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Growing Up Geek: The Year That Changed My Life

In this installment of Growing Up Geek, Jared takes a look back at the video games that changed his perception of the medium forever. Also, he pines over Morgan Webb. A lot.

I understand the Growing Up Geek series is supposed to be a place for childhood nostalgia to reign supreme. I’m all for some “Hey guys, remember the 80’s?” as much as anyone, but today I have something a little different I’d like to do. Looking back at it now, 2004-2005 wound up being one of the most formative years in my life. I’d have been 22 at the time and still very much childlike and immature, so technically I still feel like I’m sticking to our format.

Like most people at that age, I had a shitty retail job that gave me about 15 hours of work each week. That left me with a whole lot of other hours during the week to kill. I did so by playing video games and figuring out how much alcohol I could pour into my face without dying. Then, I wound up moving out to a spot that had satellite instead of cable. That’s when everything changed.

For the first time in my life, I was exposed to G4. I’d heard of the channel dedicated to video games. However, this was still back in the days of analog cable and Comcast wasn’t carrying it. Dish, however, picked up the channel. I was absolutely transfixed when I was flipping through the channels and found it. I was instantly hooked. I seriously watched every freaking show they put out. I’m not just talking about X-Play and The Screen Savers. I mean I sat there and watched Kevin Pereira’s silly mustache on Arena every day. I watched the same three episodes of Cheat get repeated dozens of times throughout the week. I even watched that godawful show with Tommy Tallarico, Electric Playground. I loved it. I couldn’t get enough.

Oh yeah, and just like every other guy on the planet, I fell in love with Morgan Webb. I mean…come on.

I know you can’t see it, but I’m swooning right now.

This newfound addiction to Videogame TV® started to lead me down a new path. Honestly, I’m not sure what kind of a gamer I was before this. I’m extremely fortunate in the sense that I have been there since the beginning. I was in kindergarten when the NES took the country by storm. I grew up with games as they grew up themselves. For a while, I think I was just playing video games because that’s what most guys my age did.

After countless hours of G4 bombardment, I couldn’t help but start to learn about the whole medium of video games, how video games were starting to be construed as art, and about the pioneers of the industry. I learned about everyone from Steve Wozniak to Richard Garriott to Sid Meier to Lorne Lanning to Tim Schafer. From there, it was only a matter of time before I started expanding my gaming horizons.

When I look back on it, this is when it all changed for me. I stopped being a gamer, and I started being someone who was extremely passionate about video games as a medium and an art form. My limited work hours left me with an awful lot of downtime to play video games. I played anything and everything I could get my hands on. In that ‘04-’05 timeframe, I can look back and list five games that definitively changed not only my thoughts on what video games could be, but how I experienced and appreciated them as a whole.

5. Psychonauts
Release date: April 19, 2005
Publisher: Majesco Entertainment
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Creative Director: Tim Schafer

This is the perfect example of what I was talking about. If it wasn’t for G4, I never would have given Psychonauts a chance. It looks like a weird platformer intended for kids. What I experienced, however, was a rich world populated with hilarious, neurotic characters. The level design was amazing, as you lead young Raz through the subconscious minds of said hilarious, neurotic characters. Nightmare worlds of twisted war zones, Godzilla-esque destruction, and the infamous meat circus. In fact, each level’s boss battle is a psychic manifestation of just what it is that makes each of these characters a little nutty.

Imagine if Neil Gaiman and Tim Burton had a baby, and it was hilarious.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more pleasantly surprised with a game than I was with Psychonauts. I grudgingly tried it because of the buzz. I came out of the experience amazed at how video games can create loveable characters and vivid worlds just as well as any book or movie ever has.

4. Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath
Release Date: January 25, 2005
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Oddworld Inhabitants
Creative Director: Lorne Lanning

This is another game I probably wouldn’t have tried if not for the buzz. The other Oddworld games seemed weird and inaccessible to me. Stranger’s Wrath, however, took the franchise out of its 2D sidescrolling roots and evolved into a 3D hybrid FPS/third person action title.

The gameplay itself was above average. The platforming could be a bit spotty at times. The hook for the game was the kooky weaponry. It wasn’t quite as bizarre as some of the arsenal sported in the Ratchet and Clank series, but it was unique in the sense that all the ammunition fired from Stranger’s crossbow were live creatures…er, critters. Stranger could load two different types of ammo at once, which let you customize your approach to tracking bounties across Oddworld.

Essentially, you're the Clint Eastwood of Oddworld.

This is another game that would have been another slightly above average action title if it weren’t for the story. There are a couple of great twists along the way that really give you pause to think. More than anything, Lorne Lanning seems to love Oddworld and its inhabitants. He has very clear visions of what Oddworld is, as well as how characters like Abe, Munch, and Stranger can convey complex cause-and-effect ideas like consumerism, environmentalism, and racism to his audience.

Oddworld itself is the star of these games. It’s an amazingly well-thought-out world full of brilliant design in both the characters and locations. Stranger’s Wrath might not have had the “hammer over the head” moral message of some of the previous titles, but it was the most successful at bringing Oddworld to life.

Continued on Page 2! Morgan will be sad if you don’t join us.