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.

 

Anxious and Scatterbrained

I used to have 2 similar anxiety dreams.  In the first one, it’d be opening night for a play and not only did I not know my lines, but I’d never received a script in the first place; in the second one, I’d show up to a school with a completely foreign layout and I’d be taking a final exam for a class I’d never attended.

I had a new one this morning, and it was interesting to see how it took shape.  I was about to go on stage – but this time as a musician.  Half my equipment was missing, but that was OK; I didn’t know the songs we were about to play, but I wasn’t worried about that either – I figured I’d be able to fake my way through it.  No, the anxiety didn’t manifest itself until I turned my keyboard on and realized that all my preset sounds were gone, replaced by weird and dissonant blurps and bleeps – sounds that are useful in certain contexts, but not in the one I was about to play in.

It wasn’t a nightmare, to be sure; just a sudden sense of alarm, and then I tried to make adjustments on the fly.  (Of course, in the dream, the keyboard’s knobs and sliders weren’t in the right place and weren’t making the changes I wanted them to make, but at least I had some semblance of control over trying to fix them.)  This is, actually, a sort of progress for me.  Normally I’d just panic.  At least this time I did my best to work with what I had.

I’m not sure where the anxiety was coming from, though it is true that I had somewhat of a minor panic attack yesterday afternoon – and even then, rather than letting it devour me, I did what I had to do to manage it.  It’s not good to fight these things, so I left the town festival where we all were and took a 30-minute walk back home and let my brain free associate itself into something approaching stillness.  The weather was nice, and the walk was pleasantly exhausting.

Now, I know I’ve just described an anxiety dream and a panic attack, but I want to stress that I’m in a much better place now than I’ve ever been before in terms of dealing with these things.  I took whatever control I could to improve my situation, and I was never in the sort of skin-peeling discomfort I used to have when these sorts of episodes would crop up in the past.  Hell, in the past I would’ve never left the house in the first place.

These are tough times, you guys.  Do what you can to take care of yourself.


Here’s where I would say that playing games is a form of self-care, and then I’d tell you what I’ve been playing, and that would be the next part of this post.  But honestly, I’m sort playing half-a-dozen things at the moment and I’m not particularly invested in any of them anymore, and I find that as I’m distracted by politics and the health of my dogs and my kid’s domino obsession, I’m having trouble staying focused.

I have a weird little routine now.  First thing I do is check in on my Xbox save of Clicker Heroes, which… look, at some point I’ll write up a long thing about idle clickers and why I’m so addicted to them.  This is not that time.  The point here is simply that checking in on Clicker Heroes – doing a little maintenance here and there, making sure everything’s leveling up appropriately – this is a nice, easy way of centering my attention.  I can also continue to check Twitter and such while the numbers continue multiplying in the background, but in any event it’s an easy way of gradually shutting off the distracted parts of my brain.

And then, once I’m at a point where I can’t make any more adjustments, I’ll switch over to something else.  I’m still primarily playing Watch Dogs 2, though I must admit that I’m starting to lose interest.  I was sorta dipping my toes back into Shadow of Mordor, of all things, and I also started a new Necromancer in Diablo III.  Was also thinking about starting a New Game+ in Horizon Zero Dawn, though I’m not sure I’ll keep on with that.  And there’s all the other little indie stuff I picked up in the various Xbox and PSN summer sales – stuff like RoundaboutI Am BreadAdrift, and etc.  And then there’s all the other backlog and replay stuff I want to mess with – like replaying Assassin’s Creed Syndicate to prepare myself for Origins, and Wolfenstein: The New Order to prepare for the new sequel (and also to kill Nazis, which, of course, is our patriotic duty), and then sometimes I also have a weird impulse to fire up the newish Doom, and and and… well, you can see how it can be difficult to sit down and stay engaged in something for more than 15 minutes.

I didn’t even know that the Final Fantasy XII remake was coming out this week.  I’ve never played it; I’ve read nothing but glowing reviews of it, but I also know that I’ve barely touched FFXV, and I don’t know how I feel about starting another endless JRPG when I’m already so scatterbrained.  In any event, I presume my rental copy will arrive on Thursday, and we’ll see where we are at that point in the week.

Maybe I’ll take some time off from gaming completely and get back into writing music?  That’s a novel idea.  Who knows.

2015 Resolutions and Anticipations

A Preface in Three Parts:

1:  I finished the Forza Horizon 2 Finale race last night.  I’ve apparently still got more to do, as the credits didn’t roll, but that was the big one.  If I were still keeping track of Achievements, and if I still had a category for “Favorite Achievement of the Year”, I suspect the 50 points I picked up for winning that 20-minute gauntlet would rank right up there with anything else I did this year.  After soaking in that victory for a bit, I then headed over to race in Storm Island, and WHOA, that shit is crazy.  Extreme weather, terrain, lighting and visibility – total madness, a complete 180 from the relatively calm and serene mainland campaign.  I’m not sure what the rest of the island is like, but that first race makes one hell of a first impression, and it shakes up the already-excellent formula enough to make it worth spending some more time in.

2:  I hemmed and hawed about whether or not I should buy it; I’d already sunk in a fair amount of time, and felt like I’d seen what I needed to see even if I only got halfway through…. but I also felt like I needed to finish it for real.  And so, in the end, Alien Isolation was on sale for $30 on PSN, and I picked it up, and it remembered my last save point from October.  So that’s something to look forward to.

3: I want to join the chorus in wishing Patrick Klepek the best of luck in his future endeavors.  His is a necessary, vital voice in this business, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.  On a purely personal level, he’s also single-handedly responsible for the biggest spike in traffic this site’s ever gotten (scroll down to #3), and so if nothing else I’m indebted to him for keeping this site visible, however marginally that visibility may be.


 

Pop Culture Consumption Resolutions for 2015:

  1. No more pre-ordering.  As you’ll see below, my “must-have” list of games for 2015 is relatively small, and given what we’ve been through in 2014 with nearly every significant AAA release bogged down by serious issues on release day, I don’t necessarily have any faith that these future releases will be released in an acceptable shape.  I can wait; I can rent.
  2. Along those lines, I’m going to try and beef up my commentary skills this year.  Maybe I’m being overly hard on myself, but most of my analysis is pretty superficial, and doesn’t necessarily get to the core of what’s actually going on.  Even this Cameron Kunzelman piece about how he doesn’t know how to describe Super Time Force Ultra still explains more about his experience playing it than I do on an average day.  I’m always aiming to be a better writer, but now I think I have a better idea of what “being a better writer” actually means (for the purposes of this blog, at least).
  3. I am going to stop.  playing.  Clicker Heroes.
  4. The backlogs are getting dealt with.  And if it means that I’m going to start keeping widgets on the sidebar to further shame myself into finishing stuff that needs finishing, then that’s what it means.
    • As far as my PC goes, I’m rapidly approaching the point where it’s not really capable of performing on par with my PS4 and XB1, but I still have a frighteningly large backlog to address on Steam that it can handle, and I’m gonna have to deal with that at some point.
    • And I still have a bunch of games on my PS4 that I haven’t finished – Shadow of Mordor and Far Cry 4 perhaps being the largest omissions, though there’s also Transistor, Valiant Hearts, and Oddworld New & Tasty.  (And also Sunset Overdrive on the XB1.)
    • Regarding my Kindle backlog – I’m cutting myself off and not buying any more books until I finish my to-read pile, which at this point is probably 20+ titles deep.  (I did end up buying the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, but that’s it.)

I also further resolve to SPEAK UP and SPEAK OUT when stupid bullshit is happening out there in the world.  I can’t call myself an ally if I’m not doing anything to back that up.  I sincerely hope that 2015 provides less opportunities for shouting, but if it doesn’t, then I aim to shout as purposefully and effectively as I can.

Game Anticipations for 2015:  (with special assistance from this handy Game Informer page)
* denotes a game that I’m not 100% convinced will be coming out in 2015

THE MUST-HAVES

  • Batman: Arkham Knight
  • No Man’s Sky
  • Witcher 3
  • Uncharted 4 *
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider *
  • Firewatch *
  • Superhot
  • Below

THE RENTALS, AT THE VERY LEAST

  • PGA Tour Golf (EA’s first without Tiger, after a year-long hiatus)
  • Crackdown 3 *
  • Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture
  • Final Fantasy XV *
  • Mad Max *
  • Inside (from the makers of Limbo)

THE CURIOSITIES

  • The Order 1886
  • Bloodborne
  • Halo 5
  • Star Wars Battlefront
  • Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain
  • Silent Hills *

Here’s hoping we all have a safe and happy New Year’s, and may 2015 be everything that 2014 wasn’t.  Cheers.

 

Random Ramblings: October edition

1.  What I’m about to write may very well turn you off from reading this site for the rest of your internet-using life, but it’s the honest-to-goodness truth:  I have never been a fan of Halloween.  I love fall foliage, I love the baseball playoffs, I love wearing warm sweaters, I love that it’s finally decorative gourd season, I really love candy, and I am hopeful that I will finally find a halfway decent gluten-free pumpkin pie this year.  But Halloween has never been my bag.

There are two reasons for this.  The first is that the older kids in my suburban neighborhood really got into the pre-Halloween vandalism routine, and even as a little kid it kinda pissed me off to find eggs and toilet paper all over the trees, driveways and mailboxes of my street.  Halloween is “scary”, sure, but this felt legitimately dangerous and personal.  This eventually put me off trick-or-treating altogether, and the honest truth is that I was happier handing candy out than I was going out and begging for it.

The second is that I was terrible at costumes.  Had no brain for it, no passion for it, and while my mom tried her darnedest, I never quite got the hang of it.

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All this being said, I am determined to prevent my curmudgeonly attitude from rubbing off on my kid.  If he wants to enjoy Halloween, I will put my big-boy pants on and make sure he has as much fun as he can.

2.  I got impatient and decided to buy the digital download version of Shadow of Mordor yesterday afternoon, but it had only downloaded about 68% of itself when I finally got a chance to turn on my PS4.  This ultimately meant that I could only play the first 10 minutes – the early tutorial, right up to the delayed title screen – before the game kicked me back to the main menu.  Obviously I can’t offer much in the way of impressions, though I will echo Carolyn Petit’s annoyed and astute observation that, yet again, a woman has to die so that the (male) hero has something to do.  Someone else on twitter also pointed out (and I’m sorry I can’t remember who) that it’s only the wife whose death is shown on screen – the camera moves away from the necks of the son and the father.

3.  So I ended up going back to Destiny, where I puttered around for an hour or two; ran some patrols, cashed in quite a few bounties, and finally started 2 exotic weapon quests.  (One quest requires me to visit the weekend merchant; as I’m away this weekend, that’ll have to be postponed for another week.)  As it’d been a while since my last visit, I wasn’t consumed with any particular feeling towards it (beyond impatience at SoM’s slow download progress – and I’m sure that being online in Destiny held up the works considerably, too), and so I was able to turn off my brain for a bit and just shoot things to death.  Destiny is a much better experience when you have no expectations and don’t care that nothing makes any narrative, logical sense.  Indeed, this is why it can be pleasurable to zone out to Diablo 3, too; you relax and elect to simply concentrate on your mechanics and technique and before you know it a few hours have gone by.  The bummer of it all is that even after the few hours I sunk in, I still didn’t pick up any gear with keeping, which is why it can be hard to not feel like I’m literally killing time.

4.  Speaking of mindless grinding and killing time, it’s been 3 days and I am fully addicted to Clicker Heroes, this year’s edition of Cookie Clicker.  I urge you to be careful of clicking that link.   If you have already clicked that link and are in the throes of paralysis as I am, well:  I’ve gotten to level 100 and ascended, and now I’m already up to level 50 on my second run, and the whole goddamned thing is absurd and I don’t understand why it’s so compelling and I need to switch my tab over to make sure I’m properly leveled up please god help

On The Outside, Looking In

far side dog

I’m in a weird head space today, where I’m wanting to write about games and such but I haven’t turned on any of my consoles since the middle of last week.  It’s not just that I’ve been busy, or out of town (both of which are true); it’s also simply that I’ve been exhausted.  I’d thought about popping in Destiny for a little while last night, but the day had already run pretty long by the time I had access to the TV, and I ended up passing out before 9:00 pm.  (Here’s an oft-repeated but still you-don’t-understand-until-it-happens-to-you truth about parenting:  there is no such thing as sleeping in.  At this point, I’d honestly consider waking up at 7:00 am a goddamned tropical vacation.)

And truth be told, I’m still in a weird head space about Destiny, too.  I’m stuck at level 21 and by this point I’d imagine that most of the people on my PSN friends list are way beyond me; I was already 2-3 levels behind when I was playing on a regular basis, and by now I’m sure they’re at 27-29, which means that I can’t run strikes with them with any hope of being effective, and I’m afraid that they won’t bother running strikes with me unless they’re feeling extra generous with their time; I mean, why bother doing level 20 strikes when you can get better gear playing at your own level?  This is why Destiny’s post-20 leveling system bums me out, at least when compared to Diablo 3 – I can take my level 70 Monk into a friend’s low-level game and still pick up decent gear at a steady clip (even if it’s all ultimately salvage), whereas in Destiny, even shooting at a Loot Cave for an hour doesn’t necessarily give you a strong return on your time investment.

And yet, given the absence of something else to play right now*, I still kinda want to jump in and play.  Before I left this past weekend I’d manage to finish 2 of those limited-time Queen bounties, and I’d like to be able to do a few more (and maybe even cash in a Queen Mission) before the event closes.  Even if I can’t get that far, though, there’s still a part of me that would like to be able to do a few strikes, hopefully get lucky with some drops, and gain a level or two before finally giving up in favor of the rest of the fall release schedule.  There’s just enough in Destiny’s post-cap endgame that makes me want to stay engaged.

That said, a larger part of this pull I’m feeling is that Destiny is still what most of my gaming friends and the community at large are talking about.  For better and/or worse, it’s dominated the Twitterverse ever since its release, and with each passing hour that I’m offline, I’m feeling further and further removed from the conversation.

As Patrick Klepek wrote in this weekend’s GB column, “Social Gaming and the Fear of Missing Out“:

With an hour to spare last week, I hopped online and started completing some bounties, one of the easiest ways to stack experience while playing. Two friends joined up, and helped me grind through what amounted to little more than fetch quests and shooting galleries for an hour. Even though our actions were hardly engaging, the act of doing them together was tremendous fun, if only a glorified chat room.

Once the bounties were cashed in, though, my friends were debating the next move. All of them were well past level 20, though, which meant the content I was playing through couldn’t help them meaningfully advance their equipment. Even though I was the party leader, I was the one who had to leave, forced to venture out on my own again. I hopped into a nearby strike, got myself assigned to a few random players, and went to it. We won. Some stuff dropped. But it wasn’t the same. There was only silence.

Granted, none of this is Destiny’s fault. To the contrary, it’s what Bungie wants, what these games thrive on. You could argue the existence of a loot vault, a void in which players shot mindlessly for hours, says more about what Destiny gets wrong than what it gets right. But that would be missing the point. These collective experiences, even when driven by exploitations of code, are entirely the point. These marks in time wouldn’t be possible in single-player. Individualized watercooler moments from the night discussed at the office the next day become shared experiences given more power from the group ownership.

I’ve been struggling with managing this Fear of Missing Out for a long time, I think.  It’s probably the primary force behind this blog; if I can’t get paid to write about the games I play, well, I still want to play as much as I can and write about it and talk about it with other people who are in on the conversation.  I love games, I love thinking about games, and when a game this huge is out and occupying so much of our collective brains, I want to be able to dive in to the conversation and contribute in a meaningful way.  It’s no fun being on the outside looking in.

Ironically, it’s this same Fear of Missing Out that will make it a bit easier for me to pull myself away from Destiny once I get my hands on Shadow of Mordor, even if, due to Gamefly’s mailing schedule, I won’t get my hands on it until Thursday (and, because of family stuff, won’t get any meaningful playtime with it until next Monday night, post-Gotham).  Hell, I’m even tempted to just say fuck it and order the digital version of SoM so I can at least get some quality time with it before I leave town this weekend.

It is what it is, I suppose.  In the meantime I’ve got Clicker Heroes running in the background and I suppose the less said about that the better.


*  Even given my aforementioned lack of free time and a relative shortage of expendable income, I nearly pulled the trigger on The Vanishing of Ethan Carter yesterday.  But then I learned that there’s a PS4 version due next year.  Now, my PC is a few years old and can make certain games look quite nice – and it passes the minimum specs according to Can You Run It? – but everything I’ve heard about VoEC is that it’s one of the most gorgeous games ever made.  So as much as it hurts to wait, I’m tempted to hold out for the PS4 version, which I know will look better than what my PC can currently do.  There’s no current date on the PS4 version beyond a vague “some point in 2015“, though, so you can probably guess that this will come down to a rigged coin flip.

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