Thursday, April 26, 2012

Of Crocs & Kids

Once upon a time, someone accidentally bought a pair of Crocs. That, in and of itself was not bad, as it was an accidental purchase. In order to justify buyer's remorse, rather than throwing out the pair of Crocs, or keeping them well-hidden in a closet, the person decided to wear them out in public - extolling the virtues of comfort and style - and slowly believing the story the more times it was told. As a result, other people bought into this, and suddenly owning Crocs became a thing, and people felt the "need" to have them. A person was neither fashion forward nor caring about personal health/the environment if he or she didn't have at least one pair of Crocs to wear proudly with outfits that didn't belong in the medical field or while gardening in one's own yard.

I've noticed that a similar chain of events occurs when a person shows off a new baby to one's peers.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Needless Things

I can say with good confidence that I've lived a good third of my life as a pack rat. I took care of everything I've ever owned, and nothing went to waste. Or rather, not much has been thrown out that really should have been - trading cards from series that had nothing to do with sports (Garbage Pail Kids, Desert Storm trading cards, etc.); the long cardboard boxes the CDs used to be packaged in (because I enjoyed the artwork); and stacks upon stacks of jewel cases and (formerly) blank media for software, music, document files, movies, pictures, and anything else I clung to as if losing even the most neglected piece of errata would be the equivalent of having a lobotomy and losing precious memories.

As I went through upheavals in my life, or moved to various locations, things became lost or misplaced. At the time, "starting over" meant reclaiming those things form whatever source I could find, so that I might comfortably increase and expand my collection and become a living example of a George Carlin routine. It was comfortable living in a kingdom of my own past, without any room for the present or future on the shelves, or in the corners, or even on top of stacks of books, papers, and music that threatened to topple at any moment.

Over the past few years, I started to accept that technology had finally arrived at a point where I could comfortably start getting rid of "stuff," rather than sighing heavily as I watched circumstances flip the tables and discard the contents all over the floor.

This started with the concept of carving an elephant - based on a children's joke between an inquisitive person and an artist working on a statue. It goes something like this:

Inquisitive Person: What are you working on?
Artist: I'm carving a statue of an elephant.
Inquisitive Person: How do you carve an elephant?
Artist: It's easy. I just look at the block of stone, and take away everything that isn't an elephant!

This almost Talmudic venture into humor (Life is like a river?) eventually turned into a property (complete with domain and everything, because I thought I was just that good) based on the concept of keeping one's life free of clutter, drama, and anything else that hindered happy living. However, I was not exactly at the point where I could seriously tackle such a project (on an emotional or psychological level), so it went by the wayside, as I continued to needlessly collect and acquire "stuff" I'd lost in the previous years (especially when the things I really needed to reclaim weren't external, in the least). Just like learning something new, or reducing your adult beverage intake from three pitchers of margaritas to only one, simply because you know something is good for you (in a larger sense), doesn't mean you can bring yourself to actually do it. After all, I've never seen a cat walk into a pet carrier if it knew it was being taken to the vet.

I think the big shift came the year I was given an iPod (Reciprocity), as well as purchasing an e-reader. When I considered both devices and ventured back into taking Valve's Steam service more seriously, as well as options for cloud storage, it became very apparent that a lot of the physical things I owned (or rather, that were in my possession) weren't really necessary. Sure, I'd copied and recopied hundreds of thousands of files to various hard drives and blank DVDs over the years, for the sake of backing up my digital life, but even those things take up space. Suddenly, I could make my entire music collection disappear, yet accessible any time I wanted. My collection of games wasn't so much portable, as it was playable from any computer, anywhere I went. Books? I have a Nook (two, actually, thanks to my friend, Shane), so unless it's something that is out of print, or is heavily reliant on images and textures (Gryphon & Sabine comes to mind), then I can get he books I want for pennies on the price of a physical copy (though I still hesitate over the disparity in price and how the publishing industry really needs to rethink its current model so neither readers nor authors get screwed), and carry an entire library wherever I go without having to haul around a backpack like I'm some student who is afraid of using a locker (I never trusted them, to be honest). Don't misunderstand me - sometimes it's great to hold a book and read it in its original form, much like "writing" in the traditional sense without a keyboard. But apart from my personal collection, a number of signed copies, manuscripts, etc., almost anything else can live happily on a micro SD card.

I think a lot of the above maundering comes from running an eBay store, recently watching shows about antiques, and a lot of reflection on the sheer amounts of junk I've acquired over the years. Mostly because I know that, at some point, at least a few of these things are going to get donated or sold to some lucky individuals.

Most things do not actually hold memories. I say "most" because there are some things that become cherished, and should not be thrown away - ever. However, if those things are lost or given away, the memory or feelings that are mapped to those items don't simply dissipate. There are certain books, cuff links, suspenders - hell, movie ticket stubs - that I will never lose or give up, but even though the physical matter deteriorates, the things they signify will never disappear.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if something really matters, as far as memories and feelings go, write them down (notepad applications and private blogs are wonderful things). If you have old pictures and papers, scan them and upload them to a reliable storage service. Music is a no-brainer these days (though avoid iTunes to keep your happiest music memories from being associated with feelings of frustration due to Apple's interface and bloated software), and just look for alternatives to reduce clutter and keep the little things you hold dear.

I'm not suggesting any of you give up your collections or hobbies. I'm lucky in that most of mine can exist virtually, and the ones that can't live in the æther get documented in pictures or words, in case those pastimes become no longer viable.

Once again, technology has made itself available, and it's just a matter of being willing to embrace it and all of the facets of our lives it can "free up" for things like exploring other avenues, acquainting ourselves with new ideas and experiences, or simply getting new things to fill up those freshly emptied shelves.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sword & Sworcery: For PC


Readers take note - what follows may seem like a negative "get out of my yard with your newfangled toys" rant, but it is simply laying the groundwork for why Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is such a fantastic game. If you don't want to slog through that, simply scroll down to the actual review.

On Meta-Gaming & Deconstruction

I do not like meta-gaming. In my life, I've only played a few games that have drawn me in to the point where I don't use any knowledge that is presented outside of the game in order to achieve my goals. Those that have made the list are Ultima V, StarFlight, (recently) Skyrim, Fallout: New Vegas, The Witcher, and even the original Legend of Zelda.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are games like The Goonies II for the original NES, which is impossible to complete without going to an outside source, as even the in-game information is contextually absurd. I would also like to add games such as Diablo II, or any “adventure” game where the enjoyment breaks down into a process of comparing numbers, which ultimately puts a barrier between the player and full enjoyment of the game.

Basically, any game that forces me to reach outside of the game itself for knowledge in order to appreciate the production, or comes down to a dressed up spreadsheet isn't worth my time.

That's not to say I don't enjoy hack & slash games, or the occasional round of old school arcade fun – I just prefer story and content.

One more bit of negativity:

I do not like using the word “deconstructed” when describing something I enjoy. The term “deconstructed” (in my experience) has always been applied to two things:

  1. De-boning a chicken or throwing a rock at a child's sand castle. This can be applied to arguments, movements, or anything that would otherwise be good in and of itself.
  2. Food trends, where the chef is too lazy to actually put the ingredients together. (Note, this can also be applied to fashion.)
Hither came The Scythian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, 8-bit sword in hand...

Enter: The Game

Yesterday, I took a chance and purchased Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP for my electric computer from Steam. This game flew under my radar last year when it was released for iOS, because I have no interest in iOS games, and I don't really enjoy playing games on my mobile devices. After playing for only a few hours, it became apparent that this game has taken both meta-gaming and deconstruction, and used them to break through the other side, in a way that is nothing short of sublime.

Calling back to the old Sierra adventure games by Roberta Williams, mixed in with not-so-subtle allusions to the Legend of Zelda, and a dash of low magic and narrative that could be ripped from a modern-day, coffee house Robert E. Howard, Sword & Sworcery delivers an adventure game experience unlike any other I've encountered.

There's something familiar here...
It's not so much a fourth wall as it is a screen door

Throughout Sword & Sworcery, all text is handled in the form of a narrative, save for NPC thoughts – which are laid out in the first person (and rightfully so). Occasionally, our heroine, The Scythian, will receive direct instruction from a man in a suit, who provides much more than “It is dangerous to go alone. Take this.” These characters serve to point out (very directly, at times) that there is nothing particularly special about this game, when compared to any other adventure game. Sure, you can say “this is like a Zelda game,” or “this is just a rehashing of 80's adventure games,” and you'd be right. However, the big difference is that Sword & Sworcery tells you this from the start. There are no Zelda games. There really are no 80s adventure games. They all come from the same source and are presented to you as a pixelated version of universal myth. We have a central figure who is supported by archetypes – in the case of Sword & Sworcery, their names are defined by their vocation (the woodsman is named Logfella, the canine is names Dogfella, and so on), and who must stop a great evil that he (or she, in this case) unleashed in order to stop evil in the first place, while uncovering deeper mysteries along the way. The more well known properties take these myths and try to give them names or brands, but in the end, they are just the same stories – it's mostly the mechanics or aesthetics that make people prefer one over the other (except in the case of Fable III, which lived up to expectations by falling short of them, thus fulfilling the Peter Molyneux prophecy once again).

In short, The Scythian is as much like Link as The Avatar is like Luke Skywalker, Perseus, Marduk, or Parsival. Basically, these designers could have handed in this game over to the Joseph Campbell Foundation and received honorary doctorates – or 1,000 masks - I'm not sure how they recognize people for their works, these days.
The only assumption the game makes is that you play games.

Playing The Game

Sword & Sworcery is a simple, point-and-click adventure. It's actually easy to see how this is more of a direct port of a touch screen game, but it functions perfectly with the conceit of the mouse interface. The exploration is as simple as clicking anywhere on a screen to see if you can somehow interact with a tree, or bird, or log, or torch. (However, the easiest way to lose sens of what you are doing in the game is to turn each screen into a pixel hunt.) Combat is a two button system (attack and defend), though the game is not combat-heavy by any means. There is (unsurprisingly) a “dream realm” that is joined at the seams with the regular game world in Sword & Sworcery. In order to traverse between the two, the game uses the convention of flipping between the A and B sides of a vinyl record, which (given the penchant for music enthusiasts to still swear by this medium) serves to reinforce universal archetypes as representations of concepts we all recognize (using the image of a FLAC file just wouldn't have the same effect, nor could I even begin to imagine how tha would work). The puzzles are more fun than anything else, and I didn't find myself trying to reverse-engineer things by thinking what the game designers were thinking then making the puzzles - plainly speaking, the puzzles are a combination of intuition and experimentation, rather than math and skewed logic. I would say the average playing time is about four to six hours for the actual story, and many more if you take the time to look at what's gone into making each scenario, the wellspring from which this game flows, and the absolutely immersive soundtrack by Jim Guthrie. Sword & Sworcery encourages the player to try new things – not by dumping a bunch of toys out in the game's world and saying, “Here you go! something,” but rather by designing backgrounds and structures that make your imagination “want” things like a large stone arch to be more than just a stone arch; for each interaction to have purpose; or for even the tiniest mystery to be uncovered simply by rustling through the bushes.
Gorgeous scenery, a timeless feel, and slight copyright infringement.

Buy this game.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP presents a two-way street. One that shows how the most epic and intricate stories can be built upon the simplest of elements, while also showing the complexities that our imaginations bring to the table when presented with a seemingly sparse designs. Make no mistake, Sword & Sworcery will have you simultaneously thinking within the world of the game, as well as what themes pervade this and every other adventure game you've every played. The game doesn't force you to think about one and then the other. In fact, it invites you to check out the lawn on either side of the fence as you please, with multiple play-throughs being encouraged to get the full scope of what this game is trying to say conceptually. I believe that the simple design that draws on decades of games and universal mythology allows you to enjoy the game on many levels – as a simple adventure game, as a few hours of remixed nostalgia, or as a condensed, digital romp through the philosophy of the Hero's Journey. At its core, this game is an overstuffed bag of archetypes from the Jungian to the pop culture aesthetics of video games throughout the past 30 years. For the few hours of enjoyment and re-playability, Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP is definitely worth the price.

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