10. "John Romero's about to make you his bitch"
Hubris. It invariably arises manifests in the top personalities of any profession, and the games industry is certainly no exception.
Prior to the release of John Romero's Daikatana, the long-haired developer -- still riding high from his Doom and Quake successes -- released a rather striking, minimalist, full-page ad in multiple gaming magazines. It read: "John Romero's about to make you his bitch." And nothing else. Well, nothing else other than Ion Storm's logo and an equally pompous urging that gamers "suck it down."
From there, everyone knows the story: Daikatana was delayed, then sucked complete balls upon release, and Romero faded into relative gaming obscurity. His fall, and the arrogant advertisement which started it all, nicely epitomize developer douchebaggery moreso than any other single sentence in the English language.
Whether we're talking about Derek Smart touting Battlecruiser 3000AD as "the last thing you'll ever desire," or George Broussard's hilariously silly and underwhelming "trailer" for Duke Nukem Forever, or Julian Eggbrecht's suggestion that those reviewers who hated Lair actually weren't playing it correctly, big egos, big gaming budgets, and big failures often go hand in hand.
9. "You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike."
Simultaneously immersive and frustrating, beautifully worded but logically irritating, this one line epitomizes both the strengths and flaws of the classic text adventure.
"You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike" is -- if you'll permit me to be absurdly nerdy for a moment -- a very well-constructed sentence. It is a statement of mystery and ultimate possibility. It's brief, yet descriptive enough that your mind can fill in all the blanks: the details of what the maze looks to are ultimately up to you, but you're given enough information about the current location to make an informed gameplay decision.
Because, when you really get right down to it, "a maze of twisty passages, all alike" is a horrendously confusing thing to read when you're trying to make your way out of a maze. How many passages? Alike how? What the hell am I supposed to do? It is this mixture of attraction to the language, yet utter confusion in conquering it, that makes me give up every text adventure I can find after ten minutes of play.
8. "You were almost a Jill sandwich!"
Gamers are no strangers to horrible, horrible dialogue; whether we're getting haphazardly-translated Engrish from our friends in the Orient or simply suffering from lazy writers, awful dialogue and videogames tragically tend to go hand in hand. I find it hard to pick just one example of horrendous writing to stand for literal decades' worth, but, if only because I'm loathe to give "All Your Base" any position on any top ten list, Barry Burton's famous line from the original Resident Evil will do.
If you ever wonder why so many gamers have a hard time taking interactive storytelling seriously, "you were almost a Jill sandwich" is the reason why. Far more irritating than those games which simply elect to have no story whatsoever are those which try to be entertaining, terrifying, or cleve but fail miserably in the attempt -- namely, games like the Resident Evil series.
Ben Croshaw partially covered this in a recent video, but consider the ridiculousness of a survival horror game which, despite containing insanely supenseful gameplay, has one of the most laughably convoluted and poorly written plots in gaming history? Where, after almost being squished to death, a character responds not with a relatable statement of surprise like "JESUS CHRIST ARE YOU OKAY WE NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE," but by making a snarky joke about sandwiches?
The adorably bad writing found in so many, many, many videogames serve as a constant reminder to better, more story-conscious game developers: this is what you need to be better than We'll never be truly rid of horrendous dialogue and plot -- every storytelling medium has its share of lazy creators -- but it's nice to have cringe-inducing lines like "Jill sandwich" to remind us that games could, and should, be much more than just decently entertaining gameplay wrapped around an irrelevant or stupid story.
7. "That's the second biggest monkey head I've ever seen!"
This is the single best quote in all of (non text-based) adventure gaming. Period.
Spoken by Guybrush Threepwood upon seeing an absurdly large monkey head idol (which, over the course of the series, he tends to do more than a few times), it epitomizes the brilliant writing found in some of the best games of the adventure genre's heyday.
Leisure Suit Larry dealt with sex jokes, Sam and Max dabbled in anthropomorphic absurdity, and the Monkey Island series, with its insult swordfighting and fiendishly difficult puzzles, nimbly jumped back and forth between the high- and lowbrow. In many of the most popular franchises during the late 80's and early 90's, adventure fans experienced a quality of humorous or dramatic writing which, to my mind, has rarely been matched in the years since.
When the player wasn't scratching their head over how to get past one of any number of frustratingly difficult puzzles, they were rewarded with some of the sharpest, most clever writing in the history of videogame storytelling. From a writing point of view, everything the Monkey Island series is -- and everything the best adventure games were -- can be found in this quote.
6. “Didn’t we have some fun though? Remember when the platform was sliding into the fire pit and I said ‘Goodbye’ and you were like ‘NO WAY!’ and then I was all ‘We pretended we were going to murder you’? That was great."
Remember how I was talking about adventure game writing of the late 80's and early 90's? Remember when I said that the level of hilarity achieved in those seemingly simplstic games had rarely been matched since?
Portal is why I used the word "rarely."
Portal fever swept the Internet literally overnight after its release. Less than 12 hours after the Orange Box hit Steam, you could find gamers singing the praises of the Weighted Companion Cube, showing appreciation for the snarky-yet-scary characterization of GLadDOS, and chanting "the cake is a lie" as if it were scripture.
Apart from containing a technologically astounding gameplay mechanic, Portal helped remind gaming cynics like me that games can not only be fun, innovative, and challenging in today's world of endless sequels and ripoffs, but friggin' hilarious as well.
GLadDOS constantly drops darkly humorous hints considering the character's past and future. The player is forced to care for a cubic hunk of metal as if it were the love of his life. The final showdown with the evil AI constantly jumps back and forth between the suspenseful (as you attempt to defeat her before she floods the room with poison gas) and the hysterical (as one of her personality spheres recites a recipe for cake).
If we're lucky, future game writers might take a few cues from Erik Wolpaw and learn that where humor is concerned, we gamers are much more likely to latch onto dark, witty irony than idiotic machismo.
Portal's writing doesn't quite match the level of a Monkey Island or a Sam and Max, but it gets close enough in a time of awful one-liners and obvious jokes that it is, in its own way, slightly more uplifting and meaningful.
5. "Hey dudes, thanks for rescuing me! Let's go for a burger...Ha! Ha! Ha!"
Ah, the mid-to-late 80's. A time of relative innocence for the videogame. Before the time of Mortal Kombat or Hot Coffee, when arcade games still came equipped with "Winners Don't Do Drugs" disclaimers, absurd fun was the name of the game.
Anyone over the age of twelve can nostalgically remember a time when videogames, despite being considered an exclusively "nerd" pastime, had a happy-go-lucky quality to them. You could inextricably describe a game's plot and story in a single sentence ("you're a chef and you have to make hamburgers by running over the different ingredients and avoiding bad guys"). This was the time of the arcade; the time where you had to actually go outside if you wanted to play something new and awesome.
The quote which defines this era will differ for each gamer according to which game he or she played most frequently. For my money, though, the final lines of Bad Dudes will never be matched, in grandeur or hilarious tone, by any other game from the period.
4. "Prepare for unforseen consequences."
Half Life: Episode Two taught me that videogames can be better than movies. They can elicit a greater emotional response, and, given their extended running times, the player can get more of a chance to become attached to his or her NPC co-stars. Originally spoken to Eli Vance just moments before first entering the test chamber at Black Mesa, the G-Man's mysterious message to a then-unconscious Alyx Vance actually gave me the goddamned chills.
As the shady, sallow asshole with the weird vocal rhythm leaned down to manipulate a character who I had come to admire and feel empathy for, I almost yelled at the screen. I wanted the G-Man to stay the f*ck away from Alyx. Not because it would affect the gameplay in any way. Not because I was worried about what it meant for the plot. Not for any number of legitimate reasons, other than the fact that I simply cared about Alyx. I knew what the G-Man represented, and I wanted him to stay the hell away from my friend.
Upon hearing the G-Man whisper those words to Alyx, I suddenly understood that I had been wholeheartedly enveloped by Half-Life: Episode Two's story and characters. I'm sure most gamers didn't get the exact same reaction out of this scene that I did -- to the best of my knowledge, I may be the only person alive who considered Episode Two the single best part of the Orange Box -- but no one who has spent several hours with Dog, Alyx, Barney and Kleiner can deny their personal, emotional attachment to those characters.
Additionally, this quote speaks volumes concerning one of the Half-Life saga's main themes -- namely, the constantly chaotic, unpredictable, seemingly contradictory nature of life. Everything the player does after first exiting the tram in the first Half-Life ends up having terrifingly far-reaching and unforeseen consequences. Gordon fights through Xen and destroys the Nihilianth, only to find that his initial actions in the test chamber may have summoned an even greater evil. Later, while under the thumb of the G-Man, Gordon kills Wallace Breen and seemingly harms the Combine -- and is suddenly robbed of his victory by being put into stasis once again. In Episode Two, Gordon is finally free from the G-Man's control and heads to White Forest...only to find that the G-Man actually wants him to go there. Is Gordon free, or a slave? Is the G-Man good or evil?
No game series has ever had me so interested in the answers to the questions it posed.
3. "War. War never changes."
Even after most of the world has been turned into nuclear ash, even after the world governments have crumbled and the social infrastructure decays into anarchy, even when, after the greatest and most horrible war of all, the human race has every reason to band together in an effort to save one another from total annihilation -- they don't.
War never changes.
Fallout may be one of the most cynical, nihilistic game franchises in existence, which also makes it one of my personal favorites. Rather than half-assedly cultivating a world-weary tone through a sepia color scheme and needlessly gruff-sounding protagonists (I'm looking at you, Gears of War), the Fallout series tells the tale of some people who try to act with common decency in a world utterly lacking in it, and who are subsequently tortured and killed and exiled for their troubles. Cormac McCarthy would be proud.
In the world of Fallout you can do varying amounts of good on your quest through the Wastelands but, more often than not, your efforts can be just as easily undone by bad luck or the corruption of others. You can save the Ghouls of Necropolis from starvation, only to hear of their slaughter at the hands of Super Mutants. You can help the Brotherhood of Steel find new technology, but they'll use it to further their war-driven, quasi-fascist agenda. And no matter how much good you do in the original Fallout -- no matter how quickly you save the denizens of Vault 13 from dehydration and destroy the Super Mutant base -- you will always be cast out by a hypocritical, bureaucratic Vault Overseer who claims that your heroism will make you a bad role model for the other Vault Dwellers.
Without getting into a current sociopolitical discussion, let me just say that the themes suggested in Fallout (punishment of morality in an immoral world, the hypocrisy of authority, the petty and violent nature of humankind) can be seen quite clearly even today. Wars are driven by greed, necessity, stupidity, or fear -- and even after the cities have been burnt to cinders and the countryside irradiated, war will never change.
2. "...But our princess is in another castle!"
Videogames, according to Warren Spector, are work. We enjoy playing them, yes, but they also take a great deal of effort and frustration to actually complete. Before getting our ultimate reward, whatever it may be (a cool ending, a beautiful cut scene, a clever bonus level), we actually have to work to reach it. This quote, repeated lord knows how many times throughout the original Super Mario Bros, represents this fun/work dichotomy better than any other I can think of.
When working their way through a Bowser level in Super Mario Bros, a gamer's thought process goes something like this:
"Crap crap crap crap crap JUMP wait wait wait JUMP run run crap crap crap run CRAP DODGE THE FIREBALL crap crap crap haha take that you stupid Koopa King woo this is awesome I get to meet the Princess HEY WHAT THE HELL."
Perhaps it was my feeble, insipid, six-year-old mind getting ahead of itself, but I fully expected the Princess to be waiting for me at the end of every goddamned castle. Sure, she wasn't in the last one, but hey -- life is full of infinite possibilities, and a game this fun wouldn't dream of continually frustrating me over and over by dangling the carrot of possible victory in front of my nose, only to yank it away once I've seemingly reached my goal, right? Right?
It was fun getting to the not-Princess every time, don't get me wrong, but after continually not-finding her over seven worlds of gameplay, the Nintendo Entertainment System began to feel a little bit like work. The kind of work I'd be absolutely ecstatic to go to everyday, granted, but work nonetheless.
1. "Would you kindly?"
Not only is this a moving, shocking, and all-around incredible quote about the consequences of blindly accepting authority, but it also represents one of the single most insightful statements ever made about videogaming in general.
Cut scenes are a form of gameplay slavery. They rob the player of control, take him out of the moment, and force him to passively witness as the events of the game -- the events he is supposed to have some degree of local agency over. Ken Levine knows this, and chose to exploit it in creating one of the most memorable story twists of all time.
When the player finds out that he has been subliminally controlled by Atlas throughout the entire game, he or she experiences a very sudden, shocking reassessment of values. Having gone through the game thus far with the single-minded intent of beating Andrew Ryan to a bloody pulp, the player is suddenly forced to ask a question most other games would never dream of proposing to the player: "Why am I doing this?"
Why, upon first entering Rapture, do you inject a Plasmid into his veins for seemingly no reason? Why do you follow Atlas's every instruction? Why do you kill the innocent, nonviolent-unless-provoked Big Daddies? Why do you want to kill Ryan? The answer is depressingly simple: you did these things because you were told to. Not because you necessarily had any personal investment in the action, but because someone asked you nicely. Even after realizing this, the player remains completely powerless to stop himself.
In an older article I wrote ("Exploring BioShock's storytelling flaws"), I had this to say about the final "would you kindly" cut scene:
Noninteractivity is used brilliantly within the context of the scene: for perhaps the first time in the entire game, the player doesn’t want to kill Andrew Ryan, but Jack’s violent nature and refusal to question his orders are too much and the player is forced to watch, horrified, as he mercilessly and uncontrollably batters Ryan to death.
It stands as the single greatest noninteractive cut scene in gaming history. Ever. As a storytelling device, noninteractivity is used as a weapon against the player: you don’t want to question why you’re doing what you’re doing? Fine -- you’re nothing better than a mindless, robotic slave, and you have essentially given up the human gift of choice. Having control taken away is, within the context of the story, a tangible punishment for accepting things on face value and blindly following orders.
BioShock wants us to question authority and instruction not just for the big stuff -- politics, work, education and so on -- but for videogaming, as well. When Cortana asks you to pistol-whip a bunch of aliens in Halo, why not stop for a moment and really think about why you're doing it?
One might suggest that questioning authority in a videogame, where structure is more or less mandatory and even the most nonlinear games still have an inescapably linear storyline, would be an ultimately meaningless gesture. But if you're willing to take everything a videogame presents you with at face value, how much more are you capable of accepting without question? If the player is asked to mow down armies of faceless baddies simply because they are "evil," what does that even mean?
For these reasons, "would you kindly" is, quite simply, the most meaningful videogame quote of all time. It deeply affects the player on both emotional and intellectual levels; not only that, but the intensity of the former inspires the latter. As the player feels hatred and betrayal from his amiably-worded induction into slavery, he becomes much more likely to take Andrew Ryan's dying words to heart:
A man chooses; a slave obeys.
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