here / not here

1. [cross-posting from my secret blog, but bear with me]

So every once in a while I get overwhelmed by whatever it is that overwhelms me about people, and so I publicly announce that I’m taking a Facebook hiatus, and each time I do the hiatus never lasts, and I feel like a hypocrite.  I’ll hit the “post” button announcing my farewell, and then I’ll be lurking on FB within 20 minutes of my initial post.  I acknowledge that this is ridiculous.

However: as I may or may not have mentioned, my day job has instituted these new draconian internet firewalls, and so not only can I not use my work PC to access my personal email, but I’m also completely shut out of Facebook.

And this means that, if I do want to use Facebook during normal business hours, I have to use my iPhone.  And the iPhone FB experience is a fucking dumpster fire.  It doesn’t matter how many times I ask it to stay in chronological order; it straight-up refuses to work in the way that I want it to.  Which means I invariably always miss something.  And since a lot of the reason why I used to spend so much time on FB is that weird “fear of missing out”, I kinda have no choice but to confront that particular fear head-on.

And so the oft-threatened hiatus is actually starting to stick.  I don’t really check it all that frequently any more, because I know the experience will suck when I do, and there’s nothing I can do to fix something that refuses to stay fixed.

Instead, I’m now on Twitter like a motherfucker.  (@couchshouts, if you didn’t already know.  If you knew me as @jervonyc, that account is long dormant.)  My twitter account is mostly political retweets and announcements of blog posts, so, you know, keep your expectations in check.

At least WordPress still works – for the time being, at least.  I don’t expect this to last forever, either, but there’s nothing I can do about that now.

2. We are all agreed that Portal 2 is one of the best games ever made, yes?  Yes, of course.  It was recently made backward-compatible on the ol’ Xbox One, which is great news, because I very much like that game and would like to continue to play it.  Especially the online co-op mode, because that mode is SUPER AWESOME and it’s been a long time since the last time I played it and I’ve forgotten all the solutions.  HOWEVAH, the online co-op doesn’t seem to work anymore?  Possibly?  I’d like some external confirmation about this, actually, because me and my buddy tried to do a bit of the co-op campaign over the weekend and we couldn’t keep a session together for more than 10 minutes.  ALSO, Portal 2’s online interface, as designed and intended for the 360, does not work at all with respect to the XB1, which is a bit of a problem.

tl,dr version: remaster Portal 1 and 2 for next-gen consoles and, hey, why not include Portal 3 while you’re at it.

3. I was feeling pretty good about No Man’s sky again, especially in light of yesterday’s post.  So last night I fired up the game, struggled to find the one element I was looking for in order to complete my super-mega warp drive for about 90 minutes, and then the game crashed. Again.  So, yeah.  Maybe I’ll keep that one on the shelf until the next patch.

 

On Political Agendas and Bad Stomachs

[Note:  This post may get a bit rambly.  I’m on some new medications and they make me a little drowsy/loopy.]

From my friend Caro’s Tumblr:

An example of obliviousness: on a recent piece I wrote for work in which I praised a game for the monumental act of simply portraying a relationship between women who aren’t presented as sex objects and who matter as individuals, in and of themselves and because of what they mean to each other and not just in relation to a male figure, one commenter said that games should be something we do to escape from such political agendas.

The subtle irony here is that the act of being willfully ignorant and keeping one’s mind closed is also an agenda, whether that person wants to admit it or not.  I haven’t actually played the Last of Us DLC that Caro is referencing, but my understanding of it is simply what Caro says it is – the player isn’t beaten over the head with this relationship, it simply is, and it’s entirely possible that the commenter might not even have noticed it until it was pointed out to them.  Or, alternately, now that it has been pointed out, the   commenter will refuse to play it on some bizarre “principle”, and thus a new cycle of willful ignorance will begin.

Moreover, the idea that games shouldn’t be about anything beyond shooting things is profoundly sad to me.  Frankly, one of the reasons why I’ve been sour on games lately is precisely because of the amount of virtual murder I have to commit in order to have the story play out.  I like to rag on Uncharted, another of Naughty Dog’s franchises, specifically because of all the murder I have to commit; and yet in Bravely Default, I’ve probably killed at least twice as many monsters as I did in Uncharted 3 and I’m only a third of the way through it.

TANGENT:  Speaking of which, I’ve more or less given up on Bravely Default.  I can’t remember if I mentioned that or not, but whatever.  My worst fear did in fact come to light; after clearing the map and awakening all 4 crystals, an unexplained event “reset” the game world and now I have to do the whole goddamned thing again, and I really don’t care to anymore.  I had fun enough the first time around, but I’ve got better things to do than retrace my footsteps.

TANGENT:  And speaking of giving up on things, I sent back Thief this morning, after finishing the insane asylum mission last night.  Insane asylums are as obvious a trope as anything in videogames, but it’s doubly bizarre here because for the first 90% of the mission, you’re the only person in the building.  The game actually does create a palpable atmosphere of dread, except there’s nothing chasing you, and nobody’s looking for you, and so the tension eventually fades.  But then, at the end, the game pulls a series of left turns that render the narrative – which was already pretty obscure at this point – completely incoherent and dumb.  And then, also, I picked up a series of thirteen (13!) side jobs, literally all at the same time, which says about as much as one can say about the game’s sense of pacing.

Getting back to the topic of agendas:  as a straight white male, most games are written with me as their targeted audience (or someone like me, but much younger).  Except:  I have certain anxieties and physical setbacks that are hardly ever shown in games, or movies, or books.  Remember at the top of this post, where I said I was on some new medications?  Right, well:  I don’t talk about this much, for reasons that will soon become obvious, but I’ve been suffering from IBS for the last 14 years or so.  In recent years I’ve taken great strides at getting better – I’ve made radical changes to my diet, I’m on a custom-designed (and very expensive) vitamin supplement regimen, I’ve started going to therapy, I’ve started taking anti-anxiety medication (and that took a lot of convincing, too).  And now I’m taking new medication specifically for my GI tract, and I’m hoping that’ll help further straighten things out.

The point of all this is that while I’ve certainly gotten better over the last few years, I’m still not yet out of the woods, and this specific ailment has been a source of personal embarrassment for years.  (As well you might imagine; I have not actually had any accidents, but I’ve felt like one is imminent nearly every morning commute for the last dozen years.)  I’ve missed any number of social obligations because of this, and I’ve been reluctant to travel long distances because of this, and I’m mostly just grateful that my wife hasn’t left me because of this.

What does this have to do with videogames and agendas?  Well, how many videogame characters can you think of that have anxiety disorders?  Or bad stomachs?  I can think of only one, and even then I can’t remember in which game – possibly MGS4, possibly Bayonetta – some small side character whose intense gastric distress is used as a point of bizarre comic relief.  It might’ve been funny for most 13-year-old boys (or people who think public diarrhea is hilarious), but for me it felt like a kick in the balls.

Now, I understand perfectly well why videogames and films don’t often feature characters like this – people with this sort of condition have a hard time leaving the house (and, in my case, can further complicate social anxiety issues and eventually lead to mild agoraphobia), and so it is hard to make a game starring someone who can’t go out and save the world.  And on the rare occasion when characters like this do show up in films and games, they are, more often than not, punchlines (or, worse, punching bags).  And this sort of thing does not really help to improve my outlook.  It might inspire me to get healthier, but it’s inspiration borne from shame.

This is a long way of saying that when, in South Park: The Stick of Truth, an enemy casts a spell on you in battle that causes you to shit your pants, well, my heart breaks a little bit.

TANGENT:  I am around 6 and a half hours into South Park (probably about mid-way through Day Two), and I like it quite a lot.  Even though I’m not the world’s most rabid South Park fan, I still appreciate the game’s sense of humor, but I’m just as appreciative of the actual game design.  I love how approachable the systems are; I love how deep the modification systems can go (and that you can re-modify new weapons without losing the old ones).  Hell, I kinda just love wandering around the town and seeing what there is to see, picking up random side quests for no reason other than they’re there, and that there’s usually a decent comedic payoff at the end.  I love that you can use the environment to end a random battle before it even starts.  I love the game’s commentary on the ridiculousness and overuse of audio logs and Nazi zombies.  I especially love that tacos are the game’s version of revive potions.

In other news, it’s true that the big game this week is Titanfall, but as you’ve probably guessed this is not the place for discussion about that game; I don’t own an Xbox One and I don’t care about multiplayer shooters, no matter how good they might be.

TANGENT:  I am kinda surprised at how many of my 360 friends own an Xbox One; I am also a little surprised that they stayed Xbox-centric and didn’t migrate to the PS4.  I’m still not sure what it’s going to take to get me to buy one, to be honest; and I might as well admit that at this point, if I had to buy more game hardware, I’m most likely to get a Vita.

But the other big game this week is Dark Souls II, which is arriving later this week, and which I feel compelled to at least try, if only so that even if I can’t necessarily participate in the larger conversation, I can at least understand the gist of it.  I’ve had brief, 30-minute tastes of the previous 2 games – enough to get the general idea, and enough to know that I’d probably not get very far given my current time constraints – and while I still am intimidated by it (and while I’m still under similar time constraints), I’m also still intensely curious about it, and at least want to give it the ol’ college try.  My understanding is that the game has been made a bit more approachable for people like me, while still being brutally difficult and opaque, and so I’m willing to try to meet it halfway.

on social anxiety, solitude, and multiplayer shooters

I’ve said that I’m not really into multiplayer a number of times, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I started to figure out why.

This was a rough weekend, personally speaking.

Saturday in particular was a busy day – a morning playdate at the first of many 1-year birthday parties we’ll be attending this year, and then, in the evening, a housewarming party at the astoundingly beautiful home of some college friends.  Both of these events were fun, in and of themselves – and it was nice to be out and about as a family, the three of us moving about the city with ease – but at the end of the day I was emotionally spent.  Sunday was decidedly less busy – an afternoon trek out to the local department store for baby supplies and foodstuffs – but it also required driving, which is almost always a source of anxiety (especially in Brooklyn).  When I went to bed, I did end up sleeping soundly, but not necessarily restfully.

A year ago, I’m not sure I’d have made it to even one of these things, let alone all three.  So the fact that I was able to do all these things, and spend quality time out and about with my family – this should be a good thing, right?  And it is; it’s absolutely a good thing.

Except: I’m drained.  I feel hollowed out, exhausted, melancholic.  I feel adrift, really; I feel like I just want to curl away somewhere, where the world can’t hurt me (and where I can’t hurt it back, however unintentionally).

As for why I’m writing about this here?  Well, as I think about all this, it occurs to me that my social anxiety issues are probably the main reason why I’m generally reluctant to participate in multiplayer games.

Case in point.  On Friday, my rental copy of Battlefield 4 for the PS4 showed up.  My good buddy Gred, who’d been hounding me for weeks to get it, wasn’t going to be able to jump on until later Friday night, so I figured I’d take the early part of the evening to play through the campaign while the rest of the disc installed itself.  I lost interest in the campaign quickly enough (specifically in the 2nd mission, the one where you have to rescue two people from the top of a hotel; I ultimately bailed when, after I finally succeeded in destroying a tank with a land mine, I had to destroy another tank with a land mine), but fortunately Gred was available by that point.

Gred was a wonderful tour guide, showing me how the game worked, which of the classes was best suited to my playstyle, how this particular map was laid out (I can’t remember the name, but there’s islands and sunken aircraft carriers and a giant hurricane eventually sweeps through the map towards the end of the session), etc. etc.  And it all looked incredible; 64 people in a session yields some pretty spectacular sights, even from far away – I’m dodging sniper fire while watching two airplanes dogfighting on the other side of the map, blowing the hell out of buildings and radio towers, 10-foot waves slamming jetskis into the rocky island shore, helicopters blitzing strafing fire on either side of the building I’m taking cover in, all hell breaking loose for 60 full minutes.

In a weird way, it was kinda refreshing that the session was so big – it meant that my failings as a player didn’t stand out quite so obviously.  I was a bit of a wallflower, to be honest – I’d tag along behind Gred, occasionally firing wildly at enemies, but mostly getting headshotted from unseen snipers.  I was there really just as a visitor, a tourist, seeing what all the fuss was about, trying not to hurt my team too badly.  And I’m happy to say that in spite of my dreadful K/D ratio, our team ending up winning.

This is, more or less, my approach in real-life situations, too; I’ll attach myself to one person for most of the night, taking in the sights, listening to the music, gradually getting drunk and hoping that the buzz takes some of the anxiety’s edge off a little, and generally just hoping against hope that I don’t embarrass myself in front of a room full of strangers.

I was grateful to have Gred there, is the thing.  Because without him, I would’ve been completely at sea; overwhelmed by the madness of 63 other strangers with guns, or else simply retreating to a corner of the map, watching but not participating, afraid of screwing everything up.

I tend to handle life much better when I’m alone.  I can experience a thing on my own terms, at my own pace, and be alone with my own thoughts.  Solitude can get lonely at times, to be sure, but there can be profound meaning in a solitary experience.  I am (again) reminded of something Tom Bissell wrote in his review of GTA V:

Almost everyone I know who loves video games — myself included — is broken in some fundamental way. With their ceaseless activity and risk-reward compulsion loops, games also soothe broken people. This is not a criticism. Fanatical readers tend to be broken people. The type of person who goes to see four movies a week alone is a broken person.  Any medium that allows someone to spend monastic amounts of time by him- or herself, wandering the gloaming of imagination and reality, is doomed to be adored by lost, lonely people. But let’s be honest: Spending the weekend in bed reading the collected works of Joan Didion is doing different things to your mind than spending the weekend on the couch racing cars around Los Santos. Again, not a criticism. The human mind contains enough room for both types of experience…

For me, the single-player experience is, by and large, comforting.  And with a good game the experience can often times feel more engrossing than books or films, because it’s an experience that I get to directly participate in; I get to literally inject myself into the narrative and have a direct influence on the story.  I can’t be judged by other people (until after the fact, I guess, if they’re looking at my gamerscore), I can’t offend anyone, I can’t embarrass myself.  If I need to go to the bathroom, I can pause the game and not annoy anyone; if I need a break, I can walk away and not get teabagged by some douchebag on a camp-out kill spree.

I don’t play games to win; I play just to play.

I suppose that, when it comes to the real world, my social anxiety kicks in because I don’t want to “lose”, whatever that might mean.  It’s been a difficult struggle to acknowledge that the vast majority of social situations don’t actually have this win/loss structure, and that I can have a good time simply by being present in the moment, surrounded by friends (or strangers, as the case may be), and allowing the experience to simply happen, and to just be.

It’s not so cut-and-dry in the game world, though.

a few words on intimidation, over-compensation, and apathy

This post might be a little rambly and random; last night the baby had, to put it kindly, an “uneven night’s sleep.”  I keep thinking I’m getting used to his sleeping patterns, but then every other day those patterns change into something totally different, and I get totally derailed.  It’s funny; I used to complain that I didn’t have enough hours in the day to do all the stuff I need to do; but now it feels like each 24-hour day actually lasts for, say, 72 hours, and yet I feel more and more incapacitated.

As always, Steve Martin says it a lot better:

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A few nights ago I attended a small, informal meeting of the NYVCC.  It was a very pleasant evening and I met some super cool people and I might be getting involved in some interesting-sounding future projects, and so this is all wonderful… but to be honest I was just happy that I didn’t totally chicken out and not go.  Social anxiety is still a very real pain in my ass, and even though I’ve gone to great lengths to overcome it (thank you, Ativan!), it’s still a source of frustration and agitation.  Still:  I showed up, which counts as a victory of sorts.

Of course, I should also mention that among the attendees were people who write for sites and outlets that I actually read on a semi-regular basis, and so I found myself engaged in this weird sort of social anxiety dance in which I was  somewhat intimidated by the pedigree of my fellow peers and thus desperately over-compensating by spewing forth opinions that may or may not have been a little half-baked.  It is an exceedingly strange phenomenon to find oneself pontificating about certain issues in front of the very people who provided one with the information in the first place, and so I am glad that I was a little drunk so as to dull the vertigo a bit, even if it loosened my tongue a bit too much.  Maybe next time I’ll remember to eat something first.

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It came out yesterday that Microsoft will be revealing its new console in less than a month.  Why don’t I care?

I’m not necessarily an Xbox fanboy, but the truth is that at least 80% of my game time this generation was spent on the 360, primarily because that’s where the bulk of my friends were.  And so I figured I’d get a bit more excited about hearing what’s next… but I’m finding myself surprisingly apathetic about what the big reveal will be.

I’m not sure it’s Microsoft’s fault, actually, even if Sony’s made tremendous strides of late in terms of courting and supporting indie developers (which is the very thing that XboxLive used to pride itself on).

I suppose it’s really just me and how my life has changed in the last few weeks.  Having a baby – and the financial repercussions that follow from such an event – means that I’m not sure I’m going to be acquiring both a PS4 and a new Xbox, and if I can only pick one, then I need to pick the one that will offer the most bang for the buck.  (And if we’re being brutally honest here, my choice between the Xbox and the PS4 becomes more or less null and void if the much-rumored Steam Box is actually a real thing and is sold at a reasonable price point.)

And I’m not even sure I know how to define “the most bang for the buck”, either.  I presume that both devices will continue to offer streaming video services, and that the new Xbox will come with a Blu-ray drive.  I also presume that both devices will have some sort of cloud-based storage system, and also that each will have a digital storefront that would allow me to download new games instead of buying discs.

Once again, it comes down to content.  And Sony’s been terrific lately in terms of offering exclusive, high-quality content.  And if the rumors are true and the PS4 is as easy to program for as the PS3 was difficult, then maybe the PS4 version of a multi-console release won’t be the “shitty” one.

But – again – if we’re talking about content, then what’s better than Steam right now?

If I look at my play habits over the last 6 months, I think it’s safe to say I’ve turned into a PC gamer almost exclusively; I’ve barely touched either of my consoles.  The living room of my apartment is too busy a place these days for me to effectively kick everybody out; whereas my PC is in the office, where I don’t bother anyone and nobody bothers me.  My aging PC still runs AAA games quite nicely, and Steam sales make acquiring those AAA games rather affordable.

And you know what else?  I don’t quite care about Xbox Achievements the way I used to, which is a huge psychological burden that I don’t have to worry about anymore.  It’s stupid, right?  And yet I always felt obligated to get big Achievement scores so as to be able to prove (to whom?!) that I was hardcore, or something.  Even if Steam has achievements, I don’t really care – there’s no “score”, and they don’t get all up in my face about it.  I still appreciate how Achievements fundamentally changed the way I play games – in terms of really diving in and exploring certain facets of a game that I might have otherwise overlooked – but I’m not hyper-competitive about the actual number anymore.

I suppose I reserve the right to completely change my opinion once the new Xbox is revealed, and then after E3 rolls around and the actual list of upcoming games comes out – because by the time the new consoles are actually released, I expect my son to have established some more regular sleeping habits, and so I won’t feel so guilty about claiming the living room again.