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Suikoden Syndrome, or how a PSX JRPG changed the way I think about friendship

I have a tendency to try and get people to move to the city in which I live.

It’s not that I don’t respect the busy, rich, satisfying lives they must lead in their current cities–far from it. Many of my friends amaze me with their exploits on a near-daily basis. This desire to convince my friends to move near me isn’t borne entirely of selfishness, either: it’s not simply that I miss my friends but I am too stubborn to move myself. Instead, I blame this tendency to “recruit” my friends to come live with me on Suikoden II.

I first came to Suikoden on a whim: waiting desperately for the release of the next game from Square (a game which, if memory serves, was SaGa Frontier II, which is unique and worthwhile in its own right), I found myself at the mall with some money in my hands outside the door to “Electronics Boutique.” Recalling that my gaming magazine of choice (the long-defunct “Next Generation“) had given the recently-released Suikoden II four out of five stars, I decided to give it a go.

I confess to being a tad disoriented and underwhelmed at first. Flush after the cinematic overstimulation of Final Fantasy VII, adjusting to a game that was entirely two-dimensional, in which you couldn’t move diagonally, was a bit of a challenge. The fast-paced battles and charming characters went a long way to sell me on it, but I think that I probably got less than ten hours in before SaGa Frontier dropped and I got distracted.

It took me about a month or two to get back to it, and to this day I’m not entirely sure what I could have been thinking at the time. To have tasted the succulent fruit of Suikoden II and then walked away from the table? Unconscionable! Suikoden II is easily one of the ten best games I’ve ever played. It’s the strongest entry in a series that’s filled with compelling narratives about war, family, and destiny.

So how did it change how I think about my friendships? Well, that’s a little more complicated. Have you ever heard of Dunbar’s Number? It’s a concept which signifies the number of significant relationships the human brain can maintain and process at any given time. According to the Wikipedia article, it falls somewhere between a hundred and just over two hundred. So: more than just your housemates and your co-workers, but probably shy of the “Friends” tally you’re currently sporting on the ol’ Facebook.

When I first heard of Dunbar’s Number, the concept seemed curiously familiar to me, and it took me a little while to understand why. A hundred important relationships? A hundred people significant to me? Why did that strike a chord?

As with so many things, Suikoden held the answer. The Suikoden series, you see, revolves around a hero and his friends (or sometimes several heroes and their friends) collecting a mythical assembly known as the 108 Stars of Destiny. These Stars are characters who vary greatly in nature and disposition, from exuberant mercenaries to earnest chefs, brooding vampires, and at least one flying squirrel, and they all serve to aid you in your cause to resist the forces of tyranny, violence, and oppression.

And so, when I learned about Dunbar’s Number, something immediately came into focus for me: I was only going to be able to maintain just over a hundred relationships, and I was going to have to value each and every one of them, because these were going to be the hundred and eight people that were going to help me save the world.

Is that a bit of hyperbole? Of course. I didn’t have to like all of my Stars of Destiny (remember the flying squirrel?). But the beautiful, wonderful thing about the Suikoden games–a thing which I desperately wish was so obviously true about real life–is that everyone you recruit, each Star with whom you have a relationship, is there for a reason.

There’s the chef who runs your kitchens. The ferryman who gives you boat rides to neighboring towns. The man who installs your spa. There are countless warriors who join your party willing to risk their lives for your cause (or, if you want, you could take the chef into battle with you. Suikoden doesn’t care.).

For all of the brilliant plot twists and moments of narrative tension in the series, there is perhaps one instance in each Suikoden game that trumps even the most climactic battle: the moment when you are first given your castle. Far from a simple real estate transaction, the moment in which you are given your castle signifies the beginning of an enormous and epic endeavor–the beginning of your quest to seek out and recruit every useful person in the world and get them to move in with you.

Someone’s got to run your library. Someone’s got to upgrade your weapons. Someone’s got to be your cartographer. Seemingly every person you meet has a talent that they’re enthusiastic about contributing to the cause, even if that talent is changing the sound of your menu cursor into a quacking duck.
And I’m not a hundred percent sure when it happened, but this attitude about collecting all of my allies began to bleed into everyday life, and now I catch myself wondering what criteria I need to fulfill before my librarian friend, my blacksmith friend, my musician friend, my flying squirrel friend, will move into my castle so I can chisel their name on the great stone tablet that chronicles my Stars.

Is this selfish thinking? Perhaps a little bit. But there are few sensations in all of gaming that I find so pleasurable as running through a bustling castle town full of cheerful, productive inhabitants, and knowing that I had a hand in bringing them all together.

New Year’s [Gaming] Resolutions for 2013

pressstartAlright, folks, this is it. New Game Plus.

All your old levels, abilities, and equipment carry over. You get to keep all the modes you unlocked in the last playthrough.  Feel free to take different story branches and shoot for a different ending this time. You usually don’t get the best ending the first time through anyway, right? You beat the year once; you wanna GameFAQs it to fly through this one, that’s your business.

Me, I plan on making this playthrough count. Even wrote me down a couple of aims that I’m shootin’ for.

1. Not gonna feel obliged to collect every achievement in a game, even if it’s a game I love.

Assassin’s Creed III broke me of this one. I’m not going to go back and 100% that buggy, uneven game, even if I did fall in love with its complex narrative, even if I am in awe of its pitch-perfect period setting. Even if one of my buddies did get me an Assassin Tomahawk replica for my birthday.

2. Going to keep revisiting classic games that I missed when I was younger because they were outside my comfort zone as a gamer.

Last year I experienced gems like the original Half-Life, Metroid, Tetris Attack, ActRaiser, and Gran Turismo, all of which I’d passed by as a youth for one reason or another, and all of which are well thought of in the gaming canon. It was an eye-opening experience.

3. That said, I’m not going to force myself to play every older game in a series just so I can feel “prepared” for a new installment or reboot. 

I still haven’t played last year’s highly-praised XCOM: Enemy Unknown, despite the fact that I ostensibly love turn-based strategy, because I have been telling myself that I won’t have the “proper context” until I delve deeply into the beloved original (which is sitting in my Steam library as I type this, nearly untouched). I may have also been planning to force myself to play Terror from the Deep.

Sophie Prell’s tantalizing previews of the Tomb Raider reboot have convinced me that the new, Squeenix-published take on Ms. Croft ought to be on my must-play list as well, and I may or may not have bought all nine of the other games when they were on sale for $15 last week. But I’m not going to make myself play them all as a prerequisite for playing the new one! I swear!

4. I’m going to finally play through all of Final Fantasy V, dammit. 

Because I just know that as soon as I do this, Square Enix is going to announce a 3D remake for mobile devices. I just know it.

5. I’m going to keep supporting indie and crowdfunded games, even if some turn out to be duds, because it democratizes the medium.

And that’s good for everybody, in the long run.

6. I’m going to support my local barcade

Because coin-ops are just as cool now as they were in the eighties. So is drinking.

And finally…

7. I’m going to be optimistic about games as a medium.

All evidence points to 2013 being weirder and more exciting than 2012 as we approach the end of one console cycle and the beginning of [????], and I’m electing to espouse the perspective that change is a good thing, and games are only going to keep getting better and more interesting in the year to come.

And so I bid you all a Happy New Game Plus, and encourage you all to quickly and enthusiastically select Continue. I think this year’s going to be a good one.

What worries us about Bioshock Infinite’s cover art, and why we shouldn’t be worried

The offending cover art.A few days ago, 2K and Irrational Games released the official cover art for the upcoming Bioshock Infinite, a game over which I (and a considerable portion of the gaming populace) have been salivating for some time.

The general reaction to the cover has been one of disappointment, with complaints that the cover is “too generic” or “exactly the same as the cover for Uncharted from a different angle.” Many folks have pointed to the fact that the cover seems to be the very embodiment of Mega 64’s “Chin Down Eyes Up” sketch.

These complaints have merit, but I’ve also seen a fair amount of resigned shrugs from my fellow internet denizens. “Of course they’re putting a grizzled white guy with a gun on the cover,” people say. “It’s what sells.” 2K is obviously interested in their bottom line, and if they think they can get an extra couple hundred thousand copies sold by making the game look like Call of Duty or Uncharted, then they’re going to go for it. We recognize this as symptomatic of a systemic problem with the gaming industry and gaming culture in general, and so while we don’t especially like it, we at least understand it. It doesn’t surprise us.

But it might worry us.

The fundamental reason that Bioshock Infinite’s cover causes concern among gamers is that in advance of the game’s release, we cannot say for sure how much this move toward appealing to the broadest possible audience (read: white, male) is purely a shift in marketing tactics, or whether it actually represents a step away from what made the original Bioshock such a unique and compelling experience.

Perhaps the best way to examine this is to take a look at what (and who) we’re looking forward to seeing in the game–and why we’re disappointed they haven’t been given box art status.

Elizabeth.

Most obvious is the absence of Elizabeth, a character who compels many of us based only on what we’ve seen of her in trailers. The moment in this trailer in which Elizabeth takes Booker’s hand and places it around her own throat as she makes him promise not to let the Songbird take her back into captivity is extremely compelling. We haven’t been told very much about her origin, and we’ve gotten a glimpse of her mysterious (and really, if we’re being serious, totally wicked) powers, so we’re ready for her to be a big part of the game.

(As an aside: though Bioshock 2 did little to create much in the way of essential narrative, one of the things it did really well was build a relationship between the player’s character, Subject Delta, and the non-playable Eleanor Lamb. Creating an emotional bond between the player and an NPC is no easy task, and even though the team that created Bioshock 2 isn’t the same one that’s working on Infinite, the chances of us caring deeply about Elizabeth by the end of the game’s narrative seem pretty high. I care about her already. Did you hear her voice faltering in that trailer? Man.)

So Elizabeth’s not on the cover, and that worries us. It shouldn’t. Why? Elizabeth’s on the back of the box, for starters, which shows that 2K isn’t willing to hide her away entirely. It seems to be common practice in games marketing to de-emphasize female characters, which is kind of despicable but seems to be based on market data, even if it may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Does this make keeping Elizabeth off the cover a good idea, or even excusable? Absolutely not–but it makes it explicable, at least. At least they didn’t stuff her in the bottom corner like they did Farah from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. (She doesn’t quite get the spread that Yuna does in FFX, either, but hey.)

bioshockinfinitecolumbia

Another thing that could well be on the cover but isn’t is the city itself: Columbia. Both the original Bioshock and its immediate successor found success in no small part because of the world they built, Rapture, which remains one of the most detailed and haunting virtual environments a player can explore. Journeying through Rapture for the first (and to a lesser extent, the second) time was awesome–in the original sense of the word. It inspired awe in the player. At times, it was downright gut-wrenching.

The city of Columbia is immediately compelling to us because it appears at once wholly different from, and yet at the same time similar to, Rapture. Where Rapture is dark, Columbia is bright and dazzling. Where Rapture is close and confined, Columbia is open and enormous. And yet they are both obviously beautiful experiments that have been plunged into violence and grotesquerie. That’s a part of the Bioshock formula–a part that we, as gamers, are anxious to return to. So why isn’t it on the cover?

Well, it is. Sort of. There’s an airship up in the left corner. It’s kind of hard to see: there’s a grizzled white man with a gun in the way, as well as some J.J. Abrams-style lens flare. Does this convey the sullied beauty and grandeur of Columbia? I don’t think so.

And yet I don’t think we need to worry about this. You could see Rapture in the background of the original Bioshock’s cover, but not very clearly, and certainly not in a way that conveyed the epic scope of the ruined Utopia beneath the waves. It turns out that a setting isn’t a great way to sell a game–and it certainly isn’t the most logical choice for the cover. There’s an argument to be made here for aping the covers of Bioshock and its sequel by making Songbird or one of the Heavy Hitters the center of attention, but I’m under the impression that 2K and Irrational are deliberately trying to separate themselves from that tradition to create a new identity for Infinite, and they’re walking a fine line between trading on the Bioshock name and trying not to rehash too much of the formula that made the original(s) brilliant.

bioshockinfinitepropaganda

There’s another part of the formula that’s obviously present in Infinite, and that’s the idea of anchoring the conflict within a particular philosophy–in the original Bioshock, this was Objectivism; in Infinite, it’s American Exceptionalism. This is alluded to on the cover (the bit with the flag burning? Yeah, that’s the allusion).

Is this part of the formula going to work as strongly in this outing? Is it possible to have an analogue to the exploration of player choice, morality, and agency that the first game employed? Are we going to get another “A man chooses; a slave obeys”? Call me naive, but I’m betting probably not. The first Bioshock dealt with matters that were implicitly intertwined with issues of control, freedom, and choice–perfect subjects to explore in an interactive medium like video games. The story, by necessity, required the protagonist to be an extension of the player–a silent protagonist was the obvious choice.

Booker DeWitt isn’t a silent protagonist, and it’s obvious that Irrational knows that if it’s going to have a philosophically complex narrative, it’s going to have to deal with different issues. I don’t think we’ll be able to know whether the narrative is as compelling or evocative as the first game’s until we see the credits roll for ourselves.

And it’s pretty hard to sell a video game by advertising its treatment of American Exceptionalism, anyway.

Booker.

Which leaves us with Booker himself. Yes, he is definitely another grizzled white guy. With a gun.

To a certain extent, it makes sense to plaster his mug on the cover of the game, even if it’s not a likeness that distinguishes him from Mr. Drake, or Mr. McGrath, or even Mr. Bellic or Mr. Miles. As the protagonist of a first-person shooter, we need to be able to envision Mr. DeWitt if we are to care about him as a character separate from us, the player. After all, in most first-person shooters, the character we’re controlling is really more of a disembodied gun. Can a series go from having the protagonist be a non-entity to having them be an integral part of a compelling narrative?

Well, maybe. Jak II had a go at it, and it seemed to go over pretty well.

In my head, I am envisioning a conversation with the developers of the game that I hope (perhaps naively) is the reason we are getting the cover that we are. “We want the player to be familiar with Booker,” says an individual in this hypothetical conversation. “Booker is such an integral part of this narrative, and it’s important that we emphasize that.”

I tell myself that this is the conversation that happened, because my initial reaction upon seeing the cover was quite the opposite. “Have you seen the numbers on this stuff?” someone says, in this version of the imaginary brainstorming session. “We’ll sell ten million copies if we put a gruff white guy with a gun on the cover. Have you seen the numbers on Call of Duty?” (The numbers are very high.)

We cynical internet-goers immediately went here as soon as we saw the cover, and this is at the heart of our concern for this game we’re anticipating so intensely. We think back to what we know of 2K Games and the rumors that have swirled around Infinite”s development, and we wonder: “If this cover is a calculated, low-risk stratagem meant to maximize sales… has this philosophy influenced the game design, and if so, to what extent?”

Columbia.

We bite our nails in anxiety because of what we’ve heard about the game’s development: it’s been pushed back several months (from October 2012 to February 2013), it has lost key developers (and gained others) toward the end of its development cycle, and we’ve been in a state of confusion about the game’s multiplayer offering, which was going to exist, maybe, until it wasn’t. A six-month delay and some staff turnover doesn’t equate to “development hell,” exactly, but it has certainly raised some eyebrows. Can a huge, high-profile game with an enormous development staff remain true to a unified vision when pressured by a publisher to appeal to the broadest possible audience and thus sell the maximum number of copies? Are these development hiccups indicative of a team struggling to find that unified vision?

Maybe. Maybe not. From the perspective of someone outside the gaming press, it’s a little difficult to tell.

The multiplayer question, in particular, is tied to the issue of the developer’s (and, more than likely, the publisher’s) perception of its audience. On occasion, a series with a strong single-player offering will introduce a novel and worthwhile multiplayer conceit (as was the case with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, which introduced a kind of cat-and-mouse multiplayer that most players didn’t even know they wanted, and is still pretty unique to the series). More often than not, however, a game with a strong single-player narrative will have multiplayer shoehorned into it in an attempt to boost sales. Sometimes this process is merely inoffensive, as was the case in Bioshock 2, a game whose multiplayer was not particularly compelling–but whose single-player campaign was neither hampered nor contradicted by it.

That wasn’t the case with Spec Ops: The Line, whose multiplayer was not only tacked on but actively degraded the experience of the single-player campaign–and that’s according to the guys who developed it! Spec Ops, a game with a dark, subversive narrative, was undermined by its publisher telling its developers that they needed multiplayer or they wouldn’t sell as many copies. That publisher, by the way, was 2K Games.

So should we worry about this? Ultimately, I don’t think we need to. As of a couple days ago, Ken Levine has confirmed that the game won’t have multiplayer. That says a lot, actually–it says that Irrational Games has convinced 2K that the strength of the single-player experience will be enough to sell units. Levine is confident in his campaign. (Heck, the situation with Spec Ops might have convinced some folks at 2K that a bullet point on the back of the box isn’t worth compromising their developers’ vision–but maybe that’s being a little optimistic.)

It’s not just the willingness to go without multiplayer, however, that suggests that Irrational isn’t compromising its vision. Levine’s insistence on the inclusion of a “1999 Mode” indicates that the game is very much attuned to the kind of players who have been with him and his team since System Shock 2 (or at the very least, my friends who have insisted on playing the new XCOM on “Classic Ironman” mode in their first playthrough).

I don’t know whether Bioshock Infinite is going to live up to the high standard set by its progenitor. I don’t know if it will be able to create that lightning-in-a-bottle magic a second time. I think that, by virtue of the original’s high pedigree, the odds are significant that we might be in for a minor–or even a major–letdown.

But for the moment, I’m not going to judge a game by its cover.

The Beauty of the Barcade

Our culture is obsessed with things returning from the dead. Why not the video arcade? About a month ago, Ars Technica published an article that almost sounded too good to be true–and, reading it, I was somewhat skeptical. I have fond memories of time spent in arcades as a youth, but I was never privy to the true heyday of the video arcade in the ’80s. I wasn’t willing to believe that arcades could make a comeback, for one reason and one reason only: I wanted it to be true, and so of course it was never going to happen.

Then one opened a mile from my house.

Last night, I took a couple of my friends and went to check out the Joystick Gamebar, and after a night of cocktails, quarters, and aching wrists, I’ve changed my tune.

To borrow a line from my personal friend Fox Mulder: I want to believe.

Joystick proved to me, in a few short hours, that establishments like this really have a shot at success, and there are a handful of factors that make me believe that we’re going to see more and more barcades pop up in the next couple of years.

First, booze goes a long way toward making an establishment profitable. Let’s face it: a place like Joystick isn’t going to be making its money from quarters, especially when they do the honorable thing and keep the price of a game cheap. (X-Men arcade? 25 cents. Galaga? 25 cents. Street Fighter II? 25 cents. In fact, the only game that cost more than a quarter was Rampage: World Tour, which clocked in at a hefty 50 cents.)

Beer and cocktails, however, can bring in the money at a respectable rate. Joystick has several original cocktails (including one with homemade chai soda!) and a very palatable beer selection (Brooklyn Lager on tap!). By ensuring that an individual could come for the drinks and the friendly atmosphere and have a good time without inserting a single coin, a barcade can ensure that its livelihood isn’t dependent on the games it has to offer, even if those are a big part of attracting its clientele.

Pictured: Profit.

Some of the arcade owners in the Ars Technica article seem to attribute the recent revival of the arcade to the fact that nostalgic gamers are now old enough to be drinking, and that the bar/arcade model is viable now in a way that it didn’t used to be–but I don’t think that nostalgia entirely explains this transition. After all, haven’t huge numbers of gamers been old enough to drink for a decade (or two)? Sure, I’ve got fond memories of my uncle’s Space Invaders cocktail cabinet, but that thing was an artifact even when I was a kid. I’ve got a different theory.

I think that the rise of mobile gaming has created a sea change in the way our culture as a whole (and not just gaming culture, but pop culture in its entirety) views the gaming experience. Over the last three or four years, buying a game for a buck and playing it for twenty minutes or so before letting it sit, forgotten, at the back of your iPhone has become the norm–and this isn’t just something gamers do. It’s something everybody does.

That’s right. I think that you can thank Angry Birds for the resurgence of the arcade.

Arcades died off in droves in the mid-to-late ’90s, when the calculus of price-to-enjoyment-ratio shifted as a result of the increasing complexity of consoles. As prices rose to catch up, gamers started asking themselves: “Do I really want to drop a buck on six minutes of Tekken 2 when I could have an infinite number of minutes for fifty bucks?” If you were going to fool around with Yoshimitsu more than a couple of matches, you started to think that maybe it might be more worth your time to invest in a PSX copy. Eventually, the only way that arcades could entice people to spend was by giving them things they couldn’t possible get in their living room, like motion sensing technology, big dancing mats, or plastic guitar controllers.

Oh. Wait. Hm.

With the rise of smartphones, however, something changed. Games became cheap–woefully cheap–and the touch screen interface immediately suggested to developers a simplistic mode of play. Whether you think Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and Tilt to Live are simplistic and boring or pure and beautiful, there’s no denying that their gameplay aesthetics harken back much more to the arcade games of old than they do the AAA console titles into which we invest our big bucks.

And it’s not just gamers playing mobile games, as I said–it’s everyone. I teach middle school students that have never picked up an Xbox or Playstation controller in their lives, but they come into class decked out in Angry Birds gear like that flippin’ red avian was Mickey Mouse.

Our whole culture has come to value simple, pure gaming experiences for a very low entry fee. And I know that mathematically, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there’s a huge difference between the following comparisons in a person’s mind:

$1.00/play vs. $50.00/infinite plays

and

$0.25/play vs. $0.99/infinite plays

You can buy Galaga on your iPhone for $2.99, or, for the same price, you can have twelve plays in the arcade. Which gives you more value? The answer to the question isn’t really the point–the point is that your answer to the question doesn’t automatically paint you as either “gamer” or “uninterested.” When games are simple and cheap, anyone can invest a little time in them, “gamer” or not–especially if they’ve had a couple specialty cocktails.

Hopefully, between the booze and the changes in gaming aesthetic that have occurred over the last couple years, these barcades/gamebars/arcade-taverns that are starting to emerge in cities across the nation are a permanent fixture in the urban landscape–but I, for one, am not willing to leave this to chance. I submit, dear gamers, that we need to get out to our local game bar and give them our quarters!

If anyone wants to meet me at Joystick, I’ll be the guy at the Galaga machine in the corner.

 

 

The Multiplayer Scheduling Problem

Here’s a little story.

Last Saturday, I got an email in my inbox from my good friend Player 1. It was a short note, and to the point: P1 wanted myself (hereafter referred to as “Player 2”) and our mutual buddies Players 3 and 4 to set aside time in our schedule to finally finish the campaign of a co-op game we’d all been wanting to knock off our lists for some time. The game was Double Fine’s Iron Brigade (nee Trenched), an absolutely delightful tower-defense/third-person shooter with a whole lot of character.

The four of us had purchased this game on the day of its release with the express purpose of completing the campaign together. All four of us. No man left behind.

Trenched was released June 22, 2011.

When I got this email from Player 1, we were a little over halfway through the campaign.

Surely we are not the only group of friends who’ve been in this situation. With the rise of online multiplayer and the advent of several AAA titles with entirely cooperative campaigns, we can’t be the only gamers to sit down and say “this one–this one we’re going to play together as a team.”

And yet we run up against the inevitable fact– we’re adults now, living adult lives with adult schedules, and it is monstrously difficult to coordinate four people to be free on the same evening when those four people live in four separate major metropolitan areas across the country.

In his email, Player 1 admitted that he was booked both Tuesday and Wednesday evenings (photography class and a social event), but was free for most other nights. Player 4 had theater rehearsals every weekday evening, but knew that he would be free for the weekend. Player 3 and his wife were helping a family member move house on Friday and Saturday, which was just as well for me, because I had two separate parties to go to on Saturday night (and nothing to wear!).

By some miracle, we all happened to be free on Sunday evening, so we quickly set a date. I made sure on Sunday morning to text my friends and try to coordinate times, and in the evening, after dinner, I sat down in front of the Xbox and booted up the game. I was ready to commit two to four solid hours of play so we could finish off Iron Brigade and try to put our efforts toward something else when I got a text from Player 4.

“I brought my Xbox to my girlfriend’s, but she doesn’t have an ethernet cable. I think we’re boned, guys.”

Classic Player 4.

And that was it! Iron Brigade got put by the wayside, and the other two gents and I played a couple rounds of Mass Effect 3 and called it a night.

As I drifted off to bed, I began to brainstorm solutions to this problem. Here are some general points of advice that I can offer to the community:

1. Set aside a regular evening in your schedule.

The problem of scheduling isn’t just for video games– folks who roll dice have been dealing with this problem for decades before Xbox Live was a glimmer in Joe Microsoft’s eye. I’m nowhere near as experienced with pen and paper as I am with a controller, but the few campaigns I’ve been a part of have always benefited from having a regular “game night” set aside in everyone’s schedule, like the “poker nights” of old–and the key here is regular. If every Friday is game night, or every other Friday, then it’s much less tempting to throw that out on a whim because Jimmy Co-Worker wants to hit up a bar after work on Friday.

I guess you could compromise…?

I’m no stranger to the fact that it can be a little difficult to pass up an offer like that in favor of going home and putting on the headset–but it’s a lot easier to say “sorry, I have a thing I do on Fridays” than it is to say “sorry, I promised my friends we’d have some quality time over the internet tonight.”

2. Have an alt ready.

Having a group of three other guys with whom you game regularly sounds like an ideal scenario: if they’re all available, then you’ve got a full team: Marcus, Dom, Baird, and Cole; Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael; Spengler, Venkman, Stantz, and Zeddemore. Unfortunately, as we’ve discovered, getting all four together is sometimes a difficult endeavor–but that’s not the only problem this poses.

For me, one of the most difficult things about scheduling game time with my bros is that any time we sit down to shoot some bad guys, my wife is usually sitting next to me on the couch with a P5 symbol floating above her head, blinking. She would be all too happy to press start and join in.

For some games, that’s not an option (Trenched is one of them), but there are a handful of excellent games that offer split-screen and online functionality simultaneously: Dungeon Defenders, Gears of War, Left 4 Dead, and, thank goodness, Borderlands 2. (You should check out Co-Optimus if you’re looking for an exhaustive list–search by system and tick the box for “Local with Online”.)

Though we’ve sometimes played Horde Mode with five people, my wife has been adamant that she’s not going to substitute herself for one of the guys in the campaign of Gears 3 (an act she explained would be a “bro-trayal” on my part), but this almost certainly means that we’re never going to get through the campaign. Ever. Remember when I said that we were halfway through the campaign of Iron Brigade? That campaign’s about 10 hours long. Tops. What’s the run time on Gears 3? 20 hours? 25? (I wouldn’t know! I haven’t finished it!) We’ve played about ninety minutes.

Look at him! He’s ashamed of me.

If you happen to be lucky enough to have a player pool that’s greater than the player cap on whatever game you’re playing, you should agree as a group that you can proceed if you’ve got a quorum of players. If you’ve got four people ready to use those lancers, then you should go ahead and slaughter some locust.

3. Dedicate yourself to smaller fellowships.

My best experiences with co-op in the age of online gaming have something in common: I’ve played with one dedicated partner and, when circumstances have allowed for it, invited others to join us. (No innuendo is intended with that statement.)

I played Borderlands with Player 1, and, occasionally, Player 4 would join us. Most of my time playing the multi of Mass Effect 3 has been spent with Player 4, as has a lot of Left 4 Dead. Resident Evil 5 was entirely with my wife, and I never hopped online to defend any dungeons unless she was available. (Did you know that Final Fantasy IX allows for two controllers? That’s an excellent game to play with your significant other.) I played through the campaigns of the Halo trilogy and the first two Gears of War titles with Player 1, though Players 3 and 4 popped in for Horde Mode or online multiplayer on occasion.

My point is that if you’d like to save the campaign of a game to be a shared experience with someone (and I wholeheartedly endorse that objective), it’s a lot easier to coordinate two schedules than four, and the experience will probably not be diminished by a dramatic amount. Maybe you should take your Band of Bros and pair it up, so that people with compatible schedules can share the adventure and no one will be really left out.

So, in any case, those are my recommendations. I’d love to hear what sort of scheduling conflicts you all have run into and what solutions you’ve come up with. Are there obvious solutions that are just passing me by? Let’s hear it!

I’ll let you know if we ever finish Trenched.

Broadening Your Gaming Horizons

I’ve been out of college for five years now, and contrary to my mother’s constant predictions throughout my youth, I’ve yet to “grow out of” gaming. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, the medium has grown up, too, and each year brings new and fascinating explorations of player agency and interactive storytelling.

As I’ve matured, however, so have my tastes in games–and as I come to see myself more and more as a critical and academic appreciator of the medium as a whole, I’ve made a conscious effort to try games that, once upon a time, would have been outside of my wheelhouse. Part of this endeavor has meant going back to play the classic games that passed me by as a youth, but part of it has simply been pushing myself to play games that I might otherwise have overlooked because of genre preferences.

This process may have begun as early as the late nineties, when I came home from the mall with a game which was way outside the aesthetic that I usually preferred: Metal Gear Solid.

This was a little too real for me.

I had read an article in the latest issue of the now-defunct gaming mag “Next Generation” about how The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was unquestionably the “game of the century,” which was immediately followed by a review for MGS which stated that if you were one of the unfortunates who happened not to have an N64, then this new Hideo Kojima joint was probably the best that you could hope for. (Of course, even at the tender age of fourteen, I could tell with reasonable certainty that I had already played the greatest game of all time, and it was definitely a PlayStation exclusive.)

As you may recall, I was one of those unfortunates who had picked the PSX over the N64, and I was determined to play this “last, greatest PSX title.”

The only problem was: Metal Gear was scary as hell. You had to sneak around, and your weapons were exceptionally limited, and there was a very loud alarm sound every time someone detected you! The visual aesthetic and tone of the game were realistic, somber, and dramatic–even to someone whose favorite series was a certain anime-flavored, melodramatic epic, the stakes were raised considerably.

Actually, this was about more my speed at the time.

Eventually, of course, I grew accustomed to Metal Gear’s high-tension thrills, and I’ll be among the first to champion it as one of the greatest games of all time. I am certainly among the ranks of those who got a little shiver at hearing Psycho Mantis describe their love of Castlevania.

So–my aesthetic horizons as a gamer had been broadened, and I was better for it.

Several years later, I embarked on a campaign to familiarize myself with a new genre–one with which I had extremely limited experience–the first-person shooter. How was it that I made it through fifteen-plus years of gaming without seriously investing time in an FPS? Well, my family had never had a PC capable of running top-of-the-line games, and as a result I stuck mostly to consoles. Glance quickly at my console ownership history, and… well. Name an FPS worth playing on the Genesis or the PSX.

Yeah? That’s what I thought.

Oh? Yeah? Was that… a thing? Huh. I missed that one.

So, when my buddies and I gathered at our esteemed colleague’s house for a night of Halo, I was that guy. We couldn’t play 2-on-2 matches, because someone would have to get stuck with me. People hunted me down in deathmatch because I was an easy kill, like a tiny flightless bird in a very small pen. I excused myself from the challenges in Perfect Dark because, well, I wanted them to have a chance at victory.

Eventually, just after graduating from college, I decided that I’d had quite enough of that and embarked on a quest to play through the campaigns of the entire Halo trilogy in an attempt to hone my skills. My good friend Sebastian and I teamed up to do it cooperatively, and we became so wrapped up in the challenge that by the time we got to Halo 3, we decided we’d invite some of our other buddies in to join us, and maybe crank the difficulty up to Legendary. You know, for funsies.

Afterwards, I noticed that whenever we played multiplayer, I was no longer at the bottom of the standings! I wasn’t exactly dominating, of course, but I was holding my own. I had expanded my horizons as a gamer yet again–this time, into a genre I’d not been comfortable with. If I hadn’t pressed myself to engage with first-person shooters, I never would have played the first Call of Duty–or Bioshock–or Borderlands! There are so many superb shooters in the medium, and I would have missed them if I hadn’t stepped outside my comfort zone as a gamer.

Aww… I can’t imagine my life without these guys!

Over the last couple of weeks, however, I realized that there may well be limits to how far and how fast we can push ourselves as gamers. As part of my continual effort to engage with classic games of all genres, I picked up a copy of the original Gran Turismo at a flea market. I was immediately impressed with the depth of the customization system, the wealth of authentic cars, and the RPG-like progression that fueled the “simulation mode.” And that’s not mentioning its graphics! It may not look like much these days, but it’s obvious even now that Gran Turismo pushes the PSX hardware pretty heavily.

Well, you know. This was 1998.

As I fooled around with it, however, I realized that despite all of its positive features, it just wasn’t getting its hooks in me. I could appreciate it thoroughly as an excellent game, but I wasn’t invested. I spent a lot of time wondering why it was that I could eagerly memorize half of the Final Fantasy Tactics Battle Mechanics Guide but couldn’t be bothered to look up which cars I should put money into in this “driving simulator.” Was it the fact that there was a huge time investment needed, and I am now a busy adult with (ugh) responsibilities? Was it the fact that I was reluctant to dive down a rabbit hole which was fourteen years old?

Or, I thought with dread, was it simply the fact that I was not into racing games?

Now, hold on, I reassured myself. You played Ridge Racer Revolution and Jet Moto when you were a kid. None of your friends will play you in Mario Kart: Double Dash because they think it’s a foregone conclusion. You’ve beaten every Grand Theft Auto– aren’t those sort of racing games?

Not really, as it turns out.

I wasn’t fooling myself. I knew that just because I liked arcade racers and gangster crime sagas, I didn’t have any real experience with the genre to which Gran Turismo belongs. It bills itself as a “racing simulator,” and though it certainly has an arcade mode, the real meat of the experience is in building a career as a racer, customizing your car, earning licenses, and pimping your ride. The pull of the game is in winning races to earn CarBux to buy sweeter wheels, so you can win more races and earn more CarBux.

And I just wasn’t into it. I doubt that I would be into it if I were to pick up 2 Gran 2 Turismo, or Gran Turismo 5: This Time It’s Personal.

So I’m going to put GT back on the shelf and let it stew for a while. Perhaps it’s simply too far, too fast. Maybe if I were to bridge that gap more gradually, maybe play some Burnout or Need for Speed, I could come to appreciate the greater complexities of the “driving simulator” series. I feel a certain obligation to– as a gamer, as a gaming scholar, as someone who strives to be “well played.” Because I know what wonderful things can come when you step outside your gaming comfort zone–and I hope that as long as I game, I never stop cultivating my tastes.

The Player as Player: Games as Theater

I’ve read very often, in descriptions of a game’s premise, a phrase which I’ve begun to consider: In a given game, “players take the role of…” A Google search of this phrase naturally turns up almost exclusively hits relating to video games, but it wasn’t until recently that I sat down and really considered the terminology here.

The only other possible medium besides gaming to which this might apply is theater, and yet I don’t see a lot of criticism in games journalism drawing parallels between game players and stage players. It strikes me that picking up a controller and picking up a script are, in many respects, quite similar.

Most folks who’ve done some theater are familiar with “the actor’s nightmare”: You are in the middle of a performance for which you have forgotten all of your lines and most of your cues, and you are constantly being urged by your castmates to continue despite the fact that you have no script, you have no costume, and indeed you have no pants.

I think that playing a video game, or at least any game with a narrative, is a bit like the actor’s nightmare with all of the bite removed: you have assumed a role, you set foot onto a grand stage knowing none of the lines, and yet miraculously, every time you reach the next bit of the story, the words come tumbling from your mouth unbidden. When we say that the player “takes the role of” John Marston, or Commander Shepard, or even Sly Cooper, the implication is that we’re not just using these characters as agents by which to accomplish gameplay objectives–we are actively taking on a role, as an actor takes a role in bringing a play to life.

I wish I’d had a health bar when I did theater in high school.

The Assassin’s Creed franchise has probably the most direct implementation of this of any game that I can think of. Your health bar effectively measures how in character you are when you’re playing. Because of the narrative conceit that you are Desmond Miles taking on the personae of his ancestors, the game will cause you to fail if you act “out of sync” with these historical assassins. Kill a civilian? Nope, Altair didn’t do that! Don’t do it again or you’ll be “desynchronized!” Essentially, you get a game over if you are out of character. This is an excellent excuse for giving you a game over if you’re detected on certain missions (“Oops! Ezio wouldn’t have gotten caught there!”) as well as constructing the limits of the game world (“Altair never swam a foot in his life!”).

Just because the Assassin’s Creed games are some of the only ones to take this concept and construct their world around it doesn’t mean the principle isn’t at work in other games. How many of us felt an uncomfortable dissonance playing Cole Phelps in L.A. Noire? Cole’s kind of a jerk!

Look at him! He knows it.

It’s not easy being a jerk onstage. Cole Phelps, however, isn’t the player–he’s an agent rather than an avatar, meaning that he doesn’t directly represent the player’s persona. We’re not jerks, we’re just playing one in the game. Nevertheless, this sort of thing isn’t as black and white as it can be in other media: the player has some agency over how Cole behaves in conversations, but not a lot (certainly not as much as they do in the conversations of Commander Shepard–and yet even there, there’s some dissonance!). Sometimes, in the midst of an interrogation, I would back off in alarm. “Whoa, Detective! They told me the X button meant ‘doubt,’ not ‘tear the witness a new one!'”

Nevertheless, I played an awful lot of L.A. Noire “in character.” I was careful with my driving unless we were in the middle of a chase scene, I walked when I could have dashed, I didn’t run people down in the street. Many players like to push the boundaries of the world and test the limits of the play space they’re given. There are plenty of others who don’t–players who don’t like to break the game because it breaks the illusion.

I’ve read a lot of arguments considering the matter of cutscenes and their place in gaming, but I think that this one, by Alois Wittwer over at Nightmare Mode, might be among the few I’ve read in defense of them. In discussing player agency, Wittwer uses the excellent example of Final Fantasy IV’s opening to show us how a scene over which we have no control can be used to invest us in a world: we’re taking on the role of Cecil Harvey, who does something pretty reprehensible in which we’re immediately complicit, and so his redemption over the course of the story is in some way shared by the player.

“Boy, it’s a shame you didn’t do something about it, huh?”

Cecil is a member of a military organization which ransacks a tiny, helpless village to obtain a precious resource (one of the ubiquitous Crystals in the Final Fantasy franchise). The player has very little agency here: a long story sequence, including a handful of battles, plays out before we’re given control of our hero. The argument against cutscenes, the argument for greater player agency, suggests that we can’t feel guilt over Cecil’s actions because we had no choice in them. Like Cole Phelps, Cecil is an agentnot an avatar: he’s not representative of the player–he’s just a role we’re taking on.

Cecil’s plight, however, is that he’s not in control of his situation any more than the player is–he’s in service to a king he no longer trusts, committing acts for which he feels remorse. A sympathetic player naturally wants to enable his escape from such a situation (and will feel satisfaction for him when we finally help him to do so).

Anyone who has played a part in a theater production at any level will tell you that there is great joy in putting on a play. Taking on the role of character and working with comrades to bring a story to life for an audience is an enormously satisfying endeavor. What a good narrative in a game allows us to do is to participate in this experience on our own, without the aid of others. We take on one role, just as we would onstage, and trust to the game’s designers to carry the rest.

Much has been said in games criticism about how the player is simultaneously creator and audience, something which is true in no other medium–but I would add that if any other medium comes close, it’s the theater. Onstage, one can participate in a story which unfolds in real time and which has no “post-production.” The only line drawn between the creators of a stage production and the audience is one which is invisible, hypothetical, mutually agreed upon, and respected by all parties involved (or not!).

Playing a game is like having that fourth wall removed, being invited up from the audience to participate, and immediately knowing all of the lines. What a wonder! Is it so surprising, then, that some of us gamers are perfectly willing to abandon our agency if it’s in service of the production as a whole?

I think that those of us who consider games critically ought to be more cognizant of the parallel between games and the stage: it strikes me as a more apt comparison than games and cinema. It might behoove game designers, as well, to consider this comparison when thinking about matters of player agency in their design. If we think about the roles that we’re taking on as gamers, we might be inclined to play differently–and the experience might even be improved!

Portrait of the Gamer as a Young Man: An N64 Story

I think that a big part of my desire to be “well played” (that is, to have played many historically and culturally important games on many different systems) comes from the fact that my console allegiances shifted a number of times when I was young. I began gaming on a Nintendo Game Boy when I was six, but as I’ve previously mentioned, this was a gift from my extended family–I didn’t really choose it. So too with the Sega Genesis I received when I was nine.

At this point I didn’t have a preference between the two companies, Sega and Nintendo– I certainly was glad to have a Game Boy rather than a Game Gear, because I enjoyed being able to play my handheld for more than twenty or thirty minutes before it ran out of batteries–but I was quite content with my Sega Genesis, and didn’t feel like I was missing out by not owning an SNES (it turns out I was wrong): I might have the inferior TMNT game, but I had the better version of Aladdin, after all.

Something happened when it came time to move on to the 32/64-bit generation, however, and it’s worth recounting here as an anecdote, because a chance of fate conspired to shift my allegiances once again.

It was the holiday season of 1996, and the new consoles had been out for somewhere between a few months and a year. I felt as though it was time to move on from my Genesis and embrace the world of the new. Knowing that my parents had a firm policy against buying me systems, I understood that it was going to take not just my savings, but the sacrifice of my trusty Sega console and all of its games, plus all of the birthday money my grandmother had given me, I wistfully gathered up my gaming collection and asked my father to take me round to the mall so that I could make my purchase.

I knew what I was after. The parents of my friends had no such misgivings about the purchase of consoles for their offspring, and some of them didn’t even have to wait until Christmas to acquire their prizes. I had been to my buddy Charles’s house and played Super Mario 64. I had seen the future, the three-dimensional future, and it was glorious. The way was laid before me by the mustachioed son of Miyamoto.

So when I rolled up with my father to the CD Game Exchange my little cardboard box containing the remnants of the hedgehog’s 16-bit kingdom, I had my sights firmly set on a January exploring the hallways of Peach’s castle. The plumber exhorted me to “let’s-a go,” and I was ready to obey.

I set my old games on the counter in front of a young man who I imagine was in his early 20s. I have no recollection of what he looked like, now, which is unfortunate, considering the effect that he was about to have on my life as a gamer.

The dude calculated how much trade in value I would get for my old gear, and as he reported the number to me I remember smiling to myself. It was just enough that with my additional savings, I would be able to purchase the system–and a game besides! I rubbed my hands together in naive anticipation.

“I want an N64, please,” I said, all full of hope.

The words fell like a headsman’s axe: “Can’t. We don’t have any.”

I stood looking at him in shock. What? Didn’t he understand how important it was that I have this system? When my brain finally processed the implications of his statement, I reached for the cardboard box and began to pull it back toward me across the glass display case. “Come on, Dad,” I said. “We’ve got to go to a different store.”

“It’s no good,” said the man behind the counter. “No one has them. You won’t be able to find one.”

I can’t say for sure, but it’s entirely likely that my lip trembled. Why was the universe intent on crushing my tiny gamer dreams?

And it was at this point that the man leaned over the counter and beckoned me closer with a crooked finger. Desperate for any glimmer of hope, I approached once more, hoping that he was about to tell me that there was just one system left, in the back, and he just wanted to make sure it went home with a boy who really wanted it.

He looked at me and the corner of his mouth bent upward in a smirk. He leaned in conspiratorially, as though he was about to impart to me some secret of the Adult Gamer World.

“You don’t want an N64,” he said. “You want a PlayStation.”

I blinked. I wanted a what? Why?

“You want a PlayStation,” he repeated. “Trust me on this one.”

And you know what? I did. Looking back on it, I’m certain that he was just trying to make a sale, that he was thinking of how nice it would be to make his numbers go up on that little board in the back room, but I bought it hook, line, and sinker. I couldn’t explain why, but I knew that I did want a PlayStation.

(An aside, here: Have you ever looked at the word “PlayStation?” How weird is it? We’ve had this as part of our gaming lexicon for some twenty years, and do we ever stop to examine how silly it is as a portmanteau?)

And so I handed over my Genesis and my Sonic 3D Blast and my Ristar and my Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition and a dozen other games, and I left the store with a brand new Sony PlayStation. I couldn’t deal with the notion of leaving that store without a new system in hand, and so I, I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Actually, strictly speaking, the PlayStation ended up selling about three times as many units as the N64, so I really took the road more frequently traveled by. The games I bought immediately were actually kind of lame: I went home with Ridge Racer Revolution, which was a decent game but only had three tracks, and this business, which, seriously, what the hell. Somehow I wasn’t deterred or disillusioned by my purchase, despite– well, despite the fact that Aquanaut’s Holiday was really boring. The system came with a demo disc that had some excellent suggestions, and pretty soon I was jamming out with Jumping Flash 2 and Jet Mototwo games which have aged really well and which I would still recommend.

But it wasn’t until later that year that I truly realized how right that CD Game Exchange worker had been. I saw an ad in my gaming magazine (the now-defunct Next Generation), desperately begged my mom to take me to the mall after school, and came home to rush to the basement, pop in the disc, turn on the console, and see this.

When I finally managed to pick my jaw up off the floor, I said a little prayer of thanks to that guy at CD Game Exchange, because it became clear to me in that moment that he had not been just messing with me to make a sale. He’d been genuinely concerned with my well-being as a gamer.

Portrait of the Gamer as a Young Man: A 12-year-old’s Homemade Sega Genesis Mixtape

I was a gamer from a very young age. Despite my parents’ firmly-held (and probably correct) belief that too much screen time is a bad thing for a developing mind, my extended family gifted me with a classic Game Boy when I turned six. This my parents tolerated–after all, it wasn’t a television, and could only be played in direct light. Then, when I turned nine, someone (not my parents) got me one of these bad boys:

It did what Nintendidn’t.

A Sega Genesis. It was probably the best birthday ever up to that point, despite the fact that the games they picked for me were Krusty’s Super Fun House and James Pond. It didn’t matter! The system came bundled with Sonic 2, which was (and still is) a masterpiece of platforming.

I don’t know how it is that we gamers end up getting the music bug, but I already had it by the time I unwrapped my Sega. I had it bad. I was pulling up the sound test in every Game Boy game I owned, holding that pathetic speaker to my ear like I was some sort of boom-box sporting 90’s cliche. By the age of eight, I was already a dedicated game music enthusiast.

But a Genesis wasn’t portable like a Game Boy, and I couldn’t bring its excellent tunes in the car with me, or anywhere that wasn’t TV-adjacent. However, being a resourceful young lad with access to a handful of electronic devices, I devised a cunning plan: I held my parents’ stereo up to the TV speaker and made a Sega Genesis mixtape.

I’m writing to you, ladies and gentlemen, not simply to reminisce, but because I have made an archaeological discovery. I’ve uncovered that mixtape, and analyzed its contents. And I am here to tell you that young Nate had mostly great taste in 16-bit music.

What follows are, and I am not kidding you, the actual tracks on the Genesis mixtape I made when I was 12 years old.

1. Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, “Versus Mode”

This is what I’m talking about when I say that young me knew what he was talking about. The Genesis’s sound chip was kind of weird and limited compared to that of its competitor, the SNES, but I didn’t know that at the time! All I knew was that I liked these poorly-synthesized shredding guitars! This is the sort of piece that really deserves some attention on OCRemix. One of their musical sorcerers could undoubtedly translate this into something superb.

Mean Bean Machine is a pretty good game, too–as a Puyo Puyo clone, you could definitely do worse. I’d take it over Kirby’s Avalanche any day, even if it does have licensing from the Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon (the bad one).

2. The Lion King, “To Die For”

Disney interactive had a pretty great streak of making delightful games in the mid-90’s. Well, it had two, at least. The Genesis versions of both Aladdin and The Lion King were superior to their SNES counterparts, in my experience. (My wife could vouch for the Beauty and the Beast tie-in games, but I never played them myself.) Really good platformers, both of them! You should go play them.

It seems silly that young me should have preferred the 16-bit translations of Hans Zimmer’s excellent film score (which is superb), but, well, I didn’t have that film score, and in any case, the track in question takes a few brief measures of the piece which shares its name and extends them to become a whole piece unto itself–a piece which plays during a very cool level which was a departure from the standard side-scrolling the game had shown me up until that point.

3. Ristar, “Crazy Kings”

Ristar is amazing. A colorful, cartoonish platformer developed by Sonic Team, Ristar revolves around a quirky combat/navigation mechanic which is much more fun to play around with than it sounds (the titular character has… stretchy arms. Look, it works, okay?). Each world you visit in the game has a distinct personality and lush, detailed visuals. Because this is Sonic Team we’re talking about, the music is toe-tappingly great as well.

But for my money, nothing sells this game like the bosses. Fighting a shark in a submerged cavern, fighting a giant mechanical mole while in freefall down a mineshaft, fighting a deranged buzzard as it tries to take the stage from a songbird virtuoso–every boss in the game is unique, each one is gorgeous, and you get to fight them all while this music is playing. I’d listen to this while fighting possessed alien tyrants anyday.

4. Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, “Intro”

All right, they weren’t all going to be gems. I was twelve, after all. This one takes the shredding guitars of Mean Bean Machine and takes them to their (il)logical extreme. Listening to this sounds like putting a Cylon through a wood chipper.

Desert Strike was a pretty cool game, I seem to recall, but man, was it difficult. I don’t think I got past the first area more than a couple times. Maybe that’s one worth revisiting. Was it, like, weirdly prescient? We did end up “returning to the gulf,” after all. Maybe there’s more to this one than meets the eye…

5. Cool Spot, “Rave Dance Tune”

Oh man! If YouTube is to be trusted (and I can’t think of a single circumstance where that wouldn’t be the case), this one’s by Tommy Tallarico, the guy responsible for Earthworm Jim and a handful of other 16-bit classics, as well as one of the creators of Video Games Live, an absolutely excellent show that I recommend you all attend when it makes its way to your city.

Cool Spot was not a great game. I seem to recall really wanting it, which about makes sense for a twelve-year-old. Some of its music included riffs on some pop culture tunes (wasn’t there the theme to The Magnificent Seven in there somewhere?), but other than that, well… it was about as engaging as you might imagine a game based around a soda mascot would be. I had almost forgotten about the game entirely until I discovered this track on my old mixtape. Nevertheless, a pretty nifty tune, huh?

6. Sonic 3D Blast, “Gene Gadget Zone Act 1”

This game was a mess. Sonic’s signature speed was gone, it was difficult to control, and the graphics were–well, the graphics were decent, but I think I was spoiled by a better 2D-to-3D conversion of a major gaming mascot. Coming out near the end of the Genesis’s lifetime, Sonic 3D Blast wasn’t really the swan song that Sega was hoping for, I think, and boded ill for the hedgehog’s future three-dimensional outings. Nevertheless, just about every track on this game’s score is solid musical gold. In fact, I may have spent more time with the sound test than I did actually playing the game.

And that’s it! Yep, six songs. Either that was enough to constitute a “mixtape” when I was twelve, or I just got bored and tired of holding that stereo up to the TV. In any case, I carried that tape around in my Walkman for several months before it became lost in a closet somewhere, buried beneath strata of personal belongings, to be excavated by me only recently.

That tape was important, though: it was telling. It was early evidence of a growing obsession with the music of video games–an obsession which continues to this very day!

9 Video Game Locales in Which to Spend Your Summer Vacation

Summer is upon us! The season of sun, surf, and freedom is just beginning, and the blue skies and long, warm evenings are calling to all of us. But with three months of endless possibilities stretching out before you, how do you plan to fill that time? Are you at risk of spending all summer bumming around your apartment, your parents’ basement, or your Arctic doombase? Are you worried that you won’t make yourself get out and do something?

Don’t fret! There are thousands of potential exotic locales you might visit, and of all these, there are a couple that immediately jump out as superb destinations. No matter your disposition, I guarantee that you’ll find a place on this list where you can make your summer satisfying.

Not bad, right?

1. Besaid Island, Final Fantasy X

Looking for someplace to get away from it all? Someplace with sun, sand, surf, and Sin? Well, okay, maybe not the Sin part. Nevertheless! If you’d like to spend the summer working on your tan, hiking through the tropical jungle (complete with waterfalls and ancient forbidden machina ruins), or just tossing the blitzball around in the sand with your bros, then Besaid Island is the paradise for you. The villagers are friendly, the local wildlife is low-level, and the jaw-dropping vistas just can’t be beat.

If you’re thinking of vacationing on Besaid, timing is key: you want to plan your trip after the colossal avatar of destruction that decimates the towns of Spira has been defeated. If you can swing this, then there’s nothing to prevent you from enjoying three long months of good weather, hospitable company, and beautiful scenery.

2. Mineral Town, Harvest Moon: Back to Nature

Of course, some people aren’t happy unless they have a project to carry them through the summer. For anyone inclined to spend the long daylight hours working up a sweat, there’s no better place to head to in June than your grandpa’s farm out in the country. A place like this is just waiting for some ambitious upstart to restore it to its former glory! Mineral Town, in particular, offers several amenities for the hard-working farmer: monthly festivals, beautiful woods and hills, excellent fishing, and a town full of personable characters eager to meet a newcomer from the big city. Who knows? You might even find romance! There are a disproportionate number of attractive young people in this quaint farming village.

Sure, there’s a lot of work to be done on a farm– planting, watering, feeding, milking, collecting, mining, inventory management– but at the end of the summer, you can sit back proudly knowing that you’ve made something that will last. You might have such a good time, you decide you want to stick around through the winter!

3. Casino Night Zone, Sonic the Hedgehog 2

For those to whom a leisurely, rural vacation does not appeal, I would heartily recommend a visit to the Casino Night Zone from Sonic 2. A veritable ocean of glittering neon, the Casino Night Zone offers everything a gambler or gamer could ask for: slots, pinball… rings. If you’re the sort of person who is up all night at the blackjack table and spends most of the day in bed, then this is the vacation destination for you. Just be careful that you don’t get caught up in the whirlwind adrenaline rush of gambling and leave your partner behind… offscreen… to catch up to you what seems like eons later.

Seriously, Tails, you’re an abominable sidekick. Moving on!



4. Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, Psychonauts

So perhaps gambling isn’t your thing. Perhaps you’d like someplace that combines the rural pleasures of a country vacation with the nostalgia of your youth. What better way to relive the summers spent away from your parents than going back to camp? Whispering Rock has everything a camper could ask for: friendly bunk-mates, counselors who are experts in their fields, and a terrifying, abandoned insane asylum just across the lake! A few weeks spent at Whispering Rock and you’ll have made friends, done some arts and crafts, and learned how to set things on fire with your mind.

There are some potential hazards in visiting Whispering Rock, as with any summer camp: you might not get along with some of the counselors (especially if they force you into the twisted hellscapes of their subconscious), you might get picked on by the other campers (or captured by a hideous, building-sized lungfish for use in maniacal experiments), and, if you’re not careful, you might get cooties. Nevertheless, if you have even a passing interest in clairvoyance, telekinesis, or levitation, then Whispering Rock is the summer destination for you.

5. Star Tropics, Star Tropics

Maybe you’re the adventurous type, an individual whose summer would be incomplete without a little action and danger. Does spelunking through creature-infested caves in a tropical paradise, armed only with a yo-yo and a baseball bat, sound like your cup of tea? That’s what the Star Tropics have to offer. Well, that, and maybe a little early-90s residual racism toward Pacific Islanders. But hey! It was developed by the same guys that made Punch-Out. A little cultural insensitivity oughta be expected.

Star Tropics has several amenities which make it well-suited to being a summer getaway: plenty of unspoiled, pristine islands to explore, a submarine in which to cruise around and take in the sights, and a surprising number of English-speaking native creatures! I’m pretty sure there were at least a dolphin and a parrot, maybe more. If you’ve spent too many summers in Hyrule and need to find a retreat that’s just a little more balmy and pleasant, the Star Tropics are the place for you.

6. St. Mystere, Professor Layton and the Curious Village

If, on the other hand, you’re the sort of person who would prefer their summer to contain the least possible amount of danger, I would suggest seeing if you couldn’t find boarding at the inn in St. Mystere, a quaint little town full of friendly personalities and charming character. Just… never mind that ominous, looming tower in the distance. St. Mystere has plenty to offer, including lovely parks, a cozy cafe or two, and beautiful, old-world style architecture. You’ll spend your summer reading outside a coffee shop, listening to the soothing strains of French accordion music, and trying to put your finger on what, exactly, seems to be amiss in the quaint little town…

A word of warning, however: if you’re planning on vacationing in this Curious Village, make sure to pack your thinking cap. You can’t get anywhere in this town without solving a puzzle. Want to check into your room at the inn? Hope you’re good at chess! Want a place to park your car? Get ready to slide some blocks around. Like a cappuccino from the shop down the street? Better be able to get those chickens and wolves across the river without any of them eating each other. Students eager to leave the brain-twisting challenges of academia behind might want to pick a different destination.

7. Shibuya, The World Ends With You

Maybe your idea of a good summer is to bombard your senses with as much stimulation as possible. If you can’t stand the thought of leaving the madding crowd and feel most at home in a sea of strangers, then you would do well to check out Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, one of the world’s primo shopping districts and centers of night life. Of course, if you’re visiting the Shibuya of The World Ends With You, you might be a little distracted by all of the abstract animal/graffiti monsters trying to snuff you out to have a good time, but still! Think of all the shopping!

Reapers and Noise aside, there’s no better place in all of videogamedom to be bathed in neon, deafened by club music, and surrounded by your fellow human beings. Anybody looking to spend most of their summer holidays in a dance hall, Shibuya is the place to be. And if you happen to be interested in being hunted “Most Dangerous Game” style and fighting back with stylish pins and the latest fashions, Shibuya works for that, too! If you have an aversion to anime kids with huge hair, you might want to look elsewhere.

8. The Great Sea, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Hyrule is one of the most beloved vacation destinations of gamers everywhere, whether they’re seeking a link to their past, an awakening of sorts, or are just out to feel like a hero (of time) for a while. But it’s the Great Sea of The Wind Waker that I’m going to recommend as the optimal place to unwind for the discerning gamer on vacation. Refreshing sea breezes, the call of seabirds, and the gentle rocking of a boat beneath your feet all combine to create a truly idyllic escape. The Great Sea sports many tiny islands to explore and take in, each with its own unique charm. There are several dungeons to traverse and investigate, if you’re adventurous. If you’d prefer, however, you could while away your summer sipping fruity drinks on the beach or immersing yourself in the native culture.

If you’re not a sailor, you won’t be able to make the most of a visit to the Great Sea, so be warned: there is a lot of sailing involved. A lot! We’re talking hours and hours here. However, if the thought of setting out onto the bounding main with the wind rushing through your hair fills you with the spirit of adventure, then this is absolutely where you should book passage this summer.

image credit: mudron (go buy a print for your wall!)

9. Mushroom Kingdom, Mario Series

The Mushroom Kingdom is the Disney World of videogames. This is the kind of place to which you’ll want to bring the kids, book a stay for a week or so, and devote at least a day to taking in everything there is to see. Forget your Wii Sports Resort; the Mushroom Kingdom has everything: tennis, golf, baseball, soccer, go-karts, they even have their own Olympics. You’ve got castles, haunted houses, picturesque volcanoes, a mountain where you can literally climb to the stars… and did I mention dinosaurs? Or that you could compete in the luge against penguins?

Everything’s very kid-friendly, of course, and so there’s not much “adult” entertainment available–but when you can race your friends on go-karts through an active volcano, there’s not much to complain about. There are parties all the time, cakes are getting baked by royalty–it’s a good time for everyone. Even the bad guys seem pretty friendly. This is one vacation destination that I can wholeheartedly recommend without reservation.

I just hope you don’t mind Italian food.