10. Wherein the Writer Grapples With the Intangible

Standard

Admittedly, I don’t know much of anything about music. Like technically speaking, I’m pretty ignorant. I love music, lots of different kinds of music-you know, like a human . But I can’t read it, I’ve never studied it for very long or very deeply, and my 2 year-old godson makes better music on his dad’s drum set than I do with the handful of guitar chords I know. What I do know is that music has been inextricably linked to powerful experiences in my memory. I know that it doesn’t take hearing more than a single note (for the sake of believability I’ll say two notes together, but it’s really one) for me to know when somebody in another room just changed the channel past Jurassic Park on TV (back when that used to happen, before they went and commoditized my whole childhood.) While many of these emotional ties are to real life experiences (“Lightning Crashes” by Live reminds me of camping in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens), a great number of them come from media (I once heard a jazz band drift into a cover of the X-Men cartoon theme song and I freaked out) and of those, a high percent are related to games. Thinking about it now, I should make a running playlist out of music from the Mega Man franchise because it always keeps my energy up. I’ve actually heard that music like it increases mental acuity and helps people focus but I’ve been unable to pin that down as having come from any legitimate research, as many sources I’ve read, like this one, go something like, “we all know that video game music is actually designed to keep you going and not distract you” but never corroborate that claim with anything more reliable than word of mouth and the presumed uniformity of our shared experience. While that sounds a little thin to me academically, I can’t deny identifying with the position. For any reader who has never played through say, Mega Man II, let me tell you- it’s really hard. I don’t think I’ve ever beaten it. More than that, I don’t think a coalition of my best and most trusted friends, gamers all, have ever beaten it- as children or adults. But we’ve played it, and played it for untold hours over a period of decades. The experience never changes and the levels are the same no matter what order you play them in, yet every time we take control of the unwieldily titular man-bot we are on the edge of our seats and laser-focused. How can this possibly be, that an experience that we’ve been sharing literally completely unaltered for about 25 years, still grips us as it did when we were small? The white-knuckled controller grip is the same, the full-body muscle tensing is the same, the creeping, deadly palm-sweating is the same. But why?  Why aren’t we bored? Sure it could be that we, seasoned veterans all, are hyper-conscious of the razor-thin margin of victory we can expect to achieve, and that one split second misstep, change in direction, hesitation, or miscalculated button pressure (collectively referred to as a “freak out” or not “having it”) is all it takes to turn a glorious triumph into a regrettable setback. But part of the reason we might care so much about the daunting victory conditions laid before us is the constantly surging, ever repeating 8-bit encouragement of the Mega Man score. Whether there is science behind this idea or my friends and I have an unnatural commitment to something we shouldn’t, the music from Mega Man always makes me feel like focusing up and moving fast, and this isn’t an isolated experience. The reality is that this is one of the lighter associations that exist between my memory and music in games.

Continue reading

9. Wherein the writer’s world is rent in two

Standard

I recently played through a game called Far Cry 4 on the PS3 with my brother. He and I would take turns completing missions and generally visiting carnage on the fictional kind of India-like nation of Kyrat. From early on, we’d run through enemy camps firing exploding arrows from the back of an elephant, lobbing grenades at armed convoys, and releasing caged tigers to exact vengeance on their captors. Our avatar became synonymous with Old Testament-style destruction. Flames and chaos followed his every mountain climb, ATV ride, and wing suit glide. He instantaneously learned how to operate a flame thrower, aim a throwing knife, and fly a hang glider. We would add our own elements of challenge to the game (which would we worried was becoming too easy) by eliminating conventional machine guns and shotguns from our inventory and instead relying on a simple bow, a cowboy six shooter, a sniper rifle and explosives.  Our reign of terror was largely unmitigated. It was a lot of fun. At a few points our rampage would overlap with the game’s scripted story, and we would experience these cut scenes in which one of the other characters (two leaders of a violent revolution to free their homeland from an insane despot) would tell us about the cause, and send us out to accomplish something.Their army was usually standing around, or getting into skirmishes in the woods. When something important was happening, they called us up and said we needed to do it. Our avatar, who until the game’s first scene was an unassuming civilian, had become the blunt instrument of the revolution. As there was no other option, and because fighting bad guys for the cause was just as good as fighting bad guys for the hell of it, we went along and completed the missions, saving the day for the rebels or striking down some dangerous enemy or taking a vital strategic point. As the game went on, our interactions with our comrades became more divisive, and soon each of the two characters were advocating against the agenda of the other. They told us we must choose between them. We didn’t always love the choices, but to go with the flow we decided to select the course of action we felt was closest to what we thought we would do. Then they told us we had to choose between blowing up an ancient temple and destroying a culture, or defending the temple and giving a teenage girl over to a life of forced religious service as the symbol of a goddess (whatever that means, and it sounds kind of sexual and creepy). We looked at each other and said, “Excuse me, rebels, but fuck you. I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. I’ve just blown up half this country. What if I don’t like either of those options? Why would I ever take orders from the likes of you, a bossy peasant?” I paraphrased a bit, but the point remains. These narrative directions beg the question- why would anyone with this talent for sheer destruction, who is so nigh-unkillable, ever go along with some half baked plan if he doesn’t want to? Why doesn’t the unhinged killing machine that is my avatar EVER seem to be calling the shots? This doesn’t make sense, especially in the context of how I’ve been playing this game. It’s disorienting, and it pushes against the player’s immersion in the otherwise beautiful and arresting reality of the game world. It wrecks the illusion, and calls the validity of the whole experience into question. It make you feel like, maybe this game is junk, because it hasn’t accounted for this vast chasm of what it’s asking me to do and what seems reasonable for me to expect in this moment.

Continue reading

4. Wherein the Writer Hears His Jam

Standard

Did you hear that?  Listen to it. I’ll wait.

OK, now? OK. That music, for me- it’s hard to explain. It’s just a piece of music, probably simple as far as classical compositions go. I don’t know, I’m not a music person. I’m talking about my relationship with this piece of music, but not JUST this piece of music, and I mean that on levels. No, its not just this piece of music, its the emotional life that this music has tied into in stages over years. But more literally I mean it isn’t even literally this piece of music. It’s a whole collection of music that sound like this. Variations on these themes, rendered at every stage of complexity- from 8-bit sound files to a single guitar, so a full symphony orchestra accompanied by a choir. All forms of this piece of music thrill me, and it’s not because “it’s such a good song.” How could it be? It’s not even a song. Listening to this admittedly subdued iteration of this theme music brings out in me a feeling of importance, or urgency. I want to get up and do something. I want to run. In every version no matter how simple, this music feels like the beginning of an adventure. It’s tied to being called to adventure, to action. It reminds me of a quiet room and free time, and a dark screen, and then it’s like a wormhole into another dimension, an explosion, a tornado into technicolor. In a medium where we can’t smell anything, the sound, this music is our most immediate sensory companion. And it runs right into us like its being injected into our veins and it feel like it’s flowing so fast. Like flying. Like you’re a different person. In an instant suspended disbelief becomes full immersion, and its not so unbelievable that you can be the hero you want to be. Just like that, you’re in the world, you’re taking up the quest. And the music, as the first part of your experience, is your portal to that, and it stays with you for the whole experience. Exploring the world, meeting important characters, fighting the battles, beating the game, the music is part of the fabric of it all, and weaves it all together. And it doesn’t matter how simple or complex it is, the point is that it’s incredibly evocative. Hearing even a chord, a note, at any time can pull a player out of their lived and into a memory of a moment they may have lived a dozen times. It has the ability to take you from sitting on the subway to saving a princess and a world in an instant, because somebody’s phone rang. The feeling is, it’s time to go. Get up, it’s time to be who you are now. For reference for the uninitiated, the above symphonic arrangement, the passion and power that begot it and exists within it, comes from the below. Valuable, for contrast.

2. Wherein the Writer Doubts the Cause

Standard

From the beginning, every time I think about writing about video games, I have a difficult time taking myself seriously. I feel, and have felt, that everything I have to say on the topic is juvenile or shallow or undeveloped or obvious. For example, the realization that games offer me escapism and that that escapism is part of why I like them so much. I have had such a strong desire to focus my work in this area that I so enjoy, that so delights me, but every time I’ve lifted my pen to do so I’ve been plagued by this feeling of being unprofessional, trite, and childish. And in a way, I feel like petulant child, insisting on writing on a topic that increasingly seems impractical and pursuing a path rife with obstacles. So, convincing myself that I deserve to try and write in an area that I want, and to give myself the time to figure out what that means precisely has been the challenging first step.

I was compelled initially to try and write a very traditional research paper. This was in part so that I could fit in academically, but also part for me, that I might be able to finally say in concrete terms whatever it was I had to say about the games that have played a part in my life. The question of whether it was valuable to write about games didn’t cross my mind until later. I know that much writing, scholarly, popular, personal and otherwise, is done every day. I want to contribute to, even stand out in that discourse somehow. But what I have struggled with is determining and refining what I have to say. My first thing I think to write is always, “games are great!” “Ocarina of Time is the best game ever made!” “Kingdom Hearts STILL makes me cry!” I just want to shout about all the things that excite me about gaming. All the awesome stuff I’ve done in game worlds. All the wonders I’ve discovered, all the riches I’ve amassed, all the lives I’ve saved, and taken. Even when I’m not in the game worlds, it’s all so exciting to me. And I just want to gush about it. I’m holding back gushing about it now, a bit. And I think in order to develop my thesis I have to work through that in some way, to get to what I might say that might really contribute. Because when I’m gushing like that, that’s when I think that what I’m saying doesn’t matter. I’m just excited about something that I like, and I want to talk about it. So I’ve been discouraged when I’ve been trying to brainstorm and I keep asking myself, “why do I like video games so much?” And my answer is, “they’re so much fun. They’re freeing, they’re inspiring, they’re riveting. Saving the princess, saving the world, earning the sacred sword and defeating the forces of evil- how could I not like video games? How could I not love them?” And while I do feel strongly about that emotional entreaty, it has been difficult to refine that sentiment into a thesis. So I’ve kind of floundered. I think the thing to do at this point is to just start writing about my actual experience with games, rather than circling the subject in an approximate way, and maybe something good will come out of that.

1. Wherein the Writer Begins

Standard

Let this be a record of trial, of struggle, of discovery and success. This project, my master’s thesis, has been stressing me out for more than a year- since long before I began work on it. Even now I’ve only just begun work on it in earnest, but I have lost more sleep and sunny days and quiet evenings to worry and doubt than I care to remember. All I’ve known from the beginning is that I want this to be something that matters. It’s been a feeling of importance, of weight, of a coming moment that can change the future. My worry of course has been getting that moment right, having success in that moment. In life and in school I’ve spent so much time making smart choices. Being responsible. Taking the safe shot. It’s how I learned to be. Keep your head down, work hard, prepare for the future. Be the ant, not the grasshopper. And I believe that has value. I want to be prepared in life in so far as I can, to keep my loved ones safe, and not be flaky, shortsighted, reckless- at least when it matters. This has been my guiding instinct in many things, and especially in school. I have spent time and energy responsibly, doing what I have had to do in order to get the grade I need. But I haven’t afforded myself the opportunity to explore at all, or try to do something different or more creative than the assignment asks for on the surface. It is this that I’m afraid of repeating in my thesis. It’s something I’ve been worried about, and didn’t even realize I was worried about until now- I don’t want to just follow the outline again. I don’t want to just follow the instructions that somebody else has given to me to get an A. I’ve been really good at doing what I’m told well enough to get the prize. What I want now is to make my own way, to do something of my own and to make it uniquely good, objectively competent and worthy of praise, successful in its own right. So I guess I feel like I have something to prove. That’s starting to sound a little shrink-level personal, so I’m gonna pull up a little bit. But suffice it to say that I think I’ve been feeling like I’ve been skating for a while. Faking it. Coasting. And I feel that it’s time to really try, and that is at once inspiring and scary.

What I want in terms of the content of my thesis is to follow my passion. I’m good at writing about things that other people ask me to write about, but I rarely write about things I like, I think because I don’t see immediate value in doing so. The internet is saturated with people bloviating (thanks Andre) about video games and comics and the end of Lost, so I guess I feel like adding my reflections to the garbled din is a little futile. And given the shape of things in my life in the past… ever, it hasn’t seemed like an efficient or useful way to spend time, so I haven’t. In retrospect, I think I would be happier and healthier at least psychologically if I spent more time doing things for me, so maybe that’s a note to take for the future, and maybe that’s what I’m doing right now. Whatever the reason, I haven’t ever written about the things that I like, and now, in what in all likelihood will be the end of my academic career, I want to finally do that. I feel that I owe myself this indulgence after decades of subservience to lesser themes. So now I think I want to write about video games. Games have played a big role in my development as a person. I remember them from childhood as strongly as I remember many other important moments. I relate things in life to them on a regular basis. Just now, as I was writing about about taking the smart path, I realized that it was a video game  strategy, to play it safe. When you’re playing a game and your magic is strong but you only have a little, you save it, in case you run into a strong monster or something and you need it. But sometimes you keep saving and saving and never use the magic, always keeping it to use against a stronger enemy and before you know it you’re at the end of the game, and its your last chance to use this awesome spell you’ve been holding on to all this time. And you realize then that you could have used it a bunch of times in the past and you didn’t because you were being prudent. And you realize that games are supposed to be fun, you’re supposed to enjoy the experience, but you were so focused on working smartly towards the end game that you lost sight of enjoying yourself in the moment. You can always play the game again, but it will never be the same as the first time, no matter how advanced the game is and how much it changes when you play it. All that’s left is the final boss fight, and it’s a doozy, and it’s your last chance to use your magic. I’ve been saving magic for a long time, and now I want to see what kind of awesome spells I can pull out before the end.