So I'm driving to the mall to buy a game the other day, and it strikes me just how often that happens. Which is to say: never. I'm more of a shop-at-home type. It's quick, easy, requires absolutely zero conversation and best of all I can do it in my underpants, making the transition from shopping to viewing pr0n that much easier.
The only drawback is shipping. When the urge to play a new game strikes, 2-5 days seems like far too long to wait, causing ordinarily rational minds to commit impulsive acts of insanity. Such as putting on pants, getting in the car and going to The Game Dungeon.
If the name Game Dungeon itself isn't reason enough to avoid the place, consider then that they almost always sport a criminal shortage of playable titles, exorbitant prices and a vaguely offensive odor reminiscent of used handkerchiefs. Still, for the sake of acquiring the game that I want the very hour that the desire for it enters my heart, I would gladly suffer all of these insults and more. Nay, it is the creatures that inhabit the Dungeon that possess the power to dissuade me from entering.
Foremost among the Game Dungeon's menagerie of horrors are The Assistant Managers. They are the keepers of The Keys of Power. Once they were Kings of Gamers. Then the dark power of The Keys turned them into shriveled, cynical shadows of their former selves. Once they giggled with glee at the mere thought of playing games. Now their laughter is a deafening shriek, tormenting any poor soul foolish enough to pay with a check.
The Dungeon is also home to the Teenaged Sugar Sycophants. These lesser daemons make their nest in a pile of candy wrappers and book bags near the demonstration machines. Their vile breath weapons and clinging flakes of dandruff force a reflex save vs. gagging for anyone within a 10' radius. Harmless in small numbers, they rarely travel in herds of fewer than twelve.
A little more than a year ago I ventured into this forbidden den only to be mercilessly humiliated and driven out in shame. Afterwards, I was so terrorized, that I spent 2-5 days cowering in fear, huddled under a pile of blankets and cardboard boxes, refusing to open the door for anyone not driving a big, brown truck. Therefore, upon my return, the feeling of impending doom is almost overwhelming, yet it is not nearly as distracting as the actual games themselves.
I spend a full half-hour marveling at the smooth, shiny plastic boxes and the vibrant colors of the displays before I regain the power to think critically (d20 + Will modifier), and realize that I have no idea which game to buy.
In true retail store fashion, Game Dungeon doesn't have any of the games I'm looking for, and the titles they do have are unknown to me. As I'm studying the screen shots and ad copy, attempting to decipher the true entertainment quotient of each game, I notice the little ratings codes and associated content descriptors on the back of each box.
Having never observed these markings before, I mistake them for helpful shopping guides. I begin making a pile of games marked Nudity and Sexual Content, then decide to branch out and start hoarding Comic Mischief, and Fantasy Violence titles. Before long I've practically emptied the shelves, and am no closer to making a decision. I am sure that there must be some secret to these descriptors, some combination of codes which describes The Perfect Game, but I am unable to find it.
I cast about the Dungeon, searching for enlightenment and to my complete surprise encounter a friendly NPC. He calls himself "Todd." He is a part-time employee, and his textures are very well drawn.
Seeing my pile of games, Todd points out the descriptors Nudity and Sexual Content, assuring me that they mean exactly what I assume. I am thankful, but he cautions me that the rest of the system is not so straightforward.
A prime example, says Todd, is the descriptor Animated Blood, which does not refer to blood that moves about of its own volition, like the puddle of green fluid oozing out of the nearest Sugar Sycophant's book bag. Instead it refers to the appearance in-game of rendered human blood intended to look "fake." The actual ESRB definition contains the word unrealistic, in order to differentiate it from Blood (definition: Depictions of blood).
Todd then informs me that my favorite descriptor, Comic Mischief, is a warning to would-be shoppers of (and here I quote) : Depictions or dialogue involving slapstick or suggestive humor. I wonder at the intelligence of anyone who would decide that slapstick should warrant a warning.
Similarly troubling is the ESRB definition of Fantasy Violence, which Todd reveals is: Violent actions of a fantasy nature, involving human or non-human characters in situations easily distinguishable from real life. The phrase situations easily distinguishable from real life strikes me as an anachronism. It's my belief that essentially everything that appears on my television is easily distinguishable from real life, but that would seem to make the descriptors Violence (scenes involving aggressive conflict) and Intense Violence ( graphic and realistic-looking depictions of physical conflict. May involve extreme and/or realistic blood, gore, weapons, and depictions of human injury and death) redundant.
I ask Todd who makes up this crap, and he informs me that the ratings are assigned by people called "specially trained raters." He is unable, however, to enlighten me as to what kind of "special training" these raters receive. It could be anything from a ten-week survival course in the Maine woods to a thirty-minute, clothing optional video presentation. In other words, the ratings are essentially meaningless. Todd claims that they are merely an attempt by the game industry to pigeonhole 8-80 hours of entertainment into easy-to-understand, family friendly categories tied closely to lowest common denominator cultural references. For what purpose he cannot speculate
I thank Todd, collect a thousand experience points, and decide to purchase the game with the most interesting cover art. It is then that my ears begin to bleed.
The Assistant Manager has noticed that Todd is no longer arming the Dungeon's display traps. His ear-shattering screech slices the air around us, bringing Todd and I to our knees. The Sugar Sycophants chatter gleefully at each other and jump up in down in their excitement. I feel as if my pants have become wet.
In a voice that cannot be disobeyed, The Assistant Manager summons Todd for "a word." He removes The Keys from his belt, unlocks the door to The Back Room and ushers Todd into its forbidden depths. As the door closes with a resounding boom, my senses return. I grab my selection, dodge the burbling Sycophants and hurry to the check-out counter, hoping to pay and be gone before the Assistant Manager returns.
The Dungeon, however, has more tricks up its sleeve. As I plop my game down on the counter, I notice that it is no mere lackey manning the register, but the rarely appearing Level Boss himself, The Manager.
My hands begin to tremble in terror, and I almost drop my wallet. The Manager wins the initiative and strikes quickly. Aside from being older, wiser and far more cunning than the other denizens of the Game Dungeon, The Manager boasts two powerful weapons: The Humiliating Sneer and The Derisive Accusation of Non-Gamerhood. Sensing my weakness, he unleashes a combo attack.
"This game?" He sneers. "I played the demo because somebody paid me to. I can't believe you're actually buying it. You do know it requires a memory card don't you? We sell those in case you don't have one."
My save vs. Ego Deflation fails. I take damage, and begin to wonder why I've wasted my life playing all the wrong games. I fight through the pain and humiliation and gather my courage. My insecurity isn't real, I assure myself. He's just trying to manipulate me. I may be weak and uninformed, but at least I got laid last night!
My will returns. I roll d20: critical!
"My girlfriend likes to watch me play it.," I say. "Gets her real hot for some reason. Sometimes she'll even go down on me just to make it more challenging. Heh. Chicks. What're you gonna do, right?"
My attack sends him reeling. He rolls a critical miss! His witty retort evaporates in his mouth, and in his confusion he rings me up with the employee discount. I am triumphant! He hands me my purchase and withdraws.
My quest is thus fulfilled and thanks to The Manager's ineptitude I have enough cash left over to buy something nice for the GF. Like a spoon maybe, or a nice adamantine bustier. I leave the Game Dungeon looking forward to a nice, quiet evening at home replete with Nudity and Sexual Themes and resolve to never again get off the boat. Absolutely goddamn right.