April 8, 2015

After All, Reality is Real

Recently, I had the opportunity to read Ready Player One, which had the benefit of not only being extremely engrossing, but also jam-packed with 80's pop-culture goodness which I love soooo much. This isn't a book review though. This is a continuation of the in-class discussion we had about the issues of avatar identity, definitions of reality, and the phrase that Anorak/Halliday uses at the end of the book, "After all, reality is real".

In the book, that takes place mostly in a virtual environment called, OASIS, the main character Wade (through his avatar Parzival) goes on a quest. By the end of it, his avatar has a supreme administrator status (basically making him godlike within the confines of OASIS), he's rich beyond his wildest dreams, and he found a life-long friend and a girl who he loves. It's your standard happy ending, but there was a lot of discussion in class regarding virtual spaces as "real". By which we mean, are interactions that happen in a virtual environment considered a real interaction? I'd always be the first to argue that they are, of course. Whether I talk to someone in World of Warcraft or if I talk to them over the phone, I'd consider the interaction to be real. Very much in the sense that it was an exchange of information that happened.

The problem, however, is how real is that virtual space that those interactions take place in, and how does it compare to the "real life" space of, well, reality? This is something that I apparently don't see eye to eye on as the book is concerned.

To set up the scene in the book, reality (the world outside of OASIS, known hereafter as RL) has gone to shit. The fuel crisis came and went and left the world as we know it destroyed. Around that time, the OASIS was created. A fully-customizable "Second Life"-esque game that, by the time the book takes place, has supplanted RL as the main venue for daily life. People go to work, commute, and earn money in the OASIS. What started as a game became a hyper-real simulation, to the point that the in game currency is the world currency because it's the only thing that has a set value. (Despite the fact that it's still obtainable by killing mobs, which is a huge financial loophole in the book.) The creator of the game, Halliday left behind a message to whoever solved his riddle and that person happens to be Parzival. Halliday's avatar tells Parzival to not put too much importance on the OASIS and not experience life. Because, "After all, reality is real."

In class we discussed it, and the overall sentiment in class was, "How dare Halliday imply that all of what Wade/Parzival did and all the people he met not be real?! He made a best friend and love interest and those relationships are definitely real!" This upset me. Not because I don't think those relationships weren't real, but the reality of those relationships were skewed greatly.

Aech, Parzival's best friend, turns out to be a different gender, race, and sexual orientation than what was depicted in the game. Now, the relationship persists since they'd been best friends for years and that friendship still existed. But there was a moment of unveiling that is a telling point of how "real" that relationship was. Or rather, the moment that it stopped being one kind of real, and entered into a whole new level of reality, like waking up from a dream. Parzival falls in love with Art3mis who has been distant in their entire relationship because in RL, she has a large port-wine stain that covers half her face, and she's been bullied to the point of seclusion because of it. Wade is able to over come that since he fell in love with Art3mis, the girl behind the avatar. It's a touching story of falling in love with someone sight-unseen instead of basing it off of physical appearance.

But the OASIS is not real. By which I mean, the girlfriend-boyfriend relationship Parzival and Art3mis had wasn't a genuine one. The feelings were there, but Wade, at no point, had to deal with Art3mis when she was sick. At any point, Art3mis could pull away for days by simply logging off, and Wade could deal with it, because that's the reality of an online environment. When they break up, Wade is crushed, but in a virtual environment the break-up doesn't happen like it would in RL. Art3mis can block incoming messages from Wade. She can filter emails. Even if Parzival found her in the OASIS, she can block his speech from reaching her. This is a level of isolation that is impossible in RL without staying inside the house and never leaving. More importantly, the minutae of being in a long term relationship has never been put to the test. While, to be fair, this is portrayed as the first stage of a relationship. The falling in love part. But it's stated that they dated for months. So at the end of the book, Wade and Art3mis have had a long-term relation going for months. But it's by fighting through the worst parts of life, the mundane aspects that make life miserable on a day to day basis that really try a relationship. This is something that Wade has never experienced. Because the OASIS isn't real. Not like RL.

Alfred Hitchcock said that movies are life with the boring parts edited out. That's what any interaction inside the OASIS is. But those boring parts is what make life, life. Wade hasn't had to deal with Art3mis being sick, but having to take care of her. He's never had to rearrange his activities that day because she caught a stomach bug or is on her period or twisted her ankle. He's never had to deal with the fact that she's a physical body somewhere, and that is an (arguably) important part of any reality. We want to be accepted as an entire person, body AND mind. I like it when people like us more for the mind, but everyone gets a little thrill when they're deemed by someone else as being physically attractive. It's important for our egos and our well-being. This is something that is completely lacking in the OASIS interactions. Not that there isn't physical attraction, but even in the basic interactions between Parzival and Art3mis, there's that level of doubt that Art3mis looks anything like her real body. Whether or not Art3mis is just some guy in West Virginia who gets his kicks leading on teenage boys online is a real concern, regardless of how it's presented as a joke.

And that physicality is what makes RL, real. Wade hates his RL life. Why? Because he has to deal with it in order to access the OASIS and stay alive. The OASIS can affect RL, but it can't do several things. It can't feed you. It can't take care of your body. It can't deal with bodily wastes. It can't bathe you. Some of these can be achieved through buying special attachments to the harness you're using, but they're still things that at some point, you're going to have to log out and take care of at some point. Just because you are more engaged in a virtual space than in the RL space, doesn't mean that RL isn't less real than the virtual space you're looking at. And that's what Halliday was trying to get across. Reality is real. First and foremost. Other worlds are real in varying degrees. But at some point, those virtual realities have to end and you have to go home to RL. What you have in that world is reflected by the choices you've made in that world, and by a lesser extent what choices you've made elsewhere. But, people have been complacent to ignore RL for so long that the RL that their bodies inhabit is not a place they want to live. Far from making it better, they run from it. We measure maturity based on how we respond to uncomfortable situations. Running from any situation that is uncomfortable is considered in almost all cultures as childish, something to be shunned. But that's what persisting in staying in the OASIS is.

Now, this has gotten me in a bit of a bother, since as we discussed this topic in class, I felt very emotional. I remember feeling like Wade, wishing that the OASIS was a reality. Only my OASIS was any number of fantasies, either in my head or in video games.

When I was 7, I gained a phobia of team sports, and it led me down a path of self-doubt that made me dive deep into the world of video games to escape the feelings of disappointment I had in myself for letting others down. When I was 9, my parents divorced, and I dove even deeper to avoid dealing with the familial issues that arose around everything. As I got older, my self-perception became more and more skewed. I felt unworthy of life, and I kept diving into the worlds in video games to ignore these issues. I stopped growing as a person socially. And every time I had to not be playing a game, I'd hate who I saw in the mirror, because that was me. Not Link, not Master Chief, not Solid Snake. I was not courageous, or strong, or exceptional. I was boring, plain, disappointing me. And it became a vicious cycle. I kept up appearances in school. I did well because then no one would ask questions. But I was supremely unhappy. Like Wade, I liked a virtual environment because I could overcome any limitation through the equalizer of the internet.

Eventually, I came to understand what I was doing. So I stopped. I returned to reality and faced the pain of being who I really was. I still played games a lot, but I was no longer being more invested in them than I was in my actual life. The next few years were hard. I had to really stretch myself and grow. But I eventually came to accept who I was, what my life was, and accepting that certain fantasies should always stay fantasies. For me, that's what Halliday was saying. Not that what you do in the virtual reality isn't real, but that only by facing RL, would you be able to accept truths about yourself and become a real person. I'm glad to say that I can look at myself in the mirror and feel good about what I see. Not just physically, but mentally and socially. I still play games and interact with people in a virtual environment, because those interactions are real to varying degrees, but accepting that they affect a real body occupying real space was the last step that I didn't want to take. Because for so many years, I'd tried to run away from that real boy sitting on his bed playing games.

Reality is real. When the computer shuts off. When the kill scree appears. When the movie ends and the book closes, this is what's going to be left. And when that happens, wouldn't it be great if we'd made that reality worth experiencing?

January 13, 2015

Thomas Was Alone

So, this semester I'm taking a new class to the U, Videogames and Storytelling, which promises to be an interesting class, insofar as I not only have three books to read by the end of the class, but several movies to watch, and a half-dozen games I'll need to buy and play (in addition to a variety of free browser-based games).

Needless to say, I will tackle all assignments with extreme prejudice.

One of the first games on our list (which we won't be playing for a few weeks) was Thomas Was Alone. Being the over-achiever that I am (and because I wanted a break from Metroid Prime) I decided to buy it before my student loans dried up in groceries and bills, and play it.

These are my impressions.

First of all that needs to be mentioned is the controls. They're incredibly simple. Arrow keys, space bar and two other buttons to toggle the player character. The platforming is pretty tight, but can get a little slippery at times. I ran into some input lag every once in a while which made for some frustrating times having to tackle a jump several times. I kept alternating between the keyboard and my Xbox 360 controller. The keyboard was not as intuitive as you'd think. You can play with both the arrow keys, or the WASD keys. Which means either split the game between the two hands or play with your left hand completely. This normally wouldn't be an issue (I've done that set up dozens of times on emulators, arrows in the right hand, left hand dealing with the twitch-timing button presses) but as far as I could tell, I couldn't change the controls at all. The keys to cycle the characters are preset to the Q and E keys; handy if you're playing left-handed, but a little frustrating to keep my hand spread out on the left side of the keyboard for two buttons. Another thing that was even more frustrating was that while the Xbox controller allowed me to cycle to the right with the right bumper and to the left with the left bumper, the keyboard reversed these keys, with Q (the one on the left) cycling right and E doing vice-versa. It's not a game-breaker, but it did make for some frustration trying to select the right character for the right situation. The keyboard also allows you to use the number row to jump straight to the character you want, but the lack of any numbers on the screen to indicate which character is linked to which key makes this more of a hassle than anything.

Second was the music. Apparently, my music hit a glitch where the previous level's track wouldn't end properly at the end of the level before starting the next track. This caused some issues with an overly-loud background music and some serious audio issues. But, to be fair, I didn't realize that it was something that wasn't supposed to happen until I had almost finished the game. (I actually reset the game to see if that was the issue on what would happen to be the last level of the game.) The reason was because I was getting more and more engrossed in the story and the characters and the music was taking a seriously ominous overtone with the multiple tracks playing over each other, so I thought it was on purpose. At the last level, I remembered how peaceful and nice the music was for the first few levels and thought it strange that it rose to such a cacophony that I figured something must be up. So, I can't really say much about the music other than at times it can be a little grating (even before the glitch) but on the whole is a pleasant backdrop to the otherwise sparse atmosphere.

The real draw here is the characterization. The gameplay is fine and the platforming is fun enough, but you're not going to be engrossed entirely in the game by that. In fact, it would be a rather humdrum game, more akin to a flash game to play when bored, instead of a full release if it weren't for the story and characterization. The game is narrated by a nice, decidedly british voice, which for some reason makes everything more entertaining. The story is about a group of AIs that are slowly gaining sentience. But, they're not robots or anything. They're rectangles of a single color each. (Or, rather, quadrilaterals, since two of them are actually squares) Each one has, as described by their thoughts explained by the narrator, a unique personality. At first, it seems really silly. Thomas is a red rectangle with an average ability to jump (and fall). You think that this is going to be a really dumb kind of gimmick, a narrator ostensibly telling you what a rectangle is feeling... until Thomas meets Chris, a surly orange block who detests Thomas, and who Thomas is oblivious to the growing resentment. Chris' personality comes off in gameplay mechanics, as he's a short little shit who cannot jump very high. He seems like the epitome of the Danny DeVito archetype of grumpy character. They continue finding new friends all the time, including a very tall yellow rectangle who can jump very high, a large blue block (Claire) who cannot jump very well but can float in water, and several others, each with their own unique way of controlling that compliments the characterization provided to them. Claire was easily my favorite, as she learns early on that she can float and decides that she must be a superhero. In fact, she reminds me of Rebel Wilson, in the sense that she's rather oblivious to the fact that she tends to get in the way a lot and isn't necessarily any more "powerful" than any of the other AIs. It's pretty funny, actually, when she gets the lime-light, since she has a tendency to constantly be looking for some sort of nemesis to validate her superhero-ness. (She briefly decides that Chris should be her nemesis, since he's constantly surly.)

The mechanics require each of the AIs to be in a "portal" to end the stage and move on. This also requires them to work together. So you have AIs that have issues with each other having to work together for the sake of necessity. By the end of the game, even Chris' angry and resentful attitude to the other AIs changes.

But then the story and characterization takes a strange turn. The last "World" of the game loses the AIs that we've come to love and replace them with a handful of gray ones, which are still characterized, but make the story harder to coincide with mechanics. You play as Grey, The Old One, Jo and John, and Team Jump. During this segment, they introduce a new mechanic: power fields. When any one of these AIs pass through a colored power field, they gain the special ability that the previous group of AIs had. If you pass through a purple field, they gain the power of Sarah, which is the ability to double-jump. This makes the gameplay different enough to be interesting, but the characterization starts getting this dissonance. At this point in the narrative, all of these AIs are sprinting towards a light at the end of the program. Grey is determined to get to the light first, and he becomes the closest thing this game has to an honest villain. The Old One is trying to stop him. Grey enlists the help of Jo and John to get to the end, by tricking them and exploiting them. The Old One teams up with Team Jump, a group of five very small but high-jumping squares. The last level that the Old One and Grey are on have their portals right next to each other, but the narrative has painted a climactic confrontation is in store between these two, which doesn't ever happen. The issue isn't that they don't have this confrontation, but rather, on that level, I got them to their portals first and they sat their, inches from each other, peacefully, until I got the other AIs to their respective portals. This is pretty much the only time that there's a gameplay dissonance from the story. Most levels have been cleverly designed so as to necessitate placing certain AIs last for the narrative to work properly. The reason why they didn't do it in that instance is my only complaint I have on that front.

All in all, I felt that the step away from the original group of AIs that you spent 90% of the game building and learning how to use was a poor choice. The game is centered around the titular character for the most part, and for him not to even be there at the end seemed strange. It actually reminds me of Metal Gear Solid 2 in some respects. How you start with Snake, then move to Raiden for most of the game. Only imagine that you played most of the game with Solid Snake and then only the climax is carried out by Raiden. It leads to diminished satisfaction with the outcome of the story.

All in all, I was surprised at how strong the overall narrative was painted with only the narration of the feelings or thoughts of each AI to tell the story, and a small blurb at the beginning of each World explaining a little bit about what was happening in the real world. It shows that character-driven gameplay can be applied to anything. Even a handful of colorful shapes moving in a sparsely decorated world.

October 27, 2014

MGS2+MGS2 = 5

Book 3 of 100: 1984

Surprisingly I never actually read this one before, though, again like Hamlet, a lot of the plot or overarching themes and ideas I've seen parodied in countless different works. (Futurama being one of the ones that comes to mind most readily).

1984 is considered to be an Anti-Utopian book, which goes out of its way near the end to point out that it is in every way the opposite of a Utopia. Even the people who benefit the most and uphold the idea of Big Brother and the Party are under no illusion that people will be happy under the system. The fatal flaw, though, I see in the ideals of the Party is the fact that there is no reason to keep people alive under such a rule. They want power, absolute power, but power over a people who aren't, in any shape or form, people anymore, isn't much. At that point they might as well just create robots and replace the population with a race that won't ever need the large amounts of resources to police and monitor them. No more doublethink and no more thoughtcrime. With a robot, you can literally delete the 'erroneous' information and replace it with the 'correct' version. Once deleted, the robot will no longer remember it ever being any other way. No twinges of irrationality, no fruitless passions or hopes, and no free thought.

While it is definitely a fairly scary version of a society run amok, it makes absolutely no sense why anyone should want to continue it. The people below who fight and rebel are systematically brainwashed and broken to live for a couple more years until their eventual annihilation, the people above don't actually benefit that much from the work of the people below, since they have very little actual freedom even up above.

And, in the end, that's essentially the point of the book. Futility is futile. Everything is nothing, and nothing is everything. Once you step back from the setting of the book, you realize that a lot of what it talks about in the book is actually true. I've mentioned before that when you die, you essentially become a shadow of who you used to be. People will always color your memories from their perspective, so what you actually said or did (and why) will all be misconstrued. Empirical evidence is the only concrete statement of your life, and that can be faked or destroyed. I mean, as it is, large portions of history are already whitewashed for the modern audience. It's telling that we focus on dates and numbers and physical actions within history classes, but the stories, how they effected actual people, and what in turn caused other people to act are all glossed over in favor of making sure that students understand that the Phoenicians had the first written language and that the Mesopotamians wrote the epic of Gilgamesh. That's what makes history class so boring and hard to follow all throughout school.

And this all ties into another game that is remarkably similar to 1984: Metal Gear Solid 2.

I always liked this game. I loved Raiden, which was a nice change of pace from the classic Solid Snake. He was a real person who tried to understand what was going on around him in a world of Virtual Realities and subtle societal control.

While the plot was really hacked up and complex, (made worse by large parts of the script being hastily rewritten after 9/11 right before it shipped) the few elements that are easy to catch is the Patriots (The La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo) and the persistence of memory and reality. Raiden is told to go into a facility to rescue the President and a bunch of hostages while simultaneously taking down the terrorists who have held the entire place for ransom.

Soon after arriving Raiden starts seeing things that don't add up. And eventually, it comes down to a conspiracy involving a mysterious group of men who might actually control all of the world's information, the Patriots, and the idea of the meme. Not funny cat pictures with the Impact font saying something in broken English, but the idea of a cultural knowledge. The game awkwardly tries to get you to think about this by saying that there are 26 letters of the alphabet, but what if there were 28 and someone deleted the extra two. How would you know there was ever anything different? I grant that Hideo Kojima likely couldn't do the exact 2+2=5 parallel from 1984, but this is never really well explained later.

The idea is that the Patriots have been in charge of things for so long that they exist in the internet and all information exchanges. Clarifying the example from the game, what if, in 1800, there were two extra letters in the alphabet. The Patriots wanted it gone, so they started to systematically destroy all evidence that it ever existed and eventually, 200 years later, no one was alive who remembered that there ever was a letter for the 'CH' sound and a gutteral 'F' sound. That's the idea of what the Patriots are. They are Big Brother. Only they work in secret.

Big Brother keeps people ignorant by controlling their thoughts and monitoring them. The Patriots aren't that much different, only they control the information that reaches the public, thereby controlling their thoughts by the flow of the information they receive.

The game comes down to the same argument of what is real. Raiden was trained to be a super-solider a la the "Legendary Solid Snake" through a series of Virtual Reality training segments. In fact, the events in MGS 2 are the first time he's ever actually been deployed into the field. Once they try to destroy the master program the Patriots are using to control information, Raiden's support team (only ever contacted through the CODEC) start behaving erratically. The people who he was supposed to have the most faith in on the field turn out to be nothing more than computer programs, created by the Patriots. Even his girlfriend, Rose, who was helping him through the mission, turns out to be a program (or is she?) Raiden has to cast doubt on if he had ever even met Rose in real life, since so much of his life was lived inside a computer program. The entire events of MGS2 are supposed to be, for Raiden, a recreation of the events from MGS1, imitating the key plot points and characters that turned Solid Snake into such a legend. All this so the Patriots could create another Solid Snake that they could control.

It's actually a recurring theme after the events of Metal Gear Solid 3, that the US Government wants to make a super-soldier that could be like Big Boss. To accomplish this, they do everything they can from cloning Big Boss (the Les Enfant Terrible project) to trying to brainwash and mind control an ex-child soldier into becoming just like Snake. Snake, who is the only person to ever defeat Big Boss.

In the end of MGS 2, Raiden makes a statement that his reality will be his own choosing and he throws away the dog tags that you printed your name on. In essence, he is throwing YOU the player away. He doesn't want you to control him anymore. And the concept of the meme is brought back in MGS 4, by the way that all soldiers invariably take nanobot injections because that's what you do as a soldier. The nanobots have become a meme at this point. Everyone has them and even if you don't you're aware of what they are without ever being told.

In 1984 Big Brother controls the memes. A majority of the first part of the book talks about things that aren't ever directly stated. Things like what will get you caught by the Thought Police, what is a crime despite there being no laws, what you're expected to do when, all of the sudden, the government changes who they're at war with. The societal knowledge, the memes, found in 1984 is how the Party controls the populous. If they were to be explicit about it, people would rebel. Just like if the President announced tomorrow that the new official language of the US was French. But, if the President, bit by bit, has spies and people working under him, slowly start working more French into normal discourse, in the course of 100 years, we could all be speaking French without ever realizing what happened.

It's a terrifying system, but there is no fear of it coming to pass in America. The best example, for the people who are claiming government conspiracies left and right, is the fact that you can openly tell this conspiracies from any venue, and yet you aren't "vaporized". People are left who knew who you were and who know what you said. Empirical evidence continues to exist that you, at one point, existed. These are things that aren't present in 1984 and due to the internet can never be completely erradicated. I mean, look at what happens the moment someone wants a picture of their house taken down from a website. It's duplicated and mirrored so many times that it becomes impossible to destroy it completely any more than it would be possible to gather every grain of sand off a beach.

MGS 2 continues to be one of my favorite games as far as a complex plot goes, and 1984 was a great book that teaches us the consequences of letting a society stagnate.

October 20, 2014

Wherefore Art Thou Hamlet?

Continuing with our list of 100 books to read, we read Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Back in the time of traveling acting troupes, often times they would put on Hamlet as a last minute addition, since it's the Bard's shortest work. Cramming it into an already packed rehearsal schedule, mixed with the rather morose and poetic prose found in the play, caused many actors to overact many of the parts, especially Hamlet, who goes on and on about death and revenge and the like. From this situation do we get the term "Ham" for an actor who overacts or is otherwise cheesy.

But, I found that I really enjoyed this play. This is the first Shakespeare play that I've read outside of a classroom setting. I had previously read Romeo & Juliette in my high school English class and I thoroughly enjoyed it when I had a definitions guide readily at hand. The version of Hamlet I read had tons of footnotes to help me with understanding.

The bulk of the story, you already know if you've seen the Lion King. Uncle kills King, Prince seeks to kill Uncle for killing King. Everyone dies at the end.

This play, however, brought up some fun existential crises that a lot of people have to face at some point or another. The first, of course, is if there really is an afterlife. Hamlet's famous speech, "To be, or not to be" basically covers all the possible outcomes of suicide and rules it as a Catch 22. Is it better to endure the tortures and torments of mortality and inherit an afterlife or to kill oneself and thereby ending the pain and torment. But, he goes on, that only works if there is no afterlife. What's the point of enduring this all if this is it? And what if there is an afterlife and I'm punished for taking my own life?

The story constantly plays between the fear of the afterlife and the inevitability that comes with death. His own mother reminds Hamlet to not be so sad about his father's death, since everyone dies eventually. (Try telling your children that at the next funeral they have to attend. Don't worry Sally, everyone dies, so there's no point in being sad!) What's more is the delightful, even comical, insanity that Hamlet puts on. It makes you wonder how great it would be if you could pretend to be crazy, and thereby getting a free pass on anything you say to people?

Hamlet is approached by his dead father who tells him that his uncle killed him, so Hamlet, wanting to make sure that he wasn't hallucinating anything, sets up a situation to unnerve the usurper king if he was really guilty. In here we find a bit of scathing denouncement of other forms of entertainment that were stealing patrons from Shakespeare's plays, as Hamlet bemoans the plight of the actors who are top-notch having to resume traveling to make any money. It's one of those moments, where you really start to see these actors as people and not just words on a page.

Finally, I think it's interesting how everyone ends up dead. Poison. Poison everywhere. Hamlet accidentally kills a man whose son teams up with the usurper king to kill Hamlet. They'll duel with rapiers, one of which is tipped with poison. As a backup, the usurper king also poisons the wine Hamlet will drink. The queen toasts to Hamlet after the first round and drops dead. Hamlet gets poked by the poison-rapier and, in the scuffle, also pokes the would-be assassin with the same weapon. Then everything stops and he's all, "Bro, I'm sorry it ended this way. Please forgive me, if I forgive you for killing my father. The King put me up to this." And Hamlet is all, "Yo dawg, we cool. But this rapier is poisoned? Shiggidy SHANK." And then he stabs the usurper king. So everyone dies and the person who was framed for killing Hamlet's father ends up inheriting the kingdom in a brilliant turn of irony.

Also, it's hard to write Hamlet a bunch of times without writing once, Ham Melt, and now I'm all hungry.

October 8, 2014

The Huckleberries Taste Like Huckleberries!

So, me and my wife saw the Equalizer this past month, and it got us reading a list of 100 classic books to read. Among the books in the list (with works like Don Quixote, Hamlet, The Old Man and the Sea) was Huckleberry Finn, which I had read half of in high school but never finished. So we both started with that.

I loved the book, since it was hilarious, beautifully critiquing the adult-run world from a kids' point of view. Everything from religion to slavery was covered in an interesting, all-innocent child's point of view, as Huck tries to understand the point of so much hoopla, and is also forced to deal with the (at the time) moral dilemma of helping a slave run away from slavery.

It's important to remember that this would be tantamount to grand theft auto now, considering the usefulness of slaves and the exorbitant prices a good one would fetch. Huck knew the owner and felt bad that he was essentially robbing an old widow of one of her slaves. On the other hand, he knew Jim (the runaway) and liked him and felt partially responsible for his well-being as a friend.

But that's not what I'm writing about today. Apparently, there is some sort of controversy or discussion going on since the 60's about the books ending, and whether or not it was a fair ending.

In the end (spoilers?) Jim turns out to have been freed in the will of the widow, Tom and Huck turn out okay, and Huck's pap was killed by some ruffians early in the book, so Huck is still a rich little brat without his abusive, alcoholic father a constant background threat in his life. It's a slightly unexpected happy ending all around, but I do say, slightly. The overall feeling of the book, as it seemed to me, was intended for children. Granted, children who were either living in that time who understood more than Huck, or young adults living today. And in my opinion, I don't think Mark Twain had it in him to put poor Jim or Huck into a bad spot in the end.

But, that is completely ignoring the last ten chapters of the book. The book seems to cover about three separate arcs: The first third of the book describes Huck and Jim escaping "sivilizayshun" and the misadventures they have together. It's Huck learning more about the world around him and coming to love Jim as a friend.

The second third introduces the King and the Duke, two con-men who Huck takes to traveling with. In some aspects, these represent the lowest possible moral aspect that Huck could achieve. No matter what his moral dilemma is with helping free Jim, he's never so low-down as to completely agree with what these two blackguards are up to. They are so terrible to their fellow man that Huck wants to just be done with them.

This leads into the last third of the book, wherein Tom Sawyer is reintroduced and starts really shining. Here is where the book seems to slow down to an almost irritating level.

Despite what's gone before, it was easy to read the book, as the stories flowed well from one to another. But here is where the story seems to stagnate. Jim is recaptured and is awaiting resale or claim in a very minimum security hold while Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are both going about planning his escape. Huck starts off by pointing out that the key isn't guarded, there are no guards posted at any time, and the dogs know Jim, Tom, and Huck well enough not to make any noise to arouse suspicion. Considering that the ploys in the book up to this point were both clever and simply executed, it is a very strange change of pace for Tom to come blustering in here on a steamboat and complicating a fairly simple obstacle.

Filled with harrowing stories (mostly fictional) of prisoners escaping, he turns what should be a simple opening of a door and a leisurely amble to the river into the Shawshank Redemption on steroids. Instead of what the previous two sections gave us; Huck running into obstacle after obstacle, overcome by his cleverness or some extremely good luck (or both), the book now gives us nothing but obstacles for literally obstacle's sake. Tom vehemently insists that they dig a tunnel to get Jim out, and that Jim has to befriend animals in his "jail cell", while leaving woeful and cryptic messages hewed on stone and plates.

While we eventually find out that Tom was going through so much hoopla because he already knew that Jim was freed, and therefore there was nothing at stake, it was frustrating to me, as a reader, to watch Tom complicate a mostly simple book. At times I felt so frustrated I wanted to beat the crap out of Tom Sawyer and tell him that I could toss him into a basement, then he could have all the fun he would ever want spending years building up a good escape plan and story. What few chuckles you get from Huck and Jim both shrugging, saying "Well, if that's what all the authorities on jailbreaks say..." and going along with Tom, are easily overshadowed by the suffering of Tom's poor aunt and the anxiety that Jim must be feeling as his freedom is available at every opportunity, and Tom's insistence on complications are closing that window fast. In fact, because of Tom's Tomfoolery (yeah, that just happened), Jim gets caught during the jailbreak and is sentenced to wear heavier chains and is put on bread and water rations and is more closely guarded, essentially losing his chance at freedom.

The grand deus ex machina at the end does leave something of a sour taste in your mouth where in the space of a few paragraphs we find out that both Jim AND Huck are free from their respective slaveries (Jim from actual slavery, and Huck from his proverbial slavery to his father) and then nothing more. I mean, you find out that the body Jim and Huck found early on in the book was Pap Finn's, in the penultimate paragraph in the book. Literally no description is given of how Huck felt about finding out his father had died in a gruesome way. It just ends.

That said, do I think that the book has a good ending? Well, it was the ending that Mark Twain wanted to write, so I think that yes, yes it does. While improbable as it is that Jim would be freed in a will of all things, stranger things have happened. And the abrupt end goes along with the idea that Huck, a child, is narrating the story to us, and therefore would have no sense of decor to give us a proper denouement. He told us what he thought was best to tell and left it at that. It's funny to think that the book sets itself up for a sequel, with Tom and Huck going to the frontier to have crazy adventures with the "injuns". (Apparently Mark Twain did start writing the sequel, but someone else finished it with mixed success)

The ending is as strange and non-consequential as so many other stories in the book, that it seems strangely in place to end like this. No further explanation is given, just this is how things ended up, and now you'd be ready to hear about how Huck and Tom and Jim all got on with their next adventure.

In the end, I think that it's best to look at this book in an academic light first, then pull back and honor the preface that Mark Twain wrote:
"PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

September 8, 2014

SAO: Syntax Are Original?

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine suggested I watch Sword Art Online. I blew it off, since he always got super excited about different anime that I, "Just HAD to watch." It wasn't until last year when another friend compared it to Dot//Hack that I got interested in the show. Then I binge-watched the entire series (at that point) on Netflix. I fell in love with the story and the world and drank it all up, even though the thought of being trapped in an online game had a few problems.

Compared with my experiences with other MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft, I saw a few flaws in the show's premise. First was the fact that it took 2 years to beat the game, and even then, only because they discovered the man responsible for the whole undertaking was with them and were able to fight him on the 75th floor, instead of the 100th floor, shaving off another year of entrapment, more or less. In a real-world situation, the game would've been completed in a few months, since there are a lot of MMO players who level grind. And level grind. And grind and grind, killing the weakest enemies over and over again until they reach the level cap. Then the rest of the game is a cakewalk. While Kirito was supposed to be super strong and special for getting to level 100 long before anyone else, in reality, he'd be far behind those people who did nothing but kill slimes all day and night. (Since it seems like the world of SAO doesn't require things like sleeping or eating to survive.)

Second, the game split itself into elitist groups, by ostracizing and attacking the beta-testers, dubbing them cheating beta testers, or Beaters, which if the game wasn't a full-body experience, would probably be an accurate statement of a fair number of them. Not only does this seem counter-productive, it completely flies in the face of what the actual completionists in the game would be doing. Instead of driving them away, they'd become remoras, sucking onto the accomplishments and know-how of the more experienced players to get better loot, even second-hand from the better players.

And finally, it seems to me, that the explanation that the series gives to answer my first two problems is that there seems to be some sort of EXP economy in the game. Like, there are a finite number of monsters every day, and once they're dead, they're gone. Not only is that a really stupid idea (people play RPGs to watch bars increase, not wait.) but it also makes no sense. There's an infinite skill system, or rather, a highly specialized skill system at play. There is no correlation to your sword skill and enemies that you kill, but rather how long and how frequently you use a skill. This works the same for cooking, smithing, tailoring, and creating jazzy show-tunes (I'm sure it's a bard-specific skill). And before I catch flak for that last jab, yes, I know that there is no rigid class-system in SAO.

Problems aside, when I found out that there was a SAO video game for the PS Vita, I immediately began paying attention to an otherwise overlooked and awesome handheld for the first time. (What's wrong with it and all that jazz is a topic for another time.) The first game I bought for it, of course, was the english translation of SAO: Hollow Fragment (or whatever.)

I was super-stoked for this game for two reasons. First is that I miss playing Dot//Hack on my PS2 and a portable Pseudo-MMO sounds fantastic. It would fill that niche I needed for a grind-heavy action RPG that works so well on short trips on the bus. Second was the idea that SAO was already a pretty well established game in the anime, so the actual game, even if it caught a tenth of the game in the show, would have to be really engrossing and awesome.

Then I got the game.

Despite having a pretty neat character creation system, you play as Kirito from the anime. Not really a problem, except that I named my character Tekk, and so all my status screens and stuff say Tekk, but Kirito is the character. So, there's a separation from my character and Kirito. I changed his appearance to look more like Kirito in the anime (AKA the default) but I can't change the name back.

Second, was having to play as Kirito at all. Don't get me wrong. I have no problem being forced to play as a certain class or a character in these games. I mean, I happily played as Kite, a twin-blade, when I would've preferred a heavy in Dot//Hack. But I wasn't given the illusion that I could create a player at the outset of the game. So when I made a bitchin' orange-haired, fluorescent green-eyed samurai Tekk, I was caught off guard that everyone called him Kirito and he was, in all important aspects, Kirito.

The next issue I encountered was the fact that it starts you off at level 100. Now, this truncates to level 1 pretty easy in my mind, but I'm given a dozen skills that I didn't earn right off the bat, with equipment that I didn't earn, and 10,000 exp to go until 101. So I feel like I picked up someone's Final Fantasy VII save right after Aerith died, so I have no idea how to play the game nor have I grown to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of certain attacks. While some people praise the fact that you don't have to have the low-level grind of most RPGs, I actually like that part. A lot. The first 20 levels is where you can really feel the difference between level 1 and level 2. I mean, when you start off with nothing but a basic attack, and then you get a finishing move, you start to really appreciate that finishing move and when is the best situation to use it. It allows you to adjust the flow of battle to your experience and preference. And more importantly, it introduces only one element at a time.

That's where the beginning of SAO:HW falls flat on its face. The game starts off with a pseudo-boss battle, which is supposed to act as a tutorial to the combat system. But instead of doing it a slower-paced, one element at a time, way like most games would  opt for, it throws everything in a few splash panels and then starts.

In more words, I prefer a tutorial like the following: First asking if you want to skip the tutorial (a necessity, really). Then, this is the battle screen. Here is your health. It regenerates after some time. Once it hits zero, you die. (There are no resurrection options available to you) Here's your Burst Gage. This tracks your stamina. It depletes with every swing of your sword. Having a full gauge allows you to chain more attacks together to make a combo. Give it a shot. Then you play for a bit, watching the burst gauge fill and deplete. Then it would pause for a moment and explain the risk meter right next to your burst gauge. Then it would explain special moves and the SP bar. The ideal tutorial allows you to become familiar with a concept or mechanic before pushing you along to the next that relies on the previous to understand fully.

Instead, this game starts you off with a 3-page splash panel that uses terminology that you're not familiar with yet. What is a burst gauge? What does it do? Why is there a risk gauge next to it? Are they connected somehow? Probably. But you only get the vaguest kind of answer from the game as it sums up the entire use in a sentence before moving on to the next part, the SP bar and special attacks. So you're still reeling from the first part, then they throw part two and three at you. Very confusing.

All of this is compounded by the worst part of the game: the translation. On the whole, the game is pretty okay. But the translation has less care than some early PS1 imports, and in this day and age, that is an unpardonable sin. I've heard others complain about this, but a lot of people shoot them down by being all, "You can get the gist, and that's all you need!" to which I respond, if I just wanted the gist of a game, I'd watch someone else play it. SAO has a fun array of characters and an interesting world I'd love to get lost in. But when someone says something like, "He has a pair of ace" it makes it really hard to get lost in that world. But the mistranslations range from laughable like the above, to almost gamebreaking. In the game, you can talk to your companion to change their battle-tactics. They'll say something like, "Attacking quickly is a great strategy." Then you can respond, "You're a great help!" or "You've got my back." It took me a couple of tries to understand that what they're saying to you at the outset is a question. (I.E. Would you like me to focus on normal attacks?) then the responses follow the normal RPG convention of positive option one or negative option two. To make the exchange more understandable it should read more like, "Attacking quickly would be a good strategy... Should I focus on that?" to which you could respond, "That would be really helpful, thanks!" or "You're doing great with what you're doing now."

But that still holds nothing to the dating sim part of the game. Now, this bleeds into another gripe which I have a little further down, but the companions you have can get closer to you by having chats with them. This turns into a small mini game where they say something and you get the opportunity to respond with either "..." or "!!!" to which I figure means, a passive statement to move the conversation along, or an agreement or contribution to the conversation, depending on what the companion is looking for. I don't know if this is an error in translation, or if the original game text made this impossible to deduce out of logic. Because the conversations usually follow something like, "...The legendary table..." to which you can (correctly) respond "!!!" which belts out a hearty, "Indeed." I mean, it seems like you're only catching snippets of the conversation, which is fine. But if you want me to know what you want me to say, give me a little bit of background. And I'm not making that example up. That's one of the first ones I ran into talking to Asuna and got correctly by guessing.

I don't know what the relationship system is supposed to do. Especially since the start of the game starts after the happenings on Floor 75, but before the end of the game world or something. Which means that the relationships that Kirito has are already set in stone. He's married to Asuna and they have Yui, who is like a surrogate daughter. That is canon both in and out of this game. But they treat Asuna like someone else who is just vying for Kirito's attention, not like they've already been married and spent months together living alone. So when I try to hold her hand or carry her in the town, she gets embarrassed like, "Wh-Wha??? Do you think we're at that relationship level yet?" To which I respond loudly to my Vita, "We had crazy cyber sex and you're embarrassed to hold my hand? WHAT THE HELL?" And this segues into my largest gripe that I've run into: Leafa is there.

Leafa, is actually Kirito's sister who started playing an MMO called Alfheim Online after Kirito beat SAO and released everyone. Her appearance in SAO:HW is not only anachronistic, it flies in the face of several canonical issues in the lore of the game. First of all, how did she get a copy of SAO and access to the server two years after the news broke that everyone in the game is trapped in a digital prison/game of death. Second, why does she get to keep a custom avatar from a game that hasn't been developed yet, when everyone else had their avatars removed at the outset of the death game? And thirdly, and most importantly, why does she tell Kirito that she's his sister? And then constantly make suggestions raging from oblique to explicit that she wants him in a romantic way? It took most of the Alfheim saga for him to realize that Leafa was his sister, and for her to realize that Kirito was her brother. And even then, they didn't discuss her incestual feelings of attraction to her brother until a while after that momentous occasion. In the game, they stumbled across her in a forest and she's all, "KIRITO! There you are! It's me, your sister! lol" Which, again, makes no sense any way you slice it keeping the world they're living in, in mind. The only rational explanation you can make is that they added her to keep the game fresh and exciting. The developers of SAO:HW, not SAO in the game. When the only explanation for a key character existing in the game is a meta-answer, then you've failed.

All of those points aside, it's a pretty fun game and it fills the exact niche I was looking for. The combat is repetitive and if there's a lot of variance, I haven't really found it yet. I'm sure if I wanted to, I could find something online that explains it in more detail, but I haven't gotten there yet. On the whole, if you're a fan of the series, you might enjoy the game, but if you're a fan, you'll also run into the same issues I ran into. If you're not a fan of the series, but are looking for a action/RPG with MMO elements, then you'll probably enjoy it more than a fan of the series.

In the end, I really hope that they make an SAO game that allows you the freedom of starting a new MMO. Character creation and exploration starting from the ground up. Dot//Hack had a great set-up for that. While you played as only Kite, it let you understand how he worked from the beginning and you got to customize his abilities through the ability system in that game. What's more you were more attached to Kite because you suffered through so many deaths together in those low-level moments. I would kill for an SAO pseudo-MMO for the Vita that has nothing to do with the core-story of the anime. Or if it does, it's tangentially related, so as not weigh down the player with a bunch of canon. I mean, again, Dot//Hack did a great job of keeping Dot//Hack.Sign and the game series separate and connected. SAO is already set up and established for that, they just need to create a little more of a game. Even if the entire game was the plot of SAO with Kirito and Asuna removed (or left in, but in the background) the game would be fantastic.

But that's all my own gripes, I suppose. It's not the game I really wanted, but it's pretty fun as it is.

June 11, 2013

Games I Suck At - Bomberman 64

Being in a all year school is strange for a kid. While it’s nice to get 3 weeks off for every 9 on, there are some things you start missing. I’m not talking about summer vacation. Contrary to popular belief, you still get summer vacation. Just not as much of it. Of course, my track was running so that I was off track right at the end of summer, meaning 3 extra weeks of pre-teen hedonism.
You start missing things like friends to play with. None of my friends were on the same track as me which meant that I had to figure out how to keep myself entertained. Both of my parents worked and my siblings were off at school. So, in reality, being off track meant three weeks of pizza Lunchables and a new game to rent every week.

The only thing magical about those pizzas was how you managed to have enough sauce for 7 pizzas, but only enough cheese and pepperoni for 2.
Of course, this meant that I had to navigate the odd world of N64 releases around 1998. It was a tricky minefield. Because you only have so long at the video store before your mom says it’s time to go. You have this fun little panic attack where you have to decide right then and there if you were going to risk your entertainment for next week on something new and unproven. Or if you were going to rent Banjo-Kazooie again. This lead to me having to also decide what game to rent solely on the front cover. Anything that looked mature was out because my mother would veto that pretty quick. So I had to stick with kiddy looking games. That’s how I discovered how hard something can be while looking so cute.

This looked innocuous enough to my 8 year old self. Of course, there’s no way of telling based on the cover certain gameplay limitations that might be frustrating or impossible for a small child to wrap his head around. The back of the box will tell you about what you can do. You can play in frantic 4-player multiplayer! (A moot point, since I was alone at home with no friends.) Customize your Bomerman with different costume parts. (Sounds awesome until you realize that it’s linked firmly to point number 1) And 24 levels to explore. Well, that sounds hunky-dory until you start thinking about what Bomberman can’t do.
First and foremost, Bomberman cannot go through airport security. Like, at all. You do not want to be anywhere behind this guy if you’re in a hurry. Bomberman cannot survive his own bomb blasts. I suppose that’s fair. I mean, most bombers can’t, right? Well, except the “Blue Bomber” but then again, I never understood that particular nickname for Mega Man. But I think the most important thing that Bomberman can’t do is jump.

In previous Bomberman games, this wasn’t really that much of a problem. Mostly because of the 2-D nature of the games, jumping  would’ve been a convenience at worst and game breaking at best. But in a world of full 3D, the ability to traverse the Y axis is pretty important. Especially since the games’ worlds and levels are all built to utilize all three axis. Now, there’s little more frustrating to a kid than to put something on one platform, place you on a different platform, and then tell you to get said something but not tell you how to jump. So, naturally, this became extremely irritating, and it also became extremely difficult for me to enjoy during the week that I had it. After watching a Tool Assisted Speed run, I now understand (being some 14 years older than I was at the time) that in order to traverse the scary world of “Up and Down” required me to plant bombs and then “bomb jump”. That is, Bomberman is rigged to bounce if he lands on one of his bombs. That’s neat and all, until you remember that these are the same volatile explosives that can detonate with nary a moment’s notice and take you to your grave in a fiery ball of charred flesh. Even worse is that some secrets and collectables, required you to make a “bomb staircase” which involved planting bombs in just such a way that they’d bounce on top of one another, stacking two or three of these in sequence and then jumping on the first to go up the slope of explosive death. (Hopefully still alive.) This required both precision timing and being able to movie precisely so you could bounce in the right direction, since if you were off, you’d bounce off the stairs and then have to restart the whole damn thing.
screw it
Well shit…
Bomb planting was made easier, partially, by finding a little heart with a bomb in it. Somehow, this translates to remote detonator, which was damn handy once I figured out what the hell I’d done to my bombs! Since this game was ridiculously difficult for me, I turned to my Game Shark. The first thing I discovered was that the white guy who showed up in some levels, Sirius, wouldn’t talk to me anymore. Which meant no more cryptic hints or tips to help me navigate this labyrinth of hell-spawn and cutesy graphics. But soon after I made the connection that my Game Shark had negatively impacted the game, just by using it (a new concept to me at the time), I picked up the remote bombs and suddenly, my bombs wouldn’t explode. I thought I’d borked my game. I think I started crying bitter tears of frustration, since I was kind of a crybaby then. It’s funny now, but put yourself in my shoes. I had just “broke” the game that I was supposed to at least pretend to enjoy for the week that I had it so as not to anger my parents about wasting their cash. I had no clue that in order to detonate the bombs, I needed to press the Z button. The very button that up to that exact moment served no use in the game.
Of course, this is exactly the kind of thing that Sirius would tell you in the game, if he wasn’t being all angsty about you cheating.
Your general incompetence at this game hurt my feelings. So, no, I won’t help you. Not until you apologize and stop being such a pussy.
This was just basic navigating the levels. The boss fights were hard. Not the one on one boss fights. Those were ridiculously easy, even for me. Especially once I figured out about the remote bombs. But the end of world boss fights were a pain, since they moved so easily and Bomberman was so damn clunky with his movement. They’re shooting lasers and I’m lobbing a bomb that’s going to land nowhere near the enemy. I felt overwhelmed. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for a kid. Even worse is that the game looked like it should be easily accessible to a small child. I didn’t want to ask my brother for help. Just judging from the visual style and music, it seemed too damn cutesy. In fact, I felt almost embarrassed to rent it at that age, because I was afraid of ridicule of any kind. So I just had to angst quietly at home, hoping that maybe this time I wouldn’t suck so bad at a kiddie game.Of course, I would suck, play frustratedly for a few hours, switch off the 64 to eat some cold Lunchables pizza and watch whatever was on PBS in the middle of a weekday.
Looking back, my childhood wasn’t an exceptionally happy one…

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