Game designers spend a lot of time complaining about what sucks in computergaming, so I've decided to devote a column to discuss my favorite gamedesigns from 1997. These are the games that I feel all designerscan learn from, and which represent the best of our art form. Keepin mind that I'm limiting myself to Macintosh games here (these would stillbe my favorites on any platform, though I might add the wonderful Interstate'76 and Sid Meier's Gettysburg!) and that I certainly have not played allof the games that came out in the past year. These are simply thetitles that found their way onto my computer one way or another, and whichI found to expertly designed.
In the journalistic disclosure department I should mention the following: I'm on pretty friendly terms with James Hague (designer of Bumbler) andwe hope to someday work on a project together; I'm pretty chummy with thefolks at Bungie (developers of Myth) too, to the point where I doubt Icould be exactly objective about their games; and MacSoft (the publishersof Civilization on the Mac) also publish my two games, Damage Incorporatedand Odyssey. Like I said, this is just stuff I liked this year, andis not intended to be some sort of completely unbiased journalistic treatise.
The Last Express
In many ways one could compare Jordan Mechner's computer game The LastExpress with James Cameron's movie Titanic: both are set in the firstquarter of the Twentieth Century; both feature never-to-be-used-again meansof mass transportation as their settings; both use never-before-used technologiesto help recreate historical detail and period flavor; and both blew theirprojected budgets nearly by factors of two (Express went from $2 to $5million, while Titanic ballooned from $100 to $200 million) as well astheir release schedules (Express taking two years longer than they expected,with Titanic's release being delayed by at least half a year). Inthe end, though, Mechner's Express is a much better computer game thanCameron's Titanic is a movie. I should point out that I loved Titanica great deal; it's just that Express stands alone among computer games,especially in the way it tells a great, believable, reality-based story. Whereas Cameron used established film techniques (indeed, evoking a storytellingmode that was perfected by D.W. Griffith just about eighty years ago) totell a riveting story with great emotional force, Mechner had to createhis own storytelling techniques as he went, bringing new life to the oftentiresome adventure game genre, and telling a story of unprecedented (ina computer game) historical accuracy and emotional complexity.
But whereas film-goers have swarmed to Titanic in unprecedented numbers- thereby justifying to the bankers its massive expense - the oppositeseems to have happened with The Last Express, with gamers really not purchasingit in the quantities they did Mechner's previous mega-hits (Karateka, Princeof Persia, and Prince of Persia 2). Given my previous declarationthat Express is a better game than Titanic is a film, readers might wonderwhy it hasn't reached a similar level of financial success. Indeed,I think it is Mechner's experimentation with new methods of telling an"interactive" story that has turned some gamers off. Whereas Cameronuses the storytelling devices movie audiences are used to - but which theydon't usually get to see utilized so expertly - Mechner's use of new techniquesprobably threw gamers expecting a "Sierra-style" or "Myst-a-like" adventuregame for a loop. A good example is Last Express' brilliant and innovativesave-game system which so confused one critic that he complained in hisreview that the game had no save game system at all. (Perhaps ifBrøderbund had advertised Last Express as a "real-time adventure"as Westwood has done with Blade Runner they could have sold more "units"to consumers who currently seem to think everything is better in real-time. Westwood went so far as to claim Blade Runner was the "first" such "real-time"adventure, which the existence of Last Express, released some eight monthsearlier, pretty much disproves.) I think gamers who find Last Expressinitially confusing and not what they expected should stick with the gamejust a little longer, as the rewards are well worth the effort.
The "classic arcade game" is a form in computer gaming just as haikuis a form of poetry or death metal is a form of music. Though allthree of these forms encompass an enormous number of disparate pieces ofart, they each have formal rules which determine whether a given samplefits in the form or not. Though the beat pattern found in haiku andthe guttural vocals found in death metal help the discerning audience memberdecide whether a given sample fits in the classification or not, what exactlyare the rules that determine whether something is a classic arcade gameor not?
Whatever the criteria are, designer James Hague demonstrates that hecompletely comprehends them in his masterful, wholly-original arcade gameBumbler Bee-Luxe. To list a few: the action is constrainedto one screen; the player faces enemies in "waves" more than the "levels"found in modern commercial games; the game mechanics are obvious and uncomplicated,though challenging to pick up; the game fits into a well thought-out andconsistent theme (bugs); all adversaries in the game fit into that themein one way or another though each type has unique movement patterns; gameplaygoes on forever, with the game only ending when the player dies; the gameis bursting with originality and creativity; success at the game is notdue so much to luck but rather with how honed the player's skills are;and the game relies more on razor-sharp gameplay as its selling point,rather than fancy-dancy technology or graphics. Not only is the game-worldof Bumbler not three dimensional, but the sprites aren't even 3D rendered. Can you imagine, in this day and age? The finely hand-rendered graphics- by Jessica Hague - are a pleasant respite from the soulless 3D modelswhich are so omni-present these days, and they certainly help toadd to Bumbler's "classic" feel. I like to think of Bumbler as across between Eugene Jarvis' Robotron and Ed Logg's Centipede with a significantdose of originality thrown in for good measure. Bumbler Bee-Luxecertainly makes it into my pantheon of excellent Macintosh classic arcadegames along with Solarian II and PegLeg; all three are indisputablygreat examples of the form. (And, wonder of wonders, you can onlyplay them on a Mac.).
Myth - The Fallen Lords
I've liked every game Jason Jones has ever made, but Myth marks hismost innovative effort since his network-only-game-before-there-were-network-only-gamesMinotaur (way back in 1992). Though Pathways into Darkness and Marathontook a game (Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, respectively) and successfully refinedit into something all the more intellectually stimulating (I think Marathoncan safely be called the "thinking man's Doom") Myth takes the "real-timestrategy" game and transmogrifies it to such an extent that it's an entirelynew type of game. Just wait until next year when you'll be seeingplenty of "Myth Too" games from the competition, and I'll bet you evenmoney none of them will be nearly as good as Myth. Here is a gameaimed squarely at the fanboys (certainly the most fanboy oriented of myfour favorites); the extremely vivid carnage, the gameplay's near-exclusivefocus on killing, the complex and hard to learn interface (though it'sa thing of beauty once you master it), and the incredible difficulty ofthe game itself all make Myth something I really can't see non-gamers pickingup. But for a fanboy such as myself, this is paradise.
One thing that I like so much about Myth is how Jones manages to tella story within the game itself, not just through mission briefings or cut-scenes. Pathways into Darkness told a story through the dead German soldiers theplayer found lying about the pyramid. In the Marathon series thesoldiers were replaced with artificial intelligences stuck in computerterminals found on the spaceships and alien worlds. But both of thesestory-telling devices were somehow divorced from the gameplay proper: pull up a terminal or talk to a dead guy and a separate game-state takesover and the game-world you "play" in temporarily disappears. Butin Myth not only does the player see the storyline through mission briefingsand cut-scenes, but in the middle of gameplay itself enemies will startto talk to you. Or better yet, as your troops approach an insurmountablemass of Myrmidons in one mission, the mage you've been guarding steps forwardand proclaims "Let me handle this." He begins a conversation withthe head-baddie and the storyline unfolds right there in the game-worldduring game-time. This is the type of elegant storyline and gameplayintegration that all designers should strive for.
What more can really be said about Civilization and it's exemplary sequel? Every computer game fanboy who isn't living under a rock knows it's a fabulousgame and, if they have any interest in strategy gaming whatsoever, haspurchased their copy by now. But what is it, from a design standpoint,that makes it such a great game? Indeed, Civilization is a game thatstands almost entirely on the strength of its gameplay and design, as thegraphics and sound in both the original and its sequel have been fairlylackluster (though perfectly functional) compared to other commercial hits.
I think the key to the game's addictive nature is the fact that you'realways on the verge of accomplishing something: whether it's gaininganother technology, constructing another Wonder of the World, buildinganother city, or squashing another enemy. And once you've completedthat goal, there's always a new one that's now on the verge of completion. And so the cycle continues, and games stretch from hours into days intoweeks. (This depends on your level of self-discipline; I have a friendwho once spent the entirety of spring break playing the original Civilization. He's wake up, start playing, eat things as he got hungry, and go to bedwhen he was exhausted. Then he'd wake up and start playing the gameagain.) I also think that the game's break-through popularity- appealing to many "non-gamers" - has something to do with it's reality-basedsetting, as well as the way players can start playing knowing very little,and continue learning new features as they play. The game comes witha plenty thick manual which is very informative and well written, yet youdon't really need to read it to learn how to play. As you play thegame, however, its fabulous complexity reveals itself, ensuring many anhour of replay value and a vast variety of ways you can win a game. Further contributing to the game's mainstream appeal, Civilization doesn'tjust model military pursuits, nor does it make them the centerpiece ofthe game, as so many other strategy games have done. And CivilizationII is certainly an example of how sequels should be done; expanding onwhat was great in the first game, yet not adding useless fluff around theedges but rather well thought out improvements, all while maintaining thegame's legendary balance.
This column was originally printed in InsideMac Games.