The New Metric

Increasingly I feel like the only number that matters in game reviews is not the Metacritic score, but the amount of hours the player can sink into the game. There are as many AAA heavy-hitters in this category as there are indie games. A game can have the most beautiful environments, the most intuitive gameplay, or the most thought-provoking story and a chorus of Dorito-scented wails will decry it as trash if the length is less than 20 hours. Conversely, a game can employ sprawling empty environments or horrible and unskippable dialogue if only it stretches the gameplay out enough to accommodate players who would grind out in the real world if their ass still fit through the door. I’m looking at you, Red Dead Redemption 2.

There was a time when the words ‘online’ or ‘open world’ sparked joy in my then-young gaming mind. I’d freak if it was both. But, more and more, this is sliding into strange territory. The industry is offering less experiences and more simulations. Unlimited, recurring play is creating frenetic lifetime customers. In any other game, especially if there’s voice chat, you would regard these people with the same type of wariness and separation from reality as you would the guy screaming at random people in the street. Maybe they were strange to begin with, but the ability to stay inside all day with an endlessly recycled slot machine experience is probably not helping. For instance, just let this sink in: There were players lobbying for Bungie to remove whatever feeble controls they’d put in place for Destiny 2 to prevent people from playing all day, every day. The idea of playing another game just never occurred to them, a fact that is pretty easy to track these days with the deployment of player profiles and playtime counters.

Obviously, there’s a lot going on here. You can come at this from so many different angles that your head will literally start to vibrate like a tuning fork. I don’t want to delve into the impending societal collapse making people want to stay indoors with fake realities or depriving them of the opportunities to do much else. Walk that road if you must. I encourage it. Neither do I want to get too deep into the idea that this manner of play creates a cycle of disassociation that feeds into itself and creates hostile, if not fatal, levels of community toxicity. I truly believe there is something emotionally wrong with a fair few of online/hardcore gamers, especially those who settle into one game for thousands of hours (yes, they exist); but there’s quite a lot to unpack there.

No, the simple thrust of my argument is this: length and scope, for the sake of themselves, do not a good game make. If you’ve substituted your real life for a digital one, I guess it makes sense to rate a game according to how long you can divorce yourself from life by playing it. I say divorce and not ‘immerse’ or (the always favorite) ‘get lost in’ because that’s not what these games do and not what these gamers are after. I wouldn’t be writing this article if I got immersed or lost in these experiences. Games like RDR2 and Kingdom Come: Deliverance are profoundly boring art projects. This only becomes apparent, of course, if you’re A) not paid to say otherwise or B) don’t have such a wealth of unallocated free time available that you can afford to ride a horse across a mostly empty landscape for thirty minutes. These games don’t provide immersive experiences; they provide expansive simulations that are a mile wide and an inch deep.

Armed with narratives tacked on to make use of the environments and that would put an angsty teen to shame with their quality and emotional resonance, these games certainly don’t offer anything in the way of compelling plots or characters. And don’t get me started on the gameplay. If it isn’t so stilted and clunky that you’ll die from hitting a tree going slightly faster than a snail, they present beautifully designed combat systems that you will literally never use. Outside the tutorial and first hours of the game, I can count on one hand how many people I’ve fought in RDR2 and Kingdom Come that I did not deliberately seek out and pick fights with. “You always have to do this”, you might say. And I’d call you a sad, pedantic fuck.

Skyrim, a game that I very rarely have any cause to praise, is overflowing with enemies to fight and tasks to accomplish that aren’t boring as fuck. Sure, there’s a fair amount of ‘go to cave X and kill bandit Y’. But there’s also more than a few detailed quest lines associated with multiple dungeons at many different progress intervals in the game. The plethora of sidequests I’m currently treated to in Kingdom Come? Some shit about a wedding, courting a miller’s daughter, getting a horse for some dude, etc. I have a quest to go box some people and another to clear out a bandit camp, but I know from prior experience that this will be it for some time. There’s simply nothing to fucking do.

And why? “It’s supposed to be an accurate portrayal of life in the Middle Ages/Wild West,” is a common refrain. People died all the fucking time in both time periods. The Crusades were started to get all the shithead knights out of Europe because they were killing too many peasants. Banditry was rife. The history of the American West is filled with some of our only “legends”, filled with racism and ethnic cleansing though they may be. Things happened is my point. These reproductions play as though someone designed a giant, avant-garde extrapolation of the play No Exit. And, assuming it’s an accurate portrayal to create a giant extrapolation of No Exit, what the fuck is the point? My answer: to waste as much time as humanly possible in order to distract myself from my miserable kissless virgin existence.

Update 03: I’m Still Here

I’ve just been away for a little while, don’t fret. Things are moving. The tires are rolling. Yeah, they might be bald and the brakes are shot. But, let me ask you something: who’s stopping?

I set a lofty goal for myself this new year, to write 1 short story each week. We’re almost 12 weeks in, folks, and I’m pleased to report that I’m 11 short stories in or thereabouts. Have I met my quota? No. Am I close? Of course. And that’s pretty awesome considering the massive retrograde force I’ve been facing with regards to mental health and job stress. I’ve been writing and reading and submitting – wash, rinse, and fucking repeat.

In short, this is just a little note to say: I haven’t gone anywhere. I’ve just been busy, and needed to give you a little reminder not to step away before I’m finished. You’ll be missing some Grade A, quality bullshit. Be patient, for patience is a virtue. And in the meantime? Please enjoy this gem until I return. No but’s. On repeat. Until I’m back.

Topically Microscopic

It’s been a chronic problem of mine these past months to be unable to focus at work. I sit down, open up my calendar and this document or that spreadsheet, and… nothing. I watch the cursor blink or the cell sit empty, stare at all the pretty colors in the mapping software with maybe the dregs of inspiration trying to smack me in the face. Sometimes reading about my work helps. I have a few ideas as to why, but more on that later. Most days this heart of mine is wayward enough that I can’t even bring myself to work on my own stuff. Jot down some notes, maybe.

So I ask myself: why? What’s the deal? I’m too tired, but here’s a day that I’m not tired. I’m depressed. Well, what about when you’re awake and alive? The fluorescent lights are annoying me. Turn them off. You get the picture. Eventually, I reach a point where there’s not a single god damn justifiable or readily available reason that I can’t muster the gumption to accomplish something worthwhile.

Mostly that just means the work day drags on interminably, and I get mad about it until I can leave. I took a different tack the other day. I thought I’d ask the internet. A simple question: why can’t I focus at work? Lo and behold, there were a multitude of purveyors and seekers of information and remedies and reasons. These answers I received shouldn’t have surprised me, and I suppose they didn’t. But it never ceases to amaze how often people miss the mark on something right in front of them, or how easily I forget my own understanding of things and start to blame myself.

That answer I received, kids? We’re adapted to move and hunt and chase shiny, bright objects that may or may not provide sustenance. Nature didn’t build us to sit at a desk! We’re not fighting our evolutionary impulses and machinery hard enough. If we don’t change our tune, if we don’t strive to do better than our caveman brains running on default programming, the endless novelty of Twitter feeds will be the end of us all and the machines will take over. Humanity will cease to be of value to itself. Our average attention span was downgraded from 12 seconds to 8. And so on…

Let it be known, that not a single article pointed out that most work is inherently meaningless and boring and trite. Even work that is deemed moderately important or supposedly rewarding, like mine. It’s often hamstrung by backwards administration and political roadblocks and this or that or the other thing. Jobs aren’t fun, and often when they are, you’re hampered from having fun. The day is an 8-hour slog. Wages are payments in lieu of damage to your soul.

If, however, you’re the unicorn that has a fun job and is given the latitude in the workplace to have that fun, you’ll probably disagree with these estimations. You might even haughtily conclude that yes, people can’t pay attention to things. They’re just dumb, cow-minded nincompoops that should be excised from the surplus population. You’ll go home with a bank account full of green because you were lucky enough not to be born into a pathway toward student loan debt; you’ll sit down for the Patriots game and maybe jerk off later.

I hate to be the bearer of ill tidings, but: you’re in the minority, pal. Things took a turn 30 years ago, and now we aren’t even paid well enough to justify having a daily mockery made of our slowly dwindling lifespans. I hope you’re happy. You and yours fucked things up for the rest of us. But as long as you can afford that house in the hills, who cares? This is a dog-eat-dog world, and that’s a tall ladder to climb. There’s only enough rungs. When you have a heart attack at whatever height you managed to climb to, though, I want you to know that there was never any room at the top waiting for you. Just a sneering welcoming committee of every asshole whose face was ever printed on a note of currency, the token exceptions to the rule sulking in the background of a party they never asked to be invited to – and they’ll kick you in the teeth while you’re smiling all the way back down to the bottom.

 

Hot Take #01: The Once and Future Trainwreck Presidency

This is the first in a possible series of posts in which I sound off on an almost entirely impossible or logically indefensible opinion in completely unvetted and unedited fashion for my own personal amusement. Today’s hot take is a simple comparison that I will shamelessly add to the mound of Russophobia currently trending in the western world. That is, could there be an analogue between late stage USSR politics and our own current straits under Trump and his legion of complicit ideologues? For the purposes of being a dickhead, let’s go ahead and say yes. Yes, there fucking is.

The only thing Trump and Yeltsin do not share is a rampant alcohol problem, but our glorious leader might have a rampant cocaine problem – so let’s just call it square. The fall of the Soviet Union under Yeltsin, the catastrophe of the transition to, and then the subsequent establishment of, a mafia-style capitalistic regime, was due in large part to his unconcern with the operations of government and his cluelessness as to the extent of those operations beyond the campaign to have them radically altered. Much like Trump, he seized upon a popular dissatisfaction, trumpeted some nonsense phrases, and got enough power to plunge a good chunk of the developed world into poverty and chaos. Does the road sound familiar?

There is a worry that has not yet made its way around the liberal thought circles, far left or otherwise, and that is the notion that the existence of our democracy is as changeable and vulnerable as an executive order. People forget that the rule of law was invented, just like the words and languages down through the years that made the fomentation of law possible.  What if that rule of law, through a meeting of officiating dickheads, was dispensed with? What if a collection of authoritative voices judged any amount of our legislative democracy null-and-void? Is that possible?

Probably not, but it’s worth bearing in mind that no piece of legislation or even a hoary old document we’ve thought sacred and secured for hundreds of years is ironclad. All it takes is the right amount of political leverage or some other system of bureaucratic lawyering (read: gubernatorial Constitutional amendment process) to cross the threshold into complete Trumpian hellscape. No one thought the Soviet Union would disappear overnight, but it did. That political leverage is verifiably much harder to secure in the United States, of course, but we’d be fooling ourselves to think that it is somehow set in stone. Which brings me to my next point.

There is the possibility that the end of American democracy may come from a currently unlooked for direction: the West. Neither left or right or even our feudal power brokers on Wall Street. Imagine Mark Zuckerberg as your next President, that’s all I’m saying. Perma Boyman-Fishface esq. Think about it. With the devolution of our government at the federal level, and by extension everyone else due to the funding strings connecting the tippy top of the federal ladder to the lowliest village government, corporations would be right to be poised (and probably are poised) to make an argument that vast incompetency in elected government is interrupting the daily lives of citizens and the function of the nation (read: the market). This would be the terminus of everyone’s fear, the absolute event horizon and ultimate worship of the market, but perhaps more likely than a Constitutional amendment declaring Trump imperator in perpetuum. How likely? Who can say. For myself? I just want to become aware of a timeline that isn’t on a trajectory for an alternate dimension more absurd and shitty than Philip K. Dick could dream up on the highest grade of LSD.

Whatever happens, whichever hell we arrive at, if we arrive there at all and not just wind up in some kind of shitty purgatory where we can’t even hang out with figures from Greek myth, I think we can all agree that everything is just going to suck until a massive political reformation is brought about. And that is the perfect segue into my next hot take: A Blueprint on the Back of this Napkin for How to Make Things Not Suck with a Massive Political Reformation. Tune in next week.

Update 01: What A Lovely Day

So two nervous breaks later, I’m back in the action. Posting has been slow on here the past couple weeks. Creativity and fun in general has been slow the past couple weeks. Work has been an energy parasite and writing while living next door to a non-functioning alcoholic is an interesting process. But I’m happy to say that I’m on the uptake? Maybe? I’m putting words down at least.

I’ve finished the opening to what will become a larger project that I look forward to unveiling, in stages, on the site here. Hopefully that happens later this year. If not, then definitely early on in the next go around the sun. It’s all in the timing. Before I can sink into the meat there, though, I’ve got a novel to finish up. That, I can say, will certainly be completed (in the roughest of rough forms) by the end of the summer. So I’ve got that going for me.

Anyway, I thought I’d give a bit of an update as to why this place has started to collect dust (as I will probably have to keep doing when life or, more likely, writing itself intervenes). In short: there’s big, exciting things on the horizon. But until we get there, keep looking out for my patented brand of ideological bullshit mixed in with some wholesome fiction outlining the Fall of Man in perfect thematic form.