I live in a big city now, and have since I was a teenager. But before coming here after my parents went through a messy divorce, I lived in a little northern town in the middle of the woods.
There wasn't a lot to do, and I was ostracized from most of the rest of my peers for being different, an outsider. But I had one good friend, a boy named Shawn who was a little older than I was, and whose parents owned the saw mill in town. I remember spending an inordinate amount of time at their backwater trailer in the forest on the outskirts of town; they lived very simply and in a very rustic way, with no less than thirteen cats who had free reign of the trailer, and who a bag of food was opened for every morning while they would go in and out at their leisure. Some wouldn't come back occasionally; the often cruel nature of the wilderness took them. But I remember quite a few of them, and it isn't until thirteen of the bloody things are together in one place that you really start to notice how different their personalities are.
There was Sneech, the black kitten with a white star on his belly. He didn't have any care for hygiene. Toad was a cat with a glandular problem who was supremely overweight, and would sit in the entryway of the trailer day in and day out; he loved a good pet. Pepsi (or was it cola?) was a calico who was incredibly high strung, and loved to climb the curtains. There was another fat cat whose name I don't remember who would sleep IN the food bag, guarding it fiercely from all but the strongest of the group; it was only when he fell asleep that you could go near it. There was a little white cat who was incredibly cuddly and who would sit on your lap all day if you let her.
Apart from playing with cats, we also played games. Shawns' house is where I first played Final Fantasy 7, DOOM on his IBM PC, and an amazing game called Star Control 2 on his 3DO.
Most people didn't have a 3DO at the time due to their incredibly high price point, and it's probably for the best; the system failed, and although it was quite an interesting and ambitious effort, it just hit at the wrong time, when the market wasn't quite ready for such a drastic change. But I personally loved it; games like Starfighter, The Horde, and especially Star Control 2 were some of the most memorable throughout my childhood, and to this day I would still gladly play all of them.
Star Control 2 was especially unique, however. It was an incredibly vast space adventure, one which spanned an entire galaxy, across hundreds of individual systems. The object of the game was to explore, completely without direction or hand holding, and to ultimately form an alliance with other alien races to defeat the vicious Ur-Quan, a duality race which share ultimately the same goal, which is to rule over the galaxy with an iron fist, enslaving all the other races or destroying them; whichever comes first. It is incredibly complex in the world it creates and the history which has been developed, with each race having a unique backstory (some not quite as clear as others, like in the case of the quizzical Orz, or the narrow minded fanatical Mycon) and personality which defines them, and separates them from their peers.
Another similar game came out earlier called Starflight which had very similar gameplay; explore planets, gather resources, meet with and kill alien races, etc. But there was something about it at the time which really held me at a disinterested distance from it, and I think it was a lack of personality.
Star Control 2, now available for free in a reworked edition called The Ur-Quan Masters (get the 3DO speech and music packs if you plan to play it, trust me.) was special not just because of its open world game play and fun, arcade combat, but because it oozed personality. You wanted to spend time in the world, wanted to savor ever line of dialogue from every bizarre creature in the game. The mere mention of the game around other people who have played it will usually explode into excited anecdotes about the cowardly Spathi, the zen like Pkunk who use curse words to power their ship, and the ugly VUX (Very Ugly Xenomorph) who has a bizarre fetish for humans, whom all other VUX view as the most disgusting and hateful creatures in the galaxy. Remember when you use a radio to convince the spider-like Ilwrath that you are their Gods Dogar and Kazon, and get them to go fight the brutish Thraddash?
Good times, good times.
When a game has a strong sense of personality, regardless of the gameplay itself, that can make a huge difference in ones willingness to sit through it. Skullmonkeys by Doug TenNapel is an incredibly simple, frustrating platformer with nothing to offer, especially considering it came out during a time when Crash Bandicoot and Mario 64 were kings. But the clay it is molded from, the cute character animations, and a bonus stage that has a folk song about bonus stages
playing in the background made me play through to the very end, and because the game told me who it was and screamed out with its uniqueness in presentation, I will never forget it.
I think anyone can argue against the gameplay in Toejam and Earl for being slow, and rather monotonous; take away the presents, the mad dentist who laughs maniacally when he attacks you, and the two hip-hop loving aliens themselves, and you have nothing more than a simple roguelike where your only real option is to run away from almost everything. But the strong sense of humour, the brilliant rap beat soundtrack, and the hilarious and surprisingly cynical portrayal of humanity afoot is something that will burn itself in your brain permanently after you play it; nobody who has played Toejam and Earl doesn't remember Toejam and Earl.
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is about as standard a dungeon crawl as they come. With a minimalist story and almost nothing to do but engage in constant turn based combat, it is a game that would have been incredibly off putting, were it not for hundreds of inventive creatures, the ability to talk to demons in order to recruit them, the strange and wonderful soundtrack and the very premise itself – fighting to become a God in a world literally turned inside out – I would want to have nothing to do with it for the most part. But all of those other elements kept me going, and that is why the game will always have a place on my shelf; not because I like spending time grinding for hours on end, but because I truly love and cherish the world in which you do it.
That has been my problem with some games coming out in recent years. The new 4X strategy Endless Space left me feeling rather cold; where is the interaction with other races, the ability to explore, or to at least have the illusion of exploration? The game functions magically from a mechanical perspective, and is amazingly slick and streamlined in its presentation. But I would just rather sit down with a clunkier affair like Galactic Civilizations 2, because it feels less like a chilly, distant board game, and more like I am a rising power in a uniquely crafted world. If a game feels like you can see through its skin and down to the bone structure, if it lacks personality, its heart to put your heart into it. You can only interact with it on a superficial level because its business-like exterior is not evoking any feelings in you, and an emotional attachment is not usually made.
Just like the cats at my friends house, I remember them not just for who they were, but for the time I shared with each of them. I remember the way Toad looked tired and was extra affectionate in the last days before his death, I remember when Pepsi got lost in the woods for days, how Sneech got fleas which were only seen because of his white belly, and how the “food bag” cat hissed at the three cats staging an apparent revolution and got his ass kicked when he wouldn't move. I liked all of the cats, but these ones stood out for me because of how unique they were compared to the rest. That is what makes them memorable.
Even the most polished gameplay cannot help a drab, lifeless game stand out among the crowd. Without a hint of personality, without something to separate it from “the rest”, it would have to work very hard to make a real, lasting impact. There are games which I love that have absolutely nothing too them in this regard, but I will never hold them as highly in my personal memory simply because, due to a lack of personality, they just didn't speak to me in the same way. I'll always praise them for being fun, and mechanically sound, but my face won't light up with excitement when I talk about the “beans” video from Skullmonkeys, the “evil ones” from Star Control 2, or the fucking goddamn ridiculously irritating
hamster ball from Toejam and Earl. Seriously, I hate that thing.
As Samuel L. Jackson once said in Pulp Fiction, “Personality goes a long way.”
Coming from a man whose personality has been the exclusive trait to save him from his own recent lineup of horrible appearances, and whose absence of said personality made him the absolute most boring character in the history of the Star Wars franchise, I am inclined to agree.