Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hey, we're in a desperate struggle for our lives against the incarnation of evil, but can I get a second to homoerotically comment on your salt and pepper?

Or: A word about Lost.

I once wrote a very short story that had a twist ending. In it, the main character dies without the reader being made aware, and only in the final sentences is this misrepresentation awkwardly suggested. My story offered a happy resolution in the promise of a blissful afterlife, shared with those whom the protagonist loves. It was an abrupt revelation, not earned by prior narrative but simply put in place in order to ask the reader to think more of his time expended than was warranted. It was as transparent an act as this introduction, in which I narcissistically compare a high schooler's three pages that couldn't even place in his college of choice's young writers' competition (won by some poem about butterflies or whatever) to the six years of dissatisfaction and chicanery that was Lost.

My story was set in an unexplained post-apocalyptia and a young boy's mother abandons him to search for food, I guess, and dies out of view in the process, or something. I was content that these mysteries needn't be answered or were self-explanatory and, in truth, I was probably right, considering how they conform to basically understood tropes. There was nothing there that challenged the medium in the way that, say, a giant smoke monster would. And when the mother makes her longed for reappearance at the end, to represent the transition into a serene afterlife for our young protagonist, it is a joylessly rushed exchange written under duress of the competition's word limit.

Resolving mysteries is a hard, hard business.

So, Lost has been a thing of the past for some months now, and my sense is that people either enjoyed its ending or accepted it complacently, although this could just be a self-absorbed assumption on my part. As the final season wound on, it was becoming clear that the island had been explained to its creators' satisfaction and this, surprisingly, didn't bother me as it might have. Much in the same way Lady MacBeth didn't, I seemed to have little trouble washing my hands of the thing as the aforementioned realization dawned. This could be attributed to several things: that I was never that attached to the show in the first place; that there are so many other, better shows; that I am in the process of renouncing all investment in fiction and, as my waistline would have you believe, becoming the Buddha.

Or, simply, there is a consistency to Lost which I have always incorrectly identified as a flaw in its writing but which was actually the essence of the writing itself. A belabored sentiment, sure, but I believe that what I once perceived as Lost's impedimenta which had to be overcome by its final season was truly a conditioning factor of the series, there in order to soften and bring about acceptance in a poor, swindled viewer.

I don't need to justify calling Lost viewers swindled, do I? There can be no question to that, can there? Lost's mysteries were a frivolous lot of cryptic meandering with no true resolution. Even when resolution was offered, it disappointed - and this is not, as the creators are so quick to say, a midi-chlorian situation in which revealing too much would by necessity disappoint. Oh, how Damon and Carlton loved to employ that comparison, I must say vindictively. You see, in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, there was a scene in which Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi (note that I have no affinity at all for the Star Wars franchise and I am suddenly feeling very silly about myself as I write this) measure Anakin Skywalker's midi-chlorians as a means to detect the Force within him. This scene has become quite controversial for introducing a quantifiable, biological element to what was an ethereal concept. That is, it demystified the mystery of the Force and left everyone wishing, I suppose, that answers had never come.

Except that the Force never really was a mystery, was it? It clearly existed and it was simply a means of explanation for the magic that characters in Star Wars were able to wield. There is absolutely no similarity between it and the tantalizing questions proposed by Lost such as why Walt is able to summon birds. And yet the people behind Lost played the midi-chlorian card whenever they were pushed for answers, stating that giving away answers would be akin to demystifying the Force and that they must tread forever lightly in the enigma of the island. And what is most worthy of contempt in the face of it all? They believe it. They are not cynically lying to the fans, they actually believe that Lost's many mysteries were put in place all in service of what they consider the series' true strength - its characters.

A dry, bitter laugh belongs here.

It doesn't even need to be stated that Lost was outclassed by so many when it came to what was meant to be its greatest achievement. Its main characters were divisive amongst fans, to put it mildly, and its more intriguing characters were so intriguing because half of their dialog was devoted to furthering the hollow perplexity of the show.

This was a series written by children. A cluster of savants who excelled at establishing cryptic hooks early on but whose ambitions were ultimately so shallow that the ultimate resolution of "They all live happily ever after, in Heaven, no less" was seen as the best way to serve the six years prior. And I hate to be a critic, I truly do; I know that this blog post isn't a work of art, that my own writing doesn't earn me any credence or credibility, and that, truthfully, my aforementioned short story wasn't as good as some poems about butterflies. I just simply wanted to say a few things about Lost - not to criticize, but to bury it. To leave it behind, as we all must, and accept that calling it a disappointment isn't fair because it never really was that good in the first place.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

I've spent five hundred unhappy hours playing Team Fortress 2.

The above realization should not have felt as shocking as it did. I came upon this figure some nights ago, while vainly editing my Steam profile, and I remain bewildered as to how it has eluded me for so long (save for my inability to perform basic maths, considering that the complete itinerary of hours spent with each class is in full view every time I join a server, demanding that I sum them all up during the excruciatingly long wait, while instead I simply trace around the Medic's jaw with my cursor, blithely). I have become accustomed, when seeing gameplay hours enumerated, to the largest of them being between one hundred and one hundred and fifty hours - standard RPG fare, for the psychotic completionist. To spot a number larger than thrice my past maximum is at first staggering and subsequently mystifying: how have I managed to devote so much time to a game with no actual progression? And why haven't I felt as if I've enjoyed myself while doing so?

In a broader sense, I'd like this post to address multiplayer-driven games as a whole. I've long considered myself primarily a single player, as my interest in video games lays in elements which are predominantly found in isolation: entrancement, character immersion, all that drivel I carry on about at a nearly constant frequency. They share a trend, in that the addition of other people, either in the room as one plays or interacting with (read: killing) the player through the game online, serves only to distract and never to enhance.

Multiplayer games are ostensibly meant to provide greater tension through enemy acuity, and offer more helpful teammates than, as an old friend might have put it: the turnip-minded standard. Yet do these things combine to create a more compelling experience for the player? And at its core, isn't every game still a single player game, as the experience of playing can never be more than what one single person derives from the provided stimuli?

Well, no. And that's a silly, borderline solipsist query.

However, what I mean to say is that some people are going to enjoy the benefits of playing multiplayer, and some, like me, will enjoy single player. A suitable deduction. That should seemingly be the end of this entire line of thinking (and my repetitive, masturbatory catechisms). But for some reason, I find myself still unsatisfied.

I am not good at Team Fortress 2. During the WAR! update, I would joke that I was clandestinely helping the Demomen by playing as a Soldier, allowing the cyclopses to rack up points at my expense while I desperately shot rockets at where their feet were, like, ten minutes ago. There have been a few, confidence-shattering moments in which teammates have called me out on my bullshit, but mostly there is silence on my end and silence on theirs when it comes to my performance, as I am content keep myself occupied on my lonesome, maintaining a consistent 1:2 KD ratio (and that's being generous).

Team Fortress 2 is widely considered the most casual shooter on the market, a reputation I consider both unfair and bitchy. Mistaking its decidedly non-militaristic aesthetic and versatile allowable play styles (in pub) for a lack of integrity is cruel indeed. And yet this must be reconciled with the fact that it's the only shooter a man like me (a doughy half-man that is as effective in first person shooters as he would be in a real combat situation in which I couldn't simply navel-gaze my enemies to death) can penetrate. What is it that drew me to the game in the first place? Well, the promotional videos, to answer my own question. This alone warranted a hundred hours' playtime as an unhelpful Sniper. Am I casual? No, I'm not, but I may be drawn to the game for casual reasons: I don't play to kill, or to win. I jump into games in session and leave before they're resolved. I quote the delicious dominatory quips of the characters to myself triumphantly five times more than I actually hear them. This all seems to register as a casual gaming experience.

But maybe that's simply the relationship I'll always have with multiplayer games. Their very fundamentals repel me that even when I find one attractive, it's a five hundred hour endeavor that never makes it past courtship. To me, they represent the barest bones of gaming: hand-eye coordination and violence. Instantly spawning characters without faces or personality, set only to the simplest algorithm found in my beloved pastime - kill or be killed. All skill in game design goes toward sprucing up war, next to nothing in the areas of creativity or artistic beauty. And I will never be the gamer that appreciates those efforts.

In my eyes, it's only Team Fortress 2 that fights against that stereotype. And I think that's why I'm half-way to six hundred.

This post can be fairly called meandering, even more so than my others. It's taken me over half a year to write and ultimately offers no great revelatory point, nor does it make progress toward personal recompense for the fact that I spent so much time failing to backstab Heavies that could have been spent at the soup kitchen. And yet, somehow, isn't that appropriate? A few rambling paragraphs devoted to five hundred rambling hours at a game which, although I may never grasp, keeps me coming back for more every time?

There I go, asking myself easily answerable questions again, in lieu of making a firm and dignified point. Here:

Yes, I suppose it is.

Now let's get a sentry up, or something.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Jack's silence.

Today, I finished Mass Effect 2. It would derail this post to explore my opinion of the game as a whole - that is, to take a step too far toward review - however I would be remiss to not establish firstly that I thought the game was often brilliant and immensely satisfying. "Often," of course, is not "always," and what led me to write the following is what I consider to be the game's most gruesome lapse of its aforementioned brilliance: Jack's silence.

A slight misnomer. Jack was never truly silent to me, Desmond Shepard (space-faring, biotic-weaving, thin-mustached renegade), she simply repeated the same curt line of dialogue whenever I attempted to speak to her during the second half of my thirty-so hours with the game. Every time I ventured into the bowels of the Normandy to see her, I hoped to hear something different, and every time I was disappointed in a manner that could most accurately be called heartbroken. I was taken with Jack from the first descriptions of the wild convict; imagining, of course, a male psychopath with tremendous biotic skill who far more embodied a character I wanted to play than Shepard. When she was revealed to be a female, I was smitten beyond redemption - instantly crushing on her precisely as I hadn't with Miranda. From that point forward, Jack was in my (arbitrarily limited [there's that creeping review tendency]) party for every outing, and her loyalty mission was my topmost priority as soon as it became available.

And, having never gotten so far into the first Mass Effect to experience the much-discussed (to note: the days of video game sex scenes being controversial seem refreshingly inaccessible - perhaps another blessing of conservatives having more important adversities with which to create loud punditry) copulation of one's virtual relationships, renegadedly having Jack was an exhilaration every bit as profoundly satisfying as it was awkward to watch a smirking Shepard attempt to be sexually commanding while sporting his effeminate casual dress-wear.

An exhilaration unfortunately marred now by the haunting thoughts of whether or not I permanently soured our bond by characteristically choosing the bottom dialogue options - a choice which granted me immediate sex at perhaps the cost of a healthily consummated relationship. I worry that I selected my words incorrectly during the critically applauded but, for me, evanescent argument between Jack and Miranda. And I felt betrayed, bitter and alone as the creeping suspicion that I would go no further with the most cherished of my teammates became realized. She vanished from my party soon thereafter.

If all that, however, makes it sound like the game is an unparalleled success in sagaciously extracting emotions from the player - you haven't played it.

This was an inner turmoil all my own, internalized and wholly independent from any kind of catharsis from the game itself. Jack didn't end our relationship in a way that was human - a way that truly stirs the inescapable melancholy of lost opportunities - she ended it by video gamingly repeating the same two or three sentences to me ad infinitum. That's as much of a believable conclusion to a relationship as characters walking into one another to conserve processing power in early Final Fantasies is a believable method of common transportation. Jack's so-called silence, while it anomalously evoked genuine feelings from me, is a gaming contrivance that is a flaw from every conceivable angle besides that of a group of developers sitting around a conference table asking one another how they can be rid of a loose end that was once an admirable aspiration.

To that point: I reached this terminus with virtually every other character as well. In me, this stirred nothing but the frustration of once again witnessing the limitations of my preferred artistic medium. This is, though, a common and dulled sting - one that pales in comparison to the sting of having the rug pulled out from under me when I'm caught vulnerably wanting for more. That is to say: at least when I'm welcomed to Corneria I don't have a crush on the gatesman.

It is a sad truth that can be proven by spending ten minutes searching the Internet (or worse, the impenetrably asinine strategy guide whose PDF was sincerely not worth the ten minutes and seventy megabytes it took to pirate) for instructions on how to survive Mass Effect 2's potentially amazing suicide mission finale that the mechanics behind the game and its character relationships are, at least for now, hopelessly obscured. I admit, I am territorially resentful of, say, Jeff Gerstmann for decrying Persona 4 for its poorly explained subroutines (as he would have it) but seemingly excusing Mass Effect 2 from what I would consider being far guiltier of that same crime. I would be shocked to have someone accurately tell me why my loyal Tali took a bullet to the face and died while assigned to the same task as so many others assigned her to, only to have her survive and allow that player their stupid No One Left Behind achievement that seemed so arbitrarily robbed from me (rest peacefully, Tali; sleep proud, Grunt).

And it seems, in principle, the same as my confusion over what I did that kept me from, at the most basic level, obtaining the Paramour medal with Jack. If it was simply choosing the renegade options when presented with them, then the game is far less balanced than I have been led to believe by its recent exaltation. If it is some other factor, which eluded me in such a way that in a month from now I will look like a complete idiot for registering this complaint, know that, at least at this time, I am outraged by Jack's inexplicable and overwhelmingly manufactured silence.

As well as the fact that, for whatever reason, I was never given the option to have Legion join my team. What the fuck, people?

Oh, and having to manually feed the fish every damn time I returned to the Normandy was pretty excruciating; there, that's essentially my review. Four of five stars.