Welcome to Gameological Q&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. It’s extremely similar to The A.V. Club’s AVQ&A feature. You might even say it’s exactly the same. If you have a brilliant question that would make a fun Q&A, send it to brilliantquestions at gameological dot com.
The question for this installment is inspired by something Drew Toal brought up in our Q&A about games you were willing to abandon:
In our last Q&A, Drew mentioned the hypothetical concept of bespoke games—“where the game maker analyzes your preferences and tendencies and makes a custom-fit game accordingly.” Have you ever played a game that felt like it was made just for you?
I got this feeling the first time I played You Don’t Know Jack in the mid-’90s. For a kid with good book smarts and a deep love of pop culture, the game’s subject matter was ideal. And I loved the smartass attitude. But Jack’s reverence for game shows—my first, undying pop-culture obsession—is what really gave it that “This was made just for me!” feeling. We’re talking about a teenage kid who knew the rules—and the optimal strategy, and the camera blocking—for every pricing game on The Price Is Right, and who kept a catalog of the format tweaks on Chuck Woolery’s defunct TV version of Scrabble. Getting a game show right was a pretty big deal for me. Jack, in almost all of its iterations, has gotten it so right. The rhythm is brisk, the sound effects score those cheap pleasure-center hits in the brain, and the question writing is sharp. It’s a shame almost none of those strengths made it to the TV version, but they have carried through to Jack’s more recent iterations as an Xbox 360 release and as the best game on Facebook.
This is a tough one for me, firstly because I already kind of answered it, and secondly because it can very easily bleed into “favorite game” territory. So rather than go with the “OMG Commander Shepard and I have so much in common” refrain, I’ll reach back to a little board game called Axis & Allies. Way back, I loved a good game of Risk (and the occasional round of Stratego). The limits of Risk bugged me, though. Outside of sticking some armies in difficult-to-invade Australia and fighting a desperate, never-ending land war in Asia, the game, while fun, didn’t require a ton of strategy. (And, c’mon, no U-boats?) And then I happened on Axis & Allies, the World War II strategy game with a bunch of serious-looking war dudes on the box. No Hitler, though, as I recall. But it did have submarines, and furthermore, it spoke to all of my problems with Risk. Axis & Allies occupied valuable real estate on my mom’s dining room table, and my experience was informed by my simultaneous discovery of the award-winning (I assume) British documentary, The World At War, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier. At last, a documentary custom-made for the adolescent war junkie.
As the unofficial member of a small indie-rock band in Central Illinois in the late ’90s, the son of a bass player for various rock-and-roll cover bands, and the brother of a heavy metal drummer who can tap a double bass pedal with the best of them—I spent an alarming amount of time around real musicians in my youth but was never really one myself. When asked the inevitable “What do you play?” question from other musician-types I’d hang out with, I’d blush and respond “Nintendo” with a weak laugh because the truth was that I never could commit to a specific instrument. That’s why I was excited to play Guitar Hero when it first came out in 2005, so that I could engage in a simulacrum of what it was like to be on stage playing music—without the dedication of learning to play an instrument or the commitment it takes to be in a band. But after the initial thrill wore off, I found myself pining for a multiplayer version that offered guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, so I could get even closer to the real thing. It felt like destiny, then, when Harmonix offered Rock Band a couple years later and gave me, in the words of The Cars’ Ric Ocasek, “Just What I Needed.” Years later, I still have my fake plastic instruments, microphones, and even a Rock Band-branded fog machine packed away in my closet—even if I no longer have Rock Band parties like I did every month of 2008—in the hope that a couple of my friends will eventually want to get the faux band back together.
Being an awkward twerp in middle school, it was inevitable that I’d wind up in a group of Dungeons & Dragons players. Just one problem: I had a fondness for neither dungeons nor dragons. Then I discovered TOON: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game. No arcane charts or weighty monster manuals here. All you needed to play was some paper, a single six-sided die, and a lonely childhood spent in front of the television. In TOON, “chutzpah” was a character attribute, and the sage, all-knowing Dungeon Master was replaced by an “animator.” Characters didn’t die, they simply “fell down” before bouncing back in the next scene. Instead of rolling “saving throws” against poison or dark magic, players made intelligence checks to determine if their characters were dumb enough to not be affected by gravity after running off a cliff. TOON only hit the table a handful of times. The more hardcore among us found its lack of rules frustrating (the game’s prime directive was “Act Before You Think”), and my interest in role-playing games quickly waned around the time I realized that girls would occasionally talk to you if you made eye contact and spoke above a choked whisper. But I continued to pore over the TOON manuals for years. They were masterpieces of geeky inside jokes, genre parody, and inspired stupidity—hallmarks of what would later become my own comedic sensibility. TOON was fun, but more importantly, it flipped the bird at the impenetrable, overwrought world of D&D. What better lesson could there be for a creepy pre-teen nascent comedy writer?
I’m not sure I have a great answer. I’ve loved many games in the past, but when I was younger, that love bordered on obsession, and it’s hard to tell what’s specifically speaking directly to me when I desperately want any game to speak to me. Recently, I have found myself thinking about XCOM: Enemy Unknown quite a bit. I played this strategy game—in which aliens have been attacking the globe and it’s up to you to defend it—for plenty of hours, then I had to walk away because it’s quite difficult and I needed a break from all the carnage. But I still think about it. The game combines two things I enjoy: meticulous micromanaging and investment in its characters. I’m able to dictate how my money is spent updating my base, and during battles I can form-fit a crack team to take on whatever those aliens throw at me (mostly plasma bullets), and watch them with pride from afar. It places me in the ultimate seat of control, at a time in my life when there are a lot of personal things that are spiraling out of control. It’s nice to feel in charge for a change.
I have an unhealthy obsession with zombies that stretches back years before the rest of the world figured out how awesome they were. Hell, I remember my mother-in-law turning me on to George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead like it was yesterday, and that happened almost 20 years ago. So when Capcom released Dead Rising back in 2004, just as the walking dead were beginning to explode in popularity, it felt like the game I’d been waiting for my entire life. There I was, trapped in a mall full of zombies, with a handful of desperate survivors dependent on me to save them, just like I’d been dreaming about for years! And I mean literally dreaming—I’ve had recurrent zombie dreams on and off since I saw that movie, and a majority of them feature a mall and me desperately trying to rescue people. So yeah, Dead Rising really hit a sweet spot for me. I was such a fan that not only did I overlook the completely broken save system and rage-inducing boss battles, but I was an apologist for them, claiming they added to the depth of the experience. For the record, they don’t—if anything, they nearly kill it—but that’s what getting a near-perfect rendering of the game you’ve been playing in your head for 20 years will do to you!
The only time I can honestly say I’ve ever felt like this is when I was playing the arcade version of Capcom’s Dungeons & Dragons: Tower Of Doom. I was a 12-year-old pen-and-paper role-playing game fanatic, with Gary Gygax my Lord and Savior and the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition DM’s Guide my Holy Bible. My friends and I first found the Tower Of Doom machine in the back of an extremely sketchy basement arcade in the shopping mall by our school. At the time, the game not only featured kick-ass graphics, but it also seemed to encapsulate everything that I loved about Dungeons & Dragons: fighting monsters, collecting treasure, casting spells—sweet mother of Mystara, they even included a friggin’ Displacer Beast! It may have guzzled more than a few allowances’ worth of quarters from me, but as a Dungeons & Dragons junkie constantly chasing that natural D20 high, it felt like the Gods Of Nerddom had created a game just for me.
Anthony John Agnello
Me and Dragon Quest VIII have what you could probably call an unhealthy codependent relationship. What can I say? Passion can destroy people but when the chemistry is right there’s just no stopping it. Up until Dragon Quest VIII’s release in 2005, I hadn’t played one of Yuji Horii’s games since Nintendo Power packed the first Dragon Quest into a subscription. I was curious about the game, though. It came with a Final Fantasy XII demo, and it was very pretty in screenshots. What I wasn’t prepared for when I started playing it was a game that encapsulated everything I want in video games and then some. I loved role-playing games, but none had ever hooked me like this. Koichi Sugiyama’s orchestral score, the bright Akira Toriyama art, the turn-based fighting with very specific characters that continued to grow, and the simple, funny story were all perfect examples of things I looked for in a game, but what really set it apart was the world. You could go everywhere. The forests were forests, the oceans were oceans. Unlike most games that plop you in a world and let you go anywhere—the Grand Theft Autos and Elder Scrolls that had failed to grip me in the past—it always felt like I was doing something with purpose in Dragon Quest VIII. If I wandered into the woods, there was something specific waiting for me, like a monster to recruit or an obscure treasure. It wasn’t just some procedurally generated video game moment.
The one that really stands out to me is The World Ends With You. That game pointed directly at my face and said “Hey! You! This one’s for you!” And having been a former overly emotional self-absorbed city kid who maintained an uninterrupted disdain for the entire world from the safety of my headphones, I looked up and said “No way, man, your structure and rules are not for me. Go away.” But that game understood me in ways no other human being ever did. It understood my obsessive awareness of branding and market trends, my desire to subvert other people’s beliefs by convincing them of what was or was not popular, my fears that absolutely everyone was capable of being possessed by their own fears and turning against me, even the way I think about my meals three steps ahead of lunch time. That game pointed out every one of the things that made me an antisocial obsessive teen, in a manner that was simultaneously compelling and condemning. It filled me with a desire to travel back in time, show The World Ends With You to my younger self, and convince him he wasn’t alone. It also got me to start wearing pins again for the first time since college. (This answer was typed with large noise-canceling headphones OFF my ears. Progress.)
When I was a little kid, my parents discovered I was freakishly good at the game Concentration. I became a parlor trick where they’d encourage guests to challenge me and watch them get trounced by a three-year-old. Once the novelty wore off, that skill didn’t really come up outside of a few mini-games. Then Zynga came out with Hidden Chronicles. Not all of this game was meant for me. It’s a Zynga game, so it involves a lot of harassing your friends to send you random stuff. And you’re supposed to decorate your “estate.” I don’t have patience for that, so while my neighbors’ lawns incorporated rows of complementary-colored flowers in gorgeous geometric patterns, mine looked like something that would get the neighborhood association knocking at my door. I consoled myself by challenging them to games of “FastFind,” where the goal is to find as many objects as you can in one minute. The game only uses a small number of scenes, and whatever weird part of my brain made me a Concentration prodigy also let me memorize the location of every object. I was only limited by how quickly I could move my mouse. I won every game, often by hundreds of thousands of points. There might be others like me out there, but since Hidden Chronicles doesn’t have a global leaderboard, I like to think the game was designed just to make me feel good about my otherwise useless talent.
As a hopeless lifelong Marvel nerd, the 2006 spandex-clad dungeon crawler Marvel Ultimate Alliance often felt like Raven Software had plunged deep into my brain and plucked out all the things I’d ever wanted to see in a superhero game. Boss fights against heavy hitters like Fin Fang Foom, Galactus, and a super-charged Doctor Doom? Levels set as far afield as Atlantis, Murderworld, and the cosmic Shi’ar Empire? A fight against MODOK that takes the form of a trivia quiz? Yes, please. Ultron! Mysterio! Holy shit, they even put Dragon Man in there! I love my superheroes to be Silver Age in tone and goofy as hell, and Ultimate Alliance tapped right into that, celebrating the breadth of Marvel’s sprawling fictional universe and scouring every corner for the characters no other game would ever include. I loved it so much that after beating it on the original Xbox, I picked it up again for the Xbox 360—purely because that was the only way to play as Moon Knight. Ultimate Alliance feasted so greedily from the comic book buffet table that there was nothing left for the deeply disappointing sequel, which swapped all those wonderful locations for drab military bases and gray city streets, and ditched the pulpy threat of Doctor Doom wielding Asgardian power for the bloated squabbling of the “Civil War” storyline. I’m currently keeping everything crossed that the upcoming LEGO Marvel Superheroes will deliver the same hit of sweet Silver Age joy.