16 September 2010

The Proper Way to Pan Halo: Reach

My friend John Teti has a website which he uses as an aggregator for the various writings he does for various publications. (Bookmark it, if you haven't done so already. John's one of the best writers I know.) Taking a page from the J. Teti playbook--this isn't the first time I've stolen a page from you, sir--I've decided to also post links to the stories I write during spare moments away from the show. Last week my review of Halo: Reach appeared in The A.V. Club. Here's a sample:

"The original Halo was many things—space opera, technical achievement, irrefutable proof that first-person shooters on consoles didn’t have to be mediocre—but above all, the first game was a love story between a 7-foot-tall super-soldier and a tiny blue virtual woman. Within seconds of seeing each another, Cortana asks the Master Chief if he slept well during his cryogenic sleep. “No thanks to your driving, yes,” he quips. She smiles, cocks her head, and says, “So you did miss me.” For the remainder of the game, these two flirt and banter like a new-media version of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

The new Halo: Reach doesn’t have a single relationship—or for that matter, a single moment—that displays this kind of relatable humanity. Instead, it gives us a squad of anonymous super-soldiers who, over the course of the game, literally disappear inside their own hyperbolic armor."

Read the rest of the review here. Better still, read the lengthy, sometimes clever, sometimes cruel, but consistently funny comment digression below the review. (290 comments so far and counting.) I'm telling you, these are the finest comment threads in the world, bar none. I love-hate you all.

This was not an easy review to write. Writing a review for a game that perpetuates a beloved franchise, as Reach does, is always challenging. I did not like the game. (I've liked each successive game in the series markedly less than the game that preceded it.) And trying to articulate why I've grown cold towards the Halo zeitgeist, which seems to still be cresting even as I type this--note the extraordinary number of perfect scores on Metacritic--was no small task.

The review went through two drafts, neither of which sat well with my editors. I promised to deliver a third, mind-blowing draft to their desks--well, virtually to their desks; they're in Chicago, and I'm in Vancouver--first thing the next morning. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't stop thinking about the review. What exactly was I trying to say here? I realized I wasn't alone in bed that night. Self-doubt, that old cold-handed witch, had gotten under the covers with me.

Part of me, if I'm going to be completely honest, wanted to quit in this moment. I wanted to say, "Get someone else. Because I can't do this." I love looking back on a piece of writing, and seeing it once it's completed. But the process itself? The actual casting-of-the-sentences? The searching-for-the-right-words? It's messy, and ugly, and it can be, at times, a downward spiral into self-doubt and misery.

But I couldn't quit. It was far too late for that. After you've pushed out two drafts, and the editors are anxiously awaiting a third, you're in, the way that mob guys are in in the movies.

After a sleepless night--yes, my soul was searched; I rifled through it several times, in fact--I got out of bed at 4:30 the next morning. I put on some coffee. I sat down at my desk and stared mindlessly at the blinking cursor.

Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink.

Empirical fact: A cursor blinks at approximately the rate of a slightly accelerated heartbeat. Whoever decided to make them blink at this annoying pace deserves to be seated next to pop sensation Justin Bieber for the duration of a transcontinental flight.

Vexed with self-doubt and anxiety, I did what I always do whenever I feel this way in my life: I completely vex myself with even more self-doubt and anxiety. I accomplished this by ditching my earlier draft entirely. Everything, every word I'd pulled out of myself so far: gone.

It was just me and cursor now--blink, blink--and a vast expanse of virtual white space.

Game on, fucker, I thought.

I wrote a sentence that didn't make me want to throw up on my shoes. I looked at it for a few minutes. I figured out a way to make it better. Then I wrote a second sentence that I didn't mind too much. Then a third.

I could already feel, at this early moment, that the review was moving in an entirely new direction. What I was saying, or at this point, still trying--and hoping--to say, was dramatically different from the previous drafts. I had a different kind of feeling in my stomach. It wasn't an entirely terrible feeling. I suddenly recognized what that feeling was: It was hope. I felt hopeful, goddamn it. I felt hopeful that things could still turn out OK for this review, and more importantly, for me. Maybe, just maybe, I'll come out of this shit-hell OK after all, I thought.

What was born, in the pre-dawn light of British Columbia, what was cajoled into life by bad coffee and an iota of hope, is the review that appears on the A.V. Club website. (And in print this week in select urban areas.) Trust me, it's infinitely better than the original drafts.

The moral of the story is this, kids: Become doctors, or lawyers, or Indian chiefs. Because this writing bullshit? This is no way to fucking live, man.

07 September 2010

Why Boss Fights Sort of Stink These Days

Before leaving for work in the morning, my dad was in the habit of writing out lengthy lists of chores that he wanted me and my brother to complete that day. He always signed his lists with the same two ominious words, always in capital letters: THE BOSS.

Bosses are frightening beings. They can make you do things that you wouldn't normally do, like wear a dumb uniform, and say strange things like, "Welcome to Chili's!" Bosses also have the power to tell you that you can't go home yet even if you want to go home, because, as they will explain, "There is still more work to do." Worst of all, bosses can take money away from you with another pair of words that is even more terrifying than THE BOSS. Those two words are: YOU'RE FIRED.

Maybe this is why I've always adored boss battles in videogames. It's a chance for me to dole out some well-deserved karmic payback for all those mustachioed middle managers who told me that I couldn't go home, that there was still more work to do, and, oh yes, please wear this dumb hat while working or else I will take money away from you.

Bosses--the virtual kind--have technically been around since a screen-filling mothership first appeared in the fifth and final level of Phoenix, an obscure 1980's-era arcade shooter. The first boss encounter I personally can recall with any clarity is Bowser in Super Mario Bros. I remember getting to the end of that white brick and lava level, and seeing this heavily pixellated lizard standing in front of me, and thinking two things: 1. WHAT THE SHIT ASS HELL IS THAT? and 2. HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO BEAT IT?

So began two long, dramatic decades of boss encounters for me. I've confronted bosses in Contra III: The Alien Wars (ROGUE TURTLE WITH A BEES NEST LIVING ON IT!), Super Metroid (RIDLEY!), Doom (CYBERDEMON, NOOOOO!) and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (DESERT WORM THING!). A fantasy that I've actually had on several occasions: I imagine all the bosses in all the games getting together once a year, maybe in a nice resort like Sandals, and sitting in a room, trying for the life of them to understand how the hell this Scott Jones person keeps beating all of them, year after year after year. "Enough is enough!" Bowser says, pounding one of his lizard fists on the table. "THIS STOPS NOW!"

Yet my beloved boss battles seem to be on the decline in recent years. Gamers, at least most of the gamers who I talk to on a routine basis, seem to be tired of dealing with this artificial ramping-up of difficulty in a game's final moments. Worse still, as evidenced by the lackluster boss fights I've seen so far this year, game makers seem to be growing increasingly tired of making them.

Boss battles have, very sadly, become fill-in-the-blank exercises in tedium. Same way that old movies always ended with the image of two people kissing or a cowboy riding off into a sunset, games still insist on ending with a boss battle of some sort. I've finished an unnatural amount of games so far in 2010. But could I tell you who, or what, I fought in the final moments of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Bayonetta, Alan Wake, or even the vaunted God of War III?

I could not.

And that's a problem.

What I do remember, in each case, is a flurry of noise, and hyperbole, and melodrama, and CG. All of which was designed to give me a sense of closure, to make me feel powerful, and to let me know that I have arrived at the end of a very great experience. Like a Vietnam flashback, I can recall vague explosions, and amorphous, oversized creatures coming into view. And I remember frustration--lots and lots of frustration.

Yet, more than frustration, I remember feeling irritated and pissed off in these final moments. Instead of having a ball in what should be the game's dramatic crescendo, most of the time I recall thinking, Goddamn it all, will this thing just fucking die already, and let me get on with my life. All that stood between me and a hard-earned rolling-of-the-credits of an uneven 8 to 15-hour experience was this big, stupid, bellowing, nonsensical creature with a multilayered health bar spanning the screen. Not once did these creatures, or the moments they were providing me with, give me closure, or make me feel empowered. I didn't walk away with any sort of fist-pumping, woo-hooing satisfaction. Strip away the explosions, and the hyperbole, and the CG, and what you're left with is a dated game design trope.

The fight with Fontaine/Atlas at the end of BioShock, to my mind, is the tombstone at the end of the boss-battle era. After one of the most consistently inventive and evocative experiences I'd ever had, Irrational Games/2K Boston ended the whole fucking thing in the most banal way imaginable: with a dull, unsatisfying boss battle. That milquetoast fight against Fontaine/Atlas still irks me. Even the eerie beating you dole out to Andrew Ryan's smug face with a golf club would have made for a bolder, more unsettling, and more appropriate ending to BioShock.

I've written the epitaph for this virtual tombstone: "Here lies the body of the boss battle. It lived a good life. In the end, its multilayered health bar finally ran out. Rest in peace. 1980-2007. P.S. Yes: It's really dead this time."

The larger question then becomes: As games grow more complex and nuanced and mature, how do we end them?

I'll take a stab at answering that question in an upcoming post. Wish me luck.

03 September 2010


In a medium that moves only a couple miles per hour shy of the speed of light, many aspects of gaming are constantly being cast aside and left behind. One such aspect is the old if-you're-stuck-dial-this-number tip line.

Back in the '90s, before the Internet roamed the earth, you were basically shit out of luck if you found yourself at an impasse while gaming. Your options were to 1) hope the subsequent issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly addressed your particular impasse (sometimes it did; sometimes it didn't), or 2) dial a phone number for a dollars-per-minute charge and speak with a gaming expert who could talk you through your problem.

I'm not the most skilled gamer on Earth. I think of myself as persistent more than anything else. I don't give up on a game easily, especially if I've spent $60 on it. But even I have my limits. Back then, after a few nights of back-to-back-to-back frustration, I'd usually reach for the phone.

I hated these moments. Dialing the 900 number was an admission of defeat. "I can't do this. This game has gotten the better of me." Etc.

It also felt shameful somehow. I called a few sex lines in college. You know, just to see what they were like. Usually I got some woman who was slurring her words from an obvious vodka drunk, asking me if I was "mama's dirty boy."

I was speaking with a woman named Peaches once when she asked me if I had my "pecker out." There is nothing remotely alluring about the word "pecker." I hung up on Peaches and then moped around the rest of the night in my apartment, feeling ashamed of myself, and ashamed of the credit card charges I'd accrued just to listen to a strange woman slur the word "pecker."

I felt a similar kind of shame when dialing the game-expert hotlines. I'd start pressing the numbers and think: "Am I really going to go through with this?" And then another voice inside my head would say: "Yes, you are going to go through with this because you can't afford to waste one more night of your terrible life searching for the seven Cuccos for that one lady in Kakariko Village."

All the bigger companies -- Nintendo, Capcom, Konami -- had hotline numbers at the time. But the only one I called regularly was the Nintendo hotline. Zelda games were the bane of my existence. There always seemed to be something I needed but couldn't find, or something that I'd found but couldn't figure out how to use. I basically spent the bulk of Ocarina of Time just walking around and playing my ocarina every couple of feet in the hopes that something magical might happen. Sometimes something magical happened. Most of the time, nothing happened.

I've been a gamer all my life, but I've struggled with feeling OK about my love of games. I love them now, unapologetically, but when I was younger I desperately wanted to think of myself as a Serious Person. I brooded a lot in coffee shops. I read "The Iliad" in public. Gaming was not something a Serious Person would do. It's nearly impossible to brood while gaming. Go ahead, try it. See? Impossible.

That said, because of all the years I had wasted on brooding and trying to read very large books that I didn't enjoy, I was well into my 20s when I dialed the Nintendo hotline most frequently, making me without a doubt the oldest regular caller to the Nintendo hotline.

Here is how it worked: The phone would ring a few times. I imagined a phone ringing in a giant castle. The symbolism of calling Nintendo was not lost on me. Nintendo was this amorphous fantasy place in my mind. It was like Santa's workshop, only it was real. The fact that I was doing something so tangible as calling Nintendo was an exciting act. It was almost as exciting as calling 1-900-U-GETOFF1.

A jolly pre-recorded voice would say, "Kids! Be sure you've got your parents' permission before we connect you with one of our Nintendo Game Counselors!" My face would always get hot with shame when I heard this.

I'd wait on hold for a few seconds, listening to some semi-obscure Nintendo tune playing in the background, like the theme music from World 4 in Super Mario Bros. 3. As far as I was concerned, this was the greatest on-hold music that I'd ever heard.

Eventually, a very chipper person would come on the line. "Thank you for calling Nintendo! I'm Greg, your game counselor. What can I help you with today?"

I was teaching literature classes at Syracuse University at the time. I tried to raise my voice an octave or two, trying not to sound too old and creepy on the phone. "Hi Greg! I'm having trouble finding the seventh Cucco for the lady in Kakariko Village. Can you help me?"

At this point Greg would ask me a series of questions. (I will make up some questions here for conversation's sake; do not email me about there not being a "Horn of Triumph" in Ocarina. Please. Thank you.) "Do you have the Ocarina of Woe? What about the Boomerang of Fate? And the Moon Medallion? And the Gravity Boots? What about the Horn of Triumph?" (Yes. Yes. No. Yes. No.)

This was usually the point in the call when I would hear the whooshing sound of my Serious Person rushing past me on its way to throwing itself out my apartment window, down to its certain death in the street below.

I had no idea where Greg was getting these answers from. At the time, I imagined him sitting in front of a wall of televisions. Row 2, TV 4 would have Ocarina cued up on it. I imagined him playing five or six games simultaneously. Now I realize he was probably sitting in front of a row of loose-leaf binders. He pulled out the Ocarina binder, flipped to Kakariko Village, then relayed the information to me.

Still, I romanticized Greg's job to an absurd extreme. Here was a man who knew things. Here was a man with answers. Here was a man who was earning a paycheck for being good at videogames. I imagined him sitting in the Nintendo Castle Cafeteria and eating his lunch, and joking with Shigeru Miyamoto about the fact that THEY WERE SERVING MUSHROOMS AGAIN. (Oh no, not again! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.)

I probably dialed the Nintendo number a dozen times over the years. Each time I spoke with someone with a name like Greg, or Tom, or Mike or Gary. They all sounded like the same person to me. One time I got a Tina. By the end of the call I was basically ready to ask her to marry me. Tina and I discussed the nuances of Super Metroid together. I am telling you, this was far more erotic for me than anything that I ever got from the 1-900 sex-talk numbers. And Tina didn't slur her words, and didn't pause after every other sentence to take a pull from her Smirnoff wine cooler. Tina was friendly and smart and very helpful. And she was a girl who could talk about games. Back in the '90s, there weren't many of them around.

During one of the final times that I called the Nintendo number, before I got into the habit of visiting GameFAQs.com, I tried to strike up a more personal conversation with Greg. (Or maybe it was Mike. Or maybe Gary.)

"You know, I've always wanted a job in videogames," I confided in GregMikeGary. I lowered my voice, and nervously looked over my shoulder, expecting Serious Person to creep up behind me and bludgeon me with a frying pan. This was, I knew, the ultimate betrayal of Serious Person.

I wanted GregMikeGary to tell me the secret. At that time in the industry, it still felt very much like a secret. Was there a password? A special handshake? A giant, golden key that I needed to find, like the one you use in Ocarina to open the last door in the dungeon? I was desperate. I sat in my tiny apartment on Genesee Street. Snow was falling outside my kitchen window. I listened as if the universe was about to reveal its greatest mysteries to me.

"Nintendo is a great place to work and everyone is really friendly here!" GregMikeGary said, to my great disappointment. Then he asked if there was anything else he could help me with. I considered asking him what Tina was like in real life. But then I made my peace with the fact that no mysteries were going to be revealed here. The mystery of the game industry was going to remain a mystery to me, at least for a few more years. I hung up the phone.

01 September 2010

Fan Expo, Cats, and Me

For three days last weekend, Vic and I walked around Toronto's Fan Expo kissing babies, hugging Wonder Womans--hello again, Wonder Womans--and having our pictures taken with strangers. It was incredibly flattering. We shoot the show in a vacuum, not knowing if anyone really watches.

People in Toronto? They watch. Oh, how they watch.

We flew home on Sunday night. I cabbed from the airport. I walked in the door of my apartment, and before I even had a chance to put my suitcase down, one of my cats barfed all over the place.

Then both cats kind of sat there, looking at me with little cat smiles on their little cat faces, as if to say, "Don't let your head get too big. At the end of the day, you still have to clean up our barf."

And clean it up I did while the cats sat off to the side, supervising the whole operation. "You missed a spot, Barf Boy," I imagined one of them saying. "That's right. You are our Barf Boy. Don't ever forget that. Barf Boy."

I love my cats. Vic has a cat too--this orange behemoth named Clyde. And my friend John Teti, he recently transformed into a full blown cat man. Most of the game writer-types I know have cats. Cats and videogame people, for some reason, go great together. Teti recently emailed me a picture of himself playing games while one of his cats--I don't know if it was Soupy or Nipsy--was sprawled out in his lap and napping as hard as a cat can nap.

Scientific fact: Cats experience an overwhelming urge to get into any/all laps of anyone who is playing a videogame. They seem to have a special sense that tells them whenever people are in a really tough part of the game--perhaps a boss fight--and things are heating up, and they are in dire need of all of their gaming powers. That's usually when my cat, Bee, decides that it's time for her to get into my lap and do a few cat circles, then proceed to start kneading my belly/crotch region with her claws.

Sometimes I shoo her away. But mostly I yell "BEE!" followed by a "COME ON!" and then I just let her do what she wants to do. I can't say no to her and her cute face and soft fur and her green eyes. So I try to game around her, leaning left and right while she does her cat thing as I shout more BEEs and more COME ONs.

Scientific Fact #2: Cats enjoy getting tangled up in cords and climbing on top of gaming consoles when they are on. Bee does this all the time. I'm guessing she enjoys the heat they give off. Whenever I find her on top of the Xbox 360 while I am gaming, I have about 67 heart attacks, because I am sure that a cat-on-top-of-console situation is no doubt responsible for approximately 88-percent of all Red Rings.

Ah, cats.


When I moved to Vancouver, I purchased a new couch for $2000. What a damn fool I was. I haven't even paid off the damn thing yet, and already my cats have scratched it to hell and back. I've tried everything to keep them from scratching the couch--doubled-side tape, blankets arranged so they obscure the most desirable scratch regions (the arms and sides). I've shouted COME ONs until I'm practically hoarse. Nothing works. Cat-owner Pro Tip: Don't buy expensive furniture, because your cats will just barf all over it and scratch the stuffing out of it.

I went to the Yaletown pet store the other day and bought a cardboard scratch thing called a COSMIC CATNIP ALPINE SCRATCHER. It's basically a $27 wedge of corrugated cardboard that stands at a 45-degree angle.

The cats like it well enough. They climb aboard the Alpine Scratcher and get some good scratches in, so I suppose it's doing its job. They haven't neglected the couch arms completely, though. The most interesting part about the Alpine Scratcher is the artwork on the side of the box. It features a bipedal cat wearing lederhosen and suspenders and a jaunty kerchief. Behind him are two smaller, completely naked cats, both of whom are wielding work tools of some sort. The smaller cat on the left gives a wave, as if he's posing for a wish-you-were-here vacation photo. The one on the right seems less in the mood to be photographed, and more focused on the task at hand. (See the photograph above.)

Next to this trio of cats is a pile of rocks that I can only assume is the grave of one of their alpine climbing companions who didn't have a strong enough constitution to survive their treacherous ascent. The three cats--the clothed one is the leader; the smaller, nude ones are the cat sherpas--paused to bury their now-dead friend beneath this rock mound, and pay their respects, as if to say, Rest in peace, cat climbing companion. May this rock pyramid we have arranged with our non-descript work tools stand tall in your memory.