“Joel, look out!” I swung my scissor-rigged metal pipe without hesitation, feeling it crack into the side of a flanking enemy. One second later, and I would be dead. On a Grounded playthrough, the most difficult gameplay option in The Last of Us, Ellie’s warnings are not just a cool feature – they are necessary for survival. Enemies are allowed to be smart when ambushing in the post-apocalyptic world that Naughty Dog created because Ellie’s existence keeps things fair without breaking immersion. In fact, teamwork plays a part in character building in The Last of Us, so when the not-so-friendly Bill says that caring for someone is only good for “getting you killed,” we get to see first-hand that he could not be more wrong. I could go on for hours listing the reasons The Last of Us is not a perfect game, but the moments that shine brighter than fireflies more than make up for its shortcomings, and I would not trade them for the world.
When developers manage to weld together the pieces of the confusing puzzle that make up a video game, we, as the players, feel the impact on deep, emotional levels. The best part of a flawlessly executed idea in any art form is knowing that someone behind the curtain spent hours, days, weeks, or even years toiling away at one scene, one moment, or even one mechanic to make it absolutely perfect. The list of breathtaking ideas that have come out of this industry gets longer every day, but more than a few will always have a home in the minds of every avid game player.
Hearing a bellowing, sorrowful moan in any horror game is enough to send the bravest of us into a fit, but in the sunken utopia that is BioShock’s Rapture, it means so much more. In the 12 years since its release, nothing has come close to the sinking feeling of impending doom brought on by encountering a Big Daddy.
Big Daddies are shielded in mystery, terror, and the notion that they will provide incredible reward upon defeat, thus serving as a spectacular representation of the entire BioShock series. As they lumber aimlessly through the rusted halls of Rapture, you will most likely find yourself praying to never encounter one face to (metal) face. You would be foolish to try and take one out in either BioShock game they are present in, but, then again, you would also be foolish not to. The healthy amount of ADAM, money, and ammunition you receive from Big Daddy fights almost always warrants the battle’s losses, making the drop of sadness evoked upon each victory all the more confusing and heartbreaking.
Can anyone else remember one of the times they flipped on Star Power and killed it when playing a solo in Guitar Hero? Everyone dreams of becoming a rock god for a moment, but what are the chances of actually achieving those dreams? Music fans are always too ready to let go of the rope holding on to a future that experiments with music in favor of something safe, and it is hard to blame them. Guitar Hero, as silly and unrealistic as it is, gives everyone a chance to gather their friends to just pretend for a while. Feeling the rhythm and becoming one with the music is something you do not need a real guitar for—which is something Guitar Hero does better than most. As ridiculous as it feels at the end of the day, picking up that plastic paper weight and just absolutely shredding no matter the difficulty setting still kicks ass to this day, and it is hard not to think mastery of any entry in the series is at least a little impressive.
Two words: Super Metroid. One game fully realized an entire sub-genre, taking every game designer to school for the past few decades. How? Well, one could obviously point to the choice to block off sections of the game behind power-up-locked blockades, but level design in Super Metroid is more than just the execution of one idea. The game’s sci-fi setting means discovery is a natural part of the experience. Players could never predict what exactly would be around the next corner because the alien world that they visit is unique to this game. Super Metroid wants its audience to feel lost in its labyrinthian hallways because when direction is finally discovered, it is all the more satisfying. Samus genuinely feels like a weathered explorer in a world that is always at the edge of the player’s finger tips, so when Kraid, Ridley, or another fresh, hideous alien creature finally does appear, the buildup feels just as important as the reveal. This emphasis on discovery plays into the aforementioned power-up-blocked progression, too. Here, progress feels like it is more in the hands of the player, again feeding into that genuine sense of exploration on an alien world.
In horror, immersion is paramount, and if you have played any one of the three main Dead Space games, you will likely know which aspect of the game I am about to call attention to. One of the most important and challenging things developers can do in a game is immerse its players, and the now-defunct Visceral Games put immersion before anything else, thus cementing Dead Space as one of horror’s crown jewels. That UI (oh man, that UI) is the glue that holds everything in Dead Space together. In-game stores are navigated via hologram in the world, not in some pop-up menu that was clearly designed by a member of the development team. Isaac’s health bar lays firmly along his spine, indicating his status with clarity without ever being removed from the player’s view. Even the inventory management screen is a hologram that shines from a chest piece attached to Isaac’s suit. The lengths that Visceral Games went to feels almost gimmicky, but the end result meant Dead Space never had any issue with sinking its rusty hooks into anyone that dared trek through the U.S.G. Ishimura.
Whether it be a feature, enemy, mechanic, overall design, or just the UI, one component can elevate an entire adventure. The Last of Us brought us together with one character, and BioShock piqued our curiosity with a single enemy type. Feeling these ideas play out in real time shows us the human element that goes into game design, which might be the driving force behind some of the best games this industry has ever produced. As technology improves, VR and the inevitable similar leaps that are to come will only allow the faces behind our favorite games to capitalize on this dazzling medium even further. No one can say for sure what developers will do next to shift player perspective in bold new ways, but with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox One Series X looming ever closer, video games will only continue to grow as a breeding ground for daring creativity.
What are some of the first memories that come to your mind when looking back on your favorite games? We here at OnlySP would love to hear similar experiences in the comments below or in our community Discord server.