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Video Game Level Progression According to the Bad Guys

Video Game Level Progression According to the Bad Guys

So this is a random, weird thought, but if you’ve been following this blog, you should be accustomed to such by now. I’ve lately been giving a lot of thought to what’s in the head of a video game super villain as they lay out their obstacle course of doom for the hapless hero tasked with navigating wind, rain, and big dudes with powerful fucking weapons to save generic Cool Planet.

Start with the first level. There’s not a whole lot there. To the gamer and the designer, this makes perfect sense because you don’t want to throw your entire weight in the gamer’s direction right in the first level. It’s the training ground, there strictly to give the gamer a feel for the game. Obstacles don’t ask for very much beyond jumping short gaps to wide targets and enemies are all taken out in one shot. But think about this from the villain’s point of view: It probably makes good sense to them, too. It’s the beginning of the game, and the villains aren’t out to conquer more territory because they’ve gotten ahold of everything in sight. Right? Why else would every area a gamer visits be overrun with enemies? Now, if you’re the good guy, you’re probably not privy to announcing your presence with the deck stacked high against you. That makes the good guy some sort of rebel, or secret agent, or some sort of non-threat – if not a nonentity altogether – who is trying to go about the business of killing everyone in sight and slaughtering the bad guy real quiet-like.

From the game’s point of view, that’s why the first level is so easy. No one knows the good guy is there yet. If they’re on the main villain’s radar at all, they’re a blip that can be disposed up easily. Not everyone in the game’s world liked having the enemies take over, so its conceivable that many people in there tried to rise up at some point. Hell, the bad guys may have even taken out whole groups of better-armed good guys. What’s one more person going on a jaunt with a gun? The bad guys stationed on guard at the first level are probably feeling pretty confident because they’ve probably knocked off a few rebels already, and even if they didn’t, they’re trained, armed, possibly have better equipment and vehicular support, and the backing of the entire enemy organization. So if you were the main villain, what would be the point of throwing your entire arsenal at this one person? It’s barely worth making the effort to vocalize the orders.

Well, this new good guy comes in and defies the odds. They leave a bloody and hubrisful trail behind in that first level and have found every safe spot and weakness on the way through it. But… There’s barely any concern. Sometimes people get lucky. The good guys go into the second level, which is more often than not everything they faced in the first level, just expanded. And again, there’s not a whole lot to worry about. They’re a little closer to your evil lair, but your minions are still capable of stopping them. Right?

Apparently not. The good guy blazes through the second level, and word of their little one-person rebellion by this point is starting to get around. You’re not thinking of it as a significant thereat yet, but after cleaning your guards and sentries out of two different places and taking back what you stole from them, it’s starting to turn into a movement. It’s time to take some sort of action, but you’re too busy ruling and keeping the territories you still have to give the good guy any more than a cursory resistance. The third level is the wake-up call, and things start to get a little more serious and challenging. Enemies are better-equipped and can take more punishment before going down. From the grunt point of view, the time for guard duty is over, and it’s now time to begin a real fight against the insolent up-risers. They start counterattacking instead of just defending.

By the next level, word is starting to get out about the unexpected rebel running roughshod over the minions and taking over the outskirts of your stolen land. The ground officers are now seeing it fit to get involved and are running from one strategic location to the next, making sure there are traps and barriers being rigged up strictly for this rebel. The sentries who were around for the first couple of levels are still there, but they’re also scared to death because they all know they’re going to be fodder, so they’re being used more sparingly. And it isn’t helping that whatever mass resistance movement is starting to form behind the good guy is now occupying their retaken territory and capturing whatever’s left of their rank.

Good guy manages to get through that, and now that they’ve gotten this far, you’re starting to realize something: If – and you now know that the “if AND when” of getting rid of them has turned into a legitimate “if OR when” – you manage to successfully kill this rebel, there’s going to be some fallout. No one made it this far before, a large chunk of your forces have been wiped out or captured, and you’re starting to give in-person suggestions to your officers for dealing with them. This is becoming a full-blown war, and that head rebel who you thought was a gnat is going to become a martyr if they get killed. Fortunately, the good thing about depleted territory is that you can condense the remains of your military and launch a real offense at the good guy. And you’re not deluding yourself by now. This one is now a special case and will need to be dealt with through more direct means. (Red Faction for the Playstation 2 illustrates this gradual buildup better than most – it starts with a scuffle between a miner and a guard, and you start to see wanted posters for your character halfway through the game.)

The head rebel is also starting to anticipate the many types of troops, vehicles, strategies, and artillery you’re able to throw at them. It’s starting to give them a sort of mental edge against your own loyal people, so it’s time to start bringing out the stuff you didn’t expect to have to use. Omega Attack Formation using the flying gunships? Isn’t that overkill? The more they run around, the less it looks like it.

But by now they’re past the halfway point and have retaken over half what you took when you moved in. The people are rallying to the cause, the retaken territory is mopped up, and it’s starting to look like your victory – should it happen – will be a pyhrric victory at best. At this point, it’s time to break out the heavy-duty units. Special forces are in, and you’re probably hiring private mercenaries and bounty hunters too just in case. Something is going to have to work, and it has to be soon; most of your lower-end officers are now captured or killed. A couple of your high-end officers are groveling before you, begging for a second chance, and even though these are guys who have come through for you in tough situations in the past, you’re still reluctant to give them another chance because you’re not sure they can pull it off. You reluctantly give those guys their last chance, and give them your strongest equipment and troops to get the job done, but you’re now scared to death because they just failed again.

Face it, Dear Leader: You’ve lost. You now have your hired mercenaries and strongest minions holding on to your base, and any hope you now have of beating the good guys is strictly in the interest of your escape. What’s to do? Retreat, get out, build a new army, and try again. But just when the last vehicle out is ready to take you away, the good guy bursts in. If you were smarter, you would offer them your recently-vacated spot as your right hand, but it’s not like you have anything left to rule. So out you go to answer for your crimes against humanity.

And THAT is why video game levels progress in difficulty the way they do. Make sense?

Game Over

Game Over

My latest video game purchase was sometime in the middle of last year. It included the rare Suikoden III for the Playstation 2, one of the most acclaimed video games that came out during the PS2’s console generation. Everyone who ever played Suikoden III loved it, with the exception of a particular staffer at Netjak who believed the customization system overhaul was hellspawn. So I took it home and threw it into the pile with Fable II, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and all those other RPG’s I was hacking through with every intention of beating in my spare time. I bought the game just before my graduation, which meant I wasn’t swimming with the extra time an experienced gamer needs to commit to a 50-hour-long RPG. Someday, though… One of these days, I’m going to find that time and play through it. One of these days, I’m also going to buy that Xbox 360 so I can finish Fable II and Knights, both of which I abandoned just when school started.

Wait now, was that the Xbox 360 or the Xbox One? I always get the two of them confused. I’m also a little unclear on anything that’s going on with the Playstation 4 and the Wii U. Are they even still things? I’ll get to them one day between my bicycle excursions, writing, work, and the school I’m trying to get into. I can’t do everything at once and, aw, fuck it, who am I kidding? I’m a video game nut and an aficionado. I always will be. But in the last year, I’ve turned into a world-class liar in trying to call myself a gamer. Tabletop games have made a surprise – and quite welcome – comeback in my personal life, but I haven’t picked up a video game controller in over a year. It seems hard to believe now, but here I am, barely even thinking about the hobby that spent decades defining my life. All that time dished out exploring every aspect of video games and then going to Netjak to write about those games is in the past. And for those minus-three people who read this blog and were familiar with Netjak, you now know why Netjak hasn’t existed in the last seven years. The staff – mostly in their late-teens and 20’s – grew up and wasn’t able to keep up.

Video games were always a fluid medium. They grew up, evolved, and changed from an outcast hobby for delinquents into an art form acknowledged by academics all over the world. They also embraced better technology to turn from minute-long coin munchers into interactive epics which let the people engaged with them to go at their own pace, exploring the virtual world or uncovering the story as they see fit. Unfortunately, that draws out the length of games to the extent that only outcasts are the ones with the time of day to make a deep run on today’s machines. And time is just the first problem. There’s also the weird business of having video games hooked up to your account; searching everything and trying to blow up every wall for the 100 percent completion rate; online hookups so I can get my ass kicked by someone in East Outer Jahunga; downloadable content; open-world games where travel takes up 50 minutes of an hourlong mission; and padding through eight-piece fetch quests. That’s to say nothing of the aspects of gaming that I was happy to do in games of my own generation: Level grinding; games that shame players for playing on lower difficulty levels; reading box after box of inane text; tutorials; solving surprise puzzles in games that aren’t supposed to have puzzles; and searching for the lost missing items that will let me continue through the final three levels.

I’ve run out of both time and patience to do any of it. If I don’t like a video game right away, I no longer even have the willpower to fight my way through the first four levels in three game hours to see if it gets better. Life is too short and there are good bicycle trails I haven’t explored yet. I no longer care about having ultimate domination over a video game that spent five months kicking my ass in the second level. Simply getting through the game once is accomplishment enough, because with 206 bones in the human body and me needing to know every single one, I don’t want to expend the mental energy trying to memorize layouts and patterns. There’s too much effort in trying to keep track of everything.

Yes, this is me, everyone’s favorite amateur video game historian. This is still me, saying I’ve lost touch with video games because I’ve replaced them with different hobbies and interests. And it’s also me saying that I realized awhile ago that, as an adult, I’m allowed to play video games to two or three in the morning and have, the vast majority of the time, just didn’t. Okay, well, I did have a few Star Wars Battlefront marathons in Buffalo that ran until the early morning after a bad day, but even then I put the games away when too much fatigue set in. I’m not reading about them very often, I’m barely writing about them at all, and when I do keep up with video games, it’s to visit the local used game store to see if there are any rare novelty games that could make a leap in value or to find out what kinds of deals exist. There’s no point to trying to buy the latest game right when it arrives in the store anymore. New games are expensive, and there’s a planet of good games available for under five bucks, so why kill myself over a near-day of wages when I can wait a year for all the new purchasers to get bored?

Portable games have the attraction for me these days, but I don’t yet have my DS and Game Boy Advance so I can play when I go out and am forced to wait for something. But even that attraction is limited, because the evolution of video games has managed to push them to the point where they’re getting to be more than games. There are games now where you pay real, physical money straight out of your bank account to developers who reward you by giving your in-game avatar a new T-shirt. I don’t want to sound like I yelling at the kids to get off my lawn, because if gaming is something they’re into, that’s okay. But the new wave of video games being sold as 100-hour interactive experiences stopped my gaming dead in its tracks. It’s a little ironic for anyone who liked the games that I did growing up: We’ve come to the point where unlimited role-playing is normal and stories run for months. When I was a kid, I dreamed about what video games could be when the technology got to the point where it was that good. But as I get older, the only games I can enjoy with any depth are the simpler games I first played when console gaming was introduced to my generation. It’s not that I wouldn’t be enthralled by the experience; it’s that I don’t have enough time in a session to make a serious dent in one sitting. Everything I did would be hacking through in snippets that were an hour long at best.

The new technology is overwhelming me. Video game irritants used to be limited to what happened in the game’s world. Now they’re showing up in the very act of trying to play the games. We have pay-to-play, wherein developers are basically forcing the gamers to pay by the level. Games are coming with bank account hookups and subscriptions to new content. I don’t care about multiplayer games if I can’t watch the stupid look on the other player’s face when I crush him after performing the super move that caps an incredible comeback; I also don’t like the wave of online bullying the internet’s anonymity included for free. I don’t care about setting up some sort of avatar for the console’s weird little hub.

It’s a little odd to think that one day, people will be wishing tomorrow’s games will be more like today’s games. When I play video games, that’s what I want them to be – games. Nothing fancy. Perhaps this explains why I went to the retro extreme and have embraced the tabletop again.

Tabletop Games vs. Electronic Games: The Ultimate Games!

Tabletop Games vs. Electronic Games: The Ultimate Games!

Games are one of life’s simple pleasures. We all love the big outside escapes – travel, movies, museums, arts and culture events, things like that. But those things tend to cost money and take time, and so games provide everyday escapes from the skullduggery of work, chores, and daily news. Games are fun to play, they take your mind off the rest of the world for a few hours, they can bring people together, and you can use them to learn about basic principles of sportsmanship.

The kinds of games available can be drawn into two different categories: Tabletop games and electronic games. Tabletop games are basically games that can be placed on a tabletop so everyone playing can have equal access to the equipment. They are probably better known as board games, but calling them board games tends to leave out various card and dice games. Electronic games are games that are hooked up to a television or computer. Many of them can be played online.

As many people know, I grew up pretty well-versed in the ways of both, but had a clear preference for electronic games. I spent seven years as a critic of electronic games, but tabletop games were recently reintroduced into my life and I started thinking about which type of game is better. So let’s do this! Tabletop games vs. electronic games. One day, I’ll learn.

Gameplay
Remember that I said games can be used to teach the basic principles of sportsmanship? Yeah, if you play a lot of tabletop games, that’s something you’re going to be learning plenty about. Tabletop games require you to have a good sense of humor about defeat, because even a lot of games where you get a significant amount of control over the game’s universe require good, hard luck. It doesn’t matter how much you understand about the laws of probability – if you’re playing a card- or dice-heavy game, you’re going to fall victim to some weird masterstrokes of fortune. The more complex the game, the more odd luck can get. Games like Dungeons and Dragons add an extra dimension with the sheer details they throw in – Dungeons and Dragons itself is famous partially for the number of 12-to-20-sided dice it includes in a package. While little novelties like that are intended to tip the odds, you’re still not allowed to find your favorite number and plop the die down with it facing up, and that can result in things like a dwarf with two hit points charging through a small army of ogres. (That was something that happened to me once playing Dungeons and Dragons.) Electronic games can also require a certain amount of luck. Back when video games were first starting out, one hallmark was the fact that developers were constantly throwing in little glitches and obstacles made to ensure the game always had the advantage. That meant gamers had to deal with traps in scrolling games meant to throw off any sense of rhythm, which could place a gamer in a precarious situation. Other games were loaded with dead ends and unfair traps which the people playing had no way of knowing about in advance, and to make those matters worse, some sadistic developers would randomize those things, which meant a gamer would put a lot of hard work into getting into the game only to get locked in some inescapable room on a deep run. Electronic games also utilized keyboards and controllers instead of dice.
Winner
Electronic games. Although unfair little gameplay quirks will always be a trademark of electronic games, they’re not showing up nearly as often now, while tabletop games are always depending on the luck of the draw or the roll. Besides, having direct control over a video game character through a controller can mean that someone truly skilled will always have a chance. That’s not the case on tabletop games. Yes, there are degrees of skill required to play tabletop games well, but unless you’re sticking to one of the old school staples like checkers, chess, othello, or go – which don’t depend on luck – you’re always going to be reliant on elements of gameplay that are out of your control.

Social Bonding
Despite their competitive nature, a good game can help cement a bond with people you know and create one with people you don’t. This can be especially apparent with tabletop games, because any tabletop game worth its salt requires that you have other people around to play against. (Unless you like to play solitaire.) Unfortunately, that can also be a great weakness for the shy and introverted: In order to really enjoy a good tabletop game, you have to be able to coax others into wanting to visit you to play. Electronic games can also be a source of fun for friendships; even after the game is turned off, a great game can have friends talking strategy and tactics for hours afterward. And while their solitary nature allows them to be enjoyable for a single person, our increasingly online world actually opens up the outside for those willing to take the time to learn online gaming, because it allows people to connect with others anywhere in the world. It’s not unusual these days for real-life couples to say they first met in the online world during a game of Everquest.
Winner
Tabletop games. Yes, it’s possible to meet people online, but there’s the reverse of that as well: Online gaming has become a source of bullying and sometimes crime. There are a thousand different stories of friends and couples who met online, but the faceless nature of electronic gaming has given rise to forms of blatant sexism, racism, and other bad -isms which have discouraged potential gamers who were dabbling in a new hobby. The Gamergate movement exists because of people who believe electronic games are the exclusive domain of a very particular type of person (think a Y chromosome and a low melanin level); they’ve taken to attacking, insulting, and threatening anyone different from them – roughly half the population – for the crime of having an opinion. You never heard of behavior like this developing from tabletop gamers.

Storytelling
It’s hard to find a good story in a tabletop game, but not impossible. Hell, when I was a kid, I loved a role-playing game called Hero Quest, which became a sort of gateway to Dungeons and Dragons later on. Hero Quest had defined good guys and bad guys who were thrown into various scenarios for reasons told in the fashion of a linear story by a game master who knew the ins and outs of the scene. The game master always had the most access to the story, and would slowly reveal it over the coarse of the game. Electronic games operate on much the same principle, except there aren’t any players there to reveal the narrative – it’s done by the game as you advance. In both formats, the players make choices which are supposed to affect the story, but electronic games were a bit slow to catch on to that aspect of it; the earliest electronic role-playing games were set strictly on rails. You simply walked through the game as any other and tried not to die. Tabletop role-playing games offered a bit more flexibility because it would be possible to find the right piece of information through communication with the game master. Electronic games didn’t have that – you got the information the game felt like giving you, which would only loop itself if you tried to press the issue. If you didn’t have a strategy guide, you were shit out of luck. Of course, not every tabletop game had a story. A lot of the classics just brought people together to play. Electronic games might seem to have an advantage here then, but they didn’t have a lot of story either. Games like Pong, Frogger, and Pac-Man never even bothered. What little bits they had as stories were nothing more than objectives.
Winner
I’m going with tabletop games on this one. Yes, electronic games are evolving and very much improved on the way they tell their stories and interact – Fable II has become a favorite of mine. But you’re still at the mercy of a game which isn’t going to tell you any more than it’s programmed to know. Tabletop games can be easier in reveals and puzzles if you’re able to figure out the right way to communicate. Also, I should note tabletop games don’t make use of arbitrary and unobtrusive bits of debris to prevent you from reaching your goal, either. That’s one of the great banes of being an electronic gamer for a few reasons, not the least of which is because it’s so fucking stupid. But the bottom line here is that your personal decisions have a greater impact in the world of a good tabletop game while even many of the best electronic games stop updating the current events halfway through.

Playing Equipment
A complex tabletop game can turn into an OCD sufferer’s worst nightmare. Boards, cards, dice, and figures are often parts of the most basic game setup. That’s no frills here – I’m not even considering the many pieces of equipment that can get thrown into games with 3D settings. Lots of the little accessories needed to play a good tabletop game are small and easily losable. And every time you want to go out and buy a new game, you get a whole new set of more losable equipment meant to go with that game and no other! So you would think the victory for electronic games here would be automatic. And 20 or even 10 years ago, it might have been – you get one CD or cartridge which contained literally everything on it. No need to worry about losing a piece or 13. But with the technology advancing, it started getting a bit more complex than that. If you play your electronic games on computers, you have to make sure the specs are just right, then go through the pain-in-the-ass process of downloading it. That’s called “installing” the game. Taking the time to learn the various keyboard and controller functions can also be a bit of a chore, and the games themselves try to rob you of the fun of learning yourself because they’re increasingly involving mandatory tutorials which can’t be skipped. If you want to play on the internet, you have to buy an expensive piece of equipment that enables it.
Winner
Electronic games. For all the bullshit you have to go through of buying all the equipment and installing the game, most of it is a one-time purchase. And you don’t have to worry about all your little knickknacks being inside the box once you decide you’re finished playing. It’s just a little on/off switch. Yes, electronic games cost more, but it’s worth the price to make sure you don’t lose anything because some poor loser swept the entire board off the table.

Replayability
So you finished a game and thought it was good. That doesn’t necessarily incentivize an immediate second play through. There have to be enough different ways to go about playing through a good game to warrant replays. And tabletop games shine at this: You can always find new people to play with who see things differently and force you to innovate and invent new ways of playing. Luck can always swing from one player to the next, and how the player on the hot streak plays can turns everything in a whole new direction. Video games also offer incentives to replay them: Some have secrets to find, some have different levels to challenge you, and some have variations in the gameplay. Of course, the differences in tabletop game replayability depends on who you have playing, and electronic games have it based on the gameplay itself – some games offer direct decisions on exactly what you can do.
Winner
Tabletop games. Electronic games can only have so much replayability. Games where your actions really affect the surrounding world are a very recent development, and even many of those get a lot of flack for not changing enough. And before them, electronic games were basically rote memorization of patterns. The early attempts at being nonlinear were noble, but all they offered was the same scenery in a different order.

There will always be a place for electronic games, but tabletop games are throwing them off the hotel balcony.

Letter to 12-Year-Old Me

Letter to 12-Year-Old Me

I’m sure a lot of us, when we were kids, had to do those cutesy little school assignments where we wrote letters to our future selves. After reading reading the popular blog Hyperbole and a Half, I decided to take a page from writer Allie Brosh’s book and offer a response to my young self who wrote a letter to my older self. However, I can never remember exactly when I wrote those letters and at what age, so I’m going to simplify this whole thing by writing a single response to myself at one of the most defining – and worst – ages of my life. My 12-year-old self is probably where I started to fall into a rocky road mentally because it was where the mental obstacles I faced probably hit their apex and where I could have used some real advice and guidance by someone who understood what was happening, and the fact that I was extremely impressionable and clueless.

Dear 12-year-old me,

You need to quit worrying about how to suddenly make yourself cool to your classmates. They’re assholes. Every last one. And at least half of your teachers aren’t any better. Hell, last year the teachers at Follow Through let one of your classmates get away with blatant physical assault. I know that part is finally over, but let’s look at the roster of people you are forced to interact with every day in school: There was the one kid, Tim, who was actually one of your good friends until sixth grade, when he decided he enjoyed making fun of you with a group he fell into and left you out of. There are those two who you think were decent friends once upon a time, but they sort of led you down the path. It’s not good-natured ribbing when they make fun of you – it’s them trying to make you jump through hoops for their own amusement.

Your best bet is to transfer to a different school. I know that’s a scary prospect, but you’re going to be doing that in a couple of years no matter what happens anyway, so why not? I know you’re worried about your social life, but that’s not exactly storming the beaches these days. So get the hell out. Make a fresh start. Considering what you’re going through, the evil you don’t know is a far better option than the evil you know. The deck is stacked against you there, and like I said, even the teachers don’t give a shit.

Speaking of terrible teachers, I can’t stress this enough: Quit listening to Pastor B in confirmation class. Nice man, well enough; but all he’s doing is selling you a bevy of half-truths and outright lies in an effort to scare you and warp you into his own way of thinking. Don’t worry about the prospect of more parent/minister chats. Fuck how much they annoy your parents. You don’t owe either of them jack shit for making you go through this. If anything, you should be doing MORE to piss off Pastor B and force more private conferences. The man is a walking boob who is selling snake oil, and what’s more, Mom and Dad both KNOW he’s a walking boob who’s selling snake oil. To this day I still haven’t the slightest idea of why they believed shoving me through confirmation class was so important. It was a waste of their time, an inexcusable waste of my time, and you ended up coming out all the worse because of it. In fact, a better thing to do is just refuse to keep going to confirmation class until they give you a satisfactory answer to the question of why you are being forced through it. “It’s traditional,” “It’s what young men do,” and “because I said so” don’t fucking count. Your parents were great, but sending me to confirmation class was a stupid thing to do back then, and considering what you’ve gone through since, in hindsight it’s a galactic fuckup. And they both know it.

Confirmation class will only have bad effects that will hurt your social development. It’s going to fill you with a sense of guilt and self-unworthiness which you’re STILL trying to get over; it’s going to make you feel a sense of shame whenever you realize you have romantic and sexual feelings toward a woman, which will take you years to expunge; it’s going to turn you into a homophobe, which will also take years to get over. It will act as a suppressor to your inquisitive personality and you’ll start trying to swallow your questions and ideas. You’re going to notice the rift between religion and basic science and let it tear you apart. You WILL eventually meet a new minister who is going to act as your guide through the tricky aspects of religion and take your questions seriously without offering the usual platitudes about reading more Bible or Just Believing, but that won’t be for another 12 years. Right now, you can spare yourself a lot of self-resentment by embracing your doubts and questions. Challenge Pastor B, stand up and demand answers to his propaganda statements, and don’t be afraid to walk out of class when the situation calls for it. Again, your parents royally fucked up by sending you there, and it’s vitally important that you drive that point home right now rather than in another 20 years.

Now let’s concentrate on something your folks did get right: Man, you need to find something to do besides school and confirmation class that gets you out the door. Yes, I know video games and books are your escapes right now, but you need human contact. You also need something challenging to try so you’ll be more willing to develop the talents you have. You recently taught yourself to play the piano. By everyone’s accounts, you weren’t too bad at it, either. Maybe you could keep going along that route and become the master of an instrument it’s widely believed to take ten fingers to master. Django Reinhardt messed his fret hand up in an accident and still became arguably the greatest guitarist who ever lived. Rick Allen played drums after his goddamned ARM was ripped off in a car accident!

No, your hand is not an excuse. There are several things which may cause you trouble, but you won’t know what you can and can’t do until you actually try them. You’re creative, so act like it. If something requires fingers that you don’t have, find a way to improvise.

Lastly, don’t let yourself fall into a self-destructive mental state. I’ve been there; it’s not fun. You’re awesome. You aren’t some freak show – you deserve dignity, respect, and the right to a life. You deserve to be around people who like you for who you are and don’t care about some arbitrary birth defect which you can’t change. You’re going to realize all this someday; but that someday can come a lot sooner and make your life a bit easier if you start taking the advice I just gave you above.

Sincerely,
Yours Truly at 34

Guitar Hero

Guitar Hero

My fingers are short and stubby. They don’t seem quite right for a first time learner holding a classical-variety acoustic guitar. The classical acoustic guitar, as per its name, produces a very beautiful sound, but it doesn’t leave a ton of room for error. In order to eliminate unwanted twang and feedback, I have to press the strings and hold them completely against the fretboard, and classic acoustic guitars make that very difficult. The fretboard on a classical acoustic is flat instead of arched; the strings are wider apart than on most other guitars; the depth is greater than most other guitars (that means the distance between the strings and fretboard). My kingdom for a nice telecaster. I can perform a halfway decent version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” though, so at least my guitar can play the kind of music it got named after.

I’ve officially gone from being obsessed with playing video games to being obsessed with playing music. When I started to sit down and really learn to play guitar, I did it in part to improve my concentration and ability to linearize more analytical subject matter. You would think video games would be great for that, and to a point, they are. Playing video games isn’t like reading music, though. A video game level usually offers a number of subtle options which allow the gamer to adjust and strategize, tackling the level in a handful of different ways which all serve different purposes. There’s a way to run through a level which will be easiest for the gamer, and a way to do it which might be a lot tougher, but looks really cool to onlookers. Music notes, in contrast, are pretty linear. Certain aspects of a song can differ, but there’s generally one way to play it.

At a cursory glance, you would think 30 years of experience playing one would be a halfway decent start to trying to learn the other, but most video games require the use of maybe four or five different fingers at once, tops. If I decide to apply my experience as a writer to learning an instrument, well, the problem with that is that I use even less fingers on my computer keyboard than I do on my video game controllers. I know how to type properly, but I find it easier and far less painful – especially on my right hand – to just peck out everything on my two acting forefingers. A musical instrument will pretty much require nothing short of two extra fingers, and that’s just on my good hand. Herein lies the problem: My little stubs of fingers don’t like this weird new dance I’m busily forcing them to perform.

I can’t decide whether learning music is about analysis or good old-fashioned instinct, or even whether I’m ramping up the difficulty even further by wondering a question like that. It would seem like the kind of thing you have to be able to turn your brain on and off for. You know the drill – pick up the instrument, flick the off switch, and let your fingers ride like the wind into the sunset while everyone in the immediate vicinity starts comparing you to Jimi Hendrix. Of course, the problem with that is that you’re not actually learning very much by doing that, and you’d probably be booed out of some two-bit nightclub without 10000 practice hours and a very exacting idea of what to do. When I try to be analytical about reading music, I only end up playing like an honorary member of the Keystone Cops Accidental Musical Comedy Tribute Band: See note, dig through my mental archives in a desperate attempt to remember just which note on which string between which two frets I’m supposed to be plucking, pluck note, repeat process until I’ve been trying to play a minute-and-a-half-long song for about eleven minutes. And that’s provided it’s one of the easier songs I practice on. On a particularly difficult measure, I alternate glances between the page, my fingers, and the fretboard, trying to figure out exactly how to decode the weird alien language written down there until I inevitably sink into a default how-to-do-it mode of playing every note I know until I guess the one which sounds right.

Then, of course, instead of practicing until I know exactly what the hell I’m supposed to be doing, I go sit down at my computer and punch out a thousand words about just how much I suck at playing guitar. It’s my natural instinct, being a writer and all, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Like learning how to do anything else well, starting out as an amateur guitar player gave me a real respect for what the people who are already good at playing guitar can do. One of the first images that comes to mind is the music video for the classic AC/DC song “Thunderstruck,” which opens with a nice close-up of Angus Young’s fretboard as he plays the lightning-fast riffs. It gives me a sense of envy, watching Young as his fret hand glides all over, fingers moving nimbly with the grace and knowing order and purpose of spider legs. How the hell does he do that? One day, I hope to be that good. I also like to imagine there are great guitar players out there, somewhere, who once saw a smooth video gamer playing his best game and thought the same thing to themselves. The difference is that I’m not yet able to name any video gamer who managed to parlay his video game talents into worldwide fame and well-known status as a millionaire boozehound and sex god.

The March Madness Video Game Tournament Finals Round

The March Madness Video Game Tournament Finals Round

Final Four

Master Chief vs. Dante
The thing about Dante’s matches is that he really hasn’t been, ahem, challenged just yet. Now he’s facing off with a first seed who wears a suit of armor specifically designed to repel a lot of his attacks, and the person wearing it is a genetically enhanced, super-trained soldier capable of absorbing his melee attacks. Dante’s Devil Trigger is a limited mode, and it’s not going to be strong enough to knock off Master Chief in a single round. Given this, it’s easy to imagine Dante taunting Master Chief in the early goings of the fight, but Dante’s best attacks are his melee attacks, and he’s going to drop his act pretty quickly after approaching Master Chief only to get socked in the face. Master Chief’s armor is going to repel a good number of Dante’s more dangerous ranged attacks, which sucks for Dante because with melee combat being a last resort and Master Chief being a range fighter, that’s how Chief is going to make Dante beat him – at range. Although Dante is very capable of fighting at range, it’s melee combat which is his greatest strength, and so what Dante is stuck with is a choice between frying pan and fire: Use his now-unreliable ranged attacks or try to rush up to fight melee with Master Chief shooting bullets and energy weapons in his face. The Son of Sparda is going to be forced to fight off the mistakes of a guy who’s trained to never, ever make mistakes, and he’s going down.
Winner: Master Chief

Samus Aran vs. Vectorman
A battle of attrition is going to commence between Samus and Vectorman, and it’s going to be an ugly match. Vectorman can turn into a bomb, and Samus can morph into a ball which plants bombs along the ground. Both know the importance of multidirectional aim. Hell, they even both use basic weaponry stored in their arms! Although Samus is armed with the mighty Screw Attack, it’s going to be tough to be able to get into a fully safe area where she can activate it. Samus is eventually going to take a final gamble using her Speed Booster, which allows her to move at supersonic speeds which are lethal to her enemies. She’ll get an opening in Vectorman’s line of fire, charge up as fast as she can, and launch at Vectorman in Shinespark mode, which throws Vectorman off his bearings. After that, Samus launches every ranged weapon she has at Vectorman while he’s down.
Winner: Samus

Championship Match

Master Chief vs. Samus Aran
Two stars of first-person shooting games wearing protective biological suits. Sadly, this isn’t going to end up being the legendary final matchup we hoped for – after all, Samus has a lot more in her arsenal, and items other than guns which allow her more functionality beyond just protection while killing everything in sight. She can move around and do more to avoid Master Chief’s attacks. The big difference-maker, though, is going to be Samus’s Ice Beam. Although Master Chief’s armor provides protection against the elements, its makers probably never viewed a beam capable of freezing up the armor from the inside as a real threat. It would be almost too easy, actually, and after Master Chief is frozen, it’s time to unleash the rocket launcher, or perhaps the Screw Attack or Shinespark, since there’s no real guarantee using the rocket launcher against Master Chief, who’s probably equipped to survive a close-by explosion.
March Madness Video Game Character Tournament Champion: Samus Aran

And The First Lady of Video Games takes the top prize. Was there ever any doubt?

The Microsoft Bracket Face-Off

The Microsoft Bracket Face-Off

Round One

Commander Shepard vs. Ryu Hayabusa
Both combatants in this match are extremely well-armed. Shepard has a ton of new-age weaponry, as well as a nice selection of biological abilities. Ryu uses a lot of standard ninja weapons, but if we’ve learned one thing from Shinobi, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and all those other staples of ninja pop culture, we know ninja-tech can take high-tech to the bank very easily. Shepard, however, can take damage surprisingly rapidly, and is also slower on the draw. By the time Shepard realizes what’s going on and pulls a gun, Ryu already killed Shepard at least twice.
Winner: Ryu

Desmond Miles vs. Rayman
Desmond is like Solid Snake over in The Sony Bracket: Has a lot of primary abilities based on evading enemies rather than engaging them, unless of course they happen to be victims. This could play to his advantage, but it sort of gets cancelled out by his little pickings in ranged weapons. That’s not going to do a whole lot of good against an opponent whose own fists themselves can act as ranged weapons.
Winner: Rayman

The Prince vs. Pitfall Harry
Yes, Pitfall Harry has a slingshot and a pet jaguar, but he just can’t do a whole lot with them. The Prince uses melee weapons as his primary arms, which would ordinarily turn this into a David vs. Goliath fight, but The Prince is also an acrobat who can get the most out of heightened areas in the room, even if those heightened areas are nothing more than plain old walls. This is a closer match than anticipated, but it’s still going The Prince’s way.
Winner: Prince

Sam Stone vs. Nightmare
An FPS character vs. a fighter character. Yes, Nightmare’s fighting styles are described as “The Memories that Stain His Armor,” and “What the Sword Desires,” and yes, it’s safe to assume the sword desires victory. But desire isn’t quite as powerful a weapon as a good, trusty shotgun. I told you fighter characters weren’t going to fare very well in this tournament.
Winner: Sam

Round Two

Master Chief vs. Sam Stone
What happens when an FPS character fights another FPS character? In this case, you would figure Sam would have the advantage over a guy who can only carry two weapons at once. In this case, though, Sam isn’t cybernetically enhanced with more strength and unbreakable bones or equipped with a suit that repels a lot of weaponry and recharges itself. Without that nice advantage, Sam is a walking duck in a shooting gallery.
Winner: Chief

Marcus Fenix vs. The Prince
Now The Prince is in deep shit. Yes, he’s equipped with a complete armory, same as Marcus is. Unfortunately, Prince’s armory is literally medieval when compared to Marcus’s futuristic armory. His only hope is to keep dropping onto Marcus from above to hit hit, then running away and repeating. Marcus is going to figure that out, though, and Prince will be a sitting duck on the ground.
Winner: Marcus

Rayman vs. Ryu Hayabusa
The most interesting match of The Microsoft Bracket. Both have a lot of power when compared to the other, both can use ranged supernatural powers of sorts. Ryu has power developed beyond human nature while Rayman isn’t actually a human. Ryu does have an edge, though, with his ninja sense. It gives him a knack for knowing just when he’s about to get socked with something, and he undoubtedly has the developed reflexes necessary to jump out of the way and toss a knife at Rayman in return. For awhile, Rayman will no doubt be able to hold his own, but eventually he’s going to get worn down against a ninja who knows exactly what’s going to be thrown at him and when it’s getting thrown.
Winner: Ryu

Round Three

Master Chief vs. Marcus Fenix
Hey, a pair of top seeds get to fight against each other! There’s a problem, though: Master Chief beat Serious Sam in the last round, and Sam was an FPS character, which means he wouldn’t have held any particular advantages of Marcus Fenix. Maybe if he had a few genetic enhancements, like Chief does, it would make for a different and more interesting outcome, or at least if Marcus had anything different from the Generic Grizzled Space Marine from Doom who kick started the whole first-person shooting game craze. But he doesn’t, so this match ends the same as Master Chief’s last match.
Winner: Chief

Microsoft Bracket Championship

Master Chief vs. Ryu Hayabusa
Ryu looks like a formidable opponent for Master Chief, but there’s a reason The Covenant uses ranged weapons instead of blades against the SPARTAN Army that lands on planet Halo. Ryu’s primary weapons aren’t going to affect Master Chief very much, if at all. Engaging his Ninpo, Ryu starts throwing the elements out against Master Chief, but the elements are exactly why Master Chief wears the suit of armor he does – so he doesn’t have to worry very much about freezing to death. Even if Ryu resorts to time stoppage, we’ve already established the fact that there’s nothing he can do with a blade to hurt Master Chief. His only hope is to try to get Master Chief sucked into a vacuum, but the suit is probably a great defense against that, too. And when Ryu looks around, realizing he’s out of options, Master Chief is going to take aim with his most powerful weapon.
Microsoft Bracket Champion: Master Chief