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January 30, 2007

In Case You Missed It—January 30, 2007

I’m trying a new thing here by reviewing video games. I feel a bit guilty. After all, video games are just that: games. It’s a little odd in my opinion to put them in the same column as The Maltese Falcon. In a way, reviewing video games next to movies, TV, books, and music is like reviewing chess next to The Great Gatsby. So why? I think there is a level of legitimacy to be had here. Video games aren’t just about entertainment. They’re about fantasy, imagination, and inventiveness. They’re something like super-charged choose-your-own-adventure novels. Growing up playing video games, I had many adults tell me that if I had a better imagination, I wouldn’t need video games. In fact, the most imaginative people I’ve ever met have almost all been avid gamers. The human mind is too dynamic to simply exist in these worlds of polygons and simulated environments. Like any other work of art, the best video games are sparks to the imagination instead of roadblocks, a wonderful impetus to get you thinking about all that is possible when human imagination is combined with modern technology.

Well, now that I’m off my soapbox, let’s get down to one of my old favorites:

Homeworld (1999)

There are two basic elements that make a video game good. First, not being bored by monotonous and unrewarding game play. Second is what I’ll call the soul of the game: the plot, the visuals, and the score. Homeworld has rewarding game play in spades and so much soul it could play in a jazz band.

Essentially, your race discovers one day that the hostile, unforgiving world on which you live is not your actual planet of origin, so you build a gigantic mother ship to transport your civilization to your actual home world. It’s a straightforward yet haunting premise that lends itself to all sorts of exciting space adventures.

The game play is a little clunky at first, since you have to maneuver your ships around a fully 3-D environment. Preparing for attacks is hard enough without having to worry about them coming from above or below (which they often do). But with a little practice and liberal use of hotkeys, the play smoothens out considerably. This is a good thing since your fleet can reach epic sizes, and battles tend to be mind-boggling affairs of frenzied positioning and attacks. It’s a little intimidating at first, but, once mastered, the game is consistently engaging, exciting, and full of surprises. Unlike many other strategy games, Homeworld doesn’t simply turn into a crawl of research, build, attack, and rebuild. New ships, formations, and creative challenges face you at every level, and I rarely got bored while playing.

While the game play itself is a lot of fun, what really makes Homeworld one of my favorites is its “soul.” First off, the score is custom fit for each level and as a whole gives the game to an echoing, epic, and slightly disconcerting feel. As for the visuals, each level in Homeworld is set against stunning nebulae, star clusters, and even humungous space ruins. Each background pairs perfectly with the music to create a sense of simultaneous bewilderment, and wonder. The plot in Homeworld is simple and powerful: You are looking for home. It could easily have been underdone and become merely a subtext to the space battles, or it could have been overdone and simply gotten in the way. But Homeworld walks that fine line between farce and melodrama and ends up with a game that is both fun and oddly touching, the latter being best exemplified by the picture that pops up at the end of the credits: Earth, highlighted with only the words “you are here.”