Perhaps inspired by a meme going around about "10 Books That Have Stayed With You," my co-worker and general cool person Angela asked me to give a "Top 10 Video Games as Art," which I can't do anymore than I can tell you the 10 best albums of all time, or 10 best movies, or 10 best paintings. So instead I present 10 games that have particularly contributed to my personal development (as among other things a multimedia artist). In my list, I sometimes say "we." This tends to primarily mean me and my sister, and usually my cousin Scarlett, but often also includes ancillary friends.
FaceMaker (Commodore64, 1983) - My first computer game. The first one I remember, at least. It's what it sounds like from the title - you pick a face shape, then eyes, hair; sort of a cross between paper dolls and police ID sketches. I could play it all by myself without help or needing anybody else in the room. Doing so is one of my earliest memories, although by the first time I remember is when I was four, and in the memory, playing the game was already something I'd done a lot of. I seem to recall I particularly liked the blue eyes with blue eyelashes.
Fly Swatter (?, sometime in the 80s. DOS system. 8 bit) - Not to be confused with Splat. This was a bit like three-card monte, but not entirely; a fly jumped back and forth between three positions on the screen, beeping each time it changed position, and then three orange flyswatters slapped down. You had to click on the one the fly was under.
This started out very easy, but the metronome cranked up with each level, so very quickly the fly was flickering back and forth at a rate possibly exceeding screen refresh and the movement beep became a steady squeal. You kind of had to unfocus your eyes and trust that you'd unconsciously picked up on where the fly was. My sister and I played this a lot, even though we had much better games. We are both now create somewhat inscrutable art and have a high tolerance for randomness and aggressive music.
Prince of Persia (Broderbund, 1989; the version I owned was the 1990 DOS port) - This would definitely be on my games-as-art top 10 if I made one. The structure is perfect and the movement is beautifully rotoscoped. The moment when you crash through the mirror and your reflection runs off in another direction is sublime. (The game was created by Jordan Mechner, who is also responsible for The Last Express, itself exquisite and tragically underplayed due to unfortunate marketing/merger timing.) If you haven't played it, I recommend you find a download; the game only takes an hour to play. (You are not allowed to take more than an hour. You have infinite lives but limited time.)
Prince of Persia is on my list because it's a platformer which is not side-scrolling. It is not uncommon to have to jump off the edge of a screen without being sure whether you'll have anything to land on. My sister, cousin, and I referred to this as "the leap of faith." When I need to push forward with maniac confidence into a situation that is highly uncertain (which most often has to do with launching a project that may not find an audience), I still refer to it as leap of faith time. I don't mean it religiously. I mean it Prince of Persia style.
Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood (Sierra On-Line, 1992) - Sierra text adventures were a staple of my childhood, starting with Kings Quest I on my PC-Junior. (The Sierra credo of "save early, save often" continues to influence my real-world thinking, maybe including my tendency to keep a public diary. And document backups.) Roberta Williams was something of a role model, although her sense of humor was a lot cornier and more referential than mine. However, this title had a different designer, which I didn't realize until I looked it up just now: Christy Marx, who also created the TV series Jem and the Holograms.
That explains why the sensibility felt so different - not corny at all, but rich and literary, with characters who seemed human - who seemed to have lives and pasts that did not revolve around interactions with the player. And it made you want to be noble: there was a depth to the moral questions in the game that resonated beyond just the game. It's possible I'm over-elevating it in my memory, but I can't think of a game since which has had the same feeling of the importance of your actions; maybe Shadow of the Colossus. In particular, the portrayal of Marion was fascinating; she was a person who had no trouble reconciling druid beliefs and Christian worship, but knew nobody else was likely to feel that way and that her beliefs put her at risk.
The game was well-researched, and as parts of puzzles I wound up learning various real-world lore like the druidic names of trees, hand code, the supposed mystical properties of gemstones, and how to play nine men's morris, which was directly useful since it gave me something to do if I was stuck waiting outside for something. I haven't had cause to do so recently, but I would still feel very comfortable scratching a morris board into the ground and grabbing some pebbles and acorns as counters. (I've also done this on paper and used pennies and nickels.) Like Prince of Persia, I'm fairly confident you could find a free download of this.
Star Wars: X-Wing (LucasArts, 1993) - I played this for many, many hours. It may be my favorite game of all time. I found it unsettling that your characters could die - that you couldn't revert to a saved game. That's the first time I think I'd run into a game like that, a game which in some sense punished you for risking too much. I game to get away from that kind of thing, so I spent more time playing the "simulator" missions than the campaigns that took you through the actual game arc. Another contributor to this impulse was the notion of playing a simulator within a simulator, which made the game more "real" because it was supposed to feel like a simulator; that's what it was simulating.
But more than anything I loved the maze, a series of gates that light up when you fly through them and add time to your clock, sort of like three-dimensional slalom crossed with target shooting. Flying through light-up gates for hours at a time while orchestral music plays (first use of the iMuse music system) and visual cues trick your inner ear into thinking you're weightlessly suspended (this only worked if the room was dark) is probably the most relaxing thing I have ever experienced. I don't know how you'd top that.
Opening Night (MECC, 1995) - One in a long line of games that let us write absurdist stories and add music and animation (or clip art illustrations). We still quote parts of our Cartooner (Electronic Arts, 1989) cartoons, which were not uncommonly about flying objects going the wrong direction and Storybook Weaver (MECC, 1994) stories, but Opening Night, which had video capture of human actors in 19th century costumes, plus a comprehensive library of score music, was the pinnacle. It was the pinnacle because the computer would do the voices for you if you wanted. Badly. I don't think it gets better than hearing a vocoder say "Gasp. This must be the kingdom of the snaky lady."
A reasonable percentage of our gameplay was creating onomotopoeic dialog for the computer and stringing together physical actions that couldn't smoothly follow each other, "breaking" the humanity of the humans so they no longer read as video. This managed to be simultaneously funny and frightening, as you might imagine since you are an adult, but which felt (and really still feels) illicit, exciting but sickening. I didn't see any David Lynch until a few years later, but when I did it immediately felt familiar.
GoldenEye 007 (Rare, 1997) - I never owned this (although I did play it, and later played a lot of TimeSplitters2, which was by the same team but even sillier), but it makes the list because I believe the first machinima I ever watched was a video recording of a kid in my junior-year high school English class playing two characters split screen to re-enact "The Most Dangerous Game" as a class project. Said kid and I later teamed up to make a supercut of a bunch of King Arthur films for a Once And Future King book report. (I believe this was also the year of my first short film based on Frankenstein, by no means my last.)
Grim Fandango (LucasArts, 1998) - It is hard to overstate my admiration for LucasArts point-and-click games during their heyday, 1990-1998. The SCUMM interface was a thing of beauty, and the marvelous silliness of games like Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Sam and Max was transcendant. I still consider Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis to be the actual Indy IV instead of Crystal Skull. But when I'm sitting in a room with game designers (which happens not irregularly), Grim Fandango is the one that tends to come up the most, and with the most reverence. It's a film noir set in the afterlife, and unfortunately it somewhat marked the end of the era; after that, LucasArts became mostly a clearinghouse for Star Wars tie-ins, not all developed in house, many of which had quality control issues. (Some of which I had glitchy fun with.)
In a weird way, the trajectory of LucasArts mirrors (or informed) my optimism about and then disappointment with the information economy, the internet, and geek culture. It could be so good, comrades, and instead it's a lot of rushed sequels and linkbait. At least I'll always have the ability to menace pidgeons with a balloon animal Robert Frost. And I'm mildly optimistic that the point-and-click genre will be resurrected now that people are gaming on tablets; they were never a fit for consoles.
Karaoke Revolution (Harmonix, 2003) - I was introduced to this game at a cast party, with the guide vocals turned off. (I have since always turned the guide vocals off; it's a better game that way.) I was not necessarily the person with the best voice at the party, but I realized pretty quickly I was getting the highest scores, for two reasons. One, the note tube interface was intuitive to me in a way that retroactively made me realize I was a much better sight reader of vocal music than I gave myself credit for (the note tubes closely resemble Gregorian chant notation), and two, it turns out the overtones of my voice are extremely recognizable to computers.
Knowing that second thing is what made me absolutely sure a few years later that I'd be an incredibly successful closed captioner (which involves voice recognition software), which I was. Getting a computer to accurately interpret what I'm saying? Easy. Consequently, the IT guys at my current workplace sometimes use recordings of me to test new captioning software baselines. Meanwhile, I played enough of Karaoke Revolution and its sequels that I expanded my vocal range probably half an octave, developed better breathing and projection techniques, and got more confident about improvising unwritten harmonies. (Which is not part of the game, but there are two mics and only one person needs to hit the right note for it to score.) Choir taught me how to blend; Karaoke Revolution taught me (somewhat) how to not blend.
Portal (Valve, 2007) - I sing "Still Alive" at least monthly, maybe weekly, as something like a personal anthem. A fake Voight-Kamf-ish personality test was part of the viral marketing before the release; Patrick pointed it out to me after we hadn't talked in a while, and it's one of the things that re-normalized our friendship. The conservation-of-momentum aspects of the game remind me of Incredible Machine (Dynamix, 1993) in the best way.