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10 Fantastic Games from the PC Gaming Golden Age

As Shamus young argues quite convincingly, 1997 through to the year 2000 was an absolutely phenomenal time in PC gaming. PC games were truly beginning to earn mainstream acceptance beyond the few blockbusters of earlier years (such as DOOM and Myst) and were gaining some traction against the more popular and approachable console market. PC games were proving themselves to be a profitable investment, and the Dotcom Boom paid attention. While PC games had shown their money-making potential, investors were yet to discover the formula for profitability; based on today’s market, that formula consists of huge marketing budgets, no bug-testing, microtransactions, and pre-orders.

As a result of this rising popularity and naivete, the games industry was truly starting to see some impressive budgets and sales, and developers were still largely free to experiment with ideas and abstract or ambitious game design concepts. Today, this sort of freedom is only seen in the indie and AA-scene, but back in the late 90s, it was everyone (I’m not kidding, even EA was pushing boundaries).

This list highlights some of the best games to come out of the PC Gaming Golden Age. These are by no-means the “best” games, but they are games that shook the industry and have left a lasting legacy.

#10—The Sims (Maxis, 2000)

The Sims is a bit of an anomaly on this list, as many of its players didn’t consider themselves gamers. It is often said that “some gamers are Sims fans, but not all Sims fans are gamers”. The Sims played a huge part in diversifying and expanding the gaming population, and the series is so immensely successful that hardly anyone has even bothered to challenge it. Under the guidance of auteur game designer Will Wright, The Sims took gaming in a direction not seen since Activision’s Little Computer People (1985), a game that Wright called a major influence. With Wright’s departure and EA’s increasing influence, the series eventually became one of the worst examples of uninspired game design and monetisation in the industry; despite this, its near total monopoly of the lifesim genre has scared off any would-be challengers.

#9—Homeworld (Relic Entertainment, 1999)

When Homeworld was released in 1999, it completely revolutionised the real-time strategy genre. At the time, RTS games stuck fairly closely to their immensely successful formula – usually top-down base-building. Not only did Homeworld add an entirely new dimension to the battle (the Z-axis), Relic made the system easy and intuitive to learn. The mobility of the mothership and carriers also changed the flow of gameplay – players weren’t confined to a single location, but could shift their operations around the map, creating an incredibly dynamic battlespace reminiscent of the Pacific Theatre battles in World War II, like the Battle of the Coral Sea. Homeworld’s campaign also told a compelling story, and the game still looks beautiful even today. Both Homeworld and its sequel were remastered in 2015, and I highly recommend the series for any strategy fan looking for a challenge.

#8—Omikron: The Nomad Soul (Quantic Dream, 1999)

The late 90s provided the perfect environment for the birth of David Cage’s Quantic Dream, developer of thought-provoking, story-driven videogames reminiscent of European Arthouse cinema. The plot was equal parts unique, engaging, and bizarre, and the game featured the music and acting of none other than David Bowie, one of the most respected artists of the 20th century. Omikron: The Nomad Soul earned Quantic Dream respect and admiration, and showed the industry that the definition of what could be considered a “game” was becoming increasingly fluid.

#7—Starsiege: Tribes (Dynamix, 1998)

Large scale multiplayer shooters like the series Battlefield (DICE) and Planetside (Sony Online Entertainment) owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dynamix. Starsiege: Tribes was one of the first games (if not the first) to take the FPS genre into sprawling outdoor environments, featuring huge amounts of players, vehicles, diverse classes, and rock-solid network code. In 1998, the idea that 128 players in a match would be anything other than complete, lag-ridden chaos was totally foreign, but Dynamix showed the industry that, in a well-designed game with clearly defined tasks and goals, players would easily find a team role that appealed to them. Indeed, many players spent their time doing nothing but driving troop transports or healing other players. The Tribes series peaked with Tribes 2 (2001), but sadly the master was eventually beaten by its numerous apprentices. Still, the legacy of Starsiege: Tribes is unquestionable, and it more than deserves a place in my top ten.

#6—Thief: The Dark Project (Looking Glass Studios, 1998)

Looking Glass Studios is arguably one of the most important developers in gaming history. During their relatively brief ten-year existence, they produced three enormously influential series – Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief. In the era of run-and-gun first-person shooters, 1998’s Thief: The Dark Project challenged notions of what to expect from the genre. This “first-person sneaker” rewarded a thoughtful, considered approach; the tension of carefully moving between shadows created a refreshingly exciting experience that resonated with gamers. Thief’s legacy can be found in the DNA of many modern games, most notably its spiritual successor, Arkane Studios’ critically-acclaimed Dishonored series.

#5—Ultima Online (Origin Systems, 1997)

Blizzard’s World of Warcraft (2004) took the world by storm, but could never have done so if Ultima Online hadn’t laid the foundations of the genre. Growing out of the Multi-User Domain (MUD) scene, Ultima Online was one of the first examples of the Massively-Multiplayer Online RPG (MMORPG) genre. Set in the world of Richard Garriott’s acclaimed Ultima series, Ultima Online gave players the opportunity to live out a virtual life alongside thousands of players from around the world. Ultima Online was a truly a pioneer, and showed game developers what worked and what didn’t in this uncharted gaming territory.

#4—Unreal Tournament (Epic Games, Digital Extremes, 1999) / Quake III: Arena (id Software, 1999)

id Software vs. Epic Games. id Tech 3 vs. Unreal Engine. Quake III Arena vs. Unreal Tournament. One of the great rivalries in gaming history is that of the FPS heavyweight id Software and upstart developer Epic Games, and it all came to a head in the Golden Age of PC Gaming with two first-person shooters that forever changed the games industry. The two games and their legacies are so thoroughly entwined that it is impossible to separate them. In 1999, online gaming was truly starting to become a global phenomenon thanks in large part to the FPS genre. So, id Software and Epic Games both decided to double-down on the rising popularity of multiplayer and release shooters that were designed with barely any single player to speak of, save for some (impressively coded) bots for offline play. These two games not only birthed the still-popular arena shooter genre, but they utilised what would become two immensely successful game engines.

#3—Half-Life (Valve, 1998)

To understand how important Half-Life was to first-person shooters, one needs to consider the state of the genre at the time. Many FPS games in 1998 featured fast-paced action, hordes of enemies, engaging but simple mechanics, and minimal plot. Half-Life, from fledgling developer Valve Software, featured a vibrant and believable world, challenging puzzles and mechanics, unique and memorable weapons, and a plot that achieved a masterful balance of exposition and narrative in a genre not known for either. A big part of Half-Life’s massive success was that it provided fertile ground for the modding community, giving us none other than the legendary Counter-Strike. Half-Life also paved the way for its hugely successful sequel, and redefined gamer expectations of FPS games.

#2—Planescape: Torment (Black Isle Studios, 1999)

While I believe that BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate II (2000) is a much better all-rounder RPG, it is Planescape: Torment that more wholly embodies the unrestrained creativity and experimentation that the PC Gaming Golden Age was famous for. Black Isle Studios took an utterly unique Dungeons & Dragons’ setting and gave us one of the most thought-provoking and introspective narratives in the history of gaming. Planescape: Torment is a game in which any doorway could take you to a different dimension, where belief can shape the world around you, and where mighty foes can be defeated by philosophical debate. There is an immense amount of reading in this game (the total script is over 800,000 words), but Black Isle proved that the games industry was ready for truly mature storytelling. Planescape: Torment has long been regarded as the gold standard for video game writing, and its legacy lives on in the endless number of writers who try to match its reputation.

#1—Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000)

In a single year, the short-lived studio Ion Storm released a game considered one of the worst ever made (Daikatana) and another considered one of the best. Deus Ex took immersion to unprecedented levels, amalgamating the mechanics of several genres into one incredible package. Deus Ex felt like the magnum opus in Warren Spector’s career, which was already defined by brilliance with games like Ultima Underworld and System Shock. Deus Ex’s fusion of genres seemed an appropriate herald of the new millennium in hindsight – so much of what was revolutionary then is now considered the benchmark.

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