Inventory: 11 Of Video Gaming's Strangest Moments
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1. Downland (1983)
The moment: Breaking right out of the game
Gamers love to go where they shouldn't, by slipping between floors and through walls, or otherwise breaking through a game's obvious boundaries. This is easier in today's undertested 3D environments—who hasn't fallen straight through a solid surface in Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind?—but back in the day, it was a real event. Gamer Chris Lynch recalls playing Downland on the TRS-80: "We figured out that if you jumped to a section that wasn't meant for jumping on, you could force your way through the lines into the negative area of the screen and run around in there. We felt like we won the lottery."
2. Beyond Castle Wolfenstein (1984) and Wolfenstein 3D (1992)
The moment: Coming face-to-face with Hitler
Modern games like Bin Laden Liquors give you the chance to gun down Osama bin Laden in a liquor store, but real heroes shoot for the greatest modern dictator of them all: Adolf Hitler. If you fought your way through Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, you would see Hitler in all his low-resolution, 2D glory, addressing a table of sycophants with a crackly "Heil!" You had to set a bomb outside his door and make tracks before the bunker exploded, which meant that, sadly, you didn't get to kill him with your bare, patriotic hands. That had to wait for 1992's Wolfenstein 3D, where you went mano-a-mano against a Hitler armed with four chainguns and a robotic suit.
3. Total Distortion (1995)
The moment: Your death becomes a music video
You're a cutting-edge video director, and there's nothing left on Earth to shoot. So where do you go? An alien dimension, where you can wander through a rock-themed gonzo world, pay tribute to the Metal Lord, battle the Guitar Warrior—and along the way, shoot videos for the TV producers back home. The more-MTV-than-MTV theme even carried through to one of the death sequences, where your killer taunts you in, what else, a video: "You are dead, you are so, so dead "
4. Smoke And Mirrors (1995, unreleased)
The moment: The worst driving game ever
This unreleased, woulda-been cult classic Smoke And Mirrors brought magicians Penn & Teller to the Sega CD and 3DO. Along with cameos by Lou Reed and Debbie Harry, and an "Impossible" mode that was literally impossible to win, S&M featured an excruciatingly realistic mini-game titled Desert Bus. As Penn Jillette recently recalled, "You were driving a bus from Tucson to Las Vegas. You had a limiter on the bus, it couldn't go more than 45 mph, it pulled a little bit to the right, so you had to keep your finger on the controller, and the trip took eight full hours. And you saw nothing." You got one point for finishing the trip. The highest known score is 12.
5. Dead Or Alive (1998)
The moment: Searching for the forbidden topless cage match (unconfirmed)
According to a rumor—which may have sprung entirely from a single employee at an Electronics Boutique in Austin—if you beat Dead Or Alive on the hardest level 40 times, you would unlock a special "costume" and the female characters would fight topless. The Dead Or Alive series has produced some of the jiggliest games on the market, but there are probably thousands of similar urban legends about games that reward adolescents with unfettered nudity if they work hard enough or find the right trick. In fact, the actual discovery of the "hot coffee" mod in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas seems anticlimactic by comparison.
6. Planescape: Torment (1999)
The moment: Winning the game by dying
Although it wasn't billed this way, the persistently bizarre Planescape: Torment ranks as one of the greatest, goriest zombie games ever made. You play a nameless hero who can't die—and because you're immortal, you take a lot of abuse throughout the game. People tattoo hints into your skin. One guy rips into your stomach and yanks a clue out of your entrails. You can feed part of yourself to a starving zombie. And in the best moment, flagrantly defying the laws of gaming, you actually have to kill yourself to trick someone into sneaking you into a morgue.
7. Adventure (1978), Ultima VII (1992), Baldur's Gate II (2000)
The moment: Disgruntled coders get back at their bosses
Back in the early days of Atari, game designers never got credit for their work—so some of them would slip their names in via Easter eggs, such as the famous one in the classic Adventure. Nowadays, everyone down to the interns gets their name in the manual, but that hasn't stopped developers from making oblique—and sometimes negative—references to real-life teammates in their games. Origin Systems programmers slipped a reference to their corporate bosses, Electronic Arts, into Ultima VII, where two backstabbing characters were named Elizabeth and Abraham—initials "E.A." And several people noticed that the severed head of a child-killer in Baldur's Gate II bears a strong resemblance to the game's producer, Ben Smedstad.
8. Black & White (2001)
The moment: Teaching a giant animal where to crap
Either the best or the worst feature of the strategy game Black & White was the giant creature (you chose the species) that you trained to do your bidding. This artificially intelligent but not-so-bright animal only learned through positive or negative reinforcement—for example, you could pat it when it helped your villagers, or smack it around if it ate somebody. Many players were amused to discover that the creature could defecate, but teaching it how to poo could be a trial: Sometimes it would eat its feces, or throw them around, and if you trained it really poorly, it would get a complex and become constipated. But the best players taught their creatures to crap in gardens, then water them. Anyone who can train a giant monkey to farm deserves bonus points.
9. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (2002)
The moment: Succumbing to madness
In this horror title's neatest twist, every time you saw a monster or a zombie, your sanity level dropped. If it fell too far, you started to hallucinate, bizarre things happened—your head fell off, yet you could keep walking—and the whole screen lurched around sickeningly while eerie voices started moaning in your speakers. Obviously, this is the only way to play the game.
10. Rez (2002)
The moment: Why yes, it is called a "trance vibrator"
Rez shipped with a special peripheral: a "trance vibrator." As you shot targets in the game, Rez rewarded you by playing dance music—and if you didn't have a subwoofer, you could use the vibrator to fill in the low-end effect. Jane Pinckard of Game Girl Advance blogged that she was so impressed by the trance vibrator's rhythmic thumping that she stuck it down her pants. Well, what would you do?
11. Second Life (2004)
The moment: Getting banished to "the cornfield"
In the largely player-made online world of Second Life, you can find no end of surreal behavior. But one of the game's strangest features comes when you misbehave—by cheating other players, hacking the server, or whatever—and the administrators decide to punish you. When that happens, your avatar has to spend time in "the cornfield"—a kind of limbo where the player wanders through endless rows of corn, while a 1940 film about juvenile delinquency plays on a nearby television set. But this surreal penalty hasn't deterred the hackers who keep crashing the game's server; maybe it's time for Linden Labs to skip to capital punishment.