Postcards from Tradocia

Category: video games

Reach Out to the Truth

yu-finishPeople play video games for many different reasons: for escape, a sense of accomplishment, to waste time, to get paid. Most gaming these days seems to be about filling up bars and making numbers go up (see the seemingly endless procession of bars, numbers, and accompanying guitar riffs in any of the Call of Duty games since #4); hell, even football games have become an exercise in leveling up. As a now-crusty role-playing game veteran, one would think I would be pleased with the way that the nerdiest of the nerds have conquered the gaming industry, but in typically contrarian fashion, I hate it.

As with everything, I don’t want all the things to be like the one thing that I like. If I want to play an RPG, I’ll fire up Final Fantasy or Persona or whatever. If I want to shoot people in the face, I want to get to doing just that – keep your leveling-up and grinding and other new-fangled shit out of my murder simulator!

At any rate, I didn’t intend for this to veer into crotchety video game criticism; rather, it’s about why I play games. Despite having been playing them for nearly three decades (!), I have only just thought about the topic. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been staring into a glowing rectangle for damn near thirty years and it’s become a lifestyle and people in their mid-thirties on the Internet have to engage in serious navel-gazing about the most trivial of shit.

I woke up from a dream a few months ago, and as I often do, I was awash in feelings afterwards. What they were isn’t important; I don’t remember now anyway. I recalled the events of the dream as well as the feelings, but I realized in trying to explain the dream to Mrs. Melobi that a mere explanation of the events therein was totally inadequate to convey the milieu, the richly layered world presented by my subconscious in ornate (but sublimely incomplete) detail. It made me think of the only part of the movie Inception that I liked, when Cobb explains the dream process as being a cycle of simultaneous creation and perception.

Later, while playing a game, I realized that my experience with video games is often analogous to a dream. Not in the sense of doing things impossible in real life, or in wish fulfillment (though those are of course part of the experience); rather, it’s dreamlike in the sense of being immersed, with consciousness submerging into visuals and sounds and the on-screen action. The best games are dreamlike, too, in that afterwards describing them is difficult, as the grasp on those feelings brought on by the game vanish with the press of the power button, just as surely as snapping awake with the alarm clock.

I think this is why music has emerged as one of my main criteria for games: music is powerful in evoking emotions even on its own, and a well-crafted score combined with the visual content of a game is a powerful drug. The graphics and text of a game lead you inside that virtual world, but the music compels you to stay, enfolding your second dominant sense and shutting out the mundane, soundtrack-free world outside. (Maybe this isn’t unusual, but it’s extremely rare for me to experience taste or smell sensations in a dream, thus amplifying this effect in the waking world.)

Naturally, there are other reasons that I play games – cutting cyborgs in half and pulling out their spinal columns, then crushing them in your fist while your eye glows red sure is a powerful motivator – but this embarrassingly self-aware motivation might just be the main one (for single player games, anyway). Either that, or I just can’t stop filling up those bars.

The Games of Yore


Didn’t I have these games already?

Lately I’ve been on something of a “classic gaming” kick, revisiting in physical form many of my favorite games of days past. I hesitate to call it “retro” gaming, because per the definition of retro:

relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past : fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned <a retro look>

there is an implication of being fashionable, or adopting old things as an affectation. I’m not engaging in this activity in some sort of ironic, hipsterized way that pervades our culture (I’m not about to start drinking PBR, either); rather, in a real sense, I never left the 16-bit era. I just sold off a shitload of the stuff, and am now simply buying some of it back as a collector, something that I have never had the urge to become.

It all started (as many of these things do) with idle web browsing. I came across an article detailing how to turn a Super Nintendo controller into a USB controller with built-in flash memory, thus enabling one to have literally every SNES game ever made in the palm of your hand, playable on any computer, for less than the cost of a single one of those games in 1993. It’s an obvious idea in retrospect, but my mind was blown. Shortly after, while browsing the local used book store, I saw a really well-preserved SNES controller on the shelf (yes, at the book store), and bought it on a whim. This, of course, is always the snowflake that starts the avalanche; with a controller, one certainly needs a console, and games to go with it!

This led to a trip to the video game store, a locally-owned affair with an eclectic mix of old games, new games, DVDs, and geek paraphernalia. As a store of its type, it’s unremarkable, save for one distinction: the beautiful young woman behind the counter. With her winsome smile, shocking peroxide-blonde hair, and a buy-one-get-one-free sale sign on the counter, I was soon stacking cartridges in front of the register. Castlevania II was playing on a TV in the background, the town theme bumping out of the speakers, and I commented on her choice of game. “Yeah,” she said, “I just wish the first Castlevania didn’t have a timer – I could listen to Vampire Killer all day!” Citing a classic video game music track by name sealed the deal – I was in love. Too bad about the whole married thing…

Games in hand, I now needed consoles. I acquired a refurbished NES from another store (and then found out that seemingly everyone besides me had a NES lurking in the basement), and SGT Dock hooked me up with his SNES and a few more games. (Some of the games are utterly terrible, like Super Godzilla and Super Ninja Boy, continuing what has become a game of shitty media one-upsmanship against each other.)


Partying like it’s 1999

Despite having played games on all of these systems using emulators on the PC for many years, I found there is a distinct difference playing them as intended, using real hardware and a CRT television. Control is more direct, with no abstraction between player input and game action, and the experience is more direct, too: no dropping out of the game to check Facebook or read email. You turn the thing on and damn it, that’s what you’re doing until you’re done!

The experience is not particularly one of nostalgia, since a) the games I bought have stood up well over the years and b) I’ve played many of them in emulators, some quite recently. Nor is it a crotchety sense of “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” since plenty of modern games are in many ways better, not just graphically but as complete packages. Instead, these games stand on their own, much like any media of another age, a different style but no less enjoyable for that.

[Collector side-note: don’t blow into your NES cartridges, as we did as children. This just blows spit and water vapor onto the cartridge connectors, causing corrosion. Use a q-tip and rubbing alcohol to clean them instead. You’ll be surprised at how dirty that q-tip will be!]

Memento Mori

Memento Mori







I might be the only person on the internet comparing the Playstation 2 and PSP role-playing game Persona 3 and this year’s movie Act of Valor, so bear with me here. (Also note that there may be spoilers below for both Persona 3 and Act of Valor.)

Saturday I finished my 120-hour epic quest in Persona 3, a pretty standard game about Japanese high school students fighting demons in their school after midnight, shooting yourself in the head to summon spiritual beings, and leveling up by eating fast food (at familiar joints like “Wild Duck Burger”). Saturday night we went to see Act of Valor at the base theater, and with the intense experience of the ending of Persona 3 fresh in my mind, the film about war and sacrifice made an interesting juxtaposition with the themes of the game.

For sacrifice is one of the final themes of Persona 3, as the main character – the silent protagonist who you control for the duration, and whose personality is only expressed through your choices as the player – willingly gives up his life in the end, choosing death in order to save his friends (and indeed the rest of humanity). It’s an act several orders of magnitude larger in scale than the SEAL jumping on a grenade in the final firefight of Act of Valor, but one that’s no less personal. And indeed, those “damn few” SEALs put their lives on the line for an entire nation, the citizens of which – much like the people of the fictional city of Iwatodai – may never know from what they were saved, or by whom.

The more overarching theme of both works, though, was that of facing death, and living in spite of that inevitability that awaits all living things. Act of Valor quoted Tecumseh:

When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.

And Persona 3’s final enemy, Nyx, had her own quote:

Celebrate life’s grandeur… its brilliance… its magnificence… Only courage in the face of doubt can lead one to the answer. Beyond the beaten path lies the absolute end. It matters not who you are… Death awaits you.

Death is a journey that all life must make; the only choice left is how to face it, and sometimes, when to begin. In Persona 3, Nyx urges the characters to give up hope as death descends upon the world; after all, if death is known and inevitable, how can one continue living under that crushing burden? But the characters make the decision that the SEALs in Act of Valor already made: they choose to fight, and to live as best they can, with the time given to them. In both cases, this also gave them the freedom to choose sacrifice – voluntarily choosing death for the life of others. Not a berserker’s death (or that of a kamikaze), but a calculated decision, made in an instant.

Can such a decision be made in the moment? Or is it made long before, with “hard sweat of the brow” and long nights of doubt, ultimately arriving at that quiet steel, that state sought by many but attained by few? Neither work provides answers, but both suggest that only by facing death and acknowledging it can one live freely, unburdened by the fear of the infinite.


The Final Fantasy

FF1_USA_boxartI have been playing Final Fantasy games for 20 years.

This is a shocking figure, even to me, since my gaming career seems (from my perspective) to be a gradual but unbroken evolution. From the gates of Coneria to the plains of Pulse, games have grown up with me. I’ve sunk countless hours into games over the years, many of them into the Final Fantasy series (now approaching its fourteenth iteration, with many spin-offs and side games in between). I looked forward to each entry, and played each one vigorously, often multiple times.

But somewhere along the way, Final Fantasy quit being good. Fact is, Final Fantasy XIII sucks. Almost everything good about the series was removed and replaced with a shiny, hollow, self-referential shell of a game that represents in a  small way everything that is wrong with the game industry (and popular culture at large) in the second decade of the 21st century.

First, the music is terrible. Music has been a hallmark of Final Fantasy (composed until lately by the inestimable Nobuo Uematsu), yet here it is worthless.  Except for the tune that plays over the opening cinematic, every other track is forgettable pap. It’s so bland that I couldn’t even tell you if it was techno or orchestral or pop-like or what; yet you can spend thirty bucks and get a 4-CD set of the soundtrack. Useful I guess if you have an elevator business.

All but gone is the wonder of exploring a fantasy world – searching for the Airship or trekking to the Dark Elf’s cave or visiting the Golden Saucer are all replaced with a linear slog through what amounts to a forty-hour-long corridor filled with enemies. Gone are the unfashionable random encounters of earlier days of RPGs; instead, you can see all your foes ahead of you, which is ostensibly a better game mechanic but usually just fills me with a sense of dread. Cresting a hill and looking down on a long path filled with strange, jiggling creatures just served as a reminder that the entirety of the gameplay consisted of combat, broken only by stretches of holding the left analog stick forward to run to the next area.

The story struggles to be mysterious but just ends up being incoherent. Some people are on a train, getting exiled from their shell-like moon, and then escape the train by doing a lot of backflips and beating up a giant animal-robot with swords and bare hands. After that, the surfer guy in a trenchcoat drops somebody’s mom off a ledge and everyone turns out to be somehow related to someone’s sister who turned into a crystal. Then the whole crew (including a black guy with a baby bird living in his afro [really]) goes on the lam because they all got the same tattoos after getting electrocuted by a giant magic robot that’s evil but also provides the means of living for the whole planet. A bunch of other stuff happens, but I turned it off before I got to the crystal lesbian reincarnation subplot (really).

What happened to a nice good-versus-evil plot? I know that it’s passé to have good guys and bad guys, but when I kick back in front of the 50-inch with Final Fantasy, I don’t want shades of gray or a tale of moral complexity. I want to fight the big bad guy and summon Bahamut and yell, “fuck yeah, I just made a space dragon fry your face off!”

On top of all that, there are no towns, no leveling up (the 3-D crystal perfume grid doesn’t count and until late in the game is so linear that it might as well not exist at all), and hardly any equipment (you get weapons and accessories but the satisfaction of acquiring stuff is minimal). I didn’t buy a single item in 25 hours of game time!

I guess that was my last Final Fantasy game. I think it’s time to live up to the name and wrap up the series.

Game review: Demon’s Souls

This doesn't usually end well

This doesn't usually end well

Demon’s Souls is a PS3-exclusive game that revolves around your death. Your first death comes about ten minutes into the game after a perfunctory tutorial level (in a Hopeless Boss Fight moment), after which you are revived in “Soul Form” to battle the demons infesting the unfortunately-named kingdom of Boletaria. Alternating between Soul Form and Living Body Form is the core mechanic of the game and sets the stage for much of the game’s tension, since while you are in Soul Form your hit points and attack power are both reduced, so you want to be a Living Body most of the time. However, you have to earn the right to your body in a number of ways: by killing a major demon, by helping somebody else kill a major demon, or by killing another player who is in Body Form.

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Triumph or die!

Street Fighter IV is out today.

I’ve been playing various incarnations of the Street Fighter series for 17 years (!), since Street Fighter II: Champion Edition in 1992. There was an SFII machine in the Wal-Mart in Eagan, and my friend and I would hang around there and pretend we knew what the hell we were doing. It was pretty awesome when we figured out how to pull off a hadoken – it seemed like cheating! You can attack across the screen! No fair!

I love 2-D fighting games (as opposed to 3-D ones, like Virtua Fighter and Soul Calibur), but the truth is, despite nearly two decades of experience, I’m terrible at them. The main reason is that despite fast-paced appearances, fighting games are, at their heart, strategy games. Street Fighter is closer to chess than to Call of Duty, and therein lies the problem. I have better than average reflexes, excellent ability to memorize things, and I’m a passable tactical thinker; these skills serve me well in first-person shooters, where superior reflexes and map memorization can paper over tactical or strategic deficiencies. Not so in a fighting game – reflexes play a part, certainly, but more important is strategy and mind games (also known as Yomi). I’m a more straightforward thinker, I guess, which limits my ability to play those kinds of mind games.

Maybe that’s also why I’ve chosen to remain an NCO instead of becoming an officer, despite everyone in the United States Army trying to convince me otherwise…

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