If you're out in public, turn to the person next to you and ask them what are their top five video games. Assuming they do not ignore you or crumble into themselves in a wave of crippling nervousness, they may rattle off the five with little thought. They probably will want to append a sixth or seventh when it comes to their mind. Now, ask that same person (presuming that they haven't fled from your spontaneous question-making) and ask them to tell you what games influenced them the most in life.
Guaranteed, they will look up to the sky or bathroom ceiling searching their memory for a game that qualifies.
Several days ago, I glanced through my YouTube subscriptions looking for new uploads and found a video titled "Five Games that Changed My Life" by a guy called The Game Professor (click here to see his channel). I believed it nothing more than another top five favorite list as you could find across YouTube. Instead, I found a personal video, a reflection of The Game Professor's growth as an individual who fell in love with games and found something of substance in them.
Naturally, I began to think of the games that impacted me the most. And I was surprised to find that it was difficult, not as easy as blabbering on about God Hand or Max Payne 3 or annoying the other members of the Among Elusions team about my love for Shining Force II.
In writing this article, I wanted to avoid simply duplicating my favorites list and calling it a day. The games below have meaning, true effects on my psyche, belief system, and outlook on human relations.
The Oxford Dictionary defines art as "The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination...producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power".
These are the games that I admire for their beauty and emotional power.
1) Phantasy Star Online (PSO)
Released in 2000 on the Sega Dreamcast, Phantasy Star Online is a role-playing game set as an unconnected sequel in the hit series. I played the game much later in 2003 when I bought the Nintendo Gamecube release, having never owned a Dreamcast but remembering a time when I used one and wondered what the deal was with its bizarre controller.
Phantasy Star Online opens with a dramatic cinematic explaining how humans escaped the destruction of their home planet and found a new world to settle on. The planet is Ragol, a not-so-friendly place with violent local wildlife, bizarre ancient structures, and a sealed thousand-year-old demon who isn't too happy about its situation.
The game is among the first games set in a sci-fi setting I played, next to titles such as StarCraft and scattered console titles that never left a big impact on me. Unlike those titles (although I loved the lore of StarCraft), something resonated deeply with me in PSO. I became fascinated with this fictional civilization, distraught and lost in an uncaring universe, unable to find a proper home,
Predating Mass Effect by half a decade, the concept of an epic sci-fi adventure was fresh and it informs a lot of my narrative choices to this day.
2) My Love for Shining Force II
Look, I didn't say it wouldn't be on the list. Plus, I cannot skip the opportunity to annoy my team by talking about it. That kind of behavior is dear to me, you see.
Shining Force II released on the Sega Genesis in 1993, which means I spent a good amount of years as a clueless toddler before I grew up enough to enjoy it. Sequel to two titles in the same franchise but distant enough to standalone, Shining Force II is the story of a pair of stolen, ancient jewels and the subsequent release of the demon king Zeon.
Like the villain in Phantasy Star and Dracula in the Castlevania titles, Shining Force II's Zeon is an unkillable force that returns every so often to wreck havoc on mankind. I'm fascinated by this concept of evil. Games like this instilled the idea in my head that good vs. evil is an unending battle of balance. The heroes are always able to seal away the evil but without guarantee that the villain won't return. They prove their valor and sometimes lose much along the way.
Shining Force II also introduced me for the first time to a god who doesn't care about people. In the game, Vulcan, the god of the bird-people in the mountains, refuses to help humanity as they are responsible for releasing Zeon in the first place. Vulcan blames the whole race for one man's folly (although that "man" is a thieving bipedal rat, so I take issue with this being humanity's fault).
Now at the time I identified myself as Catholic, attending church mostly every Sunday and considering that, yeah, there might be a guy up there making sure that things were all ducky down here on planet Earth. For a game to show me a petty god, one who refuses to help when the planet is at risk, floored me. I credit Shining Force II with igniting the fire that eventually led me to my current spiritual beliefs.
3) Tales of Symphonia
Tales of Symphonia released in 2003 and I cannot for the life of me remember what made me want to play it. Maybe it was the colorful packaging, my sister's recommendation, or the fact that the amazing Resident Evil 4 hadn't released yet and I was bored.
Whichever the reason, I played Tales straight for an entire month, planning sessions between homework (and sometimes instead of homework).
If Phantasy Star introduced me to sci-fi tropes and Shining Force formed my religious beliefs, I lay responsibility on Tales of Symphonia for my views on inequality. In the game, humans and elves despise half-elves, mixed creatures born from a human and elf lineage. Being a half-elf in the game is seen as a great shame, with the mid-game reveal that one of your party members is one creating a large conflict with outsiders.
Never before had I experienced a story that dealt with social injustice in this way. Tales of Symphonia is a game heavily laced with racism, prejudice, and races unable to live together in harmony. The game's central plot is all about uniting these three groups.
Empathy is at the root of all understanding, and understanding is necessary for equality to exist in the world. I've recently stressed the importance of reading books as a tool for building empathy, as this wonderful article from Neil Gaiman explains.
Games are an equally beneficial in teaching understanding, and Tales of Symphonia is one of the best at it.
4) Metal Gear Solid
The threat of nuclear weapons. Global politics and the money-making machine that is the military-industrial complex. Lineage and the deterministic genes that we carry.
1998's Metal Gear Solid introduced me to all these concepts. One part stealth action game, one part history lesson, Metal Gear Solid is at the forefront of games that influenced my early learning. The game is rife with factoids from the real world, consisting of war history, treaties, guns, and society. Suffice to say, I learned a lot of global politics at an age when I didn't exactly need to know about the START III nuclear disarmament treaty to pass algebra class.
But I cannot ignore the huge impact that the game, and the whole Metal Gear series, opened my eyes to the adult workings of the world. From playing Mario and Zelda and fantasy games like those I listed above, I was suddenly pulled into a world of conspiracy, dirty politics, and an overwhelming emphasis on the power of money.
Metal Gear Solid has led to more Wikipedia-filled nights than any other entry on this list. And from that, I gained an immediate interest in following world events and reading articles on government action. Metal Gear Solid may possibly be responsible for my current interest in the political climate.
That is remarkable.
5) Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
So my follow-up to a political war story and the closure to this article is a wacky game about an attorney?
Yes, yes it is.
Released in 2001 on the Nintendo DS, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a visual novel following a defense lawyer. The game is deeply engaging, featuring a cast of pun-filled characters, grisly acts of murder, and doubt in the sense of wright and wrong.
Okay, right and wrong.
Phoenix Wright is a keystone in my skills as a game developer and as a writer. As a visual novel, Phoenix Wright is packed with dialog and details, boasting 210,000(!) words in its script. The game has stoked my desire for deep narratives within my own projects. The stories told within are among some of my favorites stories read, and that's including full-sized novels I've consumed.
Phoenix Wright released during what are very important years of learning for me, a time when I was building an outlook on the world and developing my core beliefs that I carry to this day. (As are the others on this list. Notice how four of these titles released in the early 2000's. So yes, that means I played the remastered Twin Snakes before the original Metal Gear Solid).
I hope you enjoyed reading through this list. Special thanks to The Game Professor for letting me nick this idea and for sharing his list with us.
Please feel free to share the games that influenced you in the comment section or on Twitter with the Among Elusions team.
We're eager to know.
- Johnny Toxin