Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mis juegos favoritos de 2008!

Greetings from Tijuana, Mexico, where the thing to do on a Saturday night is stay in your room writing entries in your blog! This is not a list in which I'm arguing that these are the very best games of the year. There were too many games I didn't get to play for me to make those kinds of arguments (I've barely scratched the surface in Fallout 3--PUN INTENDED!) and anyway I'm not interested in making them. This is a quick and dirty, off-the-top-of-my-head celebration of the games I personally enjoyed the most.

For me, the area where games saw the most dramatic advancement in 2008 was narrative. My two favorite games each, in their own way, set a new standard for the kinds of stories games can tell, and how those stories can be told, while also delivering outstanding gameplay.

My favorite game of the year is Grand Theft Auto IV. Games have faced me with choices before, but never have the choices been so difficult, troubling and impactful as they are in Rockstar's masterpiece. In its stylized, thrillingly alive depiction of contemporary New York City, complex protagonist Niko Bellic's journey is not just a shootout-filled crime epic, though it certainly is that. It's also a story about class, culture, loss, revenge, forgiveness, and that most elusive of all concepts: the American dream. I'm not saying this game is The Wire. I am saying it cuts deeper and truer than any other game into the America we live in now, and I was mesmerized from start to finish by nearly every aspect of the game, and how they all came together to create an experience that was as thought-provoking and emotionally affecting as it was viscerally thrilling.

In my number two spot is a game that tells an altogether different kind of story. While one could imagine the tale of GTA IV working as a novel or film--albeit without those difficult, all-important choices, the Metal Gear Solid games, and MGS4 in particular, are uniquely gamey in the tales they tell and the techniques they employ to tell them. MGS 4 is such a monumental success, such a powerhouse conclusion to this series that for me it redeems even the weakest moments of the previous MGS games. MGS 4 is somewhat accessible to even first-time players of the series, but it really shines as a tremendous piece of fan service for those who have been fascinated with every aspect of Solid Snake's long, labyrinthine odyssey. My favorite example of both the gamey storytelling and the deeply interwoven fan service are the X-button flashbacks that frequently pop up during the game's cutscenes. I was frequently surprised and even oddly moved by the connections that were woven throughout this game to past games in the series in the form of brief visual and aural flashbacks. It gave the storytelling a rather stream-of-consciousness feel, as if we were inside Snake's mind, remembering aspects of the past along with him as his journey draws toward what he knows, as his body starts to give out on him, are his final days. Of course, all of this virtuosic storytelling would be for naught if the gameplay wasn't any good, but it is absolutely excellent. Unforgettable setpieces abound, and the final brutal fistfight is a near-perfect sendoff of one of the greatest heroes and one of the greatest villains in video game history, that brilliantly evokes all of the games in this landmark series.

Of course, games are still, first and foremost, about the gameplay, and one of my favorite games of the year has no narrative at all to speak of, save what my imagination conjures up. Rock Band 2 is an endlessly exhilarating fantasy fulfillment machine. I understand that it's not a huge advancement over its predecessor, but the whole Rock Band experience was new to me the day I brought home my RB2 bundle. I've already spent many hours getting lost in the music while playing drums for The Intellivisions, and I hope to spend many more. The people behind this game really understand the culture of rock, and everything about it feels right, from the ambiance of the gigs to the iconic images on loading screens of your band, and your band's name on lunchboxes, bumper stickers and the like.

And then there's the chilling Dead Space, which builds on the framework of Resident Evil 4 by adding some uniquely sci-fi elements like vacuums and zero-g environments, and takes place on a ship so richly detailed and haunting, it feels like you've stepped into a really, really good Ridley Scott movie.

I also want to give special recognition to Fable II. It's a thoroughly enjoyable game whose storybook vibe is very charming, and whose various elements--questing, developing your character's combat and magic attributes, shaping your character's moral role in the world, and buying and selling property, come together to make for a surprisingly compelling, addictive experience. On a personal note, I also love the tacit implication in the game that gay people should be treated as equals in society and granted the same freedom to express their commitment to each other with a bond of marriage that straight people enjoy. Ah, what a ridiculous fantasy world Albion is.

My odd game out for the year is Little Big Planet, which I found absolutely enchanting in the days after its release and would not have hesitated to place on this list. Many user-created levels knocked my socks off with their beauty and inventiveness. Then things got unpleasant as many of the very best levels were nuked by Sony, in many cases for no clear reason. This left a pretty nasty taste in my mouth about the whole experience. I've heard that things have improved since then, but I haven't yet found the time to hop back into my pod and see what's new in the LBP.

I'm giving honorable mention to No More Heroes, Suda51's exhilaratingly original, audacious Wii action game. Fascinating characters, stylish lo-fi graphics, a dizzying story, excellent use of the Wii remote, and tons of fun, ludicrously bloody action. Brilliant.

And Gears of War 2 also deserves recognition. As dumb as Cliff Bleszinski's "Bigger, better and more bad-ass" phrase sounds, it's nonetheless accurate. Gears of War 2 improves upon its predecessor in just about every way, featuring action on a larger scale and a story that's nice and ignorable rather than one whose in-your-face stupidity actually hurts the experience of playing the game. Heck, there was even a cutscene in this game I found rather moving. With a slew of terrific cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes, Gears 2 is an outstanding package.

This was also an amazing year for downloadable games, both in terms of remakes of classics and original titles. My favorite update is Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix, which improves the visuals of the 14-year-old classic so that they look spectacular in high definition, and polishes up the gameplay, but also demonstrates just how well the fundamental game still holds up.

My favorite original downloadable game, and one of my favorite games of the year in any category, is Braid. It's a brilliant, beautiful puzzler that's not quite like anything I've played before. It's challenging but consistently, unfailingly logical, and each time I thought I might have to break down and look at a FAQ, I instead put the game aside for a day, and when I returned to it, looking at the situation with fresh eyes, the solution was immediately apparent. To bring us full circle, it's also one of the most challenging and rewarding narratives I've encountered in a game, dealing with regrets on both a personal and historic scale, with a jaw-dropping climax that gave me goosebumps and left me feeling utterly amazed.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

In space, no one can hear you say, "Hot diggity, this game is awesome!"

I'm positively overwhelmed by great games at the moment, some purchased, some GameFlown. I still need to spend a lot more time with Little Big Planet, and I've barely scratched the surface of Fallout 3. Tonight, I spent some time fending off waves of Locust with friends in Gears of War 2's terrific Horde mode, but the campaign remains mostly untouched.

The game that keeps pulling me away from all the others is Dead Space. I know this is common knowledge, but man, is this game outstanding. It doesn't reinvent the survival horror genre--you can feel the influence of Resident Evil 4 throughout--but it provides an absolutely remarkable setting and tosses in enough pure sci-fi elements to set it squarely apart from RE4 or any other game. Fighting enemies in zero-gravity environments is deliciously disorienting, and the way the sound effects contribute to the experience of running through a vacuum as your oxygen rapidly depletes has to be heard to be appreciated. Putting enemies in stasis and then blasting their appendages off and seeing them slowly twist through the air is strangely beautiful.

In fact, nearly everything about the game is strangely beautiful. The Ishimura actually feels like a once-functional spaceship, and the level of detail makes me feel like I've stepped into a Ridley Scott movie. The sound design equals the visuals in every way, with the ship clanging convincingly and the eerie echo of once-important PA announcements haunting the halls. And although the story seems like pure Event Horizon stuff, it's still told in a way that has me wanting to find out how it's all going to end, with the slick, insane Dr. Mercer giving the gruesome evil a compelling human face, and enough eerie hallucinations to give the game's horror a psychological edge.

Most of all, the game's action is what has me so hooked right now. It's difficult and satisfying, it's constantly introducing new enemies and new elements, and it always has me feeling like I'm fighting for my life.

This is one of my favorite games of the year.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A step forward, a step back

I was an ardent supporter of President Obama's campaign, not because he was black, not even a little bit, but because I strongly believe that his ideas about how to run this country are exactly what we need right now. Yet that historic aspect of his victory cannot be ignored, and it is cause for celebration, an inspiring sign of how far we as a nation of come since Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech some 45 years ago. But as I watched the reactions to this monumental moment in our history on television with friends, many politicians and pundits echoed the same sentiment: Now, when a parent tells their child, "Someday, you can grow up to be president of this great nation, that is indeed the truth regardless of who they are." And that is not yet the case.

In his moving endorsement of Barack Obama, Colin Powell said the following:

I'm also troubled by. . .what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, "He's a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists." This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

Powell is absolutely right. The America I love is not the one represented by those who object to the notion of a Muslim president. But we are not yet at the point where a Muslim or a Hindu, an agnostic or an atheist, a gay man or a lesbian could be president of this nation. True equality is still a long, long way off.

Never have I felt joy so commingled with grief as I did last night, for even as my bus ride home took me through throngs of people cheering in the streets, celebrating this hopeful new day in America, Proposition 8 here in California, and similar measures in other states, painfully reminded me that we as a society still have so far to go.

In some states, bans on gay marriage passed in yesterday's election. Here in California, a particularly hateful proposition, propelled by a campaign that used shameful scare tactics, passed which will amend the constitution of our state to strip the right to marry away from gay couples who have already enjoyed it, making their unions invalid and unrecognized. The L.A. Times endorsement of a no vote explains just how misleading and downright false the campaign used to support this proposition was, and how unnecessary and backwards the amendment will be, far better than I ever could.

This is not a religious issue. This is a civil rights issue. No religious institution would be forced to perform or recognize gay marriages. Marriage is a social institution, not exclusively a religious one. Will we pass a law preventing atheist heterosexual couples from going to the courthouse and getting married?

Supporters of this proposition appealed to peoples' fears about their children growing up in a world where gay marriage is accepted. What's to be scared of, unless you hold on to this archaic, absurd notion that homosexuality is a "lifestyle choice"? Because, right, the social alienation that goes with being gay is so tempting that lots of people are making that choice, and many straight people--who, of course, chose at some point in their lives to be straight, because it is a choice after all--struggle with the urge to give in to being gay constantly, because being gay just looks like such a good option. No. Ridiculous. I am not gay but I am transgendered, and I can no more change that about myself than I can change the color of my eyes. And believe me, I spent many long, hard, painful years trying. For our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, this is part of who they are, and it should be celebrated as just another weave in the beautiful fabric of human diversity. Instead, we continue to discriminate against them, to put them on a lower platform in our society. This is every bit as hateful as denying someone a right because of the color of their skin, and those who supported Proposition 8 ought to be deeply ashamed of themselves. Your children are not going to be more likely to "turn gay" if they grow up in a world where gay marriage is accepted. Believe me, your children will be straight or gay because they are straight or gay. Giving them a world that is more accepting of this diversity would be a gift.

But even as I grieve for this setback, I know that it is temporary, and the efforts to impede progress will inevitably prove futile. With each passing generation, more and more of our young people grow up understanding that homosexuality is nothing to revile or fear. They grow up, not with the grating, reluctant tolerance expressed by Sarah Palin in her debate with Joe Biden, but a full-hearted acceptance of their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as their equals in every aspect, deserving of all the same rights. That we will get to the point where gay marriage is allowed, where future generations will look back on this decision with all the disbelief and disappointment in us that I felt as a child looking back on the idea that at one point certain citizens had been forced to sit in the back of the bus, I have no doubt whatsoever. This is the slow but sure path of progress that has characterized the history of this great nation.

I was so happy to be alive to see this great moment in America's history. God willing, I will live to see that one as well.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Niko and Caro, American Dreamers

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the plot of Grand Theft Auto IV.

It's been ten years now since I graduated from college, and that fact put me in a bit of a reflective mood for much of the past few weeks. Thinking of what I've done with the past ten years, and where I hope to be when another ten years have gone by.

When I graduated, in May of 1998, the future was anything but certain. I mean, a degree in theater from a small liberal arts college is not exactly a license to print money, and at that point, I still didn't really know what I wanted to do professionally. But I had a dream for my life. Not a big dream at all, really. It's quite simple, but it's mine. Maybe it's yours, too.

It's a dream that was expressed pretty well in this exchange on Showtime's entertaining Dexter:

Dexter: Do you have a dream for your life? Your future? Yes?
Rita: Of course. Do you?
Dexter: It might sound weird. I want to someday be content. Just feel comfortable, like everyone else. I want...
Rita: ...a normal life?
Dexter: Yeah, a normal life.
Rita: That's all I want. Just that.

Dexter, in case you don't know, is a sympathetic character who kills people, and he has the same dream for his life that I have for mine. That seems appropriate here, as I've been spending a lot of time lately with another sympathetic character who kills people: Niko Bellic, the protagonist of Rockstar's truly superb Grand Theft Auto IV.

Yes, as I was playing GTA IV, I was also thinking a good deal about my life, and my dreams for my life. My life since college has had its ups and downs. After graduating, I fell into teaching. That was a job that I think I knew immediately, as a transgendered person, I wasn't going to stay in, because it was neither safe nor, some might argue, appropriate, for me to attempt to transition while teaching high school students. Some people may have been brave enough to attempt that path. I am not one of them. And I suspect that, even were it not for my gender issues, I would have wanted to seek out other professional experiences. Teaching is simply not my calling. Since then, I've worked in coffee shops and customer service call centers, trying to inch my way closer to my dream, and also to work towards getting a job doing something that I'll find truly satisfying.

Niko Bellic comes to Liberty City with dreams of his own, dreams that have been fueled by letters from his cousin Roman, who wrote of living a life filled with cars, women and money in the land of opportunity. When Niko arrives, he finds that Roman has overstated his success just a tad, and that in fact Roman is deeply in debt, and in trouble with just the sort of unsavory characters Niko came to Liberty City hoping to get away from. What's Niko gonna do when he arrives in LC and needs to make some money, get a job at the local Bean Machine? No, that's what suckers like me do. Niko is not the latte-slingin' type. He's been through a little too much. He's a little too broken. Early on, a character named Dimitri Rascalov (Niko should have known better than to ever trust someone with that name) says to Niko, "We can choose the game, Niko Bellic, but we cannot choose the rules of the game." Niko has, for better or worse, chosen his game.

It's not unusual for a good film or book or television show to make me think about my own life in some way, or about the world around me, but a video game? That's pretty much unheard of. GTA IV, though, did just that. I'm not saying that the characters could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those on The Wire, but I am saying that while The Wire is, in my opinion, the best television show in recent years about the America we're living in today, GTA IV is the best videogame ever about the America we're living in today, and that, like all truly good crime fiction, it is not the immoral or amoral product so many right-wing crusaders would have you believe it is, but it is, in fact, deeply moral, a story of choices and consequences.

There's a moment near the end of GTA IV where I really believed that Niko might end up with a simple, honest life, that he might fly off into the sunset, heading for the American Midwest with a nice woman at his side, leaving the crime network of Liberty City that he's fallen into behind. Of course, I realize that I was naive to think this, but it's just that I'd come to feel really attached to Niko as a character, and that I really wanted it for him, wanted him to have his own little American dream, and when it was all taken away from him in an instant, it was genuinely upsetting. Money is the closest thing you have in Grand Theft Auto to a score, and by the end I'd racked up well over a half million dollars, but as another character declared, "You won!", it all felt so hollow to me, and, I suspect, to Niko as well. Yes, Niko wound up with tons of money, and had established for himself a seemingly pretty safe and secure place in Liberty City's underworld, but at what cost?

It would take forever for me to list all the reasons I love this game so much. I love the razor-sharp satire of things like the Republican Space Rangers cartoon, Weazel News and the Bastion's Buddies right-wing radio talk show. I love the huge, diverse, vibrant soundtrack, filled as it is with wonderful details like jazz great Roy Haynes DJing the jazz station and sharing poignant, heartfelt anecdotes about the musicians he's featuring, but, in a nice touch, referring to events as taking place "here in Liberty City" instead of New York. I love the exhilarating beauty of unplannable moments like finding yourself flying over the city by helicopter on a rainy night as Pruit Igoe by Philip Glass swells up on the radio. I love the living, breathing city, where people walk down the street talking on their cellphones, or wash shop windows, or do tai chi in the park. But most of all, I love the characters who populate it, and the story it tells. When Niko finally comes face-to-face with the man who betrayed him so many years ago, a moment he has built up in his mind, been obsessed with, for years, he finds that the man is an utterly pathetic figure. This is one of the moments where the game gives the player a crucial choice. You can kill him, as Niko has intended to do for so long, or you can walk away. GTA IV certainly isn't the first game to offer choices of this kind, but it sure does it better than any game before in my opinion. Your choices in games are frequently between the most saintly of goodness and the most diabolical of evil, and so they never feel quite real to me. I'll do one to see what happens, then play again to make the other choice, but I never feel any real investment in it. It's just a game, after all. But so well-drawn are the characters in GTA IV, and Niko in particular, that I really felt personally invested in these choices. In this case, I chose to walk away. In the moments that followed, on a quiet car drive back home, Roman said some things to Niko about forgiveness, about letting go of the past. Things that were simple and true. That was beautiful. And while Niko's victory against the predatory forces of the underworld may seem hollow, there are other victories, smaller but more meaningful. Niko meets a young woman who had, like so many, come to Liberty City from the Midwest with big dreams of making it as a star, but had fallen into drug addiction and prostitution. Niko helped her get on a train back home to her parents, and she sent a nice email to thank him and let him know she was doing all right. That meant something.

Of course, like so many, I'm already wondering what's next for Grand Theft Auto. How do you follow this game? Will Rockstar continue along this more serious, contemplative path for the next few games in the series, or will we see things veer back towards the more cartoonish violence of earlier games? Will we return to the neon-drenched streets of Vice City, or visit someplace entirely new? And, I can't help but wonder, when the next game rolls around, will I be any closer to my own little dream? In any case, I won't stop trying, and that's what matters. I'll just keep on cranking up the LCD Soundsystem and walking through this world like the badass superstar I am.

Berkeley Coffee Voodoo Magick!

I currently work at a coffee shop in historic downtown Berkeley, California. Our clientele always features a significant number of crazy people, homeless people, and crazy homeless people. We had a few remarkably hot days last week. This heat only made things much, much crazier.

At one point, after a particularly lengthy, stressful, exhausting rush, a customer, who was clearly gifted with some sort of cosmic ability to peer deep into my soul because somehow she could tell that I was a bit stressed and a bit exhausted, looked deep into my eyes and said, "There is so much trouble there." She then took a few ice cubes from out of the iced tea I had just handed her, grabbed my hand, and squeezed tightly. Her face contorted in a look of powerful concentration as she bent her will on purging this trouble from my soul. She began to shake as she fought an epic battle with the demons of stress and exhaustion that were inhabiting me, as I stood there wondering if I was supposed to be shaking too, or if she was doing all the work and I was supposed to appear increasingly serene. Finally I settled for focusing my effort on just trying not to look like I thought she was crazy.

When it was over, I made a half-hearted attempt to appear grateful for her efforts and to indicate that I was feeling better. A few minutes later, I realized that I actually was feeling better. The sheer unusualness of the experience, and her desire to help, oddly expressed as it was, had helped me relax and laugh a bit and forget the stress brought on by the mobs of irritable high school kids demanding free cups of ice water.

I love Berkeley.

Monday, April 28, 2008


In Rockstar Games' hugely anticipated release Grand Theft Auto IV, which comes out tomorrow, the Statue of Liberty has been rechristened the Statue of Happiness, and she holds aloft not a torch, but a cup of coffee. "Give me your tired," indeed.

I think this is a brilliant little detail. I've spent my fair share of time working in coffee shops, and I'm of the opinion that while many people come in because they genuinely appreciate coffee as coffee, plenty of others have made Starbucks and other coffee shops part of their daily routine not because of any particular appreciation of espresso, but because the act of drinking a grande vanilla soy latte or a caramel Frappuccino each morning is a way of saying to others and to themselves, "Yes, I am someone in our consumer society! Behold, I can afford to spend four dollars each day on a cup of coffee! And with every precious sip, I keep the voices of doubt at bay, and restore meaning and value to my life! Doesn't this branded coffee cup in my hand go great with my iPod and my RAZR?" Meanwhile, despite the tremendous success and proliferation of such shops, the people who work them can often barely afford to shop them. From Naomi Klein's blistering 2000 book No Logo:

"They expect us to look like a Gap ad, professional, clean and neat all the time, and I can't even pay to do laundry," says Laurie Bonang of Starbucks. "You can buy two grande mocha cappuccinos with my hourly salary." Like millions of her demographic coevals on the payrolls of all-star brands like the Gap, Nike and Barnes & Noble, Bonang is living inside a stunning corporate success story -- though you'd never know it from the resignation and anger in her voice. All the brand-name retail workers I spoke with expressed their frustration at helping their stores rake in, to them, unimaginable profits, and then having to watch that profit get funneled into compulsive expansion. Employee wages, meanwhile, stagnate or even decline. At Starbucks in British Columbia new workers faced an actual wage decrease -- from Can$7.50 to $7 an hour -- during a period when the chain was doubling its profits and opening 350 new stores a year. "I do the banking. I know how much the store pulls in a week," Laurie Bonang says. "They just take all that revenue and open up new stores."

Anyway, enough quoting of left-wing text on my part. I just want to say that to me, in addition to everything else that they were, the earlier GTA games were also truly incisive satire of American culture, and that I'm really looking forward, not only to wreaking havoc in Liberty City and getting into plenty of shootouts and high-speed car chases (though I am most definitely looking forward to that stuff -- A LOT!), but also to discovering the game's humor, to cruising around and listening to, sorry, Weazel News, and to seeing what GTA IV has to say about the America we're living in now.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Get a haircut and get a real job.

Yesterday, I had my hair cut for the first time in years. I liked having it long, and I was scared to trust it to anyone new, but I was also starting to feel like maybe my hair was a factor in me not getting the jobs I was interviewing for--maybe potential employers were inferring that I was one of those pot-smoking ne'er-do-wells or something.

Naturally, after deciding to get it cut, rather than doing research and making an informed decision about where to go, I decided to just go any old place, so long as it didn't look too expensive. I walked to a shop that obviously caters to the Spanish-speaking population in my area.

At one point the woman who was about to cut my hair asked me, "Do you want letters?" "What?!" I said. "Small letters in your hair?" I was just about to run screaming, but then I decided she was actually saying "lattice." This, I understood perfectly. "Uhm." I said. "A little?"

I didn't really know exactly what I wanted, except for it to be shorter, and I probably wouldn't have been able to communicate what I wanted to her that well regardless, so I sort of just let her do her thing. I thought about telling her not to do anything too "boyish" with it, but I was, as usual, too much of a wuss to try to communicate this sentiment.

It's a pretty drastic change and is shorter than I went in wanting. My first horrifying thought was that it looks sort of like a Sawyer-on-Lost haircut (:why:!!!) but it's not that bad, nor quite so boyish. Now that I've had a bit of time to adjust, I kind of like it, and anyway, it'll grow out again.

Today, I had a job interview. It's hard for me to say how it went. I felt a bit iffy when I walked out, like I stumbled over a few of my answers, and didn't give the best responses to those kinds of dumb, generic job interview questions like "What's the one quality that's most important to you in a co-worker?" ("Ummm...hardworking? Hardworking is good, right? Yeah, I'm gonna have to go with hardworking on this one. Next question!") But I've learned that how I feel about something isn't necessarily the best gauge of how it went. This dates back to college, when frequently the papers I felt the least confident about would be the ones on which I got the highest marks. In this case, who knows? Things I make a big deal of in my head may not have been a big deal to them. On the whole, I think it went fine. Now it's just a matter of waiting to hear back from them. I'm also sending a thank-you letter in the mail tomorrow, since that seems to be customary these days if you want a job.

Wish me luck!

Monday, April 21, 2008

"Watch this"

I was walking to work the other day. It was a truly glorious spring morning. Obama signs abound on the lawns and in the windows of many a house along my way, but one in particular caught my eye, homemade, with rays of sunlight emanating from the O. It seemed a genuine sign of hope. And right around that moment, "Brothers in Arms" by Dire Straits got shuffled up on my iPod. That's not a song I ever thought was especially great, until I saw the finale of season two of The West Wing. And now, every time I hear it, I see that scene again in my mind. A storm is raging against the president in both a literal and figurative sense. A question is asked. Jed Bartlet, great showman that he is, lets it hang in the air for a moment. The flashbulbs crackle, the air is electric, and Leo says "Watch this," and the president's hands go into his pockets, and he fixes his gaze, and I get chills. It's almost enough to make me proud to be an American.

Barack Obama, like Jed Bartlet, understands that a large part of politics is theater, and that's just fine with me.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

World War II, now in convenient beverage form!

Sure, World War II may be played out as a setting for video games, but what about as a setting for...that's drinks! I was perusing the aisles at my local Grocery Outlet here in Berkeley when I found all three varieties of ACE Energy Drink available for just $.50 a can, so naturally I grabbed one of each.

The cans have a pin-up girl/bullet-riddled airplane motif that's actually kinda cool. They also helpfully remind us, "It's a dog fight out there! To win, you need to stay sharp. Crack open an ACE Energy for an immediate physical and mental lift. Ace will get you flying high and keep you in control. THROW DOWN AN ACE!"

The drink's official website says, "The can design strongly communicates the brand’s core values. ACE Energy’s bullet riddled cockpit with alluring imagery directly connects with the danger, excitement and honor of military fascination." Why yes, it is a tremendous honor to be fascinated by the military. It's also extremely dangerous.

If ACE Energy is any indication, WWII tasted like somewhat flat orange soda cut with cough syrup, and noticeably hit you with its jolt of caffeine and taurine and stuff within just a few moments of your first sip.

Yeah, I think five sips of ACE is about enough for me. I'm gonna switch to the Thomas Kemper Vanilla Cream Soda which I also scored at the Grocery Outlet. That's delicious, and it doesn't carry with it any of the dangers of military fascination.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


She started her lunch break by reading the end of a short story by Raymond Carver. She wasn't a big fan of short stories, but she liked finishing things, and she could finish a few of these a day, even during her broken up workday.

After she finished the story, there was nothing to take up the space in her head, so it went where it often went during lunch breaks, to that point in the very near future when the break would be over. She could see it in her mind. It was like a photograph of herself back behind the counter, and it started out so small it was almost invisible, like a fixed point of light in the center of a tremendous movie screen, but it was flying towards her, getting bigger and bigger until it would swallow her up. She shook her head and decided to do something instead of sitting there thinking about this. Acting was usually better than thinking, she believed. Maybe she should eat something. She considered for a moment buying a sandwich. Then her mind calculated roughly what percentage of one hour of work that sandwich would represent, and the number was like a little weight inside her. She sighed. Then she wondered what percentage of people who came into her shop ever thought about what percentage of an hour they were eating and drinking up on the things they bought. Then she thought that this thought was a clear sign that she was at least a little bit crazy. She knew that some people said that if you think you're crazy, you're not crazy, because crazy people never think they're crazy. She thought that was a bunch of crap.

It was only a few hours until her shift was over. She decided she could wait to eat, and that she would go over to the drugstore across the street and maybe buy some things to use for making a sandwich when she got home.

It was hot outside. She saw a young woman with pigtails walking down the street strumming a guitar. The woman wasn't doing it for money. She didn't look angry or lost. She looked well-loved. She was, it seemed, just walking down the street and strumming the guitar because she wanted to. Seeing this woman made her glad. Of course, she knew she could be wrong about the woman. But she felt she had a good sense about these things. It was strange to her that even though people mystified her in the easy way they spoke to each other, she still felt she had a good sense of the inherent goodness of some people. But that was the way it was. And she figured that maybe someday, if she felt more like herself, she might understand how people spoke to each other, too, that everything there might fall into place and it would all be easy. Then she thought that might be too much to hope for, that maybe it was a little hard for everyone from time to time, but maybe it would be a bit easier, anyway.

In the drugstore, she walked to where they kept things you might use with sandwiches. There were two young men standing nearby. They looked to her like they might be students at the university.

"Well," one of them said, "I mean, she feels pretty strongly about her feelings, you know?"

"That's the point, though," said the other. "I sort of attacked her to upset her," he said. "That was kind of the point."

"But you don't really know her very well," said the other. "You haven't really earned the right to attack her like that yet, you know?"

There was nothing here that she had any desire to put on a sandwich. She sighed and walked out.

As she walked back up the street to her shop, she glanced at the image in her mind to see that it was now almost at the size where it was going to swallow her up. She came to the door of her shop. She knew she really should go in.

She grabbed her ponytail and pulled it over her eyes, but she couldn't block out the sun.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

My Aunt Ikaruga Is In Town

According to the Wikipedia, "Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." It's an elusive feeling for me. I'd say that, in some of my better theatrical performances in college, the ones where everything just sort of fell into place, I experienced it. And there are times when I experience it playing certain video games. Sometimes it can happen when I'm writing, and almost invariably the things I write the most effortlessly are also the things I think are the best. Also, if I get into a good rhythm at work, whether it's firing off email after email or producing latte after latte, I can hit it for a while, though it's extremely challenging to maintain your singular focus when you must look into the visages of customers and see the existential despair that people only seem to experience during those three minutes before their triple soy mocha is delivered into their hands, restoring a sense of meaning to their lives.

As I was doing just that today at work, I was thinking about Ikaruga. If you don't know what Ikaruga is, it's a vertically scrolling shooter that was first released in 2001, and was made available this past Wednesday on Xbox Live Arcade. It's a very special example of the genre. (If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend Don Pachi's lovely appreciation of the game.) What sets it apart in gameplay terms is a simple but very effective polarity mechanic. You can switch your ship's polarity at any time between black and white. While black, black bullets cannot hurt you, and while white, white bullets cannot hurt you. However, while black, you do twice as much damage to white ships, and vice-versa.

I'd never played the game before Wednesday. I have to admit, before playing it, there was this part of me that thought that maybe I'd have what it takes to be an outstanding Ikaruga player. I knew that the game had a reputation for intense difficulty, but I also knew that there are those players who excel at it. As it turns out, I am not one of them.

One of my favorite features of the XBLA release of Ikaruga is the ability to download and watch replays of high scoring performances. I always enjoy it when games include a feature like this. It was a neat addition to Gameloft's excellent XBLA remake of the 1989 classic Prince of Persia, and in that game, watching replays of great performances helped me to improve my own performance. I don't think that's going to happen with Ikaruga. But what I like so much about the replay feature is that Ikaruga is the sort of game that seems downright impossible if you're not very good at it. You'll find yourself in a situation where it might appear to you that there's no way to emerge unscathed from the hail of black and white bullets headed your way. The game might seem unfair. Well, it isn't. All you gotta do is download a replay from the leaderboards of someone totally acing that section, and you'll know it's not impossible. It's just that you suck at it. And what makes these stellar performances all the more impressive is that these players manage to rack up chain after chain of enemy kills (by destroying three white or three black enemies in a row) to earn the really big points. As if just surviving wasn't difficult enough.

Ikaruga is a beautiful game, and it's especially beautiful when it's being played well, because those performances make it look easy and graceful and natural. I could be wrong, of course, but I suspect that, for the players who can perform on that level, it actually is kind of easy. I suspect that they've gotten to the point where, when playing Ikaruga, they enter that place we call flow. And that is a beautiful thing.

Obama Commits Political Faux Pas, Says Something True

I don't blame Hillary Clinton for trying to take advantage of this opportunity to win over voters by jumping on Obama's recent remarks, but really, is there anyone out there who honestly doesn't think that some Americans are bitter in exactly the way Obama said some Americans are bitter? You're Goddamn right some Americans are bitter, and with good reason, too.

Clinton supporters are handing out "I'm Not Bitter" bumper stickers. Clinton herself is telling people what they want to hear by saying things like, "The people of faith I know don't 'cling' to religion because they're bitter. People embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich." Actually, Hillary, there are a certain number of people out there who latch on to religion because they're poor or bitter or empty inside, and you damn well know it. But it's a smart thing to say strategically, because it makes it sound as if Obama characterized all religious people as being religious for negative reasons, which of course he didn't.

Yes, this is sound political strategy. It just makes me sad that a statement reflecting an unfortunate truth of today's political climate is apparently too much for some people to handle, that Hillary Clinton, who must know in her heart of hearts that Obama was right, has more to gain by denying this truth than by acknowledging it. As David Cross once said about our current president's tendency to put things in idiotically simplistic and downright false terms, "Are we a nation of six-year-olds? Answer: yes."

(The opinions expressed here are mine alone, certainly not those of Barack Obama or any other Obama supporter, all of whom believe that all Americans are totally optimistic people who harbor no feelings of disappointment or bitterness whatsoever.)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Slam Dunk, Strindberg Style...

(...or "It's Okay, the French Dude Said")

I had a job interview one afternoon last week. The story of that job interview is probably interesting only to me, but what the hell, I'm gonna tell it anyway.

My interview was at 4:00, in San Francisco. I was working at the coffee shop until 2:00. This left me plenty of time to BART across the Bay. No problem.

At a few minutes after 2:00, literally just as I'm about to head down the stairs into the depths of the Downtown Berkeley BART station, my phone starts to vibrate. It's this dude from a staffing agency, the same dude who got me the seasonal position I had from October through January, which paid pretty well by customer service standards and which I'd hoped might become permanent, but didn't. He says he's got a perfect opportunity for me. He thinks there's basically no chance that I won't get this position. He calls it a "slam dunk." He tells me what it pays. It pays a bit more even than the last job.

Great. I'm definitely interested.

I just need you to email me your most recent resume, he says.

Sure thing, I'll do that as soon as I get home this evening.

Yeah, see, that's probably gonna be too late. I really need it immediately. They want this position filled, like, now.

I couldn't believe this was happening. Weeks go by without any significant developments in my job search and now, here I am, with two important things colliding in the same moment. What do I do? Do I go home and send off the resume for this sure thing, this slam dunk, realizing that if I do this I probably won't make the interview in San Francisco in less than two hours? Or do I pass up the slam dunk and stick to this scheduled interview, which came after a few phone interviews and some bizarre online psychological profile survey which somehow did not detect that I'm a total weirdo?

In keeping with my longtime commitment to indecisiveness, I figured I would try to do both. I hopped on the next bus home, ran the four blocks from the bus stop to my home faster than I've probably ran any distance in years, fired up my computer and emailed the resume off, darted back out the door, hustled the four blocks back to the bus stop, hopped on the next bus to the BART station, and jumped on the next train that would get me headed towards San Francisco.

Just as the train came up on the undersea tunnel, I got a call from the staffing agency dude. Bad news, he says. We were too late in getting your resume over there. They'd just filled the position.
So much for the slam dunk. And I was pretty sure I was going to be late for my interview, as well. Terrific, I'd blown this job interview for nothing.

Actually, miraculously, I walked through the door of the office at 3:58 PM. Definitely not ideal for a job interview to show up two minutes before the scheduled time, but I figured it was better than not showing up at all. I probably also looked a bit disheveled from all the running I'd been doing. Nothing I could do about that at this point.

During the interview, I felt pretty good about things. I somehow forgot about the stress and disappointment I'd been experiencing only moments before, and focused on the interview itself. I think I answered their questions well. I felt warm and sincere and genuine, and I think I did the best that I can expect myself to do in an interview, which is pretty good. I liked the people I interviewed with, and came away from the interview really feeling like I might be a good fit for the company.

On the BART ride home, suddenly all the stress and disappointment I'd somehow managed to put aside during the interview came flooding back to me. I suddenly felt caught up in the grip of tremendous despair. Everything seemed so bleak and hopeless. There was no way I was going to get this job, or any other decent job, ever again. I felt like August Strindberg. I must have been wringing my hands and sighing theatrically or something, because my despair was apparent to a guy standing next to me.

It's okay, it's okay, he said to me. I'm pretty sure he was French.

Yesterday, as I was searching for jobs online, I saw that the company I interviewed with has reposted the position. I guess I didn't get the job. They didn't even contact me to tell me I didn't get the job. That was disappointing.

But it's okay.

I have a job for the moment, one that should, at least, prevent me from starving and becoming homeless, if only barely. And I walk to and from work down gorgeous Berkeley streets on beautiful Berkeley days and it's just not possible for me to despair all the time. And I've made a bit of money selling stuff I wasn't using and don't really need on amazon, and selling one thing I didn't want to part with on craigslist, but I can do without for the moment. It's only for now.

Of course, I'll never know if it was the fact that I showed up a bit dishevelled, only two minutes before 4:00, that cost me my shot at that position. I'm sure it didn't help. But then, the fact that I was fired from a job last year probably didn't help either. It's definitely extra-challenging finding a job in the wake of being fired, trying to convince potential employers that that one failure is not the sum total of who you are, that in fact, if anything, you've learned and grown from that experience. Still, despite this challenge, most of the time I remain hopeful that, in the long run, I might end up with a permanent position that's better than the one I lost. It wasn't a job I especially liked, or that paid much at all. I was just complacent in it, is all.

I'm trying to do more networking these days. So many people I know got their jobs at least in part because they knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone. It's amazing to me how big of a thing networking is, how hugely important it can be. Networking has always been a bit difficult for me, because I'm not the most socially comfortable person in the world and because I have a hard time promoting myself and using people I genuinely like and respect to try to get a leg up. But there are opportunities out there, and I want to give myself the best chance I can of taking advantage of them.

Monday, April 07, 2008

You Have To Burn The Rope

Go play this game, now. It made my day. I think you'll love it, too.

P.S. It's Swedish.

Blogistical Stuff

Mad props to my good friend Aaron--you can follow his adventures and, most importantly, see pictures and videos of his adorable son Ezra, at Two Body Problem--for turning me on to a few nifty new doodads available to blogspot users. My new blogroll now updates when the blogs I read and recommend are updated! Neat-o! And you can now subscribe to this blog using the subscription whatchamacallit located right underneath my Xbox 360 gamercard! Enjoy!

(If you're a blogspot user who's interested in these or other Not Ready for Primetime features, check out

Sunday, April 06, 2008

It's all in the game: NHL 08 edition.

EA should replace that dude they've had aggressively declaring "It's in the game!" in their EA Sports titles for as long as I can remember with The Wire's Omar Little saying "It's all in the game," mainly because, as I mentioned on Tuesday, Omar is awesome, but also because, at least in the case of their latest NHL game, it really seems to be true. At least, I have it on good authority that it's true from a few die-hard hockey fan friends of mine. I understand that the coaching and management aspects of the game are handled really well, and add a lot to the experience for those players who are into that sort of thing. All I really know is that, when you're on the ice, the game is tremendous fun. I've liked many a hockey game over the years, but I don't think I've ever loved a hockey game as much as I love NHL 08.

I'm pretty ill-equipped to review these sorts of annually released sports games, because I'm not a big enough sports fan to know how authentically they capture the sport on which they're based, and because I don't play them each year, so I can't really tell how significant the changes to each new edition are. But who cares about those technical details, anyway? For me, games and sports are primarily about emotion. I've never liked a sport or a team enough to follow it throughout an entire, interminable regular season. But I occasionally get swept up in the intense emotions that can surround a championship series, and I was crushed when the Ducks lost game 7 in their bid for the Stanley Cup in 2003. Just as that series had me screaming at my television like a crazy person, NHL 08 has induced me to take the Lord's name in vain many, many times, not out of frustration with poor design choices or unfair AI, but simply because the game creates in me the exact same investment of emotion that the sport itself has done on occasion.

A big part of the game's success is in the "skill stick" system, which isn't new in this edition but was new to me. This control scheme has you using the right thumbstick to deke and shoot. After years of playing hockey games where shooting was done with the push of a button, it took a bit of adjustment on my part, but ultimately this came to feel far more intuitive, and although it's a relatively small change, it goes a long way in making me feel more connected to the action on the ice.

Although I've never had the attention span to follow a full season of actual hockey, I did play a full season as the Ducks, attempting to help them defend the Cup after their victory last year. Playing through the season on the Pro difficulty, I wound up as the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs, and was totally outplayed by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round. Who knows, maybe if I'd bothered with the deeper aspects of the game, the coaching and management stuff, designing plays, trading players, my team would have fared better. But although I'm really glad those aspects are there and are so well done for those players who enjoy them, I'm especially glad that the on-ice action feels so authentic, for people like me, who just want to get swept up in the emotion of that moment when you send the puck home.

NHL 08: Five/Five for fighting

I killed Charlton Heston!

When I was young, I had this idea that our internal monolgues, every thought that runs through our heads, are being printed out in heaven or the alien's command center or wherever. I envisioned this endless room full of dot-matrix printers constantly screeching away, one for every one of us, and imagined that some poor sod has to look over all this stuff. I think this notion may have been a side effect of my Catholic upbringing, something some guilt-ridden part of my psyche devised to try to scare me into only thinking pure thoughts. If so, it failed miserably.

Anyway, yesterday morning, I swear that at one point the thought ran through my head, "It's kinda weird that Charlton Heston is still alive." Then, when I got home from work late last night and glanced at Yahoo!, I found out that this was no longer the case. Whoever's in charge of these things must have seen the printout of my thought and said to himself, "Shit, I knew I was forgetting to do something!"

If I'm supposed to feel bad about this, it's not working either.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

It's all in the game.

So here I am, working at a coffee shop again for the time being. I don't mind the work. The people are cool. And this shop is in the heart of Downtown Berkeley, a colorful and fascinating neighborhood, which helps keep things interesting. Stuff is always happening. The other day, a few hundred people marched by the shop, protesting China's occupation of Tibet. That was pretty cool.

But I do mind the low rate of pay, and the low number of hours. To be honest, I'm still a little surprised that I've had as much trouble as I've had finding a job that pays at least a bit better. I've got another interview lined up this Thursday, which I really hope I get. (Agonizing pre-interview decision: Do I spend the money on getting my hair trimmed, for fear that my long hair isn't making the best impression on prospective employers?) I'd feel like a bit of a jerk, jumping ship so soon after taking this job at the coffee shop, accepting another job, but I suppose it's not as if people don't leave these jobs after a brief period all the time, and I suppose it's not as if they deserve my loyalty, considering what they're paying me. As my man Omar on The Wire is fond of saying, "It's all in the game."

"Help my union? For 25 years, we been dying slow down there. Dry docks rustin', piers standin' empty. My friends and their kids like we got the cancer. No lifeline got throwed all that time, nothin' from nobody. And now you want to help us? Help me?" -Frank Sobotka

So, yeah, The Wire. Watched the first, I dunno, six episodes way back when, thought it was boring. Then recently I decided to give it another chance. Somewhere around episode nine, something clicked. I finally acquired the taste for The Wire, I guess. And I just finished the second season, which for me was even more powerful than the first. Frank Sobotka, the union leader who gets caught up in criminal dealings and becomes the focus of the task force's investigation, is one of the more compelling criminals I've ever come across. I really feel for him. The things he does are wrong, and he makes some bad choices, but his personal reasons for doing those things are all basically good. There's been a kind of betrayal of the way of life that he and his fellow dockworkers have essentially been born into. The work dries up. The men no longer have enough money to provide for themselves and their families. And Sobotka does what he does in an attempt to help them, to provide.

It is, as many critics have said, a literary show. In terms of its pacing, its characters, the way it grapples with themes and social issues, the way it holds up a mirror to our society, it feels like a really good book, only one you watch instead of read.

I think Omar's expression resonates with me because I have a tendency to think of things, even extremely important real-life situations, as if they are games. Right now, the big game for me is the money game. Scrounging by on coffee shop pay at 20 hours a week or whatever is going to be extremely challenging, if not impossible. I've made some significant adjustments. I've cancelled my few small monthly charitable donations, to the ACLU and the HRC. I've put my Netflix account on hold, desperate as I am to see The Wire Season Three. My on-again, off-again subscription to World of Warcraft has gone off again, despite the fact that, as shows us, we can learn a lot about money from the game. (getrichslowly continues to be a source of encouragement, knowledge and inspiration. J.D. has been through some tough times, and his frankness about his mistakes and struggles, and his subsequent success feels like a source of comfort and support as I struggle with the situation I find myself in.) I'm selling off some stuff on I've even cancelled GameFly for the time being, which, for me, was the hardest decision, because of course I love playing, thinking about and writing about games, and still entertain thoughts of doing it professionally at some point. I'll be taking a break from new games for a little while, but hopefully not for too long. I don't want to miss out on Grand Theft Auto IV.

I'm really excited about this game, not just because the previous games have been astounding from a gameplay perspective, but also because I think this game has tremendous potential in terms of its story. I really think the Grand Theft Auto games have been scathing works of social satire, that they've had something meaningful to say. If The Wire holds up a mirror to our society, the Grand Theft Auto games filter our society through video games and action movies and still wind up with a significant amount of truth, and IV seems poised to follow in that tradition. The fact that the central character is an immigrant from Eastern Europe opens up all kinds of terrific possibilities. Heck, just reading this blurb from the game's information page is enough to get me excited:

What does the American dream mean today?

For Niko Bellic, fresh off the boat from Europe, it is the hope he can escape his past.

For his cousin, Roman, it is the vision that together they canfind fortune in Liberty City, gateway to the land of opportunity.

As they slip into debt and are dragged into a criminal underworld by a series of shysters, thieves and sociopaths, they discover that the reality is very different from the dream in a city that worships money and status, and is heaven for those who have them and a living nightmare for those who don't.

Mercifully, I haven't been dragged into a criminal underworld myself. Yeah, times are a bit tough. And I see myself being a bit more callous about some things. Walking to work the other day, a young woman, somewhat younger than me, asked me for money, and I'm certainly in no position to be giving anyone anything. Not that I would have given her anything anyway. But in the past, Iwould have really felt something, this sense of, I don't know, guilt or fear, this "There but for the grace of God go I" punch to the stomach. But now I just felt kind of removed about it. "Sorry," I said, and walked on without a second thought. I've hit a rough patch, and you're on the street. That's how it goes. It's all in the game.

Most of the time, I know things are gonna be okay. Some of the time I'm terrified. Most of the time, I remember that many people have found themselves in tough situations at one point or another. Some of the time, I feel like the biggest failure, the most colossal fuck-up in the whole history of the world.

But I feel alright.

Yeah, I feel alright tonight.

The Wire Season Two: 10/10 stevedore-replacing robots

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Muxing Things Up a Bit

Credit goes to Mechberg, friend to children everywhere, for bringing to my attention. Just the cassette imagery of the site is enough to give me nostalgia pangs for the good old days of making mixes on tapes!

For me, making mixes in college was frequently a procrastination technique, something to do when I really should have been doing something else. It was also often a chance to re-discover music I loved but hadn’t listened to in a while. That much still holds true, and the first song on my muxtape is from one of my all-time favorite albums, but I probably hadn’t listened to that song in years.

Also, making mixes back in the days of cassette tapes had complications that CD mix-making doesn’t have, like wanting to fill up each side of the tape as much as possible, without leaving too much dead space at the end, and while maintaining the flow and momentum of the songs. Oh, the agonizing decisions about what to include and what had to be cut! Looking back, I think these limitations somehow actually made the process more fun, since I had to think that much more about what I was doing. It certainly made the process more time-consuming, which was a definite plus. I feel sorry for college kids these days with nothing to do but drag the songs onto an iTunes playlist and hit Burn Disc. It takes no time at all! No thought! Where’s the art, the craft?!

Anyway, here's a little something I threw together. 12 songs isn't a whole lot to work with, but I had fun with it anyway. If you make one yourself, post the link for me to check out.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Lost: Via Domus

More like Lost: Via Dumbass LOL amirite?!?! Lost: Via Domus is a game in which...well, for starters, it's barely even a game at all. It's more like a checklist of inputs that you enter using a gamepad. There is, at least for me, no enjoyment to be gleaned from the "gameplay" of Lost: Via Domus. There are only two reasons to play it--only one if you're not a fan of the show. The first reason is that, yeah, if you're a fan of Lost, it's kinda cool to walk around inside the hatch. The second reason is damn, those are some easy points.

It's especially disappointing to me because, while watching Lost, I was frequently reminded of some of my favorite adventure game experiences, and Myst in particular. Sure enough, according to Lostpedia (which can't possibly be wrong), it seems that Myst has been an influence on at least some of the show's writers. A show that has so many adventure game elements built right into it has great potential as the basis for an adventure game. Unfortunately, Lost: Via Domus fails utterly to capitalize on this potential. Firstly, the puzzles, so vital to any engaging adventure game experience, suck. (There's really only one kind of puzzle in the game, involving these panels into which you need to place fuses which you find all over the island. They start out simple and become increasingly complex but never become interesting.)

Equally disappointingly, the story sucks. It takes the form of a series of Lost episodes, and just like actual Lost episodes, each game episode involves a flashback to an event that happened to your character before he boarded that fateful flight. But the game seems to miss the whole point for these flashbacks. The reason why these flashbacks are so effective on the show is that they provide insight into the characters' pasts that helps us understand them in the present, that illuminates their behavior and their interaction with the other survivors. It's that interaction with other survivors, the complex web of relationships that's formed between them on the island, that makes Lost so compelling. And here, your interactions with other characters couldn't feel more rote or insignificant. Sure, each character does their schtick. Sawyer uses lots of nicknames. Locke says "Don't tell me what I can't do!" Charlie sings "Hey All Everybody!" But there are no meaningful relationships formed whatsoever. When the game hints in the later stages at some sort of connection between your character and Kate, it comes across as ridiculous, because you've hardly interacted with her, or anyone else, for any length of time.

Normally I'm opposed to using FAQs, but that's because normally I find that they take some of the fun out of playing a game. There's no fun to be found in playing Lost: Via Domus to begin with, so after a short while I resorted to a FAQ just to make sure I didn't miss any achievements and could spare myself having to play through any part of the game again. The only thing Lost: Via Domus gets right is some of the locations, particularly the all-important hatch. The gameplay is tedious and dreary, the characters are completely underdeveloped (and some of them look downright freakish), and the relationships are non-existent. Mercifully, the whole game can be completed in just a few hours.

Review score: 4/ 4 8 15 16 23 42

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Condemned 2: Bloodshot

Condemned was one of the most impressive early games for the Xbox 360. The first-person combat really packed a wallop, and the game was also an impressive piece of art design, with extremely creepy, gritty environments and chilling sound effects throughout. Now the sequel, Condemned 2: Bloodshot, is here, and it's both a step forward and a step back from its predecessor. The combat has seen some nice improvements, but the story and overall scariness of the game fall short.

In the original game, you played as Ethan Thomas, an SCU agent who was tracking a serial killer who had framed him for murder. Also, there was some goofball nonsense about Ethan maybe having some sort of superhuman powers, but the game didn't really develop this too much so I kinda forgot about it. The second game goes way more into this sort of comic book territory than the first game did, culminating in a final confrontation with a villain whose lair would make a Bond villain proud. You wind up taking on the Oro, a secret organization who believe that sounds can cause people to commit evil acts, and, having heard Avril Lavigne's song "Girlfriend" about a thousand times while playing Burnout Paradise and now wanting to kill Avril Lavigne myself, I can see their point. Personally, I wish the series had stayed closer to the realm of reality, as I think a series of games about a forensics officer who actually solves somewhat realistic crimes would have been a whole lot more interesting than a series about a cop who discovers he can emit noises that kill people. But maybe that's just me. In any case, while the first game's story certainly had its shortcomings, your pursuit of Serial Killer X made for a strong throughline. The plot here feels really weak by comparison.

When the game starts, 11 months after the conclusion of the first, Ethan is just a shadow of his former self. A very drunk shadow. He's such a drunk that you actually benefit from drinking liquor from bottles you just find lying around, as this steadies your shaky hands while aiming a gun. Condemned 2 is probably the first game in which at one point your objective is "Defeat Alcohol Demon." Lots of people struggle with their personal demons when it comes to alcohol, but none quite as literally as Ethan Thomas. Perhaps to go along with Ethan's new hardcore image, he is no longer voiced by the likable Greg Grunberg of TV's Heroes. That's too bad, as the new guy (Andre Sogliuzzo) just tries too hard to convey what a nihilistic, alcoholic badass the new, unimproved Ethan Thomas is.

Throughout the game, you'll explore a bunch of dimly lit places, including a creepy museum, a creepy doll factory and a creepy bowling alley, though none of the places in the game are quite as creepy as the coolest locations from the first game. (Creepy department store, anyone?) In these places you'll encounter plenty of drunken hobos and people who fight like drunken hobos. Even the museum security guards fight like drunken hobos. The people you fight make all kinds of awesome guttural exclamations and swearing noises that sound so authentic, you'll almost think they got actual crazy people to provide these voices. And the combat itself is as good as the sound effects that accompany it. You can clobber people with your bare fists, but you're usually better off picking up something lying around, be it a steam pipe, battle axe, bowling pin, or what have you. Each item you grab can only dish out so much punishment to the homicidal homeless people of the city before it breaks, so you'll have to keep picking up new items as you progress. The combat in Condemned 2 hits as hard as ever, and there are a number of nifty combos you can now pull off if you can avoid being hit by your wildly flailing foes. There are also brutal new finishing moves which allow you to use aspects of the environment to finish off weakened enemies. Many players felt that the combat in the original game was too basic, and that as a result it got repetitive by game's end. The added depth to the combat in Condemned 2 helps keep the combat enjoyable throughout.

There's also a bit more emphasis on gunplay this time around than there was in the original, particularly during a few sections where you have to fight off assault-rifle-wielding agents. These sections, while not quite as hard-hitting as the close-range combat in the game, are competently done. The fact that you can blow dudes' heads clean off, though, seems like an unnecessary byproduct of the game's desire to come across as even more brutally violent than its predecessor. Also, your opponents will make good use of cover, kicking tables over and crouching behind them and so forth, and while this is kinda cool, it also calls attention to the fact that you can't do anything like that yourself.

In between all the fighting, you'll also periodically have to examine crime scenes. Sometimes these sections are fun, and sometimes they involve a bit too much pixel-hunting as you try to figure out exactly what it is you're supposed to look at. Sometimes they're humorously easy, as when looking at a victim's cap and needing to decide if it's a policeman's cap, fireman's cap, hard hat, or baseball cap, and at other times they're a good bit tougher. (Blood spatter analysis? Do I look like Dexter to you?) Also, you'll sometimes be given a choice between three possible questions to ask your partner Rosa to advance the investigation, and some of the choices are so boneheadedly hilarious that I wanted to select them just to see how Rosa would react. "Have human beings even been around for 2000 years?" "How do you spell Oro?" You're rated on the accuracy of your investigation, as well as your performance in completing other objectives throughout the level, and as you progress through the game you earn upgrades based on your performance like added health, a stun gun, and so on.

The game will probably take you about 12 hours or so to complete. After that, you unlock FPS mode, which lets you use guns throughout the game, but that kind of seems to take away a huge part of what makes Condemned Condemned. If you want to play a first-person shooter, play Call of Duty 4. There are also some multiplayer modes available, but they leave a lot to be desired. If you want to play a good multiplayer game, play Call of Duty 4.

Many players will probably find Condemned 2 to be an improvement on its predecessor thanks to the deeper combat system. For me personally, aspects like mood and story were at least as crucial to making the first one a great experience, and because this one can't match up in terms of creepiness and because the plot goes so far into typical video-game sci-fi you-are-the-prophesied-hero territory when I was hoping for a series about a cop who hunts serial killers, I came away from Bloodshot a bit disappointed overall. But there's still a good deal of impact to the game's combat, making it a worthwhile playthrough for anyone who wants to punch people in the face without actually punching people in the face.

7/10 whacks with a foosball rod

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Let's Call This the Flashback

With all the Lost I've been watching, I've taken to imagining my life frequently being interrupted by dramatic flashbacks that reveal previously unknown aspects of my past that are somehow relevant given whatever challenging situation I currently find myself in. For instance, while faced with a really difficult choice between two products at the grocery store, I might suddenly remember that time my dad conned me into giving him one of my kidneys. Oh, wait, that wasn't me. That was a character on Lost.

Anyway, it's no joke that I am in a challenging situation at the moment. Still job-hunting, and putting lots of effort into it, but it's taking a lot longer than I would have liked. I've even found myself in the humbling position of asking friends for a little money to help until I'm on my feet again. How did I get into this position? It's not a particularly interesting story, but I'll tell it anyway.

Woooooooooooooooooooosh! (That's the Lost flashback sound effect.)

By last summer, I'd been working for the same company for nearly three years. Things at work were pretty okay, I guess. I basically liked the company and the people I worked with, and I was good at my job.

Then, sometime in July, I got hit by a pretty nasty case of depression. To be frank, being depressed isn't something particularly new or unusual for me. I think that I've struggled with depression in greater or lesser degrees for a large part of my life as a result of my gender issues. I mean, there's just no getting around the fact that not being able to be the person you feel you really are every single day kinda sucks, and some days the weight in my chest when I wake up in the mornings is heavier than it is on other days. My least favorite thing about being depressed is the way it makes me feel kind of self-absorbed. It's harder to focus out on other things when you're depressed, much like, if you have a knife in your chest, it's probably hard to think about much other than the fact that you've got a knife in your chest. And I know I'd be better at everything if I didn't feel this way. I'd be a better writer, a better employee, a better friend. But still, at least I've always managed to pull through, to do what needed to be done, to force myself to get out of bed no matter how tough it was.

But this was an unusually rough period, where getting out of bed was suddenly more difficult than it had ever been before. And I found myself running a few minutes late to work on a few occasions. I was promptly pulled aside and warned about this, and I apologized, sincerely feeling bad about what had happened, and communicated to my managers that I was struggling with depression and was seeking help for it, which I was.

Then it happened one more time, and they let me go. That was that.

That sucked, no doubt about it. But I immediately tried to see it as something that could end up being for the best. The reality was that, while I liked the company and my coworkers, I'd started to find the job a bit dull. It was rare for anything at work to really challenge or stimulate me anymore. What's more, I wasn't seeing opportunities for growth in the workplace, and I really didn't feel that the company was paying me what I should have been making considering the amount of time I'd been with them. There was certainly no doubt that my next job could be a considerable improvement.

And it was. I found a job that was more stimulating and challenging, and that paid considerably more. The job was a seasonal position with a company that's significantly busier around the holidays than it is throughout the rest of the year, but I was told from the beginning that there was a chance I would be hired on full-time after the holidays were over. I knew this wasn't something I could count on, but I busted my ass at this job, and I know I impressed the managers, because many of them started talking to me in ways that made it clear they felt I'd be sticking around.

But alas, things didn't go as expected, and when news came down that I wasn't being kept on permanently, many of those managers seemed as surprised and upset about it as I felt. Every last one of them offered to give me a glowing reference and wished me the best of luck in my job search.

My search got off to a promising start. Almost immediately, I had the interview for a technical writing position that I mentioned in an earlier blog post. Of course, that didn't end as well as I would have liked, but still, it was encouraging. However, since then, I've had a lot of phone interviews and face-to-face interviews and I really feel like I'm putting my best foot forward, but landing a job just hasn't happened yet. On Thursday I have another phone interview for a job that sounds pretty cool, but tomorrow I'll also be dropping off applications at a nearby Starbucks and other retail stores, as I'm at the point now where I absolutely positively need to start pulling in some money.

Admittedly I feel pretty desperate--I wouldn't be applying at places like Starbucks otherwise--but I still feel like in the long run all of this might end up being for the best. I'd gotten complacent in my job, but I wasn't really happy, nor was I earning what I should have been, so at this point, even if I have to earn even less for a while, I think I have the motivation to keep looking until I find a job I'm a bit more satisfied with. This is certainly the biggest failure of my adult life, and I admit I've felt some shame and embarrassment about it all, but I know that it's not really a reflection of who I am, but rather of something I was struggling with. I think I've learned a lot from this experience, and that when I do get back on my feet, I'll be better than ever.

And as bad as things get, I can always be thankful that at least my dad has never conned me into giving him one of my kidneys.


As an aside, a friend recently recommended, and I wanted to take a moment to recommend it myself, as it's quickly become a favorite of mine. Interestingly, not long before I lost my job, I'd really started to try getting a hold on my finances, and I think I was applying a lot of the common-sense stuff that J.D. talks about on Get Rich Slowly, but it's really nice to have it reinforced and expanded on by someone who's done a lot more reading about finances than I have. The website is really readable because J.D. doesn't talk down to the reader about this stuff. He comes across as just a regular guy who, like many of us, had struggled with money, and he talks about how he got things under control. There's also just enough of his own personality in the pieces to make things interesting. It's obvious that he's struggled with social anxiety and other challenges, for instance, and that in some ways tackling his money issues and tackling his personal issues have been related endeavors, and I really like that idea, that personal growth can come out of, or is necessary for, better money management.

I've made a lot of progress in terms of how I handle money, I think. I've cut out lots of unnecessary expenses, cut way down on expenses that aren't unnecessary, and I had started saving and tackling debt, as well as starting to think realistically about how I'm going to pay for this whole ridiculously expensive gender thing that I really need to deal with sooner rather than later. Of course, now that I'm not really making any money at all, things are kind of on hold, but I'm confident that I'm more ready and better equipped to deal with these issues now than I was before.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Queen of Kong: For a Few Brawlers More

Amidst laying in bed coughing, watching hella Lost and dragging myself off to a few job interviews, I also watched The King of Kong this past week. What a neat little movie. Of course, my interest in video games probably made it more enjoyable, but in fact, I'd recommend it to just about anyone, as it's not just about going for the all-time high score in Donkey Kong. It's about the personalities of two distinctly different people. Steve Wiebe is a likable hero and underdog anyone can root for, and Billy Mitchell, with his hilarious tendency to spout self-aggrandizing statements with the affect of a zen monk, is, to me, a compelling and amusing villain of sorts. "I'm the most seasoned person in the hot sauce chicken wing business."

The movie did make me want to play some arcade-perfect Donkey Kong. DK was always one of my favorite arcade games, and I still think it's one of the very best games of all time. It's so rare for games these days to test one's skill on anything resembling that level. For instance, I got 100% completion in Burnout Paradise this past week as well, but as much as I love that game, I don't feel there's any sort of accomplishment involved there. Just about anyone, if they put enough (read: way too much) time into it, can get 100% completion in Paradise. But you and I could play Donkey Kong for hundreds of hours and never get to the level of play at which people like Wiebe and Mitchell compete. Still, I'd love to have a go and see what my own personal best high score could be.

Unfortunately, inexplicably, there's pretty much no legal way to play arcade-perfect Donkey Kong short of dropping upwards of a thousand bucks on buying a DK machine. You'd think, especially with the film, that there'd be some level of interest in the game that Nintendo could capitalize on to make a few bucks, but the only version readily available right now, via the Wii's Virtual Console, is the NES version, which sucks. It doesn't have the How High Can You Get? screen or the "pie factory" level, so it ain't really Donkey Kong. Of course, plenty of people have bought Donkey Kong on the Virtual Console, because they don't know any better or don't care. It's the same reason so many people go to Starbucks. (The arcade version of Donkey Kong was included in Rare's 1999 Nintendo 64 game Donkey Kong 64, but even that version alters the flow of the game's levels a bit.)

Ah well. I have at least spent some time today playing a Nintendo game, the insanely hyped Super Smash Bros. Brawl. If you're not familiar with this series, the SSB games involve a roster of characters from Nintendo's storied history...Mario, Link, Donkey Kong, and so on...smacking and kicking each other in environments that are also taken from Nintendo's storied history. They're basically Nintendo's big love letter to itself, and as fan service, they're outstanding. As a Nintendo fan myself, I admit I got caught up in the hype and excitement leading up to the game's release. The thing is, as games, despite a multitude of rabid fanboys across the internets declaring Brawl the best game ever, they're just so-so. Playing SSB has reminded me of David Cross' story about having a good time at a Harlow concert until he had a realization. "Wait a second. I hate Harlow."

I don't hate Smash Bros., but it's just really basic. There isn't enough depth to the gameplay to make it rewarding or interesting for me. The only fun I really had with the previous game in the series was when I had a few friends over who were up for some mindless button-mashing fun, because the games are definitely good for some laughs. Especially if a few drinks have been had. Brawl does bring online play to the series so perhaps I'll wrassle up a few friends online and get some mindless enjoyment out of the game that way. And the game is full of awesome unlockables, like the ability to play the lame NES version of Donkey Kong for THIRTY SECONDS! Rad!

Anyway, Lost. Yeah, I finally decided to see what all the fuss is about with that show, seeing as how ABC has put all the episodes up for viewing on their website. The only drawback of watching them on the website is that I have to keep sitting through an ad that makes the mind-boggling claim that, with the inclusion of "stars" like Adam Carolla and Steve Guttenberg, this season of Dancing With the Stars is going to be HOTTER! STEAMIER! SEXIER! than ever before. Yeah, that Adam Carolla is a sexy, sexy man.

What I like most about Lost, not surprisingly, are the elements that feel like something out of an adventure game: the Dharma Initiative stations on the island, the button that may or may not need to be pushed every 108 minutes to save the world, stuff like that. (Also not surprisingly, Lost has just been turned into an adventure game. By all accounts it's a middling game, but I'll probably give it the ol' GameFly whirl anyway once I'm all caught up with the show.) What I don't like about it is how maddeningly little information it doles out in any given episode, but I guess that's how you keep people tuning in.

In other news, I'm stoked about, the new site from former GameSpot dudes Jeff Gerstmann and Ryan Davis. Not much there yet, but I think when it explodes onto the scene this summer, it's gonna be pretty awesome.

Finally, the job hunt continues. I've had two interviews recently. One of the two jobs is considerably better than the other but beggars can't be choosers. Thank-you cards have been sent, follow-up phone calls placed, and the scouring of craigslist goes on.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Gender Select:

My sense of myself as female is, as you may know, extremely important to me, and, like many women I know who play games, when given the choice between playing as a male character or a female character, all other things being equal, I'll pretty much always go with the female character. Particularly in role-playing games like Oblivion, I just feel a deeper sense of connection to my character that way, and I also really appreciate those rare instances when games with pre-set characters have female characters who are interesting and don't have proportions that would look grotesque on an actual human being. (Alex Roivas in Eternal Darkness is perhaps my favorite female character in a game, but such characters are still all too rare.) However, that's not to say that I feel a particular barrier between myself and my character in those situations when I have to play as a male, which is, let's face it, almost all the time. It's sort of like playing Burnout Paradise, in which you're just a car. I, myself, am not a car, but I still feel every crash in the game pretty intensely. Still, it bugs me when I come away from a game feeling like it would have been pretty easy for the developers to provide the option to play as a female, but they just didn't bother.

I think that, as a very broad generalization that has millions of exceptions, men are a bit more put off by the idea of playing as a woman than women are by the idea of playing as a man, though whether this is because women are inherently more easygoing about this sort of thing, or because of misogyny on the part of those men who have issues playing as a woman, or just because women have been forced to accept that, more often than not, playing a game means playing as a male character, I'm not really sure. And as I said, that's an exceptionally broad generalization. There are plenty of men who regularly play as female characters for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes there's nothing more to it than a sense that if you're going to spend hundreds of hours looking at a character, it might as well be one that you find visually appealing. But there are plenty of more complex reasons behind why some men do this as well. And certainly women will occasionally create male characters, though if I had to guess I'd say this probably happens less frequently than the opposite.

What got me thinking about this was a comment I read from a female gamer in response to this article, an appreciation piece about Gordon Freeman, the protagonist of Valve's exceptional Half-Life games. The piece asserts:

Gordon Freeman’s neutrality of dialogue and lack of overt personality within the game do not make him a non-character, but are in fact his strength. His lack of preconcieved identity provides not a single barrier with which to distance him from the player’s own personality, making him a blank canvas on which they can imprint their own values and outlook. Valve have even made it impossible for the player to ever see Gordon from a third-person perspective, either through cut-scene or reflection, meaning that in no instance does the effect of seeing a character who does not look like themselves pull the player out of the experience of ‘being’ him.

The comment I read about this assertion, which I'm deliberately taking totally out of context because I admit I'm more interested at this point in what it made me think about than what she actually meant, essentially stated that the flaw in this argument was that it was impossible for her to project herself onto Gordon Freeman because Freeman is male. While I would probably have felt a deeper connection to the protagonist of the Half-Life games if that protagonist were female, this argument seemed odd to me, as playing as Gordon Freeman never really impacted my ability to feel engrossed in the story and world of the Half-Life games. But then I realized that it's fully possible that I'm the odd one. People sometimes think that transgendered people have some sort of insightful perspective into gender dynamics, but I usually feel just the opposite, that my own perspective, anyway, is probably pretty limited and distorted, existing, as I do, outside of any gender dynamic I've ever felt at home in.

I guess I just don't feel like gender, while an aspect of our sense of personal identity whose impact cannot be overstated, is the be-all, end-all of our ability to relate to each other as human beings. While I feel deeply that I'm female, there are certainly some men I feel I can relate to pretty well, and plenty of women I can't relate to at all, and my sense is that this is true of most people. And I sometimes think that people give this stuff too much weight, or see barriers between the sexes that don't exist. It's not unusal to hear someone say, of a book written by a man in which the narrator is a woman, that the author didn't convincingly capture the female voice, or to say the opposite about a book written by a woman in which the narrator is a man. (A woman I know recently said she didn't feel that Donna Tartt was entirely convincing in writing from the male perspective in her novel The Secret History, for example.) And sometimes that may be true, but I also think that at times people scrutinize these books more, and latch on to anything that might ring false to them, things that perhaps wouldn't make them bat an eye if the author was actually the same gender as the narrator. Would the narrator of The Secret History have seemed odd to my acquaintance, I wonder, if the book had been written by a man? Or is she right in saying that there's something quintessentially female about the way the book is written, and no man in the history of the world would ever have written a male narrator that way? That's definitely possible.

This higher level of scrutiny is similar, it seems to me, to what many transgendered people experience, when they're held to a different standard of masculinity or femininity than, for lack of a better term, "cissexual" men and women. One might attempt to deny a transsexual woman her femaleness, for instance, by saying, "He's not really female, he likes video games too much," but wouldn't dream of applying this same logic to those cissexual women who love video games.

Anyway, I don't have any pat conclusion with which to tie a bow on this ramble. These are just some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head lately, and if you have any thoughts on playing games as a character of your gender vs. playing as a character of the opposite gender, or about anything else I've touched on here, do share.


In other news, the job hunt continues! I had an interview today that I think went well, at a place just off Market St. in the hustle and bustle of Downtown San Francisco. If I get this position, I think I'll enjoy having a reason to head into SF every day.

And just to further demonstrate how screwy my perspective on things is, here's the funniest thing I've seen recently: Garfield Minus Garfield. It is exactly what the title says it is, and the header on the main page is spot-on:

Who would have guessed that when you remove Garfield from the Garfield comic strips, the result is an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolor disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life? Friends, meet Jon Arbuckle. Let’s laugh and learn with him on a journey deep into the tortured mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against lonliness in a quiet American suburb.
Well, spot-on aside from the fact that they spelled loneliness wrong. Anyway, I think the strip is brilliant, and it made me laugh until I had tears in my eyes. And, yes, I even find it oddly poignant. What's wrong with me?