31 August 2011

The Pablum Era

These days videogames tend to be fun, breezy little experiences. They are grin-inducing diversions that leave you feeling like a winner. Do the slightest thing, however banal, and suddenly the game is beeping and booping all over the place and raining virtual confetti down upon your laurel leaf-crowned head.

"Well, now! Look at you!" games seem to say. "What a spectacularly gifted human being you are! I know that you and I barely know each other, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and make a guess that you, Handsome Face--is it OK if I call you Handsome Face?--are something of a gaming savant. Aren't you? Come, now--no need to be humble. Now, go ahead and accept this oversized check made out in your name. And enjoy another four or five happy little ditties along with all these glorious rainbows shooting all over the f---ing place! IT'S ALL FOR YOU, CHOSEN ONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

But there was a time, not all that long ago, when games weren't afraid to be cruel exercises in dark agony (Cruel Exercises in Dark Agony = the title of my grad school poetry thesis); when they'd ask you to perform impossible task after impossible task and, upon completing said tasks, after dozens upon dozens of game-over screens, you'd be given the most meager of rewards for your effort. Games once said to us: "Hey, guess what? After all that bullshit you just went through, it turns out that the princess is actually in another castle. Oh man, if only you could see the dumb expression on your face right now. This is what you look like: 'Dur, dur, dur, dur, dur.' " Games said: "Every doubt you've ever had about yourself? About you sucking at everything and being a huge loser? All of that shit is absolutely f---ing true."

The reward-to-effort ratio these days is, by my far-from-scientific estimates, around ten to one. In other words, gamers typically get around 10 cutscenes, 10 door-opening keys, 10 Achievements Unlocked or 10 variations on a confetti shower for every sole bit of effort that they invest into a game. During the '80's and '90's, the opposite was true. Gamers had to invest 10 times the effort and time into a game in order to squeeze out the smallest, stalest bread crumb of encouragement. (Stale Bread Crumbs of Encouragement = Another solid title for a graduate school poetry thesis.)

To be clear, I'm not waxing poetic for a golden age of thumb-busting gaming here. I'm not saying that one is better or worse. All I'm saying is that most of us are walking the earth thinking that we are better gamers--and, perhaps by extension better people--than we actually are.

Over the last five years or so, games have gone from being a niche hobby to having mass appeal. Part of the reason that the medium has achieved this kind of commercial success is that game makers have become incredibly savvy when it comes to making everyone--including your mom, a.k.a. the very person who once chastised you for playing games--feel like winners. In other words, if you build it, and you create a cleverly designed feedback loop that makes them feel awesome, they will come.

Exhibit A: Game Over screens are an endangered species these days. Think about it--when was the last time you saw a Game Over or You're Dead, or in the case of Bayonetta, the "Witch Hunts Are Over" screen?

Imagine if you could pleasure a lover--a complicated task, as most of us can attest--simply by touching her on the very tip of her nose. One little tiny tap--boop!--and suddenly she is in the throes of passion. Seeing the results of your tap-boop, you would no doubt think, Surely I must be counted among the world's most skilled and gifted lovers. Or, imagine if you merely wrote your name at the top of your SAT only to have an entire marching band suddenly enter the testing hall along with a bald man in jacket and tie offering you a full scholarship to any university--any school in the world--that you'd like go to. Or, imagine if you invested a mere $10 in the stock market only to have--well, you get the idea.

If these things actually happened, the direct result would be an over-developed and undeserved sense of confidence in one's self. Egos would be inflated to Macy's Thanksgiving Parade-balloon size. People would walk the streets thinking, I'm hot shit, even when they are in fact not even remotely close to being hot shit.

That's what's happening in videogames these days.

One of the first games with mass appeal was 1984's Tetris. Blocks would descend from the top of the screen, Russian MIDI music would play, and everyone--even casual gamers--had a high old time. It's interesting to note that there was never any sort of "winning" in Tetris; all you could do effectively in Tetris was stave off inevitable failure. Because no matter how skilled you were, every Tetris player on the planet is eventually overwhelmed by the bricks. If anyone technically wins in Tetris, it's not the player; it's the bricks.

Compare Tetris with 2007's Peggle, which requires minimal, if any, skill, and is nothing but winning. Fire a tiny ball into a row of dots, watch it bounce from dot to dot, then bask in the glow of the message "EXTREME FEVER!" appearing onscreen while Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" blares in the background. If you're feeling a little low today, take in a couple of quick games of Peggle. Peggle can turn your day around right quick.

Peggle marks the beginning of the Pablum Era in gaming. The bulk of what's offered to gamers these days, with rare exceptions, is sugar-coated and dumbed down and already chewed. Few games, if any, dare pose a bona fide challenge for fear that someone might find the game too challenging and stop playing. Games are inherently insecure entities. They show up in our lives all smiley and smelling good, hoping with all their hearts that we really, really like them.

Whenever a game does come along that's not afraid to make a gamer question his or her self-worth--examples include From Software's Demon's Souls, Retro's Donkey Kong Country Returns, and Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden games--said game garners a reputation as a "hard" game, or as a game that would appeal exclusively to "old school" or "retro" gamers.

I'm not against games that make people feel good about themselves. As I've said many times through the years, I play videogames to feel like a winner and a hero; I play games because I want to see things and do things and experience things that I can't see/do/experience in my regular litter box-scooping, bill-paying, laundry-doing life.

But when I play something like the acclaimed Jetpack Joyride, which everyone on the planet seems to be playing today, a game which requires me only to tap repeatedly on the iPad's touchscreen--no, it does not even matter where I tap; just tap anywhere--only to receive glorious explosions, spinning slot machines, and more coin-jangling sound effects than an Atlantic City casino for my "efforts," it's difficult sometimes not to feel like Pavlov's dopiest dog.

28 August 2011

The Artwork of Toronto Hotel Rooms, Part 3

It's my last day in Toronto. There's still plenty to do before I can head to the airport--one more G4 booth hang-out (10 a.m. to noon), one more panel--yet I already I feel that vague it's-all-over melancholy that's an inevitable part of any trip. Make no mistake, going home will be great--it always is (hint: there are cats there)--but part of me wouldn't exactly be devastated if I had to stay put for another day or two.

Maybe that's because this is the closest I ever get to taking a proper vacation. I've never been very good at vacations. I've never mastered the art of rest and relaxation. People who have will tell you that, yes, it truly is an art. I have no desire to sink my toes into a white-sand beach in Bermuda and quaff a rum-based drink while saying something like, "Now this is the life!" I've been to the European Union a few times. I've looked at their old-time buildings and sipped their strong coffee. They're doing some good things over there. But I do not have a try-and-stop-me need to return. If I go back, fine. If not: also fine.

A few years ago, when I was still going out on a lot of dates, the first or second thing a date would often say to describe herself would be this: "I just love to travel!!!!!!!!!!" And I would always think, Well, I don't, while using all of my powers of concentration--and I mean all of my powers--to mitigate the frown that was attempting to unfold across the lower half of my face. (Yes, I was a joy to go out on dates with, ladies.)

Whenever someone shows me photos of their travels--"Here's Linda and me outside the Louvre!!!!!"--or worse still, when he or she shows me the glossy brochures and/or websites of the places that they intend to travel to, I immediately start banging pots and pans together hoping that the din will eventually drive this person away.

Part of the problem is that I've traveled an awful lot over the last 10 years. At one point I logged enough frequent flier miles to routinely qualify for first-class seats on American Airlines. I also recently relocated from one city to another (and, to go a step further, one country to another), which makes me still feel a bit like a vacationer in my new city. Fact: I need a passport to get into, and out of, my new country. Also: I lived in New York for 15 years, which is so massive and diverse that I always felt a bit like a tourist there. Even after 15 years, I could still get lost there, could still find myself wandering around and scratching my head, could still discover streets and even entire neighbourhoods that I'd never seen before. You can live in New York City for your entire life and never quite take in the scope of the whole damn thing.

The second part of the problem, which isn't really a problem at all, is that I enjoy what I do for a living. I love my job and the people who I work with to such an extreme degree that I never really feel any desire to take a time-out from it or from them. I have no desire to stick pins into a voodoo doll that looks like my boss; I don't spend a lot of time saying things like: "Barry in Accounts is just about the biggest asshole I've ever met in my life." For me, work days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, and suddenly it seems like it's always January and we're doing it all over again.

Also: as is evident from the last few days in Toronto, there is never a shortage of hotels or airports in my life. So there's always the feeling that I'm perpetually on vacation, even when, technically speaking, I'm not.

A few places I wouldn't mind being dragged to: the Mohonk Mountain House in the Catskills, because it's a big, shambling Overlook-like hotel, which is equal parts beautiful and creepy; Bruges, Belgium, mostly because I liked the Martin McDonagh movie an awful lot; and Copenhagen, Denmark because I was there once in the mid '90's and, of the few places I visited in Europe, Copenhagen is the one I want to return to, namely because 1. it was a bit mysterious, 2. it was filled with tall people, 3. Tivoli Gardens is the closest I will ever come to actually being inside Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

Now before you start banging pots and pans in my direction, which you have every right to do after the hypocritical nature of the previous paragraph, here's today's selection of artwork, carefully selected from the gallery that is room 2011 here at the Marriott Residence Inn in downtown Toronto.

TODAY'S ARTWORK: A tall, skinny photograph of a rocky mountaintop piercing skeins of cloud cover. This rather tasteful black-and-white photo--which seems even more tasteful when juxtaposed with yesterday's completely hideous "Jazz Jambalaya" painting--hangs directly above the toilet in my room. Each time I have used the toilet this weekend, I have studied the photograph. I have two observations to share:

1. This looks like a place that The Lord of the Rings Gang would pass through on their way to Minas Tirith. Or,


Artwork score: 6 out of 10.

Artist: Unknown.

Can I remove said artwork from hotel room wall? Answer: This one came off the wall quite easily.

27 August 2011

The Artwork of Toronto Hotel Rooms, Part 2

I got up early this morning and went for a brisk walk around the block. The air was cool and damp. Surprise: it's another gray morning here in Toronto. Gray mornings seem to be a Toronto specialty.

While I was sleeping, a heavy fog was busy blowing in. It's out there now, even as I type this, blanketing the city. It's winding its way between the buildings, coiling around the CN Tower, pressing up against the side of my Marriott, kissing the window of my room.

Side note: Toronto Fog = OK name for a high school jazz quintet.

I love getting up early in strange cities and walking about while the streets are still quiet and vacant. Traffic lights change then change again without any cars around to heed them. Early on, before everyone else wakes up and starts moving about and making their noise? That's the best time of day to get to know a city.

I usually snap a few random photos of the empty streets, thinking that maybe years from now, when I'm in my dotage, in the landfill of god-awful photos that my iPhone seems to naturally accrue, I'll discover these particular photos and think, Remember that one time I got up really early in Toronto and went for a walk? Man. (Pause...) That was kind of a weird time.

A few years ago, when I was traveling more often, back when game publishers were still flying writers all over the place on silly, unnecessary trips, I had the idea that I would take a photo of every hotel room I had stayed in. When I had accumulated a few dozen of those photos, I would arrange them into a collage, have it framed, and give it a pretentious title like "Vacancy/No Vacancy," or "Loneliness #2," or "Tiny Free Soaps."

Side note: Tiny Free Soaps = also an OK name for a high school jazz quintet.

Who knows. I still might wind up doing that.

Another remarkable thing about my Toronto hotel room: There is no phone in the toilet. In fact, this has to be one of the first hotels I've ever stayed in that does not have the de rigueur telephone located in the can. I've never understood the toilet phone as a concept. Who makes calls on those things? If I need to order room service or extra towels, am I going to use the toilet phone to ring the front desk? Answer: I'm not. I'm going to choose the regular phone which, considering the limited square footage of the hotel rooms I have stayed in, is usually only an additional three or four steps away from the toilet phone.

One more thing: Considering the location of the toilet phone, i.e. the toilet, I'm not sure I'd be terribly anxious to make calls from a phone that previous guests, who were all presumably seated on the bowl at the time of their calls, have also used. Then again, anyone interested in using a toilet phone is not exactly obsessed with good hygiene.

The world, once again, can be divided into two kinds of people: those who are for toilet phones, a.k.a. THE ABSOLUTE PINNACLE OF MODERN LIVING, and those who are against them. The eHarmony people should probably query singles if they've ever used a toilet phone--check YES or NO--and save hundreds, maybe thousands of people from unnecessary heartbreak and ruin.

Imagine this: you are on a romantic getaway to a mountain lodge with someone for the first time. Suddenly you overhear this person, who you think has at least a modicum of potential to be the love of your life (no one goes to a mountain lodge unless there is a modicum of potential), placing a call from the toilet. "Hey Tim? It's Fred. How are you? Yep, I'm at the mountain lodge." Etc.

No one--no, not even terrible people--should have to discover this about a possible mate in this fashion.

Anyway, I'd better get to today's painting.

TODAY'S PAINTING: This one looks like a famished, loin-cloth-wearing giant put an entire jazz quintet--saxophone, clarinet, guitar, trumpet and piano--in his giant mouth, gave the quintet a couple of chews with his back molars, then spit the whole mess out on the ground where a terrible painter was standing by with an easel and oil paints ready to record the whole thing for posterity and/or Bed, Bath & Beyonds everywhere.

Painting Score: 2 out of 10.

Artist: The work is, not surprisingly, unsigned.

Can I remove the painting from the room wall? Answer: I cannot. (Though, I confess, I didn't try terribly hard to jigger this one loose.)

24 August 2011

The Artwork of Toronto Hotel Rooms, Part 1

I woke up this morning in a hotel room on Wellington Street in Toronto. There are several nice things about my room. One: I have a view of the CN Tower. Two: Free Wi-fi. Three: Firm mattress. Four: One extra pillow on the bed.

While waking, I noticed a painting on the far wall of my room. This painting shows a man and a European-style bicycle. (How can I tell that it is a European bicycle? Because the seat is very small and is located at the very back of the bicycle.) The man, interestingly, is not riding the bicycle. Instead, he seems to be walking the bicycle. Maybe he has just finished a long ride and is tired. Maybe he stopped for a moment to take in the scenery. Or maybe his lover, only moments ago, ended their love affair, and now he is too sad to ride his bicycle. Regardless, his head is extremely thin, far more thin than a normal head would be, which is an example of the artist exercising his or her "Artistic License."

The man and his bicycle appear to be passing through an old fishing village of some kind. I say "old" namely because the painting is rendered in a range of sepia tones. Whenever I see a sepia tone, or even see the word "sepia," boom, I inevitably think "old" and sometimes even start hearing faint clarinet music like the type that is played in fake old-time ice cream parlors.

The tide is clearly out at the moment in the painting. Three boats--two regular boats and a sailboat--are currently parked on the shore. Did the fishermen, who are absent in the painting, pull the boats ashore? If so, where are they now? Are they perhaps lunching inside the small, thin building on the lefthand side of the painting? Perhaps they are smoking cigarettes and telling one another off-color jokes about the bicyclist's lover who has jilted him. Jokes that include phrasings and words like "openings," "24-7," and "that laundromat sign that says 'Last load: 8 p.m.' "

Other points of interest in the piece: the angry-looking rock-formation jetty extending into the harbor, which threatens to cleave the painting in two, and the palm-tree frond which hangs down from the top left corner. At least, I think it is a palm tree frond. Because it looks strange for a frond.

At the horizon, the sepia tones are identical to the sepia tones of the earth beneath the tires of the thin-headed man's European bicycle. This implies that earth and sky are one, and perhaps thematically, that whatever we find here on earth is just as appealing as anything we might long for, or envy over the horizon.

Score for this painting: 4 out of 10.

Artist: The work is unsigned.

Can I remove the painting from the room wall? Answer: No, I cannot.

09 August 2011

I Don't Know If I'm an Alcoholic (But I Quit Drinking Anyway)

If you know me, even a little, then you know that I've had my struggles with booze over the years. I never drank every day, or doctored my coffee with schnapps in the mornings, or kept a flask on my person. I never loitered in barrooms often enough to qualify as a barfly. That said, whenever I did drink--typically anywhere from two to five nights a week depending on the kind of week I was having--I always did so to an extreme, with a sense of great purpose. I always drank with the desire to arrive somewhere else, someplace far away from myself.

Those times are over now. At least, I hope they are. As of this Sunday, it'll be 63 days since I've had a drink.

Nearly every day on my walk home from the office, I pass the sun-flooded patio of Chill Winston in Gastown and observe people sipping from what appear to be the tallest, coldest, most spectacularly golden glasses of beer I have ever seen. I always think the same thing: Why can't I have one?

The reason why you can't have one, I patiently explain to my dumb self, is because you could never stop at one. My thinking was always this: Why have one when you can have six? Or ten? Or fifteen?

My appetite for beer has been insatiable since college. Whenever I shopped for beer, I'd always think of this line from True Romance: "It's better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it." Only I'd replace the word "gun" with "beer." This was my way of giving myself permission to purchase an extra six-pack or a spare tallboy, you know, just in case I needed it later. And if I didn't drink it tonight? It would be there tomorrow night, waiting for me.

When I moved to British Columbia in the summer of 2009, I dropped off my luggage at my furniture-less apartment then headed to the nearby 7-11 to buy beer. After a thorough investigation of the store's cooler sections and a brief interrogation of the cashier, I learned that convenience stores in B.C. do not carry alcohol of any kind. Over the next few days, I cased the neighborhood for liquor stores, only to deduce that there were none. The closest booze seller was a good sweat-inducing 15-minute walk away. I thought, Fine. This is the universe telling me that it's time to establish better habits, to start fresh here in this city. I hear you, Universe. And for a while, I was marginally booze-free and feeling pretty good about that.

Then three months later a beer and wine store opened its doors not more than a hundred steps from my apartment building. I anxiously peered through the front windows of the store wondering what, exactly, the universe was telling me now.

I became one of the store's first and no doubt best customers. I knew the owners of the store, and knew all the cashiers by name. And the money I spent there! A 12-pack of Alexander Keith's, which is pretty good beer, costs nearly $30. Six-packs range from $14 to $17 dollars for anything of quality. Trying to be a drunk in this province is no small investment.

It pains me now to do the math, thinking of all the cash I spent there. The store has only gotten fancier over the last two years. I can't help but think that some of the nicer additions, like the dimly lit wine alley on the far side of the store, wouldn't have been possible without my generous donations.

Though the amount of cash I've spent on beer is extraordinary, what galls me further, and makes me despair further, is the amount of time and energy I spent thinking about drinking, planning my drinking, and beyond that, being hungover from drinking. It's a truly staggering amount of time. I could have done plenty of other things with that time. I could have finished writing a book or two, could have gotten married and had a family, could have gotten married a second time and had a second family, could have been a better friend to my friends. I could have finally finished Fallout: New Vegas. I could have written more Jones Report entries, could have done more loads of laundry.

I could have learned to play the goddamn French horn. I could have called my mother more often.

Make no mistake: my life is fine. In some ways, considering all the self-destruction I've engaged in over the past two decades, it's borderline miraculous that things have turned out as well as they have for me. Still, it's hard not to wonder sometimes what I could have done, what path I might have taken, if I hadn't devoted so much time and energy to drinking.

At the back of my mind I suppose I've always fantasized what my life might be like if I really tried, you know, to be the best I could be, day in and day out. I've always wondered what I might be capable of, what fortune, glory or sense of self-satisfaction, if any at all, would come my way. Part of me has always been afraid to learn the answer to that question. I mean, what if I actually tried my best, tried to find out what I'm truly capable of, what I'm worth, only to learn that it's not really all that much?

That's a really shitty thing to learn about yourself. That said, I also know that if I don't at least attempt to learn the answer to that question, if I don't at least make a whole-hearted run at it, I'll never be able to forgive myself.

I went to a couple of AA meetings. It's an excellent organization, and it obviously works for a lot of people, but it's not for me. Maybe I'm being naive here, but I have a hard time accepting the I'm-helpless-in-the-face-of-this and addiction-as-disease approach. I believe you have a pretty clear choice when it comes to addiction: You choose to do it or choose not to do it. And that's it. (This article in Macleans deconstructs the addiction-as-disease way of thinking far more eloquently than I ever could.) (And if you're in the mood for one more booze-y click, it should be John Bowe's terrific story from the Lives section of the NY Times Magazine.)

So am I an alcoholic? Man, I don't know. A diagnosis really isn't even relevant anymore. All I know is this: I no longer liked the role that alcohol was playing in my life. That's all.

Sixty-plus days in, I'll confess: there's a pretty big hole in my life, and in my personality, that beer had occupied for decades. I've realized that I don't know who I am, or what I'm going to look like, or feel like, without beer in my life.

But I'm figuring that out now as fast as I can. In the meantime, I'll put in another load of laundry, then telephone my mom, then get busy attempting to realize my full potential.

Oh, beer-free life: I haven't completely figured out your appeal yet. But I will.

I will.