My family was a very low income Eastern European family. As such, for a very long time we couldn’t afford any gaming system. However, I had a chance to play games in the local library on an old IBM PC, hang out with wealthier classmates who had computers at home, and so on. I was hooked from the very beginning, always looking forward to those gaming sessions with friends, getting pumped with dopamine and always yearning to have my own PC.
In around 2001 finally my prayers were heard. My uncle salvaged a horrible PC for me. It was a Pentium 133 MHz machine which was outdated even by those days’ standards. But it was mine, and it could run some games. Actually in many cases the main limitation was the HDD size; it had a 1 GB drive, from which Windows 95 used up a sizable amount. Just a quick side note before I get to the point: my uncle brought the PC in pieces but did not have time to stay to assemble it for me. I had zero experience with computers, but I was so impatient that I put it together that very night. It was not all that difficult, basically it was a shapes and forms puzzle with cables and ports. Except for the jumpers on the drives. Do they still have those? I don’t think so.
One of the games that made a huge impression on me, and pretty much decided what kind of games I will be playing in the next decades, was Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game.
As a kid, I was obsessed with the obscure. Mummies, aliens, Chernobyl, X-Files. So a game with mutants, a radioactive wasteland, cults and pixelated gore hit a lot of my sweet spots.
What is undeniable about Fallout – besides being a pioneer in gaming – is that it had horrible graphics. I mean back then it was more than enjoyable, but recently I tried to play it again on Steam and it is horrendous by today’s standards. 640×480 resolution, fuzzy textures, sprites that consist of only a handful of pixels.
But what it had, and actually excelled in was the atmosphere. Those few pixels, closed maps, hexagonal grid, clunky turn based combat, dumb AI opened up a huge, merciless and terrifying world.
Yes, I was terrified of that game. I remember having vivid nightmares from it. How was this possible? If you look at the game now (and try to dismiss any nostalgia you have for it if you ever played it), it is laughable. How such a dated, and in parts ugly game could scare someone? With turn based combat, isometric view, no possibility of jumpscares.
A big part of Fallout’s horror was visual. Truly grotesque, eldritch mutants, such as the Centaurs and Floaters. Blobs of fleshy, slimy goo on the walls of the Super Mutant base. Enemies (or you) getting mutilated, melted, burnt to ash, ripped in half or their heads being exploded. And all this presented in fuzzy, blocky graphics.
But my mind made up for all the details that my eyes could not register. I was into the story, I put myself into the shoes of the Vault Dweller. I lived through those horrors. And my imagination went wild. Obviously my age played a big role in being so scared. But to this day it amazes me, how those few pixels made me wake up in cold sweat from a nightmare where Super Mutants were chasing me down on the cold steel hallways of an abandoned Vault, and ripping my limbs out of their sockets with their bare hands.
Before moving on, I would like to mention the game’s soundtrack, which probably did half of the job. Metallic Monks is just a cacophonic mix of mechanical noises. The banging of metal objects, some kind of machinery. Button clicks, the distant echo of an air raid siren, the muffled sounds of some PSA system. It’s not actual music, but an impressionist masterpiece making you feel like one of the fortunate survivors of the nuclear apocalypse, sentenced to a lifetime of claustrophobia in a vault deep below the Wasteland.
I got super excited when many years later Fallout 3 was announced and released. Then I got greatly disappointed. Not because it was a bad game – although some might argue – but because I had nothing left to imagine. It was the first 3D iteration of the series, and the one which destroyed the horror of Fallout for me.
With introducing the game into the third dimension, there was nothing left to imagine. Everything that was shrouded in a mystical, obscure veil until now, was there in plain sight. You could walk around a Centaur, analyze every anatomical detail of any wretched creature of the Wasteland. And once everything was shown, there was nothing left to be scared of.
It was like watching a horror movie, where after building up the tension, after the first jump scare you finally lay eyes on the monster. Once you saw it, it will never be as scary as before. The curtain falls, the magic is gone.
The revolution of 3D games killed some of the magic of video games for me. I am of course not saying that I don’t enjoy these games. On the contrary, I play them daily. But nothing gives back that experience of my imagination filling out the gaps in an environment, where information is limited.
On the brightside, with the boom of indie games and crowdfunding, games with “poor” graphics are still able to take me there sometimes.
One such game was Rimworld. A seemingly simple but in fact very deep game. Again, the graphics are super simple, your characters are tiny 2D bobbleheads, building their base which is basically represented by outlines of walls, rooms, caves, and so on.
Yet with the whole “stranded on an alien planet” setting, with soft country music in the background, my imagination fills the gaps and makes it into a Firefly experience. Those outlines become 3D barricades, dimly lit, dirty little rooms just to survive the elements of the hostile environment.
Some of your characters are blood relatives, or fall in love. Everything is random, and nothing is really elaborated. The game just states it in the bio of John, that he is the father of Emily. Or you get a tiny notification, that Sam and Pam fell in love.
But from that point my imagination builds on this, actually it makes me feel for those tiny LEGO figure-like blobs. You move the lovers in the same room, build them a double bed. You cheer for them, since not many good things happen to them on this planet.
When Emily gets stabbed by a marauder, you start to feel for John and you do your best to heal his daughter. Your food is scarce, the cold season is coming, and you know that if John loses his only daughter, he will not make it through winter either.
In the game this whole event is just a bunch of random 1s and 0s, very basic information. But what potentially happens in the player’s mind is something far more complex, turning a few words into a whole bunch of emotions. Happiness, grief, hope.
Video games are wonderful for many reasons. And if you take your time to reflect on your experiences in them, they can really change your perspective on reality. For me personally, many times less is more. I have a lot of fun by allowing my imagination to do the storytelling instead of the game, getting far greater agency over what is my experience.
Have you ever had any similar experiences while playing games? If so, let me know down below. If anyone even reads this ever.