Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Poor Boy's Complaint — a video game memoir [Vol. 2]

It's not enough just to say I never got my own Nintendo. I mean, isn't it absurd, doctor, for a child of single-digit years to covet so badly something that will cost his struggling parents—I don't know—three days' wages? That's three days of stressful, perhaps backbreaking labor that will contribute neither to the family dinner nor the property taxes, not to any pending car repairs, back-to-school clothes or—God forbid—to something for their own happiness and pleasure. We're talking $200 for a glorified toy, and that's not including sales tax! What was I thinking being so selfish? And yet—what do you know?—other kids' parents saw fit to buy Nintendos for their families! That's right, I'm in school now. I can start complaining to my mom about how the other kids at school get to do this and that. No, it's not enough just to say I never got a Nintendo, because the reality of not having something does not diminish the desire for wanting it. Quite the opposite.

I was surrounded by Nintendo everywhere I looked! My first friend from kindergarten was an only child and—let me tell you, doctor—he had a Nintendo. I mean he had everything else in the world, too, but the Nintendo! I'd played Super Mario Bros. a few times but I don't think I had any idea there were so many other freaking games until I went to his house and beheld that glorious cartridge rack. The thing must have held close to 25 games in its five-by-five arrangement, and this kid was just 5-years-old!

In 1989 my mother took me to see The Wizard. Do you remember that one, the feature-length Nintendo advertisement with the kid from The Wonder Years? The “I love the Power Glove, it's so bad” movie with the autistic kid playing Super Mario Bros. 3 on a TV screen bigger than God? Did she have a clue what kind of torture this kind of indulgence put me through?

Nintendo in the late 1980s was like asbestos in the '50s. You couldn't not breath it if you tried. After Mouse Trap I'd learned to be a bit suspicious of commercials, sure, but I was still a kid. Do you understand what it did to my brain the first time I watched a TV spot for Marble Madness, doctor? There it was again, that magical land of chutes and hazards, only this time what you saw in video was pretty much what you got. This was too much! I needed an outlet for this stuff, and so one day in Mrs. Stanley's first-grade class I wrote a one-page short story about Marble Madness. For fun! Marble Madness fan fiction, doctor.

In fact, one might have thought school was a relatively safe haven, but would you have guessed our elementary library had a subscription to Nintendo Power magazine? On Monday mornings after the kooky librarian released us from the semi-circle story-time hostage zone, all of the boys would flock to the shelves to drool over the latest glitzy issue. I, of course, would content myself with some perfectly fine two-month-old edition and suckle unbothered upon the centerfold spread of, say, the entire Metroid level design. Hence I acclimated myself to what would become the pattern for the rest of my childhood and adult life, forever settling for the sloppy seconds of the greater video game culture, the flotsam and jetsam of all the seaward passengers who hopped from sinking ship to sinking ship like drivers changing freeway lanes.

Little did my innocent mind yet comprehend how fickle were the hearts and fingers of gamers. There’s a reason I have no memory of seeing Atari 2600 boxes on store shelves. That era had come and gone before I was old enough to form a coherent thought (Also, I happened to be born during the same year as—ahem—E.T.). Before I knew it the great Nintendo I never had was dead. Because in its place was something so new and so stupidly better than the Nintendo you wouldn't know why the hell you had ever even bothered to waste your time with that dumb machine's cramp-inducing rectangle of a controller in the first place. That's right. Nobody wants a Nintendo anymore, not when YOU CAN HAS … wait for it … SUPER NINTENDO? And actually, doctor, I did get a chance to play one of these bad boys hot off the factory line when my only-child friend from school got to rent one—from the grocery store of all places (I told you this stuff was inescapable). Would you believe it? And it really was like a million times cooler than the old Nintendo. I think I experienced some legitimate vertigo playing the third level of Contra III, our two characters blasting away at alien invaders above that magnificent 16-bit industrial landscape. What a trip! It seemed the sky was the limit.


Let me pause here, however, and return to the subject of my household environment. In case you hadn't already gotten the impression, I grew up in a good Christian home. I'd say the most pagan thing we ever practiced as a family was to erect and decorate a Douglas fir tree in our living room each December to celebrate the birth of our savior. And we did dress up in costumes on October 31, but it wasn't for Halloween—no, no, no—and it certainly wasn't for trick-or-treating! My mom dressed me up like a cowboy so I could go to church and celebrate something totally different called the Autumn Festival or, better yet, All Saints Day!

Our household had its own version of the Hays production code—my dad. He was usually the one to either red-light or green-light whatever my sister and I watched on TV, but also the music we listened to and the types of items we got to take home from Toys-R-Us. In other words, whatever was going to be absorbed into our impressionable young brains better not have too much sex, violence or foul language. Understandable. But it also better not glorify witchcraft, magic or any business remotely demonic—meaning ghosts, goblins, gargoyles and I'm sure plenty of other things beginning with the letter G. Let's just say I never watched Beetlejuice as a kid—the cartoon or the film. We never had cable, so that excluded any of the smut on MTV. But we also weren't supposed to watch Scooby Doo because it had monsters? Well, dad, my sister and I watched Scooby Doo regardless (when you weren’t home), and let me tell you, none of the ghosts and monsters were ever actually ghosts or monsters. They were crooked masked adults trying to scare away those meddling kids! I mean, maybe the monster issue was just my dad’s excuse because he really didn't want to tell us what the crackpot sleuths were obviously smoking inside the Mystery Machine, or the real reason why Velma got off on getting into dangerous scrapes all the time with the Fred and Daphne (Hint: It wasn’t Fred). I’m sure my dad would have locked away the television if we'd grown up in the era of Harry Potter.

That’s all well and good, mom and dad. You’re the boss(es). But my first experience with your charismatic church was pretty traumatizing in its own right. I remember when I was five years old being dragged against my will to a series of evening family events at dad’s new church where the people put on some kind of good-versus-evil, God-versus-Satan puppet show. All I remember were these periodic noise contests where members of the audience, sometimes the boys and sometimes the girls, were supposed to scream at the top of their lungs in order to thwart evil and—ultimately—send puppet Satan back into the Lake of Fire. I was not a scream-in-public kind of kid, barely old enough to understand what was going on. That crap scared the hell out of me, which I suppose was the point to a certain extent. I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t quite as bad as I remember it.

I know I didn’t have it as bad as that kid James who lived in the tiny house right off the main bus route to school and whose sweetheart of a dad (who looked liked he was 90) waved like a parade Santa Claus to every God-forsaken driver speeding by. I’m pretty sure James had to wear bifocals in kindergarten, the poor kid. Unfortunately, it didn’t win him any makeup points coming to school in a neon orange Jesus hat (well before it was the ironic thing to do). Anyway, those nasty kids at school sure made fun of him for being the resident Bible Boy. One time in fifth grade our teacher had to stop reading to us a series of young-adult fiction books called the Witch Sister series because some undisclosed student’s religious parent complained to the school about it. Those post-recess reading sessions were like crack to us! Poor, poor James. The intimidation he withstood! Everyone knew who was to blame. I mean, who else’s parents lit up a Christmas-lights cross on the front of their house 365 days a year? Lord knows I always tried to be nice to James, but this kid was defenseless. Talk about having no sense of humor—I can still picture that blank stare! I’d love to read his memoir. Do these parents ever have any clue as to the backfiring effects of their insane interventionism? Anyway, I don’t think James played any Nintendo growing up either.

I guess you can't blame parents for trying. My dad went through a lot of different jobs growing up. He swept chimneys. He sold Amway products. He sold spas and stoves. He also did some freelance ad-design for local businesses, sometimes getting paid in traded goods and services (such as about 200 free skating sessions at the roller rink, one time). Around 1990 he got ahold of a lead to do some graphic layout for this startup company called Wizards of the Coast, basically a bunch of geeks who worked out of their basement—actually, maybe you've heard of them. I guess my dad went to one of those geek's house where they had just tons of Dungeons and Dragons type of memorabilia (surprise, surprise) and they dressed all gothy. “Some pretty dark stuff,” according to my dad. Well, dad did a little ad work for them, some kind of graphic with a dragon and a globe. Turns out the wizards liked it and wanted him to do some more work—although, here's the catch. They were a pretty new company so they kind of didn't have much actual money yet, and so maybe he would have to work for something else, like some company shares? I can only imagine what must have run through my dad's head. Could anyone in 1990 really have imagined what unbelievable global market share these passionate nerds would manage to dominate over the next 10 years and beyond. Who knew there was such profit to be had in spells and sorcery? Wizards of the Coast company shares, huh? Hmm. Sounds pretty good, but ... you know what, guys? I'm afraid I'm gonna have to pass. I've got a request for some ad work from the guy who runs that hotdog stand over there. He's offered to pay me in bratwursts. So … maybe some other time.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Poor Boy's Complaint — a video game memoir [Vol. 1]


So imbedded in my consciousness were those jaw-dropping images from the television commercial that when I secretly heard the news of how my older sister—and I, by extension—was to receive an honest-to-God Mouse Trap game for her eighth birthday, I literally lay awake at night in anticipation. My imagination gave way to our soon-to-be-shared adventures of being transported to that insane alternate reality, where boulder-sized marbles chased us down slippery red chutes and giant cages fell down to entrap us. It wasn't so far-fetched of an assumption, was it? I'd been to those McDonald's playgrounds and slid down their yellow plastic slides four times my toddler height. And yet when the birthday party came and my eyes actually beheld that medium-size cardboard box, I think my skepticism immediately set in. (Can we really call it skepticism? I suppose not. Skepticism is the inheritance I received as a result of that tragic episode, the unshakeable fetter I drag locked around my ankle to this very day—skepticism the bitter outcome of that disappointment and that which has never allowed me to embrace high hopes for anything truly spectacular in my life ever again!) It was simply a matter of drawing from my limited knowledge and perceptions of space and dimensions that caused me to mentally puzzle over how such a tiny box could physically contain the necessary components to the set piece I imagined from watching that dazzling commercial.

Well, doctor, you can bet my sister tore open that box, and after studying the plastic pieces and rules sheet the two of us ended up playing what ended up being a rather crappy board game. The makeshift mouse trap might have been amusing, I suppose, had it actually functioned successfully more than one out of ten times. It had some neat little moving parts, but nothing that spawned the same level of tension and excitement that would have resulted from shrinking to the size of a game mouse and trying to actually outrun or otherwise physically participate in that nefarious contraption.

It was my first encounter with false advertising, and I had been had. I knew from then on that the world was cruel, its promises empty. But there was another realization—a proto-realization, perhaps, which was this: The fantastical representations achieved through video special effects could be infinitely more fascinating than the world of reality. In other words, give me video or give me death!


I can't say for certain what was the first video game I ever played. Maybe it was the Atari 2600 Frogger, or the arcade Pac-Man. I know that—miracle of miracles!—my parents actually had a four-player PONG system they would alternately conjure forth for our familial pleasure and whisk away to some dark nether place known as “storage” once it had served its purpose.

I think it's safe to assume, however, that upon laying my eyes for the first time on Nintendo's magical Mushroom Kingdom, I was obsessed with video games for life. Oh, Mario! Luigi! You ridiculous little men with your incessant running and superhuman jumping! Your Alice-in-Wonderland mushrooms and your totally non-hippy flower power! Secret plumbing passageways and warp zones galore. Your magnificent leaps over hellish pits of fire. And that music! No one who listened to those siren songs would ever be able to purge them from memory.

At some point during those waning years I remember going to other people's houses where these machines called Nintendos took their places at the right hand of television sets. Why these Nintendos were not constantly in use by their owners, I could not fathom. In fact, most people who kept these machines seemed extraordinarily stingy with them. I think my uncle had one. Was I ever offered the chance to play? No. There was even a Nintendo at my in-house day care (Curses, that place was terrifying, what with the caretaker's son constantly threatening to piss on me for no apparent reason, and the overweight caretaker in her commanding baritone threatening to take away my treats for the day for any potential bad behavior—except that I never received any treats to speak of regardless!). The caretaker's husband, who looked like a mean version of Shaggy from Scooby Doo, would on random days be at home, and on these days he would sometimes be playing what I later came to learn was The Legend of Zelda. I was supposed to be taking a nap in the living room, but how could I with that epic video journey being played on the television screen a mere ten feet away? At any rate, I never played that Nintendo either.

Was I too young to be entrusted with such things? Was I supposed to ask someone? Heavens, no! I was raised to be the politest, most submissive little boy imaginable. And was I polite! You couldn't put a piece of mud in my tiny little hand without me giving you a deserved “Thank you” in return. I couldn't ask you to desist from punching me in the face without including a token “please, sir.” I remember one day after my parents had hosted a large church party, my dad pulled me aside behind the house and told me he had something to say to me. Good lord in heaven, what had I done? “I just wanted you to know how proud I was of you today,” he told me. “All of your 'pleases,' and 'thank yous,' and your 'you're welcomes.'” Boy was I proud! Is that the kind of boy who goes to other people's living rooms asking if he can play their Nintendo? I think not!

The first time I was offered the chance to play was at the house of my parents' friends from church (hell, all of their friends were from church!). These people were awesome. There I sat with the controller in my little hands. World 1-1. Okay. This black pad moves me around. There's one of those little angry Goomba dudes. I've seen other people do this before a hundred times. Push this button to jump and … what? I died? Within the first five seconds? How humiliating! But wait. I get to try again? I think by the end of that night my sister and I learned how to get through those first few levels pretty well. There was always that nagging decision to be made regarding whether to skip the bulk of that first level altogether by going down that second or third pipe or to stay above ground and try to collect that hidden 1-up mushroom before the first bottomless pit.

Remember, these people were cool, and they left me alone to play, even if I completely sucked. And I did. They were adults who understood they could play Nintendo to their heart's content just as soon as we left for the evening. They were not the spoiled, adolescent assholes who let you go into their bedroom (seriously, what kid was so lucky to be allowed to have their own Nintendo in their bedroom?) to play Super Mario Bros. with them—but only on two-player. This was the biggest scam of a multiplayer mode ever invented, a trick for bratty rich boys who had Nintendos to play on the visiting poor boys who did not. Invariably, this punk kid (he doesn't deserve for me to remember his name, and I don't) and later others would say something like, “Hey, why don't you go first?” Snicker, snicker, snicker! I would launch from the starting gates of World 1-1 and—being totally out of practice since my last time playing—die at the non-hands of the first Goomba. Oh yeah, laugh it up, buddy! Laugh at the poor boy's expense. Player 2 is next, and—guess what?—this piece of shit has to plow through the whole game in one life while I get to sit and watch. And you know what? I was so starved for Nintendo since my last meal I would do it almost gladly!

Oh, father, do you realize what this punk kid is probably doing today? He's probably a coked-out corporate executive somewhere, trying to decide whether to spend his holiday bonus on a jet-ski or a 72-inch plasma TV. And what am I doing now, father, your polite little boy? I'm reminiscing with the good doctor here, maintaining a pathetic blog and wondering where it all went wrong. So thank you, father! Thank you, mother! Thank you and you're welcome!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Borderlands — Loot me plenty!

(NOTE: I started writing this post a few weeks ago and never quite finished. I was going to segue into a larger discussion about the way 3D game worlds identify the interactive elements of the environment. Then I decided against that and sort of left this post hanging to write about KOTOR. Anyway, I went back and tried to wrap this piece up and ... well, here it is.)

I've been playing a bit of split-screen Borderlands on the Xbox 360 with my wife for the past few days (make that a few weeks ago), mostly going through the first two downloadable content (DLC) add ons. We each went solo through the main game back in early 2010, although a few times I went in cooperatively with some friends over Xbox LIVE. I liked it then, and I'm still intrigued by it now—even if I'm getting anxious to move on to new horizons altogether.

The thing that really clicks with me is the game's setting—a pastiche of post-apocalyptic art direction and pop culture sensibilities but without the apocalypse. The story actually takes place in the future on a distant planet called Pandora, which some time not long ago was colonized, raped for precious minerals and then abandoned by one of several reigning mega industrial-military corporations. As to be expected, the corporations essentially treated the planet like a giant toilet, leaving behind several civilization's worth of scrap metal and derelict cities, as well as heaps of discarded high-tech firearms and, worst of all, a free-to-roam-and-pillage population of imported convict laborers now left to their own recognizance.

The player enters this fictional setting basically as a treasure hunter, stepping off a bus into a barren landscape and a run-down town without any real resources to speak of. It reminds me a little bit of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (one of the greatest films of all time), in that the players similarly find themselves trapped in a bleak purgatory just as soon as they have arrived. (I admit, this particular comparison may be a bit of a stretch. I might, however, come back to this film in the future as an exhibit for talking about the use of tension in storytelling.)

The art direction is very Mad Max (specifically, the latter two films with the bigger budgets). It's also highly stylized with bright cel-shaded graphics. By "bright" I don't necessarily mean colorful, because the landscape itself is pretty much all manner of scorched-earth browns, oranges, some reds and grays. The sky, however, is a magnificent clear baby blue, which is what really gives everything else its added character. It's that rich, bright blue that lightens not only the scenery but the mood of the entire playing experience and compliments the over-the-top violent humor within the game.

Borderlands is partly famous just for the story of how developer Gearbox Software actually went through and completely changed the game's visual style about three-fourths of the way through the development cycle, up to which point the game had been built with more of an aim toward photo-realism. The decision to scrap that previous work was so drastic and caused the art director so much personal stress that she quit the team and changed careers entirely. And yet I think most would agree it was the right decision.

The game, of course, does have its detractors, some of whom deride the game for being just plain boring. It's a position I think I can understand, because the game starts off pretty slowly and even deeper into the game the overall simplicity of the experience doesn't really change. I remember almost giving up on it myself. What propelled me to continue, however, was the visual world of Pandora itself. I guess I just find the chaotic, ramshackle architecture of Pandora more interesting than other people.

The game became more enjoyable when new and larger environments became available to explore. I've listened to the opinion of several people who talk about how the game should be played cooperatively with three other friends. That can make for a good time, for sure, but doing so is like playing the game on steroids. There's a quality to the experience that's otherwise lost, the slow and rewarding discovery of stepping into a new environment for the first time. Borderlands actually earned a spot on ign's recently-blogged-about 100 Greatest Video Game Moments, I think for a similar reason.

At several points in the game the player has to venture through various bandit encampments, usually to go assassinate some quirky bandit leader. These various fortresses, like RPG dungeons, become more elaborate as the game progresses. Charging through with friends is one way to tackle these scenarios, but going solo can be fantastic. I, for one, like to stop and listen to the desperado music. I chose to play through the game as a hunter, which makes my character proficient with sniper rifles. As I progress through the environment and waves of bandits come out charging from their confines, I like to play it cool and pick as many off from a distance as possible. Then, when the action dies down, I heed the words of Christopher Walken as Bruce Dickinson: I "explore the space." One thing Gearbox got right with Borderlands was giving the player incentive to explore. It's pretty simple. They just made the game a loot-fest.

It's interesting to look back and see how the early first-person shooters dealt with environmental interaction. In games like Doom the player would go around looking for doors, switches, keys and supplies. The supplies—meaning ammo, guns and health packs—were sprites and later three-dimensional icons scattered in particular locations throughout the levels and stages. The player character just had to walk over them to pick them up. Then some games like Duke Nukem 3D came along and started to emphasize different kinds of interactivity. Pressing a button in front of a toilet made it flush. Sink faucets spewed tap water. And pixelated strippers stripped ... sort of.

I think people eventually started to get tired of these things. Some games started changing the formula more drastically. Halo made the player hold no more than two guns at a time and its sequel did away with health packs altogether.

In general, I think first-person shooters abandoned the notion of exploration in favor of more straight-forward—think one giant corridor after another—level design. Games became more about the challenge of getting from one checkpoint to the next and overcoming specific placement of enemies or enemy spawn points in each section of the level. Don't get me wrong, for the most part I think these changes made shooters better games. Did anyone back in the 1990s ever actually finish Wolfenstein 3D or Doom 2 or even Duke Nukem 3D? Without cheat codes? Not me. After a while, looking for door keys got pretty tiresome (those games also used to give me motion sickness).

With Borderlands the loot gathering acts as a reward for exploration. And the loot isn't difficult to find. There are cash boxes, lockers, toilets, dung piles, mailboxes, trash bins and other "containers" scattered about every nook of the map that yield random contents of cash, ammo and weapons. Each one of these containers is in some way color coded green for easy recognition. It's a similar green to the little light that shines from the caps lock button on an Apple key board.

While it may not be the perfect solution, I think it gets closer to answering the question of what to do with some of these incredible open game worlds that are interesting to look at but serve little other purpose. Collecting a few virtual bucks here and there can go a long way. At the same time, the idea of loot as "reward" for the player enters the dangerous territory of the literal "Skinner Box" that I talked about in my first blog post. Push a lever. Get a candy. Push lever again. Get another candy. So who knows?

The above pictures were borrowed from and