Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Game Over, Man!

One of the toughest things about not having a bona fide career in games writing is not getting to join in the exquisite fun of lambasting a terrible game.

I’m almost certainly over-romanticizing the notion. I suppose I’ve played enough games that were soul-crushingly bad—and plenty of others that were on the fence but just bad enough to make me wish I’d gone to play outside—to know that playing enough of an awful title to give it a proper review can be a rough experience. But it’s an easy fact to forget when, for the past few days, my Twitter feed has been a mob of game journos gleefully chomping at the bit for Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines embargo to end.

As a semi-semi-professional games writer (“semi-professional” would perhaps be overselling my current freelance backlog), watching a release like Colonial Marines go up in flames is a uniquely frustrating experience. There’s a palpable desire to contribute to the bonfire—we are compelled to write about video games because there are compelling stories to tell, and what’s more compelling than an abject failure?

Penny Arcade Report’s Ben Kuchera at least makes me feel a little better about my lack of insider status:
Colonial Marines made me wish for a 9 to 5 job in the city. Something with a nice cubicle and a packed lunch.
I hate to go all Metacritic on people’s carefully paced reviews, but I can’t help but be awestruck at the degree to which this game has offended the sensibilities of games reviewers from around the globe. Nearly every aspect—gameplay, writing, animation, sound, and “tone deaf adoration of the source material” (says Kuchera)—has been found wanting. Polygon’s Arthur Gies explores that last point a little further in his review, outlining the degree to which the game leans on the legacy of the Alien movies while also circumventing canon.
Rather than work around existing fiction that most licensed games follow, Gearbox has instead taken it upon itself to play the part of revisionist. Aliens: Colonial Marines actively rewrites the film canon, and they do it in the most hackneyed way possible: by bringing back the dead . . . The end result feels craven and exploitative of its source material and the fans that will hopefully know better.
And perhaps most damningly of all, in a bullet-point review that also includes the words “Oh God, why won’t it end?”, Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker offers:
The saddest thing to report is that Aliens: Colonial Marines doesn’t even achieve that “so bad you just have to see it” place . . . It’s not even the “If you found a copy in a charity shop you’d have to experience it” level of awful.
That last part is pretty much the nail in the coffin for me—what’s left to say after we can’t even hold onto “so bad, it’s good”? Not much. I did not play Aliens: Colonial Marines, and it appears I never will.

Don’t misunderstand; I’m glad to see the system in action. There may be the occasional disagreement about the nature or purpose of a game review, but as a games consumer for whom the original Alien trilogy maintains a somewhat sacred status (let us speak not of Alien: Resurrection), I have to be glad not to have wasted precious funds. If you’re like me, please join me in my thanks to the brave Colonial Marines who sacrificed their time so that the rest of us might never have to.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

10000000 Reasons to Love Freedom

I had the strangest dream, you guys.

I was playing around on Twitter and I noticed a few people talking about this game called 10000000. It seemed like they were having fun, so I went to the app store and found it.

The next thing I knew, I was waking up in this tower full monsters whose only fear was my skill at Bejeweled.

It wasn't exactly clear what I was supposed to be doing, but that number haunted me at every turn: 10000000. Reminders of that cruel figure were everywhere, and nowhere. I nearly drowned in zeroes. Were they real, or imaginary? 10000000. What number is that, even? The lack of commas reminded me of the editor I once had been. I played Bejeweled with all my might, and yet it seemed that 10000000 might as well be 100000000.

As the enemies fell around me, I began collecting RPG tropes: Experience, gold, weapons and armor, perks, building materials... but for the first time in as long as I can remember, it was my score that mattered. In the dream. My dream had a scoreboard.

I'd perform an epic run through the dungeon, but I'd wake up back at the top of that tower to do it all over again. And again. And then some shopping. And then again. My score crawled painfully skyward, pushing into the 2000000s, the 5000000s, the 9000000s. I grew stronger and stronger, until I could advance no more. And yet, for all my strength, I felt weak. So weak. So powerless.

And finally, I launched my ultimate dungeon run.



11164589! There had never been a more beautiful random string of digits. I'm not entirely sure how to say that number, but I was almost certain it was more than 10000000.

But then I woke up in real life at the TOP OF THE TOWER FROM MY DREAM. "NO!" I cried, "THIS CAN'T BE HAPPENING!" But then it was totally just like the last morning in Groundhog Day because this time there was a door:


So I walked into it. And then:


Truer words there never were. Free from zeroes. Free from gold and stone and wood and experience. Free from 10000000.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Lazarus Project of My Very Own

When last I left John Shepard: Infiltrator, he was a man defined by flux; caught between life and death, rugged heroism and chaotic neutrality. My Mass Effect 1 paragon had died and been reborn a Mass Effect 2 renegade, and while the change didn't always sit quite right by me, there was at least comfort to be found in one constant: that ugly, familiar face.

I wasn't sure who my Mass Effect 3 Shepard would turn out to be when I slid the game disc into my Xbox for the first time last night. Considering this, I instructed the game to import my ME2 character, and four years of decisions spread out before me. My Shepard had spared Wrex and the Rachni queen, destroyed Mordin’s data, bedded Liara and Miranda. Most recently/controversially, he had turned the Collector base over to Cerberus. They weren’t all pretty, but those were the choices he had made. I hit the A button to continue.

At first I didn't understand. Mass Effect 3 cannot successfully determine the custom face code used by this imported save game. Please update your character's appearance.”

I blinked at the screen. I pressed A again. An alternate Shepard stared back at me. I recognized him as the quarterback-looking Shepard from the game’s packaging. I moved the cursor down to custom appearance. A different Shepard this time—face vaguely shaped like John Shepard: Infiltrator but with utterly indistinct features, as though my Shepard had been blasted with sand.

I pressed B—take me back. The game dumped me out onto the main menu. I tried again, unsuccessfully. It was a bug, and there was no going back. John Shepard: Infiltrator was gone.

Was it a sign? Had my Shepard run his course?

I had resisted the near-unanimous cries of others that FemShep was the real Shepard; maybe it was time to give her a try. But I just couldn’t bear it—the game wouldn’t allow me to change sexes while preserving my previous choices. I had to decide between playing with a different backstory entirely, or building a brand new, male Shepard.

I considered it: the Lazarus Project had rebuilt Shepard once—maybe this was my chance to rebuild him myself. And so I gave it a try. I fiddled with the sliders trying to get that lovable boot-face just right, pitting jaw size against ear orientation for a good 20 minutes. He’s not pretty; nor is he a perfect replica—but here he is: John Shepard: Infiltrator, back from the dead once again. Click the image for a closer look, and let me know how I did.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Art of the SOPA Blackout

I’m home sick from work today, and as is my home-sick routine, I spent some of this morning watching the Today Show in bed. I don’t know why I do it—it’s a terrible show, but it’s a tradition. And a dependable one: I always know it will be there, Matt Lauer turning the organ crank while his castmates grind out center-right headlines and neutered advertorial. It’s awful, but I can’t look away.

Today, the crew spoke with Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of Product Development, about today’s “Google Doodle” (a black censorship bar across the usual Google logo) in protest of SOPA. Lauer & Co. gave her about five seconds to discuss Google’s opposition to the legislation before saying that the bill was supported by NBC’s parent company, Comcast, and moving on to talking about the Google Doodles in a more general, apolitical fashion.

Google is not alone in its protest—many large sites today have either altered their homepages or even suspended activities to illustrate their stances on the bill. As much as I personally detest SOPA (that’s the Stop Online Piracy Act, in case you haven't heard, and you can read some great pieces about it at Kotaku, Gamasutra, Wired, and Unwinnable), it just doesn't make much sense to take Gamer Melodico dark—it'd be too difficult to tell the difference!

Instead, let’s take a minute to reflect on the blacked-out pages themselves, and ponder how a closed Internet would change the way we communicate in the digital age.

Google:
Wired:
Firefox:
Boing Boing:
Wikipedia:
Reddit:
Gamasutra (whose homepage links to the article mentioned above):
Imgur:

Monday, January 16, 2012

Cracking Final Fantasy XIII's Immersion Problem

Last week, in anticipation of Square-Enix’s upcoming Final Fantasy sequel-within-a-sequel (INCEPTION!), Jason Schreier wrote a piece for Joystiq titled, “Why Final Fantasy XIII Just Didn’t Work.”

It’s a fine title; Final Fantasy XIII absolutely did contain serious problems that took an immersion-breaking toll on the experience. Last year, I wrote a thing about where I felt the game’s storytelling had gone awry, but Schreier’s piece hits at a deeper issue—a player-experience problem entirely prior to character or story or setting:

Other Final Fantasy games create the illusion of choice, using techniques like sidequests, towns, world maps, vehicles, and even optional bosses to make you feel like you can actually veer from the script . . . You can’t progress until you do what the game wants you to do next, but you can see more than what it wants you to see. It feels like you're visiting the world of Final Fantasy VII, not just watching it.

And he’s really onto something! I’d add to Schreier's thoughts that it’s more than just the freedom to explore that creates that feeling of immersion. While the earlier games do involve the “illusion of choice” that he identifies, it’s more than just a narrative sleight-of-hand—it is the pivot point for the in-game challenges that have kept players buying ether potions for all of these years.

By not placing you on rails toward your next destination, earlier Final Fantasy games gave us a series of simple problems to solve—in particular, “Where do I go next?” Although this sounds more like an Easter egg hunt than a fantastic puzzler, this ambiguity tugs at the player throughout. By necessity, our intrepid heroes (a long line of attractive yet emotionally reclusive swordfighters pushing back against emerging imperialist forces) engaged townsfolk, gathered clues, and followed the compass rose in uncertain directions. The games’ gradual reveal and sense of freedom allow us the chance to experience the world just like our characters (who, in most cases, are also experiencing parts of the world for the first time). Our decisions, challenges, and victories are united, creating a genuine feeling of shared experience.

Was this exploration occasionally frustrating? Of course it was. Striking out from the safety of the village to follow a rumor along a vague northeasterly diagonal carried no guarantees and could easily prove hazardous to your party. This particular strain of questing promoted grind and gold farming (the former of which, some have argued, remains a problem in FFXIII). Particularly when coupled with the exhaustible resources that marked the earlier games, this provided a difficulty curve that was severely handicapped in XIII. These challenges (and rewards!) created a trustworthy relationship with the player that helped in part to dull the sense of grind. The predecessors demanded our attention, because without it, the games could not progress.

Despite or because of these issues, the opportunity to rise to the games’ challenges has traditionally been one of the most rewarding things about the Final Fantasy series. While the earlier games’ story and characters may be the selling points for many fans, I’d opine that the ability to forge our own paths—even within the confines of a script—is the vehicle toward participating more fully within that story, and that Schreier’s article is right on when it points to illusion of choice as the core difference between FFXIII and its predecessors. Head over to Joystiq and check out what he has to say, it’s a great read!

_________________________________

Lead image was heartlessly pilfered from Siliconera's interview with Square-Enix’s Motomu Toriyama.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Under My Thumb: Super Crate Box

Just the other day, I posted about how, despite the wonder and convenience and social acceptability of iPhone gaming, the nature of touchscreen controls left me wishing for buttons and/or invisible thumbs.

The very next day, a maddeningly addictive game called Super Crate Box came into my life. I've never wanted buttons so much in my life.

In case you haven’t played, here’s the basic rundown: You assume the role of one of a surprisingly diverse cast of Meat Boy-esque action heroes, and find yourself at the center of a Mario Bros-inspired set of platforms. There is a single crate to collect. Once you get it, another randomly generates somewhere on the screen. Each crate holds a weapon, and each new weapon automatically replaces whatever weapon you had just a moment ago. Add a boatload of enemy creatures who end your game with a single touch, and stir.

After an evening’s worth of crate collecting, I have a whopping high score of 13.

It’s not that the controls aren’t tight—they are. But with a game this challenging, in which every fraction of a second absolutely means life or death, there’s just no substitute for tactile controls. Beyond that, new crates often warp in directly under the dedicated thumb-spots, camouflaging beneath the controller icons even when you’ve moved your digits out of the way. Observe the following screenshot (with a cameo by my actual thumbs):
It’s pretty easy to take a clear limitation like this and say, “If only I could play this with an Xbox controller—I’d be SO MUCH BETTER AT IT1.” So that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Am I nitpicking? Absolutely, I am. Priced at $0.99 for iOS, Super Crate Box is an absolute steal. Dig around for change in your couch and go buy it. Don’t think about it. Just do it.

I dare you to try and beat 13 crates.
_____________________________

1 PC and Mac OS versions are actually free and available right here, so if I really wanted to test the truth of this, it would completely be within my power to do so. As it is, I’d prefer to ignore this and let my assertion stand.

Update: New high-score as of Jan 11 is 60 crates. Although, apparently, that's nothing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

3DSuccess! A Tale of Two Handhelds

Today, Nintendo announced that the 3DS cleared 4 million units in the US in 2011. Last week, I bought Grand Theft Auto III for my iPhone.

These facts are completely unrelated. And yet, one has me thinking about the other.

My last dedicated handheld gaming system was Nintendo’s Game Boy, a constant companion for me throughout most of grade school and then again (in color!) during a brief hospital stay in the late ’90s. The controls were rudimentary by today’s standards: just two main buttons and a directional pad—essentially an NES controller fused onto a tiny screen, packaged in a unit that was as heavy as it was greedy for AA batteries. I kept it in a zippered pouch made for the device and big enough to hold 10 games. It was black around the sides with a neon green top and bottom. It had a shoulder strap. I was very uncool.

My iPhone 4S holds more than 10 games. I just counted them—including GTA3, I currently have 26 installed and ready to go. (I’m counting my beloved IF app Frotz as just one game.) The device is super lightweight, and its batteries recharge nightly. I don’t have to carry it around in a bright green purse, and I can play a discreet round of Drop7 on MUNI without feeling utterly self-conscious about my gaming habit. I am still uncool, but I fake it alright.

But despite the convenience and technological marvel of smartphone gaming, I still miss having a dedicated handheld. It’s good fun messing around with a nostalgia title like GTA3, but running around a game world like Liberty City with my own thumbs in my face just isn’t as satisfying an experience as when the controller and screen are separate entities. (Although it’s worth noting the fact that GTA3’s left "analog" control brilliantly centers wherever your thumb lands near the lower left corner of the touchscreen. It’s a nice improvement.) And while I do adore innovative touchscreen-specific titles like Cut the Rope, the amount of time I can spend pressing fingers into a stationary object before repetitive stress sets in is just not as long as I’d like it to be.

So congratulations, Nintendo. You’ve had some bumps along the road, but I’m glad that when the titles are there, there’s still a market for devices like the 3DS.

And as long as we’re on the topic, I’m standing by to receive my review unit. Call me!

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Handy Guide to the Literature of Skyrim

I have to admit to a bit of a healthy preoccupation with the literature of Skyrim. I actually enjoy taking a moment away from adventuring to cozy up with a good book. Being a Skyrim bookworm has provided a big bonus for my skill trees and a boon to my character’s hobbyist fascination with alchemy, and occasionally even leads to a genuinely enjoyable work of in-game fiction.

At the same time, this preoccupation has not exactly affected my playthrough time in a positive way. There just isn’t enough time in a Dovahkiin’s life to read every book under the sun—and there are a lot of clunkers out there besides.

To cope, I’ve had to develop a system for separating the wheat1 from the chaff, and there’s a definite method to my madness. Here's a handy flowchart:



________________________________


1 This reminds me: just in case there are any other hobbyist alchemists out there who aren't already aware, wheat and blue mountain flower can be combined for a very handy healing potion. I didn’t learn that from a book, but whatever. Sometimes you have to just go live your life.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

30 Minutes with Dark Souls

I didn’t really believe it, but I get it now.

I recently spent some time discussing cruelty in current-gen games, and a friend asked why I had left out Dark Souls. The truth is that I hadn’t played it (or spiritual predecessor Demon’s Souls). After a single half-hour session with the game, I’m beginning understand why my post got him thinking about it. I haven’t encountered any actual cruelty yet (i.e., situations that have rendered a playthrough entirely unwinnable), but I can safely say that Dark Souls ranks among the most hostile games I’ve ever played.

The game’s unwelcoming attitude toward the player runs so deep that even before the game began it was clear that I was on enemy turf. When the initial options menu and character creation screens forced me to use the XBox 360 controller’s D-pad instead of the left control stick, I actually found myself wondering if it was already passive-aggressively trying to show me who was boss.

30 minutes later, my bloodstain (along with all of my collected souls and whatever else I dropped) now sits in a room with the huge Asylum Demon, who took me out during our second encounter after a surprisingly close battle. It was the second time I had died, but my first time dying in a room with a thing that I didn’t particularly want to go back and have to fight again. As far as I know my things are all still in there, waiting for me to fight my way back and claim them. After respawning, I turned the game off (not out of frustration, but in an effort to bring my heart rate down out of the cardio zone).

One hears the word “evil” thrown around a lot with regard to this game, and as strong as it is, it’s a pretty appropriate descriptor. The lack of any tutorial beyond superbrief fighting instructions occasionally scribbled along the path (As an aside, I’m really supposed to just remember these button combinations? Is this a fighting game?) leaves the novice player feeling isolated and alone—I’m as utterly unsure of the rules of this universe as I am about what lies in wait.

All that, and I’ve been thinking about it all day long.

So bring it, Dark Souls. After years of namby-pamby checkpoints and un-droppable quest items it’s good to find a game that doesn’t take me for granted. It’s good to have an enemy.

Friday, December 30, 2011

On Roman Numerals, Abuse of

I can appreciate a good set of Roman numerals, I really can. There’s a certain elegance to a well-placed II or a III—a primitive sort of appeal that cuts above the artifice of language and says in the simplest possible terms, “This many.”

By IV (which is still a nice, elegant figure) the prima-facie simplicity offered by II and III has been thrown out the window, replaced by a demand that we know not just the significance of V but also a trick of subtraction that defies self-evidence. Roman numerals greater than X serve exactly two purposes in our everyday world, and grandfather clocks stop at XII. If you see the number XIII in print, you can be fairly certain you’re reading about a sequel to a long-in-the-tooth series from one of the following categories: slasher film, sporting event, or Final Fantasy game.

XIII is a hellish piece of typography. Look at it up there. They’ve gone and added a “-2” to the end of it.

And I get it—I’ve been a fan of the series since its first title came to the NES in the late ’80s—real O.G. shit, all the way. This is the first time we’re continuing a storyline from one installment to the next, and I suppose it warrants some kind of a new title convention. But mixing Arabic and Roman characters like this, it’s just—

Hang on, there’s blood coming out of my ear.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thumb Crusher

I recognize the irony in embedding the following video the day after splashing a large PETA logo at the top of a post, I really do.

A friend of mine forwarded me what you’re about to see, and I initially watched just enough of it to get the idea—it’s really kind of amazing! I’m no biologist, but I have to reckon that the frog is acting on instinct, responding to the ant-like visual stimuli the only way it knows how. And while it’s safe to assume that Mr. Frog’s actions only resemble “play” as we know it, the whole thing does sort of make one wonder just how close our own mental processes are aligned when we play whack-a-mole-style games like Ant Crusher—or even more complex games that require fast reaction to visual cues (I honestly can’t stop thinking about Left 4 Dead).


It wasn’t until I started preparing this post that I finished watching the video. Is it possible that the human’s response to the "Game Over" screen is a similar sort of reflexive action?

Because if so, HA. Either way, I believe this round goes to Mr. Frog.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Throw Lamp into Chasm: The Cruelty Scale

“Cruelty.” Don't do a Google Image search, trust me. As far as games are concerned, it’s a great word.

As I have come to know it, the “Cruelty Scale” was devised by IF author Andrew Plotkin (a.k.a. Zarf, creator of a ton of amazing interactive fiction, including the insidiously cruel A Change in the Weather), will be relatable to any fan of the genre. Here’s a quick copy/paste of the scale from Plotkin’s own summary:
  • Merciful: cannot get stuck
  • Polite: can get stuck or die, but it’s immediately obvious that you’re stuck or dead
  • Tough: can get stuck, but it’s immediately obvious that you’re about to do something irrevocable
  • Nasty: can get stuck, but when you do something irrevocable, it’s clear
  • Cruel: can get stuck by doing something which isn’t obviously irrevocable (even after the act)
While many games from outside the IF genre can be plotted along this spectrum, it's not a concept that fits very well with regard to games from more recent generations. Maybe the frustration players receive from “getting stuck” was enough to have it all but banned from use in today’s big-budget titles. Compare Maniac Mansion, which could quietly be rendered unwinnable from within the character selection screen1, to Skyrim, which forces you to hold onto an inventory full of quest-related items so that none of its many tangled storylines becomes un-finshable.

Dragon Age: Origins and Cruelty By Stupidity
Where was this guy when I needed him?
It’s been a while since I played a really cruel game. Close for me was my playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins, during which I absolutely failed to pack enough health potions before signing on for the game’s final act. Slogging through the Darkspawn apocalypse while waiting for a shop that stocked an ample supply of potions or ingredients (it never came), I began to wonder whether I had played myself into a position where there was no way to win.

And yet, it’s disingenuous to place Dragon Age on the above scale—DA:O turns on a combination of skill, strategy, and dice rolls, so there was never a point where my playthrough had technically become unwinnable. But insofar as “cruel” describes a game that you can continue to play without realizing that you’ve passed a point where win conditions are no longer realistic, my experience was at least very close—in order to survive the final battle, I had to choose between backing up to an old save or lowering the difficulty. (After four hour-long battles ended in defeat, I went with the latter.)

That experience was a bit of a bummer, but real cruelty can actually be a good thing—when it works, cruelty adds something special to a game. Webster’s defines “cruel” as “disposed to inflict pain or suffering; devoid of humane feelings.” While they didn't have games in mind, I like this definition a lot, because it lends a game a certain diabolical consciousness. A cruel game doesn’t just allow you to get stuck—it delights in your pain and wasted time. A cruel game wants you to get stuck, and if you’re oblivious to the futility of your actions after you’ve passed the point of no return, all the better.

Moreover, a cruel game gives players an adversary outside the boundaries of narrative. Cruel games become a sort of meta-antagonist—you can thwart Zork’s thief and dwarf and grue, but you’re still left to contend with Zork. Better yet, this relationship means that the player must respect the tools he or she has been given to solve the problems that a cruel game presents.

No Consequences: The Cruel, Uncruel World of L.A. Noire
Looks deadly, sure, but he’s shooting blanks.
Forget Dragon Age—what really got me thinking about cruelty was L.A. Noire, which I completed recently (after putting it down and picking it back up many, many times). Everything about the game suggests that it should involve some degree of cruelty. Much of the game actually plays like an IF mystery title—you’re given areas in which to find and examine objects, characters to meet and evaluate, and crimes for which you must assemble solutions and carry out arrests. It’s possible to miss clues entirely or completely blow an interrogation—both fantastic and necessary parts of any respectable detective game. What good is it to try and solve a murder without the possibility that the perpetrators will go free?

And yet, despite my pathological insistence on achieving positive results from its interrogation scenes, the game gave not one shit about my commitment to crime-solving. As Detective Cole Phelps, it is entirely possible to fail spectacularly and yet progress through the game a legendary sleuth, garnering promotion after promotion even while intentionally shooting your cases in the foot (which you might as well do, because you can’t shoot much else).

Without much gameplay to fall back on, I felt compelled to stick around for L.A. Noire’s storyline—and when the story didn’t seem to care much about my level of participation, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated; like I had purchased a game but was playing a film. Here was a game that easily could have involved a set of win conditions or even alternate outcomes based on performance, yet offered none of these. By allowing the player to fail both upward and forward, the game creates the uneasy feeling of a world with no consequences whatsoever.

Considering the themes established in the game’s opening and closing chapters, this is more than a little bit fitting—but it also establishes L.A. Noire as one of the most mind-blowingly uncruel games I’ve ever played. Its actions have no reactions. Its causes have no effects. Its crimes have no punishment.

One cannot fail to win because there is no way to lose.

And what could be crueler than that?

_____________________________

Lead image for this story was unceremoniously stolen from PETA, whose website is a fantastic resource for real cruelty-free products. For what it's worth, L.A. Noire is not currently listed on their site.

1 I sure hope you picked Bernard for your team. Does Maniac Mansion hold the record for fastest game-breaking?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Hurricane Heroism vs. Videogame Heroism

Wow, I am not a disaster fetishist. I loved Leigh Alexander’s article on the subject, which dropped just before Irene hit (or swung at and kind of missed New York City). Because I get my disaster updates along with all my other news from blithe, snarky old Twitter, that article might have been the thing that made me actually get disaster-ready serious. Like, “I’m not sure whether we should duct-tape the windows I guess we won’t but in case we’re wrong I’m going to buy bandage squares and gauze for our glass-serrated, wrong-ass faces” serious. I was moved and compelled by the latent human instincts that bubbled up in Leigh: the desire to rescue alley cats and help old ladies up stairs, to huddle together en-masse and bust through society-circumscribed personal space radii. Once I appreciated the potential gravity of the situation, the first impulse to bubble up in me was “BOLSTER THE BUNKER AND HUNKER THE FUCK DOWN, BITCHES!”

Friday, September 2, 2011

Now Playing: Josh and Jay’s Excellent Videogame Show

Quick question: Do you like podcasts about videogames? Yeah? Cool, because I wanted to pop in real quick and turn you on to a new project that I’m working on with friend and fellow videogame nerd, Joshua Doan. We’d been toying around with the idea of doing a podcast for awhile, so we finally mustered up some motivation, got together last week and recorded some colorful conversation about videogame stuff. Nothing fancy, just a couple dudes having a beer-dazzled dialogue about our favorite pastime.

In our first episode, Joshua and I talk about the trials and tribulations of Rock Band, S-ranking Oblivion, owning a Wii, and the Driver series (about whose sequel I articulate some rather passionate opinions). So without further ado, I give you the world premiere of Josh and Jay’s Excellent Videogame Show.

Please, give it a listen and drop a line or two in the comments to let us know what you think. More episodes to follow, so stay tuned!

UPDATE: No iTunes? Here's a direct link to Episode 1. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Musica Musica Musica: Spotify and Vice City

Last year at PAX, I found myself debating with a pair of Melodico writers past and present on the topic of the worst song ever recorded. The rules of our little game involved each of us choosing one regrettable cut and arguing its case for the No. 1 spot. I’ll spare you the full list of nominees, suffice it to say that they were all truly terrible songs, and by the end it was clear that we had all lost.

The Worst Song Ever Recorded
My “worst ever” pick was REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You.” It's a really, really bad song. Let’s look at that chorus for a moment:
I’m gonna keep on loving you
Cuz it’s the only thing I wanna do
I don’t wanna sleep
I just wanna keep
(On loving you)
Ugh. The parentheses are mine, but I think their inclusion here helps to explain what it is that I find so objectionable about this particular track. Double ugh. At what time in history could this travesty of rhyme and repetition have been not just accepted but actually popular?

I Just Wanna Keep On Sharing Tunes
Last month, I wrestled my way into a Spotify invite, and I’ve been playing with a free account ever since. For the first time in my life, I actually feel like subscribing to a pay-for-access music service might just be a possibility—I’m still feeling it out, and I definitely feel a bit of a twinge when I think about the many thousands of dollars I’ve spent over the years in the pursuit of owning music (or whatever the courts have decided I purchased with that money), so we’ll see. The ability to make playlists from songs one doesn’t own is pretty central to the service, as is the ease of sharing playlists with other people.

To try it out, I thought it would be fun to make a playlist for readers of this very blog—a collection of music from one of the most evocative and fulfilling videogame soundtracks of all time: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Exactly four songs into my playlist, it dawned on me that this would mean inflicting “Keep On Loving You” on some of the people I love most in this world. And for that I am sorry.

The GTA: Vice City Playlist
The playlist is solid but incomplete—without the DJs that helped make Vice City seem so vital and self-aware, it’s just a collection of good songs. And while it would certainly be fun to drive around your city while streaming via mobile (for those with Premium accounts), there’s something about launching a Corvette off of a highway overpass that really makes “I Ran (So Far Away)” and “Working For the Weekend” come to life. The list is also missing a few tracks that simply weren’t on Spotify, including Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes,” a handful of obscure Latin and R&B tracks, and tragically, the works of fictional GTA band Love Fist.

After some weird experiences with Spotify’s playlists (including some dropped tracks, ugh) I spent a work week listening to the sweet sounds of Vice City, during which I endured more than one mocking playthrough of “Keep On Loving You.” In the context of the other ’80s classics—not to mention caviar memories with Tommy Vercetti—I found that after a while, I stopped clicking past it.

If you’re on Spotify and looking to scratch that GTA- and/or ’80s-nostalgia itch, here’s a link to subscribe or follow yours truly.