Sasquatch DNA: Spencer's 10 Most-Influential Games

Ed's note: Our staff has played more games than we care to admit -- really, it's embarrassing. But throughout the thousands of hours we willingly (and sometimes begrudgingly) wasted, only a scant few titles have shaped our appreciation of the medium. Far fewer influenced our critiquing of and writing about the entirety of videogames. It's important that we share these special games, if only to give our readers a better understanding of who we are as a publication.

In an ongoing feature series, we'll highlight every staff member's 10 most-influential games. Lists aren't ordered by importance or any opinionated superlatives; rather, each list is organized chronologically by the order in which we played our games. We've also noted the original North American release dates, developers and relevant platforms.

Why not make a "Top 10?" Because focusing on numerical superiority diminishes the overall critical value of each title. (We'll save the lists for our GOTY awards.) Enjoy!

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Escape Velocity

May 5, 1996 | Ambrosia Software | Mac OS

In 1996, I was already steeped in video games. Hours of my time had been spent on old CGA DOS titles like Striker and Arctic Adventure and Mixed-Up Mother Goose. Meanwhile, my friends (what few I had) were showing off their Nintendo and Sega systems whenever I went to visit. To be honest, these games were much more compelling than those I played at home -- indeed, I watched a large segment of Secret of Mana with stars in my eyes, astonished that a game could be so vivid and rich.

Experiences like this stuck, and I begged my parents time and time again for a console system. My folks never listened -- they were both tepid about the idea of a dedicated game system, and unsure as to the potential effects of one on my developing mind -- so I resigned myself to flat, simple games displayed in cyan, magenta, and white.

It was a classmate who brought a shareware copy of Escape Velocity to school, and installed it on one of the computer lab Macintosh LC520s. “It's a game where you fly a spaceship,” he told me. I was immediately on board.

But it turned out to be more than that; EV opened my eyes in a lot of ways. It was an RPG, perhaps the first true RPG I ever played, and it was open world, with no real requirements placed on me as the player. Plus it was vast, truly massive on a scale I had never seen before. I played every moment I was allowed at school, but it felt like I had done little more than scratch the surface. I was captivated.

As mom and dad finally went to upgrade our 1986-era computer, my begging shifted objective -- more than a console, more than a new PC, more than anything, I wanted my folks to get a Mac. And, in truth, it was for only one reason: I wanted to play Escape Velocity.

Eventually, my parents bought a Windows system (a monolithic Gateway 2000), and so began a new chapter of my life with video games. But EV opened me up to the idea that computer games weren't just poor, three-color copies of their console contemporaries. Indeed, they could exceed their console-bound counterparts, rich with worlds as vivid as their competitors and much, much deeper.

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Baldur's Gate

December 21, 1998 | Black Isle Studios / BioWare Corporation | Windows

Outside of my Cub Scout den, I didn't really have many friends in elementary school. And in fairness, there were reasons -- through the age of 12 I was a know-it-all, a scrawny, simpering teacher's pet who was literally picked last in gym class. While those few friends I had (and still have, in some cases) meant the world to me, I thought that making new friends would be a more or less lost cause.

As I entered junior high, it seemed like the status quo would be more or less maintained -- if not exacerbated by the onset of puberty in everyone but myself. Near the start of the year, our biology class was to go to a on a day hike at Angel Rocks, to explore and soak in every bit of nature we could get before winter strangled the life from the outdoors. As was usual for such outings, I lagged at the back of the pack, my weak body unable to keep pace with the other kids.

This time, however, I wasn't alone -- a pudgy blonde kid named Brian was stuck in the back of the pack as well, wheezing away with me. Being that we were both stuck there, we did what any uncool nerd kids would do: we struck up a conversation about games. I chattered eagerly about X-Wing, he gleefully spoke of Worms 2, and as we made our way up the trail, we became fast friends.

A couple months later, Brian mentioned a game called Dungeons & Dragons. His dad had given him the rulebooks and materials, and he wanted to try running a campaign. Intrigued, I came over one evening to play. As we waited for the rest of our party to arrive, Brian introduced me to the basics with a game called Baldur's Gate.

This is where I could segue, shift the story in a way that I begin waxing poetic on BG's story, its accurate and streamlined implementation of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, its (for the era) impressive graphics and detailed art style. But for all its delights, the game itself is less important than what it represented for me -- the chance to make friends over a game. That evening, each of the fledgling D&D group took turns with the first few minutes of Baldur's Gate, learning the basics of character creation, what our stats meant, what each class could do. We adopted the D&D 2.0 rules as a common language, and bonded through its use.

So many times in my life, I've used games that way, as a shared language, to quickly get to know somebody. And as a nerdy kid, it was especially important -- on some basic level, Baldur's Gate is the reason I'm socially competent.

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Bolo

1989 | Stuart Cheshire | Mac OS

For a kid who was so snide about Apple computers (and who now finds moments to poke fun at his iPhone-using friends), gaming on the Mac was a big part of my youth. The local school district, at that time, was Mac-only, and with honest-to-god internet access, we students scrambled to find every game we could download on the then-much-smaller World Wide Web.

Initially, it was a fairly mixed bag -- shareware copies of Escape Velocity: Override and various knock-offs of Pong and Tron. But before too long, one game found itself installed on almost every computer in our middle school (and, quite possibly, in the other schools as well).

Bolo was that game. And it may be one of the deepest, richest multiplayer experiences I've had in my life.

On the surface, Bolo is a simplistic tank-shooter -- you move in four directions, and attempt to destroy your foes -- but beneath that simplicity there's surprising complexity for a game of its age. Resources can be collected on the map, used to erect barricades and lay pavement for easier movement. Neutral gun emplacements can be captured by those skilled enough to demolish them, and rebuilt for defensive firepower. Mines can be set to damage foes and dig trenches. Most importantly, alliances can be formed between players, or groups of players.

Set loose into a large group of seventh and eighth graders, Bolo quickly took on a life of its own. Servers, secreted away somewhere in the school, would run for days or weeks at a time. We played between classes, at lunch, even in class if we thought we could get away with it. Grand alliances would spring up and build massive bases fortified with turrets. Those not lucky enough to join those powerful groups would hide in the dwindling woods, setting up water-traps and waiting in ambush for anyone foolish enough to venture out so far. Eventually, alliances would go sour, and fighting would break out in the fortresses, turrets and tanks turning on each other in a show of brutal, sudden violence. The exiled players would swoop in like vultures, killing off the stragglers, claiming the largess of the fallen for their own.

And when the land had become too scorched and depleted to continue, someone would start a new server and the game would begin once more.

Before Bolo, the most complex multiplayer I had ever experienced was the split-screen fare of the venerable Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, or the Nintendo 64. These games were good, sure, but fairly limited in their scope. Bolo, and its complexity, are what really turned me on to multiplayer gaming in general, and LAN gaming in specific. That turned into an obsession that I carry to this very day.

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Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

February 8, 1999 | Firaxis Games East | Windows

Most people have one piece of media so far and away their favorite that it exerts a sort of gravitational pull, warping their perception of the entire category. For me, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri is that source of gravity.

Alpha Centauri isn't on this list because of its arrival at a particular time in my life, or because of something it helped me learn. It's here simply because I think it's the best 4X strategy game of all time. Casting off the constraints of the world we know was a perfect move for SMAC, and allowed it enormous freedom in the way it explored its setting. Stodgy nation-states, so steeped in years of history, gave way to Factions fixated on ideologies, and explored base concepts of how society should be run. Where Civilization uses historically based military units, Alpha Centauri allowed players to mix and match their technologies, building units that filled their exact tactical needs. Rather than lean on the catch-all “barbarians” to provide early-game antagonism, SMAC filled the slot with exotic creatures, providing flora and fauna to further illustrate the alien nature of Planet (and providing an ongoing rather than temporary threat).

What's more, Alpha Centauri was one of the first games I played which supported extensive customization -- hours of my life have been spent creating custom faction art, statistics, and dialog, to be imported into the game. Thanks to this flexibility, I've had rounds of SMAC containing factions as diverse as my circle of friends, the greater British wizarding community, and even the game's developers themselves. Though making completely broken, powerful factions was simple, creating ones that balanced well with the game was more of a challenge, and I still try my hand at it from time to time.

Unfortunately, having found perfection so early is a burden more than a relief. Alpha Centauri set expectations for me so grand that many games remain disappointing by comparison. Each installment of the Civilization series (original through the latest entry, Civilization V) has delighted me, and even as I've burned hours and and hours on them, I keep finding myself drifting back to SMAC. Indeed, SMAC's own spiritual successor, Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth (try saying that five times fast), is due out next month at the time of this writing, and I already know that, as much as I enjoy it, it will pale next to its heritage.

Still, I soldier on.

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FreeSpace 2

October 1, 1999 | Volition | Windows

In media, there are some things that so improve upon the original that they may as well be considered the original. The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica is far and away better than its source material, for example, as is Star Trek: The Next Generation (though that makes me a heretic in some circles). FreeSpace 2 is a prime example of this phenomenon, as it far-outstripped its predecessors (FreeSpace: The Great War and, before that, the Descent series), coming to represent the pinnacle of a genre that would die out not long thereafter.

Simulators were the first games I truly loved. The first video game I ever played was a sim, specifically Flight Simulator 1.0. A CD-ROM copy of Star Wars: X-Wing was one of the first games I played on the computer my family got in 1996 -- a surprise gift from my dad. X-Wing was, in my eyes, the best of the genre, and I followed the series closely until a fateful day in 1999.

On a PC Gamer demo disc (I thrived on them at the time), I noticed an entry for FreeSpace 2. While I was peripherally aware of the Descent series, I had never played it, nor had I heard of its developer, Volition. However, the X-Wing: Alliance demo had failed to satisfy, and, hungry for a new space simulator, I gave it a try.

Though my memories of the time have faded, I'm pretty sure my folks saw me playing the demo enough times that my dad (who, for all his gruffness, is a very doting father) bought a copy of the full game for my birthday.

FreeSpace 2 was the swan-song of the then-dying space simulator genre. Its engine was gorgeous, and conveyed the feel of everything from the most nimble interceptor to the heaviest bomber with great distinctiveness. It also illustrated scale more expertly than any game I've ever seen -- your role was important, of course, but you were not an infinitely-regenerating ubermensch, and your ship reflected this, being truly minuscule compared to the game's capital ships. I can't count the number of times I got cocky, made a risky move, and got accidentally destroyed -- incinerated by those behemoths as they slugged it out with heavy beam weaponry.

But more than that, FreeSpace 2 managed to tell a compelling space opera story -- not just through briefings and cutscenes like its contemporaries, but through the missions of the game itself. Moments of drama, cloak-and-dagger espionage, mysterious disappearance, and, indeed, despairing hopelessness were all conveyed expertly, without taking you from the cockpit of your fighter. While the writing is solid enough, the way the story unfolds for the player is, for my money, on par with the finest games of today.

As an aside, of all the older games on my list, FreeSpace 2 is one of the easiest to recommend. After the collapse of its publishers, Interplay, Volition released the source code for the game to the public. A dedicated group now serves as developers and curators of FreeSpace 2, under the banner of the Source Code Project. With a copy of the game (a cool $10 on GOG or Steam, less during sales) and an installer utility, you can now enjoy the finest graphical bells and whistles as you rocket through the void.

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Unreal Tournament

November 23, 1999 | Epic Games | Windows

Thinking back on it, I never gave my high school biology teacher, Mister Cox, enough credit at the time. He seemed like a hard-ass, sure, but only to my eye-rolling teenaged self. And, being a younger teacher, he installed games (his own copies, from home!) on the classroom computers. While these were, of course, forbidden during school hours, he let us come in during lunch to play against each other on the classroom's six iMacs.

The most popular title was Unreal Tournament.

I'm pretty sure this wasn't the setting in which I first tried UT. My friends owned copies, and I had sampled the original Unreal on my computer at home, playing deathmatch skirmishes against AI bots. But while I had played first person shooters, and played games on a LAN, Unreal Tournament was something new. After a brief learning curve, I became a contender. Before too long, I was at the head of the pack, nigh-on unstoppable. I won matches, topped the scoreboard, and was the bane of the freshman biology room between the hours of 12:30 and 1:00pm. UT99 was the first game in which I could compete. It was the first game I could point to and say “I'm good at this.”

This might seem ridiculous and self-glorifying, to fixate on a game just because I could win. But there's a little more to it than that.

I'm not a confident person by nature -- indeed, even today I'm the most timid extravert you're likely to meet. In that classroom, during my freshman year of high school, I was fourteen years old. I was secure in my attraction to the opposite sex, but still found girls terrifying. I had learned how to make friends, but my grasp of it was tenuous, and I feared losing them all the time. I was clever, sure, but cleverness doesn't really make for confidence -- it mostly helps you learn how to get by without confidence. Simply put, I didn't feel in control of my own life.

In addition to this, I enjoyed games, but as my friends were all cutting their teeth on consoles, I remained woefully unpracticed in the use of controllers. Many slumber parties were spent staring at the bottom-right corner of a TV, awaiting the inevitable red screen indicating my death in rounds of 007 Goldeneye or Perfect Dark. Rarely did they gloat, and I wasn't terribly dismayed by dying over and over -- it was just the way things were. As much as I liked video games, I was just not particularly adept in them.

As the lunch bell sounded, and I clawed my way to the top of the scoreboard in DM-Morpheus or DM-Barricade, I began to realize that I could be good at things, that I could be in control. Those victories were more than just fun -- they gave me a level of confidence in myself that, previously, I had only had in my academics. I won't say that it was Unreal Tournament alone that made me blossom as an individual, but it certainly played a role. And it definitely helped cement first-person shooters as my favorite genre.

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Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos

July 3, 2002 | Blizzard Entertainment | Windows / Mac OS

Camped out in a garage, the LAN party's host, Nathaniel, spoke up. “Let's play some War3.

“Nah, we were just playing StarCraft. We should mix it up a little.”

“No, you've got to check out this map, it's different.” A few of us gathered around Nathaniel's CRT, to see a precisely-arranged set of waypoints, all leading to a central nexus.

“It's called ‘Cube Defense.'”

The games we typically played at our small-scale rural LAN parties had to meet a couple basic criteria.

  1. Did someone own the game?
  2. Could we all, reliably, play that person's copy?

As you might imagine, this skewed the landscape of what we actually played. Unreal Tournament, which had its copy protection stripped by an official patch, was a freebie. Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast worked well as long as one launched the game from the retail disc before switching to a burned copy. Westwood strategy games (think Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2) were favorites -- thanks to the studio's fondness for full-motion video cutscenes, they ended up with two to four legitimate, functional discs apiece.

WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos took a bit of legwork -- it required a crack downloaded from dubious online sources, which had to be replaced whenever someone with a real copy played on Battle.net. And, initially, it was simply to try out the new hotness -- Blizzard RTS in 3D majesty. We played the occasional round, but otherwise it simply wasn't that compelling. Though the story and styling and balance of Warcraft III are everything you'd expect from a Blizzard game, that's not the reason it stuck around, nor the reason it's on this list. Rather, it is remarkable, even important, thanks to the depth of its editor and the flexibility of its engine.

Once the floodgates opened, delivering files from thousands of dedicated fan mappers, War3 went from being an idle curiosity amongst my friends to one of our most cherished, often-played titles. A single game gave us countless hours of entertainment, all because a file smaller than a megabyte could transform it from an RTS into an RPG, a collection of minigames, a kart racing title, or even the canvas for an art contest. It is not an exaggeration to say that Warcraft 3 effectively birthed two distinctive genres of strategy games -- titles as diverse as Defense Grid and League of Legends owe their very existence to that one early-2000s story of Orcs and Men.

For me, War3 now serves as gaming comfort food. If I ever feel lonely or distraught, and it's late at night, I put on a copy of Hackers on one monitor, fire up a round of GemTD on the other, and let myself exist in the past.

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Dance Dance Revolution Extreme

Oct 29, 2002 | Konami Computer Entertainment | Arcade

Younger readers may need a bit of background to grasp this article, so here's a primer: Before Dance Central, there was Rock Band. Before that, we had Guitar Hero, and earlier than that, back in the heady, stupid days of the early 2000s, we had Dance Dance Revolution.

To call DDR “gimmicky” would be, and I mean this in the most affectionate possible way, extremely apt. It represents a pinnacle of Japanese kitsch, the kind of asinine crap that we imported in bulk along with Pokémon and Naruto.

What's more, it's damned good.

My first encounter with DDR was in a mostly-abandoned arcade in Las Vegas, and aside the hilarity of failing a couple beginner-difficulty songs with my mom, I didn't think much of it at the time. But as I went into high school, a few imported Dance Dance Revolution Extreme cabinets popped up in arcades around town, plus console-savvy friends and Japanophiles alike were bringing home versions of the game to LAN parties and gatherings. I scoffed at first, turning up my nose at the absurdity of the game. "It's not even dancing," I would say, "what's the point?"

Not long after that, I was stomping along on thin foam pads laid on concrete garage floors.

DDR was not the first rhythm game, nor was Extreme the first entry in the series (it was, at very least, the 8th). But it is one of the purest forms of the genre -- four simple arrows, stopmed in time with J-pop hits, obscure electronic tracks, and the occasional top-40 song (in the North American version) at least. That simplicity is deeply, potently addictive, and though the rhythm game genre has since died (or at least gone into a deep hibernation), Dance Dance Revolution still has me hooked. Indeed, when I went to Seattle's Gameworks arcade to take a photo of their Extreme cabinet, I ended up playing through a few songs. It hadn't been my intention, it just happened.

Nothing else in the rhythm genre comes close for me.

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Portal

Oct 10, 2007 | Valve | Windows

My first playthrough of Portal was, if I'm to be honest, a bit disappointing. I had been eagerly following the game since a friend showed me Narbacular Drop, the student project whose developers Valve had hired to create it. The teaser trailer, which featured a robotic female voice speaking in hilarious corporate non-statements, was viewed in my college apartment more or less weekly.

When my copy of The Orange Box finally unlocked on Steam, Portal was the first game I fired up. By that night I had finished it, and while the puzzles were plenty of fun, it seemed like the trailer had misrepresented it -- silly dialog eschewed in favor of context-free puzzles and eerie ambient music. Enjoyable, but not what I had been expecting.

The next day, arriving at work, I found my coworkers chattering about something. "I just loved her delivery when she said 'wheeeeeeee!'" said one, while another lauded the "Party Escort Submission Position."

"What are you guys talking about?" I asked.

"Portal! Have you played it yet?"

"Yeah, but I don't remember any of that." Eyebrows were raised, and heads cocked. I slinked to my desk.

When I got home that night, I selected Portal in Steam, and hit "Verify Integrity of Game Cache." The progress bar swept up to 100, and to my surprise, the client popped up with "Files were missing, and will be downloaded." My copy, for whatever reason, had been completely missing its dialog, and I had played the entire game without knowing.

It's honestly a tribute to the base concept of Portal, that I enjoyed myself in a completely empty and quite creepy form of the game. But Portal really shines thanks to its sense of humor, and in combination -- as a delightfully funny, exceedingly clever first-person puzzler -- it made first-person games more than just gun-shooting violence festivals.

And to think, I almost totally missed it.

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The Stanley Parable

Oct 17, 2013 | Galactic Cafe | Windows / Mac OS

Games are absolutely a form of art. However, as art forms go, games takes themselves too seriously for my tastes. Consider its elders: film has the lamentable "Scary Movie," music has the sublime "Weird Al" Yankovic, and even painting has the venerable "Dogs Playing Poker." These are all art forms which mock themselves, and point out their own flaws. That willingness to mock eventually coalesces into satire -- and as someone who grew up in a family that holds satire in high regard, I consider it an important sign of the maturity of artistic mediums.

While there are jokes, tributes, and easter eggs strewn about the gaming landscape, titles that can be considered purely satirical are few and far between. Those few games that do fit the bill have, historically, been pretty lackluster --Matt Hazard, anyone?

The Stanley Parable was my hardest-fought pick for Game of the Year 2013, and at the time I knew it to be witty, clever, and a good commentary on games as a medium. But I hadn't made the connection in my head, linking together all the facts to one conclusion: The Stanley Parable is possibly the best work of games satire I've ever played.

There's no specific objective to The Stanley Parable, at least not at first. Indeed, its start is benign, and I've had more than one friend begin the game, follow the narrator's cues, complete the route inside of ten minutes, and wonder what all the fuss was about. But the harder you try to buck the predetermined route, the farther the game veers off course, shifting into territory that's dark, humorous, or sardonic.

Most notably, one of the forks proceeds to fly in the face of the player, actively mocking the players, developers, and even various forms of the medium itself. The demo of The Stanley Parable, as well, lambastes common industry tropes, managing to be a separate, hilarious experience from the game it's supposed to be advertising. And even the game's achievements join in on the fun, roundly mocking the system of arbitrary rewards meant to keep players engaged.

I'd say that it's "all in good fun," but the tone definitely borders on harsh or snide. However, if the medium wishes to mature, it should probably take that satirical view in stride.