Me, for the last twenty-four hours.
I love the Muppets.
This is my preferred interpretation of the Muppets, and it’s the reason I try to watch them with my niece when I have the chance. Frankly, I think “Failure will happen, but that doesn’t mean you need to quit trying” makes for a better and more realistic lesson for kids than “You WILL succeed and you CAN do whatever you want.”
I mean, “Rainbow Connection” is this. It’s saying, “Hey, we know that sometimes people fail. Not everyone gets what they want. And some things are legitimately lost causes. But we aren’t discouraged. We still have hope.” Hell, the most recent movie ends with a total and unequivocal non-success, which is almost unheard of for a kid’s movie. I think the lessons learned from watching the Muppets are a million times more valuable than almost any Disney fare.
I love the Muppets.
I love playing games against other people. I really do. I love the fact that an activity I enjoy can be a social activity as well. You can’t say that about every activity (though, to be fair, you can say it about a lot of things).
Specifically, though, I love asymmetrical multiplayer games. By “asymmetrical,” I mean games that 1) offer flexibility in how you approach the game before even sitting down to play it, and 2) don’t allow players to have perfect information. So most board games don’t fit this definition, as most tend to rely on openness of information, and they also often ensure that each player starts in the same way. And though there are board games that allow you to choose different parameters for each player (like Twilight Imperium or Talisman or something where you’re choosing a race/class to play at the beginning), those games are still typically very open with information.
But once you start hiding information from other players, that makes your game about a million times more interesting. Suddenly, I’m questioning every move you make. In the Battlestar Galactica game, as soon as it hits the point where there’s a guaranteed Cylon player, it completely changes the dynamic of the game. In The Resistance, I start to wonder who is bluffing and who is really on my side. Imperfect information is such a game-changer (literally) that it sort of blows my mind that more board games don’t embrace it. It makes learning a part of every game, and I dig that.
The games that do this best are collectible card games. Not only do I have imperfect information during the game (“I wonder what he has in his hand”), I have imperfect information when I sit down to play (“I wonder what kind of deck he has built”). I think this is a huge part of the popularity of trading card games — there’s the notion that you’re crafting your deck, which gives you a huge amount of mental and emotional investment right from the start. There’s also the fact that you can be “tricky” on many different levels; maybe you build a deck crafted specifically to beat a certain other popular deck, or maybe you try to mind-game your opponent to make him think you have a different plan than you do.
Of course, videogames have been doing this basically forever. When two people are looking at different screens, it’s easy to ensure which player sees what information. This has really been one of the fundamental things about shooters — your radar doesn’t show the enemy unless certain conditions are met. The fact that you don’t have perfect information drives a lot of your decisions in a shooter. Do you go down a less-traveled path to avoid the enemy as you run to the flag? Do you lie in wait along the main road to try and set an ambush? Without knowing what the enemy is up to, these decisions have weight and consequences, which make the decisions much more fulfilling when they are the correct ones (and less devastating when they are incorrect).
This might make it sound like I unequivocally love asymmetrical play. And, I mean, I do. But for me, it can sometimes also be a horribly frustrating time. Why? Because the onus is on you if you fail, but not many players want to admit that, nor is it always readily apparent.
Let’s go way back in time to two-and-a-half years ago, when I was really into Magic. I played at the small-time competitive level every week. But in the almost-a-year that I did that, I never took first place. It wasn’t due to lack of card selection — my job allowed me to indulge myself on practically whatever I wanted. It also wasn’t due to some kind of skill gap between me and other players — there was a skill gap, but it was more of a creek than a river. My problem was that I refused to see that I was the problem or that there were things I could do to improve. I blamed every loss on lucky draws, a bad matchup, the fact that I was tired… basically, everything but myself.
So it was frustrating when I lost, because I literally had no idea why. All of the factors I was blaming were factors that I had no control over. It was a double-edge sword. While I was freeing myself from any accountability about improving myself, I was also constructing a scenario in which it was impossible for me to improve.
Once I took a step back and did some reading, though, I started to change how I thought about things. After every loss, I thought about what I had done wrong and how I could avoid it in the future. And just like that, all of these areas of improvement were suddenly highlighted. I suddenly had a path I could follow to get better. I could change my deck to be a little less linear! I could pay closer attention to the local metagame! I could try and get better reads on my opponents! With all of these options for improvement, how could I not improve?
I was quick to forget those lessons a year later, though, when I started playing Starcraft. Starcraft is a lot like Magic, in that you have beforehand preparation — a build order, racial matchup strategies, and so on — player skill, and hidden information. So when I started playing Starcraft, I was quick to blame the same things for losses, although my excuses got more creative — “That guy must have just tanked his way to Bronze League despite being a Master League player”, “There’s just no way to counter six pool as Protoss”, and the like. It wasn’t until I turned inward that I saw improvement. Shore up my build orders. Get visibility on the map to have better information. Learn what does what.
This is a lot of words, more than I usually write, but here’s the tee-ell-dee-arr lesson that playing card games and videogames taught me. Life is an asymmetrical multiplayer game. When I sit down to play it — by dealing with a difficult peer, starting a tough project, getting in shape, going to the supermarket, or whatfuckingever — sometimes, I will fail in my endeavors. The solution to my failures is not to blame the other players, the hand life dealt me, or any other factor beyond my control. Instead, the path to self-improvement consists of preparation, adaptation, skill, and education. With those things, and a willingness to put my ego aside, the game of life becomes much more pleasant, and I can be better as a result.
Most of the past few weeks have consisted of my self-medicating with Starcraft and whiskey. I kind of wish I could get depressed in the winter months like a normal person. Actually, ideally, I wouldn’t get depressed at all, but apparently that’s anathema to my brain, so you know, whatever. In my case, though, the sun comes out, events start going on, and my natural instinct is to wall myself off from the rest of humanity
Bioshock Infinite was really good. It reminded me of Inception a little bit. It’s a big, dumb blockbuster piece of media that has a lot of subtle things going on underneath the surface. Unfortunately, much like Inception, the fact that the Internet is a thing means that Bioshock Infinite got “solved” pretty quickly. Fifteen years ago, when we were only getting “videogame talk” every month thanks to magazines, this game would have kept us occupied for months, and we’d be looking forward to new issues of PSM or whatever to see what people were saying about it, or talking to people at school about it. But a couple of weeks after its release, we’ve gotten it mostly figured out, and so there’s no reason to really pore over it any more. It might be great to revisit when new DLC is added, depending on what that looks like.
I don’t mean to sound bittersweet about it. I really loved it. I think it did a lot of design things right (even if it did a few storytelling things wrong). I’m trying to sell everyone I know on it because it’s one of those things that people can talk about. “Did you see that part?” “What vigors were you using?” “What do you think about the end?” It’s a neat human thing that we can talk about shared experiences. And in this age of quick transfer of information, it’s doubly heartbreaking and isolating when we don’t have the opportunity to talk about those experiences. The conversation between me and my roommate has gone like this:
Me: “Hey, you should play Bioshock Infinite. It’s really good and kind of a mindfuck. It’d be cool to have someone to talk to about it.”
Him: “Yeah, I would, but….. Diablo.”
It’s not even necessarily that I’m bummed at not having someone to talk videogames with. It’s more that I need something to occupy my excess mental space and creative energy. In the past, that thing has been Magic, or school, or girlfriend, or fraternity, or music. But ultimately, it just serves as something that I can spend time thinking about. Which is necessary for me, because if left to my own devices, my thoughts inevitably get occupied by the same self-deprecating crap I’ve been dealing with for like the last fifteen years.
Hence Starcraft. It was my first and longest-running multiplayer love. The Protoss sound effects are permanently etched onto my cerebral cortex. And hey, it turns out that there’s a mature and well-established community of people to talk with about strategy, design, matchups, builds, and so on. With this perfect storm of nostalgia, designthink, and constant conversation, it’s really no surprise or question that I’d gravitate toward it.
And so I have. And now, my mind is full of build orders and counters and pylons and mothership cores and ladders, on top of work and family and everything else, and it’s great to be occupied with so much at once.
Watching Louis CK and Game of Thrones while drinking 120-proof whiskey is a good cure for a long couple of weeks at work. And also for crippling loneliness.
This week in the Steele and Associated Households, we’re putting on a garage sale. This being the first garage sale my family has had since I moved out, it’s the big opportunity I have to get rid of my Stuff.
I culled most of it when I was moving out, but it really started to wear me down emotionally. Imagine the following scenario, writ four hundred times:
“Hmm. Here’s this thing. I remember how happy I was when my mom/my dad/Marissa/my grandparents gave it to me. I should pack it away.
“But wait. It’s not like I use it or even think about it anymore. It literally exists only as a device to trigger nostalgia and make me remember times that are bittersweet because while things were happier I also understand that those times are never coming back.
“But what if I run into my mom/my dad/Marissa/my grandparents and they bring it up or ask me if I remember it? It’d be really awkward if I had to tell them that I threw it away.
“Odds of that happening are pretty slim. I probably don’t need to worry about it.”
It was an extremely arduous process.
But now I have another chance to try and get rid of all of my stuff. Ideally, I’d be getting rid of every single thing that doesn’t exist in my house right now. But there are some things (mostly books) that I really just can’t bear to part with but don’t have room for.
So my weekend was spent putting price tags on memories. I would be marking up games, and each one triggered something: the ending cutscene, a snippet of gameplay, a review I read about it. I marked up CDs, and every single one reminded me of the first time I heard it, the shopping experience I had while buying it, the meaningful experiences I shared with others while listening to it. Gifts from my past called to mind the givers: lovers, friends, dead family members.
Not only was it a physically tiring day, on account of moving boxes and shit, but it was mentally tiring, as I relived all of the high and low points of my adolescent life in the span of, like, eight hours.
I did give my little brother some old games, though. I’m excited for him to get a taste of what videogames were like before he was born (and after I made that realization, I felt so old). Actually, that reminds me that I need to write about my Big Brothers Big Sisters Experience sometime. I should get on that.
I think I’ve played as a female character in every game that has given me the option since Fallout 3. I’ve never really been sure why.
(Before we get too far into this, I want to make it clear that it’s NOT because “If I’m going to stare at the back of a character for ten hours, I’d rather it be a hot chick.” I find that to be a little creepy and along the same lines as dudes who spent way too much time trying to get juuuust the right camera angle to ogle Lara Croft in the original Tomb Raider).
In the vast majority of RPGs (since that’s generally the genre that lets you pick a gender for your character), gender is entirely aesthetic. There’s no gameplay advantage to choosing one over the other. You just get a different model and maybe voice. So why, then, do I trend away from choosing a character that is most representative of myself?
(I’ll just preempt the suggestion that I do it out of some misplaced sense of gender, or because I have some predilection for gender-play, or because I identify more with women. I’m pretty sure it’s none of those).
One reason I play videogames is for escapism. Ultimately, it’s the same reason I listen to music or read comics or watch movies. RPGs in particular offer a very unique sort of escapism, since they allow me to, well, play a role. They allow me to actually act like someone else with a different ethical system, approach to problem solving, or, yes, gender. So I guess it makes a weird sort of sense that when given the opportunity, I generally want to play as my polar opposite: a badass chick.
Also, I think it’s just generally more interesting to see a female as the hero of something because they don’t get nearly as much spotlight as males do in gaming culture. Is that reverse sexism? Maybe, but it doesn’t really change that I think it’s a lot more awesome to see Maya the Siren or Commander Rosaley Shepard kicking butt instead of Carbon Copy Action Game Protagonist #30.