I have been told many times that Planescape Torment is the best game ever. Or one of Baldur’s many Gates. I disagree. They are best something, but not games.
You see, I am a very analytical person. And since I love logic and numbers, gameplay is the thing that I like. The moment when I finally ‘get’ how a new game functions, how the different mechanics interact with each other, how the game flows… That moment I love. And when I finally got how Torment works, I was not very impressed. The interactive part of the game was choose-your-own-adventure books and weak AD&D-combat. Click yourself to a guy/object, navigate a (well written and athmospheric, mind) dialogue tree, possibly initiate combat, use spells and attack one foe at a time until enemies are dead. Rinse and repeat. The game narrows into a predefined rollercoaster with a possibility to choose which way the train takes.
To me, to be fully interactive is to be a true game. A good game gives a framework for the player to devise his or her own adventure. This might sound like a sandbox game. And a sandbox might sound like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed. While I agree that I pretty much defined a sandbox game, those two examples still have the same properties as Torment; While there is a free world to explore and interact with, there is still a narrow pipe where the story and the game’s ‘it’ is.
That is why I think the best game I have ever played is the Space Rangers-series.
It took me a long time to ‘get’ Space Rangers. When I did, it was like having an epiphany. The mechanics did not converge in any single point. They did not present me with “Be charismatic and you can speak yourself out of some combat situations”. Everything is tied dynamically to the world, sending ripples of causality into the game world. The game has only two predefined things in the game: The beginning and the end. There are no NPC:s that you have to speak to, there are no main quests that you have to take, nothing. Just you and a world that operates independently. The player is free to concoct his or her own story and own happenings. The things you can do are still quite limited, but none of them are necessary. Yet the things you do can and will impact the world in some way. That gives an incredible sense of freedom and meaning.
I remember few details of what Er’han, my first Baldur’s Gate character did in my first playthrough. But I will always remember when I accepted a mission to the only planet in a system in Space Rangers, only to find that after returning for payment, Dominators had claimed it. I had to wait for months before it was liberated by the Coalition. I returned to demand my money from the government, which I imagined would be quite angry with me. Soon after I had left the system afterburners glowing, the Dominators had claimed it again. Pure gold.
A disclaimer. My purpose here is not to insult any game. I love the Infinity Engine games for their rich narrative and wonderful characters. I love Assassin’s Creed for its fast and acrobatic controls and athmosphere. Gaming needs variety to give it depth. My purpose here was to highlight what I think is the true potential for games: Interactivity.