21 July 2011

The Joys of Life at 35,000 Feet

I'm away for the next week or so, in Upstate New York visiting my parents and my brother's family for a few days before heading south to New York City to see some friends there and tend to some business.

Yes, there's a plane involved--two of them, in fact--and a train (Amtrak between Utica and New York Penn Station, and at least one automobile (my parents will pick me up at the airport tonight, in Syracuse, as usual later tonight). Pictured above: the actual plane that will take me from Chicago to Syracuse later on today.

I also understand that I'm flying into what appears to be a sinister, world-class heat wave. If you happen to see a man sweating--and I mean dripping-from-the-tip-of-his-nose sweating--in an airport or train station over the next few days, chances are good that it's me. The heat and I are old enemies.

Packing this morning, as usual, I realize that I'm carrying an absurd amount of game machines. Here's what will pass through customs with me this morning: x1 3DS, x1 second generation DS (I can't live without the GBA cartridge slot), x1 PSP go (Pixeljunk Monsters: you are coming with me), x1 iPhone, and x1 iPad. No one, and I mean no one travels with more gaming opportunities on his person at any given moment that I do. (Except for maybe Victor Lucas. He carries around this amount gaming hardware practically every day, not just on travel days.) (Vic: You're weird.) (And I heart you.) (And Vic's also at the airport this morning, only he's enroute to Comic Con in San Diego. Godspeed, my friend.)

I especially love the moment--or rather, The Moment--when the plane finally levels off after its initial ascent, and the rotund fellow in the seat next to me starts to doze, and all my worries, anxieties, qualms, etc. are left behind me, back there, on the ground, and I reach into my duffel for the first time, as excited as an 8 year old on Christmas morning, trying to decide what system and what game to play first.

Man, I'm getting giddy over here just thinking about it.

I have plans to chime in and write while traveling. But the truth is, I'll likely be M.I.A. for a bit. Try not to miss me too much.

Happy Thursday.

12 July 2011

The Offline Lifestyle

As you know, Xbox 360's have failed me for the last time more often than Admirals failed Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies. Most recently, after my Xbox 360 Slim gave up its ghost making it the fourth 360 (and counting) to fail me, I tried to suss out a way to transfer my data from the hard drive of my busted Slim to my older model Elite 360.

Realizing that this process was both complex and risky, I decided to plug in the old Elite and simply start a brand new Xbox Live profile from scratch on the Elite's wiped hard drive. With my Gamer Score set all the way back to zero, no friends on my My Friends list, and that dopey golden retriever picture as my default gamer tag photo, I finally--finally--got back to gaming.

I thought: "I have to remember to let people know that I'm over here, temporarily at least, at this new Xbox Live handle."

But I didn't. Instead, I eased into a few races in Midnight Club: Los Angeles, starting the entire game over again from the beginning. The next night, I powered on the Elite again--man, this damn thing wheezes and gasps at start-up like an emphysema patient--to play Ms. Splosion Man, again planning to friend a few people.

But I didn't.

Nearly a week has passed now. And I still have yet to friend anyone.

It's oddly refreshing to look at my Gamer Profile and observe that I have exactly zero points. I had no idea the degree to which I was using my Gamer Score as a measure of personal self-worth. Like a Stockholm Syndrome survivor, I puzzled over how I ever got seduced into thinking of it as some kind of important metric in my life.

But an even bigger part of the appeal of my new XBL profile is the hermetically sealed isolation of it all. The most indelible gaming memories that I have from the last three decades aren't centered around that one time I pulled off a headshot on Crazzzy8888s1989 in a Wager match on the Silo map in Black Ops. My fondest memories historically involve long, drawn-out single-player games like Shadow of the Colossus, BioShock, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. My favorite games have always been very quiet, private, and personal journeys away from the sturm and drang of the rest of my life.

I've never been a fan of turning games into social, people-oriented experiences. Exhibit A: the multiplayer in BioShock 2. Games, of course, can be a conduit for social experiences, like the aforementioned headshot moment on Crazzzy8888s1989. But when I game, I'm not looking for way to connect with other people--I already do enough of that throughout my workday. What I want to do, more than anything, is to connect with the people who created the game.

Same way that I enjoy locking psyches with an author when I read a book, when I play BioShock my greatest desire is to connect with the very people who made BioShock. I want to understand how their brains work, what their aesthetic values are, and what their sense of logic is. (Or, in the case of Resident Evil 4, another terrific and completely isolating experience, the developer's complete disregard for logic. Exhibit B: killing a snake leaves an egg behind which you can eat for a health boost.)

In the old days, whenever I would power up the 360, which has been in my life since launch in late 2005, I was in the habit of doing two things: 1. I'd check to see who was online at the moment, and 2. I'd then check to see what those people were doing or playing. I'd study the row of dancing, preening (or, in most cases, napping) avatars. I'd notice things like this: my friend Steve who lives in New York, which is two time zones away from me, is still awake at 3 a.m. playing Trenched. I'd sit on my couch here on the West Coast, thinking to myself, "Huh. I wonder why Steve is awake at 3 a.m.? Did he wake up to feed the baby, then wander into the living room and decide to play Trenched? Is he fighting with Margo again? Maybe she made him sleep on the couch. They have been fighting a lot these days. Man, I hope he's not drinking. He really shouldn't be drinking anymore..."

At this point I inevitably have two further thoughts: 1. I hope that my friend Steve is OK, and 2. why must I go down this sort of digression hole every goddamn time I look at the dancing, preening row of avatars? How did real life and all of its concerns and complications and brow-furrowing and messiness and crying babies and fights with Margo get jungled up with my gaming?

Often I'd observe still other online friends who were, like good gamers should, consuming quality content that I should probably also be consuming. Friends always seem to be playing literate, artful offerings like Fallout: New Vegas, Dragon Age II, and Red Dead Redemption night after night after night. And I'd experience hot-faced shame knowing that they'd be able to see whatever lowbrow tripe I had selected to play for the evening, like Bayonetta (again), or The Bigs 2 (again), or Vanquish (again). "Good for you and your terrific taste, everyone," I'd think bitterly.

I have actually received messages via Xbox Live from online friends--or rather, "friends"--asking me, "Why on earth are you playing THAT shitty game again?" Which only makes me want to bellow the following three words directly into my TV screen:

LEAVE ME ALONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But with my new, completely anonymous profile, which no one, no, not even Victor Lucas, shall know the name of, I can now game again in complete, people-free privacy, with no worry whatsoever that I'll be interrupted mid-game to be informed that, yes, glory be, "Crazzzzy8888's1989 is now online." Worse still, whenever Crazzzzy8888's1989 loads up a game in need of a programming update or patch, Crazzzzy8888's1989 will be booted offline for the update, then ushered back online once said update takes, which means that I'll get a second, even less welcome notice that, yes, Crazzzzy8888's1989 is online, at which point I will usually once again bellow at the TV screen one of the following three things:

1. "I KNOW!" or,

2. "GOOD FOR YOU!" or,

3. "F*** YOU, CRAZZZZY8888S1989. I RUE THE F***ING DAY THAT I EVER ACCEPTED YOUR XBOX LIVE FRIENDSHIP REQUEST." (By the way, Crazzzzy8888s1989 is Steve.) (Hi, Steve.)

My other least-favorite Xbox Live moment is whenever I receive notifications that "friends are playing this game." This can actually sully a game for me before I have even started to play it. Suddenly, this "friend" (Steve) is showing up in my leaderboards. Suddenly, I'm simply doing something that Steve already did last night at 3 a.m., and who, according to the extremely helpful leaderboard, apparently did it 8.2 seconds faster than I did it. It's akin to finding a lost, lonely cave that you assumed was unexplored and that you briefly considered naming Scott's Cave for all of posterity, only to realize that someone has already opened up one of those weird KFC/Taco Bell hybrid counters inside. Whatever mystery, and more importantly whatever anticipation of mystery, there might have been for me has already been drained out of the experience.

Another thing: Why must I be informed that other people are using Netflix whenever I'm using Netflix? (Exhibit C: Friends using this App.) How is this helpful or useful information? If I'm in the middle of watching a blurry stream of David Cronenberg's The Fly, why is *that* designated as a fine time to notify me, usually mid Brundlefly transformation, that Crazzzzy8888's1989 is online yet again? (F*** you, Steve. Try playing less Xbox and kissing your baby and talking to Margo more. Seriously, man.)

Yes, I am fully aware of the fact that I can switch off all notifications. But Microsoft clearly does not want me to do this, as navigating the murky fathoms of menus and sub-menus is a very long way from being as transparent as it could, or should be.

Right now, it's really quiet where I am. The blinds are drawn. The outside world is where it belongs: outside. I'm gaming these days with a new-found sense of focus and passion that I haven't felt in ages. When I click over to the My Friends section of Xbox Live, I see nothing but that non-dancing, non-preening, grayed out ghost friend thing with the plus sign on its right shoulder.

And I'm feeling pretty good about that.

09 July 2011

Red-ringing: Part 2

My friend, John Teti, who is a very passionate and very lovely man (see for yourself here), apparently tapped out an ambitious comment that expounded on the reasons why we remain faithful to the 360 despite its tendency have more breakdowns than Liza Minnelli.

Unfortunately, Blogger, in all of its unstable glory, decided to jettison the comment into the void where all ambitious comments seem to go. (Blogger has jettisoned more than a few of my ambitious comments in my lifetime.) (Why it does this, we may never know.)

Anyway, John somehow found the time and energy to recreate the comment. He emailed it to me privately, because, to quote him, "I don't care to have my time FUCKING WASTED all over again."

So, without further pomp or circumstance, here's the recreated comment, in all of its uncensored, passionate glory:

"The reason we always go back to the 360 is that we semi-consciously anthropomorphize consoles, and the Xbox 360 is a friendly sort.

"What do you see when you turn on the 360? A bright, colorful screen that says 'Welcome.' A smiling, dancing cartoon version of yourself, maybe playing with a pet. A seemingly endless, verdant tableau of games, video, and other fun stretching off the right side of the screen into eternity.

"What do you see when you turn on the PS3? A gloomy background occupied by a tiny strip of bland icons. About a million features you will never use, each with their own barely readable text label. Perhaps an advertisement fades into the screen, reminding you to buy some Sony film from the Sony PSN Store brought to you by Sony. (Don't just stand there, kid; buy something.) Everything is so goddamn corporate, like you are clocking into work instead of getting ready to play a game.

"But all of that is relatively tolerable. What really makes the PS3 so irritating is the attitude.

"I have a spare Xbox 360 hooked up to my computer that I use for video capture. Last week I started it up for the first time in a year. I knew I would have to update the system software, and install the requisite updates to the game that I was playing (L.A. Noire.) Do you know how long it took me to get up and running? THREE MINUTES. That's it. That's the 360: 'Hey, buddy, happy to see you!' It's almost embarrassed that it has to tidy up a little bit before the two of you can get down to FUN!

"Meanwhile, the PS3's attitude is 'Where the hell have YOU been?' Can you imagine what this experience would have been like if this were my spare PS3? I think we all know: it would be an ALL-CONSUMING INFERNO OF BOREDOM. The PS3 fucking PUNISHES you if you ignore it for even a couple of weeks. 'What's that, you want to play that new downloadable game you heard about on the TV? How about you sit there and FUCKING WAIT while I update my firmware; I have to delete some of my features because Sony thinks you don't deserve them, and you know what? I THINK THEY'RE RIGHT!!!'

"So you sit there while it updates or upgrades or installs or whatever the fuck this umpteenth progress bar is supposed to be doing -- you don't even know what the progress bar MEANS anymore; by this point the very concept of a progress bar has lost all ability to signify -- and the PS3 is just loving every minute of your misery. Because it's like an insanely possessive friend whom you can never, ever please. 'This is what you get when you don't pay attention to my every need! How DARE you do anything but play with your PlayStation? DON'T YOU LOVE ME?????'

"No, I don't love you at all. I hate turning on my PS3. I'm not talking about the games. The games for the console are great, every bit as good as those on the Xbox 360 (since they are mostly the same games, after all). Gaming on the PS3 is, though, like eating at a restaurant where the food is fantastic but the manager is a total prick. You know you'll enjoy yourself in the end, but the guy running the show has such a bad attitude, you don't want to give him the satisfaction.

"As for the Wii, who gives a shit.

"So yes, of course we keep going back to the 360. He may be a sickly little guy, prone to keel over at a moment's notice. But dadgum it, he's always been our friend, greeting us with an easy, natural smile every time we drop by for a visit. And when you have friends like that, you stick by them."

Thanks, John.