What's your "Best game for it's time, maybe ever"?


#1

(This should probably be in “off topic”, but there’s over 200 pages of spam in there, and I wouldn’t want to obstruct cleaning that up!)

What’s yours? Pick a super awesome game, and eulogize about it! :D I really love reading people eulogizing about games that I hadn’t previously appreciated much. It’s really fun seeing them through a whole 'nother set of eyeballs and gaining a new appreciation for them.

Here’s one I did back in 2005, about the Underworlds. It still, to me, stands true today:

**Why the Ultima Underworlds remain the best games of all time.**

I just finished playing Ultima 9: Ascension, a game made 6 years ago which only now just about runs smoothly on my machine. And then spent a while reading some of the Ultima fan sites out there, to see what I missed. Fun game. But for me, at least, and it seems for many others, there is no contest: no game comes close to equaling the Ultima Underworlds. New RPGs they play are a let-down, because they aren’t as good.

Part of this is the “Matrix effect” - the first time you see something new and groundbreaking, it takes your breath away. Then all subsequent uses of it, are merely seen as pale imitations. So if the first 3d RPG you played was UU, then it will be, for you, the definitive one. And this is true for me.

But there are specific REASONS why I still love them, still go back and play them.

  1. Level design. The level design was incredible. It had to be, because by today’s standards, the levels were tiny, and the engine allowed only square walls/floors, and 45-degree walls, in units of one map square (about 6 feet). But by combining that, sloping floors (but constant-level ceiling - but you never noticed that!), and bridges, they managed to create a world that contained breathtaking vistas (despite the short clipping distance). they managed to create, with very few textures, maps in which there is almost no spot where, once you’ve played the game as much as I, you can’t be randomly placed, turn 360, and say “I know exactly where I am.” Compare that to today’s games, where one generic corridor is much like another, despite their almost infinite amount of control over the floor and walls, and their huge number of textures. Going back to it now, right after having played Ultima 9, it is MINDBOGGLING that they managed so much with so little. The areas, levels, worlds, each had their own particular flavour, a real atmosphere of the place. It is MINDBOGGLING to imagine that this game came out within weeks of Wolfenstein 3D. They don’t even feel like the same era.

  2. Character interaction. For me, Ultima 9 came very close to the Underworlds in this, but fell flat because the dungeons (other than the last) were “dead space”. Though they were a huge part of the game, probably about 75% of it in fact, the dungeons had ZERO character interaction in. You’d scramble through the dungeon, opening doors, begging to just see one person to speak to, to interact with… but no, you’d be thrown into another fight instead.

  3. Nonlinearity. This wasn’t just a level design thing, though the levels were often designed so that you could generally walk through them at least two ways (a ring) and quite often branched into trees. It was also to do with the puzzles. There was almost no puzzle in either Underworld that could not be solved in at least two ways, and sometimes in several. The plot itself had very minor branching, but plots HAVE to be linear, by their nature. They can have TWISTS, but they must lead you. So the plot linearity wasn’t a big deal, for me at least.

  4. Object interaction! This was amazing. You could smash the furniture, bash your way through the wooden doors (though you had to be careful since weapons were subject to wear and tear, as was armor). Or you could pick the lock, or find a key, or cast “open”… always more than one solution to a problem. You could repair your armor and weapons, with the repair skill or casting Rel Sanct Ylem (two solutions!). You could kill a spider, get thread from it, eat the honey from a honey comb, combine the honeycomb wax with the spider-silk to make a candle, light the candle, use the candle on a torch, use the torch on some corn to get popcorn… or use the candle on the corn, or just eat the corn without popping it, or you could make soup in a bowl of ingredients, or… Objects could be used with other objects even when there was no actual quest reason to do it. Though sometimes they’d throw in a teeny subplot that required you to learn about the interaction, just to show it off. And you’d need to get items identified, or have a good enough skill in lore (two solutions!) to identify the magic (or cursed) items.

  5. Sidestories. This is something that ALL the Ultimas do really well. You often find a carcass, but it’s not just a carcass… it has an adventurer’s journal to tell you about how it got there, and you can guess, from the situation, how it died. If you know of any living relatives, you can even let them know of the death. Or, in Ultima 9, there was, on the isle of the avatar, a lute, a goblet, a bottle of green poison, and a green puddle. No corpse, no journal, but you /knew/ what had happened there.

  6. Subquests. These were not just UPS missions, they were genuinely interesting, sometimes amusing, always helping to build your immersion into the game world. You actually cared about the people you were helping.

  7. Nice spell system. The runes meant things. And each spell was cast by using three runes, in a consistent manner. So you could try combining three runes yourself, try to get a spell. And there WERE undocumented spells!

8 ) Nice inventory system. Bags-in-bags, and all that.

  1. No “trainer” level. “What?!” I hear you cry. Indeed, no trainer level, because the interface was THAT well designed, you could leap straight in. The first level was simple, but definitely not a trainer level, even though it taught you all you needed to know to get about, including the realtime combat, with a sword that you could control, both the type of swing, and the power. Targetable spells. And so on. This was cutting edge stuff back then, but is normal in all 3D-RPGs now. And yet, it was SO intuitive, you could do it, without needing to be led by the nose through a tutorial level. Ultima 7 did this well, too: Ultima 9 did it awfully, with two tutorial levels.

  2. For its time, it had cool AI. If you took stuff “belonging to a goblin” (it would say it in the description when you looked at stuff) then the creature would get angry, and if it was angry, its friends would get angry, and they would attack. But if you hurt them enough, they would try to flee. Sometimes, though in my opinion not often enough, you could even negotiate a peaceful settlement even though you had started fighting. In every other RPG, once you start fighting, it’s to the death.

  3. Internally consistent. There were no huge lapses between the UW world and the rest of the Ultima series, though some didn’t consider the UWs “canon” Ultimas anyway. But compared to the grave differences between, say, U9 and the other Ultimas, there’s nothing in the UWs that clashes.

  4. Great music by George “Fatman” Sanger! OK, nowadays it sounds like fairly crap midi, but I can still hear the notes of the victory music as I killed something. And the dark tones of the theme song. Ultima 9 did this VERY right, too, except in the castle, where it went so terribly wrong. But in Underworld… walking in the dark, then the combat music blares as a headless shambles around a corner, and you leap out your skin!

  5. Someone wrote “Believable worlds: there were no items out of place, no ‘health packs’ or silly quests to ‘kill 10 ogres in 10 minutes’. It didn’t feel like i was playing a game, it was more of an experience. I think some of the best games get the player to use their imagination to fill out gaps in the gameworld”. I disagree: evidently he forgot the pac-man maze, for a start. Or the stick-men and the pyramid in the ethereal void. Or the talking ghost, or Warren, the Spectre. The thing is, the in-jokes were small enough that they brightened the game without ruining the atmosphere. They fitted. They were balanced.

  6. Balance. This is probably the most important thing. The games were BALANCED. They were paced right. They had the right amount of character interaction, the right amount of exploring, the right amount of combat, the right amount of humor, the right pacing of the plot, the right spacing of the “interesting backstory things”, the right spacing of weapons and armor and other special items, the right everything. They felt like they’d been playtested to death and beyond, to get such incredibly polished perfection of gameplay. Ultima 9 did not have this. If you are willing to “steal” from people in U9 for example (and Richard Gariott is the only person on record with the moral strength to bother distinguishing between “item lying in dungeon” and “item lying in house”), then you can basically not worry about money or items for the remainder of the game.

So, yeah. These reasons and more are why the Underworlds have yet to be beaten in terms of playability, replayability, immersiveness, atmosphere and all round fun, in my opinion.

(To remain at least somewhat on topic, I’d just like to point out that there are a few of these areas done pretty darn well in Ascendant. The spell system looks like it’ll take a lot of time to fully explore. The nonlinearity and uniqueness of the level design, too: I’m having a hard time thinking of anywhere that I couldn’t be dropped and not know exactly where I was when I looked around me.)


#2

UW of course. :wink:


#3

Naturally! You’re a person of taste and discernment. But WHY? Now’s your chance to have a good rant about something you really love, and have at least one person read it with great interest! :smiley:


#4

Since I sort of kicked off this thread by naming System Shock as my choice for the greatest computer game ever for its time, I should maybe offer an explanation for that opinion.

Here’s an abridged version of my blog post from August 2013 on how more games like System Shock are needed to save the computer game industry.

System Shock, along with Ultima Underworld and Thief (by Looking Glass) and culminating in Deus Ex (by Ion Storm), represented what I believe was a critical branch in the evolutionary tree of computer games. This branch of games took full advantage of the RAM in the PCs of the day to create worlds -- they simulated places filled with things expressing relatively complex interacting behaviors.

What this meant was that it was possible to create game worlds in which the environment itself allowed multiple viable solutions to gameplay challenges. The world of the game enabled different kinds of players to solve challenges in ways that satisfied their preferred play styles.

For example, is there a robot blocking your way? A game designed with the Looking Glass interactive-environment philosophy would let you solve that problem in many ways. Off the top of my head, you might:

[ul]
[]destroy the robot by shooting it
[
]destroy the robot by throwing an EMP grenade
[]sneak up on the robot to use your Deactivate Electronic skill to turn it off
[
]toss a useless object to make a noise that distracts it to a different location
[]use your Hack skill to switch local robots to an offline state
[
]use your Hack skill to make local robots friendly to you
[]use your Hack skill to activate a nearby forcefield that traps the robot
[
]use your Hack skill to overload a power conduit that blows up next to the robot
[]lure some other opponent into the robot’s range and let them destroy each other
[
]bypass the robot by activating your Stealth skill
[]bypass the robot by crawling through a conveniently human-sized airduct
[
]bypass the robot by crawling through the sewers
[*]talk to a nearby human to convince them to give you the robot’s shutdown code
[/ul]

Whether you prefer action, or conversation, or stealth, or exploration, the thing that distinguishes a Looking Glass-style game from others is that many or all of those play style preferences are supported. The focus was on you, the player, and how you like to have fun.

Beyond Bethesda’s open-world Elder Scrolls and Fallout games, and the occasional throwback (STALKER), the evolutionary branch of games implemented as systems generating emergent behaviors seemed to die out. And that was a huge loss to the whole game industry (and gamers) for the important reason that these games used the full power of the computer.

An interactive movie is an extended cutscene in which you have a little low-level freedom to make some tactical gameplay choices that won’t affect the plot of the movie that the developer has decided you’re to experience.

A true computer game is one that harnesses the power of the general-purpose computer to simulate a world, and then let you solve playful challenges in that world in your own way.

We need developers who will make more games in that Looking Glass style because those are the products that will distinguish computer games from different/older forms of entertainment such as movies. If computer games are ever going to be their own unique art form, they cannot just copy movies and slap a coat of mildly interactive paint on them. They need to use the full simulationist power of a real computer to create new worlds and then unleash the creativity of players to interact in deeply human ways with those worlds.

Making player-centric games is the healthiest course for the whole computer game industry. This is the kind of game that, as other developers follow, will keep the industry alive by giving it its own identity apart from movies. Computer games that are highly responsive environments are something only computers can do. They are what computer games should be.

Games that use the power of the computer to simulate dynamic worlds and free players to enjoy their own kind of fun in those worlds will save the game industry. Interactive movies won’t.

As much as Ultima Underworld blew me away (and I’ve more than once sung its praises as an astonishingly good mixture of existing and new features in computer gaming), and as brilliantly as Deus Ex developed those concepts, I think I have to give a slight edge to System Shock as the greatest gaming experience ever for its laser-focused refinement of the key concepts of 1) a complex, reactive environment, 2) an intelligent, plausible antagonist, and 3) good (if not quite perfect) support for multiple ways of having fun solving gameplay challenges.

In fact, it’s System Shock’s stripping away of both of the core CRPG mechanical features – D&D-inspired character attributes/skills and interactive conversations – that enables it to never let up from keeping the player interacting continuously with the world itself. This would not have worked had the world, including SHODAN, not been so creatively realized, and its aesthetics and its dynamics and its mechanics so ruthlessly integrated. But it was, and they were, and then the developers effectively said: “Here’s a detailed, dynamic world – have fun exploring it in whatever way you find most enjoyable.”

System Shock gets the trophy from me because it built a fantastic world and then trusted me to find my way through it in my own way. It didn’t key solutions to character abilities or picking the “right” option in a conversation; it instead built a world and then expected me, the player, to decide how best to navigate that world. That respect for my competence as the player has, to my mind, never been exceeded by any other game.

CRPGs are more about controlling party abilities than exploring a world’s dynamics. Deus Ex, while wonderful, trusted players a little less by keying solutions to RPG-style character abilities instead of the player’s mental competence. The Thief games, while wonderful, put a premium on using movement as the single problem-solving pathway. The Portal games, while wonderful (and having an even better antagonist than SHODAN), constricted freedom of movement choice through the world in order to tell a very specific story. Prey 2017 was an excellent attempt to offer the System Shock experience, but other than the fantastically fun weightless exploration of the station’s exterior didn’t deliver as much in 2017 as System Shock did in 1994. The BioShock games simplified the world, hyped magic powers, and ultimately in Infinite enforced an excessively authored experience. And the Call of Duty-type shooters just hook directly into the lizard brain to deliver an thrilling experience that you barely even have to “play” at all.

None of these, and much less so other games, bettered System Shock in its dedication to building as cool a world as possible for its time and technology, which expressed a strong story, and then letting you use your playstyle-guided wits to maneuver through the dynamic elements of that world and its story as aggressively or cautiously as you liked. Maybe the closest competitor was Civilization, the point of whose “just one more turn” was really better described as the need to discover “what happens next?” – which is the particular delight from reasonable surprises delivered uniquely by simulationist, dynamic-world games that trust the player to try crazy ideas and enjoy the consequential feedback.

In short, I’ve never played any game that has surpassed System Shock at exploiting all the computing power available in its day to bring to life a complex, reactive world that enables and trusts me, the player (not the character I play), to explore it in my own way and at my preferred pace.

And I keep gaming in the hope that some day such a game will get made.


Forum Migration (soon!)
#5

Very well written and well-argued.

I like some physics in my social RPG, and it seems that you like some social RPG in your physics sims, and I don’t think you and I will ever agree on their relative importance… but I don’t think we disagree too much either.

We both argue for multiple solutions, after all. We both want an interactive world!


#6

Any of Looking Glass studios’ games could easily win, but I have a preference for active dungeon environments with medieval trappings, in real-time, and in first-person. UA nails those things, because let’s face it, nobody likes town. We may go into them to collect quests, but the real meat of the experience is in traps, secrets, and problem-solving. FlatFingers, did you mean SS1 or SS2?


#7

SS1. SS2 is Right Up There in my list of all-time favorite games; it’s just not at the top (ditto Deus Ex) because I think the RPG elements, as well-designed as they are, pull the focus of play away from the very tight player-choice/reactive-world-consequences loop and toward logistical min-maxing play. That’s absolutely a valid kind of fun – I enjoy it! – but I do think it dilutes somewhat the feeling of being in a secondary universe.

I appreciate that it’s a rather fine point. :smiley: As with RPG character-stat elements, I don’t dislike being able to achieve interesting consequences via conversations. There’s a reason why I was able to mention Façade and Interactive Fiction earlier; social-sim mechanics are a fertile field for game design.

Like RPG mechanics, though, I don’t give interactive dialogues primacy over world-dynamics because I don’t think they do enough to exploit computing power – they don’t showcase simulationist feedback to the degree that “physics” does. I stress this because I think it’s important for computer games to stand as their own distinct form of entertainment.

Now, if someone were to implement NPC AI that’s both powerful (to avoid the behavioral Uncanny Valley) and gameplay-enhancing to the point that it and a natural conversation engine really need a significant chunk of CPU horsepower to deliver a radical increase in story/character-based fun… OK, I’d salute that, even if it does increase the risk of computer games shifting more toward the overly-controlled “interactive movie” that too many risk-averse publishers prefer.

Otherwise, I believe developer effort is better allocated to building deep interacting systems that can respond to player choices with consequences that are both surprising and plausible. My feeling is that this is where maximum immersiveness will come from. (At least until somebody builds a working holodeck, at which point the human race, as Scott Adams has pointed out, is doomed.)

+1!


#8

Not so much a fine point, as a core aspect of game design, describing radically different expectations and playstyles.

You’re clearly not the only one who thinks this way: consider DawnRazorDCLXVI’s “because let’s face it, nobody likes town.” I’d have bet the opposite: that “nobody liked” dungeons devoid of anything but tedious-to-me traps, puzzles and enemies, etc.

That people could believe Deus Ex and the Underworlds were lesser games than Thief and System Shock has been an eye-opening enlightenment.

I think that Paul Neurath and Warren Spector are strongly of this belief. Which makes them unlikely to see what made the Underworlds so great to people on my side of the twin divides of narrative/emergence and society/physics.


#9

To take one more shot at better clarifying my ranking, it’s not that I personally don’t enjoy social-simulation. Nor do I think that social-simulation is somehow inherently less meaningful than world-dynamics – if anything, I’d say it’s capable of being more meaningful.

One of my happier memories is a brief exchange I got to have with Will Wright when he was working out the concepts for what became The Sims. I found the idea of psychological modeling (in support of multiple ways of having fun) terrifically exciting as a prospect. Of course The Sims turned out to be more mechanistic than that; it’s sort of the nature of AAA games. But the notion of “little computer people” was and still is engaging because it hints at connecting game effects with human feeling.

The reason I don’t put games made so far with social-sim elements atop games that emphasize dynamic world systems is because human feeling is so vastly harder to simulate plausibly than physical systems. Nearly all game dialogue implementations, be they conversation trees or QTEs, are so obviously pre-constructed and overtly mechanistic that I think they tend to detract from, not add to, the immersive fun of a complex game. (By which I mean a game that’s not limited to being a work of interactive fiction.)

If there are a few exceptions to this, where conversations are consequential not just to the character you play but to you as a player, they are obvious exceptions to the general rule that dialogue systems are mostly either for lore dumps, character-construction event min-maxing, or the developer force-feeding you the predetermined Epic Story they’ve decided you will experience. Some of the character-to-character exchanges in the Baldur’s Gate games, for example, are very good. And I’ve more than once sung the praises of Sheldon Pacotti and Austin Grossman for their handling of dialogue in Deus Ex. But note that these are more examples of good writing than of good systems for letting the player have natural-feeling conversational interactions with characters.

Basically, I’m willing to believe that, someday, social-sim elements with meaningful consequentiality – conversations that feel right and that matter and that emerge through more natural mechanics – will do more to make games immersive than mere “physics.” Today, however, simulating people well (even in the context of a game) remains a hard problem. I don’t think we’re there. Systems that deliver this in a way that doesn’t stick out unnaturally haven’t been invented yet.

Until that day, the original System Shock – 320x200 resolution notwithstanding – remains my choice for the greatest computer game of its time I’ve ever played.


#10

Then I suppose you didn’t like Diablo, Dark Souls, etc. Town is where you fetch quests. Dungeons are the active environments where you get to test out these skills, and carry out these quests.


#11

“Didn’t like” would be too strong a term - I played my share of Diablo 1 and 2, Torchlight 1 & 2, and enjoy other roguelikes for what they are. But they’re hardly the Underworlds, are they?


#12

Star Control 2: The Ur Quan Masters

No game like it and I love the music and humour.


#13

This is a great thread! It’s sparking me to revisite my favorite games of all time. Thief and Deus Ex are on that list no matter what. My favorite recent game is Dying Light–I’ve been playing a ton of it over the past month or so, as have a few others here. I think they got the open, city exploration piece right with a lot of freedom to choose where to go and what to do next as well as lots of things to find while just exploring around. Plenty of main quest line direction if you want as well as side quests if you’re just looking for some direction. Plus a little bit of crafting is fun, although I think that’s a system that could be made more robust and interesting. I immediately think of a Thief or Deus Ex like environment with that sort of freedom of exploration.

Flatfingers, I shared your blog post with Warren and he liked it. He’s sharing it with the rest of the SS3 team. :slight_smile:

Re: the Offtopic forum. . . , I’m probably going to delete it at this point, so much spam. Then add it back. Actually, I figured out a way to more easily delete the spam topics so no need to delete the forum itself


#14

Depends how you look at it. UW took place in a dungeon, which is an active environment. I would argue it is the natural predecessor of Deus Ex. Part of what makes dungeon diving so exciting is finding secrets, hidden buttons, traps, rune spells. One of my favorite aspects of any dungeon crawl is danger, and the threat of the unknown. I am not suggesting every dungeon sim needs to be combat focused. That would be a case of the man with a hammer seeing every problem as a nail. Even the dialogue in UW was meaningful, and you had to pick your responses. But, as a general rule, I prefer actual gameplay to 2D menus. It is a case where it is better to show than tell.


#15

Thanks for making my day, Walter.

And thanks also for the Dying Light recommendation. That sounds like it should be next in the queue, I think.


#16

Just a quick note on Dying Light – it turns out that this game, like Red Faction: Guerrilla, which I also bought without checking first, is checkpoint-save only.

:-\

Ten minutes after finishing the Prologue (consisting of excessively ornate menus and NPCs constantly yelling in my ear to order me around), I tried searching a couple of dead bodies that I’d lured into the edge of an electrified puddle. The first one went fine; on the second one, the game’s Search_Body animation pulled me into the water, I died instantly, 120 Survivor points gone, all the crafting stuff I’d picked up gone, location reset far away back where the game had decided for me that I was worthy of a checkpoint save.

The world does seem big and filled with stuff. And from the little I saw of crafting, it looked like a smartly implemented feature for this kind of game world.

But I never finished more than the first bit of RF:G because I got frustrated at frequently losing so much progress. I’m afraid Dying Light is echoing that experience.

Another confirming instance for me of “exploration fun and survival fun interfere with each other.” I may come back to this one after I forget how grumpy I am at it; it certainly doesn’t seem to be a badly-made game. Not my thing, but maybe I just have to try to gut it out some more to see if there’s anything useful to learn from it.

It’s going to break my heart if System Shock 3 is checkpoint-only…


#17

I should have given you a heads up about that. I’m not a fan of their save system (or lack of it) either. That said, you can do a few things to make it less annoying:
[ul]
[li]You can force a save by entering a new area. Taking the elevator in the tower is a good way to do that[/li]
[li]I’ve also read that you can force a save by changing game settings. Then change it back again to what you had[/li]
[/ul]
Also, if you’re inclined, you can use the checkpoint system as a sort of “fast travel” system since the game doesn’t have one on it’s own. The game will respawn you near your active quest objective. So you can change your quest objective to one closer to where you want to go, quit the game, then restart. It’s not really in the spirit of an open-world sandbox game, but can be a nice time saver.


#18

Interesting tips – thanks!

And I’m not blaming you one bit. You recommended a well-made game; it was my responsibility to research it fully before picking it up. The only disconnect is between my personal taste and Dying Light’s design choices, which isn’t anybody’s fault.

I really shouldn’t have gone into the original quarantine area so soon, anyway. :smiley:


#19

Checkpoint saves can be a blessing and a curse. They are not for SS3, though. Agreed.


#20

UW2