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3:52 AM on 09.08.2010

PAX 2010: The Weekend of John Solgrim

So. PAX Prime.

What a waste of time. Literally the worst four days of my entire life - nothing at all exciting happened, I spent way too much money on garbage, Seattle is a terrible city, and now I'm really sick and stuck in bed. I regret ever going on this silly trip.

Wait, that isn't right at all, is it? Nope, it isn't. Well, except for the being sick thing. That's fairly right. Everything else is pretty wrong, though. Let's break it down by day.

Thursday, the day of western travel

So, for those of you unaware, I am an east coast boy. The east coast is truly awesome, but the west coast is the best coast. I did not sleep Wednesday evening, partially because I'm insane, partially because I left for Logan at 5 AM. After a direct flight to San Francisco, a fairly quick layover, and a quick flight to Seattle, I arrived at about 3 PM local time. After bugging Destructoid superstar TDiddy to let me into the hotel room, I took one look at it, declared it wonderful, and was off on my merry way.

From there, I headed to the Sheraton to meet up, a lot of people. There were a lot of people. I did a lot of "I should know you but I don't" introductions, and I forgot most of their names that night anyway. Off the top of my head, I know Jon Ross, Mid3vol, Solgrim (more on him later), Knives, Cronosblade (I think?), storyr (I think???) and er...a lot of other people were there.* I think it was Knives who greeted me by slapping me with a trout. If you do not understand that, you are not on IRC. You should be on IRC.

* - This whole "me not remembering things" thing is going to be a recurring theme for what it's worth.

After that, we headed to Gameworks, which is basically Dave and Busters, except I didn't play video games there. There were a lot of people there. Like, all of the people. A lot of stuff probably happened, but I don't remember. I do remember that after that, a bunch of us ended up in Dorian's (I have no idea what your username is on this site!) hotel room for a pretty weird evening that...I don't remember too well.

I guess I ended up in my hotel room eventually. My ass had already been thoroughly kicked. My goal for PAX 2010 was to take it easy, not get overwhelmed. I had been in Seattle for less than 24 hours and that was already completely out the window.

Friday, the day of whiskey

Okay, so as some/many/all/none of you know, I worked at Harmonix Music for a year and a half. I'm friends with plenty of people who used to and still work there. The Rock Band 3 panel was at 10 AM on Friday, and I wanted to attend it. At 10:15 AM, I found out I was in the wrong building, and the panel was actually in the Sheraton, not the actual convention center. Oops.

So, I go down to the show floor. One of the things that always bummed me out about PAX East was how it basically had the title of being "PAX lite", so to speak. Well, when I got on the show floor for PAX Prime, I realized why. Wow, it just doesn't even compare. PAX Prime felt like the mental image I had of E3 as a child. It was that good.

I started off my day by checking out Rock Band 3 and Dance Central, because I am a nerd and want to play games I've already played. It was fun, I caught up with a few old friends, and apparently a video was shot of me playing Dance Central. It is not on Youtube yet, but I'll be sure to pimp it out once it is. I am sure I look like a nerdy white boy dancing in it. It is because I am a nerdy white boy, you see.

After that, I got in a few matches of Marvel vs Capcom 3, which is about as awesome as I expected it to be. I was pretty much on my own for a good chunk of Friday afternoon (and apparently missing texts left and right due to poor reception), so I wandered up to the console freeplay area, and enjoyed some more relaxing games that I've played a bunch - specifically Rock Band 2 and Super Street Fighter 4. Not much to say about this, but it was a fun time. Playing SSF4 with other people sans lag was honestly a highlight.

After I had dinner...uh, somewhere, with someone(s?) (I can't remember), I headed over to Elephant and Castle for the Destructoid meetup scheduled. I got there, had a drink, had some awesome chats with Storyr and Kryptonite, and I think a few others, and suddenly we're being kicked out, albeit in a manner that isn't technically "being kicked out". It really was no big deal. The group first moved to Gameworks, but a good chunk of us headed over to the Whiskey Bar instead.

Outside of one unfortunate complication (sorry tga!), the Whiskey Bar was a pretty fun night. I got TDiddy to chug a Knob Creek neat, which may have been the meanest alcohol-related thing I've ever done. I can't even remember most of what happened other than some entertaining conversation and a damn good time. That was the end of that evening.

Saturday, the day of John Solgrim

John Solgrim is the greatest man on the face of the earth. He is perfect in every way, and is quite possibly more sexy than Niero. He is that amazing. There is no one more amazing than John Solgrim. Do not even pretend you are. You are wrong. Very wrong. The wrongest of wrong.

You see, John Solgrim wasn't born like any other child. John Solgrim wasn't even born through virgin birth. One day, God decided "I need to create the perfect human being", and just beamed him down to earth via the USS Enterprise, and thus John Solgrim was born. No one before or after him will ever replicate how amazing John Solgrim is, as John Solgrim is perfect.

Now, the Destructoid panel happened on Saturday, but plenty of people will write about that and describe it better than I can. It was at 10:30 AM and I was pretty hungover so I kind of phoned in my involvement as an audience member. I did play some Bit Trip thing on the iPad afterwards (really fun!), and there was the group photo, also cocks, and all of that. I'll leave it to other people.

Back to John Solgrim.

Saturday night took place at the Chapel, which was actually a converted chapel, which I was somehow not expecting based on the name. It was very nice, and we had the choir loft section of the chapel to ourselves (though it did get crowded pretty quickly). The night started quiet, then into some good dance music, and eventually ended up in dubstep land I think, but none of that matters.

For, you see, John Solgrim was there. I was told early in the week that John Solgrim doesn't really drink - he had maybe one drink his entire life or something like that. Maybe it was the fact that Niero paid for everyone's drink for an hour, maybe John Solgrim was just feeling adventurous - who knows. On Saturday night at the Chapel, John Solgrim drank. God looked upon this, and smiled, for it was good.

This seriously was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. With perfect lucidity, John Solgrim described all of the feelings he had never felt before that come with that first night of drunkenness. The numb face. The giggles. The overall happy attitude, and how it defeated his idea of what would happen if he ever got drunk. I say with no hint of sarcasm whatsoever that it was one of the most truly entertaining things I've ever witnessed in my life.

After John Solgrim was good and drunk, a group of us went to a gay bar called The R Place (I think?). I'm pretty sure the group was John Solgrim, Tactix, Dorian (still don't know your username, several paragraphs later!), ProfPew, Changston, maybe one or two other people, and myself. Sadly, I ducked out of this night a bit early. I am not an indestructible machine like John Solgrim. Truly, my deepest regret.

John Solgrim, I love you.

Sunday, the day of not enough John Solgrim

The last day of conventions like this always seem a bit rushed to me, for whatever reason. It's almost like you're just waiting for the show to shut down, for the farewells to start, then the return to the mundane life back home.

I really didn't do all that much on the show floor worth mentioning, as I had done most of it all on Friday and Saturday. For what it's worth, the only unreleased games I played the entire weekend were Mortal Kombat (surprisingly fun, block button or not), MvC3 (now in preorder status), Rock Band 3 (just to see how it came along), Just Dance 2 (really fun, but I don't have a Wii) and Dance Central (will probably get me to purchase Kinect just for that game). I'm a dancing machine.

Sunday night brought us to Rock Bottom, which was an excellent place that was very accommodating. We crammed a lot of people in there, but it was a really good time - albeit a brief one for me. I left early so that I could get a few hours of sleep in before my flight home Monday morning. I chatted with a bunch of people**, enjoyed a drink, and before I knew it it was time to head out.

(**) - Including Seth Killian. I do not go into nerdy fanboy mode around famous gaming figures all that much these days, but Seth totally had that effect on me. With Niero standing right next to him...yeah, I was dead on arrival in that conversation.

After a long, long round of goodbyes (including a few repeat goodbyes), I headed home, effectively ending an amazing weekend. The closing memory I had of PAX was Niero driving TDiddy and I back to our hotel room in his soccer mom rental van. When he turned on the car, a weird version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" of all things was playing, which he then changed and we landed on "To Be With You" by Mr. Big. The three of us ended up singing along to it, and it was the most surreal/amazing ending to any one of these events I've ever been to. I can't even do it justice - I hate to end stories this way, but you really had to be there.

This barely even scratches the surface of my trip, though. I met so many more people who were amazing, like Halfleft, Kryptonite, Naia (she is wicked awesome!), Justice, Sean Carey (who is surprisingly not just me with a mustache) uh...oh god, so many people. I seriously can't think of all the people I hung out with, and you were all awesome. I know I'm forgetting people, but everyone I talked to from this site was absolutely amazing. Especially John Solgrim.

So basically, I can sum up PAX 2010 like this: If you remember PAX 2010, you weren't there.

(Sorry for the pictureless post - I only took one photo the entire weekend! I'm not really a picture taking guy, but maybe I'll edit some photos of my ugly mug into this post after a good night's sleep. This post is dedicated to John Solgrim.)   read

12:35 AM on 07.16.2010

Pre-PAX Prime Preparation Post Preparing for PAX Prime Preparation Post

I like alliteration. That is not why we are here, though. We are here to talk about PAX Prime. Or rather, I'm here to talk about PAX Prime. You're here to either read what I have to say about PAX Prime, or you're rolling your eyes and saying "Oh god, not another PAX Prime post," and you've probably already closed this PAX Prime post already anyway.

Yes, I am going to PAX Prime. I don't actually like calling it PAX Prime, because it seems to dilute the meaning of PAX East (the un-Primening), but I'm not here to gripe about how the east coast never gets any of the fun. I'm here to talk about PAX Prime.

Painkiller is a particularly puzzling performance in Rock Band

Personally, PAX Prime means preparing to pry myself out of my previous location and put myself on a plane from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Preparation is key. Previously, I traveled to San Francisco, and I did not plan particularly well. The bags I packed contained too many personal items, and I found myself burdened with a plethora of pointless apparel. I have learned from my previous mistakes, though.

I am looking forward to PAX Prime, probably because PAX Prime means I get to play games with personal acquaintances and friends. I'll meet new people, see new places (I've never been to Seattle, party~!), and probably have a pretty damn good time.

During PAX East (the un-Primening), I was preoccupied with personal events, and did not get to participate in as many panels as I would have preferred, nor did I get to pass the time with my friends. To say the least, the amount of time I spent with my friends was paltry.

Pinball Wizard is a personal preference of The Who's catalog.

For PAX Prime, however, I will have nothing to worry about other than picking what I want to do, and doing it. I'm as pumped as a potato, so to speak. My personal arrangements are nearly completed, and then I can plan properly.

I will probably run into some of you during PAX Prime, and even if I've never been introduced to you, it'd be my pleasure to meet you, so you can punch me in the penis, or whatever it is you wish to do. Perhaps when we near closer to PAX Prime, I will post a picture of myself for you to put in your phone so you can find me. You can probably find a photograph of me already, though. Hooray PAX Prime!

This post was presented by the letter P. Please do not pick apart the powerful punch of this letter. This will never happen again, I swear. Baaaaaad writing itch tonight.   read

5:38 AM on 07.07.2010

July 21, 2008

On this day two years ago, my life changed in the best way possible. It was my first day of employment at Harmonix Music Systems. As a then-22 year old who was more obsessed with Rock Band than the majority of people on this site, I was like a kid in a candy store as I was shown around the office, and introduced to a seemingly endless number of people whose names I wouldn't remember for at least a week or two.

It was awesome, to say the least.

My job? Well, it was entry level. It was the best pay I had ever made in my life, but I wasn't exactly going to start living a life of luxury. You can find average salaries of QA testers - draw your own conclusions if you're really curious. I was grateful, though. I always felt like I was treated well. Hell, the fridge full of free drinks made me feel like I was working in a dot-com era office. The only thing missing was a toilet paper roll of stock shares.

I got to meet people whose names I had seen in news articles, in the credits, interviews, or wherever else I may have seen them. Generally, I was floored at how intelligent these people were. Be it about game design, art, programming, or just general smarts, it always felt like I could have had any question answered while in that building.

My team was particularly awesome, too. I worked on the weekly DLC for about a year, and was mostly surrounded by students from schools like Berklee, Tufts, NYU, and a handful of other places. As I've mentioned, I've been a musician all my life, and at one point, I was studying music for school, although I never finished. These guys made me feel like I couldn't even play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on a piano, and I mean that as the highest of compliments.

There are a lot of DLC songs that I feel go unnoticed for whatever reasons that are very awesome. It's hard to pick just one song out of that group, but if I had to, I'd probably go with this one. Outside of being an awesome song, it is very fun to play in the game.

I ended up becoming friends with that entire team, basically. Oh sure, I argued with them and told them about how they were doing permanent damage to the Rock Band franchise, the likes of which the series would never recover from, but it wasn't out of rage or anything like that. They were just doing permanent damage to the Rock Band franchise, the likes of which the series would never recover from (not really).

I learned a lot from them. Not just about the task at hand, or music, or whatever else. They were and are great people, and part of me feels like I never really made it clear how much I enjoyed their company.

I ended up working on the Rock Band Network after that, and got to work with even more awesome people, and make even more friends. RBN was a project I really thought was amazing, and the level of involvement I had in it struck me as kind of stunning. I was still a tester, but I felt like I was doing so much more than that. Maybe this was just an illusion designed to make me feel like I was doing more than I actually was, but I seriously doubt that.

...and this was my least favorite.

Of course, as I've mentioned, I'm unemployed. Layoffs hit the company on December 10, 2009. 39 extremely talented people lost their jobs.

I'm not here to say this or that about it - I already went through the seven stages of grief over it. And yeah, I hit all seven. And really, layoffs at a game company (especially as a tester) is not exactly uncommon. The fact that my job was as secure as it was for so long is kind of surprising to some people, really.

It really hit me the worst with my Dungeons and Dragons session, actually. It was made up primarily of my co-workers (most of whom I worked with directly), and our DM was someone who taught me how to drum in Rock Band, although he doesn't actually know that*. After our sessions, we used to walk back to the subway since we were going in similar directions, and we'd always say "see you tomorrow", or something along those lines. The first time he said "see you next week" is when it really hit me.

* - When he was playing a song for testing, I used to watch what he was doing and mimic it as much as possible, asking questions when I could. When I got hired, I mostly played drums on hard, with a few expert songs here or there. I credit him that I can play all but the really hard stuff on expert now.

Nerdy as hell, right? Well yes, I am a nerd. Perhaps you've noticed this?

...and this is my favorite from The Beatles: Rock Band. That dreamscape always puts a goofy smile on my face.

It really did take a long time to come to terms with the fact that it was over. I even tried to stay involved with RBN as a member of the community, but I realized this was just doing me more harm than good. I liked RBN, and I liked the people I was working with, but it just wasn't right. Part of me was convinced I was only doing it to grasp on to Harmonix, even though they had shown me the door.

If any of this makes me sound regretful, it shouldn't. Everything about working at Harmonix was awesome. Sure, I had bad days, but everyone has bad days. I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Even the layoff had its silver lining. I ended up going to GDC in March, meeting a bunch of great people, hanging out with the Destructoid staff (and man do I miss their HQ), and well...that was my first trip to the west coast. It was fun, to say the least. I even chatted with Michael Pachter while waiting in line for a party at one point. I'm pretty sure I said "Oh, you're that guy from all of those Joystiq articles!" when I realized who he was. If I'm recalling, he seemed to get that reaction a lot.

When PAX East rolled around, I had a similarly great time. Met more people, made more friends, got to hang out with friends I had not seen in years (or in some cases, had never met face-to-face), and really, I was just having the time of my life.

After that, though...things kind of slowed down. In general, I am a rather extroverted person, but I entered a phase where I became very insular. I wouldn't really describe it as a depression or anything like that, as I wasn't just lying around moping all the time. I put in very major steps into improving myself.

While I was at Harmonix, I tended to put most things outside of my job as a secondary concern. The job almost always came first, be it over friends, family, or myself. I barely had any hobbies at all at the time (and when I first started working there, my commute was two hours long - one way). I always put as much effort I can into a job, even if I don't particularly like the job. With Harmonix, though, it was an obsession. It was my first industry job, and with a company that made a game that is in my top three favorite games of my life.

Even when I was first hired, I knew so much about the game, but I spent a lot of time learning even more. Now that I was seeing how the sausage was made, I was borderline addicted with soaking up all of the information. It was amazing to me, and it didn't go unnoticed. Inside or outside of the office, I've had a reputation of being somewhat of an encyclopedia about the game on various levels, and I'd say that reputation is fairly solid.**

** - Thumbs up from me if you catch that reference.

...and for Rock Band Network, gotta go with this one, although that's a tough choice. This song is just too much fun.

Like I said, though. I was putting it ahead of everything else. So, a few months back, I decided it'd be a good idea to enter somewhat of a woodshed phase (though not quite to the extremes of the most common usage of the term). I was mostly happy with who I was, but I wanted to become a better me. I started with myself, putting more care into my bad habits, revisiting old hobbies (music, various forms of entertainment, even this cblog is an example of my hobbies), and the very generic, very unspecific "soul searching" that people do oh so much.

From there, I started accepting just how much I was ignoring my family while I was working. I've never hated my family - far from it. I just always convinced myself that I was too busy with work to have time for family while I was working. That was never really true, but asking for a day off was not something I would have considered last year. I had personal days, but I'd be damned if I'd use them. In a year and a half, I didn't use a single vacation day.

For the past month or so, I realized I had not talked to most of my pre-Harmonix friends for the better part of two years. I went to a party on Friday where some old friends were in disbelief that I still existed. That is just not right. Yes, I have had issues with my friends, and part of me was so excited by my new and awesome friends (who, again, were and are awesome) that I felt like they were just dragging me down, but they're still my friends. I'm glad I caught up with them.

Now, I do feel like a better me. Maybe I'm not the best me possible, but I'm getting there. Regardless of how happy I was during 2009, I feel like I am happier now. I am still unemployed, but now I feel prepared for my next job (whatever that may be), and will be ready for it to be a part of my life, and not my entire life.

I have no nugget of wisdom in this entry, no thought I want to share, and it's possible this is of no real value to anyone but myself. I'm not looking for sympathy, attention, or anything else - I just want to share my story. For me, writing it down isn't enough; I need to know that someone read it. Yeah, I'm a bit egotistical like that.

Now if only I could've done all that during a musical montage. That would've been so much easier. And way more badass.

(This is a lot more about my personal life than I am usually comfortable sharing on something as public as this blog, but I really do want to share all of this. Do not get used to it. Also, this is really long so I'm going to end with one last video, from my favorite album in Rock Band, which is also one of my favorite albums ever. Enjoy. Oh, and if you're wondering why I'm posting this two weeks before the actual anniversary, it's simply because I know I'll forget otherwise. Deal with it, huh.)

[embed]171180:31327[/embed]   read

6:45 PM on 07.02.2010

AMERICA: God's Number One Nation


AMERICA. That is what we are all about on this weekend, the weekend of AMERICA. You see, the United States of America was founded in 1492 when the Minnesota Vikings came from India to kick Squanto's ass. Led by Christopher Columbus, they founded God's Number One Nation, and suddenly an empire was formed.

Since then, no country has ever attempted to refute the claim that the United States of America (named for the Holy Trinity of God, Baby Jesus, and America the Beautiful) is God's Number One Nation, since, well, God would kick their ass if they did.

Oh sure, at one point Britain tried to pretend they could tread on our pride, but George Washington kicked their red coat-wearing asses out of the country faster than you could say "Benedict Arnold."


And now, we have continuously rocked in the free world, with no one slowing us down. We've given the world the most amazing developments in music, like The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Celine Dion, and David Bowie. No one denies that God's Number One Nation is the front-runner in literally every facet of human life.

And this weekend? This is the weekend where we recognize it even more than usual. How? By BLOWING SHIT UP!



On this day, my fellow Americans, we all unite under one banner. The American banner. Even if you are not from God's Number One Nation, but some day aspire that you could be in the Land Of The Free, join us in our celebration.


(For you Americans out there who will be having a fun weekend, stay safe. And have a good time. Summer parties are the best parties.)

[embed]171180:31227[/embed]   read

2:37 AM on 07.01.2010

I Believe I Can Develop an Opinion

Come on, you know the words to the chorus. Don't hide it.

As a living, breathing, thinking person, you likely have a set of beliefs. Not necessarily religious or philosophical, mind you, but beliefs. Some of you reading this may firmly believe that the Playstation 3 is an awful console, or that PC gaming died years ago and nobody noticed. Maybe you believe jazz is the greatest form of music, or that The Wire is the greatest show in television history. Maybe you think I talk about television too much on what is essentially a video game blog (I probably do!)

We all have these things, for nearly every facet of our lives. Even if we don't know how we feel about something right now, when we are presented with it, we'll develop our opinion of it based on our previous beliefs. This is not necessarily the best example, but it's why something like a game or movie trailer is so important. We're shown footage for 30 seconds to a minute (or sometimes longer), and suddenly an initial opinion of that title is in our minds. Personally, I have reached a stage in my life where I will gladly decide whether or not to see a movie based on its trailer*.

(*) - That said, if a particular friend of mine sees a movie I have written off, and gives it a positive review, I'll reconsider my stance. We have similar taste, and rarely do we disagree. Of course, when we disagree on something, it's suddenly a fun topic of conversation.

It is hard to shake these beliefs, sometimes. For many of us (myself included), we may be presented with an objective fact that is not in line with our current beliefs. Speaking for myself, I might end up defending why I think I'm still right, or flat out dismissing the opposition's argument altogether. It probably goes without saying that that is a slippery slope, so to speak.

"Oh god, he's going to talk about Ebert?" Relax, it's not what you think.

That is why I've found myself impressed with Roger Ebert. No, I am not here to argue about whether or not games are art. As it currently stands, I believe that people could argue about this until the entire species has gone extinct and we wouldn't be anywhere close to a consensus. Rather, I'm here to mention an article that Ebert just published**.

(**) - Within 24 hours of me writing this entry, to be clear.

Allow me to paste the very first paragraph of his article, and a bolded line a few paragraphs later:

I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place. I would never express an opinion on a movie I hadn't seen. Yet I declared as an axiom that video games can never be Art. I still believe this, but I should never have said so. Some opinions are best kept to yourself.

I should not have written that entry without being more familiar with the actual experience of video games.

Ebert goes on to explain his apathy towards video games, and discusses some of the holes in his argument. Being able to acknowledge major errors in an argument you have presented is nothing to take lightly. Many people in his position would gladly dismiss anything presented against him, and put their fingers in their ears while screaming at the top of their lungs.

This is a personality trait I greatly admire, and one I do my best to keep in my own life. There are many things in my life that even as recently as a year or two ago I would have completely written off as being "not for me." To name a few: Dungeons & Dragons, Facebook games***, country music, and a wide range of food styles I never would've tried years ago.

(***) - This was probably the silliest change for me. It basically boiled down to a good friend of mine going, "Hey, you should try this," me trying it, and then realizing how dumb I had been. They're games, just like any other. This is a topic for another time, though.

Stealth music recommendation! Lucinda Williams is pretty awesome. And yes, I picked the track from Rock Band to link.

The biggest problem with trying new things is the predisposition I'd have with these things. As a hypothetical: I hate Dungeons & Dragons, but someone is forcing me to try this new thing. I begin playing it, and am now finding reasons to confirm that I hate this game. Another thing that goes without saying: this is the wrong way of going about this.

Try something out, and then develop an opinion. Do not do this the other way around. Even in Mass Effect 2****, Mordin's apprentice points out that Mordin supposedly does this wrong. If you're listening to an album, and decide you hate it prior to listening to it, you will find a reason that you hate it. The lyrics might actually be the worst words ever written by the human race, but that doesn't make the way you went about it any better.

(****) - What, you thought I wasn't going to mention Mass Effect in this one? Come on.

The opposite is also true, of course. You might want to like a game so much, that you're willing to ignore major flaws in the game. Just because you like a game does not mean you have to accept it as perfection. I greatly enjoy Dragon Age, but the game has some pretty major technical issues (at least on my computer) that strike me as being fairly egregious. It doesn't mean I can't enjoy the game, but ignoring its faults would be doing myself a disservice. As good as something might be, it can always be a little bit better.

In short: make up your own damn mind, and don't make it up until you've actually experienced whatever it is you're criticizing. If you're wrong, don't be afraid to admit you're wrong. I think you'll find that's a more admirable trait than "sticking to your guns."   read

8:30 PM on 06.07.2010

[NVGR] Noise Pollution: A Bunch of Words About Music

It's Monday. I have felt like garbage all day, due to spending Sunday at Mohegan Sun (capped off by watching Conan O'Brien. If you're asking for a review of the performance, really shouldn't need one at this point.) Outside of Robot Unicorn Attack on my iPhone, I haven't really been in a video game mood in a few days. So, this post is not about video games.

If that sort of thing scares you, run away in

At various points in things I've written here, I've talked about how I am a musician, and how music is a major part of my life. There are others on this site who know more about it than I do (and that link is well worth your time, if you haven't already read it), and I'd never claim to be an expert on the subject, but it is a passion of mine.

Growing up, I mostly listened to what my parents listened to. In my house, that meant a lot of music from the 1960s, which means that I've been a Beatles fan for a very major portion of my life. Working on The Beatles Rock Band was one of those unbelievable portions of my life that I still have trouble realizing actually happened.

Over the years, I have always tried to remain consistently exploratory in what music I listen to. Personally, I find the phrase "I listen to everything" to be a bit of a cop-out for what music you listen to, especially when the qualifier of "except rap and/or country" is thrown on the end of it. Just like every genre of video game, I feel that every genre of music has plenty of good music to go along with the obvious quantity of bad music.

If I had to pick a genre of music that I mostly associate with, I'd choose three: blues, jazz, and alternative. "Alternative" is kind of a silly term to me, but I think it gets the message across. I grew up in the 1990s, so songs that I'd probably consider terrible if they came out today have a soft spot in my heart due to nostalgia. Blues and jazz...well, they're blues and jazz.

Recommendations, you say? You didn't say that? I'm going to pretend you said that. Here, listen to this band:

Oh my, that is not a flattering preview image. Click it anyway! The video is actually pretty cool, honestly!

Mother Mother was a band I discovered last year, although the album that contains that song had come out a year prior. Most albums only stay in my MP3 player rotation for a month or two (sometimes a bit longer for an album I really like), but I can never bring myself to delete this one. I am a sucker for vocal harmonies (Beatles fan, remember?), but there's even more going on with this band than that. If you are looking for music recommendations, this is my go-to. This is a band I very much want to see get mega-huge.

Of course, I mentioned that I am a musician. Musicians generally play musical instruments, right? Right. Growing up, I primarily played the trumpet (as well as the piano, but never to a performance level), but fell out of love with it after high school. I still enjoy how the trumpet sounds, and what you can do with it, but I don't enjoy playing it anymore. Wind instruments in general aren't appealing to me as a performer anymore.

So, now I play the guitar. How original. I bought my first guitar during my college days, but never got past a few open chords, and couldn't play a single song. One of the things I've been doing with this wealth of free time I've had (although this started prior to that) is to teach myself how to play the damn thing, while getting advice from anyone who knows a thing or two about the instrument. Given how many amateur guitarists are, and how many musically-minded friends I have, this is usually not difficult.

I'm at a point where I'm fairly happy with how well I can play, although there's definitely a lot I still have to learn. Of course, I have my whole life to do it, so there's no rush. I practice for a bare minimum of 30 minutes daily, although I prefer to get in at least an hour, and two or three hours is preferable. I don't think I need to tell any musician reading this how important practice is.

Recently, a few friends of mine who have heard me play have started asking me for advice, which is kind of a weird phenomenon for me, since I know they could get better advice from elsewhere. That said, I always give them the same piece of advice, and I know it is the best advice they'll get at their level: learn music theory.

A lot of my friends are the type of people who will argue something like, "But *famous guitarist X* didn't know music theory, and he was awesome!" *Famous guitarist X* is generally someone with a boatload of natural talent, who also puts in plenty of effort beyond learning theory. My friends are not naturally talented, and are usually kind of lazy anyway.

Learning major and minor scales (or at least the pentatonics, for crying out loud) is by no means sucking the fun out of your playing, and those are fairly easy to learn. You can get into your phrygian or lydian modes if you want to, but at least start with the basics. Theory is nothing to be afraid of, it is merely the language of music. If you don't understand the language, utilizing it is very difficult for the average player. This might not be the best comparison, but it'd be like me trying to write a novel in Farsi, despite the fact that I don't know a single thing about Farsi.

I'm kind of rambling here, so I think I'm just going to cut myself off. I very much love music, both as a spectator and a performer. Learning a musical instrument is one of the most rewarding things I think you can do, and the barrier to entry is not as scary as a lot of people want you to believe. If you cut out a few hours of video games a week, and replace that with a few hours of practice, you'll improve at a good pace, and will eventually greatly look forward to picking up your instrument (you know, assuming you enjoy music).

And if you don't know anything about music? Pay for lessons. It will be the best money you ever spend, well beyond learning a single musical instrument.   read

12:13 AM on 06.02.2010

Ending an Ending: You Don't Have to go Home, but...

(SPOILER ALERT: There are a lot of Lost spoilers. If you haven't seen the Lost finale, and you care about that sort of thing, move right along. As always, this is the only warning.)

Not too long ago, I wrote about ending something that is expected to lead directly into a sequel, or as I coined it, "Ending an Exposition". To sum it up for you, I said that it's important that ending something that appears in the middle (be it the end of a TV season, or the first game in an obviously multi-part series, or various other things) doesn't leave the audience with a shallow lack of resolution. Or, to really boil it down: the world needs more Mass Effect endings, and less Halo 2 endings.

What happens when something is done? We've reached the finish line. This is it. No more after this. We're packing up and going home. Ending something that an audience has invested a large amount of time into is always extremely difficult.

I'm going to assume that most of the people reading this know that Lost had its series finale recently, and the show is now gone for good. Many people have said many things about this ending. Some loved it, some hated it. Some people (like yours truly) fell somewhere in the middle. Lost was a show that thrived on a high mystery element, and many people felt slighted that they didn't get this answer or that one, be it what happened with Walt, who Sayid shot on the golf course, why did US Press Secretary CJ Cregg kill Jacob and Smokey's biological mother*, or about a million other questions that didn't get answered.

* - I joke, but I really do enjoy Allison Janney. I loved her on The West Wing, and any other show she pops up on, she does a great job. I saw a random episode of "In Plain Sight" (a show I do not regularly watch) last night, and she was on, giving as good of a performance as ever.

A bit of a primer on all of the stuff Lost did not answer. One little thing is not a big deal, but...

Of course, if you buy into the Damon Lindelof/Carlton Cuse theory of "Lost is about the characters," you probably greatly enjoyed the series finale. The show resolved everyone's time on the island, and while you don't know what happened to everyone who lived through the finale (LAPIDUS~!), you do get to watch them party in a church before Christian Shepard opens a door of light to reveal God as played by Alanis Morrisette (wait).

This all ends up boiling down to one major facet when it comes to a huge ending: you can't please everyone. Some people liked the endings of shows like The Sopranos or Battlestar Galactica, while many did not. Personally, I feel that Six Feet Under has one of the better conclusions to any story I've cared about, but I have friends who disagree.

And really, this shouldn't come as a shock. Often, I find myself not enjoying an ending just because, well, it's over. There is no more. Anything you may have wanted to see happen (like Ryo Hazuki kicking the crap out of Lan Di) no longer has a chance of happening. Particularly with Lost, that was a pretty big deal for a lot of people.

Lost's Terry O'Quinn (John Locke) had a good quote about endings on the behind the scenes look at the series that aired before the finale. Sadly, I can't seem to find the quote at the moment, but to paraphrase, he said something along the lines of "At the end of the day, you just want to be able to close that book and say, 'Man, that was awesome.'" Satisfaction is always important in forms of entertainment, but it's doubly important with an ending. The unfortunate truth is that what satisfies some will not satisfy others, so it becomes more about the message you want to give your audience at this point.

Lost ended with a message that I've interpreted to be about finding your soul mate, or whatever else. The Sopranos ended in a fashion I can only describe as, "Make up your own damn mind." To slowly walk into video games, well...

Suddenly, this gets very difficult.

It seems as though many of the games I'd want to use as narrative examples in video games suffer a pretty big, and pretty similar flaw: they all have that "it's over, but..." ending. Often, this is the kind of thing that appears after the credits, as if this is some sort of reward for watching the names of a bunch of developers scroll on your screen while you do something else for a few minutes.

Some of my go-to examples like Dragon Age resolve the present conflict, but are obviously setting up to expand the franchise (and for full disclosure, I have Awakening, but I haven't completed it yet). Mass Effect 3 is not yet a reality, but my understanding is that it's supposed to be the final chapter for Commander Shepard. Bioshock barely had anything resembling an ending (and I haven't played Bioshock 2).

It seems as though tying the idea of an ultimate resolution into video games just isn't compatible with the current culture of narrative-based video games. Everything makes room for a sequel, seemingly, and continues to do so until the franchise is no longer profitable. At that point, you might get a final game, but this feels unlikely. I can't come up with a single example of this happening.

I'd love to tie this into one of my personal favorite games from the Playstation era, Metal Gear Solid, but even that had Revolver Ocelot talking to Solidus after the credits, and that series is still going. I could go to the Final Fantasy series, but for the most part, those games tend to have the "Hollywood Ending"*

* - Which, if you are unfamiliar with this term, I'd advise you to watch Robert Altman's "The Player". Really, you should watch that movie anyway

I am at a complete loss for coming up with a game that concludes for good -- in any variation of quality -- without adding some tag on the end that makes it possible for them to keep going afterwards. This, sadly, is leaving me without a good conclusion for this essay (which I suppose is fitting), and has me wondering if any series has successfully given a message of completion. If you can think of something, I'd love to hear it.

And since I didn't properly conclude this entry, here is a Youtube video of Buddy Rich and Ed Shaughnessy playing drums on Johnny Carson. It is awesome. I hope this ending is satisfying for you, the reader.


(And just as a quick post-script: yes, Lost has plenty of room to rejoin the island, perhaps with the adventures of Hurley and Ben, but we had an actual resolution. I mean, most things have room to revisit a series unless the ending is something like "and everyone ever died, the end.")

(Also, if you haven't seen this yet, get on it. Like, now.)   read

6:12 PM on 06.01.2010

[NVGR] My Past Resignations

Hopefully you got the title reference before clicking into this entry. I love me some Dave Grohl.

I always work under the assumption that no one reads this blog. Everything I write is stuff that I am personally interested in, and putting it into large chunks of words makes it easier for me to reach an understanding of those interesting things. That anyone does read these words is merely a happy coincidence, and one that I genuinely appreciate.

So, when I see a comment like this one on yesterday's entry, I take a step back:

Whoa. Not only did this fellow read that entry, he read my "about me" sidebar. While I did cover my bases by updating that thing a few weeks ago, suddenly I find myself conflicted. Originally, I started writing these things to see if I could keep a daily (well, once per weekends) blog going for any amount of time, and while my results were not entirely what I had hoped for, they were promising.

I don't think it comes as a shock to anyone that writing - and more importantly, writing frequently and in large quantities - is difficult, especially if it's merely a hobby as it is for myself.* The concept of doing stuff on a deadline, however, is something that is prevalent in all facets of most of our lives. Most obviously, this is something that will be a part of your career, whatever that line of work may be.

* - I did try an English/writing/whatever it would've turned into major in college for a semester or two, but it wasn't for me. I have a hard time allowing a hobby to turn into a career, which is why I don't have a degree that lets people know I am good at writing words. For similar reasons, I don't have a degree in making music (my other passion).

My self-imposed deadlines were mostly to keep me sharp during what I was hoping would be a brief job hunt, that hasn't gone as well as I'd like. I'm not worried about it - I haven't slowed down, and I will find something eventually. In the meantime, however, I refuse to let myself turn into mush.

I've been making sure that I'm frequently challenging myself while I'm unemployed, so that when I get my next gig, I'll be prepared to jump right in. This blog is one of those things, and teaching myself how to play a guitar (with aid from Youtube, admittedly) has been my big challenge for the past nine or ten months (I wasn't going in blind, but my ability was remedial before I bought my electric from a then-co-worker). Overall, I'd say it has been going well. Maybe I'll upload a video for your amusement one of these days (then again, maybe not).

Don't take this for anything beyond its face value, but self-improvement is one of those things I never stop thinking about. There are few challenges I look at and think to myself, "I will never be able to do that." Sure, I'll never play for a Major League Baseball team, but I can still work on my hitting so I can reliably hit the ball where I want to hit it. I'll never sell out an arena with my music, but that doesn't mean I can't improve as a musician.

Even in video games (oh no, the video game tangent), I always have room to improve. I may never win tournaments at Street Fighter, but I certainly have not come remotely close to my limit in that game. My only major phobia is a colossal fear of heights, so about a year ago I decided that before I am 30 years old, I will go skydiving. I like the idea of facing a (debilitating at times) fear head-on. Maybe now that I put it in writing, I'll actually do it, too.

So what does all of that have to do with this?

While I'm sure it was not meant to be taken that way, I see this comment as a challenge. In an attempt to improve myself further, I will once again attempt to update this here space daily, with one small qualifier. Currently, I am involved in some all-day activities on Fridays with a few friends, so I can't reasonably keep a normal amount of sleep in my life while also updating six times a week, so I will cut that to five times. Every Monday through Thursday, expect daily updates. Friday, expect nothing. Saturday and Sunday, expect one update (don't know which day yet, and it might change!)

This might last a day, or maybe a week. Maybe it'll last for years, I have no idea. All I know is that it's Beyamor's fault. I hope you're happy.

(As a side note, a call for content would be awesome. If you've been reading this blog regularly, -- first of all, thanks -- you know what kinds of things I feel comfortable writing about, so if you can think of anything you'd like to see me talk about, help me! Coming up with daily prompts (which I usually think up that same day) can be difficult if I run out of them. I have enough for at least a little while, but any help is good help. This entry excluded, I like to stay as close to video games as possible, given that this is a video game website after all, but I may venture outside of that realm, as well. This is a lot of commitment for like a handful of regular readers! And really, Shenmue's non-ending still makes me angry.)   read

5:09 PM on 05.31.2010

Street Fighter and Me -or- How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Spam Hadoken

Ahh, the blank canvas. Scourge of all writers. Killer of students. The greatest form of torture to someone working on a deadline. This is what I've been dealing with for the past however-long. For those of you who follow this blog, you've probably noticed a lack of letters, words, paragraphs, and entries in this here blog. I'm not here to apologize (really, I'm not required to update this, but I prefer to), but rather explain how this came to be. I'll end up in a video game related tangent, don't you worry.

As I hope is clear, I do try to put a decent amount of effort into whatever I upload to this site, as I don't like to come across as misinformed, ignorant to what I'm talking about, or just downright stupid, even if all of these things are true at various times. So, when I start enjoying a lot of things that don't directly involve video games (like reconnecting with old friends I haven't seen in years, or finally buying an amp for my guitar), some stuff falls behind the wayside.

But enough about me, let's talk about what video games I am playing.

Actually, to be accurate, it's fair to say I am monogamous in my video gaming, currently. I have found a home with a large joystick in my lap shooting balls of fire at not-quite-racist-but-totally-stereotypical "world warriors". Yes, I'm talking about Super Street Fighter 4.

It was more than a personal victory than it should have been when I realized I could consistently beat online players who use the same exact tactics at all times, even when it's clear they don't work.

Outside of music games and MMORPGs, fighting games have been able to ruin my ability to enjoy multiple games at once like no other genre. Ever since I was a little kid playing Street Fighter 2*, the games have always appealed to me for a variety of reasons. The gameplay is always solid, sure, and the games are usually well-done, but there's definitely more to it than that. And no, I'm not just talking about balance (though that is important!)

* - Sidenote: how many games out there have only increased the sequel count by two in nearly two decades? Yeah, I know they didn't exactly rest on their laurels during that time, but this has always struck me as hilarious.

One of the biggest problems I had with Street Fighter (or any fighting game, really) back in the day was that I never had enough competition. Once I got to the point that I could beat my friends regularly (well, one of my good friends always kept up with me), there wasn't much more beyond that. I don't think I need to discuss how bland of an experience Street Fighter is while playing against AI.

Now, back in those days, the arcade scene was big -- let's say big enough, actually -- around here that I could have conceivably gotten better by playing in arcades, but I was too young back then, so it's almost like me talking about how I never got to see the Beatles perform live since I wasn't alive in the 1960s. I was stuck playing with my friends, who inevitably burned out on the games. Naturally, this leads to me burning out on them, as well.

As I grew older, I still appreciated fighting games, but never really played them. Sure, I had Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast (who didn't?), and I had a brief (and I do mean brief) love affair with Tekken 3, along with a bunch of other stuff mixed in at that time, but none of those games lasted very long. For the majority of the past 15 years or so, I've probably spent the most time with Soul Calibur, and that's only because my friends seemed to think they could get good at it. Of course, they were viewing the game in the light of Ninja Gaiden rather than in the light of Starcraft that (in my opinion) they should have seen it in, so they lost, I ran out of competition, and got bored again.

This is the kind of mentality a lot of my friends had, albeit in a more friendly manner. And yes, I did beat that guy. He could have very easily beaten what I was doing.

Once I entered the realm of the internet, I discovered just how good people had been getting at these games over the years. Things like "Evo moment #37" way back in 2004 (the fact that I can say "way back in 2004" without being sarcastic makes me pretty sad, by the way) appealed to me in the greatest of great senses. Sure, I wouldn't be able to do that in a million years, but it's moreso an example of me realizing how much potential there was that I had never even seen.

At that point, the floodgates of information poured open for me. I discovered David Sirlin's infamous "playing to win" series and wondered how on earth people could disagree with that stuff, found and picked out whatever info I thought was interesting, and sought out high quality videos of other people playing video games (and really, that's a point of no return).

Of course, this was all six years ago. I had no fighting game that I enjoyed. I tried to enjoy Guilty Gear XX #Reload on my Xbox, but it never really "clicked" for me. I wasn't really enjoying it, and even though I could go online with it, I never really found a community to play with. Randoms are only so exciting (especially since I was losing pretty handily at that one).

After that, I played Dead or Alive 4 for a bit, and I had a good group of friends I rolled with on that game, but we were all basically playing it because it was our only option on the Xbox 360. That XBLA version of Hyper Fighting was depressing.

Then Street Fighter 4 happened.

Yeah, this game (and its sequel/expansion/"thing that should've been DLC/a patch"/whatever you're willing to call it) certainly has its flaws (a bit too defensive/slow for my tastes, really unwelcoming for new players, links will ruin your brain), but it was finally a game I clicked with. When it first came out, I was in the middle of a crunch at work, so it kind of fell by the wayside, but it was never out of my mind. Once I heard about Super Street Fighter 4, all hell kind of broke loose in my mind. To make matters worse/better, PAX East was like a nail in the coffin.

At PAX East, once I discovered the large amount of people playing SF4, that was it. As luck may have had it, I was already in the process of buying a Mad Catz Tournament Edition stick from a friend of mine also attending the expo (and they are as good as everyone says, really), but that didn't even matter once I sat down in freeplay. If that weekend hadn't been one of the busiest weekends of my life, I probably would've spent the majority of it playing Street Fighter, and I would've lost a lot. I've been bit by the bug, and now there's no turning back.

Not to mention, I have a good group of people to play with even at home now! Yes, online has its share of issues, and playing with lag is always unfortunate (though that is a topic for another time), but this random site called seems to have a decent core of Street Fighter players that are enjoyable playing, and have skill levels ranging from "I can beat them without trying" (Nishant I love you) to "What the hell did they just throw at me?", and everywhere in between. If you spend some time in Destructoid's IRC channel, you'll find a match eventually. Go in with the right attitude, and you'll also learn a lot.

So, thanks guys. You've probably added at least a month to my unemployment. I hope you're happy.

(And just for you regular readers: Bioshock, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Bioware, Lost, Mad Men Shenmue 2's ending sucked.)   read

3:50 AM on 05.13.2010

If You Choose Not to Decide: Choices, and Their Impact

While perusing the recaps of yesterday's blogs (brought to you by the always awesome cblogrecaps who are awesome and no I am not just saying that because they topsauced me yesterday), I came across this entry by Om Nom On Souls. First off, while I don't venture too far outside of this here blog very often (except for my frequent presence on Destructoid's IRC channel), I do know that ONOS is particularly awesome, and you should click that link and read that entry. It's good.

Also, as you can probably guess, it got me to thinking. Not directly about good and evil, mind you, but choice in a more general sense. Choice is one of those things that has compelled people for almost as long as people have walked this planet. Do we have free will, able to create our own path as we see fit, or has it been written in stone for eternity that I'd be typing these words right now? Was Oceanic 815 always destined to crash, or did changeable events lead to this happening? It's definitely unnerving (to me, anyway) to imagine a situation where everything in my life has already been predetermined.

I don't want to get more philosophical than I need to for this, but it's unavoidable to some extent. Choice is one of those things that comes up time and time again when discussing storytelling through video games, and I'm sure it'll remain a topic long after I hit the giant button underneath this text box. Usually, choices are represented in a binary fashion of good/evil, and in the past, it was taken to extreme. I can save that burning bus full of orphans, or I can slow down the rate at which those orphans die the most agonizing death possible - stuff like that.

Some developers (like the perennially-mentioned-in-this-blog Bioware) have pushed the envelope a bit further in that regard, making sure that even the most altruistic action you think you can take can lead to negative consequence (in my opinion, I think Mass Effect has taken this a bit too far, but that's a topic for another time). On the opposite side of this, many games have tried to add incentives if you choose be Jim Badguy. Generally, this comes through increased stats, items, abilities, etc. Whatever makes your life easier, at least in the short term. (As I'm sure many of you know, harvesting the little sisters in Bioshock actually was a net negative compared to saving them in the long run, and yes, I did just mention Bioshock again. Is it the fall yet?)

I'm trying to stay in the habit of throwing images with relevant quotes into these essays just to break up the monotiniy of the WALL OF TEXT, but I'm having trouble coming up with related images that aren't just from the same references that I always use. So here, have a Rush song.

Of course, there's a lot more to choice than good and evil. Dragon Age presents a variety of choices that have no clear "this is the real good, and this is the real bad path," and it opens up a bit more to the interpretation of the player. I've heard stories from friends about how they played through the game while developing a role for their character, similar to how they might make a character in Dungeons and Dragons (or anything else that involves roleplaying).

This is interesting, but I hold the belief that the game should present all of the challenge without me creating my own rules outside of the program I'm currently running. Most of the choices I made in Dragon Age were the ones that either gave me the most benefit, the "best" possible ending, or were simply the most difficult choices to make (for example, if there was a choice I could make only if I had a good enough persuasion, that was always my first choice. As an added bonus, that usually tied into my first qualifier anyway).

The other issue is that these decisions usually don't have any significant impact on the game, as I griped about yesterday. Say you choose to kill the Rachini queen in the first Mass Effect. After that happens and you return to the Normandy, you get chastised by the Council, and then you continue your mission. If you choose to save it? You get chastised by the Council, and then you continue your mission. Either way, it has no impact on the rest of the game, and only serves to change a few lines of speech in its sequel. Naturally, this could change in the next game, but I can't speculate on something that doesn't really exist yet.

This is all too common in games, especially ones that are "all about the choices you make." This does make Bioware the main offender (and it's worth noting, the only reason I talk about Bioware so much is because I really do love the games they make), as the choices you make are mostly pointless. For the most part, all of these choices have cosmetic effect over a few lines of speech here or there, but the lasting effect - the impact - is rarely there.

Sure, you have to choose whether Ashley or Kaidan dies, but why do I care? This particular point ties back into what I discussed yesterday - in that I don't care about these characters at all - but it also became even sillier when Mass Effect 2 was released and neither of them are playable anyway. Granted, I haven't played through the game where Kaidan is alive, but I'm going to make the safe assumption that he shows up in the same place that Ashley does, and serves more or less the same role that Ashley does in that context. If I'm wrong, feel free to correct me.

Choosing for the sake of making a choice isn't the correct way of going about this. Adding meaning to these decisions is vital. Given the nature of developing a video game, a narrative-heavy game will never fully be able to escape a limited set of paths you can take. I don't consider binary options to necessarily be the kiss of death for making decisions, although it may not be the best way of going about it.

And honestly, just creating an impressive back story for these decisions isn't enough. Sure, that's a benefit (and one I would never belittle), but it's not the whole story. I guess I could put it like this: make me scared to choose the other option. This isn't necessarily the only way you can succeed at creating impact, but it is probably one of the simpler methods. I wasn't scared about killing the Council instead of a massive amount of innocent people in Mass Effect, since they were replaceable, and they were all jerks anyway. Oh, you mean I can cause the demise of these intergalactic, xenophobic leaders who don't seem to realize that I'm saving their asses? Nah, let me kill all these innocent people instead. Impact, not cosmetics.

And please, don't make me wait two years (or longer) for a sequel where this impact presents itself. Have I ever mentioned the Shenmue blue-balling in this blog?   read

1:56 AM on 05.12.2010

A Developing Character: Because We Can't Search for Sailors All Day

(SPOILER ALERT: There are spoilers of the current season of Lost, Justified, and Treme in this entry, as well as spoilers from older seasons of Dexter. If you're not current on these shows (or even a week or two behind), but care about spoilers, avoid this entry until you are current. There are no more warnings after this point.)

Son of a bitch!

For no reason other than being unemployed (still!), I've found myself watching a lot of television shows on top of my usual gaming habits. While this may seem like a rather mundane way to begin an essay, this is actually somewhat outside of my realm of normal behavior. I'm by no means opposed to television - in fact, I quite like it. For several years, however, I chose not to watch because "I have other stuff I could be doing."

Well, that's not the case right now, and I'm glad it isn't; there are some mighty fine shows on TV right now. Primarily, my TV time is focused on three shows: Lost, Justified, and Treme. These three shows are vastly different in significant ways, but share a few common themes that separate them from the majority of other shows I've seen lately (although I hear Breaking Bad is good, and I'll certainly be ready for Mad Men's return).

Of course, this isn't about TV shows. If I wanted to review them, I could do it pretty quickly. In fact, I will: good but inconsistent, took a few episodes but is really flying high right now, absolutely fantastic on all levels, but might get bland quicker than I'd like (fans of The Wire are currently yelling at me about how wrong I am).

Now that that's out of the way, let's get to my real point - one of the biggest things these shows all do is develop their characters. One of the most important things you can do when telling a story - yes, even a non-fiction story - is to present it to the audience in a way where they develop a bond with the story's key players. This goes beyond the words that come out of their mouth, but the way they react to things, the small mannerisms that are a core part of who they are, and countless other things that need to be taken into consideration (although not necessarily obsessed about).

The two main writers of Lost, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have spoken about how they feel that Lost is first and foremost about the characters. While that may not be true in practice, it's a good ideal to stick by. Looking at the characters still currently relevant on Lost, most of them possess enough qualities to make them seem "human" in a way where the audience cares about what happens to some or all of them.

Certainly, I found myself moved by Jin and Sun's unfortunate fate, and I've found myself the most curious about what will happen to Hurley in the long run. I want nothing more than for Kate's Lost career to end with a bullet in her head, but I know a few people who do still like her. Desmond, of course, is awesome, as is Lapidus, who totally isn't dead.

Justified is a bit more top-heavy in its character development, putting the majority of the focus on Raylan Givens (although not all of it), who is played brilliantly by Timothy Olyphant. Raylan started off the series coming across as some kind of Superman character who always was three steps ahead of the people he was chasing, but as the season has progressed, we've discovered the things that can reduce him down to the level of mere mortal. There was a good moment in this week's episode - one where Raylan was without his signature hat the entire hour - where he reached for his hat upon entering a building, only to realize that he didn't actually have it on. Those minor details are a good way to develop character, even if the entire audience isn't going to notice them.

People do lots of dumb s*** because it's easy.

Treme is a bit of an outlier, in that there's no real central plot. Each of the main characters has their own personal conflicts (and in a city like New Orleans after the storm, conflict was not in short supply), but they rarely overlap into a more major theme - outside of New Orleans itself, of course. Rather than tell a traditionally focused story like a crime drama in Justified, or a whatever-the-hell-they're-doing in Lost, Treme's whole existence is seemingly based on characters and characters alone.

No other show I've seen (and before you ask: no, I have not see The Wire, yes, I know it is awesome, yes, I plan on watching it eventually) is capable of staying compelling with as weak of a key conflict as Treme. The best way I can describe it for someone who hasn't seen it is that it basically is several "side story" level stories from any other show matched together. You've got Antoine, a struggling musician trying to make ends meat while sleeping around town, Janette, with a mostly flooded house and a restaurant she can't really keep up with, Creighton, a professor in a school that he doesn't seem too thrilled about who is suddenly becoming a Youtube celebrity, and several other interesting characters.

There is one character, however, who seems to have polarized the show's fans. Davis comes across as a holier-than-thou, too smart to realize how dumb he is personality that just doesn't resonate with most people. It always feels like he's a bit too unaware of what's going on around him, and while people like that do exist, they're not usually popular characters in stories, especially when portrayed as an important part of the story. From this week's episode, it looks like we're still having the layers of Davis peeled back, and we were showed a bit of how Davis manages to get through life (his ability to persuade is incredible).

Of course, having good characters isn't necessary for a show to be compelling. A show like Dexter gets by having bland, one-dimensional characters that take cop drama archetypes to a bit of an extreme. It succeeds largely due to the suspense it creates through the plot, rather than any character not named Dexter Morgan developing in any meaningful way (unless you count what seemed like an interesting subplot for Doakes until they killed him off in season 2).

Naturally, I mention all of this to give a frame of reference to discuss character development in video games, a part of the narrative process that seems to be completely ignored in the majority of games. The most popular example with my friends is Final Fantasy 8, where everyone not named Squall is more or less meaningless to the game, and the only development Squall experiences is going from "emo kid who doesn't want to be bothered" to "emo kid who doesn't want to be bothered, except by Rinoa" (I'm overgeneralizing, but not much).

Excuse me, I'm looking for some sailors.

The list of good or great narrative-heavy games with terrible character development is staggering. One of my personal favorites from days gone by, Shenmue, is full of characters that were seemingly cut out of construction paper, be it Ryo (the protagonist!), Lan Di, Nozomi, or whoever else. They're all one-trick ponies with no real reason to become attached to them (except for Ryo, who is an inconsistent zero-trick pony who you are forced to control for the majority of the game). As I've discussed in the past, this issue is augmented by the fact that the series was never completed.

As far as games that are moreso praised for their writing (and that I've actually played, sorry Heavy Rain and Half-Life, I'll leave you two to the comments), a game like Bioshock gets by through the means of not really creating a protagonist. Usually in games where you follow a plot, you're never given any motivation for walking into those obvious traps, other than "you have to or the game won't finish." I won't spend time discussing how Bioshock gets around this, as that has been discussed many times by many people. The game succeeds by being moreso about the antagonists of the game, and while they aren't necessarily the most interesting characters in the world, the real interest comes through discovering the methods they screw around with the nameless, faceless, voiceless protagonist.


Mass Effect (and really, most Bioware games of the same nature) is a bit of a mixed bag. You can develop Shepard in a few different ways (good thing!), even though it ultimately has no bearing on the rest of the story (not-so-good thing!).

The people around him/her are inconsistent, as well. For checkmarks in the "good" column, I'd commend a character like Mordin, who we discover throughout the course of ME2 is a lot more interesting than just a doctor who is good with a gun. Not to mention he's a great singer. For characters that crossed over from the first game to its sequel, I'd surprisingly give kudos to Wrex. While he seems like a very typical meathead for the most part (which is mostly true of his species), there's enough going on under the surface that gives him a decent amount of depth. Meeting him in Mass Effect 2 and discovering his forward-thinking ways to help unite and save his people was refreshing, given that my main memory of him from the first game is his single-word greeting of Shepard.

Most (not all, but I'm not discussing everyone for the sake of brevity) of the cast outside of that isn't so wonderful. I feel like Ashley could have been a more interesting character, but she never really gets beyond just being an annoying xenophobe in either game. Jacob is pretty one-dimensional in a similar way that Doakes was for most of his run on Dexter. I happen to enjoy those characters to an extent, but if he shows up in the third game, I hope they do a bit more with him.

I wanted to end the body of this essay with an example of a game that has good character development across the board for the key players, but I really can't think of any game that really hits a home run. Even the games that rely heavily on archetypes seem to mess it up somewhere, usually by not spending enough time on it, presumably for the reason that most developers assume that to develop a character, you have to be in a conversation that doesn't actually use the main mechanics of the game itself (be it the combat system, the puzzles, or whatever the "core gameplay" is). It's a shame, because I don't feel like this would be a difficult task to complete. Writers have been creating compelling characters for thousands of years.

I'd love to hear if any of you have examples of games with good (not even great!) character development. I definitely haven't played every critically popular game that relies heavily on story, so hopefully you guys can fill in some of the blanks for me.   read

6:42 AM on 04.16.2010

You can't handle the truth!

I'm not particularly good at re-sizing, and I couldn't find an image with decent dimensions. Sorry.

Let's face it, everyone: the most popular game on the Xbox 360 isn't actually a game. If you look at your list of friends at any point of the day, you're more than likely to find at least one or two people to be playing this. While other games come and go with the tides, this game never goes out of style, and is constantly being refreshed with new content.

I am, of course, speaking of the one and only Netflix. Since this service has launched on the Xbox 360, it has taken over everyone's spare time, and (in my mind) gave credence to the thought that the console is more than just something to play video games on - it has a legitimate argument as being an important part of any home media center.

We have a problem, though. Netflix, the most popular game on the Xbox 360 by leaps and bounds, has no achievements. Achievements, such a necessary part of Xbox 360 games that even Final Fantasy XI has them. People, we can't allow this to continue any longer.

Here is my modest attempt at making some worthwhile achievements for Netflix. I'm trying not to deviate too far from current achievement conventions (showcasing features from the game, rewards for "critical path" usage, and so forth), so don't expect anything too crazy.

For added fun, I've made the title for every achievement a quote from a movie or TV show (with a heavy lean towards movies). Some are iconic, some are merely famous, and some are rather obscure favorites. See how many you know!

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. - 10 G
--Add a movie or television show to your instant queue.

You're gonna need a bigger boat. - 15 G
--Add 25 movies or television shows to your instant queue.

I loved you in Wall Street! - 30 G
--Add 50 movies or television shows to your instant queue.

If you build it, he will come. - 10 G
--Invite someone for a party watch session

What the **** is the internet? - 30 G
--View a movie or show that you added to your instant queue from

It stinks! - 10 G
--Rate one movie or show.

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers! - 15 G
--Rate 25 movies or shows.

Whoa. - 30 G
--Rate 50 movies or shows.

Worst. Episode. Ever. - 25 G
--Watch any movie or show with a rating of two stars or less, and then rate it.

There's always a choice. - 25 G
--Watch any movie or show with a rating of four stars or more, and then rate it.

And the Oscar goes to... - 15 G
--Watch any movie that has won an Academy Award for Best Picture. (pending legal sign-off from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. - 50 G
--Watch an entire season or series of a TV show in a single day.

Do you know what your sin is? - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Sci-Fi & Fantasy"

That rug really pulled the room together, dude. - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Comedy"

You trying to say Jesus Christ can't hit a curveball? - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Sports & Fitness"

Hang on to your turban kid, we're gonna make you a star! - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Children & Family"

But...this one goes to eleven. - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Documentary"

What kind of place is this? It's beautiful: Pigeons fly, women fall from the sky! I'm moving here! - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Foreign"

A man once told me that the only causes worth fighting for are the lost causes. - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Drama"

Some people are just born with tragedy in their blood. - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Independent"

Movies don't create psychos, movies make psychos more creative! - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Thrillers"

Where we're going, we don't need roads! - 55 G
--Watch 1000 movies or TV shows.

There. It's not a comprehensive list of all of the achievements you could make for Netflix, but this should be enough to ship achievements for this, the most popular game on the Xbox 360. Currently, the gamerscore adds up to 500. I figure since this is more content than an XBLA title, but isn't actually a game, this is a good compromise for your score.

If you have some awesome achievements (complete with quotes!), throw them in the comments and I can try to balance them in. Remember, though: try to keep them within the standard flavor of Xbox 360 achievements!   read

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