Twenty four years ago I was adorable. Now I'm inquisitive and hilarious.
I have a plastic tooth to replace one lost in a mosh pit during my more ridiculous high school years. I speak shitty German and I ride a bike. My Xbox gets so much use, I'm sometimes embarassed. But I'm unemployed, so my time is spent writing blogs on the internet, reading good literary fiction, and playing video games.
In the grand scale of things, I'm a late-bloomer. My parents banned all consoles from my house as a kid. See what you've done? Now I game constantly to make up for years of lost time.
I won't list my favorites, because you've probably seen ten lists like it before me.
There's a life-sized Boba Fett standee in my living room.
When I clicked 'Make New Blog,' my edit page shamelessly revealed to me that my last post was back in September of last year. That fact stung, it really did, especially considering how much Destructoid - the community in particular - has done for me. Spoiler alert: It's a whole, whole lot.
If you'd like to read me gush about it, refer to this post, but if you came to learn weird things about the man with his face obscured by half of a racially offensive comic book, it begins now.
10. I live in Chicago, the Breezy Metropolis by the Lake. Of Lights. That Never Sleeps.
Most of you are likely unsurprised by this, but I moved to Chicago a few years ago following a depressing few months dwelling in Ohio post-college. It's been ridiculous, having been a mostly suburban kid growing up. I had to get over my neurotic mistrust of buses, decline two separate offers to watch a homeless man pee, and learn the hard-way to watch out for car doors while biking.
Chicago has been good to me and I intend to be here much longer. I've learned the train system, remained employed, gone to BBQ Rib festivals, watched Jurassic Park in a prohibition era theatre, and been up in the Sears Tower with relatives more times than I'd like to remember.
9. Every year, I celebrate National Corndog Day.
It's an international celebration! Corndog day comes early March every year and my friends and I don't pull any punches when it comes to the festivities. There's grilled corndogs and deep-fried tatertots for everyone. Check out this video montage of what happened last year.
There's even the Corndog Challenge, a standing goal to eat 10 corndogs, 100 tatertots, and drink 10 PBRs. Despite my years of experience, I've failed every time.
8. One of my front teeth is entirely fake.
Here's a tip to all you young kids trying to look cool with your mohawk, attending punk shows, and gawking at girls with leather jackets. I was you once, so you can be sure I know what I'm talking about. Don't jump in the moshpit. When you came back down, some asshole place his elbow squarely into your jaw.
Ever see a tooth become white mist? I did and it was not an experience I'd like to repeat.
Now, one of my front teeth is 98% plastic replica. You'll never guess, it's a perfect match. But, if it comes time to test us all to see who is a Cylon, I'll likely raise some suspicion.
7. I don't drink.
Those fated words made a thousand strangers at college parties cringe at me. No, I'm not a recovering alcoholic, the child of recovering alcoholics, or allergic to wheat gluten. It was just an activity that I tried, but never got into.
After the age of 19, no one cares anyhow. In fact, I'm that awesome dude that will always and forever be your designated driver. Want a late night drunken trip to Taco Bell? I'm your man, provided you pay in Chalpuas.
In fact, my years as the sober guy have given me an extensive catalog of excellent anecdotes. I've seen friends puke, fall down stairs dressed as 90's Cher, prevented house fires, witnessed embarrassing drunk dials, and stopped imminent bar fights. I could write a book about it all and, if I did, I'd probably title it the most common phrase I hear as the sobriety fades.
Don't Be Like Me, Ben.
6. I have not beaten a single one of the original Super Mario Bros games.
My parents are amazing, fantastic, supportive, hilarious people. But, one decision they made as young parents will forever shame me in the company of other gamers. As a child, I never once had a video game console. Not one.
I managed to eventually circumvent this rule by saving up and buying my own console, but that wasn't until the Nintendo 64 was somewhat old news. I've gone back to play a few classics, but I've never earned my Mario merit badge. Shame, shame, shame.
5. I have two distinct scars, a horseshoe mark from a failed attempt to ride a donkey and gash on my knee from a street-luging accident.
For being a pasty white nerd, I manage to get into some crazy shit.
The donkey was a pet of a rural family in Tennessee. I was a teenager volunteering for an organization that assisted struggling folk do household repairs and provide social support. The donkey did not want to be a horse, but I was challenged to try. I lasted four seconds longer than a professional rodeo rider, but made the mistake of falling off the back-end.
Did you know that when you approach a turn on a street-luge board, you should lean to turn? You should, but not too much. If you do over-compensate, you'll do some concrete-somersaults and end up with a nasty scar on your left knee. True story.
4. My brother lives in a hand-built cabin and sometimes in a teepee.
This isn't technically about me, but it's fun to hear about, so shut your stupid mouth. My brother is only about two years older than me, but we couldn't be more polar opposites. I sit on the internet, well-versed in memes and ingesting pop culture like a sponge.
My brother fights forest fires on a volunteer basis, clears trails for the park services, lives in a solar-powered cabin with wood-stove heating, lived for two years in a teepee that he made himself, and once stabbed a mountain lion in self-defense.
I respect the ever-loving hell out of the guy, but our differences make Christmas gift shopping a nightmare. Three holidays ago, I got him a new Bowie knife and he got me a Jack Kerouac book. That's about right.
3. I put on a four week show at the Second City theatre.
Have I hit the humblebrag limit yet? I think I'm pushing it, but I'm really proud of this one. Upon completion of taking a year of courses at the legendary improv/comedy/writing studio here in Chicago, my team and I put on a four-week sold-out sketch show. If you haven't heard of SC, it's the location that trained great comedians like Dan Akroyd, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, John Belushi, and a whole lot more.
It was terrifying, exciting, and plenty of mistakes were made. But, it was still a landmark achievement in my life. Since the show ended, a small pocket of brilliant writers and myself have formed a writing group. You can expect to see some web videos and possibly a variety show in the next few months.
2. I'm a card-carrying, quarter-blooded Native American.
No. This isn't one of those "1/300th Cherokee" things. While we don't actually get a card to carry, I was born a member of the Mohegan Tribe, which resides with their huge casino in Connecticut. Those wonderful bastards have the best Pow Wows you've ever seen and no, I'm not kidding.
I'm the whitest guy you'll ever see, sure, but that certainly didn't stop those beautiful Natives from covering my college tuition. Tribal status has a lot of benefits, but it also means I'm an easy target for jokes and even once was denied a car loan because of my "untrustworthy ethnicity." I'm not even kidding.
1. I miss you all.
Was this a lame way to end this? Yes. Does that make it any less accurate? No. You guys are fantastic and while I don't recognize a lot of faces filling up the C-Blogs these days, I'm still lurking about and reading blogs almost every day.
Writing for the C-Blogs made me a writer instead of someone who claimed to be one to impress girls. I attended PAX East this year as press, interviewing developers I've idolized for years, and wore the soles of my shoes right down to the rubber. I met writers I'd never thought would even respond to a tweet of mine. I've found my work in forums and subreddits and I've been called every possible negative thing in the world in comments section from here to Gamasutra.
I won't be anywhere close to all of that if it wasn't for writing here every week, trying to impress Knutaf, earn a comment from Stevil, warm Occam's lizard heart, give MrAndyDixon a boner, or live up to the expectations of every phenomenal writer on this blogroll.
I used to be an arcade nut; Iíve made that clear in the past. But, really, what gamer didnít have many memories in a mall arcade playing Tekken, Time Crisis, or the Star Wars Arcade game? There are so many staples to the market of arcade cabinet, itís almost like a universal language amongst gamers. Still, lurking amongst those tried and true favorites are some hidden gems. I found mine in a dank mall outside Bangor, Maine.
Lucky & Wild is a co-operative mish-mash of shooting, driving a sports car through a mall, and 80s buddy cop movie clichťs mixed into one amazing arcade package. How the game works may not be entirely clear upon seeing a picture of the cabinet, as it appears to have too many parts. It looks as if someone jammed a Rally Racer with an Area 51 arcade cabinet.
The game can be played solo, with one player both driving and shooting. But, preferably and if youíve brought enough quarters, itís best played with a second player handling either one or both guns and tearing up the endless waves of vague bad guys on motorcycles and in black sedans. The whole experience is a typhoon of sounds, ridiculous catch-phrases, and the traditional blinding fits of flashing lights every light-gun aficionado is familiar with.
Layered into every corner of the screen are those early 90s arcade tropes that Japan assumed was what America was like. Everyone wears sunglasses and Lucky wears fingerless gloves. It's almost a parody of 90s style in of itself, a time when comic book artists were giving every superhero a leather jacket to make them hip. The words 'radical' and 'whoa' can be heard at regular intervals. Trucks dump barrels and the health of the characters is indicated by the way in which they twitch their faces.
I may have actually loved Lucky & Wild before I even played it. Because, before there was really enough of a genre for me to love, I never realized how much I adore the idea of co-operative play. At least, the ones where the two players truly worked together. Playing Contra, for instance, is less of a cooperative experience and more of two players who happen to be playing their own games simultaneously. But a game where one player steered a careening sports car down the streets of San Francisco and the other blasts sunglasses-wearing enemies of motorcycles from the passenger seat is what co-op is all about.
My brother and I were the ones to discvoer it and, to be clear, we were not comrades. We were not friends or pals. If I were to pick a phrase to describe it, I would unquestionably go with mortal enemies. We loathed each otherís existence and fought ruthlessly to reveal that to each other. But games were that strange, social middle-ground where rivalry didnít matter. Maybe thatís where my love of co-op games stems from. If two people who hated each other so throughly could be friends even in competition, then there comes this peaceful unity in co-operative gaming. To me, itís unquestionably where video games truly shine.
Lucky & Wild was that game, where each player shouted panicked instructions in an endless tandem of chaos. Donít hit that mall kiosk! Watch out for the guys on the left! The right was your side to shoot! As fingers wore out, guns switched hands. If the driving became to tense, both hands griped the wheel while the other unloaded strangely large clips of ammunition in inaccurate criss-cross patterns. Strategy sometimes fell to disorder, but that was acceptable. Because that was when the laughing started.
No one plays Lucky & Wild in stern, focused silence, driving with caution against a merciless clock. No one winces painfully and squints earnestly at a screen, trying to link combos and uppercuts. Iíll admit, no one even looks like a fool swinging arms and slapping their Converse on colored light-up arrow squares. Lucky & Wild, when it could be found, was universally the most joyfully loud game in the arcade.
Of course, there are scarcely any versions of the game left and even less arcades for them to be found in. I havenít had a chance to play the game in ages and it exists only in the form of a memory of two consecutive summers spent dumping quarters into it. It could be that Iíd find the game now clunky and troubling to control. Perhaps my jaded attitude would realize it was built to be loose and out-of-control to facilitate constant death and more quarters fed into the machine.
I suppose it doesnít matter, in the same way itís irrelevant that Goldeneye 64 doesnít look nearly as good as I remember it or that I canít recall why I was always so intent on choosing to play Tails instead of Sonic. Lucky & Wild wasnít built for the cynical, narrative-seeking, snarky gamer that I am now. Itís from another age, when the job wasnít sinking players into hours of achievement hunting from their couch, but drawing people in with flashing lights, 90s lingo, and the loudest sounds possible. Lucky & Wild may be an obscure relic, but itís still an unbeatable co-op shooter in my head.
[No Clip is an experiment in player interaction, where I return to popular games and play them with a set of critical restrictions to rethink what we thought we knew. Note: this edition contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for Infamous 2.]
As I perform the gruesome act again -- a thing that had begun to disturb me in such a way that I had stopped counting how often Iíd used it -- I couldnít help but wonder if I was that thing dying uncles and kindly butlers tell their superhero counterparts to be careful not to become. In a fictional city built to mirror our very own Big Apple, Cole is a scrappy, agile hero often misunderstood by the people he fights to save. But as I turn him into a terrifying killer, I wonder if the gameís main enemy, a violent, boisterous evangelist, is right when he calls me an abomination against God and nature.
Beyond his incredible powers of bending and wielding electricity, there is another trait that draws players to Cole MacGrath. Like all the best superheroes, heís incomplete. His weakness is reality. Though his ability to somehow throw electricity from his hands like grenades certainly makes him formidable at stopping an average knife-wielding mugger, heís no more than a man when it comes to guns and knives. Bullets will still meet his flesh with unfortunate consequences. He canít fly or teleport or surf his electric current into the atmosphere. In fact, Cole can only boost a faint few feet of the ground not unlike a toy gyrocopter. We like Cole because he struggles just like everyone else.
But there is something else that lurks below Cole MacGrathís electrically conductive skin and iconic messenger bag. An element that, when exaggerated, could be a much worse, even traigic, weakness plaguing him. You see, the designers at Sucker Punch included something very disturbing right at the heart of Coleís suit of powers. Its use is only mentioned for a half-second in the first gameís tutorial section, but remains as a widely available choice straight through the third game. In Empire City and later in New Marais, there is another abundant source of electrical power in these bustling cities that outnumbers parked cars and streetlamps. Human beings.
A strange inclusion allows the Ďheroí of the series to hurl an NPC character to the ground, clutch his hand across their face, and drag the bioelectric current from their body. With a loud rush of crackling air, the electric current comes out with such force that the victimís skeletal system glows through their skin. There is no limitation on who the victim may be, as it useable on stunned enemies and weakened civilians alike. A strange ability for a 'hero' to use.
Of course, the game doesnít ask you to ever use this power and most donít, as itís significantly more time-consuming and complicated in comparison to the simple button press to yank a few volts from, say, a rooftop air conditioning unit. But what if this wasnít how Coleís power worked? What if he was prevented from simply pulling electricity out of soda machines and power lines? What if he had to fuel his great powers at the cost of others? If Cole MacGrath was forced to find a ghastly, parasitic alternative source for his powers, could he still be the hero?
Cole follows the path of nearly ever superhero preceding him, with the usual prerequisite to obtaining great powers simply being his own disinclination. He probably wouldnít have agreed to gaining his powers had be been asked, considering the result was watching his city explode around him. Itís this very genesis of his powers that starts his character at the bottom of the pit, figuratively and literally. Cast as the scapegoat for the explosion and the ripple effect of Reaper gang activity, Cole is a lightning rod for all that becomes wrong with the universe he occupies.
Like any experiment of limitations, the difficulties became clear very quickly. Without the chance obtain quick infusions of health during the gameís more grave moments through the act of drawing upon the cityís electricity, Cole is a sitting duck. A single enemy given free range to fire even just for a few moments will end everything. This meant a huge change in strategy over my first playthrough. Brazen, unplanned head-on assaults were replaced with guerilla tactics. Striking enemies unaware, hurling them off rooftops with an electrical wave, and hurling whole cars and buses without discretion became the chapters of my new playbook. I ambushed enemies with quick, lethal attacks. Mercy took no part in it.
This also meant I could no longer be concerned with collateral damage. Though the act of throwing an entire car at a pack of enemies was an efficient solution, Iíd slanted away from it in my first playthrough for fear of hurting whole crowds of civilians that often ran about during conflicts. This time, though, I couldnít wait for them to get clear before I launched a salvo of grenades when I was working on a limited cache of energy. Conflicts had to start and end in an instant.
Because of all this, one thing became very clear; my hand would be forced to the dark side. Inarguably, the act of draining a personís life-force would be a pretty bad thing to do, especially in the abundance that would be necessary. In todayís video game morality system model, the extremes are where the action is. That is to say, you have to be very good or very bad to access the really cool stuff. Infamous 2 is no different, with the major suites of powers located on both branches of the karma meter. In for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose. Strange, though, that it turns out the karmic shift of scaring off a bucket drummer is identical to draining the very soul from an innocent civilian.
Of course, the bio-leech couldnít be something as ghastly as stealing a personís actual soul, right? Unfortunately, my morbid curiosity confirmed that, yes, it is plausible. If one were to absorb electricity out of the human body, in whatever form of pseudo-science lets Cole MacGrath do such a thing, it would likely be from the plethora of neurons in the human body. These are the things that compose your nervous system, which sends electrical impulses to trigger muscles and interact with nerve endings. There isnít a whole lot of electrical current in the human body, relatively, but if it came from anywhere, it would be the nervous system. Of course, humans are always more complex and thatís precisely where it gets rather interesting.
As hypothesized by some biologists, clusters of neurons in the brain (particularly the Brocaís area) are known to activate in response to the motions and emotions of others. Specifically seen in animals imitating the body motions of other animals, a hypothesis has emerged that this portion of neuron activity is related to emotional response as well. The idea is that these neurons reflect the emotions of others back at ourselves and trigger our own emotions, which is essentially the definition of empathy. So, the question stands that if Cole MacGrath is absorbing the entirety of a personís neural electricity, could it be that he takes their soul along with it?
Thinking about the real science behind the act only made the idea all the more difficult. There has always been an option for any player to be an evil Cole MacGrath, but tossing cars around offhandedly and knocking down the occasional civilian felt rather passively destructive rather than straight-up evil. The pre-programmed evil sequences werenít really my own actions, but atrocities which played out without my control. Being an evil character within the game's initial parameters had previously just felt dispassionately wicked. This was different and full of moral conflict and it made me feel downright awful.
Many lines were blurred. The Militia, an ultra right-wing militarized collective that ruled the dilapidated city of New Maris, function as the predominant enemies of Infamous 2. They can often be found robbing and kidnapping people and shooting police, which fit them comfortably in the role of Ďbad guys.í But, on an individual level, I had to wonder if each and every enemy could really be an unforgivable villain beyond pardon? Was it Cole MacGrathís decision to not only fight them at any moment -- whether they were robbing a stranger or standing idly on a rooftop Ė but also rip their literal humanity from their dazed bodies that made them so prone to fire first? Maybe itís that same fear which drove these soldiers into the arms of a charismatic evangelical leader.
All this sacrifice is for a greater good, I kept telling myself. The true enemy of the game, the seemingly immortal Beast, seeks to destroy all of civilization. After it reveals itself at the start of the game, it proceeds to leave the literal apocalypse in its wake as it marches across the eastern coast of the United States. Cole MacGrath is the sole man destined to destroy it. My actions are justified because the only alternative is the end of the world. Right?
That became increasingly less clear as the experiment progressed. You see, for what itís worth, experiment or not, the world as written by Infamous 2 is remarkably darker that what I would have given the creators credit for before playing. You see, the moral choices you can take in the game do more than just cosmetically alter your lightning color and open up new power sets. The path of evil karmic actions isnít a frivolous or shallow one, but the route to an entire alternate, disturbing end to the storyline which is leagues different then the good ending.
Instead of defeating the Beast, Cole embraces his plan of igniting the power dormant within the tiny fraction of the population capable of using powers, known as Conduits. This act rescues them from the plague that ravages the nation but, in the process, carves a path of slaughter through the remainder of the powerless civilization. Through these murderous acts, Cole takes on the mantle of the Beast, the near god-like enemy force that spent the entirety of the game burning its way down the eastern coast. The lives of thousands of innocents are sacrificed to make way for a new evolution of humanity, which had become a rather familiar character trait of my perverse version of the character.
As this storyline fell into place alongside my struggle of playing with the handicap of bio-leech, a strangely unifying narrative thread began to reveal itself. Too often, the restrictions in place of a No Clip require me to vie against the established storyline and game mechanics. But, instead, a cursed Cole MacGrath falls into the darker side of the Infamous 2 storyline with eerie precision. A protagonist more fitting replaces what normally would have been a reckless, street musician hating, evil-for-the-sake-of-evil character. This twisted Cole MacGrath enters the finale the same way his story has gone thus far, sacrificing everything but himself with a global event of catastrophic and parasitic destruction.
In all my time playing modern narrative-centric games, the evil side has always been unappealing. Superficial acts of rampant violence powered by nothing more than boredom seem off-color for a hero of the ages. But when given a heady mantle of struggle and limitations, taking the evil course somehow becomes more viable and even authentic to the story. We see a criminal that violates the law for his or her own gain as deplorable, but the person who defies the unfair rules cruelly set for them as revolutionary. Cole MacGrath is still, vaguely, a hero at the end of Infamous 2, despite all my utter disgust for his acts, which is a turn of events that I satisfyingly did not even remotely foresee.
This is what our modern games need when designing morality systems. To provide the player with a storyline that justifies their evil deeds through struggle or, at the very least, give us reason enough for us to show them empathy. Characters that are indisputably good are just as difficult for us to comprehend as senselessly evil ones. Nothing is that simple and we know it. But a person that drifts into good or bad with the right reasons, or for any reason at all provided it is told well enough, is one that is more complex than the black and white morality bar. Emotional choices are something we can follow even if they take place in a world otherwise full of fiction. Morality systems in modern video games need to become complex alongside our protagonists if we intend to keep them as anything more than a gimmick. Evil Cole MacGrath brought me the same amount of emotional response as my original play-through as a good version, which is unique and something to be lauded.
There was a time when being an online gamer meant work. It meant a crash course in motherboards and video cards. You had to learn how to put a computer together from the ground up. It took troubleshooting network issues and hunting down driver files. The truly involved learned the ins and outs of game files and doing some light coding work. It was strapping your monitor into the seatbelt of the passenger seat of your momís sedan. It was drinking so many energy drinks in a single sitting that you could hear your dentist whimper somewhere in the distance.
My first LAN party was in high school, in a basement, and Iíd have it no other way. Forget the fact that said location was actually part of a particularly fancy mansion-house, with plenty of other locations for setting up a network of homebuilt PCs. We chose the basement. Something about LANing demanded secluding ourselves. Not out of shame, but to completely immerse the group into decadent nerdery.
My first homebuilt computer, complete with glow-in-the-dark band stickers, was set up on a plywood board propped up by two chairs. We played every LAN-enabled game on the docket. Early Team Fortress. Counterstrike, Command & Conquer. We traded difficult-to-find punk albums and early ripped movies, which were of devastatingly poor quality. But it didnít matter, because the real joy was not in watching them, but the subtle act of trading in something we shouldnít have.
It took over ten games of Starcraft for me to understand the full Terran tech tree, but only one to understand that I was bad at it. It didnít matter. LAN parties were never about competition beyond the friendly type. You never get mad or frustrated with loss. It was all about banter and the good friends were never above showing you the ropes about spawn order or bunker placement. Itís like playing poker with a table of close friends. You may lose your last paycheck to some crummy bluffs, but you do it all while making obscene jokes and insinuating the promiscuity of everyoneís collective sisters.
LAN parties are a dying concept and it makes me sad. They were always weekend getaways, decadent engagement in all things gaming. But there was a time in my life where it became more than a shoddily organized all-nighter. My junior year of college, I lived in a sleepy Midwestern city, where the downtown was vacant and boring, but the cost of living was downright criminally low. My circle of friends took advantage of the latter and landed ourselves an entire three-story house. Eleven of us moved in and it was nothing but gigantic parties, movie nights, great friends, and utter glory.
Because of limited personal space (My room, for instance, was technically listed as a closet on the rental form) most of the computers were set up in the large, high-ceilinged study. This was done purely out of space concerns, but with this many video game enthusiasts in one place, it quickly became the greatest, Guinness Book length LAN party of all time. Our desks were in a semi-circle around the outer walls, with space in the middle of the room or in the adjacent living room for the laptop folks. This fixed proximity meant we could all leap to battlestations at the same time with the very mention of a video game title.
This set-up created the best atmosphere for nearly every multiplayer game you could imagine. Our team cohesion in Battlefield 2 was unparalleled. We flanked and covered. We repaired vehicles and sprang upon downed teammates with defibrillator paddles at a single shout. If someone secured the Commander role, there were supply drops on a moments notice and artillery would decimate enemies with pinpoint precision. We competed for top leaderboard spot, turning our teamwork into friendly competition. We unlocked gear and coordinated classes so that every game was a tidal wave of success and wins.
Games like Civilization IV turned into a massive rivalry of vocal strategy and bargaining. Give me that resource of horses for my wealth of gold. Trade me some musketman so I can destroy that jackass Montezuma. Donít take my southern city and Iíll go fetch you a coke. We were a tiny United Nations, except our major forum table was a stack of pizza boxes and our negotiations were punctuated with thrown objects. Rebuttals to an unprovoked invasion were usually handled with a respectful, disagreeing desk chair tackle. It was the perfect environment for quick-witted adverbial combat and, even more so, the absolute ideal atmosphere for cooperation. In fact, it was thanks to this inescapable air of teamwork that we found our entire house forming the greatest team of superheroes the world of video games has ever seen.
Now, Iím not really an MMO player. Iíve dabbled infrequently in a motley assortment of these games, but Iíve never really committed to the experience. But a little darling of an MMO called City of Heroes that came out in 2004 was different. Albeit an imperfect game, the world of superpowers and villains that Cryptic Studios had built was the perfect vehicle for our friend-powered teamwork machine. It may have been struggling a bit at the time with the release of the newly released World of Warcraft, but we fell in love with the universe and built our flashy team of superheroes with pride.
We rejected the idea of lazy names and we would have none of that numbers for letters nonsense. We werenít 13 and picking our Instant Messenger screen names. We were creative folks, so our names were all original and catchy creations. Atlas Star, Riot Shield, Estha, Mistress FaÁade, Captain Caliber, Scarlet Sparrow. We were a mix of personalities, genders, and with a variety of wildly different color palate choices. We took pride in our costumes and character creation was an all-afternoon process. No mis-matched askew character shoulder pads or strange tie-dye color choices. Our heroes could have easily fallen in line with legends of the Golden Age of Comics.
Even more diverse was our past experience with MMOs and, well, with games in general. Many of the team had never played any online games of any sort and some had played none at all. Some, like myself, were avid comic nerds, who could go at length Mall Rats-style about any superhero you could name. Others had scarcely ever opened a Marvel or DC issue in their life. But there was something so compelling about the ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with friends in brightly colored spandex and hurl about the city, jumping from rooftops or teleporting across the city skyline. This is what made our time in Paragon City so unique. It was appealing to everyone not just because the gameplay leant itself to inexperienced players, but because the cooperative element was so damned strong.
City of Heroes was still a somewhat new game at the time and the gameís content was constantly changing. It was also somewhat player-isolated, with very little overt communication between players who werenít already playing together. What this meant was that we often had no idea what was in store with each mission. No one ranted in broadcast chat about instances or bosses. When massive Clockwork behemoth robots assaulted us, it was genuine panic. When we beat a battle that came at us out of the blue - with a notable villain appearing from thin air or discovering a death-weapon being constructed inside a volcano - it was all completely new to us. We broke exciting new ground every time we strapped in for a play session.
All it took was a word, or even a knowing smirk, for the call to action to happen. The roommates milled about the living room or study, reading books or chatting or cooking dinner for each other and it would all start with someone declaring ďTo Paragon City!Ē For the next few hours, weíd ignore adult responsibilities and pummel henchmen into dust.
We composed fake character dialog, mocked each other in the friendliest sense, and even created our own phrases. When Mistress FaÁade inflicted her blind power on an enemy, my roommate would shout, ďTheyíve been blound!Ē This being a word he had decided was the past tense of Ďto blind.í It stuck and never ceased to get a laugh. Gaining aggro was simply called making friends and our tank character was certainly a popular guy. We made our own sound effects and mocked terribly designed heroes that whizzed past. We wandered about Atlas Park and interacted with other heroes, emoting and engaging in repartee with complete strangers.
Our sprawling headquarters was meticulously designed with trophies of our victories. We didnít power through instances or sit alone at our desks, grimly leveling our characters in the dark, in crippling silence. We bragged and jeered and did absolutely everything as a team. We shouted tactical advice and demanded heals and revives. If you walked into a session of the Protectorate Unlimited knee-deep in vigilante crime-fighting, you wouldnít understand a moment of what was happening, but the jovial atmosphere would be indisputably apparent.
Since those days at the three-story house up on the sloped street, across from the dingy laundromat, Iíve never been able to return to MMOs in the same way. In fact, multiplayer gaming as a whole has never quite had the same feeling as it did for that year-long LAN party. Online gaming has taken massive strides with things like Xbox Live, PSN, and Steam making the act of playing with friends the easiest thing ever. But no more are the days of phoning your friend to read off an IP address or pack up your duct taped PC into someoneís basement or guest room.
In a way, this is something to be lauded. LAN parties were complicated and inconvenient, sure, but the experience is irreplaceable. Multiplayer, whether itís competitive or cooperative, can happen spontaneously now, with a button press and a notification pop-up. But, with it, we have to say goodbye to the days where players would disappear from reality for a weekend to shout at each other and fall asleep at their desks. The days were playing online games with your friends looked more like a party than a lonely endeavor, albeit an often predominately gender imbalanced party. The modern inventions of Ventrillo and party chat are incredible advancements for social gaming. But nothing can quite replace that perfect storm of friendly jeers, vocal teamwork, and utter chaos that was the LAN party.
Show me a class-based competitive multiplayer experience, and Iíll show you an awesome medic. Me. Iím the medic. Iím referring to myself. I am perpetually enamored with support classes, in particular these medic or healers. I play them at every opportunity. My parents may have been disappointed with my liberal arts degree, as opposed to a career as a medical professional in the exciting world of having paychecks, but they can rest easy. Iím still helping others, except the blood is pixilated and gunshot wounds are repaired, paradoxically, with heal guns.
My obsession with support classes as a concept is pretty basic. I like to help. In reality, I hold open doors for strangers and I give up my seat on a crowded bus to elderly ladies. I'm still waiting for the city-commissioned COOL DUDE plaque and trophy on that one. So, in the heat of virtual battle, I like to be there to back up friends or complete strangers, as long as they can restrain from screeching their background conversations to their mother about making them a sandwich through my headset speakers.
Iíll be honest. Some of that joy of playing the medic comes from the fact that I myself happen to not be all that amazing at all shooters. Donít get me wrong, I play my fair share and, particularly in Battlefield titles, Iíll be in the top section of scoreboards. But frantic games, with little time for anything but short moments of pensive strategy and support tactics, are where I sometimes fall short. I may outflank the assaulting enemies in Gears of War, but when I launch my surprise assault, I often flounder. One moment Iím a tactical genius, the next I come fumbling out of cover like Iím Jerry Lewis with a shotgun.
Reflexes will fail me and a brief opportunity to take down a distracted player is lost to a poor finger movement (A phenomenon I will henceforth call a 'thumble'). But, this plays to the versatility of teamwork-based class design. I don't have to be good, I can keep the better players alive. If Iíve been in a game lobby for a few moments, Iíve probably discovered who our MVP is or, in games like Battlefield, the squad thatís doing the best and exercising the most efficient team unity. So I join up, provided they donít immediately take offense to a silent, blank-staring avatar trailing them, occasionally listlessly hurling a medpack at their backs.
When playing a non-support class in a shooter game or in a game where no classes exist whatsoever, your task couldnít be simpler. Kill things, i.e. people. Youíre a death dealer. You take out your opponents so they donít take you out. Itís the law of competition. But we forget that there are other people on the opposite ends of our assault rifles and broadswords. Thereís a real person behind that avatar trying to win, trying to succeed, and just trying to have a good time. But only one of us can have it.
That becomes power in the hands of the medic. In the context of the game, weíre only really reviving in-game avatars and our medpacks are only really affecting a tiny red bar, when you really get down to it. But those things are attached to a player and, by that logic, their experience. So when medics are saving players or giving them health to keep them from needing saving, weíre manipulating the fun of the game. Weíre extending the positive experience for our players without impairing, or at least disrupting, the same for the other team. Weíre playing our own meta-game and itís called Everyone Needs to Be Alive. Simply put, medics are entertainment suppliers. Joy manipulators. Fun alchemists.
Medic is also one of the riskier class options if you play to its empathetic limits. This is often my favorite part. A medic will find him or herself scampering into blistering danger to jam a revive syringe into a teammate while bombs detonate and bullets pop into the dirt. The stunned ďWhoa, Iím back?Ē line uttered by vocal players on the receiving end of a revive is often a reward in itself. It's a unique concept, really. How often in your day-to-day does a complete stranger genuinely thank you? In a game context, I understand it's a trivial thing, really. I'm aware of that. But there's something very compelling about rescue and the corresponding appreciation, even if it's entirely digital.
When I was a young and dedicated PC gamer, I found myself drawn to a small space RPG title called Earth and Beyond. The last game Westwood Studios would ever make, it was an ambitious little space ship MMO where you could battle your way across the galaxy in brightly colored space ships. But, to be honest, most of the game was spent space mining asteroids and space trading the space minerals for space cash. I effin' loved it.
I mention it because it had a particularly small element that I found completely addicting. At any given time, every player in the fictional galaxy was out mining. The safer asteroid clusters were forever-crowded and over-mined. Some areas resembled a busy cosmic version of a Taiwanese market, with people zipping in all directions. The bolder ship pilots would go off the warp lanes and find rich, profitable, unpopulated asteroid fields to stake claim to. But unmarked space was dangerous. Really dangerous. And many pilots would scarcely mine themselves one single ingot of space copper before they were jumped by wandering marauders.
But death in Earth and Beyond was handled in a truly legit sci-fi way. When a player became disabled by enemy warships, their systems fried and ship drifting impotently through space, they had the option to trigger a distress beacon. Most players were too self-involved to notice these radar blips, which were one tiny light flashing on a screen of hundreds of flashing lights, but not me. Every time I was kicking back and gliding through a warp channel, only to spot a little orange blip on my heads up display, I dropped my Jenquai ship out of orbit and opened up a communication channel.
Being a medic, or just an empathic player, is more than just being nice for nice's sake. Helping players is hard, ruthlessly dangerous work. Strategy and danger assessment are inherent qualities of being a medic, whether it's in a shooter or MMO, and it's much fun as being the the top killer in the room. In Earth and Beyond I would communicate with the distressed player and determine the threat from afar. Then, it was just a matter of dropping out of warp-lightspeed, determining the layout of enemy ships in milliseconds, and trying to blast my way to my new-found friend through over-whelming odds. It helped to picture your ship as the Millenium Falcon hurtling in to save Luke in A New Hope. The "yee-haw" was not optional.
When you start tactically observing the playing field of your basic shooter or instance level, it almost becomes like a more engaging real time strategy game. You have to take charge of all the elements of the battle, rather than just what's moving at the end of your iron sights. Where is the enemy? Where's my team advancing from? Who needs medical assistance? To effectively play the medic, you have to help the right players at the right time. The medic has to constantly pay attention to where players are doing well and where they aren't. Are there holes in our team's defense? Is there room for the enemy to flank? If so, that's where the medic has to be, tossing out medpacks or heal spells. That half a second it takes those players to respawn could mean the whole battle.
Behind every good killer is a good medic. If you respect the healer, the positive result is easily perceivable. Wins. More wins. When a team is properly supported, they can easily take down an opposing team with more powerful adversaries. If a team can lock down an area they would have lost or struggle through a boss-fight they should have lost, it's a great achievement to be the medic backing that success.
But video game competition isn't all about winning, of course. Itís about the quality of winning. Thereís something more satisfying in a victory that comes from coordinating a defensive or offensive line, or embracing strategy in the heat of battle, rather than the coincidence that all the players on one team happen to be better at putting bullets into the torsos of the other.
So, next time youíre in a game and strapping on your plasma grenades to your oiled-up super commando torso, donít sneer at the goofy-looking medic in the glasses. Though our kill counts are low, weíre doing some serious life-and-death wizardry behind the front lines. We keep you from screeching obscenities into the mic and getting put on Youtube. Weíre the reason the ĎDí part of your K/D is where it is. You handle the 'K' part, weíll just keep throwing syringes and heal spells your way and roll our eyes at how you totally f-ed up that mob pull and missed that sniper on the ridge-line. Donít worry, comrade. Weíve got you.