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Grievances

August 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Some gaming related buzzwords that annoy me:

“Leverage”: I see this term being tossed around a lot on industry-specific gaming sites like a beach ball at a concert. Something more annoying than seeing this word repeatedly rear its head in the comments section of articles on websites like Gamasutra is the niggling fact that I can’t quite put my finger on why it irks me whenever I see this term being used in a non-programming related statement. I put this word in the same sinking boat as “whilst”: whenever I see someone use this term, I feel like they’re going out of their way to come up with a synonym to what would most likely be, all things considered, a far more effective word in the first place. Basically, it’s a lot of bullshit that benefits no one. Stop leveraging this word to give your otherwise reiterative statement false weight.

“Skinner Box”: I think we can stop patting ourselves on the back for being able to draw similarities between (social) games and the Skinner Box. This term is now the Mother Teresa/Hitler of gaming arguments; bring up the Skinner Box comparison and POW– you lose.

“Poor/clunky/questionable/lazy + Design”: You see this shit a lot in game  reviews, usually around the part where the reviewer or critic (“journalist”, perhaps?) launches into their “this, but that” diatribe about things that work versus things that don’t work in the game being reviewed. Lately, I’ve been seeing a disturbing amount of reviews call a game’s “poor design” into question. To me, this is the critical equivalent of the part in a daytime talk show where an overzealous audience member stands up and bellows something profound to the effect of, “you gotta take care of them kids” to rapturous applause from the rest of the people in attendance. Although I’m glad to see reviewers move away from the Greg Miller school of game criticism (ie. “I loooooooved/haaaaaated this part!!!!”), I’d much prefer seeing a sentence like “the enemy AI is really unresponsive” instead of an empty statement like “poor combat design”. To me, that’s poor/clunky/questionable/lazy criticism.

Some pop culture shit that annoys me:

There’s that one song by some pop star named Adele called “Rolling In the Deep”, which is the safest R&B song I’ve ever heard. It meanders. It never goes anywhere. And that’s not to say it’s a bad song. When held in the same beam of scrutiny as the latest Katy Perry airborne disease or any such related aural diarrhea, it’s revelatory. It’s problem really isn’t quality, but pacing. Shit’s anticlimactic. If you don’t know what I mean, listen to the chorus. Note how the first few bars start off with the illusion of some kind of crescendo, but immediately tapers off, scampering back into its hole as quickly as it began. Afterwards, listen to the first verse in comparison to the second verse. Listen to the chorus again. Then listen to the bridge. Play that chorus again. For a genre of music that has its roots in the free-form improvisational creativity of jazz and blues, there is nothing dynamic about this song. The first time I heard this song, I literally (and not in the figurative sense) squirmed uncomfortably. There was something almost grotesque about this half-written, half-heartedly performed song that disturbed something very fundamental in my bones.

It’s like watching a heroic boxer that’s taken some bribes to throw the championship fight. The fighter gets into the swing of things, and you think to yourself as you watch them, “there’s no way they can lose, lookit ‘im go.” That’s the first time you hear that first verse. But then, then the fighter catches the stern glimpse of the don, surrounded by his mafioso goons, and he immediately allows the next punch he catches in the cheek to floor him. That’s the chorus. Now he’s pouring all of his acting chops into pretending that, man, that punch knocked the wind out of him. That’s the bridge. Finally, there’s the audience booing the fighter, flipping a middle finger as they turn and walk towards the exit. That’s… just me, I guess. Apparently, Adele is filthy fucking rich off of that one song.

 

Reason #3 Why I Rule All Things This Week

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Since writing about Magic: The Gathering was getting me all hot and bothered, I decided to buy a Mirrodin Besieged Fat Pack today, which contains nine booster packs.

I got two of these, one regular and one foil, in my first three packs:

 

Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas is the most valuable card in the new Magic set, selling anywhere from $45 to $60 USD on websites, and that’s for the regular version only. The foil one sells for as much as $125 on TCGPlayer. Tezz is so expensive because he, like the rest of his Planeswalker ilk, is supremely overpowered. Reading his ability, I had flashbacks of the time I experienced a lapse in keeping updated with technology, saw a flash USB drive that could store 2 GB, and said, “What the FUCK?”

I wish I had been following Magic intensely enough to where cracking (that’s cool kid terminology for pulling certain cards from packs) two Tezzerets in a row would be enough to produce more than a “keen!” and “neato!” from me, but I’m happy nonetheless.

Basically, life has been very good to me this week. With two days left to go, I can’t wait to see what happens next. My human noble warrior wasn’t able to seal the deal with Morrigan in Dragon Age: Origins in any of my playthroughs. Maybe she’ll be down for some hot, intimate action with Sedra, my foxy female rogue in Dragon Age 2. I rule all things, Morrigan. Including you.

Getting Carded

March 10, 2011 Leave a comment

While cleaning up all the crap I’ve since accumulated in my closet for the umpteenth time this week, I came across my old CCG, or collectible card game collection, stored away unceremoniously in a DVS shoebox and a Linksys wireless router box. Although I’ve since curbed my packrat tendencies of yore, this is one of those instances that I’m glad I held onto things that ostensibly served me no outright purpose and only seemed to take up space at the time of cleaning.

Finding my old Magic: The Gathering cards was a delight; multiple copies of Balance, Necropotence, Hypnotic Specters, Crusade, Wrath of God, all of my Tolarian Academies, and my full playset of Cursed Scrolls were just some of the singles I forgot I owned. Digging deeper into my collection, I unearthed swaths of different games that I at one point entertained the notion of playing full-time. Amongst the good (Doomtown, L5R), the obscure (Mythos, X-Files, Kult), the criminally underused (Illuminati: NWO, NetRunner), and the shitty (Spellfire, Overpower, Galactic Empires), were stacks of random Marvel Universe and DC trading cards that I religiously collected in my elementary school days, before Richard Garfield added a layer of functionality on top of these otherwise unusable pieces of cardboard.

From an outside perspective, lots of these games that came out after Magic‘s CCG renaissance were copies attempting to cash in on some kind of trend and for many of the games of lesser quality that came out, this statement holds true. But there was also this undeniable sense of creativity and freedom of expression that emerged as games came and went. Designers started to utilize then-underused mechanics such as bluffing and, my favorite, non-violence to define victory conditions for players that were used to Magic‘s melee/damage-based player interaction (in L5R, this was aptly known as the “Enlightenment Victory”). It didn’t take long for games to shrug off the moniker “Doom clones” and grow into “First-person shooters”, which then gave us games like Deus Ex, System Shock, and Oblivion, and it saddens me to come to the realization that the CCG boom, oversaturation, and eventual implosion was a one-time fluke that will probably never replicate itself again.

I think that happened to the CCG movement as a medium of entertainment was unique in that Magic gave birth to and subsequently quashed the market’s chances of evolving. Because Wizards of the Coast trademarked “tapping” a card (to turn the card 90 degrees and indicate that it’s been used), lots of CCGs that came out had to either find ways around tapping as activation. Take a look at any card from those anime-based CCGs and place it next to some Magic cards; to this day, Magic has the most streamlined, easy-to-read visual design in contrast to many later CCGs that had a gajillion different icons with various numbers squeezed onto their cards. And try as they might, no card game ever came close to emulating the stable of artistic talent Magic cards had behind them. Artists like Anson Maddocks, Mark Tedin, and Brom created a flexible yet uniquely recognizable aesthetic for the game that continues today with newer artists like Jason Chan and Raymond Swanlund. That’s not to say that, like always, the internet didn’t play some pivotal role in paving the CCG industry’s path to destruction, either.

As someone who was introduced to the game before 4th edition, I consider myself to be an old-school Magic player. This was when the Serra Angel, Shivan Dragon, and Lord of the Pit were considered to be the best creatures in the game. This was when we all took the game-changing power of Counterspells and Lightning Bolts for granted. This was when I ran 2 copies of Demonic Tutor in any Black deck, mono or multi, that I created (natch for Balance in mono-white). This was when we, much like early Street Fighter II players discovered linkable combos, figured out how to get the most out of 60-card decks by creating tribal themed decks before Lorwyn introduced the mechanic, Black-blue control before the combination became a paradigm in today’s Type II metagame, and the “Red Deck Wins” design strategy was called “Sligh”. This was when combinations and effective deck types grew organically out of the groundwork Wizards of the Coast’s game designers provided for players, a toolbox of sorts that gave birth to the insane power of the Necropotence deck, along with recurring champion Mark Justice’s bizarre creations. This was before the internet and net-decking.

When I get a chance, I’d like to write some retrospectives on some of these card games I’ve since abandoned, but sounds like positive, feel-good bullcrap. As it’s hardly my intent to abandon the humorless curmudgeon of an alter-ego I’ve thus created for myself on this blog, I’m going to bitch about Magic when the opportunity presents itself. My fingers are too tired from a combination of typing and organizing thousands of cards that I can’t bear to part with. Also, my brain’s fried from the different deck combinations I’ve come up with while trying to write this blog. Ugh.

Level 15 Moment of Doubt

March 3, 2011 Leave a comment

As the eldest son of a mother with numerous successful Chinese friends, I’ve had to justify my decision to major in English on numerous occasions. The first and most obvious question I’d get all the time was, “So… you want to become a writer?” If it wasn’t that, the topic of discussion would inevitably turn towards prospective careers in education and academia, of which I had no interest in. “Well,” I’d offer, “majoring in English is a great stepping stone towards building a fruitful career in law or business.” Many of my classmates, I explained,” although this statement would often blow up in my face, as the parent I was talking to would ask, “So… you want to become a lawyer?” to which I would sheepishly reply, “I’m not sure.” I’d look up furtively, appearing to be in deep thought. “No. No, I don’t.”

“I can’t stand it,” I’d moan to my friends or whoever was willing to listen at the time. “I can’t stand how all of these people depend on these neatly-packaged prescribed life choices so as to lend more meaning to their meaningless lives.” And then, once all of that was out of my system, I’d start to panic.

English? ENGLISH? What the f– what am I doing?

What I’m going through now doesn’t reek of the same degree of loathsome self-doubt and insecurity that plagued my remaining quarters at college. And yet, I’m still hit with those same undertones of deja-vu every now and then.

The fact that I’m willing to describe myself as a game designer is liberating, but there’s still a lingering degree of not so much insecurity, so much as self-consciousness, made all the more significant due to the fact that I am currently, and some might argue willfully, unemployed. Namely, I’m having a hard time describing what my skills actually are.

Since my return, I’ve come across the same parents that unmaliciously sprinkled those doses of doubt into my brain, and I’m still coming up empty. “So, you write programs?” Nope. I can do very basic scripts, but that’s it. “Oh. So you create the graphics?” Nope. I have artistic ability, but none of it’s digital. “Oh. I see.” An awkward silence inevitably ensues before they follow up with, “So, what exactly do you do, then?”

That’s an excellent question. I guess I could say that my job is to make sure the game is fun, but that’s a loaded statement. “Fun” in the sense I’m using to describe games is a collaborative effort, as bugs and crappy art do the opposite of contributing to fun. I could say that I establish the rules and setting, but it’s not really my say, either. We had a lead design and project director for that. When confronted with this question, I’ve stammered out a list of things I’ve done befitting my job description: I have created characters, their attributes, and the various pieces of gear that augment their performance. I’ve created playing fields for these characters to do what they do best. Order out of chaos, I’ve then created rules and logic for programmers to create a sustainable environment, a social contract of sorts for my characters to ensure that what my characters do best also elicits some type of positive reaction from the end-user. And finally, if and when everything falls apart, I’m one of the guys that has to come up with ways to fix and then improve things without pissing away months spent on art assets, environments, code, and not to mention my metagame design. Please, don’t ask me what “metagame” is. It’s for the best, really.

While I do appreciate it and respect it on a profound level, I want to have little, if anything to do with the “intellectual” theorizing about what games have, can, and should be. Not because I don’t agree with what theorists say, because I really do, but simply because I’m hard-pressed to see the point. I’ve been biding my time by reading Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, and it’s been, echoing what the numerous positive reviews on amazon say, an absolute joy to read. I can’t say I’ve spent too much time analyzing documents that contain buzzwords like “emergent gameplay” or treatises that refer to game design as “Ludology” (my spell checker just registered that as a typo; make of that what you will), but Koster’s book essentially streamlines and then distills everything I’ve ever asked for in a quasi-intelligent  discourse on games as both a measured art form and as an educational device. Koster’s book has been a quiet revelation for me, as I’m finding more and more of what I’m creating to be broader, more expressive, and to be of a more primal level, as well as parsing what I’ve been experiencing when playing games on multiple levels of thought at once (while also having fun, natch). I can’t say whether the quality of my work and observations is any good, but for me, it’s significant, because it’s progress.

Another altogether humbling and ultimately gratifying book I’ve been following closely and clinging onto is Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber’s Challenges for Game Designers, which offers exactly what the title of the book states: non-digital challenges meant to test, push the limits of, as well as call into question the methodology and output of one’s skill in game design. When I interviewed for the first time at my old company, Possibility Space, I was asked, “Why do you think you’d be a good designer?”, to which I responded, “because I love to play games” without a hint of irony. Granted, a love of experiencing games of all forms and genres is undoubtedly important, but it’s not enough. Smash cut to a year later, I was the person in the meeting room raising an eyebrow at the poor, idealistic individual sitting in front of me, saying, “That’s really awesome and I definitely think it’s an important passion to have! But I need you to tell me more about your skills and qualities. What is it about YOU that is suited towards making games?”

I guess, to answer my own question, it’s what separates good teachers from bad teachers, or effective, observant parenting from ineffective, doting parenting. It’s being able to analyze a specific type of person and determine how to best challenge them, hook them into this device you’ve concocted for them, and keep them coming back to your creation without frustrating them. Honestly, without sounding too idealistically utopian, I think the core tenets of game design surround our everyday lives. While making my rounds slowly but surely through Challenges for Game Designers, I’ve hit dead-ends on numerous occasions and I’ve banged my head against the wall past my fifth dead-end in rhythmic percussion: “WHY-AM-I-SO-FUCK-ING-DENSE” And you know what? It feels great.

Great in the sense that I’m starting to get an idea of what my skills are, regardless of whether or not they jump off the page and throttle the reader’s attention. I have an appreciation for prescribed systems that allow freedom, and illusions that are actuated in a person’s mind. And if there’s one thing that gets under my skin, it’s self-conscious design that lacks confidence, as evidenced by my previous ramblings. I’m not one to talk at the moment, but my greatest wish is that someday, I will be.

Have I told you about my design for a 4-player competitive card game centered around assassinating other players in a cooperative game setting? No? Well good. It’s an absolute piece of shit. But, believe me, I’m working on it. And I’m having a blast.

Battle Spawn of the Tiger Mother (not a book review)

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

As the offspring of two Chinese parents who were never able to agree on the definition of “good parenting” but always put me and my brother’s wellbeing and passions very high on their list of priorities, there was lot that I could hate about Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, from the schlocky dime-store Amy Tan-sounding title right down to the continued poor stereotyping of Chinese-Americans as a proud race of dragon-tamers who cling onto the clandestine ways of the mystical kingdom they can no longer return to (from one of our own, no less!).

Before I decided to take the plunge, I’d already been privy to ample context. Various news outlets outlined the story of Mrs. Chua’s oppressive, nigh-fanatical measures used to raise her two daughters, inciting polarizing statements made towards Mrs. Chua’s philosophies and, in some cases, her mental stability. Reading customer reviews on the book’s amazon.com page provides a great visual reference for the outpouring of opinion, as the number of 5-star to 1-star reviews–as well as everything in between–creates an expected bell curve not unlike the ones Mrs. Chua’s children will one day encounter at their respective Ivy League establishments.

When I first started reading Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I went in with preconceived expectations of completely disagreeing with the methods of her well-documented madness and to abhor this woman from the acidic depths of the hate-vessel I call my heart. That might’ve been some of the impetus behind my decision to read her book over Greg Bear’s Cryptum; like any person of opinion, I require vindication, or proactively substantiating my opinion in one long figurative pat on my own back.

After reading it, I can still firmly attest to my earlier prediction of disagreeing on just about every facet of parenting she could slingshot at me in 256 pages holding up. But, much to my quaint and pleasant astonishment, I don’t hate her. More specifically, I can’t.

I’m not sure when our society, domestic or otherwise, suddenly decided to unanimously fixate on this so-called “science” of child-rearing and development, but I remain confused as to why rational and clear-thinking adults will devolve into packs of rabid Christmas shoppers when new theories on parenting and youth education pop up. From what I’ve witnessed in my 27 years of parental theory-free existence, there is no better way to divine a grown parent’s true personality than to ask them about their children. There are certainly scarier things than a knitting circle of middle-aged women comparing their children’s achievements and then talking about parenting in the same tone an auto mechanic would use to describe oil changes, but I haven’t come across them yet.

As mentioned above, both my mother and father, with the exception of my consistent 2.5GPA through high school, have never seen eye-to-eye on how to properly raise my brother and I. My father, due to the way he was brought up, placed huge emphasis on grades and SATs, frequently resorting to monetary or material rewards to unsuccessfully goad progress. My mother, in large part due to her household growing up and her subsequent rejection of what she saw, placed firm emphasis on being a person of resolute morals and strong conviction; “strengthen your heart, and your brain will follow suit; true intelligence comes from the heart.” In hindsight, I think my mother had the more bad-ass of technique, because her vastly more macrocosmic world view also lumped in good grades as evidence of a person’s convictions. Loop-hole! GJ, ma. Regardless of momentary successes and/or failures in the past or how much I actually paid attention to them, their lessons stuck with me to the point that I echo my father’s sentiments now and then on a purely subconscious level.

Reading Amy Chua’s brisk prose, I slowly came to the realization that, like her parents before her, she simply wants to impart on her children the abilities she believes they will require to make a name for themselves and raise children of their caliber. I think one key element a lot of the public who has yet to read the book is missing is that at no point does Chua ever proclaim that her parenting style is better or more effective than others. Throughout the book, Chua expresses the heartache she feels, particularly towards her younger, more rebellious and strong-willed daughter. Numerous times, Chua points out the pride she feels alongside her children as they come to the realization that they’ve overcome something they perceived to be unsurmountable. Chua also makes a clear argument not for why her methods are correct, but rather why she chooses to use them. Unlike other children, and possibly lots of people from my generation, Chua never internalized her parent’s stricter punishments. A precocious child, from what I’ve gathered, she was always able to delve deeper into her parent’s anger and ask herself what prompted her parents to react towards her as such. Throughout the book, she focuses purely on the positive aspects of her upbringing at the hands of her parents and how they shaped her into what she is today. In light of this, there’s some arguments that can be made in that as a child, Chua’s ability to accept criticism with a level head wasn’t so much innate as it was more artificially manifested through brainwashing imposed upon her by her equally strict parents. Then again, I would argue that’s some damn good brainwashing going on. Chua’s parents were definitely onto something.

The term ‘brainwashing’ evokes negative imagery like Orwell’s “He loved Big Brother” refrain, but the fact of the matter is that brainwashing happens whether the parent is aware of it or not. When a parent picks up after their children’s dirty clothes when the hamper’s just an arm’s length away, they’re brainwashing their children in thinking that someone will be around to always clean up their mess. When a parent spanks a child for being naughty, they’re brainwashing their child to believe that violence can be used to get what they want. And when a parent makes an offhand, seemingly harmless comment about homosexuality, they’re brainwashing their child into recognizing palpable differences between what society considers to be “normal” versus “abberant” behavior. Chua is guilty of brainwashing her children in the same way we’re all guilty of brainwashing a younger, more impressionable person in our life through our actions, intended or not.

Chua also provides the Western reader with insight into why Asians are typically the most academically successful cultural group in the American educational system and it sure as shit doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. As someone who’s invariably tapped in to the Asian networks of south Orange County and spent two years cavorting with Asians at UCLA, I’ve met very few “smart” Asians as opposed to those that are genuinely intelligent (for the record, I’m excluding myself from this cross-section, thankyouverymuch). Most of these kids are biology, math, and not to mention musical whizzes. They can postulate on string theory, diagnose thirty different types of cancer, and they all learned to play Rachmaninoff years before their WASP peers, and for all of their success and progress, little has anything to do with intelligence. Some will occasionally catch me off-guard with an insightful comment that contains equal parts humor and truth, but most of the time, they’re lucky if they can form a coherent, original thought. No one is born “good at math” or “smart” in the academic sense.

The real reason Asian students are so successful is not just because their parents instill in them this drive to succeed and create an environment that fosters this competitive mindset; going one step further, Asian parents also introduce strict doctrines to their children that objectively define success and through rote repetition and studying, bequeaths upon their children a tried-and-true funnel in which to pour all of their potential into. Chua outlines the pattern of Asian immigrants in America as one of the contributors to this outlook on academics. The first generation, having escaped a life of abject poverty, are driven to make something of themselves in a capitalist society rife with opportunity. Because their lifestyle is deadlocked in the “survival” section of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they stress the importance of making money to their children and push them to their potential, which means they end up becoming doctors, lawyers, or businessmen. In the following generations, American-born Asian families become more and more acclimated to this individualistic notion of the self and sooner or later, they decide to rebel against the outdated, old-world machinations of their parents or embrace the concept of finding one’s own passions through assimilation into American society. This creates a downward slope in family riches and resources as this highly individual, American style of thinking is propagated from parent to child to grandchild. For Chua, this is where she sees modern American families at: soft, indecisive, and lacking focus and drive. Amy Chua wants her children to be rich and successful, yes, but above all, she wants to break any silly notions of entitlement free from their minds. At the risk of sounding like a broken parrot, I hardly agree with her methods, but her reasoning is strong and I think there’s some positives to be extracted from all the accompanying sturm and drang.

People who are referring to Amy Chua’s parenting methods as “typical Chinese” need to read more news and commentary, because China’s gone through some changes as well. The One Child Policy, coupled with high demand and low supply, exacerbated by a population problem, compounded by the Chinese obsession with “face”, and fully supplanted by costs of living that have tripled in less than three years has created an army of “little emperors”; spoiled children who have every whim tended to by parents and grandparents, who in turn have placed all of their hopes and dreams on their child’s shoulders in order to one day live vicariously through him or her. Sorry, China, but I’d take even Amy Chua’s style over yours any day.

That’s not to say I will, though. I will never, ever use Amy Chua’s child-rearing techniques, even under subtle suggestion from a dark, ancient entity. Contrary to what Amy Chua might think she’s doing for her children, never allowing one’s daughters to attend any social gatherings or slumber parties is ridiculous, especially at such a crucial point in a person’s development of social awareness and interaction. And, Amy? Nobody forced you to birth these two girls. They owe you a fraction of what I owe you, which is nothing.

And, in keeping with my original knee-jerk sentiment, I hate, hate, HATE the title of your book, lady. It annoys me how, in order to gain acceptance in the West, Chinese and Asian authors at large have to resort to pigeon-holing themselves into these neat little cultural boxes. The Bonesetter’s Daughter. The Woman Warrior. And now, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Sell your product based on the strength of the content, not through cheap exoticism and outdated Orientalist-pandering attention catchers.

All in all, I’m glad I read this book. It made me upset at times, but it mostly forced me to think on my upbringing and, in a time far, far away, how I’m going to raise my children (I shudder to think). My parents lessons have and always will stick with me. For better or worse, I owe a great deal of my successes and interactions with others on the strength (or shortcomings) of how they chose to raise me. They gave me what they believed to be a tool kit that I would use in the years to come in dealing with life’s ups and downs. Not the best tool kit, nor the worst, but simply the tools they believed to be most appropriate. It’s parenting, and no one, not even Amy Chua, can say their method is the best. So, for all the people hating on Amy Chua, read her book first. Know what you’re bitching about before you actually do it. That’s one thing my mother taught me.

Robert’s Inside Story (of Lameness)

February 20, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m taking a break from talking about the inconsistencies in the multiplayer modes of two of 2010’s biggest releases to make an impassioned plea: Dear Lord, help me. I cannot, for the life of me, stop playing Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story.

I missed this gem the first time around, as I was in China gearing up for my first semester at Beihang University and preparing to educate classrooms filled with people that had years of wisdom and experience over me about life and finding one’s self in an increasingly complicated modern age. If you’ve ever uttered “pirate” and “China” in the same breath and you weren’t referring to Chow Yun-Fat’s forgettable performance in the even more forgettable third Pirates of the Caribbean installment, you should have some understanding and insight into my inability to secure a legitimate copy of Bowser’s for my poor, at-the-time neglected DS.

Almost two years after it came out, Bowser’s has been sitting comfortably in my DS’ card slot and my handheld is once again marked up by fingerprints across its jet black surface. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Bowser’s that makes it such a joy to play, but I can name a few things I like. It’s an RPG, all right, but it doesn’t offer me any of the niceties normally afforded from a 40+ hour investment in other JRPGs. Actually, I would hesitate to lump Bowser’s under the JRPG banner, or any “_RPG” banner, for that matter. Battles are played out simply enough through turn-based combat. Characters with the highest speed attribute get priority over slower characters and take an action. Wash, rinse, repeat. However, the added dimension is that in both attacking and defending, jumps and hammers found in the side-scrolling Mario and Donkey Kong games are used to inflict extra damage or completely avoid a ground-based enemy’s charge. If one times their jump well enough, they might land on the enemy’s head, meaning they take no damage and, to loosely borrow a fighting game term, get to punish their enemy.

Bowser’s doesn’t offer the same type of character empowerment and progression as seen in JRPGs, where picking up the Ultima Weapon or Rainbow Sword in FFVII or Chrono Trigger allows your character to deal damage higher than their own HP count. Getting powerful gear is nice in Bowser’s, but it’s not an absolute necessity. If the player has good enough timing and can predict incoming attacks while adding that extra oomph to their own attacks, gear and defensive attributes largely become moot. There’s no need for strong equipment if the player isn’t taking any damage in the fights. In some of the boss fights that the titular Bowser gets in, gear and attributes aren’t even a factor.

This is anything but a shortcoming. Bowser’s has managed to take the linearity and mechanics other RPGs hailing from Japanese studios to create something that, while firmly rooted in tradition, manages to transcend convention due to the parts of its whole. It’s largely light-hearted affair that is self-aware and seems to take joy in the moment-to-moment humor that completely glosses over the “save the princess or else” storyline. Speaking of humor, there’s tons of it in the game. Nate Bildhorff and his team of localizers are to be commended for their work: from Bowser’s tough-guy fails to Fawful’s awesomely bad Engrish dialogue, I can’t think of the last time I laughed out loud so frequently at a game that didn’t have Tim Schafer’s name on the cover or wasn’t Portal.

More on point, I brought up a historical anecdote–or historic in the sense that I experienced it–about my return to Beijing because I’m now wondering how I would have received Bowser’s at that time in my life.

That statement might not make that much sense. Let me give you some context.

I’ve looked back on a lot of my years, and in each instance, I can track one or more games to what I was going through in the days of my youth. While awaiting my C-averaged report card to come home in the mail, I would count down the days until my chastisement playing Shadowrun on my Genesis. Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father was a triumphant discovery for me, and I wanted my friends to stop talking about Mortal Kombat so I could, just once, launch into a discussion about Voodoo and destiny. Multiple playthroughs of Square’s Einhander were conducted through one of my darkest periods of high school uncertainty, where friends succumbed to peer pressure and suddenly donned unfamiliar-looking masks without giving me fair warning. After watching my friend show me it for the first time and then subsequently dreaming about playing it in the months to follow, my soon-to-be stepfather brought with him from the East Coast a strong shoulder for my mother to lean on–as well as a PC equipped with a 800 MHz PIII processor and a TNT2 video card that could play Deus Ex. And I remember when I went off to college and was, for the first time, on my own, I celebrated by hooking up my PS2 and continuing my game of Beyond Good & Evil.

Anyone who waxes nostalgic about their youth and their experiences in the games they played holding analogous or allegorical connection to what they were going through in life is exaggerating through their teeth. I don’t define my experiences through games, but I view my gaming experiences as just parts that add to and augment  my total memory of things that have transpired in my life. It’s not so much that they added or detracted from my experiences; if anything, they serve as unique points of reference for me to look fondly back on. I’ll always associate “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins with junior high, the smell of cigarette smoke and vinyl seats takes me back to my summer spent in Taiwan with my grandparents, and Final Fantasy Tactics calls back memories of my first-ever breakup.

Appreciating Bowser’s Inside Story on its own merits is a simple enough pleasure, and playing through it at this point in my life is an exuberant affair to say the least. Phone contact is contact of the rudimentary sort, but it never has and never will feel like enough. When my wife finally arrives in California come late-March, it’ll have been close to six months, or half a year, since I last left her standing there in Terminal 2 at Beijing International Airport. When I inevitably look back on this moment, I’ll also see Bowser’s Inside Story and all of its humor, innovation, and joyful whims forever etched into this point in my life. It’s an association I’ll always make, and I’m really grateful for that innocent but conveniently portentous association. Like I said before, it’s all context. Wonderful, wonderful context.

On the day we registered as a married couple, Zoe and I played Gears of War 2 cooperatively. I passed Zoe the good controller, and I tested the limits of my ability with a busted Right Trigger that would clamp down at the most inopportune of moments and cause me to shred through entire clips of Lancer ammo. Howling with laughter as I bled my ammo reserves dry, I could only watch as my wife meowed like a scared cat and tried to run away unsuccessfully from a Flamer unit in Horde mode. Laughing, we decided to shut the 360 off for the moment and watch Atonement instead. So far, we have yet to complete the campaign together, and it’ll happen or maybe it won’t. That might also be why I sometimes have difficulty finishing certain games at certain points in time; like the moments I’m concurrently experiencing in my life, I don’t ever want them to end.

(No subject)

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

This is how we do it, it's Friday night

I’ve been out of the blog game for too many years. There was a time in my life that I was a prolific blogger, clacking away on my keyboard in the insulated security of my own room in a house nested in the impenetrable bubble of middle-class suburbia, waxing faux-philosophical on topics that I had no authority on such as politics, the decline of standards in popular culture, and most of all, relationships. I would attempt to posit myself as a worldly observer, offering insights into the follies of man. Other times, I’d utilize my acerbic wit to deliver screeds on things I hated while simultaneously juggling a self-aware propensity to poke fun at my own cultural shortcomings.

Wait. Disregard all of that. I think I’ve romanticized a lot of my past writing; looking back, my blogging was nowhere near the level of “meaningful” contribution I’ve just described. Mostly, I liked to bitch. A lot.

I’m currently 27 years old, and I’ve spent more than a better half of my post-collegiate life halfway across the globe in Beijing. I’ve just returned back to a flailing economy and zero connections and/or tangible work experience due to my extended sojourn in the Middle Kingdom, and now I’m preparing myself to support my wife emotionally and financially as she prepares to make the big jump out here. I think right now is as good a time as any, to bitch to my heart’s content.

Except, I don’t feel like it. I’m hoping that when I look back five to ten years down the road, I can nod my head in respectful silence as it slowly dawns on me that it was at or around this moment in time that I shook off the vestiges of my angry, youthful self and entered the realm of mature adulthood. It’s not that I’ve entirely grown numb towards the slings and arrows of misfortune, or however I might construe them at this point in my life, but that I’ve learned to make compromises.

Rollin' wit' my homiez

What will I blog about now, then? I can’t give a 100% concrete answer, but I’d venture a guess as to say: games of all shapes and forms. Although my tenure in game development and design was short and sweet, it was the first time in my life that I didn’t face impending Mondays like a prisoner on death row who wasn’t even granted a final meal. I had real passion for what I did; a lot of things that I didn’t know before just clicked over time and as for things I didn’t understand, I put in time and effort to own. That was a great feeling and I’d like to recapture that.

I view this blog as a tool of sorts, one that I’ll use to keep me focused in my endeavor to hold onto that feeling. One thing that pisses me off about mainstream media is its ability to sensationalize events and gloss over the real meaning at hand, but you probably already knew that. Lots of people would say about Kelly Clarkson, “Oh, look, she’s a waitress who happens to have pipes and real talent.” No, wrong. She was an aspiring singer who had a dream and took up waitressing to support that dream. Now, I’m not comparing my plight to hers or saying my level of talent is commensurate with Kelly Clarkson’s vocal abilities; if anything, that’s my way of telling myself that it is entirely possible that I will have to take one, possibly two, or even three more jobs that I don’t have passion for before I break into the games industry out here. Also, I could never be a waitress, on account of the fact that I’m a boy.

Maybe in a couple of years, I can look back on this blog as wistfully as I have with the ones I’ve doted on before and think, “man, what a punk.” That’s the hope, at least. For now, I’ve got my youth, shoes on my feet, and a pocket full of dreams.

How’d that sound, future Robert?

Categories: Life and Such