especially the arcade ones were very, very similar to one another with only nominally different skins. Super Mario, Castlevania, Metroid, Sonic 2 and Mega Man fairly adequately cover all of the ground that these games cover (exception: co-op arcade which was notable and early, but about the only thing some of these games did), but there’s not a lot of variance or innovation. I have a lot of fond memories of these games, but I can’t exactly put any of them up on a pedestal; they were largely kind of shallow even for their time.

Still-Living PC Games

There are a small number of games that have stayed alive and kicking through PC hobbyists for a long time. I’m thinking of MMOs that have been resurrected by fans, popular classic shooters like Quake 3, and other snapshots of particular times in gaming history that have been preserved. While a lot of these have been ported multiple times and even still have tournaments every year, they’re also followed by pretty small audiences that are very insular. There’s a big difference between a game that’s relevant today because a small group of hobbyists has kept it alive and a game that is relevant today because new games are still copying its design.

Mobile Games

 

There are a ton of mobile games. It’s still a very new market, and it’s really hard to pick out stand-outs, especially considering how far they’ve come in the last five years. You’ll note that there were very few early home console games on my list– much like early home console games and early arcade games, early mobile games are exploratory forays into the medium, but not terribly refined yet. Per my own criteria, simply being the first to do something doesn’t make a game uniquely notable, and I feel like we haven’t had quite enough maturation in mobile games to start pulling out true stand-outs.

I have absolutely no doubt that we’ll get there, though.

Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBAs)

This one rode a line for me. Technically, League of Legends was released in 2009 and available on multiple platforms and is therefore eligible for the list. What I don’t know is whether or not MOBAs are a briefly entertaining offshoot of RTSes, like skateboarding games that were huge for several years and then nearly all evaporated, or if they’re a new mainstay of gaming. It’s largely too early to tell, and it’s uncertain whether League of Legends will retain its stranglehold or whether DOTA2 will pull ahead. Both represent very different philosophies, and I don’t think any of the stand-outs have been around long enough to really claim Best Game Ever status, and the genre’s progenitor, the original DOTA, is frankly overshadowed by its successors.

The Best Games of All Time (Part 6: Honorable Mentions)

Based on my initial criteria, there are a LOT of games that make it into consideration. I want some way of organizing them sensibly, so that I can explain not just what games make the list, but why. To that end, I’ve got the following categories, to help me filter games:

  1. Enduring Classics
  2. Medium Changers
  3. Genre Pinnacles
  4. Right Place, Right Time
  5. Honorable Mentions
  6. Why Didn’t I Include…

The first four cover games that I think make the cut for “best games of all time”, the latter two are for things that are close, or aren’t eligible for inclusion for one reason or another. I’ll be doing each one, day by day.

There are a number of games that didn’t quite make my list for one reason or another, but are either oft-expected inclusions or are worth mentioning for various reasons. I waffled on including these, and while I ultimately didn’t, they’re largely excellent games that deserve recognition. This is the list that I suspect people will be mad about, and know that I waffled on pretty much all of these before ultimately deciding against their inclusion.

Final Fantasy VI

Boy, did I go back and forth on this one. It introduced the ensemble cast, it showed a villain with a complete character arc. It offered highs and lows, and it’s a finely crafted game. What kept it off the list was criteria #6. The game was excellent for its time, but hasn’t aged well. Its pacing is all over the place, making it hard for its strongest suit — its narrative — to stand up to more modern games with a higher caliber of writing. While it pioneered several interesting ideas (most notably the ensemble cast and no “true” main character), it set a drumbeat that, for the most part, other games have not marched to, or seen much success if they’ve tried.

We may see a resurgence in the kinds of ideas that FF6 pushed forward, but outside of a few PS1 era games (SaGa Frontier, for example), it hasn’t really influenced much beyond itself, and doesn’t quite hit the heights or the long-term relevance of its biggest Genre Pinnacle competitor: Chrono Trigger.

Metal Gear Solid

MGS is very, very similar to FF6 in terms of what prevented its inclusion. It’s still a great game, and it continues to fuel a beloved series, but it marches to the beat of its own drum in many ways, with a lot of its innovations not really making a splash in other parts of the gaming sphere. It does a lot of things that only it can get away with, because they wouldn’t be appropriate or sensical in other games. It’s also worked very hard to become almost entirely inaccessible from the outside, with in-jokes and nonsensical storytelling elements that you either “get” or don’t, but either way it rarely bothers to explain them.

That having been said, it’s still a very good game with some very compelling moments, it just forged a path that the rest of the medium didn’t really follow, and as time has passed, it’s pulled more and more from other games than it has come up with ideas that other games then take.

Resident Evil 2

A survival horror game where limited resources and slow-paced controls help amp up the fear. This sort of third-person horror game dropped off fairly dramatically in popularity as controls got more and more refined, because they largely became third person action games against monsters with jump-scares, rather than legitimately provoking fear and dread. Like the previous two, a lot of the things in Resident Evil died as controls got more precise and more responsive; the fear factor in a lot of modern horror games comes from a limited viewpoint, not limited controls.

That having been said, Resident Evil 2 offered some genuinely terrifying moments and had some interesting, arguably well-executed ideas about control limitations as a mechanic, just none that really took off.

Shadow of the Colossus

SotC nearly redefined the boss battle. It was a game almost entirely composed of just boss battles, and it was visually astounding and occasionally very moving. It had compelling controls and exciting gameplay, offering forms of climbing and traversal gameplay years before Assassin’s Creed would bring parkour into cities. Its enormous bosses were fought not by hitting their legs until an HP bar went away, but by climbing atop them and avoiding their attempts to shake you off until you could reach their weak point and strike.

Unfortunately, God of War beat it to market, and the visceral action with quick-time-event driven boss battles became popular instead of SotC’s boss mechanics.

Beyond Good and Evil

It pains me, but I can’t *quite* give BG&E a spot on the list. It’s a brilliant game, with one of the best female protagonists ever, a lot of compelling non-violent and stealth-driven gameplay, and a rich, compelling narrative. When I played it as it first came out, I expected that I’d see a lot more games that focused on non-violent, more nuanced gameplay, where victory is achieved through something other than “hit everyone bad until they stop moving”.

Sadly, BG&E is a massively underappreciated game, and hasn’t quite gotten the cachet to influence the medium as a whole. It was, I think, ahead of its time just enough to keep it from being an instant classic. Its sequel has been in development hell for quite a while now, and while I’d like to hope we’ll see it, I’m not convinced we will.

The Best Games of All Time (Part 5: Right Place, Right Time)

Based on my initial criteria, there are a LOT of games that make it into consideration. I want some way of organizing them sensibly, so that I can explain not just what games make the list, but why. To that end, I’ve got the following categories, to help me filter games:

  1. Enduring Classics
  2. Medium Changers
  3. Genre Pinnacles
  4. Right Place, Right Time
  5. Honorable Mentions
  6. Why Didn’t I Include…

The first four cover games that I think make the cut for “best games of all time”, the latter two are for things that are close, or aren’t eligible for inclusion for one reason or another. I’ll be doing each one, day by day.

Today it’s the games that I call “Right Place, Right Time”. These games were released in such a way, at a particular point in the medium’s history, that they’ve left an unmistakable mark. Some of them, released slightly later, may not have made this list, others probably still would have, but they’re all most notable not necessarily for doing what no one else had thought of, but for doing it in the right way at the right time to make a huge splash. The biggest one of these will be no surprise:

Half-Life

First-person shooters had stories and puzzles before Half-Life. Modding games was a thing with its own community before Half-Life. These weren’t necessarily new concepts when Half-Life was launched, but Half-Life propelled them into the forefront. The wide spread of Duke Nukem 3D, Doom, and Quake mods paled in the face of the total conversions that Half-Life enabled. Counter-Strike, a hugely significant game likely worthy of inclusion in this list in its own right, started life as a mod for Half-Life. Making, acquiring, and using mods became highly accessible as the Internet spun up, and the impact of Half-Life on virtually every part of PC gaming is undeniable.

Furthermore, Half-Life introduced the concept of the active cutscene, where instead of taking you out of the game into a pre-rendered sequence, the game would simply have things happen that you could see but not necessarily reach, and allow you to keep full control of your character. The game is littered with these, big and small, including an extremely memorable opening credits sequence involving you, as Gordon Freeman, heading into Black Mesa for your first day of work. This kind of storytelling device is so common now it’s hard to imagine that it had even needed to be “invented”, yet it’s largely thanks to Half-Life that we see it in so many places.

Halo: Combat Evolved

Speaking of hugely influential shooters, it’s very difficult to talk about FPSes without referring to Halo. Prior to Halo, FPSes tended to have trickles of enemies, small numbers in small rooms slowly whittling away at your health, and obvious tells for boss fights coming right after a room full of health and other powerups. It gave the genre a somewhat predictable cadence, and you often knew what to expect. Halo changed the face of encounter design hugely, pulling regenerative shields from earlier games and putting them to use as a “breather” mechanic. Now, rather than a trickle, every encounter could be a challenging and satisfying fight for your life, and bosses could be true surprises. By limiting the weapons you could carry, Halo diversified its encounters even more, simply by continually altering the tools you had to approach them.

On top of this, Halo was one of the first big console multiplayer games, and the first to leave an indelible mark on console gaming culture. With Halo, multiplayer console gaming could go beyond the living room, offering a spectrum of opponents far more varied than one could necessarily get locally.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

Continuing in the line of significant first-person shooters, the next major shooter to leave a huge mark was Modern Warfare. Shortly after Halo, shooters became dominated by a slew of WW2-era games, playing out the same battles in the same locations with the same groups repeatedly, remaining popular enough to keep generating sequels but never quite standing out. Modern Warfare changed a lot of that, moving into the near-future and making the conflict more real and present, and much less abstract than the WW2 games had become for the majority of their players, nearly all of whom were too young to see WW2 as much more than an abstract concept.

Modern Warfare offered a surprising amount of variety in its campaign, which had a strong story and a lot of high-quality moments liberaly spread throughout. It provided a narrative in a military shooter beyond “win this war”, and added depth and nuance that hadn’t been seen previously. It has one of the most powerful single moments in game storytelling, and does it with virtually no words.

Chrono Trigger

From shooters to RPGs. Chrono Trigger is a classic, and a superb game in its own right, but it’s immensely notable for the huge variety of things it introduced to the genre, and games in general. It provided narrative and mechanical firsts like its selection of unique, interesting characters and the ability for your party composition to enable combos and other powerful moves, as well as previously-unknown concepts like non-random encounters that took place in the actual parts of the game you were in, no screen transition, nothing.

However, what really sets Chrono Trigger apart are its big ideas. Other games had multiple endings before Chrono Trigger, but they were relatively unimportant, and rarely represented a different path to beating the game. Chrono Trigger allowed you to beat the game in a huge variety of ways, at a surprising variety of times, and all of these would cause the game to play out differently, and not all of them were nice. You could “beat” Chrono Trigger and not feel like you’d won. Furthermore, Chrono Trigger allowed you to go back and try again, with New Game Plus, where you could take what you’d learned and some of the spoils of your adventures into a new game, hoping to do better this time. NG+ is now a staple in RPGs and many other games, and it all started with Chrono Trigger.

Final Fantasy VII

Time for me to start a fight. Final Fantasy VII is the only Final Fantasy game to make this list. Many other FF games are excellent, but none are as hugely influential as Final Fantasy VII. As the series’ foray into 3D, and absolutely gorgeous at the time, one of the best villains in video games, and a cast of memorable, complex characters, not to mention a game world that suggests it’s much bigger than what you see in the game itself (reinforced by the game’s variety of spinoffs, all telling stories of different parts of that world), Final Fantasy 7 is an incredibly significant game.

Furthermore, it pushed JRPGs into 3D in a big way, one of the first significant moves forward for a very static genre, and quite possibly the only notable one of that generation. It brought a lot of players into the genre who hadn’t seen it before and weren’t wowed by 16-bit sprites, and made a lot of games relevant that otherwise might well have vanished into the ether during the early days of 3D. While other RPGs may have appeared instead of FF7, given time, its release was timely and extremely important, bringing a gorgeous, complex RPG into the public eye right as games started to go more mainstream and draw more people’s attention.

Everquest

World of Warcraft is the game that locked down and defined the MMO genre. Everquest is the MMO that taught us how awesome MMO worlds could really be. Everquest was a social game, one of the first of its kind, where you couldn’t succeed without help and you could get just as far by knowing people in the game as knowing things about the game. Everquest was a huge, expansive world that was extremely dangerous and, by today’s standards, incredibly punitive. These things together made it a place where, by and large, players hated the world, and pushed back against it, rather than hating each other and pushing each other around over an easy world.

It was possible to meet new people every time you logged into Everquest, because the really big guilds and the clique-mentality of smaller guilds hadn’t fully formed yet. Everquest was a fiercely social game in an era when games (and gamers) were criticized for being antisocial, and it gave rise to friendships and meetings that could previously never have happened.

Mass Effect (series)

For a long time, the Action-RPG was an awkward cousin to the more standard RPGs. Real-time combat with the endless numbers of possible options simply wasn’t possible or feasible, and games tended towards “more spells and more attacks” rather than individually more interesting ones. Action-RPGs tended to be simpler, and less involved than their more established counterparts, and outside of Zelda games and Elder Scrolls, often not very good.

Mass Effect carved a niche out by blending RPG mechanics and shooter mechanics, launching a more “hard” sci-fi space RPG at a time when swords-and-sorcery made up the overwhelming majority of RPGs. It brought dialogue forward from a single “right” answer and several incorrect/informational choices, and saved a ton of what you’d done from game to game. Most of these things had appeared individually before Mass Effect, but the ME series was the first to bring them all together in a coherent, fully functional and complete way. It offered polish and high production values, and while none of the games in the series are individually quite ‘there’ for this list, the series as a whole deserves a mention.

Assassin’s Creed II

Most game series make this list as a whole group. Assassin’s Creed II stands on its own. Its predecessor was promising, but somewhat repetitive and tech-demo-feeling; AC2 was an amazing jump forward, and set up plots, metaplots, game mechanics, and characters that the series would struggle to make as compelling in later games as they were in AC2. The game delivered on the promises of its predecessor and set up the edges of a fascinating world. Stealth was interesting, and different from the light/dark systems used previously. Whereas the first only asked you to stealth occasionally, AC2 introduced more and more enemies who could simply overwhelm you, a staple for stealth games. AC2 is still a largely “stealth-lite” game, but it has enough varied systems and interesting mechanics from the first to really earn a spot, and while it didn’t invent the concept of parkour gameplay, it perfected it in a way that its predecessor and its contemporaries never quite managed.

The Best Games of All Time (Part 4: Genre Pinnacles)

Based on my initial criteria, there are a LOT of games that make it into consideration. I want some way of organizing them sensibly, so that I can explain not just what games make the list, but why. To that end, I’ve got the following categories, to help me filter games:

  1. Enduring Classics
  2. Medium Changers
  3. Genre Pinnacles
  4. Right Place, Right Time
  5. Honorable Mentions
  6. Why Didn’t I Include…

The first four cover games that I think make the cut for “best games of all time”, the latter two are for things that are close, or aren’t eligible for inclusion for one reason or another. I’ll be doing each one, day by day.

Today, “Genre Pinnacles”. These are games that are, straight up, represent the very best of bygone eras of gaming, that are still relevant and still important even though games like them largely aren’t being made anymore. Most (all) of these are 2D-era games, mainly because I feel like claiming that a game is the pinnacle of a genre that’s still being developed is somewhat premature. They each represent a start of a thread that has moved forward and influenced the games that follow in subtle ways, not the massive shifts of the Medium Changers.

Additionally, this was an interesting list to put together, because the results weren’t what I expected. I expected to see a fairly broad spectrum of games in this category, but as I did research and double-checked my initial criteria, things started gravitating to a particular place. Here we go:

Super Mario World

Like Super Mario 64 after it, Super Mario World launched a console, and left a lasting mark on 2D platformers. It had exploration, it had secrets, it had varied environments and exciting enemies. It had a world map that felt gigantic, and entire hidden worlds to find. It demanded that other platformers keep up with its tight controls and sharp features, and only a small number could. It combined wide open levels and tight, cramped spaces, difficult platforming and fiendish enemies, and through it all still introduced new concepts to Mario games that have endured.

It also introduced Yoshi, a character so beloved he’s gotten his own spinoff series multiple times over, and who also took center stage in the one generalist platformer that managed to dethrone Super Mario World:

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

Yes, it’s a sequel. No, it’s not even remotely the same game. Five years after the launch of Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island hype started circling, and it was weird. It was a Mario game where you didn’t play as Mario, where Mario was a macguffin for you to keep ahold of. Then we got to play it. The game is brilliant, with delightful music, levels that are more than just “run right until the end”, which described a majority of levels even in Super Mario World, clever bosses, and memorable mechanics. In the same way that Doom became a primer for 3D level design, Yoshi’s Island was a primer for the highest tier of 2D level design ever devised, and it largely hasn’t been topped since.

In addition, Yoshi’s Island introduced the very start of an idea that has continued to develop ever since: the minimalist UI. Yoshi’s Island’s UI appeared contextually, showing you what you had as you needed to see it, rather than all the time. Rather than a counter for ammunition, you could see your actual ammo trailing around behind you in the form of eggs, and you could see how many you had without referring to a text overlay. It proved that in-game messaging could be highly effective, and was a game that wanted you to look at IT, and not the overlay on the screen. The better our technology has gotten, the better we’ve gotten at this, and Yoshi’s Island kicked it all off.

Mega Man X

Mega Man X is a brilliant game. It’s challenging, highly complex, with lots of twitchy mechanics and a selection of usable weapons broader and more varied than even the most insane FPS, and yet it is a game that seamlessly and effectively teaches you how to play it every step of the way. It holds your hand without letting you realize it’s doing so, and as a result you learn to play it without realizing that you’re being taught. It invented the tutorial level, and while it’s been implemented inexpertly ever since, it’s also allowed deeply complex games to arise without forcing players to pore through a manual just to figure out how to play. Mega Man X taught through gameplay, and it’s no coincidence that manuals started getting slimmer and less necessary starting then.

On top of that, the game has excellent visuals, memorable music and sounds (I can still hear the blaster charge-up sound in my sleep, and the sound of getting health back), and extremely clever level design and bosses, breaking free from the boxes of previous Mega Man games and, indeed, most platformer boss battles and showcasing wide open boss stages that were playable while still being more than just a single screen. It also showed off how movement could make a huge difference, and wall-jumping is now standard in platformers, as is the dash.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

While Mario was showcasing the beauty of wide-open generalist platforming, Sonic the Hedgehog was delivering a different thing: intensity. The name of the game for Sonic was speed, and it offered a visceral satisfaction that’s hard to top. Sonic was about speedrunning before speedruns were a thing, and the game leaned heavily on its tight, responsive controls, arguably even tighter and cleaner than Mario. Really pushing the envelope for visuals and effects, Sonic attempted to make the battle about cool graphics and high skill, an angle that Mario couldn’t compete in, and thus Sonic found its niche.

Sonic 2, however, had a little detail that made it different. In the game, you ran around not as just Sonic, but as Sonic and his friend Tails, who by default ran along behind Sonic and kept pace, mimicking his moves but contributing relatively little except for the occasional ring pickup or followup hit on an enemy you missed. That is, until you plugged a second controller in. Do that, and suddenly Sonic 2 wasn’t a game you were playing by yourself, it was a co-op game. Better yet, unlike Mario with its shared lives and “I go you go” co-op, you were both playing at the same time and the second player couldn’t really interfere. You could play with a friend as good as you were and crush levels, or (if you’re me) you could play with your four year old sister. Not only could a (much) younger sibling or other unskilled player join you, it didn’t matter how bad they were at the game. They got to contribute, and you were happy to have them, no matter how awful they were.

It would be almost 20 years before we’d see this implemented so well again.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

The Legend of Zelda is a really important series. It’s a style of gameplay that blends puzzles, exploration, and action-RPG mechanics in an extremely iconic way. In a lot of ways, it has struggled to differentiate itself as it’s moved to 3D, skewing towards new mechanics and more outlandish settings with classic Nintendo polish, rather than simply being an expression of the very best action-RPG out there. A Link to the Past is the last Zelda of that time, when Zelda games were the highest quality action-RPGs available, and everything tried to be like them.

From the moment you step out of your house, unarmed, into the pouring rain to look for your uncle, the entire game feels weighty, and huge. When you’ve gotten your bearings and have mastered the world map, the game shifts, revealing that no, in fact there is an entire other world map hiding in the background, with more than twice as many dungeons, and that you’ve only just started.

A Link to the Past has been the style that Zelda games have continued to return to as well, with many of the most successful releases drawing on its style, particularly for handhelds. It says a lot about the quality of Link to the Past that some of the most glowing praise for a recent entry is that it’s “just like it”. To be so good that players crave the experience more than two decades later says a lot.

Super Metroid / Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

I don’t know a lot of games that people religiously play more than once a year, but Super Metroid is on the list. It combines the open-world exploration of Super Mario World and the exciting, varied combat of Mega Man X into one big package. It advanced on its predecessor with improved graphics, more varied gameplay, more powerups, and more of, well, everything.

Castlevania is a similar design, but a totally different approach. It was one of the few successful platformers of the time where your primary attack was a melee strike, and it paved the way for a variety of similar games. Special weapons were temporary, and cycled through frequently, but the overall experience wound up being varied and almost a precursor to the limited-ammo survival horror games to succeed it.

Together, these two games make up “Metroidvania”, its own subgenre that has seen a huge resurgence recently in a variety of ways, and drove a huge amount of that style of game both while they were new and fresh and since.

The Best Games of All Time (Part 3: Medium-Changers)

Based on my initial criteria, there are a LOT of games that make it into consideration. I want some way of organizing them sensibly, so that I can explain not just what games make the list, but why. To that end, I’ve got the following categories, to help me filter games:

  1. Enduring Classics
  2. Medium Changers
  3. Genre Pinnacles
  4. Right Place, Right Time
  5. Honorable Mentions
  6. Why Didn’t I Include…

The first four cover games that I think make the cut for “best games of all time”, the latter two are for things that are close, or aren’t eligible for inclusion for one reason or another. I’ll be doing each one, day by day.

Next up, the “Medium-Changers”. These games have left a long and lasting impact on video games as a medium, often in surprisingly varied ways, and across genres. Many of them have enabled entirely new genres, or are still the seminal work in their genre. Some proved that innovation is worthwhile, and drove others to follow their lead, broadening and expanding the industry. Many of these games have since been iterated and improved on, but they all have had a lasting impact on the medium.

I’m going to start with the biggest one.

Super_Mario_64_(NA)

Super Mario 64

If I were to drop the plural entirely from the title of this series, Super Mario 64 would be one of the top contenders for me to write about. It is a game so good, so polished, and so varied and finely crafted that virtually that entire console generation was spent trying to catch up, and largely failing. Super Mario 64 is enormous, inventing a console control scheme that has stood the test of time (at a time when EVERYONE was trying to come up with how to control games in 3D), and was still more varied and more technically innovative than almost anything that’s come since. To surpass Mario 64, an entire genre of third-person action platformers have had to attack it in the two places it’s weakest: its art (amazing for the time) and its narrative (look, it’s a mario game). Games like Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, The Last of Us, Splinter Cell, Hitman, and even Dark Souls have their roots in Super Mario 64; there are design threads that begin there and stretch on.

Mario 64 taught us to play games in 3D. It wasn’t the first 3D platformer, but it was the first with controls that made intuitive sense, and worked. It introduced the idea of a camera you can control, while still giving you a good look at your surroundings. It taught us to move and look around with both hands, a design that has had a massive, lasting impact on controller design ever since and started to bridge the gap between console and PC, once viewed as an uncrossable chasm. Through all of that, it was also a polished, nonlinear game with tons of replayability, an amount of content considered huge even 20 years later, and a variety of gameplay types that all worked shockingly well without feeling like minigames. I could go on, but the game speaks for itself. Someone, somewhere, sold their soul so that Mario 64 could exist, and it was actually a pretty good deal.

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Super Mario Kart

Continuing with the Mario theme. This is the SNES Mariokart, although I looked long and hard at Mariokart 64. Here’s why I picked Super Mario Kart: it’s the game that suggested that racing could be silly, and that it could still be a strong, deep game underneath. It’s the game that taught us to look beyond our initial expectations of a fairly well-understood genre (racing games) to see the potential. It wasn’t the first kart-racer, nor the first car combat game, but it’s the first to combine the two into a game that contained elements of both but was unlike either. It opened the door for a ton of variation and blending of genres, in a way that hadn’t been previously considered outside of the smallest of niches.

Super Mario Kart started the weakening of the boundary between “serious” and “casual” games, a process that continues decades later, but was previously very codified– the game looked simple and cartoony, but could become brutally difficult. It was one of the first home party games, despite only supporting 2 players at a time, and its tracks are still copied nearly perfectly into the latest releases. Super Mario Kart caused a generation of designers to stop and think “hm, what if…” and then go out and make their own insane genre mash-ups. We have long since left the era of codified genres in video games, but one of the first strikes to chip at that barrier was Super Mario Kart.

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Doom

This is another game that speaks for itself. Largely credited with being the first FPS, Doom is actually second to Wolfenstein 3D, but is in many ways the far more relevant game. Doom is a game about level design, and encounter design, things that had been somewhat haphazard previously. The big thing Doom added was multiplayer, following up Street Fighter II’s foray into simultaneous head-to-head multiplayer with a group of people, all battling it out in an arena. If Wolfenstein 3D was a prototype, Doom is the full release.

Doom is also seeing relevance again for mobile developers, as its “pseudo-3D” nature works surprisingly well with mobile devices. Mobile games are starting to look back at Doom for both input and design concepts, as it’s almost uniquely suited for the platform.

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Final Fantasy Tactics

This is another game that kicked off a genre. Riding the coattails of Super Mario Kart, Final Fantasy Tactics asks what might happen if two very detailed, very different genres were blended into one. Offering deep, varied gameplay, clever encounter design, and an excellent story and visuals to boot, Final Fantasy Tactics was one of the first major console turn-based strategy games, and the most accessible. It offered a largely nonlinear approach and a wide variety of options, with each mission’s results making often significant differences in the later ones. Strategy games on consoles had struggled prior to Final Fantasy Tactics, which provided a solid footing for that control scheme, while the big RTSes battled it out on the PC.

Furthermore, unlike its predecessors and contemporaries, Final Fantasy Tactics has become the model for narratively-driven strategy games, adding a personal touch to what had previously been dominated by tanks, mecha, and faceless groups of soldiers. Perhaps most telling, it’s one of the games on this list that is still entirely legitimately fun and fresh-feeling even now.

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World of Warcraft

Shocker, I know. The MMORPG would not be anything like it is today without World of Warcraft. With an enduring art style, tight gameplay mechanics, cleverly designed and iterated-upon systems, and its influence in the massive shift in how MMOs were viewed before and since, there’s no denying that WoW is one of the best games ever made. Like it or hate it, its influence is undeniable. There are a lot of things that WoW has done, and its current relevance can’t be disputed, but there’s a big thing that puts it on this list: polish.

Prior to WoW, MMORPGs were a hyper-niche market, with 100,000 players being a resounding success and buggy, laggy games often being the norm. Performance and stability was not what you came to the genre for– I remember spending hours trying desperately to get more than a handful of frames per second from any number of early MMOs. WoW changed all that. The game worked. It felt fluid, it felt responsive, it felt good. A lot of this was smoke and mirrors, but it was clever smoke and mirrors, and it raised the bar of quality for MMOs much higher than it had been previously, while increasing the market by orders of magnitude. If it has a fatal flaw, it’s that it’s been too successful, and has so thoroughly drowned out competition in the market that the overall market is starting to shrink. Not many media can claim that level of success.

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Grand Theft Auto III

Grand Theft Auto III is a game about wandering around playing it. It took the big, open-world concepts seen mostly in slow-paced RPGs and amped up the action and the pacing, providing a visceral, exciting sandbox to play in. Five years after Super Mario 64, the third-person action genre came up with its first spinoff that matched the scale of its progenitor. The game had a bit of everything: subversive black humor, lots of things to do, multiple interlocking systems, and many, many little personal touches and tiny details that made it a blast to play.

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Morrowind

Like Grand Theft Auto III, Morrowind took a look at the expansive, do-anything world concept and took it in a different direction. Rather than making the world bigger and broader, Morrowind crammed it full of detail. The amount of meticulous detail in the game is absurd– individual coins can be picked up from a spilled purse, shopkeepers often have the items they’re selling you hanging on a rack behind them, and you have the freedom to run around doing anything you like. Unlike GTA, however, everything you do in Morrowind is potentially meaningful. Kill a random shopkeeper? They’re dead. Not coming back. No more buying and selling for you in that shop. Steal something? The guards might come and find you.

In addition to all of that, Morrowind took the swords-and-sorcery fantasy world and turned it on its head, providing a delightfully weird, atypical setting to romp around in, far different from the classic fare and all the more refreshing for it.

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Goldeneye 007

For years, first-person shooters lived on the PC. They were immensely popular, and by 1996 they were already being modded into fantastic, bizarre playgrounds. The complexity and variety of the 3D shooter on the PC was impressive, and prior to 1997 offerings on home consoles were anemic at best. Enter Goldeneye. Goldeneye offered a shooter on a console that made sense. It provided a model for a console FPS that would be copied for years, and opened the doors of the popular but inaccessible genre to a much wider market.

On top of all of that, it was a movie tie-in game that didn’t suck, and offered quite a lot of replayability and interesting level constraints, pulling from the (at the time) very modern approach of adding additional objectives as the difficulty level rose, which was just starting to show up in mission-based games at that time.

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Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (series)

I include the entire series here, because while no single game makes the cut, the series as a whole is worth mentioning. Two things put Tony Hawk on this list: alternative (non-team, non-racing) sports games and spectator gaming. Tony Hawk was a game that sparked a whole lot of interesting, varied sports games beyond the common-at-the-time team ball sports and racing titles. Previously, sports games that didn’t involve balls or cars still involved racing, and the idea of doing “tricks” was a bonus, mostly a way of taunting other players or showing off. THPS took the concept of showing off and turned it all the way up– the game is entirely about showing off as impressively as possible, and it’s fun and addicting as a result.

The other thing that Tony Hawk really pushed was the idea of having other people watch you as you did cool things. While many other games were showing off their head-to-head multiplayer prowess, Tony Hawk returned to the high score method, specifically because it WAS a game about showing off, and having an audience was the entire point. In a lot of ways, Tony Hawk is the nascent, living-room precursor to e-sports, where highly skilled players show off for an audience.

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Portal

Pure puzzle games were rare by 2007. They were often mixed with other genres, and there wasn’t a lot of innovation. Towers of Hanoi, Lights Out, and block-pushing puzzles were about all you’d see in AAA games, and pure puzzle games were relegated to internet flash games or mobile devices. While many of them were good (Lumines, Meteos, Peggle, Bejeweled), they were light, simple, and disposable. Portal was different. Portal offered a fiendish set of puzzles in a high-fidelity game, and blended that with a brilliant narrative and a compelling cast of characters (all four of them). It’s a puzzle game sold on the quality of its voice acting, which should make for a moment’s pause.

In addition, it sparked the indie development scene in a way very few other things had– small, well-produced games became a lot more viable, and initial criticisms that Portal was “too short” were followed up by “shut up, play it, seriously”. For me, Portal was the first game I bought at release that I felt like I paid too little for, and that’s before considering the two other games I got in the same box.

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Thief

This game is almost an honorable mention. I’m maybe trading a little bit of my own integrity to put it on the list. However. Thief is a product of the experimental era of late 90’s / early 2000’s FPSes, alongside greats like System Shock, Deus Ex, and Morrowind. It just barely meets my criteria– it’s launched sequels, it was remade once, but it’s (at this point) pretty dated and kind of hard to play. Its legacy makes up for that. Prior to Thief, “stealth” in games was pretty much exclusively “don’t let the bad guys see you”.

Thief took that a step further, providing degrees of shadows for you to hide in, and making your sounds and movements important. It wasn’t just about not being seen, it was the whole package– not being seen, not being heard, and not being caught. Thief rarely ended the game on you if you were seen, but you really didn’t want to be seen. It was perhaps the first FPS that made you weaker than virtually every enemy in the game. While you could fight, you really, REALLY didn’t want to. This changed the dynamic immensely, and Thief is a game about perception and planning, not twitch reflexes. It basically defined the stealth action game, and it’s only relatively recently (with Assassin’s Creed) that the paradigm it developed has branched out in any major sort of way.

It is probably my personal favorite game of all time (and not just because it’s one of the first non-final-fantasy steampunk games), which gives it that last little nudge up onto the list proper rather than as an honorable mention. It’s me pandering to my own tastes a bit (I didn’t love and in some cases didn’t even play some of the other games on this list), but whatever, this is my blog, mleeeh! 😛

The Best Games of All Time (Part 2: The Enduring Classics)

Based on my initial criteria, there are a LOT of games that make it into consideration. I want some way of organizing them sensibly, so that I can explain not just what games make the list, but why. To that end, I’ve got the following categories, to help me filter games:

  1. Enduring Classics
  2. Medium Changers
  3. Genre Pinnacles
  4. Right Place, Right Time
  5. Honorable Mentions
  6. Why Didn’t I Include…

The first four cover games that I think make the cut for “best games of all time”, the latter two are for things that are close, or aren’t eligible for inclusion for one reason or another. I’ll be doing each one, day by day.

First, the “Enduring Classics”. These are games that skew heavily towards “still fun to play today”, and in almost all cases have resulted in later games that are almost wholly unchanged. Even if one of these games gets a sequel, that sequel is going to be marginally different if at all. Most of these games have seen huge numbers of remakes and re-releases, far more than even very commonly remade games, or have spawned immense sets of very-similar sequels. Without further ado:

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Arkanoid

The grandchild of Pong, and the child of Breakout, Arkanoid took the paddle-and-ball concept and added a simple but significant twist: powerups. Now, instead of just movement, a player can get action as well, and there’s more to think about than simply hitting the ball when it gets close. It added tactical thought and variability to a refined, but static genre. Arkanoid has seen releases on virtually everything under the sun, spanning virtually every single console generation– the most recent release is in 2009 on the iPhone, 23 years after its original release. It has also given rise to a huge number of similar games, most of which focus on thematically adapting the powerups that separated Arkanoid from its predecessors. Arkanoid excels at quick, satisfying gameplay but also provides a stable, clever platform for a lot of modification and variety– despite its apparent simplicity, the breadth of variety in the modified Arkanoid spinoffs is impressive.

It’s next to impossible to find a more enduring game, and certainly not one that has lasted so long with so few changes.

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Tetris

Another game that has been released on virtually everything under the sun, pioneering a unique action-puzzle design and coupling it with simply rendered but extremely memorable music and sound design. Furthermore, the game’s remakes eventually offered head to head multiplayer, adding a spin on its mechanics that changes the dynamic of the game fairly significantly. It’s probably the only game to be released on more different platforms than Arkanoid, an impressive feat on its own. It’s also still played highly competitively to this day.

The platform may change, the times may change, but the basic Tetris game has remained relatively unchanged, and very few iterations of the game have yielded notable improvements.

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Pac-Man

It’s next to impossible to find a more enduring game than Arkanoid, but Pac-Man is one of them. Another classic arcade game released on basically everything under the sun, and yielding huge numbers of spinoffs, Pac-Man blends simple but effective controls with some of the earliest and most notable complex level design in games. Like Arkanoid, Pac-Man offers quick, satisfying gameplay but also offers a strategic layer virtually unknown in games that came before it. Pac-Man is one of the first games to provide a skill curve that is more than just reflexes– the best Pac-Man players learn each level and how best to tackle them.

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Street Fighter II

Moving forward in the arcade classics timeline, Street Fighter II is THE iconic fighting game. Blending excellent gameplay, top-notch art, excellent sound design and music, brilliant UI, and deep but accessible multiplayer, Street Fighter II is incredibly hard to top, and is generally responsible for forging the fighting game genre as a whole. Despite the movement of games into 3D, such is the enduring legacy of Street Fighter II that fighting games have, by and large, stuck to a 2D model with only relatively minor changes in user interface or gameplay. The game also introduced the “combo” mechanic, now a standard in fighting games, and pioneered the concept of head-to-head multiplayer as a competitive measure, rather than the high score measurement that had previously been more common. Finally, it introduced an early form of “patching”, where revisions to the game would make it to the arcade rather than sequels.

Street Fighter II has also seen releases as recently as 2008, a striking amount of longevity for a game that is still also releasing sequels.

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Dance Dance Revolution

The youngest of this segment’s arcade classics, DDR is the authoritative rhythm and music game, and arguably the last internationally relevant arcade game. Released on every platform and spawning a huge number of peripherals, as well as paving the way for rhythm games and rhythm puzzles to be introduced in even more mainstream games, DDR’s influence is massive, and with iterations, sequels, and remakes appearing more or less constantly (the most recent release being in 2014), it’s the most modern arcade classic to make this list.

Music and dance games have become a big part of the casual games market, and DDR more or less started it all.

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Pokemon Red

I’m going to be a little pedantic here, partly because I picked Red over Blue, and also if we’re being highly technical, Pokemon Blue was never remade, whereas Red was. Either way, the first generation of Pokemon games was a twist on the classic top-down JRPGs that added the concept of collecting. The tagline “gotta catch ’em all” has permeated much more of the medium than just exploration and collection games; it is the mindset behind achievement systems and many, many “find all the hidden objects” game systems. In addition to being highly accessible and offering surprisingly deep, complex gameplay under its veneer of simplicity, Pokemon has also to some extent revitalized the idea of social components in games– something that started to falter with the rise of home consoles.

In addition to being remade, the stunning popularity of Twitch Plays Pokemon and the relative lack of significant changes to the franchise until the most recent game releases suggest that despite its age and relative simplicity, the game is still eminently playable even now.

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The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The first Zelda game to make it onto this list, Ocarina of Time isn’t here because it left huge ripples in the medium, or is the pinnacle of its genre, or was perfectly timed. It doesn’t need to be any of those things. It moved action-RPGs into the 3D world and built on the ground that Super Mario 64 broke, but what it really did was “everything right”. Coming from a time when 3D console graphics were still in their infancy, Ocarina of Time manages to still look iconic and visually distinctive. Its music, a departure from the series, is still a constant source of remixes and nostalgia and has redefined what “Zelda music” is. It presents puzzles, environments, and bosses that are still clever and interesting, and has a breadth of gameplay tools that even modern games of its type struggle to match, much less exceed.

Ocarina of Time raised the bar for 3D action-adventure games, setting a standard that defined the genre from then on, and giving rise to some of the other greats to come on this list.

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Super Smash Bros (series)

Very few fighting games that break from the Street Fighter II paradigm manage to stick. Of those, many are beloved but deviate only slightly from the model. Super Smash Bros deviates heavily– becoming a fighting game about movement and positioning more than precision combo execution– a theme that is carried through the game’s entire suite of mechanics. Leaning on Nintendo’s iconic roster of characters and establishing an art and audio style that manages to unify characters from a huge variety of different types and eras of games while still keeping them recognizable, SSB has seen iterations and revisions across multiple platforms, with very minor changes and upgrades other than a continually expanding character roster. Despite its apparent simplicity, SSB has surprisingly deep and very technically precise mechanics, lack of which is an often fatal flaw in other fighting games. Super Smash Bros Melee has appeared in major tournaments from 2007 to 2015. It has also kept the “couch multiplayer” environment alive even through the era of internet play, something very few games have managed.

Super Smash Bros is included as a series because the entries deviate relatively little from one another, and as a whole, it’s a series that is significant enough for inclusion, even if none of the individual entries are. This is an exception I’ll occasionally make, and I’ll call it out when I do.

The Best Games of All Time (Part 1: Criteria)

I’ve been following the internet explosion over at GameFAQs with some amusement. Essentially, Undertale is beating out some highly beloved classics in a “for funsies” series of polls for “best game ever”. I think Undertale is a great game, and does a lot of things that require you to be conversant in some fairly diverse and long-held gaming tropes, but I doubt it’s up there for “best game ever”, for a few reasons. It’s nice to see it get recognition, though.

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It’s gotten me thinking about what I would pick for the Best Games Ever, though. I use the plural because picking a single one is a laughably meaningless prospect, but there are some that are absolutely brilliant and deserve continued recognition. I’ve worked on coming up with some criteria to narrow the list down, see what you think:

1.) The game must be at least five years old.

This isn’t a slight on newer games, simply a nod to the fact that a game needs to be able to stand the test of time. I use five years because that’s on the long end of the development cycle for games, so games released more than five years ago aren’t going to be able to get by on the quality of their graphics or technology alone. It also ensures that the game has had time to fade into obscurity; if it hasn’t, that’s a good sign.

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2.) The game must contain original concepts for its time.

This is a nod to the need for games to continue to evolve. The very best games aren’t just masterpieces in their own right, they push the medium forward into new spaces. The “for its time” clause is there because some games may use those same concepts later, and may build on them, but aren’t necessarily moving the medium forward.

3.) The game must display a near-perfect refinement of its mechanics.

Some games are brilliant but buggy. Some games are very good at a number of things, but excel at none of them. Something worthy of being called ones of the “best games ever” can’t be either– they need to showcase the best of a given genre, be polished and complete, and would benefit little to not at all from any changes made.

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4.) The game must have had at least two of the following: at least one re-release on a new platform, have given rise to a remake, have created its own media web of spinoffs/sequels/etc.

This is a nod to games that are enduring, financially successful, and significant or beloved enough that new development offers enough further sales to justify the cost. Re-releasing on the same platform doesn’t count– no “Greatest Hits” reprint releases here (though many of the games probably would have that, too). Whether there’s a remake, a series of sequels, or other media, this addresses both the enduring appeal of the game as well as its footprint on the medium as a whole.

5.) The game must be good at more than one thing.

Maybe it’s got great combat and platforming. Maybe it’s got great voice acting and multiplayer. Maybe it’s got fantastic art and music. Maybe it’s excellent at teaching you how to play it and endlessly replayable. Maybe it’s a lot of these things. Some games are really, really good at a single one of these; these games don’t make the cut. A game need not be multiple games in one and good at all of them, but it needs to be more than a one-note experience.

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6.) The game has to be fun or otherwise significant, even now.

Super hard one, and very difficult to determine. It’s a question of whether or not a game has truly stood the test of time, or if it’s a nostalgic hit but doesn’t *really* stand up. It’s the least objective of the list, but I think it’s important. It’s hard for me to claim a game is one of the best of all time if I couldn’t see myself sitting down and playing it or having a drawn out conversation about it in context of more recent games. I don’t necessarily think every one of the “best games of all time” need be a game I could sit down and play again, but they also shouldn’t be games that I can’t compare favorably with games I’ve played recently.

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This is the list I’m going to work with, and mull over a ton of games this week. Let me know if there’s some important criteria I missed; I’ll consider adding it to the list.

What is “Fair”?

I recently had a writing prompt that sparked some thought, as any good writing prompt does. It asked “under what circumstances is it fair for a company to institute layoffs?”

I’ve been hit by layoffs. I’ve had friends hit by layoffs. They’re the relentless specter of the games industry, and everyone has heard innumerable nightmare layoff stories and has probably experienced a few of their own. I know I have some, and I’ve only seen a few. It doesn’t take a lot to make a layoff feel like a nightmare.

The prompt asked about “fairness”. I don’t even know what “fairness” is in that sort of case. What is “fair”, when someone is losing their job? What is “fair” when an executive has to choose between decisions that they know will cause people to hate them? What is “fair” when that selection of poor choices isn’t even the fault of the person making them? What is “fair” for people who suddenly have to worry about their next paycheck?

I don’t think it’s possible to be “fair” to all of those groups of people. I’ve spoken before about the gap I see between workers in a company’s trenches and executive management– as more than one friend of mine calls them: the “suits”. For many people I know, “suits” are heartless, care only about money, don’t care about people, and are only looking so save their own skins or squeeze as much out as possible heedless of the toll it takes. They aren’t people who go home and live with the knowledge that they hold people’s very livelihoods in their hands, that their entire lives are a selection of decisions that they will be hated for, regardless of their reasoning. It’s easy, one imagines, to “live with” all of that when there’s a big paycheck coming.

I talk to a lot of people in executive management lately. They all have nightmare layoff stories too, but they’re different kinds of stories. They aren’t jump-scares, the sudden reveal of a terrible outcome– they’re creeping horrors, the slow realization that something awful is going to happen and there’s no good way to stop it. Every executive manager I speak to wants the same superpower: to see the future.

It makes me think of MMO class balance debates– the raging of players against “uncaring, incompetent” devs who don’t understand how the changes they are or aren’t making are terrible and “unfair”. Devs work crunch hours– should they get rewarded for the toll this takes on them or punished for allowing a situation to arise that necessitates crunch? Whose fault is crunch? Is there fault? Is exacting justice on the person or people at fault “fair”?

This is the kind of thing dominating my thoughts lately. How can I build a bridge between “suits” and the people on the front lines? There are decades of mistrust built up and those walls aren’t easy to break down. More than anything, finding ways to bridge that gap has been my motivation for leaving games to go into management.

As for what is “fair”, after I figure out how to answer the question of what that word even means, I find myself staring at a second question: “fair to whom?”

Short Fiction Friday: A Treatise on Chronomancy

[More short fiction. Dabbling in a bit of worldbuilding here. Enjoy!]

 

Excerpted from The Four Forbidden Magicks, Vol 2. Restricted to licensed Adept-grade mages of the Third Circle or higher.

The manipulation of anything has rules that need to be followed. What appears to the layperson as magic is simply an application of rules that aren’t universally known and understood. This is true of any form of magic, from the simplest apprentice’s bonfire to the manipulation of the very fabric of reality itself.

One of the earliest tests of an apprentice mage is to have them force their favored element to work in ways counter to its nature. Extinguishing fire without water, causing water to flow uphill, rendering air motionless… all of these force the element to work against what it naturally does, and will cause the apprentice to experience what’s known variously as “feedback”, “mana-burn”, or “metafriction”. The sensation is unpleasant, a mildly painful reminder that elements have rules that need to be respected, if not necessarily followed. Extinguishing a candle by manipulating fire may sting, or cause a young mage to tense in pain. Attempting to extinguish a burning building in the same way may very well leave a mage catatonic from shock, or kill them outright. Scale is important. However, guiding a fire to burn particular things, or ensuring that it stays controlled runs far less counter to the nature of fire, and while it may cost energy or otherwise drain a mage, the amount of feedback is much lower; the fire “resists” this manipulation less.

Chronomancy follows much the same rules, but on a larger scale. Time seeks to flow in a particular direction, at a particular speed, and more importantly it creates a tapestry of chronology that it maintains. To manipulate this natural tendency is the purview of the time mage, but the flow of time is no apprentice’s candle. As one of the Firmament Elements that shapes and defines reality, Time is much more resistant to manipulation, and it can quickly destroy an thoughtless wielder. Manipulations of time need not necessarily be subtle, but they do need to be well-considered and carefully in keeping with the nature of the element.

Those unfamiliar with chronomancy often ask first about “time travel”. The ability to move between the past, present, and future is the beginning and end of what most people consider when they think of a time mage’s inclination. This is further muddied by the occasional knowledge that time travel has, indeed, been attempted with success. The reality is somewhat more complicated. One must consider the natural inclinations of time. Traveling to the future is easy, and is the “successful” time travel often heard about on the lips of laymen and apprentices. Traveling to the future is largely a form of stasis; the traveling mage is merely removed from the flow of time, and assuming they are left unbothered for the duration of the spell (fairly unlikely), will find themselves in the future once the requisite time has passed, the intervening hours or years seemingly instantaneous. While possible and effective, this use of chronomancy has been highly regulated against, partly because of the desire to avoid maintaining a collection of mages in stasis and reintegrating them after their time skip; early experiences with mages traveling to the future via chronomancy have resulted in a high cost incurred with helping them “catch up” to the modern day. As a result, this use of chronomancy is highly restricted, and unapproved uses are subject to counterspelling and other such methods to prematurely cancel the effect.

Once travel to the future is explained, the question of traveling to the past comes up. For as technically easy as it is to travel to the future, travel to the past is starkly different. Time seeks to maintain the integrity of its tapestry, and inserting oneself into the existing weave is a significant disruption. The further back in time one attempts to travel, the larger the disruption is. This form of chronomancy runs perhaps the most counter to the natural behavior of the element as possible. The longest any mage has managed to successfully travel back in time and survive the process has been nine minutes and fifteen seconds, and the price was extremely high. As a pyromancer inexpertly wielding flame may find themselves with burns, the inexpert chronomancer may find themselves aging prematurely. In the case of the nine-minute time traveler, she had apparently aged decades almost instantaneously, and the resulting shock and trauma to her system left her in terminal condition; while she survives the process, it was not for long. Some evidence exists to support the theory that the occasional appearance of dust or ashes in unexpected quantities is the result of attempted chronomancy, and that the dust is the hyper-aged remains of the hapless mage.

With time travel being alternately easy-but-forbidden or functionally impossible, the question remains regarding the usefulness of chronomancy. As far as Forbidden Magic goes, it lacks the raw destructive power of a bolt of Void, or the flexibility of bending the rules of magic itself through Mana, yet it is as difficult and taxing to manipulate as Balance, with as many dangers. Time is a more subtle magic, though no less powerful than its contemporaries. Much of this power relies upon understanding what can and cannot be manipulated, and there are two major approaches to this.

The first approach is to manipulate the flow of time itself. Slowing down the flow of time is nearly impossible, but speeding up one’s perception of it and ability to act within it is much easier. With plenty of opportunity to consider an incoming projectile, or develop a counterspell, or prepare a response of any kind, a chronomancer can react with seemingly impossible speed, with precision and accuracy. While it is illegal to transport oneself into the future, the use of chronomancy in food services has ensured naturally fresh food to anywhere in the world, and valuable documents and artifacts can be protected from decay, while injured or sick people can be transported in near-perfect safety to treatment without deteriorating further.

The second approach is to leverage the inherent uncertainty of the future, explore its possibilities, and choose an optimal outcome. While attempting to do so on a large scale is difficult and potentially dangerous (looking into the future is confusing at best, insanity-causing at worst), it’s much easier to do this on a smaller, more immediate level. If I take a swing with a sword at an enemy, there are myriad ways in which I could strike, and the precise path of the blade is not known until it actually occurs. With chronomancy, I can lean on this uncertainty, swinging in a variety of ways all at once until one swing resolves into a “real” swing. This is often casually referred to as “bending the probability curve”, and while it is a significant use of energy, the results are undeniable. A chronomancer can be an expert swordsman or peerless marksman simply by bending the probability curve to make every swing or shot an ideal hit. It is, of course, limited by one’s own physical ability and knowledge, but the potential is very high.

Of the four Forbidden Magics, chronomancy is the most widely used, and the easiest to be licensed for. The potential of the discipline is much higher than the simple manipulations most commonly used, but very few practitioners explore the element, either through fear instilled by their instructors or a lack of creativity. As a result, it is a largely underrated form of magic, and a savvy time mage can perform feats that can stymie even expert practitioners favoring other elements.

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