Warning: major Hulk spoilers.

I’ve been defending Hulk for almost 10 years. Yes, Ang Lee’s Hulk, not that unnecessary mess with a disinterested Ed Norton. It’s not just that I like a film that somehow ended up being pop culturally maligned, living in a collective memory of mockery – it’s that Hulk is one of my very favorite films. I also feel that it’s a very-good-to-great film, not just a good super hero film (which it is) or a good action film. I would also say as much for X2, The Dark Knight and possibly Watchmen, but few others are even close in my esteem, falling squarely into one or both of those caveats instead.

As the years pass and more Marvel films ebb and flow into the orbit of Avengers, the more stark and singular Hulk becomes. This was none more evident to me than after re-watching it yet again recently, to cleanse my palette of the foul Iron Man 3 – a boring, bloated exercise in trying to wring heart and heroism out of a trilogy that has been mishandled since Tony Stark put on the suit. I don’t really want to write about Iron Man, but there are some interesting parallels. Namely, the implications of weaponizing science, which IM3 uses as a throwaway stepping stone to a larger, far messier political play, and which Hulk manages to deftly explore both politically AND personally. They’re also both about dealing with the heroes’ true selves being the ones they face the bad guys with, and the unhealthy attraction to (and trauma of) that escape. Iron Man in more of a “Honey, you’re home late AGAIN because you’re Iron Man!” way, and Hulk in more of a “Honey, remember when your father killed your mother while he was trying to kill you? And now he’s trying to kill me!” sorta way.

At its heart, Hulk is about genetic destiny. This is manifested in a variety of interesting ways, foremost in the relationships that the two main characters – Bruce Banner and Betty Ross – have with their fathers. David Banner’s experiments on himself were accidentally passed on to Bruce, and they can finally harness the results together if Bruce would only understand. “Of course, you’re my flesh and blood. But then, you’re something else too, aren’t you? My physical son, but the child of my mind too.” While David spends the film trying to extract what’s left of himself in his son from his son, Betty’s father General Ross is simply trying to protect her from a man who shares the Y chromosome that murdered his mother. Though he’s also trying to balance not killing the man his estranged daughter loves with the realities of protecting the rest of the country from him.

These multifaceted motivations run deeply throughout Hulk. The only character (Major Talbot) with a singular motive (money) unceremoniously dies in a fire somewhere along the way, because Bruce’s personal struggle is greater – and more interesting – than his genetic worth. For Bruce, it’s about the freedom that same power brings with it. Freedom from his nightmares, freedom from the romantic missteps that drove Betty away from him; a cathartic release against a lifetime of repressed memories and stunted emotional experience. It’s far more open-ended than the responsibility that great power brings, but far more interesting as a result.

He hasn’t pushed Betty completely away though. Where Tony Stark and Pepper Pot’s relationship in IM3 is built on one-liners and clichés, Bruce and Betty have a history you can feel, and Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly sell it beautifully. I particularly love the scene of Bruce unknowingly describing his first transformation to her the morning after. “I had the most vivid dream. It was like being born. Coming up for air. Light hitting my face. Screaming.” I love the way he describes Hulk’s booming heartbeat. I love everything about the scene in which Betty first sees Hulk – as a silent guardian outside her cabin, not knowing exactly why he’s there beyond a fuzzy imperative from the puny human in his head. The way he gently sets her on the car to bring her closer to him, and then pushes her firmly inside moments later to protect her from incoming enemies.

The “Hulk fights a mutant poodle” scene seems to be the one that everyone remembers as evidence that Hulk is a bad film. Of course the Hulk dogs are silly on paper, but in execution it’s the best fight scene in any Marvel film. It’s brief, and lacks the bombast of everything since, but the savagery and intensity are just awesome. For the most part, it manages to feel more captured than choreographed, which I’m still astounded by every time. This isn’t the WWE Incredible Hulk, or the lovable angry ape of Avengers (though he was lovable); this is the essence-of-rage Hulk, where the violence is as startling as it should be.

Nick Nolte as David Banner is the other element of the film that people tend to throw back in its (my?) face. He’s over-the-top, a caricature, but also the most vital, memorable antagonist in a superhero film save for Ledger’s perfect Joker. It’s a complete performance, from the shaky but deliberate way he moves through the world to the raspy growl you can never entirely trust. His delivery of “Miss Ross, how unexpected…” (when she shows up at his home) is a favorite of mine, as after multiple viewings I still can’t tell whether his character is being facetious.

The most memorable moments of Nolte’s come near the end, where the film resolves its remaining threads in almost an epilogue of sorts. The military holds both Banners; David now super-powered with energy absorption, ceaselessly mocking Bruce’s weakness. Again over-the-top, again effective as an unstable ex-con who has just been imbued with inconceivable physical potential and dealing with the impotency of his “true son”. Things happen, and moments later Hulk is fighting his father as they move through the clouds (a gorgeous, almost slideshow-like snapshot of battle), before landing in a rocky canyon aside a lake, the scene of their final encounter. The epilogue all moves quickly, and is again savage and destructive. But Betty isn’t put in danger, there isn’t any great revenge, and an outside party ends the battle. In short, it isn’t typical. The pacing of those last 10 minutes may be a step off beat, but I’m again happy with the choices, and feel that they present a film that isn’t easy, or templated, or forgetful.

Hulk himself is still an amazing creation, and the CG has aged incredibly well (and far better than the likes of other early Marvel flicks such as X-Men and Spider-Man). This is most evident in the quieter, contemplative moments. Hulk sits cross-legged in the desert, admiring the mottled green moss on a rock; Hulk closes his eyes at the zenith of a massive leap, feeling the wind whip against his face. His humanity is always evident, and though he never (really) speaks, you know that it isn’t beyond him, and you’re curious what he’d say.

It’s a gorgeous film, too, from its cohesive palettes of color and lighting to a true effort to incorporate comic panel structure into its cinematography, with amazing transitions and multi-camera shots displayed on the same screen that speak to its success. It also goes the extra mile to give the viewer a sense of place, and show how different locations are connected. Even the underground military base that Hulk is held in is fully telegraphed on the way down, so that his escape upward and outward makes perfect spatial sense.

There are so many other things that make Hulk great. Danny Elfman’s fantastic score and soaring/pensive/exciting/moving main theme, which hits all the right notes without feeling too Elfmanesque; the opening credits, which cleverly set the scene of genetic potential and manipulation in the natural world; the way that the few seemingly cheesy lines go the extra mile to keep things thoughtful, and even sweet. In the final city scene after Betty’s beauty has calmed Hulk’s beast, sloughing off the anger and danger and literally falling into her arms as Bruce, he tells her “You found me.” “You weren’t that hard to find.” “…yes I was.”

Hulk is a beautiful story, beautifully told. A film brimming with thoughtful writing with just the right touch of comic book excitement and flair, engaged, empathic acting from everyone involved, and a clear dedication from its director to bring to life his serious, unique vision of one of the most iconic pieces of pop culture. Give it another try, and stop being satisfied with Hollywood’s modern lens of Marvel. These films can be artful, considerate, and above all, human.

Published in: on May 13, 2013 at 11:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Bunch of Things That I Loved in 2012

My favorite games of 2012:

(Three-way tie for #1)

1. Spelunky
A game about dying in the jungle in a way you can’t imagine. A thrilling economy of risk, Spelunky trades in chutzpah as much as it does in skill and knowledge. And like Bastion last year, every one of Spelunky’s pieces fits together like it couldn’t have happened any other way. Spelunky is A Perfect Video Game, as such things go. Sometimes learning more about how its bits fit together is a path to madness in a world where confidence is recklessness, but I enjoyed every one of my hundreds (thousands?) of attempts at the same mad-libbed adventure more than the last.

1. Botanicula
The only game I’ve had to literally stop playing (momentarily) because of how overwhelmingly charming and awesome it was (and is). Amanita Design are alchemists of joy, expressed through impossibly attractive art and astounding audio; for my tastes, the best in the business. Which, yes, means I think Botanicula looked and sounded better than anything else this year. By far. While most interactions with my adventurous band of tiny forest critters or their inspired surroundings boiled down to informed clicks, they more often than not set off chains of animation and inspired reactions that made my endorphins sing. A chemically enjoyable, impossibly creative experience.

1. Journey
Life is about exploring approaches as much as spaces, while people of various helpfulness and impact drift through. Journey is a video game about gliding through the sand and finding bits of cloth, sometimes. But when it’s not, and the metaphor falls a few steps behind you, it’s almost unbelievably magical. And even when it is, it’s outrageously beautiful, in every way that something can be. Journey takes care of you, with dead ends turned gentle nudges and a world that picks you up should you fall down. Sometimes lonely, but always inspiring.

I’ve heard gripes about just how random FTL can be, wiping you out in a random gas cluster with full ignorance of how much care and preparation you’ve put in up to that point. But that’s kind of the game, and it’s part of what I love about it; you explore space as much as you dare, build your ship as smartly as you can, and hope that the robot you found stranded alone on a moon doesn’t go crazy and murder half your crew. There’s a tiny sci-fi procedural in every attempt, and you’re only partially responsible for how it resolves itself. The micromanagement of piloting and distributing resources brings depth and breadth, without being boring or exhausting.

I still need to finish finish Fez, but I’m kind of intimidated by the scrawled page of hieroglyphics that’s been floating around my gaming area since April. Some of it makes sense (I think), but some (most) of it is probably me reading too much into things. Every thing. The run-jump-rotate façade of Fez’s dream-like adventure is grand, but the arcane underbelly you can peek at if you pay enough attention and care enough to want more is overwhelming. Trying to figure out how an interlinked world really fits together, deciphering a textural vocabulary, and endeavoring to find the secrets and solutions of a very thoughtful, personal universe.

Hotline Miami
The embodiment of pleading insanity. Maybe choreographing the fevered dreams of a serial killer, or maybe everything you love about video games, served up in a way that questions everything you love about video games. Hotline Miami’s brutal ballet of trying to kill everything in the room before it kills you (and throwing yourself at it endlessly until you do) is smart, intense, and riveting, and never stops feeling like the floor is swaying under your feet juuust a bit. A fine line between subversion and perversion.

Tokyo Jungle
I started to write that TJ is as good as it is silly, but it’s reeeeeally silly. It’s still quite good though, servicing many of the compulsions I enjoyed last year in Dark Souls. Exploration with a vague dread of what can easily murder you around the next corner, deceptively skillful combat, and a world of interesting systems to learn and discover. Being ping-ponged between the Survival and Campaign modes is kind of a brilliant touch, and working your way through the food chain is a clever conceit that ties an outlandish concept to something universally approachable.

Gravity Rush
The city of Hekseville feels tangibly foreign, in that vaguely exotic European way that the more interesting Final Fantasies seem to manage. Though rather than talking your way through it, you’re soaring the skies above it or throttling the alleyways between it. Without the baggage of a background, Kat’s reckless disregard for gravity works – as do the myriad mechanics that knit the experience together. Bringing the city back to life one small corner at a time holds a homey satisfaction, and having the entire topsy-turvy world in your hands (as a portable game) makes it shine.

The Unfinished Swan
I toppled headfirst into Swan’s endlessly inventive fairytale, I must admit. While there are surely a few obtuse moments to be had, I loved the regular introduction of new ways to interact with the world, each bringing with it a breathless moment of wonder. The novelty of the opening act may be the iconic takeaway, but not resting on its laurels turns out to be its defining characteristic.

Little Inferno
I’ve been blithely recommending Little Inferno to people since I played through it, not wanting, or really knowing how, to talk about what it is. It’s about consumerism and burning things, I say, which is true. But the extent to which it pursues being about both of those things is exceptional, making it (wait) fun and (wait) addictive without (here we go) wasting your time. Its economic story unfolds at a perfect cadence, slowly twisting the context for your actions on its head until it snaps and the ending comes flooding out.

Some Other Games I Liked a Whole Lot:
Frobisher Says!
Spec Ops: The Line
Sound Shapes

Games That I Love But Am Probably Too Close To To Judge Rationally:

Papo & Yo

Best new board games of 2012 that I played:

King of Tokyo
Lords of Waterdeep

My 10 favorite iOS Games that aren’t Ascension of 2012:

Super Hexagon
The Room
Lost Cities
Triple Town

My 10 Favorite Films of 2012:

The Grey
Moonrise Kingdom
Dark Horse
Safety Not Guaranteed
The Master
Sleepwalk With Me
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Your Sister’s Sister

10 Songs that defined 2012 for me:

Bloc Party – V.A.L.I.S.
Japandroids – Younger Us
Sleigh Bells – Comeback Kid
Desaparecidos – MariKKKopa
Passion Pit – I’ll Be Alright
Passion Pit – Carried Away
…And You Will Know Us by The Trail of Dead – Catatonic
Big Sir – Regions
Billy Talent – Viking Death March
Cursive – The Sun and Moon

Thanks for reading. Maybe you’ll enjoy some of these things too. Cheers to 2013.

Published in: on December 31, 2012 at 4:26 pm  Comments (3)  

Some things I enjoy on my internet phone

Here are 25 incredible iPhone games which I’m recommending to my friend Andrew Bloom.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
Tiny Wings
Drop 7
Helsing’s Fire
Continuity 2
Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor
Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer
Bit Pilot
Space Invaders: Infinity Gene
Tilt to Live
UFO On Tape
Match Panic
Super Hexagon
Groove Coaster

Published in: on September 27, 2012 at 11:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Bunch of Things That I Loved in 2011

My favorite games of 2011:

1. Johann Sebastian Joust
In case you’re not hip to what it is, JSJ is a physical folk game played with up to seven PlayStation Move controllers/players and a MacBook. Each player can only move their Move as fast as the classical music that plays, and must somehow get the other players to move theirs too fast – by slapping at their arms, shoving them, using a careful foot, etc. – to get them “out”. There are no rules beyond the goal of them game, which is what makes it so brilliant. The slowmo ballet of awkward interactions quickly engenders a physical trust and understanding between players of all shapes, sizes and ages, and rewards skill and creativity in equal parts.

Let me regale you a moment, as JSJ was also responsible for the best moment of my year, and one of the greatest of my life. I participated in a large-scale match a couple of months ago at IndieCade as part of their Night Games line-up, with a rotating group of seven players and a surrounding crowd of about 80 people watching. One of the final matches of the night came down to myself and another gentleman, as we circled and sized each other up like geeky gunslingers. Based on a simplified version of a move I had pulled off months before, I used my right shoe to pull my left shoe partially off of my heel while my opponent’s eyes were locked on my hands. Before he knew what was happening, my shoe came sailing through the air thrown from the tip of my foot, hitting him right between the elbow and shoulder of his Move arm as his light flashed red with failure. The crowd exploded in cheers and applause, as I instinctively set the Move down on the cement and lifted both fists to the sky in triumph (while my opponent disgustedly flung my shoe back in my general direction and stormed away).

A self-indulgent story I suppose, but one that I think demonstrates the purity and strength of great game design. With no screens, no board, and only one rule, Johann Sebastian Joust managed to make a crowd explode for a random nerd like me. I’ll remember and treasure that for the rest of my life. My favorite moment, thing, and game of the year.

(And I apologize that not everyone can play it yet [only those who funded the Venus Patrol Kickstarter], but now you’ll know how special it is when the time comes that you can.)

Bastion is probably the most coherent game I’ve ever played, and as a result one of the most enjoyable. It’s not just the painterly aesthetic, soulful soundtrack and inspired dynamic narration that work in harmony, but every game system beneath – from weapon upgrading to assembling the world hub to the unique skills you’ll outfit the character with between levels. Each new element inserted causes another interesting one to pop up somewhere else, as the design constantly feeds back into itself while building toward a crescendo of completeness – both narratively and mechanically. Where most games fall short of even polishing the loose ends they never stop introducing, Bastion wants for nothing.

Dark Souls
If games are judged on the merit of how well they deliver on their concept, Dark Souls is as close to perfect as any have come. The world of Lordran’s indifference to your presence is its hallmark, while its unforgiving nature – so antithetical to the coddling of most modern games – assures that you’ll goddamn pay attention if you’re going to intrude. NO game will challenge you so holistically, and when progress is tantamount to exorcism, NO game holds higher satisfactions.

Rayman Origins
Rayman is a relic from a time when games were about running and jumping through gorgeous colorful worlds with silly music playing while sitting on the couch with your friends, yelling and laughing. How passé.

Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer
I’ve played a lot of Ascension this year. 243 games as of this writing, with 17 in progress and…lemme just take a few turns here…
So Ascension is an asynchronous deck-building iOS card game with serious strokes of Dominion and Magic: The Gathering, sans the lengthiness of the former and the expansiveness of the latter. The tutorial is fantastic, and teaches you the entire game – which can intimidate at a glance – top to bottom in 15 minutes. Outside of the ever-obtuse lack of a chat feature, the implementation is sublime and makes it a breeze hopping between taking my turn across 17 different games every chance I get. And while the ease of playing a fun game with friends originally outweighed the quality of the game itself, I find myself appreciating the design more every day, as some cards don’t reveal their true strategic use until the 93rd time you play them. Buy it, send me an invite (rocksolidaudio on GC) and we can play forever.

Shadows of the Damned
Only a Japanese game could turn the plot of Super Mario Bros. into a nightmarish exploration of survival horror tropes and dick jokes. Something uniquely horrifying lies around every corner, and battles of literal light and dark keep combat thoughtful from start to finish. While the pairing of Garcia “Fucking” Hotspur (a Hispanic Ash of sorts) and his sassy transforming skeletal sidekick Johnson is easily the most ridiculous this year, sharp writing and localization keep it on the right side of silly and turn eye-rolling lobs into genuine laughs. A gloriously successful roller coaster for the morbidly curious.

A game about choosing which girl you should text message in between climbing away from monstrous embodiments of your relationship insecurities. The mundane aspects of Catherine are every bit as intellectually challenging as the puzzle bits are tricky, where moral consideration sits adjacent to brain-bending box arrangement. I haven’t finished Catherine, because you can’t exactly turn down the difficulty in a relationship, can you? (I wish the game would tell you this when you try to turn it to Easy.) Besides, it’s easier to walk away for a while and pretend that there aren’t any problems you need to face. Right?

Trine 2
While the storybook setting is more childlike than the game deserves, it’s a fine pretense for a stunningly beautiful fantasy world of misty swamps, shimmering glens and dozens of stop-you-in-your-tracks backdrops. Seriously, Trine 2 could make a very good case for being the best-looking game ever, all things considered. But looks aside (if I must), it’s also a fantastically fun co-op adventure with an absolute palette of physics fun to be had. Like Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light before it, this is a game where experimenting pays off, and feels immensely satisfying when it does. When each step outside of the box takes you one step closer to the solution, you know you’ve hit on something magical.

Where Is My Heart?
A gentle, genuinely thoughtful adventure through the woods with friends. While the comic panel puzzles would still be fresh and challenging stripped of all context and presentation, they wouldn’t be as soulfully satisfying. WIMH’s charms are effortless, from the subtle but warmly nostalgic score to the pang of guilt you feel when one of your trio of creatures cries for a moment at the fleeting death of another. The most likable game this year.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
is what happens when incredibly talented, creative people attempt to make something singularly special together and understand/trust/respect their audience and platform as implicitly as they do each other. Sworcery touches on its many inspirations with delicacy, distilling their most inspiring moments into moods, while also managing to feel new and impossibly self-aware. It almost doesn’t matter what you’re doing or what the game is about when the aesthetic is so captivating…but it kind of does, because the journey of the Scythian feels personal, and everyone you meet along the way seems to have existed for long before you showed up.

It always feels like a lacking compliment when I remark on how playable a game is, but dammit, Rochard is incredibly playable. Almost every element is inviting, polished and fun (the perfunctory story being the exception), with a few that truly soar like the spacey soundtrack and clever puzzles. Manipulating gravity serves as the lynchpin mechanic, and is used smartly and entertainingly throughout; you’ll easily perform acrobatic maneuvers in tandem with your gravity gun that end in a patrolling guard being crushed by a crate flung from across the room. Rochard evokes true modern classics like Portal and Limbo at times, and while it lacks a hook that would bring it to that level it stands out from just about everything else.

Portal 2
I’m torn about having this here, since it was probably my most disappointing game this year as well. But that’s only relative to the (perhaps unfair) expectation of the sequel being as innovative, exciting and subversive as compared to the first game as the first game was to everything that came before it. But it’s still expertly crafted, and – especially for a game brimming with robots – genuinely human and regularly hilarious. The entirely unique co-op mode/levels are the best part of the package, as the iterative puzzle-solving shines that much more when it involves the timing, coordination and communication of friendship.

Burnout Crash!
Crash gets a lot of flak for not living up to the expectation of its legendary namesake from Burnout 3, which is perhaps the single best mode in the history of anything. But taken on its own merits, Crash (the game) is a very savvy puzzle experience steeped in casino-like compulsions. The balance of luck and skill feels off for the first few crashes, but the more time spent in the controlled chaos the more scoring subtleties/opportunities reveal themselves. The presentation is pure Las Vegas, with flashing numbers and audio flourishes punctuating most every action; gaudy perhaps, but masterfully done as near-constant positive reinforcement.

Games That I Love But Haven’t Played Enough Of Yet:

The Binding of Isaac
Rock of Ages

Games That I Love But Am Probably Too Close To To Judge Rationally:


My 10 favorite iOS Games that aren’t Ascension or Sworcery of 2011:

Async Corp.
Match Panic
The Last Rocket
Groove Coaster
Zookeeper DX Touch Edition
Shadow Cities 

My 10 Favorite Films of 2011:

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
The Artist
Life in a Day
Attack the Block
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The Muppets

10 Songs that defined 2011 for me:

College – A Real Hero (feat. Electric Youth) 
Jim Ward – My Town 
The Rapture – How Deep Is Your Love? 
Foo Fighters – Bridge Burning
M83 – Midnight City
The Muppets – Life’s a Happy Song Finale
YACHT – Utopia & Dystopia (The Earth is on Fire)
The Get Up Kids – Automatic
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Summer of All Dead Souls 

Thanks for reading. Have a nice 2012.

Published in: on January 2, 2012 at 1:06 am  Comments (3)  

How to lower your Comcast bill, and keep it low: An Informative Non-Video Game-Related Post

I was right in the middle of writing my Favorite Things of 2011 post, but this seems more important at the moment. Mostly because I’ve been promising it for ages, and I just had to deal with Comcast today.

So here’s the thing: your Comcast bill should never really go up, ever, from the time you move into a new place onward. As a note, when you change addresses, you’re essentially a new customer, even if you have Comcast already, meaning that you’re eligible for all sorts of nice promotions (like the ones you probably regularly get promotional mail about, or the ones on the front page of Anyhow, want to lower your current bill? Try this:

1) Don’t call. Don’t e-mail. DO use the Customer Service Live Chat, where you chat online with a support analyst. Always and exclusively. Go to Account & Bill -> General Billing Questions -> Chat With Live Agent. The conversation will be more in your court where you can control the tone and flow, you can take your time with answers and have a plan of attack, and if it’s not going how you want it to you can simply try again with a new analyst. It might take a couple of chats, but you stand a very good chance of getting what you want (sometimes better). And the online reps have access to different promotions than the phone reps do. (As a note, you may be transferred to a sales analyst at some point in the chat, which is totally fine – they are often even more helpful and can dig up different deals too.)

2) Be unflaggingly polite. These are people you’re talking to, and it’s much nicer to get things off on a positive foot (rather than the antagonistic phone calls you may be used to). As soon as the analyst enters the room and you get their name, say “Hello _____, how are you?” When they ask if you can give them a few minutes to look up your account info, say “Sure, thanks for the help.” Etc. Feel free to be honest when you’re frustrated, but conversely be sure to thank them whenever it’s appropriate.

3) Start by telling them that you’re having trouble affording your current bill, and that you’d like to know if there are any local promotions that you may be eligible for to help you lower it. That part is key, since they can differ drastically depending on where you are, and for whatever reason that seems to get the reps to poke around in corners that they otherwise may not. While they’re looking into it, feel free to add that you (if you’re like me) regularly receive mail from them advertising lower rates, but are frustrated that as a current customer you’re not offered the same courtesy (since the advertised prices are almost always for new customers only). If the conversation calls for it I’ll throw in a “I’d really like to resolve this so that I can remain a customer.” Do your best to state your case and tell them where you stand before/while they’re looking for new promotions for you, because if they say they can’t find any they often won’t go back on their word.

As far as rough prices (at least for me in the Bay Area for the last ~five years), you absolutely shouldn’t be paying more than $29.99/month for Performance Internet (you can sometimes get the faster  Blast! boost added on for nothing), and $39.99/month for Digital Preferred cable. And you can often go cheaper than that depending on what’s available ($19.99/internet $29.99/cable should be the goal). You can usually get a free 6-12 months of HBO too, or at worst $9.99/month extra for it (which I personally find to be worth it). While you can often get the HD-DVR box fee waived for a while after installation, it’s tough to avoid the $15.95/month after a point. So that included, you should be at a base price of about $85/month before taxes for the full setup of Performance Internet, Digital Preferred Cable + HBO, and HD-DVR rental (and NO contract/commitment). Ideally you’ll be well below that (especially if you’re a new customer, willing to accept lesser packages, or a particularly savvy negotiator), but if you’re paying much more than that (like many people I’ve spoken to) you’re doing something wrong and really need to tend to it.

4) Be diligent. You’ll likely receive a few different promotions at once either for a year or six months, so be sure to check in on them every five months or so (or even four to get ahead of the billing cycle) since some will likely be expiring soon. If you suddenly notice that your latest bill is notably higher because a promotion expired, don’t fret – just follow the above steps and they should bring it back down and prorate the billing cycle that you’re in. But if you get two months behind before noticing, it’ll be trickier since they’ll make you pay the overdue first month before negotiating a new rate for the second one (which is what I had to suck up and do today). And if you miss out on dovetailing promotions into each other it can be harder to fight it back down quite as low.

I recommend paying your bill online manually every month instead of using AutoPay so that you’ll always notice if anything goes up, and can then contact them as needed to keep the bill where you want it. They want you as a customer, and as long as your rep isn’t incompetent and/or lazy they should be able to dig you up some better rates. At the very least it doesn’t hurt to ask, and I can almost guarantee that if you do the bare bones of what I’ve said here you’ll at least lower your bill a bit.

Good luck, and please let me know how it goes.

Update 07/15/12: Hey, this blog post is now the #1 result for “how to lower your Comcast bill” on Google. Pretty keen! Comcast has seemingly been getting a bit stingier over the last six months it seems, but all that means is that you may have to be a little more persistent. If you have a frustrating couple chats with unhelpful reps, take the night off and try again in a day or two (new promos also may pop up in the meantime).

Another tip that I wanted to share: A few months ago a coworker told me about Comcast’s new HD-DVR boxes – a much sleeker and smaller form factor (and black instead of garish silver, it turns out), and a significantly larger hard drive for storing shows. My old box had been having a hiccup or two at the time, so I brought it in to my local store. The Comcast stores are generally kind of a nightmare of lines since there’s so few of them, but it was worth the wait: When I got to the front of the line I put my old box on the counter and started to tell the rep that it was acting up when he interrupted me with “New box?” and walked to the back to get me one when I nodded. Moments later I was walking out with what has been a vasty superior box; smaller, quieter and vastly more space, all for about a half hour of my time. Give it a shot! I didn’t need to do so, but I would think that simply telling them that that you’ve heard they have newer boxes and that you’d like to trade out would be enough. Good luck!

Published in: on December 29, 2011 at 11:00 am  Comments (130)  

The Re-Dragoning

Real quick before bed, here’s my problem with Skyrim’s default autosave leading to regularly redoing chunks of the game: while fun at times, the combat isn’t particularly skillful or strategic, which means that if I die fighting (pretty much the only way to die as long as you don’t slip off of a ledge or into a trap), things aren’t going to be much different the next time around. I’ll simply get back to where I was, and do things slightly more conservatively and heal a bit more often. You essentially (almost) always have the choice to survive if you’re adamant on doing so, especially if you’re willing to run. Going into a fight, it’s easy to tell whether I can probably beat an enemy or whether I probably can’t (and have to come back later) – dying most often comes from carelessness.

To me, progress in Skyrim is measured in exploration, finding/seeing/doing/gathering new things, and advancing my character’s “story”. So when I’ve lost 20 minutes of exploring and accomplishing even minor things because I died, it’s entirely discouraging and in no way additive to the experience. I don’t really take anything away from dying (except to be slightly more careful when/if I get back to where I died), and I have nothing to show for it – either experientially, since my experiences within that time and my effect on the world are wiped from history (and so tied to the enjoyment of the game), or more tangibly, in loot/XP/quest progress. For me, it feels like wasted time, pulls me out of the experience, and is especially frustrating in a game where you’re otherwise constantly making progress of one sort of another just by existing in the world.

I had a similar problem with Deus Ex: Human Revolution when I tried playing it a few months ago. I would spend my time carefully sneaking through a level until I was seen by an enemy, try to shoot my way out, and inevitably die. As soon as I respawned, what lay before me was doing the exact same thing I had just done up until the point at which I made the mistake, and trying to do it better. I can handle trial-and-error, but when I have to go through the motions just to have another shot at the trial, count me out. If anything, it will make me even more careless, rushed and disconnected the second time through.

I put 140+ hours into Oblivion, and I’m quite enjoying Skyrim, but I just can’t understand that lingering punitive element in modern design. What’s the downside to – at the very least – letting me keep my XP when I die? Or only kicking me back to right before I initiated the fatal encounter? Or – and this is a very subjective suggestion since it would be right up my alley and few others’ – why not kick you back to the sickbed of the closest town you were in before you died? It may take longer to get back to where you were for another shot at success, but your actions in the world would always be wonderfully permanent. (And yes, I realize that some quests would have to be redesigned around this.)

Or hey, why not borrow the brilliant narrative conceit of dying/retrying in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where the Prince/narrator would simply say “No, it didn’t happen like that” and let you reset to right before where you died? The storybook nature of Skyrim’s adventure seems like the next best fit for it. I just feel like there has to be a better way; I want to be immersed, and I want to be challenged, but I want my progress in such an impressionable, personal world to be permanent, rather than always only having the potential to be.

Published in: on November 22, 2011 at 2:05 am  Comments (9)  

You just might make it in the games press

It’s not that hard to write about video games for a living. Really. I did it. Still do, kind of. I agree with Arthur on one point, mainly: being a good enough writer to do so professionally is a gift, and reading and schooling and blogging can only get you so far. If you don’t got it, you don’t got it.

But let me tell you my story.

I was working at an EB Games in Chicago until Fall 2006. Most of the time I was working there I also ran a gaming blog with my good friend Tom Mc Shea (now a reviewer at GameSpot) called G-Pinions. We just wrote about whatever was on our minds for the small group of friends and random readers that followed us. We also used the site to get into E3 for a couple of years (which is admittedly harder now). I dug up the names of some PR contacts from press releases and the like, and used our site to get copies of games to review. Sometimes it worked, mostly it didn’t.

All of the games writing that I read was becoming more progressive and mature by the moment, and I wanted to be a part of that. I poked around on Craigslist and saw that GamesRadar was looking for an Editorial Intern; I emailed them with some samples, saying that I’d fly myself out for an interview if they’d entertain the idea of hiring someone who wasn’t local. They agreed. The interview went well, and while I was in SF I stalked the 1UP staff from the downstairs lobby for a bit; watching my unbeknownst future coworkers Andrew Pfister and Garnett Lee going off to lunch – like they had always talked about on 1UP Yours – was a thrill (a story I’ve never told before now, so enjoy).

I guess GamesRadar liked me (I got the impression that there weren’t a ton of applicants), and agreed to bring me on as an unpaid intern if I moved out there.

I had saved a bit of money from my EB gig (which I loved, but that’s another story), so I quit my job, packed everything that I could fit into one car, and drove to San Francisco. I mostly did what amounted to data entry and asset management at GamesRadar, and wrote a few news stories and a review. I was plenty happy with it, but also running out of savings, even with renting a single room in a literally crazy man’s house in South San Francisco.

I was again browsing for jobs on Craigslist, and came across what appeared to be a dream job at Sony for a Product Evaluator position. I thought “what the hell” and applied, assuming I’d never hear back. While visiting my girlfriend at the time on the East Coast a week later, I got the call from Sony to come in for an interview. I did so when I got back, things seemed to go well, but they were put on a hiring freeze shortly afterward. Mark, who had interviewed me, kept telling me to hold on, but things were becoming dire financially. I could either go back to work at an EB nearby, or admit defeat and go back to Chicago.

It was then that my friend Johnny Postman (from the CheapAssGamer forums and customer at my EB) pointed me to a blog post by Andrew Pfister saying that 1UP was looking for a Reviews Intern. Being a massive lifelong fan of EGM, 1UP and the whole Ziff Davis shebang, I got my best samples together and compiled what they asked for and applied.

The following week was GDC, which I attended under the G-Pinions name (which was on its last legs since I was at GamesRadar). I pulled off some great networking, even managed to have dinner with Jenn Frank, 1UP’s Community Manager at the time, and Arne Meyer, a then-Microsoft PR contact who had actually taken notice of my blog when no one else cared. Most importantly, I managed to find and corner Andrew Pfister as he was eating his lunch in one of the GDC halls, introducing myself and giving him a face to go with a name that had applied for his internship.

The following week, he emailed me for an interview, which was conducted by himself, Garnett Lee and Sam Kennedy, three longtime games media heroes of mine. I was honest as always and passionate about my interest in writing about games, and they liked my samples. A day later (maybe even later that day, I forget) I received an offer for a paid internship from 1UP, allowing me to stay in the Bay Area.

I spent about eight months as an intern posting all of the reviews on 1UP, policing the comments section, and writing LOTS of reviews of my own (from the very worst to the very best). I was promoted to a full time position on the New Year, and held that job – my absolute dream job – for a full year until the 1UPocalypse in early 2009.

A few weeks after I was laid off I emailed Mark at Sony during some downtime between freelancing, saying that if he was still working there and happened to need someone, I was back on the market (with more experience to boot). He told me that they had just been looking for my email address, as I was next in line for the Product Evaluator spot that I had interviewed for two years prior, and they had an opening. Mark has been one of my bosses for the past two and a half years since.

So yes, you can write about games for a living. I did. It takes passion (selling yourself in an interview and knowing how to write a professional but engaging email), it takes risk and commitment (giving up your stable life and moving to the Bay Area), and it takes skill (having written enough about games to feel confident doing so and bringing your own voice/something unique to say, and having some degree of natural talent). I know MANY other games writers who came from similarly humble beginnings, came up alongside me, and are now working at the likes of GameSpot, IGN and Game Informer.

I don’t think that I was lucky, for the most part. I didn’t use connections, I used writing samples. I looked on Craigslist for jobs. I just took the right steps (which included a few huge risks), had some good timing here and there, and made it happen for myself. It’s rare to find a talented writer who actually WANTS to write about games – based on my experience looking for freelance reviewers, and reading a lot of games writing – so if that criteria fits you I think that you’re in a smaller pool than you think you are.

When I used to get asked how to get into games writing, I’d always be hesitant to give what felt like terrible advice: quit your job and move to the Bay Area. But really, if you’ve read this much and think you have what it takes, and it’s what you really want: quit your job and move to the Bay Area. You can make it happen, I know you can. Because it did for me.

Published in: on September 20, 2011 at 6:56 pm  Comments (19)  

Here’s to you, Arpee: An Earthbound Memoriam

I was hoping to wrap up EarthBound tonight or tomorrow – I was on the final leg, so only a few hours away. I’ve heard the ending is especially great. I was hoping to sit down afterward and write my first blog in ages about it; rarely do I pull out my SNES to start a game I’ve never played before, rarer still do I finish it, and rarest of all does it live up to 16 years of hype. (Actually, rarest of all do I blog – rimshot!)

But instead, I’m writing from a place of quiet devastation, of a “what do we do now” moment. Granted, one that probably belongs on as much as here, but if you’re reading this I’d like to think that you’ll sympathize. Earlier this evening, I fired up the game for a session, excited to tackle the Major Psychic Psycho that killed me last night in the lava dungeon. I was down in the Lost Underworld, you see, where your party of characters appears super tiny on the map while huge dinosaurs stomp around you. It’s awesome.

So awesome in fact that I made a point of showing my girlfriend, who was standing to the right of the TV at the time. And then she walked left, accidentally tripping over the SNES controller cord and yanking the unit out of its resting place by an inch or two. The screen went black, and I let out an annoyed grumble. I went over to reset the system, which oddly took a few tries to get going (I have a sturdy model 2 SNES that had never failed me before). After finally getting it to the title screen, instead of the usual three save files displayed (the first two, lvl. 82 and lvl. 25, from whomever mysterious persons(s) owned the cart years before me, and the last one, mine, at lvl. 68) I was greeted with this:


Like I said, quiet devastation. 30+ hours of progress, gone. But more much importantly, my characters – with their own names, levels, items, and experience(s) – and their adventure, gone. Erased from time, and tucked back under the bed of the child-like spirit that was compelled to pick the game up after missing it the first time around. I know that I could probably find an approximated save file and replay it on an emulator, but we both know that it’s not the same. And that’s what’s special about video games. They’re so fucking inseparable from the personal experiences and interactions that you have with them. Defined by their interactivity, even. I could restart a movie, or find another copy of a book. But this feels like someone tore the book out of my hands 30 pages from the end and burned every copy on the planet. I had relationships with those characters, I was invested in that world. It was MY experience. And even if you tell me how it ends (and please don’t), MY experience didn’t end that way. MY world just…disappeared.

And that’s also what’s special about EarthBound. That it can create such a world where you’re a kid destined to save the galaxy, but one who has to call his mom from time to time lest he get homesick (actual status effect). My kid was named Arpee (as in Arpee-G, har har), but it’s the first RPG I’ve ever played where you didn’t have to erase the characters’ default names to substitute your own in. You’re encouraged to put your own stamp on it at every turn, and for the first time ever, I did. Arpee, Ladee, Buddo and Otail were having a grand adventure, and I was at the helm. It’s a small touch, but a very forward-thinking one in a very forward-thinking game. I was shocked at the innovation around every corner, and perplexed why so much of it hasn’t been carried forward into modern RPGs.

Another story: I was outside of Best Buy at 6am in line for the PS2 launch, and missed one by six people. It was three months after that that I finally got one, and only two weeks after that when my mom tripped over the cord, pulling it out of its nesting place and breaking the fan. But that was only time and money. This was the investment of adventure.

So I bid you adieu, Arpee; you were close to my heart, and your game is and was phenomenal. I know that you had it in you to save the world. If I can bring myself to start things over with another kid, weeks from now, I might…but I probably won’t. I’ll likely move on to a new game after I finish this post, and I imagine that I’ll like it just fine. But you won’t be there, and neither will the others, and everyone will be a little sadder for it.

Published in: on April 27, 2011 at 10:34 pm  Comments (8)  

Thing of the Year 2010

“…what really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films – these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the fuckin’ truth.”

My favorite games of 2010:

1. Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain speaks to exactly how (and why, though less importantly) I play games. I play in character whenever possible (doing what I think the characters would do, not dressing and talking like them), I like permanence in my decisions, and I try to always play games the way they were intended for me to experience them (see playing in character). I extend these preferences to every game, and few truly take me up on it. But Heavy Rain is built for them. While the story is in parts preposterous before it’s done, the storytelling is never less than riveting if you’re willing to invest yourself in the characters and set aside the minor mechanical incongruities that you could let annoy you.

I loved the mundanity of the world it built – I was compelled to be a good husband and help my wife carry the groceries, or make sure my kid didn’t watch too much TV before bed (getting the Good Father trophy without even knowing it existed was such a bizarrely satisfying feeling…perhaps one that will make sense years from now). I loved having to regularly make hard decisions and live with them, even the unwanted consequences of an itchy trigger finger. I loved talking with others who finished the game and seeing how differently they did things, and how they reflected on their choices. Heavy Rain plays on real fears beyond, well, fear, a distinction that makes it not only a game I was hugely eager to play (rather than the survival-horror games I avoid every year), but one that wound up as my favorite game of 2010 by a mile.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Enslaved is a game where going from point A to point B has meaning every single time. The purpose for your exploration and combat are motivated more by character and context than by gameplay, and I never felt like I was doing anything for the sake of it. And I was absolutely sold on that adventure by my two favorite characters of the year, Monkey and Trip (whose silly names even manage to not sound so silly when they come up). The players’ relationship to the characters, and the characters’ relationship to one another and to the world around them all change by the end, but with an elegance and bittersweetness that honestly left me missing them when it was over…and still missing them now.

Much has been said about Limbo’s masterfully sparse and creepy atmosphere, which you can easily experience by watching a video or playing the first five minutes of it. Equally as masterful though is the contextual design that teaches you how to solve dozens of sublimely clever puzzles without showing you a word of text or ever expanding your move set beyond ‘jump’ and ‘grab’. There’s a fine line between Limbo’s methods and a traditional trial-and-error approach, but the difference always left me feeling satisfied when I figured something out rather than relieved. Though that’s probably not the best word to describe it considering the dense gloom of the world and the skin-crawling threats that many of the puzzles indulge. Limbo succeeds by stripping away everything but the barest bones of its design, story, and aesthetic, and still managed to prove me with some of the most harrowing interactions I’ve experienced.

Super Meat Boy
Platforming perfection. Super Meat Boy feels better than Mario ever has, as crazy as it sounds. And that liberation of precision let Team Meat design dozens of downright evil levels that feel insanely challenging but never unfair. And as much as I blasphemed Mario just now, growing up on him means that nothing matches the visceral satisfaction of a great platformer. Fantastic art and an even better score provide a necessarily awesome backdrop to assure that no element of the experience ever wears whilst you sacrifice hundreds of lives to the same saw blade. In a year that made me realize that my very favorite games these days aren’t “fun” in the traditional sense, Super Meat Boy was the exception that proved the rule.

Costume Quest
You know what I love most about Costume Quest? Its length. It’s also endlessly charming and legitimately hilarious, built around an incredibly accesible and enjoyable RPG-lite core, but it didn’t stay a second past its welcome for me. How rare is that? I had enough time to get invested in the fun story and characters without them losing my interest, did everything/found everything without it feeling laborious, and was engaged with the interactivity and variables of the battles enough that they never became grindy. Seriously, HOW RARE IS THAT? A wonderful game top to bottom that I’d recommend to anyone.

These occupy a very similar mind space for me, and paint a pretty interesting profile of developer Platinum Games. They seem to have nailed making incredible-looking and incredible-playing games in whatever genre they deign worthy. While they have yet to attempt any meaningful innovation, the expert implementation of certain tried-and-true mechanics – in the case of both of these games, the use of bullet-time – are enough to keep them feeling progressive on top of near-flawless fundamentals. If they can ever provide more than silly stories and characters (no matter how self-aware they may be at times), sky’s the limit.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
This is the only game on this list that I haven’t finished, and that’s only because of co-op scheduling woes. While I’ve been told you can play it by yourself, I’m taking that on faith because I’ll never try it. When co-op games are actually built for co-op – not just adding an extra player and doubling the enemy count – they’re usually something special, and some of my favorite games. Guardian of Light sets up a beautiful symbiosis between two characters with complimentary abilities, and places them in a surprisingly physical and experimental world. There were so many times when I suggested outside-the-box solutions to tricky physics puzzles, and they actually worked. I don’t know if I was hitting on the only solutions, but the feeling that that sort of design engenders is precious and thrilling.

Red Dead Redemption
Remember that whole playing in character thing that I do? Red Dead is also awesome for it, if you can set aside John Marston’s built-in psychopathic tendencies. Meaning that I always made sure to find a nice, scenic locale for him to pitch camp before I saved and shut down, I rarely ran when it made more sense for the character to be walking, and as soon as I was informed that there was a “tip your hat” button you’d better BELIEVE I greeted everyone I saw. The dusty world is thoughtfully constructed while still feeling organic, and the ambient details – from the rare rattlesnake slithering underfoot to stumbling across a hanging with a chance to interfere – are the most immersive and engaging I’ve played.

Mass Effect 2
I don’t really have anything novel to say about ME2. I wasn’t a big fan of the first game, but ME2’s focus on characters rather than the overarching story (which has never been as interesting as even the basic societal structures of the different alien races) gave me much more to feel invested in. Things especially clicked when it was suggested that I play a bit more from the gut for my Paragon/Renegade actions in cutscenes rather than my usual path of strict virtue. I loved carrying over my character and decisions between games, I loved both the beginning and the ending, and I loved getting to know my crew (especially Thane, my new favorite character in the series). It’s also probably the best objective pick for game of the year, but who wants that?

God of War III
Again, not much to say here – its virtues are apparent in the first few moments. Moments which I’ve put in the hands of a handful of non-gamer friends to show them just what games are capable of these days. It may have come out in March, but it still the best-looking game to date, with especially incredible animation, scale, and camera work. It’s also in a very exclusive club of games that I’ve restarted on a harder difficulty setting the second I finished. Usually when I’m done with a game I’m done forever, but the allure of the gratifying combat and endlessly stunning art direction cannot be overstated.

…and of course there’s also Minecraft

It’s tough to really consider Minecraft for end-of-year lists since it’s very much a work in progress, but as you can read in my previous post, it’s one of the most incredible experiences you’ve ever been able to have in gaming. A blocky realm that feels more tangible than any photorealistic ones I’ve played, and an incredible gameplay loop of collection, action, and creation. I honestly haven’t played much since that post, but that’s more to do with my preference for less open-ended experiences and wanting to not lose all my time to one game (same reason that I’ve never tried WoW, despite knowing that I would adore it). So yeah, you don’t need to lose your life to Minecraft, but it’s something that everyone should be checking in on once in a while.

Oh and Also Movies:

1. Buried

Any Buried synopsis will no doubt sell it more as a Time Code-level filmic curiosity than something worthwhile taken on its own merits as a story and an experience. And while that’s a fine reason to have passive interest in it, it grossly belies the “must-see” status of its brilliance that I really hope to impress upon you. But there’s also the challenge of describing it without spoiling anything or talking about why it’s so much more than “Ryan Reynolds in a box for an hour and a half.” Though it is very much literally that as well, the world they weave off-screen rings sickeningly familiar, while the physical and narrative tensions are written and shot so exquisitely that it feels more liberated than confined by its setting. Buried does SO much with SO little, and wrangled from me the most sincere tears, relieved laughs and stunned silences of the year. Which may sound like the hogwash hyperbole of a pull quote, but is something I absolutely think you’ll grant me once you’ve seen the film. Which you will, right? …Promise?

The Book of Eli
How to Train Your Dragon
Exit Through The Gift Shop
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo
Never Let Me Go
127 Hours
The King’s Speech
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I Love Music Too:

1. Les Savy Fav – Root for Ruin

I always qualify Les Savy Fav as my favorite band that’s still together, since so few of my favorites are. But there’s always been something so immediate to their aesthetic, it feels as if their breaking up would erase everything they’ve created from existence. Root for Ruin is simply another installment of their post-punk art rock affirmation, a gospel of forward-facing noise, sweat and sexiness. It makes a lot more sense once you’ve seen them live, but you’ll just have to trust me on that part. This album is perhaps more Pixies than before, though the energy is incomparable. I also think they’re more accessible than I give them credit for; endlessly clever lyricism that sticks in your brain-craw, their tinkling angular guitar signature, and surprisingly anthemic chorus marches. I will listen to this incredible album forever…assuming it doesn’t disappear.
Listen to a song

Yeasayer – Odd Blood
Listen to a song
Vampire Weekend – Contra
Listen to a song
Sleigh Bells – Treats
Listen to a song
Murder by Death – Good Morning, Magpie
Listen to a song
Matt & Kim – Sidewalks
Listen to a song
Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid
Listen to a song
Fang Island – Fang Island
Listen to a song
Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record/Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Listen to a song/Listen to a song
Title Tracks – It Was Easy
Listen to a song

Have a good year.

Published in: on January 3, 2011 at 12:04 am  Comments (2)  

In which I discuss Minecraft

Minecraft is a hell of a thing, and I’m dismayed at the lack of coverage from the larger sites. That said, I realize that there’s simply not much of a venue for it in the structure of traditional games coverage. It’s out in Alpha form, but you can buy it (~$14), so it doesn’t really fit into the preview/review spectrum. It’s not really news, though there’s plenty of relevant news associated with it, and while plenty of writers could blog about it most sites don’t do much in the way of promoting their editor/user blogs. This is all very unfortunate, since it’s a fascinating game that really everyone should be checking out and chatting about. (And if you’re not planning on reading any further, at least check out this video.)

What I’m most impressed by, and what inspired me to awkwardly break my five-month long silence (and my 15-year sabbatical from PC games), is how it accomplishes so much with so little, and elegantly demonstrates so many elements that speak to the most basic compelling tenets of the medium. For lack of a less cliché generality, it really shows off the power of video games.

Starting up a new game, you’re dumped into a randomly generated landscape of voxel-y tree-dotted hills, snowy mountains, stretches of desert, vast lakes, and gaping cave mouths. Worlds can vary hugely, but they usually encompass at least a few of those elements in some form. And while the blocky aesthetic keeps it in obviously unrealistic territory, I’ve found the worlds to be far more immersive, intriguing, and substantive than those in even the most “realistic” games. The distribution of the geometry may be random, but it doesn’t feel random in the same way that action-RPG dungeons do; rather, it feels natural and, importantly, unpredictable. Awkward edges jut up against each other, pieces of land sometimes float in the sky for no apparent reason, rivers spring forth from cliff faces and immediately pour down cavernous sinkholes. There’s no comfort of scrupulously set paths or sensibly navigable structures. And as diluted as modern level design can be from focus testing and endlessly massaging players’ relationship to their environment, it feels much more genuine and empowering exploring a world that isn’t baby-proofed.

The experience – and perhaps the point – of the game revolves around harvesting/mining different elements that occur naturally in the world, and creating tools, structures and new elements out of them. One thing leads to another, and soon you’re putting parapets on your castle in between excursions into the local cave for buckets of lava to heat up Jacuzzi Island (not that I’ve taken it that far, yet, but I’m mighty proud of my decently-lit protective hovel). When the sun sets, a variety of deadly monsters emerge and wander the world til daybreak, so most days are spent building/gathering while nights are spent hiding/mining. There’s no instruction, no outlined goals, and no indication that most of these elements even exist as potential gameplay opportunities (outside of the less subtle being-torn-apart-by-monsters-post-midnight).

As overwhelming as it can feel at first (especially if you’re aware of the nighttime threat going into it), there’s an immediate wonderful sense of discovery and desire for exploration that I haven’t felt since first emerging from the sewers in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. And with that feeling layered on top of the sense of attachment that comes from existing in a world grown just for you, the novelty becomes something quite substantially more than that.

While your results may vary based on why and how you play games, I couldn’t help but want to carve out my own little spot in the world as soon as possible, and make it mine. I dug out a beachfront hillside, put some lights on my stoop so that I could see it from far away if I got lost getting home one evening, popped a front door in flanked by some flashy glass panels, and starting expanding; bedroom, kitchen nook, basement. But as I struck ground beneath my feet, the square of floor fell away to expose a dark cavern: my first true mine, and the closest I’ve come to experiencing the feeling of the secret sound from Zelda. I scrounged up the materials for a few feet of ladder, and headed down. And down. And down. Dozens of branching passageways, sudden drops, pockets of running lava. And from time to time, the heart-stopping shuffle or moan of a zombie or a skeleton. The presence of enemies can be truly terrifying, again despite their one-track behavior and Legoland looks. You’ll almost always hear them before you see them, and it can be tough to tell whether they’re two caverns away or right behind you. I had a giant spider that would just camp out on the ridge above my nook, night after night, hissing until the sun came up and assuring that I’d never step foot outside.

While much of the buzz around Minecraft is communicated through videos of massive creations people have built within the engine or feats that they’ve collaborated on, I find the experience itself to be even more powerful than the toolset. Seeing that someone has built a calculator in LittleBigPlanet is stunning, but it’s nowhere near as special as being introduced to your Sackboy for the first time while Stephen Fry tells you to make a cheeky face. This is something like that.

There’s been talk of adding more traditional RPG tropes as the game develops, a little more structure. Interesting as that may be, I hope that it never ventures too far from what’s made it so relevant and exciting in the current landscape: a confluence of approachable aesthetic, austere mechanics, communal creativity, and – most importantly – pure, unchecked adventure.

Published in: on October 4, 2010 at 3:37 am  Comments (6)