Friday, February 22, 2013

A Look into Interactive Stories I: Red Dead Redemption

Warning: If, for some reason, you are playing through the video game Red Dead Redemption and have yet to beat it please stop reading now. I am going to talk about the entire last half of the story in this post. You've been warned.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs (and have mentioned once here) I am a big supporter of video games. While I don't play as many as I would like to I do enjoy learning as much as I can about them. They've always fascinated me since my father was playing Dig Dug on his old Atari 2600 when I was barely five or six years old. No matter what Roger Ebert says, video games can and are art. HOWEVER, not all games are art since not all are made to be. It's the same with movies and books: not all are made to be serious thought-provoking tales. Some are simply to pass the time while bored. The same can be said about the digital entertainment industry. Just look at the annual release of Madden. While the games still do what they set out to do (make millions of sports fans happy), they are NOT art. They serve their purpose well and are rewarded financially because of it. As a libertarian I am completely fine with this because of our beliefs that people (and therefore products and ideas) are compensated for what they do to further the standard of living for the rest of society. I do not like most sports games but if others do then more power to them and their creators. No one is lesser for liking them.

If you have ever played a game like Shadow of the Colossus, Heavy Rain, or Braid you can make a case that if a lot of love and dedication go into the overall experience and story it will rival some of Hollywood's greatest achievements. Art is supposed to invoke emotions and responses, right? The whole idea is to express to you some underlying message or meaning that probably isn't directly spelled out in text. Video games can and do this yearly. I think Roger Ebert's big problem is that he is not a gamer, so therefore he still has the stereotypical response that video gaming is nothing more than overweight nerds playing old arcade cabinets in their basement because they have no social life. Just look at how much money companies like Activision and EA make. It is no longer a niche market, and therefore has to throw off the 1980's view of being only a social outcast's hobby. Everyone (from authors to big time philosophers) are involved in gaming now because they know it is a way to better reach their audience since being involved in the experience helps relay the message. I agree with this and I feel that the majority of the gaming world does too.

This brings me to one of the most recent games I had a chance to beat: Red Dead Redemption from Rockstar. The biggest reason why I even mention it is because they have come a long way from being the "cop killing simulator" that brought them to the Senate floor during the Playstation 2's era. In the surface RDR is the exact same as Grand Theft Auto: it is an open-world sandbox game that loosely shows you where to go to advance the plot while giving you miles of virtual land to roam around in and do as you please. It's not until you get to the last part of the story that the game really opens up and shows the player that Rockstar is changing how people view them and the ending to a video game in general. I am the first to admit that most games don't end well. There's a big rise up to the final fight with some evil being, then the credits roll. That's it. Mario saves the day again from Bowser or Pac-Man eats all the white dots. There's almost always no show of what is after the finish to let the interactivity of the player reap the rewards of the previous toils and challenges faced to save the princess, save the world, whatever the case may be. You never get to feel the accomplishment beyond seeing a long scrolling list of the people that worked on the title. We don't care who the Quality Assurance Support was, we want to see what happens after Mario gets back to his house. Rockstar has done this, and therefore the opposite of the norm, and let the player keep playing after the story is complete.

I'm not saying they keep the world open so you can finish any side missions you haven't had the patience to do. I'm talking about you as the outlaw John go back to your family that you just saved and live with them. You get to teach your son how to hunt and how to herd sheep. You get to ride around and make connections to local farmers to hopefully save your ranch from the destruction of the upcoming winter. Even after all of this RDR does another 360 and finishes the story by killing the main character.

Imagine my surprise. Every bad guy has been put to death, the government has finally gotten off your back and pardoned your past crimes of gang life, and bam. John is killed while trying to save his family from the very same people that kidnapped them in the first place. The credits roll, and then the unthinkable happens again: you keep playing. You are instantly teleported to control of John's son the minute after you run away from the ranch. With your mother riding behind you gunshots ring out, signifying your father's dead.

The screen fades.

Images reappear. It's raining and dark out as someone who is wearing a familiar cowboy duster coat stands up from two graves. Swinging the camera around, you are now the main character's son ten years in the future. Every skill he was just taught is now in effect as you can now hunt, shoot, and do what your father did. Nothing shows on the map as a story or mission, so you assume that the game is finally over.

Then, if you are lucky, you go to one of the cities and see that there is a side mission. If you go to it, you find out that Jack (the son) is going after his father's killer. If you choose to you can track him down to get revenge, and the credits roll for the final time.

Is this art? No, but it shows how gaming is making a large step in the right direction by making things unconventional and ambitious. It threw a loophole and plot twist at us that usually isn't seen. If this can give society a good reason why Rockstar isn't as bad as they say maybe it'll help the whole hobby and industry as a whole since most "art games" aren't as popular as GTA and the like. They just don't get the attention. I bet most gamers don't know what Shadow of the Colossus is, that it is a prequel to ICO, or that both of the games are some of the essential titles from the last decade.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Working with crowds.

As anyone who knows me in real life has grasped years ago, I have a hereditary speech hesitation/stutter that comes and goes in spikes. My father had it, and his father had it – there’s little I can do to fix it no matter how much prodding and forcing someone does. Since I am 26 now, I have found ways to circumvent phrases and words that I know I will not be able to say with any consistency so I can avoid embarrassing moments with friends or family. They, however, are not the ones that I really have to worry about. They understand my issue, and they accept it – after all, if they weren't still around then they would have already judged me.

I've been to a few speech therapists since elementary school. A lot of their advice I disregard as pointless because it’s as common sense as “talk slow. Don’t be stressed. One word at a time”. That’s great and all, but I usually don’t even have a problem with talking until I am stressed or around a large crowd of people that I don’t know. This events are when my mind starts to race, I get nervous, and voila – I’m choosing my words carefully.

By choosing my words, I mean I play a little mental game with myself where I prepare what I’m going to say before I say it so I can run through sentences to see if anything will be difficult to say. If I decide that something is, I’ll simply choose a different word. Does this sometimes make what I say a bit confusing? Sure. I can and will choose words that aren't as straightforward, but it buys me some time and diffuses a potential embarrassing moment. I’d rather have to explain what I said instead of being caught up in my speech. I’ll choose that any day of the week.

Why? Well, last Friday I studdered and got extremely embarrassed at myself while I was in a large work meeting. All I did was power through the word as I closed my eyes and hoped for it to end. It was horrible, and I very rarely have this amount of trouble since I've had two decades to practice and perfect my craft… but it was a bad combination of me being tired, already stressed, and slightly annoyed. Voila.

It drained me, I didn't look at anyone for the rest of the meeting, and all I did was prayed that I could go home.

There’s nothing I can do about my problem – as stated, it’s hereditary. It will never be cured. Its spikes will come and go throughout the years, and maybe eventually it will be so minimal that strangers won’t even realize it (some of my friends say they don’t notice it, but I’m sure they are just being nice). It just makes social events more taxing than I want them to be. I like going out with friends and I like meeting new people, but I don’t want a first impression to be bad. I don’t want to feel like I need to go home after 2 hours because I've already had trouble making small talk and I fear it will become worse.

I’m sure I've lost potential girlfriends, friends, and job opportunities because I may have not flowed together a sentence well enough? Is this wrong? Sure it is – but first impressions are sometimes the only chance you get.

Such is life. No one is perfect. I just wish I could explain to people why I can’t say words. It doesn't make sense to the vast majority of the population that speak without even thinking about what they say. To me, I envy them.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

In other news...

...the Capitals suck.

They've won two games.

And lost almost four times as many.

I fear that they will not change as long as they keep selling out games. You hear that, fans? Stop going to games. If you ever want the team to win their first Stanley Cup game (I'm not even reaching for an actual Cup), it's time to wake up.

Why hockey matters.

The below is from an NHL Network commercial, but I think it tries to explain why people like myself get so invested in sports, and why when someone says "it's just a game" I bristle in response. Sure, I'm not on the ice/field/mound, but it doesn't mean that I shouldn't be out of the game and just watching because it's something to do on a Tuesday even or a boring Sunday.

"People follow a sport like hockey and they look for symbolism. They want the game to mean something. They want the game to matter.

So to them a fresh sheet of ice just after the Zamboni has laid its final spray of water presents the purest vision of possibility they could imagine.

Skates being sharped over and over and over again are a meditation on perfection. And the routines and rituals that surround the rink are a language of dedication in need of no translation. To them, games are meant  to be seen; they are meant to be felt.

Blood points a path directly to the heart. Sweat a trail to the soul. And tears... a connection to a conviction that people search for their entire lives.

The ones who look for something more - who believe in something more - are ones that turn close games into unforgettable nights. Who transform great players into heroes of all time. And no matter what maintain unwavering faith in the incredible.

There are people out there that look at something like hockey and they want the game to matter.

So it does."

The video, at least for the time being, can be found HERE.

Flying Howe.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bleeding Edge of Technology

I have a confession to make: As much of a technology savvy person that I am, I have an inferior Windows OS (don't get started with the "Any Microsoft product is inferior!" Linux-entitled bullshit). I have Windows 8. I know. I KNOW. I stupidly updated from Windows 7 because I thought newer is better.

I was wrong. The tiles are stupid. I want a basic desktop. That's it. I don't have a touchscreen for my computer.

That's right. It's my shame. When I walk into work I have to hide the fact that some of the servers in the back room are better than the system I am messing around with at the apartment. I know I bought and built it over a month ago with 4 cores, a roaring graphics card, and enough RAM to choke a horse. It is severely bottlenecked and therefore useless, because of how gimped Windows 8 is. Sure, it's not Windows Vista (I used to have that too), but it's... eh. Boring.

As every day passes I get closer and closer to the frightening day when I must face the truth and say to myself that my "high end" machine should have an asterisk next to it.

You see, I recently acquired a trial version of Adobe's new all-in-one Master Suite for their plethora package of stuff. However, the two biggest additions from the last version run on a system that I currently don't have. That's right, I have finally something that has a minimum requirement that I don't meet. And that minimum requirement requires me going back in time and downgrading my operating system.

For some people anything that deals with the insides of a Dell computer from the late 90s is a scary process filled with numbers, smoke, and a lot of crying. For me, working with a computer is an entertaining process filled with a lot of drivers, reboots, disks, and crying. Not only do I usually get to wipe my computer clean (meaning good bye to any junk that was hiding on there for the last two years) but it also means everything I have on there has a chance to get updated whenever I crack open its plastic shell! I spent a good portion of last night making sure I have a checklist ready to go of the programs that have to be installed back on incase my machine ever bites the dusk - and even after I took off the ones that weren't absolutely needed it still reached up to three dozen titles.

It'll be a long night once my hard drive blows up.

I'm a little nervous, I'll admit. New Operating Systems are new territories that I don't like venturing down. I am content in the unchanging nature of my systems.

I mean, Windows Vista sucks. Always had, always will. At least I got rid of that cancer pretty quickly.Right...?

If I don't come back alive whenever I decide to remove Windows 8 make sure my warranty cards are filled out. Someone can get a refund or two from the mail-in rebate (in 6-8 weeks).

Point Break Blows

I don’t like Point Break. You know – the movie. People always talk about it as being a good action film. It’s even boosted on a pedestal in Simon Pegg’s “Hot Fuzz”.

I don't get it. I really don't. Why do people like the movie? For an action movie it's OK at best but the talent completely destroys my love for it. Two of the three biggest stars are most likely jokes to the world from Hollywood. I'm convinced of it. We have Keanu Reeves who is most known for a boring bullet-dodger from "The Matrix" and a pot-smoking dropout in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure". Really? Have you watched his performance in "Point Break"? It's horrible. HORRIBLE. Go ahead, go watch it right now. I know you own it. Everyone in the world except for me bought it for five bucks in the bargain bin of Wal-Mart. I'll wait.

Back? See?! HE IS A HORRIBLE ACTOR. The "whoa!" jokes from The Matrix are more than just a play on the stupidity of Neo as a character.

While you were at it I bet you noticed the other unfortunate half of the film: Gary Busey. As an actor he is ok I suppose. I can't really be a huge judge of character or talent because I try not to watch him. He scares me.

This is my nightmare.

You see my point. On a somewhat related point (I'm not trying to say "point" so much, it's just a coincidence) did you ever see his Comedy Central show? Holy crap was it bad. It was almost my breaking point....ha!

I'm sorry. I hate puns.

After all the overly long surfing scenes and the tragic watching of Keanu's sad excuse for acting we have the sole good part of the film: Patrick Swayze. While I'm not completely sure that he wasn't trying to seduce Mister Reeves for the entire two hours I am convinced he is a very good actor. He also can pull off a pretty good bank robbery while wearing a Richard Nixon mask. The rest of it is even more surfing, slow motion running as his hair flaps in the breeze, and screaming over the death of his fellow Nixon robber/tanned surfer.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Irrational Fears and their Ability to Keep Me Awake

Every human being is unique. This much is obvious. Duh.

We are however separated into stark different groups by the ways we react to situations and social events that are thrown at us almost every day. "Our decisions define us" as the saying goes. This can be seen in everything as high as corporate social ladder and by teeny bopper high school cliques. Who we sit with at lunch in the office, and even the clubs we gravitate towards for our night life scene shape who we interact with and ultimately spend our lives with. Every single thing we do or don't do defines and labels us to the rest of the world. This is such a subconscious and unnoticed thing that the opposite sex is attracted to a lot of the little cues and signs we exude without even realizing it. I've seen it called "swagger", "game", "class", but no matter what we name it, it is something that we do not have direct control over. Even if we are cognizant of it and do our best to shape the nonverbal communication in our favor, it is still ultimately up to fate to decide if we are successful. These facets of our personalities, who we are at their mercy of, also make us into the people our friends and loved ones enjoy. Even the way we sit in a chair during an office meeting can show a part of our professionalism, which can further reveal links about our attitude in life. Slouching back may show that we are more care free, which means we are less prone to stress and therefore handle being busy better... which could show that you can juggle more work. But it can also mean that you don't care, don't have any ambition or drive, and are just there for a paycheck. It all depends on all of the people involved in the communication.

Et cetra, et cetra.

All of this is useless though when it comes to the unnatural side of ourselves. The most charismatic and powerful person in my company could be a severely childish and insecure individual who has two overwhelming and crippling fears: 1.) public speaking and 2.) cheese. Sure, it sounds insane. It sounds crazy, and it's irrational. That's the whole point of a phobia. It doesn't make sense, it can hinder you, but you can't escape it. I've already written about the cruel nature of phobophobia in one of my past blogs (the "fear of being afraid" if you aren't aware) but I never spoke about myself. So here we go.

I have three irrational fears.

1.) The fear of falling from heights. I am not scared of heights. Don't get the two mixed up since they are in no way the same. Whenever I am on a plane I will purposefully pick the seat by the window so I can watch the take off. I had no problem staring straight down at the ground when I was on the top of the Eiffel Tower. I do not get queasy on roller coasters (I will pick the front seat so I can see the entire descent), and bridges are not a concern. No, my fear is the falling. I found this out when I was asked to walk a rope bridge when I was in elementary school. Even though I was harnessed to the trees on both ends and even though I had more safety gear on than an NFL linebacker I was frightened to the point of immobility. I would not move, and ever since then I cannot put myself in a position to fall. I bet this doesn't make sense to you. Again, that's the point. It's irrational. Some people are afraid of pickles.

The horror.

2.) The fear of speaking in front of a crowd of strangers. I relate this to my speech problem that was developed at a young age since I was never able to fully will myself to want to speak in front of the class. Even if I loved the subject I was presenting I would push off the presentation for as long as possible. A lot of this probably has to do with my speech pattern is hereditary. At least I know that both my father and grandfather have gone through the same type of torture.It used to be so bad though that, to quote Jerry Seinfeld, "I would rather be inside the coffin than delivering the eulogy."

3.) Failure/Being Alone. I equate these both together since in my mind if I am alone for the rest of my life then I have failed multiple times along the way. I know that a lot of people are perfectly fine not having a mate/soul mate/spouse, but I have been wired since childhood to believe that to be successful you have to be married, have at least one kid, and own a nice house. Granted I am not looking for a wife right now, but it's still an irrational fear of mine to the point that I really start to look back at my past relationships and try to dissect what I did wrong. It's not a healthy practice.