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5:41 PM on 09.12.2014

My favorite game: Phantasy Star

I'm six years old and as usual, I'm obsessing about a videogame. 

The last game I got for the Sega Master System came with this huge paper foldout in the cartridge case, unfurling like a road map with dozens of tiny single screenshots of other games available for the system, each one a tiny colorful window into my prospective gaming future. It’s summer vacation, my first one from Catholic school, and I’m beyond overjoyed to get my time back. I intend to spend it all on games if I can convince my parents to buy me a new one. Well, playing games and letting my knuckles heal that is.

Menacing nun 
“God loves you and that’s why he’ll make you burn forever if you ever touch your penis!”

My eyes fall on one screenshot in particular—it’s a first-person view of a dense forest, so thick the canopy of trees blots out the sky. There’s an ominous hooded figure levitating in place, cold blue eyes staring right at me, and its outstretched hand seems to be reaching for my soul. Above it a word box labels the monster as EVILDEAD and says it has 30 HP, whatever those are. The game is called Phantasy Star. I instantly decide I must experience whatever perverted nightmare it promises to deliver me.

"Brother, can you spare a MESETA?"

“Mom, I really want this game. Can I have it for my birthday please?” I beg. My mother replies automatically as she had countless times before whenever I hounded her for a new game, “We’ll see,” her face in the same expressionless stare that comes only with the fatigue of raising nine children. My head translates this as “Abso-fucking-lutely, I’ll convince your dad to get it for you somehow even though it’s stupidly expensive and we have buy clothes for your eight brothers and sisters before school starts again.”

Then my older brother pipes in and crushes my dream. “You wouldn’t like that game; it’s too complicated for you.” Naturally, it makes me want it more, and it makes me want to strangle him for saying so. “You’re ruining it! Mom said I can get a new game, you imbecile, shut up!” I think.

Pictured:  me and my brother, most days.

A few days later another comes home from school with the coveted cartridge itself, borrowed from a friend. He pops it in the slot and turns it on, and it takes all the energy in my body not to rip the controller from his hand when the title screen comes up. He starts the game, and I watch as he guides a woman holding a sword out of a village, crossing a grassy plain. The screen shifts, and suddenly we’re staring into the face of a gigantic housefly, which the game calls a SWARM. “That’s not EVILDEAD,” I think, “How many monsters are in this game? I bet, like, at least twenty.”

The fight plays out. I watch a line appear, then slash across the swarm and its HP meter drops from 8 to 5. Then the SWARM flaps its wings, and another HP meter at the bottom of the screen, below the word ALIS, goes down similarly. “Oh,” I think, “HP is your life meter, and that girl is ALIS.” Seeing ALIS was near death, my brother opened a menu, selected something called a COLA which restored his HP, and went back into the fray. Three exchanges later, the SWARM went down. My brother opened a treasure chest it left behind, advanced a level, and collected some money called MESETAS. From there, he took ALIS up to a blue tower and I stared in amazement as the screen changed, displaying a dark blue maze you could walk through and watch the walls go by with each step, just like you were there. After a few paces, he came to a double door with a gargoyle’s head grinning menacingly on either side. My brother hollered out for my other brother to come quick and look. “I think it’s a new area!” He shouted.

Just like that, the glory of the turn-based, first-person dungeon captured my impressionable little heart and never let go.

Stimpy joy
I still feel like this whenever a new one comes out.

I spent the next few days snatching every free second I could to get a chance at the game when my brothers weren’t around. I was moved by the murder of ALIS’ brother and vowed to help her seek revenge against the evil LASSIC. I snuck out of bed and stayed up late, playing it practically on mute so as not to disturb anyone asleep. I took my dingy leftover school paper and completed the dashed middle lines meant to help with penmanship and scribbled maps on them, each square representing one step. I played through the list of enemies I’d encountered again and again in my head, desperately trying to figure out how I could ever become strong enough to beat the harder ones on the beach, like the FISHMAN. I found a way to get a passport and flew to a desert planet, trading a pot I found in a secret cave to a villager there for a new party member, a talking yellow cat named MYAU. My brothers had to know what I was up to since anytime they played they could see my save file, but they never tattled. I had proven to them the game wasn’t too complicated for me after all.

A few weeks later, my birthday came, and I got to hold my very own copy. I read the manual cover to cover countless times as I waited for my brothers to finish their turns, and I stared at the pictures on the back of the box, relishing every detail.

To this day, hearing the theme music is a magic spell that carves through time and space and puts me back in my tiny six year old body, when I learned that those little square miracles called videogame cartridges could do more than let you race a motorcycle or hunt safari animals. You could explore a whole solar system and fall in love with its inhabitants.


1:46 PM on 05.23.2014

Resolutiongate 2014 and Psychological Transferrence

Years ago I went to California with some friends to see Dead Can Dance put on a concert.  After several hours of sweating in a car with no air conditioning I was delighted to finally climb in to the long circular benches of the Hollywood Bowl and take in a show.  The opening act came on stage, and I watched as a wispy young woman garbed in pink danced to bossa nova sounds that sashayed around an intimately familiar bass line, but before she could even coo into the microphone “Come closer and see / See into the trees” I felt a pang of annoyance and betrayal.

“Okay, fine, you want to cover the Cure?  That’s cool, I guess, interesting interpretation, whatever.  Now let’s hear some original stuff,” I thought.  “Next song.  More smoky jazz-club infused atmosphere, daddy-o.  You know this sounds awfully familiar too…OH JESUS CUNTING CHRIST, NOW YOU’RE RUINING JOY DIVISION?!?”

The next forty-five minutes were a blur of indignant rage as the band, Nouvelle Vague, systematically unmade all my happy goth memories of adolescence and packaged them in menthol cigarette smoke and translucent boa material.  Out of an animal panic, I turned to other people in the audience, begging them to understand the gravity of this band’s musical sin.  I was mostly met with indifference, although one plucky young dude told me point blank to shut the fuck up and get over it.  

After mentally willing that guy’s tongue to explode in his head for a few minutes, I realized bitterly that he was right.  I was experiencing the feelings of my past and wanted to keep them pristine, magical, like they were in my memory.  I wanted nothing to change.  I wanted to stay that kid who fell in love with gray and black and never wanted them to fade to white.  In other words, I was projecting, and transferring.

Now, in 2014, we live in a world where Adam Sessler can receive online death threats and worse simply because he had the audacity to say that when some videogames look slightly less sharp than other versions of those same videogames, it’s not the end of the world.
But why?  Of course, vitriolic, hyperbolic, bile-spewing hatred isn’t anything new, and culturally we (unfairly) either tend to ignore it or expect anyone who dares expose him or herself online to just accept that the vilest of hate speech and rape threats are part of the deal—victim blaming at its most callous.  But zeroing in the underlying issue in this case reveals something interesting.  Why resolution?  Why not screen tearing, or load times, or any of the other minor attributes that constitute gaming?

Every one of those trolls, I think, is me at that Dead Can Dance concert.  They’re lashing out because when they were kids, a new console launch meant a colossal paradigm shift.  It meant that their brains would be oversaturated with wonder and joy at what was now possible that wasn’t before, and it compounded with every new generation that followed.  The first time I fired up my Sega Genesis and watched that Roman imbecile transform into a werewolf, I literally could not believe my eyes.  When I played Resident Evil on my PlayStation years later, the (horrifically campy in retrospect) FMV intro blew my mind.  And again, the same thing happened when I saw Nina Williams slide that lipstick over her bottom lip in Tekken Tag Tournament’s intro.  But now?  I’m a 32 year old man.  My sense of wonder at technology is diminished—I look at PS4 games and see no major differences between them and the PS3 generation.  Infamous:  Second Son was fun as hell, and shooting neon blasts at the heads of policemen has a novelty that doesn’t feel like it’ll ever wear off.  But the leaps just aren’t there anymore like they used to be.

Or are they?  What if the real shift is psychological, and the leaps are still just as big from a certain perspective?  Maybe if I were 13 again, Infamous WOULD instill that same sense of awe.  Maybe most of those trolls online are just lashing out in reaction to their subconscious resentment that those days are over, and no amount of technological improvement can reignite that flame.  Maybe nearly every person railing about how bullshit it is that every game is not automatically 1080p and/or 60FPS, is someone who just wants to be amazed again, like he was when he was a kid.

We want to feel that same magic, but it’s a self-defeating thing to do to pursue it.  I’ve learned that those pristine memories feel the way they do only in your mind, and no amount of chasing nostalgia can bring it back, not like it was at first.  Instead, I’ve found that it’s a good idea to be honest with yourself about what you like, what you hate, and why, and be willing to bend a bit in your perspective.

I still hate Nouvelle Vague, though.  Fuck those idiots.   read

11:44 AM on 05.09.2014

10 Things About the Talking Sloth who Loves You

Hooray for lists and community love!  Here goes:

1.  I'm secretly a fiction writer...

I have a published short novel, dozens and dozens of flash shorts, and every Friday I and several other friends play “Haiku Friday” on Facebook.  It all started a decade ago when I challenged myself to write a new piece of fiction every weekday for a year in order to exercise my soft, mushy brainstuffs.  Barring a few holidays and a few weeks when I couldn’t sit up due to a back injury, I did accomplish the goal.

2.  ...And those stories are usually full of death and misery.

One of my dearest friends who was a mother figure to me in many ways said to me after reading my book, “How can you write that stuff with such a sweet little face?”  In my personal life, I like to make people happy and welcome, but in my writing, I want them to feel deeply uncomfortable.  

3.  I'm obsessed with words and word games.

I used to do the NY Times crossword every Sunday when I had more free time, but cryptic crosswords are my favorite.  I also have absolutely no memories of learning how to read.  I skipped kindergarten and started first grade reading books I’d steal from my 8th grade brother’s backpack, and despised school because we spent so much time on stuff I already knew.  When I was a teen I asked my parents who taught me, and they told me they had no idea, I must have just “picked it up.”  My favorite word is nostalgia, because it comes from the Greek roots “nostos,” for home, and “algos,” for pain—so nostalgia means the pain of returning home.

4.  I come from a family of nine kids.

Catholic, not Mormon, if you’re wondering.  Because of this I learned very early on that I was not the center of the universe, which I consider a huge boon.  I also fell in love with books and videogames before I could properly hold either of them in my little hands—they were sacred retreats where my imagination could flourish when I needed to get away from the crowd of brothers and sisters who vied for my parents’ attention.

5.  My celebrity doppelganger used to be Meat Loaf.

In high school I had hair down to my arse, since in my household all my older siblings listened to all butt metal, all the time, and by golly that was the appropriate uniform, and I was pretty seriously overweight.  Now at the age of 32 I’ve balanced out more, and sometimes middle-aged women tell me I look like James Spader, which makes me almost as uncomfortable.

6.  I'm a gay humanist married to a devout Christian.

I never had any plans to get married and I certainly never thought I’d end up in a relationship with a Christian, since I spent my childhood being physically and psychologically abused by sadistic nuns at school.  But life’s full of surprises.  The person I fell hopelessly in love with over 8 years ago served as the Treasurer for his church for years, and even sings in the choir.  I help my husband out during church functions all the time and once another member of the congregation asked me, “How come you never take communion?”  I answered back that I didn’t feel it would be respectful to those who hold the rite sacred, since I’m not a Christian, and she answered, “Well, you sure are nice for someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus.”

7.  My husband and I are an unstoppable force in the kitchen.

When we got together and I realized my husband was an insanely talented chef, I asked if there was anything he couldn’t cook.  “I can’t bake to save my life,” he replied.  So I decided to learn just that.  Now, baking a fresh couple of loaves of beer bread from scratch slowly, with two rises over four hours, fills the house with heavenly scents and is one of the most satisfying, zen-like experiences possible for me.  If I didn’t have to keep a day job, I’d spend probably every morning baking something and giving it away to neighbors, friends, or strangers.  My favorite things to bake all include booze of some kind, like chocolate Guinness cheesecake, or Irish Cream crème brulee.

8.  I'm almost as obsessed with music as I am with words.

When I was seven or eight, I heard my sister listening to a song that sparkled in my mind.  It made noises that made me feel buoyant and full of energy, and I braved the daunting border of the doorway to her bedroom to ask what that beautiful song was.  She told me it was the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” and from that moment on I became enchanted by the power of sound.  Now my favorite artists are Low, Xiu Xiu, Carla Bozulich, Mount Eerie, PJ Harvey, Portishead, and of course, the immortal Cure.

9.  I work in finance but I'm an imposter.

I work as the head of risk management for a mid-sized financial institution but I have no love for the industry.  I excel at it but don’t have any major career ambitions within office buildings.  To me, the good things in life are food, drink, friends, words, and music, and everything else is just a facilitator for those things.

10.  I'd much rather hear about you than talk about myself.

I hate talking about myself and being the center of attention, but I felt it wouldn’t be fair to everyone in the Dtoid community for me to be blathering on about how much I love them without letting them know a little bit who it is who’s doing the gushing.  Now, enough about me, tell me about yourself .   read

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