My name is Zachary and I'm a new media artist from Philadelphia.

I create engaging content... websites, videos, games, apps, that sort of thing. I work at a University of Pennsylvania think-tank and I'm responsible for projects such as the political literacy site FlackCheck.org and the teaching tool Civics Renewal Network. My work has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, PBS, MTV, USA Today, and tons of other places. I use this website as a process blog. Click here to view my portfolio.

Confessions Of An MMO Virgin, Part I

I’ve been unemployed for a little over a month now, with absolutely no job prospects and very little money to my name. This means I have a lot of free time. I’ve been trying to figure out what the average vocationally impaired american does instead of working. I tried drinking in the morning (I saw that one on TV), which, by the afternoon, I realized was a very bad idea. I tried growing a beard, which was an even worse idea… now my Xbox Avatar looks like a creepy junior college lit professor. I considered writing the great American novel, but more than a few have already walked that path. I was at a loss.

Then, during my family’s annual Thanksgiving circus event, I got to talking with my cousin Timothy. He’s a few years older than me and recently completed his Master’s in English language and literature. Needless to say, he’s been looking for a job since April. I’m going stir crazy after a month; I can’t even imagine going that long without doing something. His secret? World of Warcraft. “That’s ten hours a day right there.” Oh, Timothy.

I can’t imagine that’s what the average jobless fellow does with all his free time, but I’m sure there are many like my cousin out there. I’d venture a guess that some are unemployed because they play World of Warcraft. The fifteen bucks a month subscription fee isn’t too hard to swing. That’s, like, only four ounces of plasma.

A Confession: I have never played a massively multiplayer online game. In fact, I’ve actively avoided them. The whole grind-until-you-die-from-exhaustion angle never appealed to me. I mean, trying to balance an extremely addictive game alongside my job, my girlfriend and my social life would have been hell. I could barely find the time to play twenty minutes of Bomberman after work as it were.

Now I don’t have a job or a girlfriend or a social life. My days consist of scratching my hideous beard and staring at the phone, waiting for some big firm to call me and say they have a position open. Which, FYI, isn’t going to happen. Perhaps the time has come for me to take the plunge and become one of those people.

So, as if by some divine magic, I received an email last week from Atlus inviting me to beta test a new MMORPG. “Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine. ” It could be nothing other than fate! Or maybe the fact that I’m on the Atlus mailing list and they sent a beta key to every subscriber. Either way, I knew what I had to do.

Some Background: Megami Tensei — or MegaTen, as hopeless romantics will refer to it — is a long running series of Japanese roleplaying games. There are, seriously, like a million different titles. Not many were released in North America, but the Persona sub-series has gained a bit of a following (I consider Persona 3: FES to be one of the finest roleplaying games I have ever experienced). The quality that sets Megami Tensei games apart from the average JRPG is that they are not terrible… there are no elves or ultimate troll swords or undying gods that happen to resemble the protagonist’s father. Thematically, most MegaTen titles are set in modern day and the player has to fight demons and junk. It’s different, which is probably why the series has attracted an audience.

I downloaded the Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine client, installed it and created my account. Things can only get better from here.

A.D. 20XX TOKYO

In the aftermath of the Great Destruction, those who survived constructed shelters, waiting for the day when they would rebuild their city.

Led by the Seven Philosophers these survivors constructed a massive tower.

This tower came to be called Shinjuku Babel.

Having lost their homes, the remaining survivors took refuge in an underground city called
Third Home. This is where you learn the skills and techniques to be a Demon Buster.

Okay then! That text is all the backstory I get before I’m dumped at a menu screen. The game boldy announces “You will be able to create a new character.” The music is actually fairly interesting, despite being a twelve second loop. Before I can be able to create my character, I have to chose a world in which to inhabit. I guess such is the norm for MMOs? Different servers and all that? I only have one choice: Cerberus. How goth.

I name my character ‘Evil Tom Waits.’ Both the male and female character models look identical, except or the male being a bit more feminine. All the hairstyles are hilariously douchey. I choose ‘mushroom,’ hoping to make Evil Tom Waits resemble Edith Head. Not quite.

I’m pretty anxious to play, so I leave most of the options untouched and click start game. “You can not create a character with that name.” No explanation why. I try taking off the last name (maybe there’s some sort of celebrity defamation filter in place), but no go. “Pussycat Central” doesn’t work either. Nor does Zachary or any of my online handles. I get frustrated and start entering random phrases until I find one that’s acceptable. So, uh, Bob Murderville it is.

Start game! A computer terminal tells me that Murderville has to investigate Home II at once. No exposition or anything… I like that. Then some blocky chick in a visor says the same thing. I’m finally in the game and the amount of stuff on the hud is overwhelming. I approach a lion thing named ‘Unseasoned Cerberus’ who exclaims “I HAVE A BAD FEELING ABOUT THIS.” The visor chick starts talking about demon busting and saving citizens and… oh! She’s a SLUT (Systematic Linear Unavoidable Tutor). You know, the sort of NPC that you have to put up with for a while to learn how to play the game. The kind with no varying dialog and a throwaway personality. This is the opposite of something like Link’s Awakening, which features DICs (Detail Instance Coaches); multiple NPCs who subtly relay information about the controls and game mechanics. I swear that these are real acronyms and not something I made up just now to keep this post interesting. Anyway, tell me how to use the camera, SLUT!

She teaches me to move around and says I should check out the elevator. I check out the elevator. “The elevator is broken.” I go back to the visor chick. She says to go down the hallway. I go down the hallway. A dialog box warns me that I’m on my own from this point forward. Um… okay? I guess all I really need to know is how to move around. Fade to black.

“ACT 0: THE SIN OF WEAKNESS.”

Except I’m not on my own. The visor chick is somehow in the next room giving first aid to a rambling solider. “I could have saved them… if it weren’t for those darn demons!”

So far this game is unbelievably boring. The rooms are so big in relation to my character that it takes an unnecessary amount of time to move from place to place. I understand the need for a tutorial sequence (as there are a million weird buttons on the screen and the documentation is a bit lacking), but can’t something interesting happen? Shoddy flow is a breaking point for most titles; poor pacing in the first few hours of a game is unforgivable. And this is an MMO… shouldn’t I be able to interact with other people by now?

No one seems to be around. I imagine that most massively multiplayer games confine the player in such a manner during the introductory segments.

The next room has a monster in it. It’s a green slime. Left click to target, left click again to attack. Click haphazardly in rapid succession for more efficient attacks. I kill that thing dead. The following room has three slimes in it instead of one! These rooms are seriously way too big. I kill a purple monster in the adjacent room and level up. Entering the status window lets me assign ability points. Fairly straightforward. I pump it all into intelligence. Bob Murderville is obviously lacking in that area if he’s running around battling monsters by himself in an MMO.

A room with a locked door introduces an important mechanic: loot. I find 19 pieces of magnetite on a corpse. It’s kind of refreshing that the game uses actual mineral names instead of magicite or awesomtonium. Still, I wish there was some way to just buy loot using actual currency instead of having to find it in the game. That’d be really convenient. Maybe I can use this magnetite to forge a compass later on, or turn it into a ferrofluid during a challenging chemistry minigame.

A blood stained control panel sits in an adjacent room. Menacing. “A door has unlocked somewhere.” I wonder if it was the locked door from the previous room? I fight some weird ‘Gaki’ monsters and dispatch them quickly. Each one has two band-aids. I have so many band-aids! I was under the impression that “band-aid” a brand name and non-licensed versions had to refer to themselves as “adhesive bandages.” How peculiar. I should probably send an email to Johnson & Johnson letting them know about this possible trademark infringement.

Okay, how the hell was was the visor chick behind the locked door? Maybe she’s a demon! We have a conversation. There are many ellipses involved. “It seems the demons came through… the service entrance.” What the hell kind of post apocalyptic stronghold has a service entrance? That is some seriously poor planning. I make my way to the stupid service entrance.

This extended tutorial is becoming quite tiresome. The Shin Megami Tensei series is known for two things: enjoyable game mechanics and an engaging story. I have yet to experience either of those elements in this online iteration. I’ve been playing an introductory sequence for almost two hours now; the only characters I’ve encountered are paper cutouts lacking in motivation. By this point in the game I would hope that
some sort of lure would present itself, a reason to continue playing. Two hours should be the cutoff for that, right? Instead I’m making my way through a maze of identical rooms filled with identical monsters, hoping for a — HOLY SHIT WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!

Where did Kali come from? Is she a demon? I thought she was a goddess? What the hell is going on? Why are the subtitles for this scene in a crazy moon man language? The visor chick and Unseasoned Cerberus are dead at Kali’s feet. There’s a strange hissing noise and my character passes out. Fade to white. This game may just have gotten awesome.

Now Mr. Murderville is in some room that… well, looks exactly like all the other rooms. A non-player character tells me about a training computer I have to use to move on. I try it and the NPC goes into SLUT mode. “Let me tell you about controlling the camera.” Wait, what? I’m in another tutorial. What happened to Kali and all the cool stuff? Why do I have to do this again? “Use your basic attack skill to kill five slimes.”

I exit the game.

Somehow, even though I have absolutely nothing better to do, I lack the patience for this. The gameplay proceedings are downright dull… click an enemy, then keep clicking until it dies. Click it’s corpse to get loot. Click on the floor to move forward and find another enemy. I understand that a computer mouse is the primary input device, but c’mon. The mechanics should probably be a little deeper than “click on things until you level up.” This is no different than a button masher. I realize that I spent very little time with the game (in comparison to the average person’s cumulative engagement with an MMO), but I was told by two tutorials that I would not enjoy the primary method of interaction. I’m sure there are all sorts of neat Megami Tensei standards buried in the title, but they’re not worth the repetitive stress injury I’d get trying to discover them.

The comical element here is that I couldn’t stomach the game enough to get to the online portions. You know, the online portions of an online game. I was under the impression that MMORPGs start to suck due to interaction with other players. “Griefing” and all that. Normally the core elements of a title are rewarding enough for people to put up with that sort of aggravation. In the case of Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine, such activities would most likely cause severe emotional breakdowns and destroy entire families.

I realize that the flaws of this game do not reflect the genre as a whole. The issues I encountered have to do with pacing and combat, elements specific to the title. Next week I plan on spending some time with the free trial for World of Warcraft… the end all, be all massively multiplayer game. If I do not enjoy that, I’m probably a lost cause.

Maybe I’m just not cut out for this unemployed wastrel position.

Who Botches The Watchmen?

Let’s talk about Watchmen!

If you haven’t read Watchmen: you may not want to read on, because there are minor spoilers in in this entry.

(Also) if you haven’t read Watchmen: please, make it a top priority in the coming months. Not just because I believe it is a beautiful work of fiction, but because any element of surprise will be ruined for you once the movie comes out. Even if you’re not planning on seeing the movie there are plot devices and dialog that will fuel internet memes for the next century. Within six months of the movie’s release America will be overwhelmed by Peter Griffin’s poorly paced conversations with Rorschach and unhappy sitcom wives comparing themselves to Sally Jupiter or something. It’s going to be terrible; gestate the work now while it’s still tolerable.

Watchmen is huge. For me, it was the gateway to Russian literature. I think I was ten or eleven when I first read it. I had been buying tons of Batman books, amazed by how Batman not only lacked superpowers but was also kind of a dick. I asked my local comic book store’s owner (his name was Tom; I can’t believe I remember his name) for recommendations. He said that Watchmen was like “a whole team of Batmen” or some bullshit. I’m sure he could barely contain his fanboyism as a potential convert was within his grasp. Now that I think about it, what kind of guy sells a book about sexually repressed anti-heroes to an eleven year old? No wonder I went goth so early.

Being completely oblivious to that book for a number of years, though, and then nonchalantly purchasing it on a whim… man. It was an experience. I think it’s one of those big moments that will always stick with me: losing my virginity, watching Blue Velvet for the first time, meeting my true love, graduating from high school and discovering Watchmen. Crazy.

As I went from “say, Batman is pretty keen!” to “would Ozymandias’ last monologue be considered a revisionary mythopoesis?” with one trade paperback, I craved more. Other comics weren’t good enough. I grabbed books off my parent’s shelves… I went for the thick ones first, because they had a better chance of containing some meat. Don Quixote, Bleak House, Moby Dick, Tom Jones (in that order!); I recall moving on to a Clockwork Orange, Notes from the Underground, and the Brothers Karamazov at some point before finally settling on Nabokov as my personal hero. I was book crazy! From there I got into film, then painting, then experimental music…

It’s worth noting that when I was eleven years old I wanted to be a lawyer. Now I’m an unemployed artist with an awesome beard. So if you had to trace back a point of deviation for this mirror universe, it’d be when Tom from Pyramid Comics in Levittown sold me a copy of Watchmen decades ago.  I don’t think that comic shop is there anymore.

Anyway: the issue at hand.

If you’re reading this blog, I’m sure that you’re aware how our people feel about licensed video games. In short: they are bad. When I had heard that there was going to be a Watchmen game to tie in with the film version, I was very afraid. A few possibilities entered my mind…

Thankfully it’s not that bad. The Watchmen game (creatively subtitled “The End Is Nigh”) is actually an episodic brawler. Alright, that’s still pretty bad. But at least it focuses on events alluded to in the original graphic novel. Players take control of Rorschach or Nite Owl as they battle members of the Topknot Gang throughout the streets of Brooklyn. You know, there’s a reason that these things were only alluded to in the book. Maybe it will, despite being of a somewhat stale genre, excel in the gameplay department? Here’s a quote from the December ’08 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, which, according to the spine, is “The Rorschach Issue”…

While the fundamental controls are pretty basic (fast attack, heavy attack, throw, and, depending on the character, block or evade), the potential combos are layered and deep, and the finishing moves are brutal–provided you enter the appropriate quick-time commands when prompted. Additionally, the fighting mechanics are designed so that button mashing will suffice for novice gamers, but more skillful play offers greater rewards, like Rorschach’s counterattacks.

Sweet! Quick time events? Combos? Finishing moves? It’s like they distilled Watchmen to it’s very essence. Wonderful. So, let’s break it down with bullet points.

Watchmen: The Novel is about…

  • the manifestation of power in sociological context
  • the delusions of Reganism
  • visual language as an extension of content
  • the motivations of modern cultural archetypes

Watchmen: The Game is about…

  • pumping out a Streets of Rage clone to tie in with Watchmen: The Movie and Watchmen: The Lunchbox

Putting aside my personal feelings about Watchmen, I’m mostly perplexed by the need to turn every intellectual property into a franchise. The typical merchandising campaign is spread across so many industries that quality assurance becomes difficult and creative control is nearly impossible. For some properties it may make sense, as Transformers and G.I. Joe are envisioned as franchises and engineered to make as much money as possible in any form. But do we really need a Big Lebowski action figure or a Sopranos bowing ball? If you can be convinced that these tie-ins exist because someone is passionate about the property, you are delusional. They are manufactured because large corporations want to profit off of your enthusiasm.

Licensed video games are especially hurt by this due to the sheer amount of work required. Games that are anything above mediocre take a lot of people, a lot of time and a lot of freedom. Being tied to a license and held to a one year turnaround is a recipe for disaster. Consider: a developer could spend six weeks perfecting a physics system for vehicle suspension only to be told by the license holders “we dropped the car chase, make that section of the game a skydiving level instead.” Do not forget that video games as a hobby almost went away completely as a result of such constrictions.

In the specific case of Watchmen, attempts at building a franchise seem inappropriate. This is a fairly heavy work with subject matter way beyond that of the normal summer blockbuster. I think a good rule is: if the movie you’re making contains a rape scene, don’t manufacture action figures for it. Seeing little kids with Heath Ledger masks on Halloween was weird enough.  There’s also the fact that the mass marketing of Watchmen characters was addressed in the book itself.

I’m going to guess that the marketing people have never read the book.

At best, the Watchmen game is going to be a decent brawler that has no business being called Watchmen.  I’m curious what will be the next in line for the ill-suited game treatment. If this, of all things, can get a licensed game, where can you really go from there?  Lolita: the Official Game? Oh, wait… that’s already a whole genre. Thanks, Japan.

Many proponents of gaming have long speculated as to what the Citizen Kane of video games will be. Considering what Watchmen has done for comic books as a medium, I think that’s a more appropriate comparison. It bothers me that if, a year from now, I ask someone what the think the Watchmen of video games will be, they’ll most likely reply with “Watchmen? Dude, that game sucked.”

Postscript: This is mentioned in the EGM article, but a Watchman game already exists. Not only that… it’s actually quite good, most likely due to the involment of Alan Moore. That’s right: Alan Moore signed off on a game based on his work. The kicker is that it’s an RPG. You know, like, a real RPG… the kind that requires imagination and interacting with other people and basic math skills. Mayfair Games published a sourcebook in 1987, along with two scenario modules–”Taking Out The Trash” and “Who Watches the Watchmen?” I have the modules but have never come across the sourcebook for a reasonable price. There were also lots of lead miniatures to go with it, which I would love to get my hands on. It’s crazy meta, as well; check out the scan below.

My Visit to Sega’s World Sports Grille

A few months ago, Sega opened a new concept restaurant in Tucson, Arizona. It was being billed as a combination of fine dining, sports bar, and arcade. That’s kind of cool, right? Sega is still the market leader when it comes to arcade hardware, so I suppose it makes sense. I know that the arcade market has been hurting in the United States. It’s kind of nice to see Sega taking a risk and trying to revitalize the industry. Arcades may be nearing extinction, but they’re still an important (albeit small) part of American history and I’d love to see them become relevant again.

One of my complaints about arcades has always been the children. Every arcade I’ve visited over the past decade or so has been swarming with small children who can barely reach the controls of most games. I don’t hate kids or anything, but they’re loud and small and you shouldn’t swear around them. How much fun can a game like Street Fighter II be if you can’t scream “FUCK BALL SMACK KHAKI MOTHERFUCK!” when someone breaks your winning streak? The arcades of my high school years were highly competitive environments filled with trash talking, amphetamines and tearful back-alley handjobs. That is no place for a child! Or, um, anyone really. Eastern Pennsylvania was kind of a shithole in the early ’90s, but that played a strong part in defining my arcade experience.

Also, if I wanted to be owned by an eight-year-old in my favorite arcade game I’d just play it on Xbox Live.

So when I heard about Sega’s idea for World Sports Grille, I was thrilled. An arcade that serves alcohol? Awesome. I envisioned old men in cardigans crowded around import cabinets, chewing cigars while a cocktail waitress brings them all whiskey sours, then retiring to a smoky dining room to talk about the stock market and tell dirty jokes. That’s what I want my life to be! That’s my life dream! I look great in a cardigan!

I had to try it before I left Tucson. A friend and I made the fifty minute drive to check it out. We figured that we would grab some dinner, maybe a drink at the bar, then cruise the arcade area and play a few games.

Upon walking in we were greeted by… no one. Three employees stared at us for a few minutes while blabbering into their headsets, never addressing us directly. Normally this wouldn’t be so weird, but in this case the mezzanine was completely empty: Just two customers standing in this massive area waiting for someone to acknowledge them. I had to go up to one of them and make it clear that I wanted a table, which required the guy to talk into his headset for several minutes more, apparently checking with every other employee in the establishment. “Table for two, table for two… hmm hmm hmm… table for two, table for two… chk-chk-chk, table for two… let’s see, table for two…” Maybe it was a new business tactic meant to define the unique experience that World Sports Grille stands for. Like, everyone’s supposed to act like Sonic the Hedgehog and be all about the ‘tude or something.

The host guy finally told us there’d be a 45 minute wait and we were handed a plastic device thing that would play disco music when our table was ready. So we decided to check out the arcade while we waited.

It was not what I was expecting. The arcade was completely segregated from the bar area. Children were everywhere. I immediately realized the concept at work here: mom and dad get drunk at the bar while video games babysit the kids. I was way off base with this one. It was actually really hard to take pictures, because every shot I lined up had a little kid run into frame at the last second (and I don’t want to be one of those people).

Most of the games seemed to be of the racing or light-gun persuasion, with a few rhythm titles near the entrance. I didn’t see a single fighting or puzzle game. Maybe those aren’t in vogue anymore?

RAMBO! I think this title is pretty new. They only had one machine and it was set up in the center of the arcade. The screen was really, really big. Probably sixty inches or so. Scenes from Rambo III played when we started it up and then there was the expected stream of soldiers to pew at. I actually had a lot of fun with this game; it’s a license that lends itself well to a fairly simple genre. Wired’s GameLife blog has an in depth write-up on it if you’re curious.

Worth noting: the guns for the Rambo game were huge, heavy and vibrated violently when fired. It was pretty badass. I really wanted to Rambo it up and use one in each hand, but that would have cost me eight dollars. Screw that.

Another light-gun title, Primeval Hunt, had a little touchscreen for navigation. The game is about shooting dinosaurs with pump action shotguns, as far as I could tell. Two frat boys were glued to the machine the entire time I was there; I don’t think they even so much as glanced at the touchscreen.

There were tons of UFO Catcher and Stacker machines all over the place. I really wanted a Martian Manhunter plush from the machine on the left, but the claw only had two prongs, pretty much guaranteeing no one will ever win a prize. The Stackers had DS Lites, PS2s and lots of autographed sports memorabilia. It cost twelve dollars for one go at the Stacker machine, so you’re probably better off just buying a DS Lite.

Side note: I keep referencing how much each machine costs, but it’s worth mentioning that my math may be way off. See, all credits are purchased using a rechargeable card that players can buy for two bucks (I think it’s called a ‘World Sports Grille Membership Card’). So you pay two dollars and then load additional money onto the card, which gets translated into credits according to some invisible algorithm. I put about twenty dollars on my card and got something like 56.7 credits. That struck me as something of an odd number, but maybe that’s just me. I like to imagine there’s a constantly shifting USD to Arcade Credit exchange rate responsible for this.

I spotted Konami’s Drummania V4: Rock×Rock machine. Kind of intimidating, but I was amazed at how solidly built the hardware seemed (compared to other Konami products). I skipped it and chose a drum simulator a little more suited to my skill level…

Taiko: Drum Master! It’s so Japanese! I had played this on the PS2 at one point, but never with a big ass taiko controller. This is the best game at World Sports Grille, hands down. Even thought one of the drums was smashed up, the Japanese text was perplexing and the ’90s alt-rock from the bar drowned out the music, we had a blast. This is a good example of a video game’s presentation trumping all other elements. I mean, it’s a rhythm game and we couldn’t hear what we were performing, but we still had fun. Those cartoon taikos are just so cute that it’s impossible not to have fun playing the game.

After successfully running through a few songs, a QR code popped up for each player. Since I’m a red-blooded, God-fearin’ American I lack the technology to decipher such forward thinking nonsense. Any idea what function these serve?

At this point the weird gadget in my back pocket started vibrating and playing a monophonic version of Gregg Diamond’s “Take The Boogie Home”, so we made our way to the restaurant area. A host silently lead us to the quiet section, which was located approximately ten inches from the not-so-quiet section. Once again, the experience was not at all how I envisioned it. The main dining room had projectors mounted on the ceiling, covering the walls with various baseball games. I can’t really fault the establishment for that; it’s called the World Sports Grille, after all. But every few minutes the entire dining room would erupt into cheers when something happened in one of the games, making it impossible to have a conversation or even focus on the menu. If I was more into sports I may have found it charming or something.

The Menu: I know this is not that sort of blog, but I feel obligated to talk about the food offerings. The menu is basically identical to what you would find at any American chain restaurant. Everything screamed “pre-packaged,” which I thought was odd considering this was a concept restaurant and not a chain. We ordered some tex-mex rolls for the appetizer, which was supposed to be marinated chicken, corn, avacado and some other junk in crisped flour tortillas. What we got looked like this…

Those aren’t crisped flour tortillas… they’re deep-fried, frozen, then tossed in the fryer once again. Seriously, look at how shiny those things are. There wasn’t a single distinguishable flavor other than grease. The filling was nothing more than a paste that may or may not have contained the items described on the menu. I can’t even come close to describing how bad these things were. Maybe it wouldn’t be so offensive if we were anywhere other than Tucson, where one could walk twenty paces from the restaurant and find a similar item prepared properly for far cheaper.

I was surprised to find tajine on the menu, which is a sort of Moroccan slow-cooked feast. It seemed really out of place alongside the rather plain burgers and salads. I was curious, but didn’t want to wait an hour for my food. Another concern was that it was billed as “authentic Moroccan tajine,” but their prime offering was a shrimp and white fish version, which is about as unauthentic as you can get. Moroccan tajine usually contains lamb or chicken because the fat is an important component for proper braising when using the tajine pot. Maybe I should have made Muderblog 3D a cooking blog. I know way too much about this sort of crap. My parents thought teaching me such things would give me a strong cultural background, but instead I just ended up being a food snob.

Another surprise on the menu was that every letter ‘L’ was bolded. I know I’m just nit-picking with this one, but it really bothers me when a print job is botched because someone got lazy during pre-flight and didn’t properly collect all the fonts before rasterizing the document. That, uh, might just be me, though.

We decided to order entrées that worked with the atmosphere of the World Sports Grille: I settled on the double burger, which was actually a single burger with onions and coleslaw, while my friend got a brie and shiitake mushroom burger, which was exactly what it sounds like.

I grew up in Pennsylvania, so I imagined ‘coleslaw’ to mean a bit of shredded cabbage (Dutch style, y’know?). I’ve had burgers like that and they were quite good. In this case it meant some carrots in a mayonaise broth plopped on the bun. It was not good. The burgers were obviously packaged, as they were identical in form and weight. Really, they were both quite terrible. Neither of us could finish, but not due to fulfillment.

This entire time I had not seen a cocktail menu, which was one of my main reasons for visiting the damn place to begin with. I think I asked our waitress for one, but she had a tendency to forget that she was a waitress and disappear for long periods of time. We saw her maybe twice during our dinner: once when she took our order, and once when she dropped off the check. Maybe she was sinking her tips into the Stacker machines.

After dinner, we hit the arcade again to try out anything we had overlooked.

This race car thing looked pretty cool. It’s on some sort of hydralics so it flies all over the place whenever you make the slightest motion. They even have a fence around it that screams “Hey, I’m Dangerous!” I had to give it a whirl, even though it cost 15.889 credits.

This is a picture of me in the machine. I’m not sure if it’s clear (and I couldn’t tell from a distance either), but it was definitely not for people of my size. The steering wheel dug into my crotch and my legs bowed out so far that it was hard to reach the pedals. I didn’t think this was so bad until I actually started racing and the whole thing began to lurch around violently. It felt like someone was punching me in the testicles over and over again, which, FYI, is a terrible feeling. I did one turn before hitting the emergency shut off switch. Oh God, it was painful. Maybe I’ll try it again if I ever become four feet tall.

There was a similar machine that may have been more accommodating to my height, but it displayed a Windows desktop on the main screen throughout the entirety of our visit. I remember reading that Sega had started using Windows XPe for all of it’s arcade games, which appears to have turned out exactly as one would expect it to. I felt bad for the drunk woman who paid the ticket price, then sat in the cab pressing the ‘start’ button on the screen for twenty minutes. It’s worth noting that any ‘arcade technicians’ could not be located.

A weird Japanese table tennis game sat by it’s lonesome near the bar area. I had four credits left on my card so I gave it a shot. Either it was amazingly easy for an arcade game, or I wasn’t playing it right and somehow ended up cheating the system. I seemed to win effortlessly: just swing the paddle, and then move on to the next round. It was also not a very good game, so I simply put the paddle down after my third victory and walked away.

During that last game, I started to feel not very good. I wasn’t sure if it was the food or being kicked in the balls by a racing game. My friend also felt not very good, so I’m guessing it was the food. So we left. On the way home, we stopped by Safeway to grab some Pepto-Bismo. We both felt not very good at all.

The next morning, I had some serious issues. I consider this a family blog, so I’ll just leave it at this: do not eat the food at World Sports Grille. It will result in very bad experiences.

That’s my experience at Sega’s flagship concept restaurant. I wish it had been better. If I had to sum it up into a single sentence, I suppose it would be: “This is the Sonic the Hedgehog of Restaurants.”

Way to go, Sega.

On the Moderation of User Generated Content

Microsoft is getting serious about ‘Boku’. I think they’re playing the nostalgia card.

Just kidding, here’s what it actually looks like.

Even though it’s being billed as Microsoft’s answer to LittleBigPlanet, Boku has actually been around a lot longer than that title. The main difference is that Boku was being developed as an accessible GUI rather than a full fledged platform. I suppose the waves of user created content for big console titles have changed that, as it seems Microsoft is looking to push it as an Xbox 360 title.

Am I the only person who likes my games to already be games by the time I get my hands on them?

Let’s examine Gamespot’s review of LittleBigPlanet…

“Although Little Big Planet could be described as a platforming game, its dedication to creativity in every area takes it far beyond the confines of the genre. Everything from your character to the environment is geared towards user creation and adaptation, via stickers and costumes right up to a full-blown level creator. Each level of the story mode is an unforgettable trip through the wild imagination of the designers, and it would be difficult to find a game that’s as much fun to play with friends co-operatively. It’s a little disheartening that the Story mode is over so quickly, and although there’s some longevity to be had from finding all the hidden extras, you can still see everything the story has to offer in six hours. Then there’s the level creator–an astoundingly powerful toolset that theoretically allows you to recreate anything you see in the included levels and much more. However, it still requires a great deal of time and skill to develop something that people will actually want to play, and despite the best intentions of the developer, it’s a feature that not everyone will be able to take full advantage of. The overall result is a game that’s incredibly fun while it lasts, and one that has the potential to be taken further by its community.”

But…! I don’t want to create. And I’m not sure I want to experience what has been created. I want my games to have a carefully engineered freedom, to present an illusion of immersion that has been examined by a team of experts and deemed worthy of experiencing. I want them to secretly dominate me, to be able to anticipate what I’m going to do next at any given moment. If I want to create, I have mediums for that. A pad of paper and a pencil are a hell of a lot cheaper than a new video game (and can also reach a much larger audience). I want Super Mario Galaxy and Portal and Metroid. I want focus and structure, a tightened experience presented by a group of people with a common vision.

What I don’t want is to have to sift through crap to find such an experience. While I can respect LittleBigPlanet as a title (and, indeed, that “common vision” I mentioned above may be presented flawlessly, although aimed at a completely different audience), it does not seem to offer what I want from a platformer. I had not read anything about the single player campaign until after the title had launched, and even then it equated to “this is what you have to sit through to get the the level editor.” There may be a wealth of content available, but it doesn’t seem to offer the experience I desire as a gamer.

ANALOGY BREAK!

When I was in college, I had a bulky TV with rabbit ears that got two and a half channels (public television only counts as a half, right?). Most of the time I had my choice between Becker reruns, talk shows, or infomercials. For some inexplicable reason I chose all three and watched television constantly. Whenever I had a paper to write or a drawing to finish, that TV would be tuned to some throwaway crap that I could lose myself in. It was just there: always ready for me and exactly what I expected it to be.

That stands in sharp contrast to when I would go home for the summer and visit my parents. They have Comcast Digital HD Super Party or something. Six billion channels, every moment of recorded history available on demand and even IPTV functions. The signal to noise ratio is so great that I could never find anything to watch. Last night I decided to look for an HD movie on demand. It took me twenty five minutes to sift through everything in the ‘Horror’ category; by the time I had finished I decided just to read some old Wonder Woman comics and go to bed. There is so much out there that there seems to be nothing out there. If you’re a user of the internet, you may be able to relate.

YouTube is currently serving up over one hundred million videos. Thirteen hours of video are uploaded every minute. How much of that is actually worth experiencing? Well, that depends on your patience. You can search for anything and, with luck, find exactly what you’re looking for (I tend to focus on “old people falling down”). But if you just want to be entertained for a brief moment, you might have some trouble. You can check out featured videos, sort by the number of views, or be brave and click around randomly. In the end, you’re still viewing amateur content… something lacking that certain polish and pacing you expect from a professional operation.

That’s me: I just want to be entertained. I want to experience games as I’ve always experienced them… accessible distractions that may or may not have something to say in the grand scheme of things. I’m sure that LittleBigPlanet can produce some stunning work as a platform, but it does not currently function in a manner that makes those works accessible to the average user. It currently presents itself as a limited platformer with the opportunity to be much more. Joe the Plumber isn’t going to spend hours trying shitty uploaded levels until he finds something he likes, no matter how much Sony markets to him. Joe the Plumber has a bidness to run. He’s like me: he wants to be entertained without effort. Except Joe the Plumber makes $250K a year and I bitch about games on the internet while eating discarded shoes for dinner.

I’m wondering where the balance is. The point where user created content is considered part of the package rather than something for the consumer to seek out if they feel the need. I think Super Smash Bros Brawl handled this somewhat ingeniously: the player can opt in to recieve one user created level per day, as chosen by some dude at Nintendo who probably knows what the story is. No sifting through crap. You get access to new content every day, but it’s mediated and explicitly chosen as good user content.

There is a big deal being made about user created content and procedural content in console games. I think the next big thing will be both: user content that is incorporated in context. Imagine if all those LittleBigPlanet levels were sorted and separated into various campaigns… an algorithm processes keywords, rating and length to string everything together in a cohesive manner. Instead of sorting through various levels, you sort through clusters of ideas. You get a mix of good and bad with almost no effort. There aren’t enough LittleBigPlanet videos on YouTube to illustrate this point, but I hope you catch my drift. It could be golden. Instead of seeking, the player would sample and consume.

I have no beef with LittleBigPlanet… it may be a wonderful title; I haven’t fully experienced it yet. I think the way in which we access extensions of traditional media is flawed and needs to be reconsidered for new audiences. I want my gaming experience to be structured and considered, which I feel is a weak point for most releases that hinge on user created content. And if I, as a core gamer, feel that way… how does the rest of the market feel?

You Can Learn How To Play The Game, It’s Easy

I’ve resisted purchasing my own copy Rock Band for a few reasons. One, it’s almost two hundred bucks. Two, it’s best experienced with friends; I assume that if I ever make some, they’ll probably own the game. Three, I feel it’s lacking some essential artists: Pink Floyd, Ween, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, etcetera (I’ve come to terms with the fact that My Bloody Valentine and Throbbing Gristle would not contribute to an enjoyable rhythm game experience). Jamming on “Suffragette City” is cool and all, but the type of music I associate with the term rock band has been entirely absent.

So: this morning, rejoicing. At least one of those issues has been rectified.

I’m what most people refer to as a pseudo-Beatles fan. I own all their albums, have all the lyrics memorized, and even know various dates and names integral to their history as a band. So, basically, I’m not much of a fan compared to most people. After all, I value Yoko Ono’s artistic contributions to society, which is grounds for a lynching in certain parts of the world. But I still enjoy the cumulative output of The Beatles and the idea of playing fake instruments to all their songs has me salivating.

Then I thought about it for a bit. What will this game actually consist of? Are there going to be stylized 3D models with massive mop-tops? How, exactly, is the catalog of such a historic group going to be presented? This could be bad, pal.

Is there any sort of narrative tied to existing band simulation titles? I’ve only experienced Rock Band with a group of friends, choosing songs as we go. I’m aware of some vague “career mode” but I can’t imagine it being very deep. Maybe you throw the disc in on occasion to find “Your avatar is climbing mountains in Tibet trying to find himself; please check back in a few months.” I have no idea. My question for you, dear reader: Is Rock Band as a platform capable of presenting anything other than a well engineered rhythm game? There is a very interesting opportunity that this license presents.

Imagine, If You Will: August 28th, 1964. You’re in a band with three of your buddies. Al Aronowitz (the original gonzo journalist) takes you up to the penthouse suite at Hotel Delmonico in New York. Inside is Bob Dylan and some marijuana. You’ve never tried it before, so you instruct your drummer to give it a test run. Soon everyone is rolling on the floor in fits of giggles and Brian Epstein is questioning the laws of gravity. Next thing you know, you’re in a car about to be sick, spouting dialog like this:

Now compare such an event to what I just found searching for “rock band cutscene” on GameTrailers.

The Beatles are not only a band that many people worship, they also have defining moments in their history that present actual drama and interest. There’s a story to tell that, if done correctly, can elevate music simulators past the category of simple point seeking and leaderboard dominance. Forgive me for dropping a ‘C’ bomb here, but: it could be cinematic.

There’s so much that can be explored… starting as The Quarrymen playing skiffle standards all over Garston, then moving on to simple pop and signing with Parlophone (hopped up on Preludine the whole time). The first big tour kicks off with a residency in Hamburg. Paul McCartney starts a fire in the hotel, gets arrested and ends up deported. Stuart Stutcliffe stays behind and dies of a brain hemorrhage. And they haven’t even recoded their first album yet.

There is real drama to The Beatles that most games struggle to invent. Drugs, politics, religion, cultural revolution… all the staples of top tier stories are there. I can picture segments in my head: ending with the rooftop concert, a credit scroll covering certain incidents from 1980, then an epilogue in 1994 for a performance of Free As A Bird. That would be some heavy shit.

I think that the whole experience can be presented in an educational and engaging manner, and I realize we could also end up with what equates to just a version of Rock Band that contains only Beatles tracks. Or, even worse, events could be incorporated in a completely inappropriate fashion (a arm wrestling Imelda Marcos mini-game? boss battle against Jesus?). But the way this project is being billed as a complete Beatles experience as opposed to a Beatles rhythm game gives me hope. Being able to physically experience the career of a musical group along with a narrative that can provide historical context is such an interesting prospect. Listening to a CD copy of Rubber Soul does not tell you why Rubber Soul was important. It can’t offer you an interactive exploration behind the motivations of it’s creators; it can’t show you photographs from Vietnam or give you a history lesson on Americanization. A video game can. Wrap your head around that one: a video game!

I’m constantly amazed by games that function as teaching tools. Not just what’s marketed as edutainment, but the actual big blockbusters people line up for. The majority of gamers who purchased Brothers In Arms: Hell’s Highway had probably never heard of Operation Market Garden before popping the disc into their console. That’s kind of spectacular, right? The historical grounding, not the part about the failings of modern educational systems. I know that I had no idea who Hammurabi was before playing Sid Meier’s Civilization. I think Call of Duty: Modern Warfare may have changed how I view international conflict forever just due to it’s incredibly accurate depiction of, uh… modern warfare. We are capable of absorbing any history lesson when it’s presented in a manner that’s easy to digest (i.e., engaging on an interactive level), and, indeed, most games that teach something are restricted to history lessons. So how about a game that takes that a step further, a game that covers artistic response to social and cultural conditions? That’s exactly what Rock Band: The Beatles can be if it’s creators choose to go down such a path.

If this actually works, I’ll wait with baited breath for editions featuring The Traveling Wilburys or The Plastic Ono Band. Hell, why stop there? Let’s have a Patti Smith game featuring spoken word performances accompanied by footage of Israeli air strikes, or a Jazz Band title that covers not only the history of prohibition but also some oft-ignored issues from that time period. A developer could release Prepared Piano Hero: John Cage Edition and wait for America’s youth to reach a higher level of consciousness while trying to figure out why they keep failing on 4’33″. The expert level note chart for that track would be insane.

Let me reiterate here: I am hopeful. This could be the start of a very good thing. Also, two guitars, a mic, and a drum kit aren’t enough for a Beatles rhythm game. It better come with a tiny plastic Mellotron MK-II controller. That would be so unbelievably bad ass.

Baggage Claim

I just flew from Phoenix to Philadelphia and boy, are my arms tired! That’s from gripping the seat in pure terror for almost five hours due to my overwhelming fear of aeroplanes. I can’t say that watching Baby Mama during the flight with nothing but white noise in the left audio channel made things any easier. However, I am still alive, which I guess lends credit to the whole idea. And trying to figure out the lift-to-drag ratio of the sixty ton object that was carrying me at 37,000 feet was quite humbling. Or something.

I now find myself living in a new state (where it’s goddamn cold) looking for work. My personal belongings are traveling separately, arriving sometime in early November, if at all. That leaves me with a whole lot of free time and nothing much to do. Thankfully I’ve brought along a nice stack of distractions, which I will now outline for the benefit of absolutely no one.

Final Fantasy III (DS) – I can honestly say that I do not enjoy this franchise, but I remember enjoying it at some point. I buy every iteration hoping it will be the entry that finally justifies my nostalgia. After all, I sunk many years of my youth into these sorts of games, and I even remember thinking that the stories being told had some form of merit. Oh, to be young again! This specific game isn’t all bad, as it eschews any sort of character development and focuses on relentless level grinding. So, really, if you’re looking for some monotonous task to keep your hands busy while watching daytime TV, you could do worse. Or you could learn to crochet. It’s practically the same thing, except when crocheting you end up with something that can keep you warm in the winter. New motto: “Power Leveled Characters Won’t Keep Grandma From Freezing To Death.”

Ace Attourney: Phoenix Wright (DS) – Despite owning every North American release in this series, I have yet to play a single one. I read somewhere that they were adventure games and I bought them all without reservation. I tend to excel when placed in scenarios where adventuring is a requirement. After all, not every man can save the earth from being overtaken by a phone company.

Planet Puzzle League (DS) – I absolutely adore this series. You may have previously experienced it as Tetris Attack, Panel de Pon, or Pokemon Puzzle League. There is something magical about all these games, even though they do little to improve on the basic match-three formula. There are blocks, you match them, then they go away. It’s kind of high concept.

Final Fantasy Tactics A2 (DS) – I can’t explain why I’m still playing this. I think I’m stuck in a ‘bad game loop’ — play for a bit, turn it off in frustration, then pick it up again the next day as if nothing had happened. I can’t escape it’s grasp. It’s also worth nothing that this is the same way I completed XIII (although having the ‘open’ button on my GameCube break may have helped that one).

Dialhex (GBA), Soundvoyager (GBA) – I have honestly considered getting BIT GENERATIONS 4 LIFE tattooed across my chest in gothic lettering. I am not joking: the idea has crossed my mind more than once, and I even made a mock-up in MS Paint. I will never share that image with anyone.

Drill Dozer (GBA) – I haven’t tried this one yet, but check out the cartridge…

That’s weird, right? I believe it has some sort of embedded rumble functionality. I suppose Nintendo wanted to sexualize the title even more. Having the avatar be a cute anime girl with a giant red phallus and a game title that could possibly be interpretted as “have sex with people who are asleep” just wasn’t enough. That shit has to vibrate, too.

All Dogs Go To Heaven (DVD) – Let’s, uh… move on.

Densetsu no Stafy 2 (GBA) – I have no idea what’s going on here. I think Kirby turned into a starfish and learned to swim. Even though I can’t understand a lick of Japanese, the platforming is reasonably well done and the few puzzles I’ve encountered so far are quite engaging.

Eternal Darkness (GC) -This one has been in the backlog for a while, and I’m hoping temporary unemployment can help me make a dent in it. I think it’s like a playable Robert Altman movie or something? I have no idea, I just know it comes highly recommended by the Gamestop employee who wanted my money.

Killer7 (GC) – Killer7 is a very important game that very few people talk about. I’ve been thinking about it recently and there’s a lot I want to address, but I need to refresh my memory on some smaller points. I firmly believe that everyone with a strong interest in gaming should try this title at some point… even if you hate it, your life will be richer. It’s heavy stuff.

Hopefully these items will keep me occupied until I either find a job or starve to death. And maybe they’ll end up being valuable barter goods in the event of a complete economic collapse. Or maybe I should just give up gaming and learn to crochet.

Obvious Exits

Nintari... man?

For the past week or so I’ve had my personal computer hooked up to my roommate’s 40″ HDTV in the living room. Mainly for the purpose of watching a few streaming movies comfortably from the couch together, but mostly because such an act is goddamn awesome. When you’re a massive geek the first order of business for something like this is re-experiencing all the stuff you encounter in your everyday life. For example, Facebook is no different on a big TV than on a tiny monitor (other than being barely legible), but for some reason it’s a thousand times cooler to view it that way. Same with YouTube or any thing else. And, of course, eventually I gave the shout of “I need to play some computer games on this thing!”

Then I realized that I don’t have any computer games.

PC gaming and I have a bit of a history. Alongside the NES, it was my first real platform. Sierra and Lucasarts adventure games were a staple of my childhood, something that I can probably blame my bizarre problem solving skills on (and I’m sure Leisure Suit Larry caused complications for some other developmental skills that I won’t mention). These games were interesting, unique worlds that I couldn’t experience anywhere else. They also ran off of floppy disks, so you just had to pop it in and type ‘a: run.exe’ and you’d be set.

Then things started changing. CD-ROMs slowly replaced disks and brought with them the dreaded mandatory install. As my family couldn’t afford to upgrade our poor old Tandy 1000, I began to get my gaming fix almost exclusively from consoles (which, when compared to computer components, were dirt cheap). At some point I studied in Doom II, the Seventh Guest and Myst, but the details of those encounters are blurred by memories of Mario and Sonic. I learned that there was a lot of interesting stuff I could do on a computer that wasn’t related to gaming, and it became easier to segregate the electronic devicesin my life. Besides, when available hard disk space is measured in megabytes deleting funny GIFs and fake bomb recipes to make room for a new game install just doesn’t seem worth it.

So then now: I can count my recent computer gaming experiences on one hand.

HalfLife 2, which I was pumped for, was the first PC game I had purchased in years. I was disappointed to learn that it required some ridiculous (and now commonplace) remote authorization. In order to play the single player game, I needed an internet connection… something that, in my college days, was an extravagant luxury. Some of my friends hauled their gaming rigs to the house of that one kid who had DSL… I just waited a few weeks and downloaded a crack from the school’s computer lab. I was a strange feeling to be using illegal means to enable the use of something I owned. I imagine many PC gamers feel this way in the present.

A couple years later, I was at Target buying towels or something when a certain title called to me from an endcap. ‘Star Wars: Empire At War.’ Oh, how sweet it sounds. The back of the box informed me that it was a real time strategy game, but it was also Star Wars. It had land battles and space battles. Controlling fleets of AT-ATs, arranging X-wings in various attack formations, even using the Death Star to wipe out entire planets… I had to have it. I bought it, went home, blew off all my plans for the night and locked myself in my bedroom, all the while concocting elaborate schemes to rule the galaxy with a doctrine of fear. After a lengthy install, I eagerly click the launcher on the desktop and… my computer powers down. I restart, and at the Windows loading screen it shuts off again. I repeat this activity many times. I can boot into safe mode, but that’s it. I uninstall Empire at War and it still won’t start. So I go out and get drunk, deathly afraid that all my schoolwork has been corrupted by an unnatural pursuit of leisure.

The next weekday I call LucasArts (er, Lucasfilm Games) tech support line to figure out what’s going on. They walk me through a bunch of different stuff and deduce that there’s a conflict between my sound-card drivers and the copy protection software that’s secretly running in the background at any given moment. Their solution? Uninstall my sound-card if I want to play the game. The sound-card I use to record audio and mix my music, the sound-card that otherwise enables me to create things. I think I just hung up the phone, amazed that this was considered a solution. That was the last time I purchased a boxed PC game.

Since then, I’ve had torrid love affairs with freeware titles such as Knytt Stories and in browser games like Peggle. I play a fair amount of interactive fiction, if only because each piece is an extension loaded by a single client of your choice (an interpreter). These are unintrusive entities that can coexist with the important functions of the computer. I can have an indie game minimized with the sound off, then play a few rounds while I’m waiting for an audio mixdown or a video render. Doing such a thing with a traditional PC game would likely result in a massive CPU fire.

People make a big stink about casual games, but I don’t think that label is appropriate. It’s more like transparent games. Games that don’t interfere. The reason games like Rocket Mania and Bejeweled took off isn’t because of some gameplay mechanic that reach a previously untapped market; they became successful because the games became accessible with minimal effort. That audience has always wanted to play games, they just didn’t have the means. They weren’t going to go out and buy a console and they didn’t want to dedicate hard drive space and system resources to the big boxed titles. These are the same people who played the shit out of Minesweeper in Windows 3.1 while on a conference call at work. Technology has advanced to a point where any developer can manufacture a good game in a short amount of time and find an audience. My father told me about Peggle long before the ‘hardcore’ crowd discovered it. As soon as one Minesweeper player found out that there were these web portals out there featuring games that don’t completely blow (and I firmly believe Minesweeper is a terrible, terrible game) it probably spread through the whole office like lightning. From there, the world!

Mainly, I think it’s interesting to see what computer gaming has become. I find myself more attracted to games such as 9:05 than any big-budget blockbuster. I’m sure I’m missing out on a few key experiences, but a large portion of those titles can be found on a home console, and the rest (in my opinion) aren’t worth the effort.

Wait, what was this entry supposed to be about again? Sorry, I get thrown off topic easily. Anyway… internet porn looks crazy on a 40″ TV.

Your Hat Is Stupid (Tactically Speaking)

Look at that stupid hat!

When I got a PSP a couple of months ago, one of the first titles I picked up was Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions. It’s a remake of the original Final Fantasy Tactics game for the Playstation, except with some rather pleasant motion graphics thrown in. I have really nice memories of playing that original game. At least I think I do. I seem to look back on everything I experienced in high school with an undue fondness, which is most likely a result of having since been crushed by the realities of adulthood. Considering my biggest concern back then was being able to touch boobs, it’s probably quite understandable.

Let me make this clear: Final Fantasy Tactics is not a game. It’s a couple of characters, some dialog, and a million goddamn nested menus. After replaying it for the first time in over ten years, I’ve realized that any notion of a ‘game’ is so deeply buried that it can’t possibly be enjoyable. I have no idea why I remember this as a good game. Maybe I was really into menus when I was a teenager. I did wait tables throughout high school.

If you’re not familiar with tactical role playing games, allow me to break them down a bit. The player controls an army of individual characters, each with their own abilities and statistics. Battles take place on a grid, where you maneuver a couple of your characters against some other characters/monsters/undying gods. Each character gets it’s own individual turn where it can move, attack, or use really helpful support abilities such as decreasing the charisma statistic of any applicable sub genus of a certain creature type by 0.012%. So you take turns, going back and forth for hours, until the victory conditions are met. And there are a lot of contextual menus.

If that doesn’t sound like much fun, perhaps I’m not explaining it right. Okay: maybe it’s more like a gridded board-game, such as checkers. Imagine a game of checkers. Got it? Good. Now imagine a game of checkers in which you can jump and claim an opposing piece only after situating all your pieces next to it for several hours. And there are a hundred different numbers associated with each checker piece that don’t really mean anything, and once you’re finally in a position to claim a piece you have to confirm what you want to do a dozen times, and then when you try to claim it someone comes in and punches you in the neck, upending the checker board and making you start the entire match over again. That’s a tactical role playing game.

So, yeah, I have some issues with the core elements that make up the genre. But I was trying to re-familiarize myself with it using a ten year old game. Things have advanced so much in the past ten years! Ten years ago we were rocking out to Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing,” watching VHS copies of Patch Adams and thinking that punch card voting would be the way of the future. Surely tactical RPGs have advanced in the same way, right? I threw out my copy of Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions and tried Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift. At least ridiculous naming schemes have seen some major breakthroughs in the past decade.

FFTA2:GOTR (or ‘Goater,’ as it shall be known) started out by having me just move dudes around a grid and kill some monsters. That’s promising! And, even though it took several dozen nested menu commands to kill a cockatrice with 50 hit points, the level up screen after the battle reminded me why I want to like these games so badly. It’s just like the terrible Japanese RPGs I loved as a kid, except focused on teams instead of individuals. I can beef up a group of black mages and have them all tag teaming some monster who’s weak against ice while having a couple archers taking care of any melee opponents. That’s a wonderful prospect that is, unfortunately, buried under the tedium of dated game mechanics.

Although Final Fantasy Tactics A2 starts off strong, it falls into the same trappings. Laws, auction houses, territory control, looting, privileges, a bazaar… what the fuck? Advance Wars never made me put up with this shit to get to the fun stuff. These new elements don’t provide depth, they’re just more layers that the player has to wade through in order to get to the ultimate goal of killing stuff and leveling up. And, really, when your title spends twenty minutes explaining a gambling mini-game that barely relates to the core gameplay but yet neglects to tell the player how to restore magic points, you probably have some fundamental design issues.

An Aside: seriously, how do I restore MP in this game? My characters don’t seem to recover it after battle like HP, and the only item I have with such a function is Ether (which I can’t seem to buy in shops). Is there some sort of super secret code I have to input in order to unlock a series of menus that may, at some point, allow the possibility of unlocking more menus that will let me restore some frickin’ magic points?

If you can’t tell, I’m a bit angry about this whole thing. Partially because I really want to like these games and because the core idea is interesting to me… and partially because Square-Enix is, once again, profiting off of my misery. If you weren’t aware, Final Fantasy Tactics A2 (as well as most games published by Square-Enix) costs five dollars more than the average DS title. Why? I have no idea. Because nostalgic losers will pay it, I guess.

There is an idea of a Chibi-Robo, some kind of abstraction…

Oh, Chibi!

This past week I completed Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol. I’m not sure how you can really finish a game that’s centers around the endless fight against pollution, but I managed to do it.

Funny thing: this was actually a good game. The core mechanics were great. You play as a robot dude who runs around this barren park. You use your squirt gun to water buds, which turn into flowers, which give off more buds. When a bud turns into a flower, you get “happy points,” which are turned into watts. You can use watts to either recharge Chibi-Robo or take small actions to improve the park, like tilling the soil… which would allow you to plant more flowers. It’s an endless cycle. And all the while these smog monsters are killing your flowers and trying to get up in your face. It may not sound like much, but if you’re the type of person who loves that sort of reward system (where the next goal is always so close) it might as well be a socially acceptable form of crack (I can use it on the bus!).

I blew through Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol in, like, two weeks. For me, that’s crazy. Who knew that gardening simulations could be so addictive? Oh no… do you think this is what Viva Piñata is like? I’ve resisted it’s call for so long… maybe the time has come. But I have so much I still want to do in life! I have goals, dreams. Am I ready to trade that all for a future that consists of nothing but tweaking foliage to attract anthropomorphic Mexican oddities?

Side Note: I actually really like the Viva Piñata cartoon that’s on Saturday mornings. This could be because I am a goddamn child. Seriously, the fact that I even have an opinion about a Saturday morning cartoon should tell you a lot about my personality. I watch cartoons, play video games, drink beer, look at boobs on the internet and… um, write lots of papers analyzing the role of Gesamtkunstwerk in contemporary media. Basically, everything my eight-year-old self fantasized about doing when he grew up.

There are some failings to Chibi-Robo, though. Mainly because it’s a bit too wishy-washy for the subject matter. There should have been some sort of clarification as to where energy comes from for the sake of our younglings. Like, how it’s actually comes from large power plants that are often causing the pollution Chibi-Robo does battle against. I imagine that may have come up in the planning stages and the developers opted to go for something a little less hopeless. And call it “happy points.” It also may have been important to illustrate that pollution isn’t a cute creature that frolics in your vegetable garden, let alone a tangible thing you can conquer with a squirt gun. Our children are sheltered enough without this sort of candy veneer being thrown over something they should be worried about. But, then again, when I was a kid I thought that the manhole in front of my house was a gateway to a magical world of talking turtles with extraordinary martial arts abilities, so who am I to judge?

Just once I’d like to see a game that taught children about failure, or at least the Sisyphean struggle associated with certain ideals. It would have been great if Chibi-Robo had woken up every morning, gone out to his park to find it a mess, then spent the day cleaning it up only to have to do it all over again the next day. Then again, I’m not sure if that would have been a good game. Something like September 12th, which is sublime in the way it handles it’s subject matter, lacks that aspect of fun that most people expect from a game.

Now that I’m thinking about it: have you ever heard of Wall Street Kid? It was surprisingly good (for a NES-era life simulator). You play as a certain Mr. Benedict, the biggest WASP to ever be portrayed in an 8-bit game. The premise is that Mr. Benedict’s uncle has died and left him with a nice chunk of inheritance, but under one condition: the player has a short period of time to take some minor seed money and become a success playing the stock market. You spend most of your time staring at a screen like this:

YBM!

Yapple Computers for $74 a share? Dude, buy that shit! Trust me, just hold on to it until Steve Yobs comes back on as CEO. Also, grab up some Yoogle as soon as the IPO hits… it’s never going to come down!

The entire game is spent trading stocks, trying to build your assets, then blowing them on unnecessary objects in the trappings of typical American excess… which is, sadly, the gameplay mechanic that hooks me on these titles. All the while you have to balance this greed with courting ladies, going to the gym, and trying to score reservations at Dorsia.

The nice part about Wall Street Kid is that, unlike Chibi-Robo’s battle against pollution, this situation is practically impossible to win. Not because the gameplay itself is difficult, but because it’s accurately modeled after the ridiculous standards of success the modern world has come to accept.

  • Acquire a house worth at least a million dollars.
  • Purchase a massive yacht.
  • Get married.
  • Keep your wife happy with meaningless but expensive gifts.
  • Buy a ridiculously pricey ancient castle that was owned by your Aryan ancestors.

Just like real life! And, just like real life, it’s completely impossible (at least without abusing the password system). Seriously, I remember sinking a fair number of hours into this title and never even coming close to winning. My friends were mostly confused by the whole concept and never wanted to try it, so maybe I just suck at stock market simulators. I did have to take economics twice in high school, and even then I only passed because I was stuck with the remedial group due to a scheduling error. Those kids thought I was the coolest.

Too bad for you, baldy!

When you fail at one of the game’s ridiculous goals (like coming up with a million dollars for your house payment by March 1st), that’s it. Your character loses everything and you’re forced to restart (or reenter your last password). There are no continues and no extra lives. It’s refreshing to see a game not sugarcoat things and just tell them like they are in real life. It’s not like some fairy tale where the government grabs seven-hundred-billion dollars from the average taxpayer because Mr. Bigwig on Wall Street has to make payments on his frickin’ castle. It doesn’t work that way in the real world, and I applaud Wall Street Kid for not having any such ludicrous deus ex machina.

GET IT!?

You’ve got to think about what it’s teaching the children, after all.

A Friend’s A Friend Who Knows What Being A Tank Is

I have to be honest with you: I don’t have a lot of friends. Specifically, friends who play video games. Mainly because my interest in games stands in great contrast to that of the average gent. Most people want to chat about that sweet headshot they scored in Halo 2 last weekend; I want to discuss optimal starting positions for Super Bomberman 3 (I firmly believe the upper-right quadrant is superior due to some weak spots in the block placement algorithm). While I can argue for hours about whether video games should be one word or two (it’s two and you can shove that style manual up your ass), most gamers just want to, I don’t know… shoot stuff. In which case I suppose I should commend them for filling that void with gaming instead of heroin, but I still crave some sort of more rewarding interaction. Luckily for me, others out there feel the same way. Others with computer science degrees, lots of free time and the desire to cash in on the MySpace craze several years too late.

Hey... are those... boob?

My Game Mug appears to serve no other purpose than hooking up lonely, unsatisfied gamers such as myself with one another for late night multiplayer matches (and potentially sex in the long run, although I think that’s implied by most social networking sites). Could there be someone out there that shares my love of pretentious rantings on the nature of games as a medium? I couldn’t resist. My future pals were just forty questions and a mandatory registration away!

Question number one: Do You Love Video Games: only as a friend? Well, they kept it as two words, so this is off to a good start. I guess I really never thought about this question before. I mean, I enjoy playing games… but the current state of the industry leaves a lot to be desired. I feel that video games as a whole right now are full of wasted potential. I may love Super Mario World, but I don’t love Madden 2009 or any of the other shovelware that’s dumped out by major publishers on a weekly basis. So I’m going to have to answer no to this question. Except, um, “no” isn’t an option; they had to be cheeky with the whole thing. Maybe that’s what 18-25 year old males are looking for in a social gaming site.

Question number two: What game are you playing right now or your favorite game? I really think that should be two separate questions, or at the very least proper english. I mean, I’m playing Chibi Robo Park Patrol right now, but there’s no way it’s my favorite game. Similarly, some of my favorite games I don’t want to play anymore just because the memories are so strong. Do film buffs who loved Schindler’s List pop the VHS screener in every few months? I guess I should just list off a couple games I adore and some I’ve been playing lately: Super Metroid, Worms, Persona 3 and the tutorial for the Facebreaker demo.

The next two questions are pretty straightforward, about my penis and which consoles I own. As always, I’m saddened by the fact that the Game Boy Advance is no longer considered a major platform. Maybe there’s a question about that later on.

Question Number Five: Do you regularly trash talk when you play? Of course. Who doesn’t? Unless I’m playing strangers online, in which case I keep anything potentially hurtful out of the game because I’m not exactly familiar with their mental history. I always thought that was common sense before I started using Xbox Live. So, no, I guess I don’t trash talk in what the adopted sense is.

Question Number Six: Do you care if others trash talk? This might as well be “Do you like playing with racist homophobes?” No thanks.

Question Number Seven: Doctors recommend short breaks between gaming sessions. Do you follow this rule of thumb? Yes. But I call them cigarette breaks and booze runs.

Question Number Eight: Would you or have you ever gone to a video game convention or competition? I think this question wants to know if you’re afraid of other people finding out that you like video games. PAX is supposed to be fun, and I’m planning on going to Philadelphia’s VG Expo in Novmber. So, yeah, I don’t care if the outside world sees me dressed up in a homemade Ganondorf costume (the beard used to be a Raggedy Ann!).

Question Number Nine: Your “significant other” calls you during a VERY important gaming session. Do you pick up the phone, or ignore it? I’m not really sure why “significant other” has to be in quotes. I’m also not sure how important any gaming session can be unless there’s some sort of tele-surgical equipment out there that keeps track of your high score. Really, do you want to be the douchebag who missed the call about your wife needing an immediate blood transfusion because you were totally just five minutes from a save point? Because there are people out there like that. They always cosplay as Sephiroth.

Question Number Ten: Do games always get your adrenaline pumping hard??? It should be noted that the “yes” option has three exclamation points to match the enthusiasm of the original question. I can’t say that any game outside of Wii Fit has gotten my adrenaline pumping at all, let alone hard. That’s normally reserved for, you know… doing stuff. Like going outside. Or having sex. Oh God, do you think there’s going to be a question about that?

Question Number Eleven: Do you watch anime or read manga? Um, I don’t know, I guess so. I don’t actively avoid anime or manga. I also tend to think of them more as “television/films” or “books” without getting hung up on stylistic choices. I suppose this question is trying to figure out if I’m an obsessive wannabe otaku whose biggest dream in life is to visit a maid cafe in Akihabara. In which case… maybe.

Question Number Twelve: Which is sexier: highly addictive gameplay or very realistic graphics? Well, I don’t really desire any of my vices to be labeled as highly addictive, but I’ll gladly take it over a pair of weightless boobs trapped in the uncanny valley. Not to mention that — wait, sexier? Seriously? Wow.

Question Number Thirteen: Have you recently engaged in a debate or argument about video games? Yes, but the argument was “what happens to all the Virtual Console games when we break up?” Maybe they’re trying to see if I’m the type of person who will threaten rape and dismemberment if another speaks ill of my favorite console. I tend to get in spirited debates about game design decisions and the validity of many titles, but I can’t say I’ve ever gotten angry while discussing a video game. Oh wait, I forgot about the red ring of death. Fuck Microsoft and any pansy ass who supports them.

Question Number Fourteen: Can the average of any two consecutive prime numbers ever be prime? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Although there is an option for “who cares?”, I don’t think I want to play video games with anyone who does not know the answer to this. In fact, I’m going to ask any gaming friends I meet through this service why just so I know they didn’t Google it while taking the initial survey.

Question Number Fifteen: Would you date someone that you’ve only met in an online game? Call me old fashioned, but… what? I’m pretty sure that’s an awkward misunderstanding, not dating.

Question Number Sixteen: At the end of the day, do cheaters ever win? I suppose I should start thinking of these questions purely as they relate to video games instead of treating them as grand philosophical debates. So, no, cheaters don’t win, they either get banned or their exploit gets patched.

Question Number Seventeen: If you suck at an online game and an opportunity to cheat presents itself. Would you take it? Only if the cheat had really hilarious results, like all the weapons turn into giant salamis and the in-game music is replaced with Yakkity Sax.

Question Number Eighteen: You have an impulse to try to find every secret and accomplish every goal in every game. This is where the site stops being nice and starts being real. This isn’t a true or false question, it flat out just told me that I’m a completionist. It is calculating my gamer personality, so I suppose it should just trust it… which kind of sucks because I don’t have to free time to shoot two hundred pigeons right now.

Question Number Nineteen: Your mission presents a large critical objective to accomplish. Do you set a plan or jump right in? I guess a lot of games have missions now, enough so that there’s no need to explain what the hell this question is about. I set a plan? Only after jumping right in and seeing what’s going on. Maybe I don’t play the type of games this is addressing. My mission normally consists of nothing more than “beat the bad guy” or “move right until you win.”

All women dress like that, FYI.

At this point, I’m presented with a hard truth: the site is, in fact, not meant to get gamers laid. Disappointing or comforting, I’m not sure. The graphic is kind of frightening, though.

Question Number Twenty: Tell the truth. In your opinion, in most video games you play online, your skill is above average, average, or below average? How the hell am I supposed to know? If I had friends to play online with I wouldn’t need to use this stupid site! I’ll say “below average,” because my Bejeweled score doesn’t even come close to making the top ten.

Question Number Twenty-One: How long have you been playing video games? The fact that the choices top out at “more than 13 years” makes me feel very, very old. I choose “less than 5 years” because I don’t want to be lumped in with the people who are searching for a partner for their retirement community’s upcoming Wii Sports tourney.

Question Number Twenty-Two: When forming a team from a pool of players, do you choose the best players or players that play well together? As we all learned from the MLB All Star Team, just sticking the best players together on a team leads to absolute apathy. I’ll choose whatever is on PBS instead.

Question Number Twenty-Three: Drama occurs between you and another player. Who’s to blame? The failings of mankind.

Question Number Twenty-Four: Which profession is more appealing: soldier or medic? Is this, like… in a video game? I’d probably choose the medic because you can learn valuable life skills that’ll be useful in finding a career once you’re discharged. Also, why would I want to kill when I could heal? Especially in a never-ending war like the one in Iraq, or the one presented in your average multiplayer FPS. Seriously, I’d love for a company to shut down their servers one day and give all players a message saying “ARMISTICE HAS BEEN REACHED!”

Question Number Twenty-Five: All your gaming friends start playing a game you despise. Do you join them, play something else or find new friends? I assume this refers to some sort of online gathering, as the latter two options would be pretty harsh in real life. But if they’re playing a game I despise online, how would I join them? I would need a copy of the game in question, and if I despised it so much why would I own it? Clearly the only correct answer here is “stop taking this survery.”

Um, half of these things aren\'t even... things.

Question Number Twenty-Six: How often do you play video games? (read carefully) Too much, just enough, or not enough? Oh snap, they almost pulled a trick question on me! Only not really, but I’m guessing that’s what the “read carefully” alert is supposed to indicate. “Just enough,” because I’m an adult who knows how to regulate my leisure activities, thanks.

Question Number Twenty-Seven: When you buy a game, an average realistic time frame in finishing it would be closest to: 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 year or never? If there are really people out there who buy a current generation game and manage to complete it in a day, I doubt they’d be actively trying to find friends using a networking site. I’d put myself at closer to “never,” because this survey is starting to make me hate video games.

Question Number Twenty-Eight: When do you usually play games: morning, afternoon, night, late night, weekdays and/or weekends? I’ve always thought I was strange for mostly gaming on weekday nights while leaving weekends for doing real life stuff, but now I’ll be able to find the person who has the other half of this gaming schedule pendant!

Question Number Twenty-Nine: Do you care about the age of those you play with? Hmm… tricky. On one hand I don’t like to discriminate, on the other I wouldn’t want to go to jail. I’ll play it safe and answer “yes.”

Question Number Thirty: Do you play video games more for the challenge (ie. to win) or for the experience (ie. entertainment)? I wish “the potential for artistic expression” was an option. I’ll have to go with “the experience.” If I was just playing for the satisfaction of winning I’d probably pick something with absolutely no challenge like Barbie’s Horse Adventures or any Square-Enix RPG.

Asinine Humor:  Do Want

Oh, Question Number Thirty-One changes things up a bit! And, really, I’m having a hard time believing this site’s purpose is anything other than finding love for lonely geeks. I mean… highly skilled, commanding and a nerd? That’s the woman and/or man of my dreams.

Question Number Thirty-Two: Can a video game character’s sexual attraction convince you to buy that game? I was wondering when they were going to cover this. It’s important in explaining why Death by Degrees made it past the planning stages and somehow into my game collection.

Question Number Thirty-Three: You are God for one day. Your goal: wreck havoc upon the world or provide salvation to all? Wow. Um, I know what my answer would be, but I’m actually kind of curious as to how the majority of people would answer this. If more than ten percent chose the first I’d probably just stop playing games all together and go join the Peace Corps or something.

Question Number Thirty-Four: Your fellow gamers needs your participation NOW. You have a report due tomorrow morning. Do you do the report or help your leader, then stay up all night to do the report? A report on what? Time traveling back to the fifth grade when reports were assigned to me on a regular basis?

Question Number Thirty-Five: When you discover a bug in a game: report it or exploit it? I actually caught all those golden bugs in Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. True story. And I had a pretty good collection going on in Animal Crossing for a while. I’ll just skip this question.

Question Number Thirty-Six: Next to your toilet: kama sutra or player’s guide/cheats? Who the hell would practice the Kama Sutra in the bathroom? I’ll go with a player’s guide, because it won’t make me slip and crack my head open on the tub.

Question Number Thirty-Seven: What do you think of professional gaming: devoted fan, fun to watch or don’t care? Really? There are fans of professional gaming? I thought the entire world was in agreement that it’s probably the worst thing that could happen to gaming. This survey is making me feel sad.

Question Number Thirty-Eight: A popular game is launched and there are limited copies being sold for the first week: camp overnight or pick it up later when available? I don’t know. I camped out for the Wii, but that was more about the idea of communally camping out for something exciting, not the console itself (although I do enjoy it quite a bit). I got up an hour early to buy Super Smash Bros Brawl on release day, so I guess that bumps me into the hopelessly nerdy group no matter what.

Question Number Thirty-Nine: Assume you are a video game master. Finish the sentence: I am… 1337 pwnage, or very skilled with video games. Okay, first off, there’s no such thing as a video game master. That’s some shit Todd Holland made up to sell copies of Super Mario Bros 3. And while I can occasionally overlook leet speak, there’s absolutely no excuse for the travesty presented by this question. 1337 pwnage? That doesn’t even make sense. If that’s how a video game master talks, I never want to touch a video game again.

Question Number Forty: Um, I guess there are actually only thirty-nine questions. I’m a bit unsure as to how my answer for the prime number question will be ranked, considering the site can’t even count to forty without getting confused.

And now, the moment of truth. My gaming personality is…

That hand is kind of creepy.  I normally situate my controller in my lap.

Wait, my gaming personality? I thought I was answering these questions to find someone to play games with. Instead the whole thing was a LiveJournal “What Bread Are You?” type of quiz. Apparently I’m the type that can give disembodied handjobs through a controller.  I dug around for a bit and managed to find the “personality matches” section on the MyGameMug website. But every profile I click on looks like this:

Synthesizer Patel is cooler anyway.

Awesome. I wasted, like, twelve minutes filling out this damn quiz. And then I wasted another three hours writing a stupid blog post about it. This is what happens when you’re hopeful! I’m guess I’m going to stick to meeting gamers the old fashion way: getting them drunk at college parties, then talking them into playing NBA Jam back at my place.

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