I'm an unemployed college student, I've spent the last few years wading through a program at my local community college to prep me for entering law enforcement. My interests include: gaming, philosophy, sociology, logic and law. I hate math and I have a lousy memory. I'm 24 years old.
I was a late bloomer when it comes to videogames. Growing up, my family has never been especially affluent, and we pretty much just didn't have the cash to throw down on Nintendo or Sega.
I didn't really play a lot of games outside of the occasional visits to family friends in Phoenix, where I got acquainted with classics like Sonic, Donkey Kong, and Mortal Kombat. I was awful at them but I didn't care, I knew then and there that I'd fallen in love with videogames. The next time I'd get to play videogames would be on a PC, home-built basically from scratch by my uncle and my mother. It was a piece of crap that housed everything I could cram onto it, from Doom to WarCraft II. It underwent several hardware mods as time went on, but eventually we moved on to pre-built equipment and haven't looked back since. Some of my fondest memories, though, are of starting up DOS and typing in the command string to start up Rise of the Triad. I still have a huge soft spot for RTS games, as WarCraft II was the first game I really understood all the mechanics of.
The PlayStation was my first console. It was a pastime for me more than anything, really. A handful of decent games that I played occasionally when I wasn't doing something else. It wasn't until Metal Gear Solid that I really started to grasp gaming as a kind of physical concept. Metal Gear Solid made gaming a tangible thing for me, and I still have a powerful love for that series to this day.
I didn't become a real gamer until around 2004. That year, my gaming collection grew exponentially for the PS2, and for my newly-acquired Xbox. I made so many discoveries about games and gaming that year that I literally can't quantify it; it was an epiphany that has led me to expanding my horizons and seeking every new game experience I can find.
These days I try to keep an open mind about games, and let anything surprise me.
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So, I finally got my copy of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I pre-ordered the Augmented Edition from GameStop for the art book and the special features disk; I love little things like that which give you an insight into game design. It's fascinating for me to get an idea of how a game is formulated, how each element in the mixture comes together harmoniously into a whole. There are some little things in that design that I want to talk about, but we'll get into the nitty-gritty of that in a moment.
It took me three days for my first playthrough, with around 8 to 10 hours logged each day back-to-back, and probably around 15 to 20 on the final day. It's just one of those games that is impossible to put down once you begin. Like a great novel that keeps you up half the night always dying to see what's on the next page. My time with the game was always tense, with each next step toward the finish line revealing dozens of different ways to approach each goal. I'm now a few hours into the game on the Give Me Deus Ex difficulty, and there literally hasn't been a single thing I've done the same yet. The level of work put into the options given to you as a player is just staggering compared to most games on the market. I love this more than anything about Deus Ex: Human Revolution: it's a game which is first and foremost about the gameplay.
That's not to say that the story isn't present in everything the game throws at you as well. Nearly every nook and cranny of the game seems to have been carefully formulated, nurtured, and selected to serve the greater narrative. Which is excellent in its own right, especially insofar as the game's propensity for taking the bulk of that narrative out of cutscenes and into the game world, making it present if you want it and unobtrusive if you don't. The story provides a framework for the superb gameplay without getting in the way of it. It's a subtle touch that's lost on a lot of games. You can see the opposite effect in games like Final Fantasy XIII, where the story is overwhelming and propagates itself into the gameplay rather than creating a web which supports the game. One of the most difficult things about game design is the marriage of gameplay and story into something coherent and enjoyable for the player. Some games get it wrong. Some games get it right. Some games split the difference. Deus Ex: Human Revolution generally gets it more right than wrong, but it's the wrong part that I really want to talk about today.
The only real bone I have to pick with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, is Adam Jensen, and in a greater sense the trend in certain games to leave a character's motivations and intentions open ended.
My problem is this: in a game that is as story dependent as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it is nearly impossible to execute a Multiple Choice Protagonist properly. What is a Multiple Choice Protagonist, you ask? It's pretty simple: any time a character is written in such a way as to leave their motivations and methods up to the player, you have a Multiple Choice Protagonist. The idea being to give the player the ability to formulate their own interpretation of the character in question rather than having the writer pre-define it for the player. In a deep and rich story driven environment this presents problems because the story of the game must be written in such a way that any individual player's interpretation of the character and their choices must be accounted for somewhere in the narrative.
Some games are entirely based around this phenomena. inFAMOUS did a pretty good job with the concept, but it sidestepped the actual part where the player gets to form their own interpretations of Cole. inFAMOUS at its core was just two stories, and depending on which route you took you got one story or the other. Other games which give the player the ability to define their protagonist include The Witcher, Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age II and Mass Effect. All of these games are narrative frameworks which are built from the ground up around a player's choice in the narrative. Some elements of the story are out of the player's reach, but in their interaction with the story through their character they are able to define the motive and method of the protagonist. Unfortunately, they all share the same troubles I'm about to point out in the portrayal of Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Adam Jensen is purposefully played as close to blank as possible in order to facilitate the Multiple Choice Protagonist phenomenon. He isn't completely devoid of personality, though. He retains a slight sense of humor, and an intense amount of anger and drive. There are even moments when this invisible badass/walking arsenal is vulnerable in surprisingly human ways. It's quite pleasant to watch and find a new facet to him you hadn't seen or noticed before. Furthermore, the dialogue options which you have to choose from are varied and each one seems plausible as a response from your custom-tuned security chief. They remain individual enough for you to choose from them, seeking to define Adam as you want him to be, while never quite stepping outside the boundaries of who he is within the greater story of the game.
The problem only creeps into view as you get deeper into the game and you begin to pick up strange, counter-intuitive vibes from Jensen as he converses with other characters. As Jensen's vested emotional interest in the story grows, his interaction with other characters likewise becomes more volatile and direct. This leads to the inevitable problem of the Multiple Choice Protagonist, in which the character you play appears to become almost bipolar and flip-flops between all the defined roles and ideologies at the player's disposal. Despite all that the player has built upon the framework of Jensen, through learning more about him and simultaneously defining him by actions and dialogue choices, when the emotion finally starts coming out that illusion of the player-defined Jensen melts away and utterly shatters immersion.
Jensen angrily questions ideals which the player may have previously had Jensen accept with the absolute certainty of faith. He gives thought to ideas that the player may have stringently avoided, and their perceived version of Jensen would never even consider. It becomes impossible to track your Jensen through to the end of the game; he gets lost somewhere in all the jockeying to satisfy everyone's version.
I like risks and new things in games. I think it keeps them fresh, exciting, and interesting. Deus Ex: Human Revolution followed in the footsteps of a lot of games which seek to provide the player with as much choice as humanly (or inhumanly) possible, chief among these influences being the original Deus Ex. It takes some exciting steps in the writing department; when Jensen is not being played in such a way as to seem to be the polar opposite of the vision you have of him, he can be one of the most surprisingly intuitive Multiple Choice Protagonists I have ever played, and much of that satisfaction is thanks to some absolutely stellar writing and acting. Even so, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is unable to avoid one of the biggest pitfalls of the Multiple Choice Protagonist route, namely that when the character is presented with multiple options, he must be played in such a way that leaves him disgusted and simultaneously compelled by all of them in order to justify all possible decisions at the player's disposal.
This problem is something Deus Ex: Human Revolution very nearly avoided aside from a few very particular conversations and scenes. Unfortunately for everyone who gets pulled into the tale of Adam Jensen there will inevitably be a moment which breaks their immersion in the world and the character. All it takes is a receptive stance on the wrong side of an issue, emphasis and tone in a strange place, or some other subtle conversational cue. This game, and Adam Jensen in particular, came about as close to perfectly playing the part of the Multiple Choice Protagonist as any other game I've played which features the phenomena. It's just a pity that it eventually, perhaps inevitably, drops that carefully and immaculately maintained ball.
I know, I've been away for awhile. Longer than I'd have liked, but I haven't been able to muster the urge to write more than a few lines in comments lately. Today, though, I think I want to sit down and talk about what's been going on in my life lately, and how it relates to my gaming experience.
Recently I underwent cataract surgery, and I know what you're thinking. "24 years old and you have cataracts bad enough to warrant surgery? Isn't that something old people get?" Well, yeah, it is. My doctor tells me it's an occasional side effect, though, for people who undergo medical treatment for asthma at an early age due to the steroids in the medications. My lungs work great now, but my eyes? Not so hot.
I've actually been having trouble with it for the past few years. Due to multiple complications any kind of treatment had to be put off until I was able to either afford insurance on my own or get back onto my father's company insurance. Couldn't afford it on my own, job market was terrible. Couldn't get back on my father's insurance, we didn't have money to send me back to school to finish up my term. So any attempt to combat or treat the problem had to wait for awhile. Then awhile longer. Then awhile longer than that. I'd grown surprisingly proficient despite essentially being blind in one eye, but there are certain activities (in particular, driving, a necessity, and shooting, a hobby) I had to habitually avoid.
The issues with the cataracts were exacerbated by sunlight, so I gradually began to spend more and more time indoors, and countered with very dark sunglasses for being out and about. Thankfully the problems I was having were not nearly as bad with things like screens or televisions, though they still proved to be difficult from time to time. It made it a lot easier to function through that period where nothing could really be done for my eyes.
After the revised Health Care bill went through Congress, which extended the time dependents could be placed on a parent's insurance, it was finally time to get down to business. One visit to an ophthalmologist, and I was set for my surgery the very next day. 24 hours between me and clear vision in one eye.
I don't have a problem telling you, I was fucking terrified. The laundry list of shit that could go wrong coupled with the already debilitating effects of the cataract in that eye and the knowledge that recovery would mean wrapping my brain around an entirely new way of seeing compared to the adaptations I had made to the cataracts being present, it was all pretty difficult to take in. No matter what nightmare scenario actually happened when I was under the knife, though, nothing could be worse than the actual blindness I was experiencing and the havoc it was wreaking when my brain tried to mesh the conflicting images from both eyes in my head. It was necessary. It never ceases to amaze me what human beings are capable of when something is necessary.
The surgery itself was a pants-wetting experience mainly because it's a personal nightmare to have my eyes messed with in any way, shape or form. Near as I can tell this stems from an experience I had as a kid where another boy threw sand at me and it got into both my eyes. Trying to blink it out caused it to get under the lids and I could feel it scraping against my eyeballs. Ever since then, anything about the eyes bothers me and I tend to tear up very easily even in empathetic situations, like seeing a person on TV in a dust storm. Most likely psychosomatic but it's still there and still irritating as all Hell. Once they had me drugged up I calmed down a bit, but not quite all the way down. Memory gets a little fuzzy there, though.
Post-surgery they taped an eyepatch to my face and sent me on my way for another day. A day of itching, irritation, and general fear, wondering if things would work properly when all was said and done. All is said and done now, and things worked... pretty good. Adjusting is difficult. My left eye is now essentially permanently set at a certain range, about arms' length. It was supposed to be closer but the astigmatism in the eye caused a very slight misalignment with the artificial lens they gave me. The strangest thing about it is, I can't focus on things with that eye any more. (This isn't a complication, it's just the nature of the artificial lens, it doesn't focus.) It's like looking through binoculars that you can't adjust. Surprisingly frustrating.
My doctor says it's going to be difficult adjusting to having the "vision of a 65 year old man," and I have to say I agree at this point. It's a very strange experience overall. For the rest of my life, one part of me will always be synthetic. There will likely be more as I go on, but 24 is kind of a young age for that kind of initiation and it's still very weird.
So far it's had a somewhat negative impact on my ability to game. I have to be sitting at just the right distance in order to make out subtitles, which makes any story-based game more difficult to follow. The same trouble has cropped up in shooting games, having trouble discerning what's what, particularly friend or foe. As a result I've been playing a lot of fighting games, where things tend to be a bit more straightforward even when they're blurry. Thankfully this will be rectified as soon as I'm able to get my new prescriptions written for glasses, which I'll have to wear the rest of my life. It's still weird wrapping my brain around that idea, too.
Now at this point you might be wondering to yourself, "What the fuck does any of this have to do with Deus Ex?" The answer is simple. When I started thinking about the unexpected necessity of having something in my body replaced in order to function, I felt a strange sort of kinship with the new Deus Ex: Human Revolution protagonist. I came to the conclusion that I might actually enjoy having that unique thing in common with a character, and began to wonder how many little traits and experiences in our lives provide us with those personal connections to things, whether they be fictional or otherwise.
So, now that I've shared one little idiosyncratic connection my life has, I'd like to hear about how all you other D-Toiders relate to and find common ground with characters in the medium. What little things do you have in common with, or seek out in game personalities? Who do you feel the most common ground with among the casts of your favorite games? Share in the comments!
Two years ago today I wrote and posted my first blog on Destructoid. I'd been wondering after two years here on the C-Blog circuit what I could do to adequately commemorate this "blog birthday". Then it hit me. Two years. Two years. TWO YEARS! Two years' worth of material ripe for the picking on this subject. So here I am, two years later, two years wiser, and with a whole new slew of games to dissect with entirely new connotations of genre generalization, both good and bad.
For those of you who didn't read the original blog, and don't want to bother reading it now, genre generalization is my term for what happens when a game tries to mix, connect, or combine two different archetypes of game design and fails. In practical terms, we're talking about games like Mass Effect, which pushes together third person shooting mechanics with RPG design but doesn't deliver on either front. Just so we're clear: I'm not saying that this leads explicitly to bad games, though that does happen, just that it tends to result in a watered down experience of the two extremes. Mass Effect is good, but lacks the punch of a meaty, satisfying shooter. Likewise, it misses the mark on a truly deep character building experience of an RPG. This mixing of two extremes produces something unique, but lacking in really developed gameplay.
I think genre generalization is where the industry as a whole is headed. Every individual person has a distinct and unique appetite for everything, from food to colors to games. Mixing and matching game design philosophies allows game companies to capture larger demographics and get deeper market penetration by appealing to a wider audience with a variety of features. And with that definition over with, let's start digging into the guts of these games to get a better idea of what I'm talking about in practice.
Valkyria Chronicles is a poster child for what can go right when you mix genres. Welding together turn-based RPG style, real time consequences, rapidly shifting and dynamic objectives requiring teamwork between your units and careful management of your command points, this game creates a unique environment and an extremely satisfying mix of RTS and RPG mechanics. The main thing to take away from Valkyria Chronicles' success is that it actually uses its root genres to make something new and exciting. Valkyria Chronicles isn't a victim of genre generalization because its mix is used to produce something unique; it doesn't try to be both an RPG and an RTS at once.
One word. Well, two, actually. Borderlands. This game is a kind of polarizing lightning in a bottle; I only ever see pure love or pure hate for it. Personally I like the idea more than I like it in practice but that alone isn't reason enough to slide it off the good example list. Borderlands blends first person shooting, good level up and skill mechanics, an amazing loot system, and reasonably satisfying co-op.
Borderlands, more than anything else, manages to dip its fingers into the RPG world and draw influence from completely unexpected sources. Leaning more toward Diablo style mechanics, by focusing on loot drops and dungeons, Borderlands connects two very different genres and styles. The most surprising thing about it is, Borderlands does it successfully. Well-managed shooting, huge variety in loot drops (with each new weapon opening up potentially new gameplay styles and questions to the player), all sewn up with a slick but rough sense of humor.
It's not the deepest shooter, and it's far from the deepest RPG, but Borderlands manages to not cock up the mixture and produce something sub-par; it's more than I can say for a lot of games which try to blend genres and create a big ol' mess o' slop, which brings me to...
Brutal Legend. Sort of the opposite of Valkyria Chronicles, Brutal Legend never quite tells you that you're signing up for an RTS and not a brawler, and it's a painfully shallow RTS at that. This is a case of two genres slapped together to carry an idea, and it just doesn't get the job done. Not a bad game, but the gameplay on both fronts is generic and uninspired. The world is great, but the game itself is just lacking something more developed and satisfying.
Hunted: The Demon's Forge isn't what I would call your attention to if I wanted you to play a good shooter. Or a good RPG. It's a ballsy title that tries to mix cover based shooting mechanics with hack & slash gameplay and dungeon crawling, and only the dungeon crawling aspect actually provides any kind of satisfaction. The cover system is haphazard, the aiming is sluggish, the melee is slow and lacks depth, and the puzzles are mostly of the "get this thing, bring it here" variety.
Brink is... complicated. It tries to blend more than two genres, and sort of gets one of the four right. It's a shooter, mixed with an RPG. It also tries to mix singleplayer and multiplayer, which goes pretty poorly overall. So much so that most reviewers and most people who've played the game consider it essentially just a multiplayer shooter. What's more, it's a multiplayer shooter that was inspired and influenced by games which normally don't get talked about or looked at very often. Blending the first-person-platforming style proposed by Mirror's Edge, the extremely tight class-based team mayhem on display in Team Fortress 2, all curled up around the objective style of Enemy Territory. And it also borrows heavily from RPG concepts; there's a progression system with levels, powers, and abilities, all of which are obtained by earning experience points for performing a variety of tasks, such as missions, slaying enemies, and assisting teammates.
The problem isn't that games like Brink, Brutal Legend, and Hunted: The Demon's Forge try to branch out and appeal to a wider audience. The problem is that they generally do it very badly. Brink is a pretty good example of this because it misses the mark on most of the things it stuck in the mixing bowl.
The platforming is sketchy and loose, and being tied completely to one button basically makes their fancy parkour system a glorified sprint button. Hold sprint to jump over obstacles in your way, hold sprint to run on walls, hold sprint to sprint, so on and so on. It takes out almost all of the sense of actively maneuvering through a space, replacing it with a "hold this down to get to your objective faster" button. Likewise, the shooting leaves a lot to be desired for me personally by removing the additional damage of things like headshots; Team Fortress 2 does a similar thing, but retains it for certain classes and weapons, and it bothers me there, too. Both games, to different degrees, lack a certain incentive for players to step up their game. Finally, the progression and character building is satisfying but swift and when it's over a lot of the game's previous momentum seems lost. When you're no longer playing for the next level you're just playing Brink, and that alone seems surprisingly unsatisfying.
Even riddled with all these problems, these games still manage to be a passable experience. Muddy and unpredictable, but still pleasant to play if you get a taste for it. They're not explicitly broken games. This is genre generalization in action; a mediocre product that's dime-a-dozen and forgettable trying to do so many things at once that nothing ever gets the love and attention it needs to develop into something truly amazing.
Threading the Needle
Every now and then there is a game which manages to do something incredible. There are very few of these, I consider them to be the most impressive productions of the game world. These are games which manage to completely retain their original genre, in an entirely new medium or fashion. This is not genre generalization; genre generalization is a strait up mix of two genres in almost equal measure, which damages the depth or the playability of the final product. These games don't mix genres, they somehow manage to thread the needle and produce an experience which does not truly hamper or inhibit either influence. This is a very small pool of games, but there is one that I think almost anyone can relate to pretty easily, so we'll talk about Deus Ex.
Deus Ex is an RPG. It can also be a shooter, but let's not beat around the bush. It's an RPG first and a shooter second. Skill selection and leveling up can be used to turn Deus Ex into a shooter, but from the very beginning this game cracks you over the head with a sign that says "I AM AN RPG", and expects you to treat it as such. Somehow this combination of RPG and shooter isn't a contradiction. Here we are 11 years later, and I'm still not sure why that is.
So much of what you can do in Deus Ex is dependent upon your selection of skills and your chosen augments. Entirely new options open up for the player that focuses on hacking instead of heavy weapons. For each skill there is a purpose, a style, or a unique edge offered to the player to wield and use in the challenges presented by the game. It is pure RPG expressed in an entirely unexpected, non-traditional medium. More important than anything, Deus Ex manages to never lose or diminish its RPG feel in the maelstrom of first person perspective design. It avoids the problem of genre generalization by fine-tuning both of its influences into the final product, changing shooter mechanics to fit its RPG feel, rather than arbitrarily throwing both design directions up against eachother.
The next game in the series, and for many what is shaping to be the only true successor to the Deus Ex lineage is set to be released in August. Only time will tell whether Deus Ex: Human Revolution truly lives up to its namesake. If it does, we'll be treated once again to that strangely perfectly tuned game which retains depth without sacrificing anything in the transition to a different medium. This is where I'd like to see the games industry go. Away from generalization and toward a new generation of games which utilize a combination of influences to create something entirely new and fresh.
Conflict: Desert Storm. How many of you have played it? I hope every last person who reads this blog has played that piece of shit. It was one of the worst games I've ever touched. Looking back on it now, I can say without any reserve or doubt, Conflict: Desert Storm sucked hairy bull balls the size of goddamned coconuts. And I loved it.
For those of you who haven't played this awful gem, the Conflict series started here, mired in mediocrity, stiff animation, lousy controls, bad voice acting, crawling with game stopping bugs and some of the most awful AI you ever imagined there could be. Each successive game did its best to preserve this legacy of shitty design, the same as its predecessors; one great big lineage of failure. Somehow, all of these terrible things came together to form a perfect storm of crap, the final product being by some miracle of ingenuity or blind luck, enjoyable. Like, bad movie night enjoyable. Street Fighter: The Movie enjoyable.
Conflict: Desert Storm and I met in 2003. My best friend had picked it up on impulse, because we were both military mad at the time; any game that revolved around soldiers was a sure bet for our collective library. We also had a hunger for any game set in the desert, because we enjoyed anything that centered on an environment like our own. Jungles aren't something you find in Arizona; at least not any jungle you've ever imagined. Rolling hills, lots of rocks, and lots of little plants that can get right fucking unpleasant if you brush up against 'em. To me, that's home, and Conflict: Desert Storm delivered on all fronts for us. The last nail in the coffin was a lengthy co-operative campaign, a delight, because we'd both been playing SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs and felt the absence of true tactical cooperation. We had no idea what we were in for when we spun the game up in his PlayStation 2.
What followed was two solid years of aaamaazing memories. (See what I did there?)
I honestly can't tell you much about the game now. I don't remember a lot of specifics about it. What I can recall are at least two dozen moments of glorious stupidity, bugs, and various good-but-bad ideas that will forever mark Conflict: Desert Storm as one of my favorite games of all time. So, for your sick voyeuristic pleasure, I give you some of the grand highlights that still make me laugh, years after they occurred.
The first go we had at Conflict: Desert Storm was surprising at the least. The opening mission starts off one player humping through the environment to free the other. Interesting, but it leaves one player out of the loop completely. So, while my buddy was learning how to play, I was puttering around doing nothing and waiting for release. This led to some stupid mid-level problems with controls in which I accidentally took a knife to my poor friend. I don't remember how that happened, exactly, but I vaguely recall trying to read the instruction booklet while he tried to fight off half the Iraqi army single-handedly. He retreated back toward me and I promptly gutted him. This friendly fire discovery led to a little game we played within the game.
During the course of a mission, you can use medkits to heal the soldiers up and revive fallen allies if you reach them in time. The time you're given is generous, and it was the first time I ever played a game where you could revive a fallen ally, and if you weren't fast enough, you could lose a comrade forever. If you lost them, a new version of that "class" would be assigned to your squad in the next mission. Keeping the original soldiers alive had added benefits, leveling up their skills and changing certain dynamics of the game. Our little game within the game was simple and stupid; one of us always used every medkit we had, while the other hung onto them. When we reached the end of the level, there would be a knife fight that served as a kind of coin-toss. If the one with the medkits won, he revived the loser and on we went to the next level. If the one without medkits won, we were off to restart the mission. This stupid little game within a game was one of the ways we were able to extend the lifetime of Conflict: Desert Storm far beyond its own meager offerings. I can still hear the dumb giggling as we each shot our AI buddy, circled eachother, jockeyed for position, and struck.
The revival system and the desire to keep our original team alive led to a lot of other amusing moments. More than a few missions were restarted because we lost somebody, but two incidents in particular stand out in my mind.
Earlier, I mentioned that the AI is appallingly bad. Allow me to elaborate this for you, dear reader. In the cooperative campaign on the PS2 version of Conflict: Desert Storm, each player is given control of two characters. The original team of four in the single player is split right down the middle, with each player taking responsibility for two soldiers with different skillsets. I had the Sniper and Demolitions, my buddy had Assault and Heavy Gunner. In order to facilitate stealth in some segments, we discovered it was best to force a Hold Position order on our respective AI flunkies, and go it alone.
About a third of the way into one mission, we encountered such an opening for a little stealth operation. It wasn't until we were almost finished that I discovered I hadn't told my second character to return to formation and keep up with us. Some boneheaded Iraqi soldiers had shown up out of the blue and were giving us the business, so rather than the safe and time consuming way of switching to my alternate and walking him to us, I ordered an immediate regroup. Two minutes later, my little AI buddy was screaming out for help, in need of a little quick and clean videogame surgery by way of a convenient medpack. We figured he'd gotten ambushed somewhere along the way by a group of enemies we missed.
I doubled back to look for the body and give him a little pat on the back to keep him going, but I couldn't find the runt. Something was screwy about it, so I switched to him, only to find that my order to regroup had completely wrecked his positronic brain. His need to return to my location overrode his desire to live, and he plotted the quickest course to me available: a strait line that walked him right off a cliff to his death. We couldn't get to him, and I was already thoroughly sick of the mission from winning the knife fight coin toss on our first run, thus forcing a restart, and then backtracking and then wandering aimlessly for five minutes trying to find my wayward robot companion. By that point we agreed his death was out of sheer stupidity, and even a rookie would be a drastic improvement. We were wrong, by the way, there was no improvement to be had.
Finally, the last, and still the most amusing Conflict: Desert Storm moment I can remember. This one also revolved around the reviving mechanic.
I'd gotten very attached to my sniper rifle, and splitting up our teams had become a standard way of dealing with challenges. My friend's dynamic duo would start a fight, and I would help him end it with ludicrously high caliber sniper rounds. It was a strategy that worked. Well, most of the time.
The scene is simple. I'm sure you've seen it before. There's a courtyard on the other side of a row of buildings. In that courtyard is every breed of nasty this game can throw at you; soldiers with rockets, machine guns, mortars, tanks, ballistas, battlecruisers, high powered laser cannons, and all other manner of mythical weaponry and sorcery known to man. There's a building, just one building, you can enter which has a good view of the shooting gallery below. It was so patently obvious, that's where I needed to be. My .50 sniper rifle could reach out and touch anything in that area that posed a threat. Our plan was as simple as it could get; I would go up onto the roof of that building, and he would circle around and hit the heart of the group with everything he had. In our heads, this worked out perfectly, but no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
First contact, in this case, was me jumping the gun. I slid out from behind cover, ready to drop death on anything that threatened my partner in military derring-do, and began to put rounds down range. I watched the tanks maneuver, and silently chuckled to myself about how useless they would be without infantry support. I mentally catalogued the slow, lumbering movements of one Russian made T-72 as it slowly oriented itself to me, promptly wrote it off, and dropped another soldier. I was unstoppable. The MVP. By the time I was done, the tank would be all that was left.
Only after the tank's main gun had lifted beyond a point I thought possible, did it appear on my radar as a threat. By then it was far, far too late. A noise erupted from me, somewhere between a wail and a gurgle, as the tank round struck the overhang behind me and dropped me. I wasn't sure what happened at first, and relayed my last known coordinates to my friend, so he could come and revive me. He wandered up to the top of the building, threw a smoke grenade for cover, and failed to find my body there. It took a moment, but we eventually determined my location when I switched to the lifeless corpse lying in the street below. The tank shell had struck behind me and blown me right off the roof. I sighed with resignation and switched back to my other character, to find him in mid flight, having determined the path of least resistance to come to my aid: a strait line, leading directly off the roof and down to the ground. I watched in slow-motion as he plummeted, so intent on his duty that he ignored the danger and died in a shriek as he struck pavement. This was the rookie replacement for the one who'd previously navigated himself off a cliff.
I laughed so hard I cried. I can count on one hand how many times I've laughed that hard in my entire life. The pressure of my neck, my own blood, and the convulsion of my lungs nearly made me black out. My whole body seized up and I fell helplessly to the floor in incredible pain, unable to stop. This fucking game made me ROFL. An awful embarrassment I have never been able to live down.
Conflict: Desert Storm wasn't the best game I ever played. But it was still the best game I ever played, if you know what I mean.
I remember unboxing my first gaming console. The PlayStation. The palpable excitement of hooking the little bastard up and clicking the first disk into place. The months that followed, hours of digital joy chock-full of dragons, bandicoots, ninjas, and guns. Platformers and shooters and beat-em-ups that ignited the fire that still burns inside me today; unmitigated, unfiltered, unsoiled love of games.
For years before that I'd spent time with friends and family alike who who had enough income to support such a pastime during the days of the SNES and the Genesis. I had previously tasted videogames and I had a distinct suspicion that I would be smitten with them forever if I had a console of my own. The PlayStation proved my suspicions had merit. I would never be the same.
Around the same time, we assembled our first computer. An unwieldy, ugly beast of cobbled together parts crammed together in an IBM case. Through this maniacal contraption of backdoors and half-working parts, I learned to love entirely new games. WarCraft II and StarCraft became some of the greatest games I had ever played. They were sewed in with Metal Gear Solid, Syphon Filter, and Doom as the games that shaped me.
When the PlayStation 2 came around, I had not yet matured enough as a gamer to know the difference between a good game and a bad one. I sought out anything that piqued my interest, and played it all with the same joyous reverence as I had before. It didn't matter if the game froze occasionally, or I slipped through a wall, or if the difficulty was utterly mind-shatteringly punishing. All I needed was for something on the screen to move when I pressed a button.
Eventually, though, I developed a nose for good and for bad. My adolescence as a gamer made itself known quite suddenly and without warning. Tastes had developed entirely without my realizing it. I ceased to be content with simplicity in my games, and began to research games on the internet, purchase magazines, and therein made my first discovery of entire communities dedicated to videogames. Not so surprising now, looking back on it, but I found the notion of this utterly shocking at the time. More games came, more games went. My library expanded, and Blockbuster became a weekly event of testing the waters for gems slated for future purchase.
The Xbox arrived on the scene and like so many others smitten with Sony, I wrote it off as a fool's errand. Time would prove me very wrong but I was unwilling to see it at the time. I continued to build upon my library, gathering classics like Onimusha to sit on my shelf, proudly displayed alongside a plethora of Mobile Suit Gundam titles, Metal Gear games, and a dozen others that had intrigued me enough to warrant a purchase. The first and second Splinter Cell titles passed through my PlayStation 2. The third would change gaming for me once again.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory was the game that changed my mind about the Xbox. It would not be the only game that would force me to enter a platform I had concerns about; later, the Metal Gear Solid siren song would entice me to both the PlayStation Portable and PlayStation 3 systems long before I felt they were viable. My gamble on Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory was about faith, and that faith was rewarded with one of the most incredible games I'd ever played. When my week long journey through its story had come to an end, I found my faith had been rewarded. Halo, Halo 2, Ghost Recon 2, and Ninja Gaiden rounded out my Xbox library in its entirety. I only played five games on the Xbox, and I have never regretted it once.
When the Xbox 360 came it was received with open arms. I said a fond goodbye to my Xbox and bid an excited hello to the next generation.
And now we arrive at one of the most important changes in my life as a gamer. Somewhere along the way, I had lost that giddiness about gaming. It had been replaced with a sort of grim suspicion. Each game I played suddenly lacked that joy I so fondly remembered. It had been replaced by a series of experienced filters, sampling, tasting, touching, and examining what I played in very minute detail; the whole experience had become uncomfortably mechanical. The grand sense of pleasure had been misplaced somewhere and in its stead was merely the sensory input without any of the eager, pleased interpretation.
I still don't know exactly how that happened. For a terrible moment I thought I had outgrown games.
I started to search for anything that could reawaken that sensation. I crawled back to news sites and game magazines in an effort to find something in the works that could ignite that spark again. I returned to old games with feigned vigor, trying my hands at speed runs and other more challenging attempts. The Hard mode became my new Normal setting. Something would flip the switch and I'd be back to enjoying games again instead of looking at them as a time-wasting chore; a second appetite I had to occasionally appease in order to feel whole. My era of fear and loathing had begun.
Every new game was met with my grim expectation of failure. Studios closed, Sony's profit margins dropped, Nintendo started making shitloads of money off of fitness products, and I lost track of what games actually looked good to me. My own tastes had left me. I was staring at a smorgasbord of delights but nothing looked good anymore. I was about as dreary as I could be when it came to games.
And then... Destructoid.
I don't even remember how I got here. Google, probably. I'm just happy I did. I lurked for awhile, watching the news roll in. This and that going on in the industry. A preview here, an editorial there. The occasional interesting community blog. Eventually I started to feel my own excitement return to me. I registered to make the occasional comment. I wrote my first blog ever, an event that was confusing and more than a little hypocritical (I had previously sworn that I thought the practice of blogging was ridiculous). You can even see my pessimistic attitude in action if you read it. Even now it's a little hard to believe I wrote that.
Slowly but surely, Destructoid turned my unhappy state of stagnation around. Surrounded on all sides by people who love videogames the same way I used to, it was only a matter of time before that overwhelming collective joy infected me again. Games became about fun again. The fire was back.
We've known one another for awhile now, but it seemed like the right time to make the formal introduction.
My dog died a few days ago. Not something I was interested in calling attention to here, or discussing at all at length with anyone. But then I saw this monthís musing post, and thought Iíd write this up.
I met Charlie more than 11 years ago, when I was 12. I was spending a weekend at a friendís house with my brother, who just so happened to live within walking distance of a decent little park and the elementary school where weíd first met one another. Together we would often go up to the park, or to the school, simply to be free of our parents and enjoy the weather when it was nice enough not to burn us through and through.
Charlie was a stray. My family has always had a thing about stray animals, as far as I know everyone in my family has had at least one pet that was a stray (or "foundling", as we call them). My grandparents on my motherís side have always been nearly overrun by stray cats; either neighborhood cats that come to spend time with them, or strays that became part of the family. My mother has personally taken in a few animals over the years. My brother, too, stumbled upon a cat one Halloween and came home with him the next day. Charlie was mine.
On our trip up to the school, my friend and I were surprised to find two stray dogs picking at the large dumpsters at the rear of the school. I have always been naturally sympathetic to animals, and resolved myself to provide some food to these two. We wandered back to the house and procured some slices of bologna, which we then hand-fed to the two strays. Both of them were good sized dogs, certainly adults based on their structure, and both mutts. The smaller and leaner of the two was more excited at the prospect of people and food than the larger dog. I fed him the last slice of bologna and as my friends walked away, I quietly apologized that we didnít have more. Then I walked away. It broke my heart, but I couldnít do anything about it.
The next Monday I was waiting patiently at the edge of the parking lot of my junior high, entertaining the thought of videogames upon my return home. I was wrested from that thought as my mother pulled up, and in the backseat of the car sat that skinny, excited, dirty mutt that Iíd hand-fed slices of bologna a few days before. As I entered the vehicle, sitting next to that smelly pile of fur in the back seat, I listened to the tale of how heíd come to be there.
My mother worked for the school district at the time as a teacherís aide. She worked in a variety of roles, including as an assistant for special needs kids. At the time it was convenient because my younger brother was proceeding through elementary school, and she was able to take him in every morning and leave with him every afternoon before picking me up. That Monday, she had exited the school with my brother to find a scraggly looking dog sniffing around the rear doors of her car. My brother told her the story of the weekend, and how nice the dogs had been. My mother was bewildered, but sheís always been a quiet believer in fate. She opened up the back door, and with hardly any coaxing, the mutt jumped inside.
He was never trained, but only because we didnít really have to train him. Under nearly any circumstances he would mind whatever I said; the rest of the family not so much. We came to have a solid bond.
Charlie wasnít young by any stretch of the imagination. He lived a full life, and Iíd like to think a very happy one. He was having trouble; constant heavy breathing, difficulty walking, sleeping often. Nothing any vet could do. For two days the issues were bad, and I spent most of my time checking up on him until finally on the evening of the second day, he went. Those two days were mercifully nice for desert weather, and that evening had been unusually calm and cool.
We buried him the next morning.
I wasnít sure what I wanted to do with myself for awhile. I thought about having a drink. Or two. Or three. But the desire passed quickly, as I do not find inebriation terribly liberating so much as irritating. Eventually I just sat and stared at my TV for awhile before starting up my Xbox and inserting Mass Effect 2. I played for a few hours, and it helped me to put some time between myself and the event.
I escaped grief for awhile. A few hours away from thinking about something as destructive as death is can soothe a person in a lot of ways. They say that time heals all wounds; I donít necessarily believe that it does but it certainly does help. Gaming granted me that time to occupy my mind with something more constructive, which significantly lessened the sense of pain and loss that had consumed me.
Time that granted me perspective, and perspective that eventually granted me peace.
Edit: Yes, that is Charlie in the picture, being lazy on the back porch a few years back. As for how he got the name, well, he's mostly brown. So, Charlie Brown.