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07 November 2011 @ 02:30 pm
As of last Thursday, it's been four weeks since I went under the knife to donate my liver for my uncle. As of Wednesday, it will have been four weeks since my release from USC. So this seems like a pretty good time to sort of document what's happened in that time and how things are going.

First and foremost, it's impossible for me to properly express my gratitude for all the support that everyone's given me. Visits, messages, phone calls, care packages... I'm blown away by you people, and if nothing else, this entire experience has shown me what an incredibly fortunate individual I am to have such amazing friends. I tear up just thinking about it. I am, as ever, humbled.

My uncle is doing incredibly well. Mentally, he sounds really together and in control of his faculties, which is great; this wasn't necessarily the case when he was in the ICU, so it's good to know that he's handling his recovery with the proper degree of care. He goes in for weekly blood work, which is currently coming back in the perfect range in terms of numbers. As of last week they had removed the staples from his incision and covered it with strips of surgical tape, which will fall off over the course of the next few weeks. He's also being weened off of his various medications as well. These are all good things.

You may care to know, in the event that you are ever called upon to consider donating one of your vital organs, that there are a few drawbacks, and I'd like to knock those out early as well because I feel like they need addressing without carrying on too long about them. Specifically, you're probably going to find that healthcare and social programs aren't designed with you in mind. Being physically unable to work, I discovered today that I'm ineligible for unemployment benefits. Because the surgery was elective, though, I'm also ineligible for disability. That electiveness of the surgery, however, does not change the fact that I now have what passes as a pre-existing condition, meaning that unless I get a career that can supply it for me (which is the plan), I'm eternally damned as far as health insurance goes.

Funny anecdote about that, actually. My dad is insanely conservative, and voiced his displeasure with the pre-existing condition thing.

"It's not fair that you should be penalized for the rest of your life for doing the right thing."

"Yeah, well, that was supposed to be one of the stipulations in 'Obamacare.' Thanks, Republicans."

He actually laughed, in that "okay, you totally got me there" sort of way. I considered it a small victory.

My stay in the hospital taught me a very important lesson: I do not have the mental endurance to handle more than a few days in a hospital. My time in the intensive care ward was a pretty easy thing to get through, largely because I almost always had company. On top of a constant flow of friends and family coming in to hang out, the nursing staff I had was incredible, and I'm sure that the steady flow of morphine took off any sort of edge I might have otherwise had. I wasn't quite prepared for the transition out of ICU and onto the main floor on Monday evening, though; it generally felt as though things that felt like pressing needs to me could only be handled in accordance with the nurses' already busy schedules. It was probably that first evening that set the tone for the rest of my stay, when I waited a good hour to have my...receptacle...emptied on the promise that someone was on their way to remove my catheter.

Despite my best efforts, I didn't sleep the two nights following my release from ICU, which probably didn't really help with my ability to cope with being there. Early Tuesday morning I was wheeled down for some x-rays to ensure that my liver didn't have any bile leaks, but I hadn't really been clued into how long it was going to take. Essentially, you're placed on a thin cot, and this large mechanical tube equipped with the camera positions itself around you. A radioactive isotope is injected into your bloodstream, and the camera traces this isotope as it travels through your body. Each image takes several minutes to complete, and I only found out halfway through that the entire thing would take about an hour and 20 minutes. With no sleep and a very high degree of discomfort, I spent the entirety of that time trying to silently control the outbreak of a panic attack; despite the room being positively freezing (note: if for any reason you take a trip to the hospital at USC, pack a sweater), I was drenched in sweat by the time I was released and allowed to go back to my room.

It's difficult to gauge the experience of clawing at the walls in tandem with was in all reality an incredibly strong recovery; I had no issues with unchecked pain, I was quick to start eating and moving around again, and I didn't have any types of complications. When we would hit a milestone day and I was asked "So, when would you like to try to get out of bed," or, "When would you like to try to walk the floor," my response was always, "Well, why not right now?" But I think part of what might have made it so difficult at this point was that I hadn't yet heard anyone mention a possible release date; having something to shoot for can make a world of difference. So when the surgical staff made rounds, I asked if there was a time table on when I could expect to be allowed to leave, at which point I was asked, "Well, when would you like to leave?"

I looked around at the team, most of them students and interns, and then asked, "...is that a trick question?"

"Like, yesterday," joked the intern who had completed the final pre-op consultation with me.

"Well, I'll tell you what. Tomorrow morning we're going to do another one of those x-rays you did today. Should take less time. We'll compare that to today's, and if we don't see any leaks, we should be able to have you out by around noon."

And suddenly, as if someone had flipped a switch, time flew. Even though I still didn't sleep that night, I felt so much better equipped to just handle things on a mental level that it seemed okay. X-rays on Wednesday morning were only 40 minutes, and after having a few last once overs to make sure that I understood exactly what I could do upon release (which was not much) and how I should be taking my medication, I made it out by 2 o'clock that afternoon.

I spent the next several days at a hotel in Anaheim, reclined in an office chair on my laptop and taking a renewed interest in college football and the pennant race. I had a lot of visitors and phone calls, all of which really helped me feel like I was getting back to some type of normalcy; an ability to focus on something for longer than two minutes, as well as get a few hours of sleep at night, was definitely helpful as well.

The following Monday (October 17), I went back to USC to do some blood work and a check up, hoping to be cleared to fly home the next day. It felt good to walk in there, under my own power and in my own street clothes, as if nothing had even happened. Everyone seemed very, very surprised by how well I was looking; my big surprise was that I had lost 10 lbs. in the space of my hospital stay. Long story short, everyone at USC thinks I'm Superman or something. Rock star recovery, good to go home. That evening, the last night before flying home, my dad and I went to Newport Beach for dinner, and afterwards I convinced him that I was well enough to walk the length of the pier. It was the only time in the space of my two visits to California that I got to get near the water, and even though it was dark and a little foggy, there was still the sound of the lazy rhythm of the waves on the sand, and the unmistakable smell of salt carried by a consistant, peaceful breeze. Surgery already felt like it had been a lifetime ago. I felt alive again.

Every day is a little different than the last, and while not every day is great, I can say with absolute certainty that every day sees me getting a little bit stronger. I am able to preform certain tasks more easily now than I was a week ago. The difference in my strength between now and three weeks ago when I flew up is palpable. I'm encouraged to get up and walk around frequently, I'm off my pain medicine, and am allowed to drive a car now. I spend most of the day either at home catching up on my gaming backlog, or across the street hanging out with friends while they work. My sleep schedule has decided to nestle itself into the 3AM-11AM bracket, which is not exactly ideal, so I'm trying to get that fixed. My appetite is returning as time passes, and overall it's just an extraordinary relief to be in my own home, controlling my own space, back to what feels like real life.

To everyone who tweeted or wrote or visited while I was in the hospital or recovering, or played games with me since I've got home, or asked me how I'm doing, I will never be able to thank you enough. This has been an experience that is going to stick with me for the rest of my life (abdominal scar aside), not because of what my family or I had to go through, but because you were and still are all there to help me through it. I am exceedingly fortunate to have such forces of good in my life.

PS. The "Cheap Date James" event will be happening the night of Friday, January 6th. I encourage you all to take part, regardless of where you are in the world; simply have half a beer, and then fall over like you're drunk out of your mind. That is exactly what I'll be doing, with the exception being that it won't be "like" I'm drunk out of my mind.
Current Music: Absinthe Blind - You Should Get Out More
04 October 2011 @ 09:53 am
Earlier this year my Uncle Bob's liver began to fail. Initially the doctors assumed it was because of drinking, but at this point they believe it's more because of an OCD tendency to pop Tylenol like candy. In July, he went into the hospital and wasn't expected to last through the night. As he stabilized, he was given about four to six months to live. He was put on the donor list, but due to his age and condition, it was highly unlikely that he would ever receive one.

About a month ago, I was asked by my father to consider the possibility of being a living donor for Bob, which would involved surgeons removing a portion of my liver (roughly half), and then placing it in Bob. Both portions would then regenerate to the full size over the course of several weeks to months.

"Yeah," I said. "Send me the paperwork, I'll look into it."

After talking it over with Elise and some of her nurse coworkers, as well as doing some research through the interwebs, I decided to go for it; this was, after all, a rare opportunity to do some life altering good for someone. I've never really been close with my extended family, but Bob has always been nice to me, and he has a kid and is married to my aunt, so it'd be pretty awful for them to be left in the lurch without him. I filled out the paperwork and had it faxed over to USC.

Three days later, I was called by the staff to be told that I was one of two possible candidates (the other being one of my cousins), and that the head surgeon would be going over the paperwork to determine who would make the best likely candidate to undergo evaluation; due to the nature of our awesome insurance system, rather than do the expedient thing and test all possible candidates at the same time to see which one is best, medical staff can only test one candidate at a time, and then only after they've received approval from the insurance company. They would call me, probably in a few days, to let me know whether I'd been selected or not.

"Okay, you're the primary," said the voice over the phone four hours later. "We should be getting the approval from the insurance company by the end of the week."

Despite the fact that I wouldn't be able to get paid time off for medical leave or vacation, work was incredibly supportive when I told them that this could be a possibility.

"Family should always come first," was what my boss said. "Just keep us posted, let us know, and good luck."

I wasn't called back again regarding the medical evaluation for another two and a half weeks. The evaluations are done on Mondays and Tuesdays, and I found out on a Thursday. Airfare was purchased on Friday. We got to California on Sunday.

Monday and Tuesday (September 19th and 20th) I was consulted by social workers, advocacy agents, surgeons, phlebotomists, hepatologists, nurses, and directors in between going through the steps of blood work, EKGs, ultrasounds, x-rays, and MRIs. At this point, everything felt like it was moving very quickly, like surgery could be happening any day, but I ended up waiting out the rest of the week to find out whether I was a match or not. I received a call that Friday, letting me know that a surgery date had tentatively been set, but that the numbers for the volume of my liver had come back smaller than anticipated. They would go back over the numbers on Monday.

The surgery date had been set for Thursday, October 6th, which was a little less than two weeks out, and the pre-op consultation was set for the preceding Monday. So I flew home, enjoyed a weekend with my girlfriend, and prepared myself for a week of work, knowing full well that I probably wouldn't be able to concentrate on it.

Monday came, and there was still no news on the liver volume. Same story Tuesday. Wednesday, the news came back that my volume looked great, but they would need a second doctor to go over the numbers to verify. Additionally, Bob was back in the hospital to have his kidneys checked on; it was possible that they were starting to fail. If the kidneys were too damaged, we would need to "reevaluate" the need for a living donor. Thursday they would do a biopsy to make sure. There were no results to be had on Thursday, so the director of the case set a cut-off time of noon on Friday for results. I took the day off to make sure I didn't miss the call.

I didn't miss the call.

The results were in.

We were going to surgery.

So, three days before I was supposed to be in California to do final consultations for a major surgery, I finally was given confirmation that it was actually going to happen. Airfare was purchased on Friday. We got to California on Sunday.

With the pre-op consultation out of the way, there's nothing really left except to try to relax a little bit before going in this Thursday to have a portion of my liver cut out. I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't a little stressed out or nervous about it, but I'm also confident that the procedure will go off without any major hitches. It really helps that despite her own nerves, Elise has been a hugely, tremendously epic pillar of support. Best girlfriend ever, for sure.

I'm letting all of you know about all of this because in the aftermath of the surgery, I'm going to be kind of a worthless person. I probably won't be getting home until mid-October. I won't be able to drive a car again until November. I won't be able to lift more than 10 lbs. again until January. I will be spending a lot of time at home, in a bed or on the couch, looking for stuff to do. It'd be really, really great to get some catch up time in through multiplayer, whether you guys want to do PSN, XBL, or PC. Let me know. I'll try to pick up Gears of War 3 if that's what all you cool kids are playing now. If any of you have a World of Warcraft account, let me know, because I'm drinking that kool-aid now too.

Thanks a lot for the support you all have shown over the past week; I can't tell you how much it means to me, and how helpful its been during an otherwise uncertain time. I'll be putting my Moby-Dick twitter project, another_orphan, on auto-pilot for the next two weeks, but you all should be hearing from me by Saturday, because USC has free wireless in their hospital. If you're otherwise unable to get a hold of me for details or anything, get in touch with Elise on twitter. Her handle is kisb.

Thanks again, everyone. Love you guys.
Current Music: Slowdive - Souvlaki Space Station
09 December 2010 @ 11:09 am
More and more I feel like the titular character of Jeff Smith's Bone.

For the past couple of weeks I've been contemplating a rather ridiculous project, and this week without considering the true logistics of the task decided to go ahead and engage it. On Tuesday, I began the task of posting Herman Melville's Moby-Dick; or, The Whale on twitter, one sentence at a time. It's a rather foolish undertaking, but people who know me also know that I am not above occasional foolishness. Regardless of whether or not I'm able to complete this is actually irrelevant, but my intention is to complete it, and that's all that matters. I say this because after doing a very, very rough estimate of the novel's sentence count, I determined that it'd take at least 21 years to post the entire narrative. The decision to start this project, though, had nothing to do with the length of time it'd take.

More and more over the past several years, I've realized that Moby-Dick possesses a unique position of ubiquity in American culture. References to a "white whale" are easily understood as a personal and obsessive pursuit of something nigh unattainable; references to Ahab are almost universally known to mean an obsessed and self-destroying mad man. Anybody could tell you that the (generalized) plot of the novel involves a whale hunt. In 2004, progressive metal band Mastodon released the album Leviathan, a concept album loosely based on the novel. Just this year, the American Book Review placed "Call me Ishmael," a line that nearly anyone could immediately recognize, at the Number 1 spot for their "100 Best First Lines from Novels." And did you ever see this ad for the AT&T BlackBerry Torch? Consider all of this, and then consider that Moby-Dick is probably one of the least read books in America's (admittedly short) literary history. There are good reasons for this, the most obvious of them being the incredibly dense nature of Melville's writing; it is, suffice to say, a difficult read.

So. Twitter. I'm using it to post Moby-Dick, in its entirety or as long as twitter exists, one sentence a day. People who have never read the book, consider this your chance to take the novel in, at your leisure, without having to pick up the book. If it gets you interested, and you decide that one sentence a day is not nearly frequent enough for you to continue enjoying the tale, you'll be happy to know that there are a number of places you can pick it up for free since the novel is out of copyright (I know for a fact that Project Gutenberg offers it through their website, along with formats for Kindle, iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad and Android).

This can also give you the opportunity to understand exactly what made Melville such a great writer. For example, what makes "Call me Ishmael" such an incredible opening line? It tells us that the narrator should be considered wicked, blasphemous, that he is a wanderer, a member of a great legacy lost of his own inheritance, and that he is overall an enigma to us; who he is and what his real name is are not as important as the tale he has to tell. Nearly every individual sentence in the text plunges to these depths and is worthy of its own lengthy analysis and discussion. You can watch each be given its due by following another_orphan on twitter. If it is a damp, drizzly November in your soul, it may be high time to get to sea as soon as you can.
25 May 2010 @ 08:17 pm
First off, the url for the blog has changed; you can now find it at http://thereaperreview.blogspot.com. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Second off, urthstripe321 said he wanted to write there, so I've got him added as a contributor. I know a while ago a few of us were talking about doing a sort of collaborative review page, so I thought I'd go ahead and extend the invitation and see if anybody else was interested in joining up. Obviously there wouldn't be any sort of set schedule; you'd basically write when you felt like it, with the only rule being that the game be at least a year old. If you're interested, go ahead and let me know, and I can get you added to the permissions.
22 May 2010 @ 09:44 am
New post up over at the Reaper Review, in which I attack the universally acclaimed Super Mario Galaxy. I'm sure you can guess how thrilled I am for the sequel's release tomorrow!
04 May 2010 @ 11:29 am
I made a tweet about this yesterday, but I thought I'd do a little more shameless plugging here just so that anyone who wants to read knows: I've set up a new spot for me to post my game reviews called The Reaper Review. So far the only thing I've put up there is the review I wrote on Friday for Another World (Out of This World in America, Outer World in Japan), so if you haven't read that yet, you can find it over there (the lj mirror is here).

The Reaper Review is going to tackle reviews in the same way I've always done here: I'll only review games that are at least a year old, but more often they'll be older than that so that I can talk more about the design choices that make those games worth playing or worth forgetting. I'll make sure to post a heads up here when those updates are made, but otherwise the long articles you used to see here will now be found there instead. If I have a commentary or a shorter sort of musing about gaming to make, I'll still do that here, but the reviews are going to be at the new place from now on.

I'm mostly doing this so that my review material can all be found in one place without having to sift through other material; I've had a few people encourage me to do so in an effort to get what I write out there, and I can't really get attention at a new blog without telling people about it. If you don't like those articles cluttering up your friends list, you don't have to worry about it. If you do like reading that stuff, now you know exactly where to find it, and if you use a feed reader it should be easier for you to get recognizable updates. If you've got any feedback or suggestions, I'm all ears. Thanks a lot for the support :)
I have put this article off for years. Literally years. It is a review that has terrified me to write, specifically because it's hard to know what to say in the presence of a god, but I feel that the time has come to put this to bed. The game we'll be discussing today is one that is as underrated as it is steeped in subtle genius, and as underplayed as it is ubiquitous, if only because it continues to serve as a powerful source of influence and inspiration for the best designed games of the past decade. We are still learning its lessons, and it is still miles ahead of us as we try to catch up.

Let me be plain, here, and say to you without any sarcasm, hyperbole, or hesitation: we are talking about the single greatest videogame ever made.

Development began in 1989, after French programmer Eric Chahi found himself impressed by the animated quicktime event game Dragon's Lair and considered possible methods to do something similar while eating up less storage space. Wanting to indulge in a science fiction tale, he began testing and perfecting his theories on how the animation challenge could be overcome by literally going through and creating the introductory sequence of the very game he wanted to create, completing it by 1990. With the opening cinema in place, and a firm and simple idea of gameplay mechanics decided upon before he even began structuring the game, he went about assembling levels practically by the seat of his pants; his work was completed in 1991, the fruit of almost exclusively his own labor. Originally released for the Amiga, it soon after saw ports to the Atari ST, MS-DOS, Mac OS, SNES, Sega Mega Drive, Apple IIGS, 3DO, and Sega Mega-CD. It has been unofficially ported to Windows 3.x and the Gameboy Advance. After Delphine Software International closed down in 2004, Chahi acquired the rights to his game's intellectual property, and it was subsequently ported to mobile phone handsets using the Symbian operating system, as well as Pocket PC for Windows Mobile 5 or higher. Most recently, in 2006, Chahi released a hi-resolution 15th Anniversary special edition on Windows XP. His masterpiece's tagline was "It took six days to create the Earth. Another World took two years."

Another World
is simply a game that has everything going for it. Its puzzles are difficult, but logical. Its controls are simple, but brilliantly efficient. And its story, from the jarring introduction to the heartbreaking ending, is truly epic. The player controls Lester Knight Chaykin. He is young, he has red hair, and he drives a Ferrari. Lester works as a physicist in a lab, doing experiments with a particle accelerator. The game shows you this in the introduction sequence of the game, which you may or may not decide to watch.  Even here, in the attract mode of the game, Chahi shows his prowess in delivering the pace of the game at his own speed, taking his time in the delivery as we watch Lester pull up to the lab on a dark evening, descending underground in an elevator before undergoing a full body scan and sitting down to his terminal to do some work. He boots up his computer, authorizes an experiment, pops the top on a can, and takes a drink as the hardware begins its work.

Outside, there's a storm brewing. Dust scatters across the lot as it's thrown about by the wind, and lightning flickers in the distance, drawing nearer and nearer with each strike. A bolt hits the lab, surging through the building, and as the accelerated particle careens down the tube of the collider, the surge follows it. The atom is smashed, the sensor it hits resting directly above Lester's terminal. The charge connects immediately afterward, and where once sat Lester Knight Chaykin there now resides a crater crackling with energy.

This is where you presumably begin, though there is just as much a chance that this is where you end. When the game begins, the focus of view is in an underwater pool, and in a flash of light and bubbles, Lester materializes in the drink. All you have to do to ensure his death is marvel at his appearance for even a second. Tentacles rush up from the pool's bottom and drag him down to the depths. It's a quick way to learn the most important lesson of the game: you cannot afford to stay still. The obvious way to survive tentacle death is to swim up to the surface, so hitting the up button will save you and help you progress. Congratulations, you have been taught to both move and to use your head.

In this introductory sequence, which sees you chased down and maybe killed by the local wildlife, you'll more than likely learn that there are only two buttons to help you. One of them will cause you to hop short distances. The other initially has two abilities; tap it to attack, hold it while moving to run. There's a Super Mario Bros.-esque simplicity to the affair, though you may be disappointed to find that at this point, attacking is relegated simply to kicking. Kicking will defend you from little more than slugs, and even they can still kill you if you don't watch your step, so when a massive alien beast pounces in front of you, it's clear that your only real option is to run away from it.

What you'll quickly learn is that the screen will never scroll to keep up with you; the screen is its own little stage for what goes on, and when you run off of its edge the screen will be replaced with the area you have just crossed into. You are afforded the comfort of having your conflict neatly framed, coupled with the suspense of the world embodied outside of that frame. As you flee the beast, you may very well make it to the other side of the screen before you can finally see it charging after you, and this is your context for understanding about how well you're doing.  Just as it seems like Lester is about to become an extremely foreign delicacy, he runs into a shrouded figure, who proceeds to blast the beast to oblivion. Lester stands up and raises his hand as a sign of peace, only to be shot as well.

He awakens in a cell, suspended above a patrol station in a prison, confined with an alien. Down below, the hooded figure removes his cloak to reveal that your alien buddy in the cage is part of the civilized species of this planet; you can tell because they all look alike, a design decision that will be exploited before the end of your adventure. There's no dialog or pop-up text to tell you what to do. There is only you, in your cage, with your buddy, with the ground and the guard below. Logic and observation are the only way you'll be able to discern your objectives, and the first of them should be obvious: escape. This will, in fact, be your only primary objective. Succeeding in this endeavor rewards you with your buddy's help, as well as a laser pistol, and it's at this point that the introduction is concluded and you're thrust headlong into the game actual.

The gun really is an amazing little device. Tapping the attack button will fire single shots from it, and the law of the land here is one hit, one kill. No one is immune to this. Not you, not your buddy, and not the guards. Holding the attack button for a moment will cause a small blue charge to appear at the tip of your gun; releasing the button at this point will project a temporary shield in front of you, which will block any shots that hit it. Holding the button still longer will cause the charge to grow, and releasing it will allow you to fire a thick energy beam capable of destroying certain walls, as well as shields. In the end, you're left with a sort of rock-paper-scissors mechanic; shields block standard shots, power shots take down shields, but take so long to charge that you could be hit by several standard shots before being able to finally fire. Keep in mind that this same button is what allows you to run; your entire toolbox, save for the ability to jump, is condensed down into a single action button.

Plenty of games have implemented an action button with the intent of making it your be-all end-all go-to resource in controlling your character; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, for example, created a contextual button meant for interaction with people and environments, and the implementation of a targeting system stretched that even further by also relegating it to attacking, rolling, dodging, and the like. While most games make use of an action button, and some try to stretch out their value by making them multi-purpose in nature, no game has succeeded to the degree that Another World has. Lester is a walking example of the Rifleman's Creed; without his gun, he is utterly useless.

What might be the most important thing to understand about Another World, from a design standpoint, is that there would be no game without this mechanic. Eric Chahi has said that the level design was mostly done on the fly, which is really quite something when you consider that most games are painstakingly crafted experiences designed in such a way that changing a small detail in a scenario can break the game; what enables the puzzles in this title to be successful, and what enabled Chahi to essentially improvise level structure, was the strength of the engine he created. Its simplicity and execution act as a solid foundation for the rest of the game to stand firmly upon.

This seems an ideal time to note that the game has no Heads Up Display. Everything that can kill you will do so instantly, so there's no need for health. You will need to energize your pistol once, nearly right after you've found it, and after that you're set. It requires no additional ammunition, and there are no other weapons in the game. There is no score, no radar, no time limit, no level indicator. The information you should require of this game is absolutely minimal. When you design a game like this, you do yourself a great service; you don't have to consider balancing abilities, you don't have to worry about whether weapon drops are too close to one another or too far apart, and you don't have to find the perfect spots to place a health pack. The only thing you need to do is create levels that implement the system you've already built, and sometimes use that to put a spin on what the player already knows.

That said, once you make it through the opening portions of the game, you will find that the difficulty climbs at a fairly steep grade. You will fight guards, drive a battle tank, drain a lake, and encounter what may be one of the hardest underwater levels ever, and you will do each of them with the same minimal set of controls as the others. If you have never played this game and are planning on it, I promise that you will never forget the first time you take out a particular guard from the floor above him. If you have played this game, you know that I'm right. It all comes down to the implementation of mechanics as a tool.

This is a model that somehow is still not fully understood. It's not atypical for the quality of a game to be determined by factors that should be considered of secondary importance. A star-studded voice cast, high-end graphics, and some semblance of a plot does not a good game make. No matter how nice your car looks, it will not run without an engine, and it will not run well if that engine is crap. Your story can be Homeric in scale, but if it's poorly presented then your players really won't give a damn. Some games are getting close to figuring this out, but most are not. Still, you can feel the ripples, even 19 years(!) later.

Consider ICO: Another World's influence isn't even just a probability, it's as clear as day. In terms of presentation, you've got no HUD, simple controls expanded to do more than their basic and obvious functions, very little dialog (almost all of which is one-sided to further obscure and confuse things), next to no assistance when it comes to problem solving, and one large, overarching goal. The goal is even exactly the same: escape! Mechanically, you have a very minimal weapon and attack system, and a necessary partner in crime in the form of Yorda; just as Buddy lacks weapons but has more understanding of his world's computer systems, Yorda requires your protection, but is the key to springing you from the castle. Lose either of them, and you're doomed. And then there's the issue of story itself; what's presented to you is terrifically simple and vague, but through the course of play both games hint at deeper, darker things below the surface so long as you invest the energy to observe. Fumito Ueda's philosophy of  "design by subtraction" not only makes the story more interesting by forcing you to become an active participant, it also makes for better gameplay from the standpoint of design. Being told what to do or where to go is not gameplay, it is an interactive instruction manual (I'm looking at you, Super Mario Galaxy).

Think about Portal: each test chamber is very particularly constructed to teach you how to play, playing on your ability to imagine the capabilities of the handheld portal device. Then bam, all bets are off and you're rewarded with a breakneck escape from the facility. Again, story is minimal but deep and dark, delivered mainly through short sound clips between test chambers and a handful of small, hidden rooms scattered throughout the facility. Perhaps more important, though, is the ability of the designers to put the portal gun through its paces in such a way that a bright-minded player could essentially predict what was coming next and then feel like a genius when it turned out that they were right. Do you think Valve would have been able to accomplish that if a strong engine had not come before level design? Horse first, carriage second.

Take a look at Canabalt: you don't even get a story. You've got bombs dropping, ships crashing into buildings, and giant robots obliterating the city in the background. Your goal, again, is to make your escape, and not even just a regular escape, but a daring one. The only two things your character can do are run and you jump, and you only get to control one of those things. As a result, Canabalt very quickly becomes the most fun you've ever had pushing one button. It's proof positive that the mechanics of a game are more important than any gimmick you can throw into it. The mechanics themselves don't even have to be particularly interesting, they just have to be solid enough to enable strong and exciting level design; why do you think Super Mario Bros. 3 is still hailed as one of the greatest platformers ever?

Another World is, in many ways, the Moby-Dick of videogames. A lot of people have heard of it, but most of them haven't played it. I challenge you to find any mainstream Top 100 Games list and find Another World on it (hint: you can't). Its influence has taken years to surface in recognizable ways, proving that it was way ahead of its time; someone born when this title was released would be an adult now, yet we're still just touching the surface of what Eric Chahi was able to achieve, and only doing so occasionally at best. If you have not played this game, then play it. If you have played this game, go ahead and play it again. This is the equivalent of required reading for the videogame canon, somewhere after the ABCs of Super Mario Bros. but before the unnecessary indulgences of Metal Gear Solid 4, in that sweet spot just beyond where mechanics are the entire game but short of the pretension of story over all other elements. Another World is a perfectly balanced trifecta of gameplay mechanics, level design, and story, and is without any doubt the greatest videogame ever made.
20 April 2010 @ 12:31 pm
There's been a good deal of detailing regarding the premise of Other M, and while I'm glad to see that everyone's pretty jazzed about seeing the series pulled in a new direction by a new developing team (Team Ninja of Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden fame), the new details raised a few questions for me. I thought I'd go ahead and get some thoughts and examinations down regarding where the series has been and where it looks to be going.

I suppose I should preface this by saying straight out that it's impossible for me to pass judgment on Other M, given that we haven't seen much of it, as well as the obvious fact that I haven't played it yet, so please don't think I'm throwing a Sonic 4-sized bitch fit about something I clearly have no knowledge about. One thing that hands-on reviewers have had to say, in practically a unanimous chorus, is that Other M is going to focus quite a lot on Samus and her history, and to a much greater degree than previous titles have. Keep in mind, there are nine previous titles (if you include Zero Mission, which you should). Of these titles, Zero Mission seems to detail Samus' history the most, but still never outright declares a full life story for the heroine. Instead, we get ideas and insinuations regarding her history with the Chozo, the race of bird-people that have supplied her with her powersuit. Other M, on the other hand, seems poised to give us Samus' history with the Federation, as well as her reasons for eventually going freelance. Those seems like Big Important Ideas, and while I think everyone who has played the Metroid games has wondered about Samus' past, I'm not convinced that everyone has wanted to actually have it told to them, let alone in her own words with the aid of a voice actor. Maybe everyone HAS wanted to actually have it told to them! I don't know! But I do know that I have not had that desire, like, ever, and I'm apprehensive to have Samus, in all her full-motion-video-voice-acted-cutscene glory, sit down and give me the tell-all autobiography.

"But James!" You may say. "Clearly you have a double standard here! Just because Samus has never been voice acted before doesn't mean we've never had talk in previous games!" And you'd be right about that! That's a really important thing to note, actually! Samus does have a little bit to say in the introduction of Super Metroid, but it's all for the purposes of exposition. It's very matter-of-fact, and really only is in there to set up the premise of the game and bring those who hadn't played its predecessors up to speed. The other obvious example is Metroid Fusion, in which we're given a great deal more immediate story than is present in other M titles (har har see what I did there?). While Fusion received universally positive reviews, have you ever heard anybody say that it was their favorite of the series? I'm willing to bet that the answer is "no;" for me, it honestly ranks somewhere near the bottom, and initially it seemed hard to figure out why.

After all, Fusion plays like a Metroid game. You have what feels like nonlinear exploration guided by semi-linear upgrades, small enemies dotting the landscapes between boss encounters, and a dramatic escape before the base you're on explodes. The truth is that the game is actually much, much more linear than the other games that came before it, specifically because of how much more story plays into the title. Generally, story is pretty important, but it's not been important enough in this franchise that it should outweigh the mechanics of the gameplay, and this is generally what separates Fusion from other Metroid titles. You're telling me too much, and in doing so you're also limiting my ability to play this game the way it should be played. This is a good starting point when it comes to talking about my fears about Team Ninja's effort.

What makes me worry about the concept of Other M is that Metroid isn't just about Samus going into the Space Pirate base, blowing some shit up, and bailing in her sweet ass starship as the world explodes into a million little pieces. It's about those things, yes, but it's not just about those things. A lot of what makes Metroid Metroid is the tone in which the story is (or isn't) told. Take the first game of the series as an example:


That's your story. That's IT. "But James!" You may say. "Clearly, as an 8-bit title, the available technology wouldn't allow for the sprawling narratives with which we've recently been so spoiled!" And for the most part, you'd be right about that! But Metroid was able to make up for the those shortcomings by setting a distinct tone and environment in which this mission would unfold. Basically, it's you, your gun, and a whole world of corridors which, if not empty and lonely, were filled with things that would attempt to kill you. The music is brilliant, going from the adventurous theme of Brinstar to the mystery and suspense of Ridley and Kraid, down into the terrifying depths of Tourian where you face the Metroids and the Mother Brain. Everything supports the same conclusions: you're all alone here.

What makes this significant isn't just that it can scare the crap out of you while you're playing, it's that game mechanics and storytelling methods are inextricably linked to one another. The way the story unfolds helps set the tone and ambience for the game environments, but it also ensures that you need very little restriction in terms of progression, which enables you to do a lot of exploring and progress outside of a standard and expected sequence. It is impossible for me to stress this singular point enough, because if you have never played a Metroid game before, I have essentially summed up the secret of its success to you. Low on details, high on exploration, through the roof on the overall experience.

That feeling of isolation and loneliness was what made Metroid 2 and Super Metroid all the more incredible; the next two games in the series recognized their predecessor's tone, and used it to make the story that much better. Samus is bounty hunter. She's clearly a good guy, but we all know "sci fi bounty hunter" might as well have replaced "fucking bad ass" in colloquial terminology. Face it, when you watch a science fiction film and there's a bounty hunter, you know that that character is a bad ass; people don't cosplay as Boba Fett because he was a pansy. You know everything you need to know straight away: this individual is a lone wolf who hunts people for money. So if that badass goes through hell to eradicate an entire race of aliens (say...Metroids?) only to have one hatch from an egg and imprint her as its mother, isn't that a pretty great shift? Even better is what happens when that Metroid turns into a huge killing machine but can still remember its mommy.

What I'm getting at is that great things can be done in a universe where history is in limited quantities, sometimes even better than the things a history lesson can give. Ambiguities are okay as long as they're not there for the simple purpose of vexing you, and I don't feel that that's something that the Metroid series is guilty of; we still get to learn a lot about Samus simply because of the types of missions she accepts and the degree to which she completes them, but the sense of allure remains because of the shrouded history and lone wolf image, aided by the degree to which a player can and should explore in any given title.

It's entirely possible Nintendo has always had some elaborate backstory drafted up and never really had the know how to implement it. It seems equally possible that they never really focused much on elaborating Samus' backstory beyond her upbringing by the Chozo, and instead focused on the game mechanics and the tone set by the environments she traversed. The latter seems much more likely to me, but that's probably because that's really what makes the franchise what it is. Isolation, loneliness, and a distinct lack of information, which reduces the need for an entirely linear experience and increases emergent gameplay or sequence breaking. From the sound of it, Other M has the intention of making story a much more critical factor, which will have to have an impact on gameplay that drives it towards linearity. I feel like a whiny bitch for saying so, but really, isn't that the polar opposite of what makes Metroid...Metroid?
17 December 2009 @ 05:54 pm
After a super stressful day of finishing two papers and an illustration only to have them in before 5 PM the same day, I came home last night to finish up a stencil for a painting that I had committed to doing the following morning. I didn't finish cutting until 5:30 this morning, slept until 7:30, and promptly went to Mac and Charlie's/Gusto to get to work. I started at 9 AM, finished at about 2 PM.

Larger than life

Despite not having eaten all day, and despite the fact that I'm running on what can barely even be described as fumes, today was remarkably therapeutic. I haven't completed a painting on my own accord since the end of September (two days before I lost my job, actually), and to be able to take my own time, work on my own accord, and have absolutely nothing else of pressing importance to distract me was...remarkable, really. It is the first time in weeks that I've felt anything near normal. My stomach hurts, I'm tired, and I feel worn out and broken down. But this is progress.
29 November 2009 @ 10:18 pm
Yeah, we pretty much put it off forever, but we're finally going to put the series to rest and see what happens. And before we watch it, I have to record predictions for the ending!Collapse )