Category: ramblings

The Lost Weekend in a Lost Year

My wife and son were out of town this weekend, and so my plans were very simple:

  • sleep in;
  • stay away from the news;
  • relax;
  • play some games; and
  • clean out my closet.

Instead:

  • I had insomnia all weekend, and so while I slept in, it’s only because I only finally fell asleep at, like 7am;
  • Of course I had to look at Twitter, because of course our President* is a fucking idiot and there’s really nothing quite like watching him admit to obstructing justice in real time;
  • Neither of the above helped me relax;
  • I did clean out my closet, which was necessary; and
  • I played a ton of Assassin’s Creed Origins (henceforth AssOrgy) and realized I still have a ton more to go.

On that last point – I think I’ve started to reach the point where I simply can’t sink 100+ hours into a game anymore and still be a functioning adult / parent / husband / employee.  As much as I’m enjoying AssOrgy – and I’ll get to the specifics in a moment – it is so overwhelmingly huge and I just can’t deal.  I thought I was approaching the end – there was a point where I was told that by accepting the next mission there was no turning back – but instead now I see I have at least 12 more hours to go, especially if I want to be suitably leveled up.  There are still at least 5 or 6 huge areas of the map that are fogged over, and I’ve already sunk over 40 hours into this game, and the idea that there’s still so much left to do is sorta soul-crushing, a little bit.

That said, AO is rather incredible.  I certainly appreciate the amount of work that went into it; it is gigantic and yet rich with detail, and it’s the first open world that Ubisoft’s made where the world itself is interesting to explore on its own terms, rather than simply trying to cross off all the various Xs and Os on the map.  It’s hard to look at AO and not see the heavy influence of Red Dead Redemption and The Witcher 3, both similarly huge games that make great use of their environments in addition to the stories they’re telling.  Indeed, aside from Black Flag, this is the least Assassin’s Creed-ish AC game in the franchise, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; the series desperately needed to evolve, and this one feels much stronger for it.  It feels like I’m playing an enormous novel, rather than a game, and I very much appreciate that kind of feeling.  It’s just that, well, I simply don’t have the kind of time anymore to allow myself to be immersed as thoroughly as I’d like.  I was alone in my house for almost 48 hours this weekend – that will probably never happen again, and I really need to stop taking mental health days with the sort of frequency that I’m used to.  (I ran out of sick/vacation time in early November.)

Meanwhile, I’ve got Wolfenstein 2 still on my to-do list; I keep ducking in here and there just to check it out, though ACO keeps pulling me back.  I’ve also got tons of stuff on the Switch I keep meaning to get to.  And I also re-rented Battlefront 2, if only to play a bit of the campaign and let my Xbox One X do its thing.  (It’s very pretty, even if the campaign is kinda weak.  And shooting rebel soldiers is always gonna feel weird.)


We started watching the new Netflix series Dark last night; I’d heard some really good things about it, in that it’s a Lost-esque quasi-supernatural mystery show.  It is that, but it’s also creepy as all hell, and it’s also gorgeously photographed.  Probably the best-looking show this side of Hannibal, I think.  We’re only 1 episode into the 10-episode season, so who knows if it falls off the rails.  If you decide to watch, I’d recommend keeping the original German audio and putting on English subtitles; the English overdub is distracting.


I’m moving very slowly through John Crowley’s Little, Big.  It’s the sort of book where you sorta have to read and re-read every sentence, because the way each sentence is constructed is somewhat deliberately ambiguous at times.  This can be frustrating, in the same way that playing a 60-hour game is frustrating – I’m very much taken in by the world and what’s happening, but I also don’t have that much time to read these days, and so it can be very hard to dip in and out of it on the train or during lunch.  It’s the sort of book that would appear to be best read in a week-long sitting, where you don’t get out of bed.  As much as I want to devour the rest of his catalog, I need to remember to bear this quirk in mind.


Am I gonna get around to my year-end lists?  I don’t know, you guys.  I consumed a lot of media this year, mostly in order to drown out the noise of the outside world, and while I enjoyed a great deal of it, it does feel a little silly to rank things in a year in which I’ve had a mild but unceasing anxiety attack since January.  I’m exhausted.  I kinda just want to enjoy things without feeling the need to give them ribbons.  If anything, I want to give myself a ribbon for making it through the year.

The Pre-Thanksgiving Reckoning

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, which means that I need to start thinking about organizing my year-end lists.

I’m gonna be honest with you; right now everything’s a bit of a mess.

My games list is basically trash; I bought a lot of games but barely finished any of them, and there were long stretches this year when I was utterly disinterested in anything I was playing.  I’m kinda-sorta back in the swing of things now, but it’s doubtful that I’ll finish – or even get close to finishing – the stuff that will appear on everyone else’s lists.

Music-wise, well… I feel like I’ve talked about this before, but as I have no short-term memory and since this is my own personal blog and I can talk about whatever I want, please indulge me if I’m repeating myself:  I simply don’t listen to music the way I used to.  My commutes are too short to properly digest albums, and now that my day job has turned off access to Spotify, I don’t really get to listen to music during my down time.  Most of what I’ve listened to this year is my Discovery playlist, which continues to have a very high batting average; my Favorites From the Discovery playlist is currently 120+ songs deep, and that’s pretty much all I listen to.  Some of my favorite artists released very good albums this year, but I couldn’t tell you what they were.  (Indeed, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard have released four (4) albums already this year, and they’ve promised a 5th before year’s end; I feel tremendous shame that I still haven’t finished my album, which is almost 3 years old at this point.)

As for books – I can probably do a pretty good Books list this year.  I have found that the most effective and most enjoyable form of escaping the news is to get lost in really good books, and as such I’ve enjoyed nearly everything I’ve read this year, and I’ve managed to read quite a lot – far more than I expected to, at any rate.  I don’t know if I’m going to continue to do the Goodreads challenge next year, although I should note that setting the bar artificially low removes a great deal of self-imposed pressure.


On that note, I just want to give a brief shout-out to John Hodgman’s “Vacationland”, which I devoured yesterday and which I can confidently say is one of the best books I’ve read all year.  Rather than the very funny fake-trivia books that he’s famous for, these are memoir-ish essays about middle age and parenthood and home ownership and nostalgia and they are all very funny and they ring very true.  Hodgman is not just a funny writer – he’s a very good writer, which makes his comedy that much more effective; he crafts his prose with pitch-perfect pacing.

In other book news, I finally finished Michel Faber’s “The Crimson Petal and the White”, which was absolutely brilliant except for the ending.  Not that the ending is bad, from a narrative standpoint – it’s ambiguous and unresolved, and that’s OK – but rather it’s very sudden, as if Faber simply ran out of gas and decided he couldn’t write another word.

had intended to start the new Brandon Sanderson, but instead I read this LA times review/overview of John Crowley and decided I needed to read everything he’d written.  I’ve been missing David Mitchell’s fiction something fierce, and it sounds like this might be a suitable stop-gap.  So I’m at the beginning of Little, Big, and we’ll take it from there.


My son and I beat Super Mario Odyssey last night.  Which is to say – we defeated Bowser, skipped past the credits, and now we are back in the Mushroom Kingdom, ready to do whatever happens next.  I’m not sure who was more excited.  Every time we found a moon, he’d jump up and give me a high five.  We evolved our play sessions over time; at first he’d control Mario and I’d be the hat, and eventually we decided that every time we landed in a new area, he’d get the controller and run around and see what there was to see, and when it was time to actually do stuff he’d give me the controller, and then when a moon showed up he’d grab the controller back and collect it, and then we’d high five.

Lots of high fives in our basement over the last week or so.  It made me very, very happy to be able to share that experience with him.  I know I’ve said it a zillion times here, that I inadvertently skipped over the classic Nintendo era in my childhood, and so I’m glad that Henry gets to make up for it, and that I get to participate.  Indeed, he wants me to participate.  For the last week, you can tell that he starts getting excited as he gets closer and closer to finishing his dinner, because he knows that as soon as he brings his empty dish to the sink we get to go downstairs and play.

I never had that.  I didn’t expect it, of course – video games were a new thing when I was a little kid, and I never expected my parents to be engaged with it.  (Nor did I particularly want them to, for that matter.)  But I’ve loved gaming since I was 5 years old, and now that I’ve gotten Henry interested, it’s something we’re going to be able to share together – just the two of us, a father/son thing – for a long time to come.


At some point I’m going to write my thing about idle clickers.  Because I have a thing for idle clickers, and I appreciate that it’s somewhat ridiculous to have a thing for idle clickers.  In any event, I just wanted to link to this thing about the upcoming Clicker Heroes 2, and how the developers decided to do away with the free-to-pay / pay-to-win thing specifically because it bothered them, ethically and morally, and I think that’s pretty amazing:

Games are inherently addictive. That alone is not a bad thing, until it gets abused. In Clicker Heroes 1, we never tried to abuse players with our real-money shop, and for the most part we designed it without the shop in mind so that you never have to purchase rubies to progress. Despite this, we found that some number of players spent many thousands of dollars on rubies. I can only hope that these people could afford it, and that they were doing it to support us, and not to feed an addiction. But I strongly suspect that this is not the case.

We made a lot of money from these players who spent thousands. They are known to the industry as “Whales”. Great. If you’re rich, please be my guest. But we don’t want this kind of money if it came from anyone who regrets their decision, if it made their lives significantly worse as a result. Unfortunately, those who have a problem are usually in denial about it, and would be too ashamed to ask us for a refund. We would give the refund in a heartbeat. It’s not like we have artists drawing each ruby by hand. It costs us nothing but payment processing fees.

We really don’t like making money off players who are in denial of their addiction. And that’s what a large part of free-to-play gaming is all about. Everyone in the industry seems to rationalize it by shifting the blame, assuming way too much cognizance on the part of their victims. People can make their own decisions, right? But it just doesn’t sit well with me. Despite very few of our players having complained, it felt wrong when we started doing it and it still feels wrong now.

I am one of those “whales”, and I’ve had to reckon with that quite a lot over the years, going back at least to the halcyon days of Farmville.  Even as recently as a few weeks ago, I’ve forced myself to delete a ton of apps off of my phone in order to resist the temptation to buy boosters.  (Needless to say, I didn’t even bother taking Battlefront 2 out of the rental envelope, loot boxes or no.)   So I’m grateful that a game developer is, at the very least, cognizant of this phenomenon, and that they’re directly changing their development philosophy because of it.  I should also mention that I still have Clicker Heroes running in another tab at this very moment, because – as noted above – I am insane.


Have a wonderful holiday weekend, everybody; eat, drink, be merry, sleep late, and don’t discuss politics.

 

From the Archives: Me v MGS V

Remember a million years ago when I was working on a huge Metal Gear Solid essay for Unwinnable?

COgG-8rU8AAtx--

Well, here it is.

Unwinnable – How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Metal Gear Solid

This is probably the longest essay I’ve written since college, and all things considered I think it turned out pretty well.  I can’t say I’ve thought very much about the game since this piece got published, but then again, I think I just re-downloaded it on Xbox One X, and I may give it another ago during the next release calendar lull.

Extra-special thanks to Unwinnable EIC Stu Horvath for accepting my pitch and making it look really nice.

Weekend Recap: Dismantling the Patriarchy and Playing With Expensive Toys

Well, it took a little while, but I’ve finally caught the cold that’s been running around my house for the last week, and I’m very fortunate that I’m out of sick time and vacation time at my day job and also that my day job is now suddenly extremely busy with very time-sensitive stuff and the acceptable margin for error is even more nil than usual.  The timing couldn’t be better.


So I’ve been reading Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, which is an absolutely gorgeously-written book about some rather unfortunate subject matter, given the recent news developments about how all men are trash.  I don’t mean to be flippant about that, by the way – men are fucking trash, and if there’s one good thing about the disastrous Trump presidency it’s that the patriarchy might finally come crumbling down, and good fucking riddance to it.

I don’t think my own actions have been as horrific as, say, Louis C.K., but that doesn’t necessarily get me off the hook; I was a shithead in my 20s, and I didn’t know that I was a shithead at the time, and it sucks.  Facebook has that little “memories” thing and it was almost exactly 3 years ago today that I went back and re-read my college diary and was simply aghast at how shitty a person I was, and the whole thing still makes me nauseous.  All I can do, now, is raise my son to be a better man than I used to be.  I’d like to think that I’m at least a halfway decent man now, and that’s really only because of a concerted and conscious effort and my eternally patient wife straight-up telling me when I’m unconsciously mansplaining or being a jerk.


As noted above, I’ve been kept away from writing here for a while.  I’ve been wanting to pop in here and write about, oh, I don’t know, my new Xbox One X and how my son and I have been playing Super Mario Odyssey together, which is really all I’ve ever wanted to do with him.  Let’s start with that, then, because it’s wonderful.

Henry loves Super Mario Odyssey.  We’ve been playing it in 2-player mode, where he’s Mario and I’m the hat, although he’ll hand me his controller when he needs help getting to a tricky place or when there’s a boss fight.  And more often than not he’s just happy to watch and show me where to go, and when we collect a moon he goes “YES!” and gives me a high-five, and it’s like, man, this is the best.  I’ve said it here a million times – I never had a Nintendo system in my house; I had an Atari 2600 when I was a little kid, and then my younger brother had a Sega Genesis, and so I’ve never had the Nintendo nostalgia that everyone else in the world has.  But seeing my kid go nuts over Mario is awesome.  I’m so happy to be able to share this experience with him.   (In fact, when I was getting him dressed this morning, he told me he had Mario dreams, and he couldn’t wait to play some more with me tonight.  Plans = made.)

As for the Xbox One X:  well, look.

img_5832

I don’t (yet) have a 4K TV, but I can tell you that the difference between the OG XB1 and this new XOX is night and day.  It’s much quieter, everything loads much faster (even the stuff that hasn’t received “enhanced patches” perform better – The Witcher 3 loads at least a full minute quicker than before, and it seems to perform much smoother too), and the stuff that has received updates is even more pronounced.  Wolfenstein 2 on XOX, in particular, makes the OG XB1 look last-gen.

I’ve been spending the most time with Assassin’s Creed Origins (heretofore AssOrgy), and yeah, that game looks really nice.  I’m still in the early going – I’m only level 15 or so, and I’ve just gotten to the Hippodrome – but it has a wonderful sense of pace to it.  Feels a lot like Witcher 3, actually, in all the right ways, and this game’s open-world structure seems to suit the nomadic player character quite well, in that it makes sense for him to be wandering around and picking up missions here and there, helping out where he can.  I’ve seen some chatter on Twitter that while people like AssOrgy, it’s not necessarily a great Assassin’s Creed game; I suppose that’s a fair assessment, given that the “assassination missions” feel a lot less scripted than they used to, but overall I really like the direction this game is moving in.  In fact, the only bits that I’m finding myself missing are the environmental puzzles, though supposedly that element starts to show up a bit later, once you reach Giza and the Pyramids.

I understand that there’s a fair bit of confusion as to who the Xbox One X is actually for.  I can tell you this:  it’s for me, the Xbox fanboy who has been disappointed by the performance of the Xbox One and wants a comparable experience to the PS4.  And who also has a little bit of extra cash (or doesn’t care about excess credit card debt).  Is it necessary?  No, probably not, but I don’t regret my purchase in the slightest.  It makes my existing library look and perform drastically better than it did, and so I’m all for it.  If you’re looking to take the plunge and upgrade, I would highly recommend buying an external hard drive and backing up your current Xbox One and moving all your games over to it first, as it makes setting up the X1X a twenty-minute breeze.  (For whatever it’s worth, this is the one I have, and I bought it because Major Nelson uses it too, and it was on sale at the time.)

the necessity of distraction

You ever take an allergy pill and then drink too much caffeine?  It’s all the physical symptoms of an anxiety attack but you’re also very zoned out and breathing very deeply.

Hi, welcome to my Wednesday afternoon.  My job is slow at the moment, and I have all this nervous energy that I need to expel.  So I’m gonna talk about all the crap I’ve bought of late that I haven’t had the time or inclination to enjoy.


Before I get started with some aimless rambling and babbling, I just want to thank everyone for their support this past week.  We did end up putting Lily to sleep on Saturday, and it was awful and gut-wrenching and sad, but hearing from everyone really did make a difference.  I am in the midst of another one of my love-hate spats with the internet and social media, but in this particular instance it was really nice to feel like all our friends around the world were giving us a much-needed hug.

I suppose I should also say that I’m fine, as far as the horrific event that took place in lower Manhattan yesterday afternoon.  Indeed, my office is so close to it that I could see the men in white hazmat suits milling around as I ran a quick errand this morning.  I was never in any danger (though I had been walking right there only a few hours prior), and I never had a chance to get anxious because by the time that the actual, real news was starting to come in, it was already over.  I suppose it might seem weird that I’m not really all that messed up about it, but, I mean, what am I gonna do?  I’m already a nervous wreck about the world in general.  I’m just glad it wasn’t worse.


I’ve been in a non-stop escapist fiction mood of late, reading lots of horror and thriller and mystery stuff, and I needed to switch things up just a bit.  So I’m now three chapters into The Crimson Petal and the White, and it is gorgeous in ways I haven’t yet even begun to parse.  I enjoyed Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, and everyone on Goodreads who saw that I’d enjoyed it told me to immediately drop everything I was doing and start reading Crimson Petal; it’s been a few years, but here I am.


I am desperate to talk about Stranger Things 2, except that I haven’t finished it yet.  Assuming that the wife is amenable, we will watch the final 2 episodes tonight.  Yes, I am aware that a lot of people have very intense problems with Episode 7; I also just read a thing that the Duffer Brothers are aware of this but felt it necessary to fully tell the story they wanted to tell.  Given that I am fully on board with this season – even more than the first one, and I adored the first one – I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I will say this, in the meantime – one of the things that I love about ST is how people actually cooperate with each other and believe each other and don’t act stupid for the purpose of plot contrivance.  It worked remarkably well in the first season and it’s working even better here.  Also – genius casting of Sean Astin and Paul Reiser.  (I noted on Twitter the other day that people who recognize Sean Astin from LotR and not The Goonies make me feel incredibly old, and then a friend reminded me that 16 years passed between the Goonies and LotR 1, and that 16 years have also passed since LotR1 and ST2, and holy shit I am old.)


In my dog-related grief, I accidentally did a thing and bought a Nintendo Switch, plus Zelda and Mario (and then Golf Story and also Stardew Valley).  So that’s happening.  I’ve been able to play maybe 15 minutes of Zelda, Mario and Golf, and they are all things I want to continue playing, so that’s nice.

I also have Assassin’s Creed Origins and Wolfenstein II burning a hole on my Xbox One’s external hard drive, and I’ve played just enough of both of them to know that I’d rather play them on my Xbox One X, which is supposedly arriving next week although I haven’t yet received any shipping information, which is unnerving.


 

moving forward by stepping back

1. So it’s clear to me that I’ve needed to unplug for a little while.  I needed to switch off social media and the news and the internet because everything has been awful, for such an extended period of time, and I was way past my breaking point without having realized it.

My brother got married last weekend (not this past weekend, the one before that) and it was so nice to be able to focus on him and his wife and seeing my extended family and having my son play with his (new) cousins, and even just staying unplugged for a few days did wonders for my mental health.  (The wedding was amazing, by the way, and not just because my wife did a great job officiating.)

Of course, with the world being what it currently is, I can’t stay unplugged for too long.  And so last night I started to see the “me too” thing happening on Facebook, and it broke my heart – not only because pretty much every woman I’ve ever been friends with posted it, but because I wasn’t surprised.  How fucking terrible is that?

Men, what the fuck?

2.  My day job is currently transitioning to modern computer technology, but while personal email and social media and Spotify are still off-limits, I apparently still have access to this blog.  I don’t know how often I can post here – and I certainly don’t want to post too much and have my job know how much time I’m spending here not doing the job they pay me for.  Of course, “posting too much” is not an issue here, nor has it ever been, and so I hope that isn’t a problem for anyone.  But I’m still gonna be somewhat quiet here for at least another week or so, just so that I can keep under the radar.  That said, this is a big month for AAA games, and I’m sure I’m going to want to talk about 3 of them in particular (i.e., South ParkWolfenstein II, and Assassin’s Creed Origins), so I’ll probably be back sooner than you think.  Basically, ignore this whole paragraph.

in the idle hours

Well, I haven’t lost WordPress access just yet, so… here we go.

I started this post last week, but couldn’t finish it because of work stuff.  I was gonna work on it yesterday, but yesterday was awful and I felt silly for bothering with this sort of post.  Today, however, I am doing my best to engage in self-care and so I’m gonna take a cue from kottke.org and do a little rundown of all the various media I’ve taken in lately.

Ann Leckie, Imperial Radch Trilogy.  This has been on my to-read list forever, and now I’m finally getting around to reading it, and it is just as good as I’d hoped it would be.  And let me tell you, when the world is falling to shit and you can barely keep it together, there’s nothing quite like knowing you’ve got a good book to wrap yourself in.  It’s a security blanket for the soul.

Stephen King, The Bill Hodges Trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch).  I’m gonna give this a solid B.  It’s not top-shelf King, but it’s crime fiction rather than supernatural horror (at least the first two books are, anyway), and he does a pretty good job of keeping the pages turning.  That said, the main three protagonists are utterly forgettable, and while the villains are compelling and memorable, they’re also rather stupid, which deflates a lot of the tension; you’re never worried about the ending.  And as noted above, the first two books are grounded in the real world while the third book goes off into a telekenetic/mind-control thing, which creates a weird paradox; on the one hand, it’s probably the best book in the series because it’s the one that is closest to King’s strengths; on the other, it totally upends the very grounded reality of the first two books.

The Matrix.  I don’t know what it is, but I feel like everywhere I look, people are talking about The Matrix again.  And pretty much everything the wife and I have watched together recently has reminded us in some way of the first Matrix movie, and so we decided to just re-watch it.  And you know what?  It still holds up, for the most part.  Yeah, some of the dialogue is hokey, and the love story simply doesn’t play, and the visuals are a bit dated (if only because they’ve been copied to death).  But every single shot in the film is iconic, and the film itself is so radically ambitious, and it’s still as entertaining as it ever was.  I’m philosophically opposed to reboots, but if the Wachowskis wanted to re-make this film with current technology, I’d be OK with it.

The Matrix Reloaded.  You know, if you edit out the stupid cheesy bullshit, this is a pretty kick-ass film.  It’s not nearly as unwatchable as I remember it being.  Though I’ll always fast-forward through the end-of-the-world disco sex party, because that is just straight-up ridiculous.  And yeah, the scene with the Architect is a bit too wordy for its own good, even if the ideas discussed are interesting.

Math Rock.  I am a huge music nerd, and every once in a while I fall off the deep end into a heavy-duty obsession with old-school prog rock.  (When my son was born, this changed slightly and I became OBSESSED with live Frank Zappa from 1972-73.)  Now, it seems, Spotify has decided that I’m due for some modern math rock, and, once again, Spotify is correct.  In particular, I’ve been listening to a shit-ton of a band called Feed Me Jack, who I think I just read are no longer together, which is a bummer; in any event, they made a rather sizable amount of music in a very short amount of time, and it’s all really good.  And here is another playlist of some of the better stuff I’ve found via the Discovery playlist:

 

By the way, my Spotify Time Capsule is HILARIOUS.  I got a little inebriated the other night and considered live-blogging my reactions to this mix, if only because I haven’t heard some of these songs in 20+ years and the me of 2017 is so completely different than the me that listened to these songs over and over and over again when they were new.  I could give you 500 words on my reaction to hearing “Right Here Right Now” alone.

As for games… eh.  I’ve got a huge backlog and there’s a bunch of stuff coming out soon and yet every time I sit down to play, I’m totally unable to relax and stay involved.  Maybe I need a break.

I’m considering signing up for NaNoWriMo this year, because I need to get my brain’s writing gears moving again, and if I’m ever going to finish the lyrics for this album I should probably just get in the habit of stringing a whole bunch of words together anyway.  A couple years ago I had a great idea for a book, and I even took some writing classes to flesh some of it out… I still really like my first chapter, even if the rest of the story fell apart on me.  And then I was going to write a memoir-ish thing about my college/band years, and I could probably fictionalize that enough to keep myself from having another nervous breakdown like I did the last time I tried it.  So even if I’m not writing here as much – and I’m gonna be trying to reduce the amount of time I spend on FB and Twitter and such – I will do my darnedest to keep the words happening somewhere.

I hope you’re well.  We’re gonna get through this, somehow.