Archive for the ‘Self-Indulgence’ Category

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Tools and Toys: Origin of a Gamer (#BoRT)

November 7, 2012

Prologue: I promise I’m going to write some blog posts that aren’t #BoRT entries someday. I’m moving across states this week, nine months after last time I did it. Time is…well, it’s difficult to come by.

The theme of this month’s Blogs of the Round Table is “Origins”. Per #BoRT curator Alan Williamson: “What are your earliest memories of gaming? How do you think your childhood (or childish adulthood) experiences of gaming have influenced your life, if at all? Are there any game origin stories that reflect your own?”

Here goes nothing:

* * *

I didn’t “get” my first console. It was just, you know, there. I don’t even remember how I came to start playing it, just that I played it. I played Pong on it with a paddle, I played Combat on it with a joystick. It was an ugly thing, a giant brown box with conspicuous ports, buttons, and switches. It was my older brothers’ machine, and for some reason, when they moved out, they left it with my folks.

It was an Atari 2600. It didn’t change me or anything, I just can’t imagine my childhood without it.

I remember playing Pac-Man on that machine. I loved Pac-Man on that machine. I’m fully aware, 30 years later, that the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man is largely derided as perhaps the worst version of a classic game, but it didn’t matter. It’s amazing what can come off as brilliant when you don’t know that anything better exists. All I knew at that point was that it worked part of my brain that no other entertainment could. It also offered the first hints of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies when it came to video games; even when I was five years old, my Pac-Man strategy was to get all the dots first, saving all the power pellets for the end.

I remember playing Football on that machine. Honestly, I didn’t know what the hell was going on.

I remember playing E.T. on that machine. I may have played more E.T. than any other Atari game save for Pitfall II, certainly more than any other game that I “inherited” from my brothers. It was a fascinating and alien thing. It was aggressively strange, punishing, and difficult, and I wanted so badly to understand it. I got pretty good at it, if I’m being honest.

I remember playing Yars’ Revenge, Venture, and Super Breakout. I remember playing Pitfall, and Kaboom, and River Raid. I remember playing some odd Sesame Street thing that involved an exclusive number-pad peripheral thing. And I remember playing them over, and over, and over again. Somehow, my parents let me stick with these games, they let me treat them like any other toy, and not like the devil in the TV.

Heck, I should probably thank them for that.

The first machine I was alive for when it was introduced into the house was an IBM PCJr. As if to try and convince me that this machine was a necessary component of our household, my dad showed me Jumpman on the first day that computer was in the house.

Do you remember Jumpman? Think a sub-8-bit version of N+ and you’re probably not too far off.

My god. I just remembered that computer was in the kitchen. THE KITCHEN. Why was it in the kitchen?

The actual cover art for the IBM PCJr version of King’s Quest.

As much as the 2600 showed me what video games could be and do, that PCJr showed me what they were made of. I bought books of BASIC programs that I one-fingered into files, LOADed, and RUNned. Every so often, a game I bought in the store would error out, and I’d get a glimpse of the source code, a stray GOSUB or a division by zero error. It was proof that these things were written, line by line, by actual honest to goodness humans. I admired these humans, even at six years old. I wanted to meet them, and I wanted to be them. I wanted to know what it was like to make something as open-ended and gleefully difficult as King’s Quest (a PCJr exclusive when it was first released!) and as utterly mysterious and far-reaching as In Search of the Most Amazing Thing.

Where the 2600 represented the future of toys, the PCJr represented endless possibility, a world in which creation and consumption could coexist and intermingle, a world in which I could, when I learned enough, change my games to suit my needs and interests.

Could I have articulated all that then? Hell no. Still, I think it was there in an abstract sense. Just as a child can sense tension even when all the grownups in the room are still plastering smiles on their faces, a child also knows when the future is knocking on the door.

My brothers, and then my father, brought the future into our house. I didn’t even have to ask. It’s no wonder I can’t just “play” games. I have to understand them, too.

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On Interpretation

July 26, 2011


I know this isn’t a tumblr, but I just wanted to share a quote that seemed immediately applicable to the podcast discussion of Child of Eden that’s going to show up at some point over at the Moving Pixels blog. My wife, the true academic of the family, pointed me toward the text, and while it could certainly be applied to any work of art, it seems especially applicable to something as abstract as Child of Eden:

The poem, then, must be thought of as an event in time. It is not an object or an ideal entity. It happens during a coming-together, a compenetration, of a reader and a text. The reader brings to the text his past experience and present personality. Under the magnetism of the ordered symbols of the text, he marshals his resources and crystallizes out from the stuff of memory, thought, and feeling a new order, a new experience, which he sees as the poem. This becomes part of the ongoing stream of his life experience, to be reflected on from any angle important to him as a human being.

-Louise Michelle Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work, Southern Illinois University, 1978

On a semi-related note, I do sometimes wish that when I opened my mouth to talk about something in a semi-intelligent way I could eventually come around to the point I was trying to make. I think I had about a 50% success rate.

Podcast link forthcoming, of course.

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A Running Diary of Merzbow’s Merzbient

February 25, 2011

It looks so peaceful.

A week and a half ago, I was tasked by PopMatters (at my own request, granted) to write a review for Merzbow’s recent 12-disc monstrosity of a new album / box set, Merzbient. The theory is that it’s ambient music, run through the Merzbow noise filter. To Masami Akita himself, it probably is ambient music. This may not be terribly different from what he listens to on a day-to-day basis.

I wrapped up the review today. In preparing to write it, though, I kept notes of my Merzbient listening experience, front to back, which basically detail a man’s slow descent into insanity. I didn’t want to just delete them, because I spent a lot of time putting them together, so here they are, unedited (and rough in spots), and saved for posterity. All 1500 words or so. They’re mostly pretty dry, but if you ever wanted a blow-by-blow experience of what listening to 10+ hours of Merzbow (well, Merzbow-lite I guess) sounds like, this is your chance. I imagine the review will post at PopMatters sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Without further ado:

* * *

Disc 1 (RBA 1A) is basically random static and chaos until the end, when it becomes more meticulous.

Disc 1 features some sampled radio broadcast-esque sounds…there’s “real music” poking through.

Disc 2 far more “structured” than disc 1…still noise, but beats are mixing themselves in.

Disc 2 (RBA 1B) reminds of late coil experiments…Worship the Glitch/Constant Shallowness/Astral Disaster…bow instruments poking through, ugly but identifiable

Disc 2 also more difficult to background.

Disc 2 continues with tape experiments – organ music chopped and re-assembled?

“Western Noise is often too conceptual and academic. Japanese Noise relishes the ecstacy of sound itself.” –Masami Akita

Disc 2 “RBA 1B” closing out with big distant drums and phaser effects…back to more improvisational stuff, but still not terribly alien

Disc 2 “untitled” is an assault – high-pitched electronics giving way to a tremendous static wave, eventually featuring “windshield washer” electronic effect

Disc 2 “untitled” is shortest track, at 12:41

Disc 3 (RBA 2A) starts much like Disc 1 – big, scary, lots of reverb and static and squealing

Disc 3 “RBA 2A” eventually develops a comparatively peaceful drone behind the big scariness, a nice variation on the sound so far…noise seems to be phasing out in favor of the drone

Disc 3 “RBA 2A” has a rock beat at the 35-minute mark! This is…weird. There’s still static and something I can only describe as wind-tunnel noise, but yeah, that’s definitely a rock beat

Disc 3 “RBA 2A” Oh, hey, big band! And I think it’s winning!

Disc 4 “RBA/Capsule Cologne Maxell”. This is the one my wife called “broken refrigerator music”, because she actually thought something was wrong with our fridge when I turned it on.

Disc 4 has lots of rattling and scraping.

I know I’m listening to Merzbow and all, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m pretty sure Disc 4 is actually giving me a headache. Read the rest of this entry ?

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The First (and Last) Unlimited Lives Relationship Advice Column

September 17, 2010

“Forget it. I’ll just sell it. All of it. The Xbox, the PlayStation, the Super Nintendo, all of it. This stuff…it’s not worth keeping. We could use the money anyway.”

She never lets me. She knows better. I’d be a miserable bastard without my toys.

* * *

When you start a movie, you can be fairly confident that in two or three hours you will be finished with that movie. If it strikes a chord, perhaps it will resonate with you for far longer than the two or three hours of its runtime, but in terms of actual, active involvement with that movie, there is a predetermined endpoint. That endpoint is even more defined for television — not only is much television easily digested as a passive experience during which you can, say, clean the house or wash the dishes, but the chunks are even more bite-size. Half an hour to an hour, and it’s on to the next thing. Reading a book requires a commitment and an investment in the content of the book, but it can be done discreetly. You can read a book in the dark of night when everyone’s asleep, or in a room where a conversation is being held; you can even enter the conversation if your subconscious picks up on something that piques your interest. You are occupied, but you are present.

Gaming, well, it’s far less forgiving.

Gaming requires the time commitment of a book, but an attention commitment far beyond that of any other form of media. A split-second break in concentration often means instant death in a single-player game, while the “pause” button has been rendered all but obsolete in the age of online multiplayer. When you sit down with a triple-A box-release video game in 2010, you are making an announcement: “This is what I’m doing for the foreseeable future. Don’t even try to talk to me, it’ll just frustrate you. Don’t ask me to do anything — I’m busy. Head to bed if I’m not done by the time you get tired. I’ll get there eventually.”

Obviously, this is sometimes a problem.

* * *

Contrary to what our parents told us, the games haven’t become any less fun as we’ve gotten older. Part of this is the maturation of the medium, and part of this is a growing tide of acceptance of indulgence in things widely considered “childish”. With the increasing age of gamers comes what looks like a new problem: maintaining a relationship with (or as) someone involved in this particular hobby.

A quick web search offers all kinds of advice. Some of it is addressed to the gamer, though catering to a G4 demographic results in articles that are mostly misguided and borderline manipulative, while others are downright insulting. Much more seems to be addressed to those coping with being in a relationship with a gamer, often phrased in wit’s-end forum posts or accept it for what it is or leave “self-help” articles that can be even more insulting than the “how to be a gamer and get girls” articles. Type “husband addicted to video games” into Google (without the quotes) and see what happens.

The internet traffics in easy answers, which relationship questions don’t often lend themselves to. Every relationship is different; every couple must either find a balance or admit that one doesn’t exist and move on. Where that balance lies is something no internet advice column is going to be able to determine, no matter how well-intentioned or perfectly reasoned.

* * *

My wife is a saint. This is how we survive.

She knows when my perspective is skewed, when my priorities are turning away from the family and toward my obligations with the machines under the television in the living room. She rips me back into reality when I’m lamenting the juvenile nature of my hobby, encouraging me in the times when I forget that what I find in games is very much adult, and just as valid as the appreciation of any other art form. She has patience for the fact that people whom I have never met in person know exactly when I’m playing my Xbox, and also know how to get in touch with me when they see me doing just that.

I was a gamer before we were married, but not like this. I didn’t even own anything other than a PC when we met. We bought a PS2 together for the sake of having a DVD player in the house. She would laugh at the ridiculous plot of Metal Gear Solid 2; she would happy-dance as she handily beat me at Bust a Move. Music was my media of choice then; gaming was a pleasant footnote in our relationship.

She also knows that I’m a transitional obsessive. I obsess over a hobby until I find something new to obsess over. Right now, I’m obsessing over video games. Sometimes I wonder if she hopes I’ll move on to the next obsession sooner than later…and honestly, I probably will. Most times, though, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t care.

She loves me no matter the obsession of the day.

* * *

There is no secret to maintaining a relationship with, or as, a gamer. It’s simply a matter of maintaining a relationship. Open communication. Understood priorities. Mutual agreement. Compromise. You know, the same clichés that you’ll see in a relationship advice column that has nothing to do with video games.

Maybe the secret is simply this: stop trying to relate to/as a gamer; try and relate to/as a human being instead.

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Finishing: Intro

August 18, 2010

I finish a fair number of games. As someone who reviews them — not for a living, mind you, but as a hobby — there’s something of a responsibility that comes with picking up a game that I’m going to be writing about. I should put in some requisite number of hours, and if I don’t finish the game, I darn well better have put in enough time to have a pretty clear idea of what it’s all about. So yes, I finish them, and I finish plenty.

What I don’t do is finish them for fun. Especially the big ones.

I’ll be honest, I can’t remember the last time I’ve taken on a game that carries with it a long-term time commitment and just put in the hours necessary to beat it, not because I felt like I should, but just because I wanted to. Any time someone asks me what my favorite genre of game is, I’ll say…well, I’ll say shmups (and I have theories as to the reason for that that I’ll go into another time), but running a close second is RPGs. Which is stupid, because I can’t remember the last time I picked up an RPG — even one that I’m supposed to be reviewing — and just straight-up finished it. Well, maybe Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers, but that little 10-hour adventure-RPG thing barely counts.

Most of the reasons for this are listed in this site’s previous post, which could be summarized as “life happens”. Inevitably, things get busy, I put game X down for a while, and Lord knows it’s tough to pick up an RPG that’s been lying dormant for two weeks when there’s, say, a new Halo sitting unopened on the kitchen counter. This is where I fight the urge. This is where I will myself to pull in enough experience to be something like an authority in a genre I purport to love.

Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to pick up a game, and I’m going to document the playthrough in a series on this site. It will be called “Finishing”, and it will be a running log of my attempts to finally keep some of the long-term commitments I try to make when I pick up these games.

Game #1: Chrono Trigger DS. Stay tuned.

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Perspective

July 22, 2010

A job worth doing is one worth doing well. Otherwise, you might as well find something else to do.”
-Dad

What exactly am I doing here? Why am I spending what little free time I have on a blog about video games that nobody reads? Is it enough that I really, really like to play video games? Is stringing words together in the digital ether its own reward?

What do I have to offer that can’t already be found somewhere else?

The truth is, to this point, I haven’t really figured out what I’m doing. I sort of backed my way into a PopMatters editorship in 2006 after writing (I think) four video game reviews, and suddenly, my hobby just sort of became video games. I found in games something I hadn’t felt in a while — a sense of what it was I loved about my youth, a medium still grasping at credibility, an indie scene whose do-it-yourselfers were necessarily brilliant. Since then I’ve written a pretty sizable pile of reviews, helped establish the PopMatters gaming blog, freelanced for a newspaper, and traded the editorship for this blog.

Sometimes, it feels like I’ve gone backwards; if nothing else, my platform has disappeared, and nobody’s going to read my stuff just because they’re “clicking around”. What I’ve created for myself is a place where I’m only going to draw a reader if that reader has a specific reason to come here. If I didn’t care about readers, this wouldn’t be an issue, but I do — I’m not simply trying to express thoughts that I can’t contain, I want to be part of the conversation.


Here’s what I’ve come up with: I’m a 30-year-old man with a wife, three incredible kids, and a solid full-time job. This is not peripheral information; rather, this is the hook.

I am casual with a hardcore mentality — I prefer a challenge, but don’t necessarily have time for it.

I am hypersensitive to the gaming experiences of my children.

I rarely finish the games that I’m not reviewing, because I just don’t have the time.

If I’m playing, chances are I’m sacrificing time during which I could (or should) be sleeping.

Why do I think any of this matters? Because I know I’m not the only one. Those of us weaned on the Atari 2600 and the NES are now functioning adults with jobs and kids and 401ks. Many of us with a horse in the Genesis-SNES race are now fully acquainted with the corporate ladder. We own property. We have life insurance.

I’m very much aware that there are sites already dealing in this perspective, well-established and well-written sites like What They Play and GamerDad. Still, I think I can offer something different, something not quite so centered on the monitoring of what the children are playing. This is about what a gamer can do with a limited window of time for his hobby, this is about how his own experiences leak down to those of his children, this is about what one can see with the benefit of hindsight.

Obviously, it’s still coming together. If nothing else, though, it’s time to find perspective — or, at least, a perspective.

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Two Things I Want to Share

April 14, 2010

Real life trumped blogging quite a bit over the last few weeks – buying a car, traveling from Buffalo to Boston, and finding oneself with a busted laptop power supply will do that. But enough about me – what better way to get back into the swing than with a small dose of random silliness?

Thing #1 is for Simon Ferrari and Nick LaLone, who made me laugh this morning. Yes, the motivational poster thing is overdone, but somehow it seemed appropriate for the unfortunate repeated piece of dialogue that’s going down in history as Final Fantasy XIII‘s most famous:

or: MOMS ARE TOUGH: But apparently not bulletproof

Thing #2 is another thing about Atlus that makes me smile: They sent swag with a copy of Trauma Team. Here it is:

There are actual band-aids in the bottom compartment, too!

Yep, that’s a Trauma Team pill organizer. It had M&Ms in it. Obviously, Atlus has me figured out.

So that’s it for today. More substantial bloggity-blog to come.