PC Games as “Art” — Seeking Relevance in Rapture

I’d like to divulge a long-kept secret: majoring in English gives you superpowers. Specifically, while studying English in the capacity of literary criticism and theory, you develop a heightened sense of perception regarding media of all sorts. It’s essentially like Superman’s X-ray vision, except instead of seeing through any solid material you gain the ability to punch right through all the smoke and mirrors (and loads of straight-up bullshit, too) that human beings like to swirl around whatever ideas they’re trying to communicate to you. Like, for example, when a political candidate decries an account of her personal life as sexist (which is true) and degrading (also true), an English major is immediately aware of what she’s trying to draw your attention away from: that a) she is sexist, herself, against her own gender and if elected would enact policies accordingly, and b) she is a raging, unabashed hypocrite.

This is exactly what happens every time I use terms like “social norms” and “cultural narrative.”

I know that’s probably obvious to most human beings with functioning gray matter, but it’s just an example. Anyway, like all superhuman abilities, these lightning-quick powers of inductive reasoning come with a weakness: we cannot communicate anything about our conclusions without also informing everybody why they should care about what we’re saying. Think of it as analogous to DC’s Billy Batson, who can’t utilize his superpowers as Captain Marvel unless he shouts “SHAZAM!” The difference is that English majors just take a lot longer to say the magic word(s). Or… paragraphs. Or thesis papers. (Incidentally, English majors are also akin to the Green Lantern in that they require extended periods to recharge their abilities. Coffee generally accelerates this process considerably.)

What I’m getting at is the idea of social or cultural relevance. Like any medium, video games are chock full of examples that have little or nothing to do with real life. Some of the most fun games ever made are on that list (Super Mario Bros., anyone?), so I want to make sure we cut off any connection between quality and relevance straight away. Relevance ≠ quality. Got it? Some games, on the other hand, feature socio-cultural commentary in spades, and it’s one of those we’re talking about today.

Once upon a time, an incredibly rich and powerful American business magnate decided to found a self-contained city far beyond the reaches of the various political and cultural influences which he perceived as oppressive and limiting to his success as an individual. He assumed that, given a society completely unrestricted by laws or regulations and populated by the most intelligent, innovative, and ambitious minds in the world, he could create “a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small” — a place where the elites of the world could roam free of obligations and restrictions which they regarded as beneath them.

Yes, I did quote Andrew Ryan just now, and that paragraph mostly describes the setting of 2007’s BioShock by 2K Games, but I could also have been referring at various points to any one of these places or people as well. Even now, in the 21st century, free-market capitalism still reigns as the undeniably dominant cultural narrative (SHAZAM!) — so dominant, in fact, that anyone daring to suggest that it may be time to devise a more functional and less hazardous economic system is immediately vilified as anti-American and a dirty, dirty, probably bearded Marxist (nevermind whether they actually are either of those things). Want proof? Check this out.

Truer words…

It’s a singular source of pleasure for the gamer in me, then, when a game developer extrapolates on unrestrained capitalism (informed by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism) and really runs with it. Plenty of different media are dabbling in post-apocalyptic sorts of narratives the last few years, but few employ an economic collapse as their cause. Rapture’s economy, inherently limited by its location at the bottom of the sea, could not sustain both the rapid accumulation of wealth by its top handful of elites and severe shortages of a product (ADAM) for which the demand increases exponentially. Sound familiar? We could replace any of the details in that last sentence and be talking about a real society (e.g., “America’s economy, inherently limited by its location on Earth…)

We talked about Deus Ex last time, and how it invokes the player’s moral prerogative to communicate its ideas. These two games’ philosophies intersect quite frequently, but where Deus Ex is complicated and cerebral, BioShock is visceral and brutally honest. In the former you rub elbows with the ruling class of the dystopian society; in the latter, you are knee-deep in the suffering and despair that Andrew Ryan’s selfish and naive worldview has created. The gaudy, opulent flagship of capitalism has sunk (pun intended) and the player must tread through human flotsam to escape to the surface — where, by the way, everything is virtually the same (minus Splicers and Big Daddies).

Let’s talk about those Big Daddies in an metaphorical sense for a moment. They protect the Little Sisters, who are the driving force of Rapture’s ADAM economy (and are controlled by the ruling elite), but they can also be seen performing repairs throughout the city, typically fixing leaks and other threats from the surrounding ocean. In other words, they maintain the status quo; they embody all of the laws and policies and regulations and taxes and so on of a government hell-bent on retaining its grasp on the society. Subsequently, we can read the Little Sisters as the all-but-invincible corporate entities that produce the society’s critical resources (without which the society crumbles — petroleum allegory, anyone?). While the Sisters are functionally invincible to physical attack, they are vulnerable after their attendant Big Daddy has been put down (violently). The most critical facet to recognize in this reading is that the Big Daddies defend the society’s corporate interests, not the civilian population as a whole.

Big Daddy = Big Brother

Plasmids are the end result of ADAM; they fundamentally alter the abilities of the user. Running with our capitalist allegory, three of these plasmids seem particularly relevant in that they might represent what the average person living in the society gains from dependency on ADAM or, in our allegory, on petroleum. “Electro Bolt” can represent the electricity (or just plain raw energy) that oil and other fossil fuels provide us, which is critical to basically every sphere of our society; “Incinerate!” can stand in for the use of combustibles to produce, transport, maintain and replace all of the commodities that a capitalist society values so highly; “Winter Blast” for the ability to refrigerate, or perhaps more broadly, preserve those commodities beyond what would otherwise be their normal cycle of usefulness. Again, all of these abilities are dependent upon the continued supply of the original resource, the demand for which is ever increasing.

So what’s the result of this sort of interpretation of 2K’s masterpiece? Is it an indictment of capitalism? An argument for collectivism? (Nope — see BioShock 2.) I think the underlying assertion of the game is little more than that human beings can wreak some serious havoc with their greed and their selfish desires. After all, the primary goal of a video game is to entertain and, perhaps more than any other medium, if a game can’t entertain then it’s not going to get anything else across to its audiences, either. But the game is asserting at least one other thing — that an economy entirely dependent upon a single resource for all of its (increasingly ostentatious) needs and desires is, at any given time, little more than a hair’s breadth away from collapse.

PC Games as “Art” — The Catch-33 of Deus Ex

The only ambiguity here is what exactly I’m shooting at… pixelated vampire Hitler?

I’m not using that term quite right, but you’ll get it in a minute. For those of you lacking the patience to plow through what’s certain to be a long post, feel free to skim and comment: Name some instances in which you appreciated shades of gray in a game’s plot or worldview.

Let’s dive right in. I think the most important distinguishing feature of video games is the immersion of the player into the narrative. You, personally, are participating in the unraveling story, not sitting at a comfortable remove as a passive observer. The First Person Shooter (FPS) genre has an easier time achieving this than others for obvious reasons, and the home of the FPS is undoubtedly the personal computer, emerging with Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 and solidifying with Doom in 1993 (it took a full four more years before a console would produce a truly worthy counterpart with GoldenEye in 1997).

The proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Now, nobody’s trying to avoid the honest truth here — games like Wolf and Doom were conceptual and technical successes only. Their plots can be summarized roughly by a mere handful of words: “Get weapons. Shoot [insert appropriate undesirables here]. Repeat.” (The only ambiguity I see here is what exactly I’m shooting at… pixelated vampire-Hitler?) But with their undeniable popularity, these proto-shooters gave rise to a genre that has blossomed into a powerful vehicle for complex narratives. Much as Rapture’s lighthouse represents but a narrow portal into the depths of its underwater city, gamers have come to expect not only an entertaining variety of gameplay dynamics in their first-person shooters, but also a wealth of story and character that they experience through that gameplay.

An FPS is possibly the easiest way to get a visceral thrill out of your gaming — see Omaha Beach in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault or the darkened, demon-infested Mars-base of Doom 3 — and these are fun and valuable experiences. Lord knows I love to stay up into the wee hours of the night with the lights off and the volume up and scare myself witless with some Doom 3 or Dead Space. But these are still largely reactions you can get from popping in Saving Private Ryan or any (in)decent horror flick. What I want to talk about in this entry are the responses that I think gaming has a unique opportunity to effect.

Enter Deus Ex, which I regard as the magnum opus of the modern cyberpunk-thriller genre. Read my review here, or skim the Wikipedia article for more info. Dark, serious, and solidly based upon real-world politics and theoretical sciences, Deus Ex extrapolates logically upon current social climates and technological development (circa 2000) to a future overrun by parasitic, corporate capitalism (that’s not too far-fetched for you, is it?) and troubled by increasingly questionable uses of bioengineering and genetic modification. The player character represents the synthesis of those two motives, a superhuman created by a “cabal of technophiles” to defend national interests against various “terrorist” groups (noteworthy is the fact that national and corporate interests are essentially equivalent in this context). Your job throughout the game is, in the simplest terms, akin to peeling an onion — an onion whose every layer is another conspiracy of global portent.

Ok. Are you still reading? Then you probably realize that a set of problems this massive and complex simply cannot be satisfactorily solved unless you’ve got a big red “S” stuck to your chest. The key word is “satisfactorily.” There are solutions available to you at the end of the game (three, in fact), but none of them are anything but problematic, much less offer you a sure road to human salvation and the obligatory victory cutscene. The brilliance of Deus Ex is that though you are, more or less, a superhero, you cannot save the world. All your extraordinary abilities win you is the chance to get yourself all good and invested in the outcome of the plot only to arrive at a tie between three equally dubious choices.

One of the three endings quotes Voltaire. Can you name another game that quotes Voltaire?

Many games offer the player options; a (sometimes paralyzing) degree of control over your character serves as a supporting pillar of basically every RPG in existence, and several other franchises have also capitalized on player choice as the impetus of plot development (see the Star Wars Jedi Knight series), but these choices are largely relegated to very black and white, good vs. evil situations (do I wantonly slice that hapless bystander with my lightsaber, or… not?). Deus Ex is one of a relatively small contingent of games to thoughtfully, persistently delve into moral territory so grey as to be virtually impossible to navigate. There are no right choices in Deus Ex, only choices.

Of course, we shouldn’t praise moral ambiguity simply for its own sake; if we did, we might just as easily prefer characters like, say, the Joker to come out on top instead of Batman, at which point… what’s the point? But the complexity of Deus Ex provokes a kind of reasoning that is really only just beginning to be utilized in gaming: ethics. To keep the superhero thread running, who’s really going to boo Superman for saving a bus-load of children from toppling off a bridge? He’s a stand-up guy, no doubt about it, and that kind of simplicity can be satisfying, too. My favorite novel, The Lord of the Rings, features one of the clearest notions of right and wrong ever put on paper. Clarity is definitely a good thing.

But consider, in contrast, the conclusion of a film like The Dark Knight, with Batman accused of multiple homicide. It’s certainly not the ideal outcome, but the way the characters deal with it says a lot more about them than a knee-jerk reaction to the tired “rescue X from Y” trope ever could. In Deus Ex, it is the player who must react effectively to an unyielding, unforgiving environment, and I think the process of that reaction unlocks not just an exploratory gaming experience, but a self-exploratory one. Isn’t that exactly what “art,” however we define that almost totally useless term, is supposed to provoke? Explorations like that are vital to our media because they require us to examine and sometimes redefine the beliefs and the values with which we approach the world; they’re especially vital to our video games because they continue to prove that this medium can make worthwhile contributions to modern culture.

I digress. Next time, I’ll dive into Rapture in search of a little thing called “cultural relevance.” Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it? I know. I’ve had Django Reinhardt’s “La Mer” on repeat for days in anticipation. (Just for clarity, that’s repeat in my head. I apparently can’t make it stop.) So, readers — what other games haunt you with their moral complexity? Any I absolutely can’t afford to miss? And yes, I’m already working on Fallout 3.




PC Games as “Art” — An Introduction

Thus commences a long-planned exploration of the medium that demands (and receives) a massive allotment of my fascination and my imaginative energies. Throughout, I hope to perpetuate, at minimum, the following idea: PC gaming is a valuable medium in modern pop culture, offering complex, entertaining narratives that are (with the rare exception) unique in that they rely entirely on decisions and actions taken by the participant rather than following a predetermined arrangement of scenes and characters. (This is not to say that game plots are not linear; rather, the manner in which they progress is determined by the player rather than the developers.)

To that end, I will not stoop to arguing why PC games are, in fact, art; at this point in time, I believe the only persons who would actively argue against this are both a) snobbish, likely aging members of academia with a vested interest in keeping a relatively new medium in its place, and b) woefully uncool (see right). Sorry, Roger, but your argument assumes that all other art forms except video games contain no dialogue whatsoever between artist and consumer, which any English major worth his or her student loans will tell you just isn’t true. Instead of arguing something that’s been successfully argued already, I will provide and discuss examples of PC titles and concepts which prove the point. (And for further discussion on game narratives, check this out.)

And why PC games, as opposed to video gaming in general? Two reasons. One — quite simply, I am a PC gamer, and always will be. The personal computer offers a degree of customization and end-user freedom that is and always has been light years ahead of any other gaming platform ever produced. Case in point: user modifications, which simply do not exist elsewhere, not to mention the ability to tweak the game and/or your hardware to achieve the best performance possible for any given title.

Second, I generally regard the PC as the most economical option for today’s video gamer, considering that a brand new console from each competing developer emerges every few years and costs $300+, simultaneously rendering the previous ones obsolete, while a single PC can continue to evolve with the technology.

Let me tell you now, the line about PCs being more expensive because they require constant upgrading is a steaming pile of bullshit. I purchased a pretty middle-of-the-road PC in 2006 for about $600 (AMD Athlon 64 3500+, 1GB DDR SDRAM, NVIDIA GeForce 7300 GT, for any who care) and have been happily gaming away ever since. Don’t believe me? Check the BIOS date in the pic at the left. Only this past January did I have to add memory and a new video card to play BioShock and Batman: Arkham Asylum, which cost me roughly $100 (Newegg.com ftw!). I have only recently broken down and decided to replace the motherboard and processor, but that’s it — they’ll be going straight into the same old casing and hooking up to the same old power supply and hard drive. The cost of maintaining a decent gaming computer is, at the very most, more or less equivalent to purchasing a single brand of consoles (e.g., Microsoft/Sony/Nintendo) over two of their generations (Xbox + Xbox 360, PS2 + PS3) — except mine runs games and does everything else a PC can do, which means I don’t have to drop an additional few hundred dollars just to be able to write this blog post or use a word processor.

And, on a pleasantly responsible note, the less you replace your electronics, the less you contribute to the problem of conflict minerals, and the less you have to take your old ones to a special recycling center or, worse, commit the wasteful and environmentally harmful act of just tossing them in the garbage. And, on another responsible note, upgrading your own PC means you will necessarily learn a lot more about how your entertainment devices function, which is never a bad thing.

This is not to say that console games don’t have their own positive aspects (in-house multiplayer rather than over the internet and their generally much larger libraries come to mind) — I just don’t plan on discussing them here, except in relation to their PC counterparts.

Well, the day is getting on, and I’m due at work in about an hour, so the “actual” first entry in this series will have to wait. As a teaser, though: I’ll discuss the value of moral ambiguity and Really Tough Choices in a medium where all is dependent on player action, via Deus Ex and BioShock. Read up on them so you know what I’m on about.

A brief letter to Amarthiel, “Champion of Angmar”

Dear Amarthiel,

I’m not sure which Seeing-stone you got your grubby hands on, but please be informed that it cannot, in point of fact, be the Osgiliath-stone, which was far too large for one person to carry, and is in any case lost at the bottom of Anduin. Either sort your shit out and decide it’s one of the other stones that somebody somehow fished out of the bottom of the Ice-bay of Forochel, or I’ll not only kick your ass next time we meet, I’ll also proceed to delete all files containing your name from my hard drive for your blatant disregard for the Tolkien canon. kthanks.

Haldaran Casarmacil, Protector of the Shire

A postcard from Middle-earth

Mmm. Rivendell.

So I haven’t been around Sure as Shiretalk the last week or two, and I’ll tell you why: over the weekend of March 27-28, The Lord of the Rings Online offered a $9.99 deal for the Mines of Moria and Siege of Mirkwood expansions plus 30 days of free play. So I’ve returned to Middle-earth in the guise of Haldaran Casarmacil, Protector of the Shire (I love the title system in LotRO). You’ll be happy to know I’ve leveled up four times since then; I’m currently sitting about halfway to level 43.

What I love most about this game is how incredibly true to the novel it feels. I’ve played most of the LotR-based games out there, and most of them are forced to sacrifice much of the subtlety and restraint employed by Tolkien — espeically regarding the use of “magic” — in favor of, presumably, attracting and entertaining a wider audience than die-hard Tolkien fans (why this “wider audience” requires all that flashy Magic Missile bullshit to be adequately entertained is entirely beyond me). But if not for Gandalf very occasionally creating fire or lighting his staff up like a lamp, The Lord of the Rings would be basically devoid of overt displays of supernatural power. Most of Middle-earth’s magic is in the land, in the creatures that inhabit it, and in the interactions between good and evil intentions — most emphatically not at the end of a wand or the tip of somebody’s fingers.

Unlike titles such as The Third Age (a Final Fantasy clone with flashy spells for every class) or The Two Towers/The Return of the King (aka Dynasty Warriors in Middle-earth), LotRO keeps the offensive magic and flashy sword-and-sorcery nonsense to the minimum necessary, and finds ways to work it into the game that effectively maintain Tolkien’s vision. Players have Morale rather than Health; you retreat to a rally point rather than die and get resurrected. Consequently, your hitpoints are affected by abstract stimuli, most notably fear, as well as the common orc-sword. For example, should you encounter a great source of terror like a Ringwraith or a dragon, you take a noticeable hit to your total number of HP (which is then removed when you either defeat that enemy or remove yourself from its presence; there are of course many ways to partially/completely counteract these fear effects). Accordingly, then, the “healer” class is a Minstrel who keeps his/her allies in the fight by inspiring them instead of performing on-the-spot surgery and blood transfusions.

Beyond that, the storytelling also feels very Tolkienesque; although I’m sure his perfectionism would’ve found countless things to disagree with, the quests and “Epic” plotline feel close enough to his style and sensibilities that a Tolkien fanatic/purist like myself can really enjoy the feeling of (near) total immersion in Middle-earth and its cultures.

One final comment: I cannot express how beautiful and how detailed this game is. When I first started playing, I wandered off to Weathertop to check out the scenery, and when I got to the top, I checked for the rock with Gandalf’s runes written on it. It’s there. Even locations that Tolkien left with almost no descriptions are startlingly, awesomely depicted. My jaw dropped when I first set eyes on the massive tower of Annúminas on the shores of Lake Evendim; Rivendell nearly broke my heart with its autumnal splendor; the Shire is every bit as charming and peaceful as you’d expect it to be.

In other words, I love this game. It’s a brilliant rendering of my favorite novel of all time.

Last comment: I’ve also loaded up the GoldenEye 007 again recently. God this game rocks my socks.

The Ethics of Digital Rights Management vs. Software Piracy

So gamers everywhere are a bit peeved (oh who am I kidding, they’ve already collected the torches and pitchforks) over the new version of digital rights management (DRM) software shipping out on the PC port of Assassin’s Creed II, the console versions of which have received rave reviews for slick, atmospheric gameplay and more finely-tuned mechanics carried over from the original. UbiSoft, on the other hand, is getting the proverbial vegetable justice for the unprecedentedly stringent anti-piracy software required to even install the game, much less play it.

A brief rundown on DRM software: anti-piracy measures originated as little more than a coding trick to prevent users from copying the game CDs or DVDs; since these are typically required to be in the computer’s CD/DVD-ROM drive during play, this method prevents your average consumer from buying a single copy and distributing it for free to all his/her friends. More recently, publishers have started requiring users to register the software online, which “unlocks” the game on your computer (Steam and Games for Windows Live are a couple of examples). Combined, these methods effectively prevent most of the population from actually initiating any software piracy, but that’s of little consequence when a small percentage of those people can “crack” the game and make it available for download to anyone with an internet connection.

Assassin’s Creed II is taking anti-piracy to a whole new level. Besides the by-now obligatory internet activation, PC gamers will be required to be connected to the Internet at all times during play. If your connection goes out for longer than a few seconds, all progress since the last checkpoint in the game will be lost.

What I want to address in this post is the extremely awkward and unpleasant position in which most PC gamers now find themselves, should they want to play recent and upcoming games. We are either forced to acquiesce to such blatantly ridiculous anti-piracy measures, or start illegally downloading our games.

Before I get into that, though, I’ll explain why it’s ridiculous. Time was when I could walk into a store, purchase an item, take it home, and use it. End of happy capitalist consumer story. But not anymore. Let’s say I want to go into GameStop or wherever and buy a copy of BioShock 2 or Batman: Arkham Asylum. When I take it home, the game is unplayable until I’ve asked permission from Windows Live to use my legally purchased product. Apparently exchange of currency is no longer enough to get you certain retail items in this society built on rampant capitalism. Much as I despise that economic system most of the time, I must say that not having complete control over something I’ve paid a decent chunk of cash for (currently about $50 and rising for a new PC game) really, really pisses me off.

Further, it cannot be said under any circumstances that video game developers and publishers are doing anything other than raking in the money hand over fist. Grand Theft Auto IV, the most expensive video game ever made, cost $100 million. It generated $500 million in the first week after it was released. It has apparently shipped 13 million copies worldwide, which, if we do a little simple math at 50 bucks a pop, brings the total up to $650 million.

Returning to ACII, which has only been released on Xbox 360 and the PS3 so far, we find it has sold roughly 8 million copies as of February 10 this year. A little more math (this one costing $60), and we get a total of $480 million. UbiSoft is apparently a little cagey about their production costs, but if we go with high-end numbers from this article, ACII probably did not cost UbiSoft more than $34 million. Let’s see… that’s a profit of 446 million dollars, which is a higher net profit than 17 of the 20 most profitable films of all time (only The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Titanic, and Avatar have had a better turnaround). Assassin’s Creed II has only been out since November, and the PC version still hasn’t been released. Here’s my general feeling toward UbiSoft on the subject of software piracy:

I’m so sorry, UbiSoft, I didn’t realize you had fallen on such hard times. Please, let me shell out 60 dollars, which is between 15-20% of my average paycheck, in order to play (but not physically own) a game that has made more money for you in four months on only two of its three systems than Jurassic Park did for Universal in its entire run through movie theaters. Piracy is pretty much only possible on PC versions of video games, and as we know, they’re certainly not hurting for console sales. What’s really at stake then, if not their company’s survival? I think this whole thing is about property. The fat cats of video gaming are pissed off that some guy (who likely knows more about computers than they ever will) can sit in his room at home and alter the software so that it can be used without paying their increasingly exorbitant prices.

Okay, okay, enough sarcasm and simple arithmetic. I believe, as many do, that video games are just as much an art form as books, music, films, and television programs (the extremely variable quality of these is not currently under discussion), and as such, their creators do indeed deserve reasonable compensation for their efforts. All of these media (except PC games) are available to me in some fashion for free or for a small fee before I actually have to pay to own them — which is a good thing, because it’s extremely disappointing to spend one’s hard-earned money on some form of media only to find out that it sucks. (Case in point: since I didn’t get to the theater in time, I am the unfortunate owner of The Matrix Revolutions.) Instead of spending stupid amounts of money developing more and better DRM software, which is guaranteed to alienate honest PC users and only slightly more likely to confound pirates, why not develop a system in which PC gamers can test-play a game before we have to buy it? Or perhaps figure out a way that we could play a game only once before having to pay the full amount, like seeing a movie at the theater vs. buying the DVD? I’d be fine with UbiSoft’s new technique if, say, it was significantly cheaper and good for only a single playthrough — provided I could later purchase the game, permanently, in its complete form (no bullshit Internet connections required).

Demos do not count toward this end, and I’ll tell you why. If I was given a demo of the original Assassin’s Creed, containing only the first couple of levels, I would probably run out and buy the game right then and there; I mean, in the first hour of play, the game appears to be truly amazing. What a demo wouldn’t tell you, though, is that the game is extremely repetitive through its entirety and downright annoying by the last hour or so. I know this from recent experience, and as a consequence I will not be buying the game. On the other hand, I played through Arkham Asylum once and purchased it immediately afterward. Like I said, good work deserves good compensation. Another good example: I recently played BioShock for the first time, too, and I plan on buying it myself at some point. In any case, my point is that I should not have to pay money for something that I won’t like, and at this point in time, there is no way for a PC gamer to make that determination aside from a) borrowing a game, or b) downloading it illegally. That needs to change.

Granted, these methods still probably wouldn’t stop piracy, but then, it seems unlikely that anything ever will. What it would do is retain PC gamers’ trust, and, ideally, encourage developers to produce games that are so good, gamers will want to spend their money.

My Top Five Most Memorable Video Game Showdowns

Making a game that is entertaining in general is one thing, but creating really memorable confrontations between the player and their foes is quite another. There seem to be a handful of ways that game developers can rely on that will both depict the villain as powerful and difficult to overcome and allow the player to do it without too much frustration. It’s critical that both of these aspects are maintained, the first because you have to feel like you’re doing something important and hard, and the second because you don’t want the flow of the game interrupted.

One of the most common scenarios is the standard FPS approach, in which the player might have less innate power than their foe, but can sure as hell shoot bigger guns at them — seeDoom 3 or Return to Castle Wolfenstein. When that doesn’t work, perhaps because the enemy is invulnerable to normal attacks, you can let the player in on a secret weakness that they can then exploit (see any number of platformer games; check out Portal for a really unique FPS example). This last one seems more common to me, probably occurring more often for the sake of adding variety to a game. There are a few other possibilities for how we gamers can defeat the big bad bosses, but they usually fall into one (or both) of those general categories.

However, that’s not what I’m interested in right now. The confrontations I’m looking to record here are the ones that really stick with you for reasons other than their difficulty or originality. I’m looking for those showdowns that you’ll remember forever not only because of the showdown itself, but also for the build-up to it and the characters involved. My examples will be biased in favor of PC games since that’s what I play most; they’ll also likely not include anything from more strategy-based genres, because I want to focus more on the you-against-the-world/mano-a-mano sorts of battles. So, these are listed basically in the order that they occurred to me.

JC Denton vs. Walton Simons, Deus Ex

The world economy is falling apart around you. A man-made disease is killing off millions needlessly. You’re stuck in the bowels of a defunct deep-sea base, fighting off irritating little poison-spitting lizard-birds, the result of some mad scientist’s genetic experiments (“Green greasy greasels!”), and all the while some slimy-voiced douche-bag pipes his narcissistic plans for world domination straight into your brain. Where in god’s name is the fucking mute button on this InfoLink!? Well, you’re in luck, because said power-hungry creepo Walton Simons is coming to stop you escaping from the base, and his smug ass is definitely not armed well enough to handle JC Denton. At last, you get to reap your sweet revenge for all his angsty, meaningless rantings about you foiling his plans thus far. Generally, I find a good slice or two with the Dragon’s Tooth sword most satisfying.

Why is it memorable? Because Walton Simons is an affront to all that is good and noble in humanity, and you, a genetically-modified, nano-augmented superman, have the power to splash his guts all over the goddamn underwater cavern (or Area 51, depending on your choices), thus putting an end to the military head of one of the most dastardly plots ever devised to take over the world. I kid you not, the first time I killed him, I got up out of my chair, pointed viciously and shouted at my computer screen: “Eat shit and die, you smug. fucking. bastard.”

Death Egg Zone, Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Every now and then I bust out the old Sega Genesis and play through the favorites again, and Sonic 2 is always one of them. Some will tell you the original Sonic title is harder and therefore better, but my eight year-old self was probably better suited to the less frustrating sequel. It was still quite challenging, and didn’t feature any of the save-game nonsense of the third one (says the lifelong PC gamer). This meant that getting to Death Egg Zone was a real feat of patience and persistence, and all the more exciting because of it. I still get that tension in my gut when I run down that long hallway in outer space and start the face-off with the robot Sonic. Denying the player any rings at all for this level was a great move in that it means you can’t make a single mistake. Add to that a near-perfect soundtrack, and you’re in for an epic battle that’ll give you a lovely feeling of a job well done.

I particularly appreciate Sonic standing there all hands-on-his-hips glaring at a giant doomsday robot. Surely one of the eternal badasses of video gaming.

The Chaos Sanctuary, Diablo II

It’s a long haul to Hell, that’s for sure, and after chasing Big D across damn near the entire known world, all you want is his blood. But you can’t have it. At least, not right away. He’s still got minions a-plenty, and some of the most irritating kinds in the game. Heavy hitting physical/fire damage combos, mana-sucking casters that run away from you and cast again, and oh yeah — anybody like wielding melee weapons? Try it. I dare you.

Once you make it past the Iron Maiden-casting Oblivion Knights (or perhaps if; I’ve heard of people quitting the game because of those guys), you still have to deal with Diablo’s super uniques — the Grand Vizier of Chaos, Lord De Seis, and the Infector of Souls, plus their minions. Each is tuned slightly differently so as to offer challenges to various character types (the Infector generally proves hardest for me because he’s so obnoxiously fast). Then, at last, when the countless hordes lie dead about the Sanctuary, the ground shakes and Diablo at last shows himself, uttering possibly the most badass taunt ever thrown at PC gamers: Not even death can save you from me. After which, he proceeds to roast you alive with the dreaded Lightning Hose — the near-instantly lethal attack that has provoked an indignant “AWW, SHIT!!” from me more times than I can possibly count. Regarding town portals: cast early, cast often.

All in all, this battle with the Lord of Terror is one of the most memorable not only because of the skill, patience, and versatility required to get through it, but also because of the sheer build-up to this moment. A deliciously dark fantasy world complemented by great cutscenes and tense, addictive gameplay makes this showdown a satisfying (semi-)conclusion to one of the most popular RPGs of all time.

Batman vs. every last incarcerated criminal in Gotham City, Batman: Arkham Asylum

I have been waiting for a good Batman game since I was three years old, when I saw Tim Burton’s film with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson for the first time. And at last, we have a great Batman game. I can’t recall the last title I’ve played (if there is one) in which I had so much fun kicking the tar out of so many enemies all at once.

It’s on my Showdown list for a couple reasons. For one, the game does a fantastic job in making you feel utterly alone in the looniest loony bin on Earth, and that you are really, truly the only thing standing between Gotham and total chaos. And secondly, because every single encounter with the Joker’s thugs was so thrillingly, perfectly Batman, whether I swept through the shadows and hung them upside-down from gargoyles or just strolled right up and smashed all their faces into the pavement. No other game has made me feel so incredibly powerful, so (literally) able to take on dozens of foes at once and emerge the absolute, undisputed victor. Sometimes I sit up on a ledge someplace, look down at the oblivious goons wandering around below, and just enjoy the perfect satisfaction in knowing that every one of them will soon be beaten, broken, and unconscious, all because I am the goddamn BATMAN.

Beyond repeatedly exhibiting the Caped Crusader’s superior physical prowess, though, you can effectively plan out exactly how you want to engage your enemies — just like Batman would. Many of the combat sequences in Arkham reminded me of the finale of The Dark Knight in that they force you to flawlessly manage multiple enemies and situations at once. While the entire game is phenomenal, Arkham Asylum‘s combat is so finely, so impressively crafted that it turns me into a giggling mess every single time I snap some creep’s arm out of its socket. At long last, I am the goddamn BATMAN.

Sabotage at Soulforge, Thief II: The Metal Age

This one struck me as a strange addition to a list of memorable confrontations — I mean, unless you’re playing Normal difficulty (who does that, anyway?), deliberately fighting anybody in this game is usually a pretty convenient recipe for suicide. However, this level is such a great climax to a such a great game that I had to make the case.

So Karras, a thoroughly loony religious fanatic with a serious speech impediment, has decided all organic life in the City must die. You, as the master thief Garrett, are the only one sneaky enough to successfully navigate his massive, high-security cathedral/fortress, Soulforge, and turn his own maniacal plan against him. He’s got cameras, alarms and cartoon-bomb tossing robots a-plenty, and he knows you’re in there, too, so he’s put them all on high alert. And, like Walton Simons, he has an ego that seems to insist that he pester you constantly over his loudspeakers all throughout the cathedral. If I ever exhibit an unfair bias against persons with speech impediments, I blame Thief II.

Aside from being a very difficult, very long mission, full of not only Karras’s robots, but also plenty of tile and metal floors to be certain you make as much noise as possible, I chose this one because of all the weirdly ironic story elements that lead you up to this point. Garrett is the perfect anti-hero, yet here he is again saving the City from a maniac alongside an old enemy from the previous game. Though I despise Karras with every ounce of my nerdy being, he’s a fantastically written character — bizarre, exasperating and amusing all at once. His squeaking wail during the final cutscene is absolutely priceless, especially since it was you who forced it from him.

Well, there you have it. I have to give an honorable mention, though, to the sequence in No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way that has you battling ninjas in a trailer park near Akron, Ohio while a tornado rips the place apart. Eventually you end up battling the ninja leader inside a trailer that’s been picked up by the twister. Not something gamers are generally subjected to, and it was side-splittingly funny to boot.