Picture the scene. You're a lone, beleagured mercenary on his way back from a dangerous mission. You've spent all of your ammunition, used all of your bandages and are barely able to keep putting one foot in front of the other. A meagre reward and scant praise await you back at base... but in your way lies a towering railway bridge. Several soldiers patrol the road below; and without money to bribe them, they'll surely cut you to ribbons with their superior firepower before you land your first shot. Unfortunately, the only other way through is a cramped tunnel that courses with crackling electrical anomalies. A single misstep will result in instant death.
It's the devil's own choice... but then then you spot something out of the corner of your eye. A patch of sky where there should be a barbed wire fence. Hoping beyond hope, you heave yourself up the embankment with your last ounce of strength... and there, as a single ray of light in your bleak and hopeless adventure, is a gap in the fence. You'll be home soon.
If you haven't worked it out already, I'm referring to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow Of Chernobyl... but I don't really love the gap itself. Rather, I love what it represents: meaningful choice and roughing it.
You see, the gap in the fence is a potent symbol of the choices that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. offers its players in every aspect of its gameplay. Sure, you can choose between complex combat strategies and weapons loadouts on the fly, fall back on stealth or gunplay, select your own missions and pledge allegiance to a faction... but when it comes right down to it, you can also choose to stroll through a gap in a fence rather than bribe some soldiers. Or kill them. Or pass through a hellaciously dangerous tunnel. Choice is good - and in an age where cinematic cutscenes, invisible walls and corridor shootouts are fast becoming the norm, we absolutely lapped it up.
But S.T.A.L.K.E.R. had more to offer us... and once again, our elation at discovering a gap in the seemingly-impenetrable fence serves to highlight another important design feature. Many games like to coddle their players and mother them through their experience, pulling them gently by the hand past all of the shiny explosions and mid-mission exposition (see also: Bad Company 2). In stark contrast, though, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. forced players to scavenge in the dirt for every stray bullet, every tatty unhygenic bandage and scrap of food; weeding off the casual fair-weather gamers until only a hardened core remained. Each near-death experience and meagre piece of loot ripped from a worthy adversary became a major victory rather than second nature, and since each bullet and object weighed a small amount, even something as basic as firing your pistol became an important, relevant decision.
So imagine the feeling of unadulterated joy upon discovering a gap in a fence. It's was like my birthday and Christmas rolled into one.
Few other titles have managed to successfully deliver this heady blend of scavenging, squalor and good old fashioned roughing it. The very beginning of Fallout 3, Morrowind and Fallout: New Vegas' Dead Money expansion pack were arguably able to do so, and by making the little decisions matter, every subsequent plot twist, new weapon and major event suddenly became more important in comparison. Forcing players to rough it succeeds at making them care about the details later on, and personally, it's something I've been missing recently.
Choice, survival, tough decisions and squalor. Who'd have thought that a little gap in a fence could have illustrated so much - as well as shaving precious minutes off our journey time? That, dear reader, is why we love it.