Blue Skies

"Man, this just sucks."

I lean around the corner of the bookshelf. He's maybe 16, sitting in the magazine section. He's flipping through one of those glossy, hyperbole-laden game magazines. All boobs and guns and heroic poses. He may be talking to himself, but he's being way too loud.

It's a country library. There's no pretense of academia. It's a 100 year old building designed for the express purpose of helping people not buy books. It's not naturally a hushed place -- there are always kids underfoot, always someone telling a story in a corner. In the center of the library is a large room full of long oak tables and big comfy-chairs. They were over-stuffed 80 years ago, but the leather has worn glass smooth and I guarantee there's one in there molded to fit your form. The long tables contain organized stacks of every magazine or newspaper you'd ever want to read. If it isn't there, you can walk up to the front desk and suggest it, and chances are it will show up next month.

On a late summer day, after the tourists are gone, the reading room is usually empty. It's preternaturally still, quiet and cool. I spent most of my youth in this room, reading every single science fiction novel on the shelves -- perhaps 100.

"Hey, I know it's empty, but it is a library." I feel 200 years old as I chastise the poor kid.

"Sorry bro, but this is getting old." He shows me the cover. It's over the top: four inch high white letters proclaiming some new widget the best widget ever. "All these games suck, and they always say they're just gonna be awesome."

I sit down in my comfy chair. It happens to be next to his. I put the three children's books I'd picked up on the civil-war-era end table we share. His clothes are more costume than function: clown pants (what else do you call those baggy things), Vans, blue tie-dyed T-shirt that seems punk despite the hippie provenance. His hair is greasy and black. I give him credit for being in the library it all.

"Gamer eh?" This is it, one of those rare opportunities -- like those 10 minutes of crossover when the babysitter arrives -- to probe the mind of American Youth (tm).

"Yeah I guess. I mean, everyone plays video games right?" He's disinterested. He doesn't look at me. Perhaps he thinks I'm a pedophile. I don't think I give off creepy vibes, but then again, I'm not looking through 16 year old vibe-o-matic sensors.

"Yeah, I know I do. What are you playing?" I genuinely want to know, not out of curiosity, but because I don't get nearly enough time to play games, and I'm always looking for smething new. Maybe this kid knows something I don't. Stranger things have happened.

"I dunno. I played Halo 2 a lot last year. But everything just sucks right now."

"Are you nuts? This is the best time ever to be a gamer!"

"Yeah. Whatever." He still hasn't looked at me. With those three syllables, he's performed the ultimate post-adolescent shutdown maneuver. There is no good response to it, at any age, in any language. It's the universal mating call of the passive-aggressive. I can't let it go though. There's something about this kid that turns me into an instant evangelist (better than pedophile, but still on the wrong side of sin.)

"What do you play on? 360?"

"Yeah, My brother and I got one last year. It's OK. I have a PC too, but it's not really great."

"PSP?"

He looks up at me for the first time. I've clearly crossed some line of credibility where I'm worth talking to. His eyes wound me. They seem to say "dude, you're like 100 years old, losing your hair, and carrying the latest hot novel from the 'Junie B. Jones - First Grader' series. How do you even know what a PSP is?"

Instead he says: "Nah, I had a gameboy when I was a kid though."

"You should check out the DS, it's awesome. It's better than you think it is. I had a PSP. Just eBayed it."

"Really? But that thing is sweet. My buddy has GTA on it."

I let the Grand Theft Auto comment pass. I feel like I'm gaining ground, and there's just nothing I can say about GTA that will move things along. If I acknowledge the coolness of freeform gameplay environments and the incredible implementation on the PSP, it will get wierd. If I voice the hidden inner voice that asks 'GTA... hrmm... do his parents know...' then I'm just being a dick. I back up.

"Halo 2 was cool. You like First Person Shooters?"

"I guess. It's getting boring though. I used to play on Xbox live, but there are all these 8-year-olds in Kansas and sh*t that spend all day practicing and they just kick everyone's ass."

I know I'm in on the inside track now, because he just swore in front of me. While a meaningless act in most of the world, in rural New England, it's a sign. Out here, we still breed punk ass kids. They just show a little respect while they're disrespecting you.

"Yeah, I hear ya. But still, there's so much good stuff out there now. I still play Half Life Deathmatch every week. And the sneakers -- Splinter Cell and stuff -- they're really cool. I mean, there's just so many different things out there. Have you tried Uplink?" Even I think I sound a little pathetic.

"They all suck." He looks back to his magazine. I've hit a wall. The wall of suck. I understand this, I've fallen prey to it myself.

"Then play something different. You play role-playing games?"

He looks embarrassed. "Like D&D?"

"Well sure, but I meant like Oblivion and stuff."

"When I was like 12 some of my friends and I played D&D a few times. But then they all got into Magic, and I didn't have the money for it."

"Yeah, it's a pit. I played for a long time too, but it got out of control. You should pick up one of those boxes of 1,000 commons and build some really random decks and kick their butts."

He looks interested for the first time. "Really? They sell those?"

"Yeah, just go up to that card store in Fallsburg. They have these huge cardboard boxes full of commons and crap-rares, like 10 bucks a pop." Ah, the joy of educating the little tykes.

"Cool, I still know some kids who play. So what do you play?"

I feel the wellspring. He has asked me what I play! "Anything -- Battlefield, Half Life, CounterStrike. I play some RPG stuff -- I lost 80 hours to Oblivion. I play WoW once in a while. It's all great. I've been playing some really simple DS games lately too, which are just killer fun. This week I've been trying to 5-star medium on Guitar Hero."

"Yeah that's pretty cool. My friend Matt has two controllers. I haven't really played with the DS though. Seems cool. I was thinking of getting one for when I go back to school."

"Yeah, well, we didn't have games you could take to school when I was a kid." I know how it will sound before I say it, so I ham it up. It gets a grin.

"Seriously though, this is the best time ever to be a gamer. There's so much good stuff out there. I mean, all the mods for stuff on the PC, old PS2 games, new PS2 games, half the 360 stuff seems really good. And the 360 just looks so sweet no matter what you play. A lot of the guys I know hardly play anything but Xbox Live anymore."

He looks a little sad. Pained. "Yeah, but now the Wii and the PS3 are coming out. So all the good games will be on them, and I won't be able to afford one."

"Who cares? I mean, so maybe one of your friend gets one, and you can play with him. And it might make your Xbox stuff cheaper. More is better, 'cause it's all different. I mean, you might not like Zelda or Nintendogs, but it's cool that someone's making them."

"I guess." The conversation fades out. He goes back to his magazine.

He's me when I was 16. Everything sucked. But I'm glad I talked to him, because it turns out I needed to hear myself say it all. For all of my daily kvetching, this is the best time ever to be a gamer, because the games are good. We can bitch all we want about console wars, prices, fanboyitis, and those games which do, in fact, suck. But at the end of the day, there are more different games out there than ever before, from the oh-so-pretty Oblivion to Guitar Hero to Dwarf Fortress. From Magic: the Gathering to Pokemon (laugh all you want, it's a good game). From Heroscape to Warhammer 40k.

If you can't find something to play -- something amazing -- you're just not looking.

I walk back through the reading room, on out the front door, and into the early fall sunlight.

The firmament is outrageously blue.

Comments

Rabbit, you have a way of bringing back all the memories of my youth. I'm quite enjoying your pieces.

Never seen the sun/
shining so bright/
never saw things/
going so right.

Amen, brother. (And bring on the Wii!!!!)

(Addendum: Is it just me? There seems to be something about the Wii that inspires exclamation points and throwing up of the hands when I talk about it. It can't be just me...)

"Try Magic again kid. Go on, just once."

http://youtube.com/watch?v=do5w8M-8L2k

I gotta side with the kid here, though for different reasons. Games these days do suck, majorly. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Dwarf Fortress being one of them. But Dwarf Fortress is a whole 'nother beast so to speak. Let's look at the meat of it, commercial gaming. It's a business, a big business. And what do businesses do? They make money. Back in the day games were made by people who loved gaming. They were made to be enjoyable and fun, to appeal to select audiences. These days; however, games are designed to draw as many people to them as possible. They are mediocre and never quite appeal to any one type of gamer. Oh but they've got a ploy, some hook to snare the afficionados of every genre! This is a common occurence with any industry. Look at movies. If you've seen one, you've seen them all. Look at cars. Virtually all identical. If you look back to the roots of these industries, yes, they were a bit rocky, but there were some truly beautiful diamonds in the rough. Much as gaming once was. Now all you get is a load of polished sh!t for your fifty bucks.

Gribble,

I hear what you're saying, I really do. But "commercial gaming" is a bit like saying "blockbuster summer movies." I know a lot of folks who salivate over every indy and import flick that hits our local video store, but eschew anything released at the local omnidecoplex. They feel like they are living in a golden age of their own. Small films are getting more funding and more street cred, and there are more outlets to see them: IFC, Netflix, a booming festival movement.

So I don't really buy the "games are 50 bucks and I don't like them" argument. I think there are a lot of games still made by people who love gaming, they just aren't going to be the ones featured on the endcap at bestbuy. You're going to find them places like -- um -- this.

I don't see DF as an exception, I see it as the indy-gaming movement in a sharp light.

Thanks for the comments though, I go back and forth on it. No I don't. Yes I do. Shut up! No you shut up!

I love it when the front page articles come up. A little escape at work.

This may be the best time to be a gamer, but that kid might be showing the effects of the summer gaming season, normally a pretty dry place. Cheer up kid, there is a lot of new and different stuff on the horizon. I have to keep telling myself that on a weekly basis it seems. Good thing Halo2 never gets old when you know people.

ps whats wrong with Kansas

"Yeah. Whatever." He still hasn't looked at me. With those three syllables, he's performed the ultimate post-adolescent shutdown maneuver.

It takes three syllables for my teenage daughter just to pronounce "whatever" when she's in that state, although maybe reaching her "post-adolescence" will eliminate the extra one.

Addendum:

Doc P wrote:

whats wrong with Kansas

Apparently, 8 year-old very proficient FPS-playing kids. I've never met such when I'm there, but I'm probably too sheltered.

croaker wrote:

It takes three syllables for my teenage daughter just to pronounce "whatever" when she's in that state, although maybe reaching her "post-adolescence" will eliminate the extra one.

Not to be a picky Polly, but doesn't "whatever" usually have three syllables? What-ev-er? Which syllable is the extra one that should be removed?

Oh, yeah, and good piece Rabbit. But you knew this already.

ps whats wrong with Kansas

It's flat. Get some hills, you slackers.

Ahh, the coupling of the disconnection of adolesence with the marketing arm of franchised entertainment; "Madden 2007, now with sprinkles, only $60!!" It's a perfect storm of disappointment!

It can be tough to find that perfect diamond in a sea of glass shards, but thankfully there's a few people "in the know" to steer these people towards the games that might actually challenge the prefrontal cortex and knock the dust off those imaginations. Kudos on your charitable works Rabbit!

I'll fess up and say that Magic is one hecukva fun game, as long as you play it "Zen". Just buy any starter and 2 boosters, that's your deck, always play for ante and never add or remove cards from your deck aside from the ante. Good times are here again!

See, that's the thing I'm getting at. Used to be you could walk into a store, pick up the game on the endcap by a big-name brand, and have a truly wonderful experience. These days you have to sift through the dump bin in order to find that one game without the million dollar ad campaign behind it.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed Halo. It was a fun excursion. Much like a block buster movie. But when I was done, well, that was that. I moved on. It left no lasting impression. Dwarf Fortress, on the other hand, is a game I'll play off and on for the next ten years, much as X-com for example.

I love indy games, really I do, but the movement is chugging along at a lethargic pace. I don't know if developers or consumers are at fault, and I won't hazard a guess at this juncture. Granted this also ties in with my tastes. If you're a puzzle fan there are a thousand indy games floating around out there for you. I want games that immerse me, causing me to forget that they are, in fact, games.

I could probably tick off four good ones. DF, a couple of the Spiderweb games, Mount & Blade... But I'm a greedy bastard. I want more, dammit. Like the old days.

KaterinLHC wrote:

Not to be a picky Polly, but doesn't "whatever" usually have three syllables?

Guess what your new name is?

Nice job, Rabbit. Great piece.

KaterinLHC wrote:

Not to be a picky Polly, but doesn't "whatever" usually have three syllables? What-ev-er? Which syllable is the extra one that should be removed?

Apparently my counting skills are poor.

I mistakenly took rabbit's "Yeah, whatever" = 3 as being a count of both words, and was trying to note that there's an extra one in what I get handed to me at home. The extra one isn't something I can pronounce correctly, but it's some sort of rising tone between the "ev" and "er", if it matters.

Way to blow my attempt at humor, PP.

croaker wrote:
KaterinLHC wrote:

Not to be a picky Polly, but doesn't "whatever" usually have three syllables? What-ev-er? Which syllable is the extra one that should be removed?

Apparently my counting skills are poor.

I mistakenly took rabbit's "Yeah, whatever" = 3 as being a count of both words, and was trying to note that there's an extra one in what I get handed to me at home. The extra one isn't something I can pronounce correctly, but it's some sort of rising tone between the "ev" and "er", if it matters.

Way to blow my attempt at humor, PP. ;)

Picky Polly, to the nitpick! Up, up, and away!:)

Now that I understand what you mean, I'm well acquainted with the "whatEHVer". Man, I drove my dad nuts with that when I was a teenager. Until he started saying it back to me. That wasn't cool.

Let's look at the meat of it, commercial gaming. It's a business, a big business. And what do businesses do? They make money. Back in the day games were made by people who loved gaming. They were made to be enjoyable and fun, to appeal to select audiences.

I've talked to enough developers to know that games are still made by people who love games. Whatever other points you make, you need to keep that in mind, because it is almost universally true. In fact, I challenge you to find a single developer in the industry (now, I'm not talking the marketing, publishing, advertising people, but developer) who isn't in the industry because he loves games.

Used to be you could walk into a store, pick up the game on the endcap by a big-name brand, and have a truly wonderful experience.

Company of Heroes
Guitar Hero
World of Warcraft
Civilization IV
Rise of Legends
Shadow of the Colossus
Oblivion

These are just a few titles I've played in the past _year_ that have left a lasting impression. I've enjoyed countless hours with these games, and despite the multi-million dollar advertising blitz behind games like Oblivion and World of Warcraft, as always, in the end, it's just you and the game, and if it's fun why does the rest of it matter? I'm on record as saying that Guitar Hero is among my top ten games of all time, and I'd be hard pressed not to think about putting WoW up there too.

You're wearing rose colored glasses about the "old days" my friend. I know it because I do it all the time too. I usually clump the "old days" into one huge group, and compare its grand list of amazing games to a given moment in the present without recalling that there were just as many average, forgettable games at the time as there are now. I've just, not surprisingly, forgotten about them, so it seems like there was nothing but greatness, when, like now, there were maybe 1 or 2 stand out titles per year.

I'm not naive enough to try and change your opinion, but I really do hope you find the joy in gaming again, because it's an amazing time to be one. Don't get lost in the noise on the side, the distractions of legislations, and politics, and profit, and advertising, because in the end they are just a hurdle between the people who love to make games and the people who love to play them.

Heads up, Slashdot link ahoy! So congrats for that. Enjoyable article certainly, and I agree it is getting to be a good time for gaming with the independent resurgence etc, I'm just mildly frustrated at the blockbuster mentality that grips some of the biggest studios who have the money they could throw at innovation.

Johnvanjim wrote:

I'll fess up and say that Magic is one hecukva fun game, as long as you play it "Zen". Just buy any starter and 2 boosters, that's your deck, always play for ante and never add or remove cards from your deck aside from the ante. Good times are here again!

Magic is one helluva drug. There.. I said it.

Man, Rabbit doesn't even notice when Slashdot picks him up anymore. It's like walking outside and seeing a tree. He's just used to it.

He's all coolsville, daddi-o.

Edit: Pirate translation - He's all coolsville, ye scurvy dog.

Arrrggghhhh...

GioClark wrote:

Magic is one helluva drug. There.. I said it.

I laughed out loud. Assuming that this is a riff on Rick James, right?

Anyway, fantastic ARRRRticle as usual, matey. Arr.

Developer wasn't the right word. I'm sure the coders, story-board writers, and artists do their jobs for love of gaming. For the most part, though, the folks that run those operations do so to rake in cash, and they do that by finding the sweet spot between profit and quality.

Thing is, with the exception of CivIV, I can't say as I'm particularly interested in any of the games you've listed. I've played almost all. I'm not going to go into specifics, and in some cases it's matter of differeing tastes, but those games just don't cut it by my books. I don't consider them bad, mind you, and in some cases I've derrived several hours of enjoyment from them, but they aren't what I'd call masterpieces.

You're right. Back then there were only a couple of truly worthwhile games made each year. Thing is, I honestly can't think of more than two or three worthwhile games made in the last five years without delving into the indy realm. I dunno. Maybe I'm just a grumpy old man now. Like that crazy guy who swears up and down that silent films are better than the mindless drivel they churn out these days.

This article made me introspect and materialize some thoughts that have been collecting in cobwebs for a while. I've noticed lately that gaming just doesn't do it for me like it used to. Back in the day I used to inflict upon myself some really sick punishment when it came to games. But today I'm just not willing to work at it as hard as I used to. And the enjoyment I derive from the really good games is not nearly as profound any more as it used to be.

Then it occured to me that it was the internet that spoiled a lot of my gaming for me. I've started to compare my gaming experiences to other people's. I let peer pressure modify my fun levels. I've even played many games through pure peer pressure. Games like Splinter Cell, BF1942 and BF2, Oblivion, and even the original HL and to some extent HL2. I played them for other people, not for me. Not for my enjoyment. I read about other people's enjoyment and fun and wished to feel it too. But with this expectation came hollowness. I even feel it with games like Dwarf Fortress. I think it may be that I don't feel that I own the gameplay because it wasn't me who discovered the game. Other people said it's great, and I picked it up for that. So it may be that I'm playing "their" game, not my own. "Back in the day" when all games I had were somehow my choices--for better or worse--it made for a much more relevant experience. Deciding to try out Fallout after fumbling the box over in the store for the 8th time became an epic experience. Oblivion, on the other hand, was a complete blah for me. Not because it's not a well done game, but because I felt like a stranger in a strange land. Constantly wondering why is it I'm doing this?

No idea why I really had to express this. But please discuss.

Thing is, I honestly can't think of more than two or three worthwhile games made in the last five years without delving into the indy realm.

Then it really sounds like maybe the issue has more to do with where your tastes are right now than the industry itself. That's not a criticism.

MoonDragon wrote:

I think it may be that I don't feel that I own the gameplay because it wasn't me who discovered the game. Other people said it's great, and I picked it up for that. So it may be that I'm playing "their" game, not my own. "Back in the day" when all games I had were somehow my choices--for better or worse--it made for a much more relevant experience.

Moondragon,

This is an incredibly sharp insight, and one I wholeheartedly agree with, I've just never been able to articulate so well. In an age of instantaneous information, the nature of any competitive endeavor changes. Games -- even single player games -- are a competition, whether it's against the game itself or a human.

I become most keenly aware of this during my deep days with magic. When it was new and fresh and there was really no tournament world yet, every deck you came up with was yours. You might steal an idea from someone, but the nature of each deck was often completely original. In todays world, every deck you ever thought of has already been played, tested, improved on or dismissed. I figured out a way around this though.

I stopped listening. Seriously. It's hard to do, but removal of information is an act of will. Of course, you need to be selective. Not reading *anything* about, say, what games come out next quarter, is russian roulette. There are plenty of games that are just ass, and at least knowing what to avoid is a good thing.

Take Dwarf Fortress. I found out about like most of us did I think: Bill Harris posted about it. Now, he's also posted about 40,000 words of his experiences, his insights, little things hes figured out, etc. I've chosen not to read any of it. This makes playing the game a bit frustrating, but also more enjoyable. At some point, I'll hit a wall and cave, but for now, I'm living in my own little world.

Great points. I'm putting this one in my tickler file of article ideas so i can steal it from you months from now and claim it as my own. 'preciate that. Arrrggghhh...

I agree with the point of it is the best time to be a new gamer. I have found that I am somewhat of a jaded gamer, one that reads more about games than actually playing them. For me I force myself not to read previews of games and go in without any idea of the game, it is the only way to enjoy it.

w0w. I think that kid lives in my neighborhood. Not in my house, thank goodness.

Said properly by an annoyed/embarassed teenage girl, "Whatever" is a variable polysyllable. You have to count the slot-machine eyeroll, the tossed head, and there are nuances to the stance and delivery that could spawn a whole school of kinesthetics. I've heard it include as many as nine syllables but neither of my daughters are true masters. I shudder to think what a couple of their friends could do with it under the right circumstances.

Interestingly, an embarassed teenage boy will do some sort of Mobius function on it and ellide it into one syllable of mumbled Sanskrit. Usually while ducking his head into the collar of his shirt like a turtle and sprinting for the Pit of Despair, uh, I mean his room.

It's hard not to get tired gaming no matter what your age. I've been doing this seriously since 1980. But I'm always finding something new right around the corner, or running into something that was good once and is good again. We're spending about equal time between Enchanted Arms and Guitar Hero at my house right now. The kids help me a lot here, I think. I GM'd a session of Paranoia XP for them and a couple of their buddies the other weekend and it was probably one of the funnest things I've been able to do this year outside of PAX.

And I'll see your Pokemon and raise you a Naruto: Ultimate Ninja. Game kicks!

momgamer wrote:

I GM'd a session of Paranoia XP for them and a couple of their buddies the other weekend and it was probably one of the funnest things I've been able to do this year outside of PAX.

OK, I consider myself one of the "cool kids" when it comes to parenting, but you just took the nobel prize. (XP rocks too, its just wonderful. Try the card game.)

Chumpy_McChump wrote:

Never seen the sun/
shining so bright/
never saw things/
going so right.

Ugh...Irving Berlin.

rabbit wrote:
momgamer wrote:

I GM'd a session of Paranoia XP for them and a couple of their buddies the other weekend and it was probably one of the funnest things I've been able to do this year outside of PAX.

OK, I consider myself one of the "cool kids" when it comes to parenting, but you just took the nobel prize. (XP rocks too, its just wonderful. Try the card game.)

MomGamer is definitely one of the cool ones. You can check out her column (which turns 3 years old on Sunday - congrats!) over at GamerDad to see what I mean.

Dang, why did I quit M:TG?
I certainly didn't listen when I entered a tourney with a 100-card red/white small creature/instant deck(i.e. 'cheese' deck).
Still starter + 2 boosters is the way to go for the best possible fun cause losing to an ***hole with 4 Shivan Dragons and a ton of fast mana f***ing sucks(not the cheese deck, this was my Artifact + (Time Elemental + Kismet + Stasis) deck).

I read more about video games than play as well. I have less fun but buy fewer crap games. I also suspect my lack of fun is due to nostalgia for the glory that is a psx + wipeout xl + twisted metal 2. (I also fully believe the optimal genre for a gamepad is vehicular control.)

edit - I killed two of them and if M:TG Online has a way of restricting construction/inspiring creativity, it is most likely well worth getting back into.