Friday, January 2, 2015

My Favorite Gaming Moments of 2014

What a strange year 2014 was. It was the year I turned and legitimately started to feel middle aged, for better or for worse. But with all the downsides that come with getting older come plenty of upsides, mostly in the form of knowing yourself better, and being able to hopefully minimize the things you don't enjoy in life.

When you've been alive as long as me, you can't help but learn a few things about the world. Actually, that's not entirely true. I'm still mostly at a loss with a ton of things, but I do know how to seek out a great new gaming experience when I'm in the mood. And as is tradition, here are my favorite moments from the past year:

1) Escaping The Room with Friends


Room escape games have been around for a while, and I've always enjoyed the concept, but have never gotten super into them. If you're not familiar with the genre, they're basically self-contained puzzle games that place you inside of some small space - usually one room - and task you with getting out of that room, usually by scouring every nook and cranny for things to unlock other things.

Escape The Room NYC decided to bring the concept to life, inviting groups to pay to get locked in an actual space together for an hour and work together trying to get out. I had a group of friends that enthusiastically jumped at the opportunity to do so. We played through two of the now five available scenarios, and we escaped in one and just barely failed at the other. That loss was heartbreaking, but it also speaks to how difficult the games are, because my friends and I know our way around puzzles.

If you're in the NYC and have friends that are up for the challenge of deciphering codes, running their hands along every surface of a room, and shouting out everything they see and do as they're seeing and doing them (you may want to mix up this particular strategy), then I highly recommend checking these games out:

http://static.escapetheroomnyc.com/

2) Making The World Ours And Creating Our Own Risk: Legacy


If you've ever played the original Risk before, may not have fond memories of the experience. Even if you're up for the multi-hour trial of taking and losing land only to find yourself making a pathetic last stand in Madagascar, you might just feel like the formula's become a little basic after all these years, with all the better games out there - some of them not even about taking over the world!

I present to you: Risk: Legacy, which actually creates an ongoing campaign for a dedicated group of friends (or soon to be enemies) to play through. Its a fascinating concept and they fully deliver on it - the world evolves over time, with certain areas and armies becoming stronger and weaker after each game. You even tear up certain cards when you hit certain milestones, which is kind of insane, and is also a testament to how committed the game is to the idea of making permanent changes.

Of course, no matter what changes you make, the real strategy in Risk is still all about making strategic alliances. But unlike previous games of Risk, there are much longer lasting repercussions to breaking one. I personally have never broken an alliance, but I've only won one out of out ten games so far, so what do I know? Nothing, except that this game is a ton of fun.

3) Smashin' Fools For Days In The New Super Smash Bros. 


Smash Bros. is one of those series that you either love or are constantly wondering what the hell is going on and why is this fun for anyone? I fall decidedly in the first camp, having been a big fan of the Nintendo character fighter since its first iteration on the N64.

There's not much for me to add here except to say I really think this is the best version of the game (versions I guess, since I'm speaking about the Wii U and the 3DS versions) yet. There's always been a lot of depth to the fighting system, and a wide range of characters and fighting styles, and that's the case now more than ever. I love that I can play it on my 3DS wherever I want, and I love that eight people can get together in a room and all play at the same time. What other fighting game has ever been crazy enough to pull that off?

Also, this is awesome:


4) The Jackbox Party Pack Has Perfected The Party Game


On the opposite end of the spectrum of local multiplayer games we have The Jackbox Party Pack, which I really think is the best party game to ever come out for any video game system. Ever. It has five games in it that all use the same mechanic - players use their smart phones as their controller, which has to be one of the greatest design decisions the gaming world has ever seen. I know I'm throwing a lot of hyperbole out there right now, but bear with me you guys, this is one the most important things I've ever written or will ever write.

There are three games worth mentioning in the pack - You Don't Know Jack, which I've loved as long as I've loved Smash Bros., Fibbage, a trivia game that tasks players with inventing their own lies for answers before trying to select the true answer, and Drawful, which replaces the trivia in Fibbage with crude drawings from player's smart phones. All the games have very simple rules that can  be explained in a manner of seconds, and games don't last longer than 20 minutes, though you're going to start a new one immediately after your first three or four at least.

I've never seen some of my friends laugh harder at some of the results from playing this game. Another brilliant design decision is that player's inevitable shitty answers/responses can be awarded "likes" even if they don't wind up getting them any points. This leads to plenty of rounds of friends just amusing themselves rather than gunning for victory, which is really secondary to any party game anyway.

I highly recommend this game for any social gathering of friends, gamers and non-gamers alike.

5) Papers, Please Hurts To Play (In A Good Way)


Up until a few days ago, this list was going to be a nice even five (you know what I mean) moments long. But then I finally sat down and played Papers Please, which I've been sitting for almost an entire year since playing the demo.

The game has been written about extensively, so I sort of knew what to expect going in, but reading about a game asking you to make awful decisions doesn't compare to having to actually make some of the awful decisions you're tasked with making at the border of the fictional country of Arstotzka (hence why you shouldn't take my word for anything I'm about to say - play the game yourself).

Papers, Please is the example I'll always point to when asked what games are capable of that no other medium can do. Being put in the position of immigration officer in a dystopian world not only perfectly captured the real-time frustration of the job, but it forced me to tackle questions I've otherwise never had to think about - how important is my integrity compared to putting food on the table? At what point is blind obedience a fool's errand? How much am I willing to stick out my neck for someone I don't really know? What is the value of a human life?

6) Don't Starve Takes Over My Mind, Life


If you had presented me a list of games I would play in 2014 a year ago, and asked me which title I'd put well over a hundred hours into in the span of a few months, I'd probably pick Skyrim (which yeah, I did play this year, and notice its not on this list), then Smash Bros, then maybe the FTL expansion (which really is great despite not being on this list). Beyond that, I would have shrugged. I certainly would never have thought a game called "Don't Starve" would have been the game I invested more time in than anything else this year, forcing me to debate whether or not I needed another Paused year to make up for it.

I don't even know where to begin with this game, its premise is so basic I almost feel ashamed describing it. You wake up on an island, and you have to survive. Are there bad guys on the island? Yeah kind of, there are aggressive things that don't like you, but will ignore you if you leave them alone. There are also pig men who will be your friend if you give them meat. But the real enemy is just time. Seasons change, the weather gets bad, and you've got to prepare for anything that can and will go wrong, all the while making sure you...well, don't starve.

There are loftier goals - you can escape the island, you can seek out larger goals/objectives if you want to, but I didn't, because surviving in Don't Starve is an ordeal that trumps just about any objective I've come across in a game. Who would have thought having to worry about food, shelter and maintaining some semblance of sanity would make for such compelling game play? Not me, that's for sure. And yet, this game that I picked up for $5 on a lark thanks to a Steam sale threw me down a rabbit hole I've only now just started to climb out of.

Don't Starve was so much of my life I wound up writing a paper on it at the end of my most recent semester (it was well received, and thankfully didn't come with an order for me to seek help). I'd recommend this game to you, but I sincerely hope you don't mind losing the hours of your life that I've (happily, mind you) given up.

*          *          *

Sayonare 2014! Note that I've held out on buying any new consoles (Wii U, PS4, Xbox One) so far, with no desire to do so any time soon. Let's see how long I can hold out with this backlog of mine.

Whaddya got for me 2015?

-Matt

Friday, January 3, 2014

My Favorite Gaming Moments Of 2013

I can't believe it's been six years since I started this blog. Six years since I gave up video games, and boy did I miss them at the time. I'm happy to report that after all these years, my original post-Paused goal - reincorporating games into my life while still doing all the other stuff I want to do - has been fully realized.

Well, realized-ish. I may still play a bit more than I should, but I don't have many regrets about spending my free time doing something I enjoy so much. After all, if I wasn't still playing so many games, how could I compile my yearly list of favorite gaming moments? Speaking of which, it's time to share my 2013 list with all of you:

1) The Stanley Parable's Color Commentary


As a gamer, one of the things you instinctively learn to do when playing a new game is poke around to see how much you're able to get away with. Can you go anywhere you want to? Can you strip down and walk around the world naked? Can you stab, shoot or set on fire to anyone or anything you want to? Finding out your degree of freedom is one of the things that makes games like Grand Theft Auto so popular. But how much freedom do you really have in those games? Can you choose to live a life as a non-criminal? Ultimately that series - like any other game with a semblance of narrative - is funneling your experience down a very specific path, and only giving you the illusion of freedom along the way.

The Stanley Parable is well aware of this, and builds off the concept brilliantly. As the player and the person in charge of controlling the titular Stanley, you are confronted with how ultimately contrived most gaming narratives are - encouraging you to find out how many choices you really have. This playable form of criticism would be pretty depressing if the game wasn't so incredibly funny and brilliantly dealt with. I'd say more, but I don't want to spoil any of the fun. Any gamer who's been around the block and saved a world/universe or two needs to play this game, pronto.

2) The Last of Us' Moving Campaign


I'd been looking forward to The Last Of Us for some time. In fact, I think it's safe to say I bought my PS3 in anticipation of playing it. And I was not disappointed -  the thoroughly enjoyable gameplay (more on that in a bit) combined with a fascinating story kept me hooked from beginning to end.

Actually, I want to talk about the story for a minute, without spoiling anything. After I beat the game, I thought everything had come together so well that I grabbed my roommate to run her through the whole story, hoping she'd appreciate it too. Since we didn't have twenty hours to kill, I condensed everything by showing her the intro, telling her what else happened, then I played out the ending, which I found incredibly powerful. She wasn't impressed. And though my roommate may very well have a cold, black heart beating inside of her, I think what this might imply is that the story is intrinsically tied with the medium, in a good way. Joel and Ellie's journey - while unchangeable (as The Stanley Parable would be quick to point out) - builds on the time you spend in a terribly depressing world with the characters, learning about them, caring about them, and saving both of their lives on a regular basis.

A good story in a game is a rare gem, and something I almost never talk about when recommending a game. But with The Last Of Us, I can't possibly talk about my experience without expressing my love for the journey I went on with Joel and Ellie.

3) The Resistance: Avalon's Improvement On A Winning Formula


I've referenced the party game Werewolf (also known as Mafia) several times before on this blog. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I'm going to talk about a newer, better version of the game, which I've thoroughly enjoyed playing for several nights over the past few months. A group of game designers sought to fix some of the inherent problems with the Werewolf/Mafia formula and put out a game called The Resistance and later, a second, updated version called Avalon, set in the world of Arthurian legend. In this version of the game, there's no more night phase, nor player elimination, so all you're left with is good old fashioned secrecy and baseless accusations.

The highest praise I can provide for Avalon is that a few days ago, on New Year's Eve, we were in the middle of our fourth game just before midnight hit. We stopped at 2 minutes before the ball dropped (while still discussing among ourselves who we trusted and who we didn't) and then, two minutes afterward, we hopped right back into the game. Your mileage may vary (I'm blessed with some wonderful obsessive friends) but all I can say is I'm thrilled that someone went and improved on a formula I thought once was perfect.

4) The Last of Us' Addicting Multiplayer


This is how much I loved this game. It's on my top 5 list TWICE.

Remember what I said before about the gameplay? Well, it turns out it was good enough for me to check out the online multiplayer (something I hadn't done in any game for years) and boy did I get hooked. It's always a plus when a game doesn't demand that you be a crackshot, or obsessively know every map like the back of your hand. Being able to sit back and play a medic, while scoring an occasional kill with a 2x4 made me feel like I was contributing, which is so important for people when they're first dipping their toes in the post-apocalyptic water.

Matches in the resource-deprived arena get super intense in a way the campaign's level never could because computer A.I. hasn't come anywhere close to matching human cunning. No matter how many virtual throats I slit, nothing will ever compare with sneaking up behind another person and doing the deed. After beating the single player campaign, I played the multiplayer pretty obsessively throughout the summer, and I even made a friend or two online, which I wrote a little something about. That same piece found itself in one of workshops later in the year.

That's right - on top of having my favorite story of the year, as well as an addicted multiplayer component, The Last Of Us also inspired me to write a personal non-fiction piece worthy of submission. I don't think I could praise this damn game any higher.

5) Mage Knight's Epic Day Long Adventures


2013 was the year of the co-op board game for me. There's something really cool about sitting around a table with friends, working together towards a common goal, and when a game gets the mechanics and the difficulty just right, it can make for a very memorable experience.

I'm not sure if it's an actual trend, or I've just stumbled upon a lot of these types of games this year. Hanabi, Robinson Crusoe, Eldritch Horror, and Archipelago are all enjoyable games that revolve around teamwork (except in the case of Archipelago, which threatens the group with an uprising that should, in theory, force the group to work together, but in the case of our group, it just meant every game ended early with an uprising). But nothing compares to the epic quests that came out of an all-day Mage Knight marathon.

Mage Knight is a deck-builder / dungeon crawler that can be played cooperatively or competitively, but our most memorable experiences came out of banding together in an attempt the beat the co-op scenarios into submission. And believe me, this is no easy task. We've spent multiple eight-plus hour sessions scouring the land, building up our characters only to get decimated by the campaign's end boss. And all it did in the end was get us talking about our next playthrough. What would we do differently next time, to ensure victory? (The answer, it turned out, was to sacrifice my poor character)

The experience is definitely not for the faint of heart. But if you can find a few worthy compatriots, I highly recommend diving in and experiencing this game for yourself.

Honorable Mentions


I hate to cut the list off early since I really did enjoy a lot of games this year. Some of them were overall excellent but maybe just lacked that specific 'moment' worth calling out. The new Legend of Zelda (A Link Between Worlds) brought on a healthy dose of nostalgia and was a worthy Zelda game in it's own right (it bears mentioning that it also got me to bite the bullet and finally buy a 3DS).


I haven't beaten Rogue Legacy yet, but it's essentially become my FTL/'Rogue-like' game of intense, just barely pleasurable frustration in the form of constant death and restarts. I truly hope my 427th heir finally conquers that castle!


If you haven't checked out Card Hunter yet, and enjoy strategy games at all, I highly recommend doing so. It's free, it's online, it's got a really polished aesthetic, and it's just overall quite excellent, so no excuses!


I also have to thank/curse the Project M people for getting me hooked on Smash Bros. again, after a somewhat disappointing experience with Brawl.

Lastly, I'll close with this wonderful present from the Cards Against Humanity people - one of twelve from their 12 Days of Holiday Bullshit Bonanza. It's a card with my name on it - now usable in any game of CAH that I play. I can imagine how my friends will make use of it.



That's all I got. Thanks for reading, and here's to some great gaming in 2014!

-Matt

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Working For The Shafeekend

I've read a number of times that half the pleasure one gains from a vacation comes from the planning of it. You're giving yourself something to look forward to, something positive to think about. And the beauty of it is this part of the vacation costs you nothing. You can immerse yourself in the not too distant future, imaging all the wonderful possibilities, all the ways that your life is soon going to become more interesting or exciting, if only for a time.

I must have this knowledge embedded in my DNA, because ever since I was a child I've been a pretty serious planner. Back then it was my Saturday morning cartoon schedule and my days at Disney World. Later it became complicated video games and making hangouts with friends happen with a limited number of cars and ever increasing number of clics. Nowadays, filling my calendar is a literally a full time job. It's what I actually do for a living: scheduling and maintaining the calendar of a busy executive, all the while continuing my own perpetual planning cycle.

I used to consider myself a present hedonist, unable to find any pleasure outside of the moment, but I now realize that the delayed gratification of scheduling has become a much more powerful drug for me. You can think of it as the ultimate game - filling every day of a calendar with something interesting or exciting. Hell, even this blog started as a year-long countdown to the day when I could end my self-imposed exile from video games.

I'm surprised I didn't come to this realization sooner. And now that I've become aware of it, I'm trying to decide how much of a good thing or a bad thing it is. It's certainly got its fair share of pros and cons. On the plus side, friends that are normally terrible about staying in touch remain in steady contact with me thanks to steady pings. In a writing workshop I took this year, I wound up volunteering to put together a schedule for everyone when the professor showed a casual indifference towards the idea. Everyone seemed grateful, though I imagine some may have initially thought of me as a bit of an overachiever, or a brown-noser. But by the semester's end, after seeing all the non-class related invitations and events with my name attached to them, I'm sure they all knew the truth. I had to do it. I'm a planning shark. Without a clear path forward, I'm sure I'll die.

That brings us to the cons. The planning never stops. At every event I've planned, while I'm with the people I care about, who've given me the kindness of their time, I can't help but ask for more. At the Thanksgiving dinner I hosted, I talk about my upcoming holiday party. At my holiday party I mention my big birthday bash. And at my soon to arrive big birthday bash, I'm sure I'll be scrambling to see what sort of Super Bowl plans everyone has (I don't enjoy football so much, but it'll just be so nice to see people again). It's only during game nights - when I get to devote all my time to plotting and strategizing my next move that I'm truly in the moment.

I'm sure a lot of this has to do with having been single for most of my life. You can't possibly feel left out or lonely when you've got something planned for every single night of the week. I don't even have time for a girlfriend! I'm simply dying to tell someone, someday. And good lord is it hard being a type A type of guy dating in New York City. You could not throw something more frustrating into a dedicated planner's life than the inevitable chaos of dating.

I like to tell people about the time my mother tried to throw me a surprise party. The punchline to the story is that when she reached out to my friends, they informed her that I'd already begun planning a much more elaborate event weeks before she had. Here's the thing though: I'd love it if a surprise party was thrown for me. The thing is, you're not really allowed to say that, right? How can you? By wishing this thing into existence, you've already announced your anticipation for it. It's like asking a magician to show you a trick, just after consulting a book debunking everything he knows. "I'd love to be amazed," you'd say, "but just so you know, I've done my research."

So instead of blindly hoping for a surprise party, I've gone in the opposite direction. As my birthday approaches every year, I plan out what's become coined "The Shafeekend" - a full three days/nights of activities that a varying number of my friends are invited to. And it's better than anything anyone else would have put together anyway. Because why leave to chance what you can just prepare for now?

All I need now is for everyone else to set aside as much time for me as I am.

-Matt

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Video Games Do It Better: Boomerangs

If you want to know what makes video games truly shine, look no further than the boomerang.

Yes, the boomerang.

Left: Throwing Sticks. Right: Crazy Magic Tools Of Power!

Now, I could point to jet packs, time machines, or any number of fictional or hypothetical objects that only exist within the confines of a game world, but boomerangs are great because they're based on a real life object that they outclass in every possible physics-defying way.

Video game boomerangs might be considered mundane by video game standards, but they're actually pretty amazing. Gamers take them for granted as an early reward we forget about as soon as we have a hookshot, a Bat-Taser or some other more exciting toy, but think about how awesome the even most the basic video game boomerang is for a second. It acts like an extension of your avatar's hand - toss it safely anywhere in the game world and test your boundaries with a satisfying fwip fwip fwip. Is that wall real? Fwip fwip fwip. Is that statue really a statue, or is it a very still stone golem? Fwip fwip fwip. Will the game allow me to smack innocent old ladies in the head? Fwip fwip-yup, it will, and boy is she pissed!

The boomerang follows the same exact arc every time you throw it, and no matter what it will always come back to you. On the return trip 'ol boomie gains an uncanny level of determination that gives it ability to travel through solid objects and even people in order to make its way back to you. Even if you were to toss one way into the distance then leave the area without bothering to wait for it to come back, it will still somehow manage to find its way right back into your hands. That my friends, is a helluva stick...or a curse, maybe, I guess, depending on how you feel about it.

These digital tools also have powers real life boomerangs could never accomplish. They can hit objects and creatures, breaking or stunning them while also still making its way back to you. Somehow the Zelda series even got away with having them pick up things along the way, like a loyal, inanimate dog. How on earth can a simple curved stick stun an octorok, pick up rupees and still return back to Link in a single toss? Video games motherfucker, that's how.

I tossed a real life boomerang once or twice in my life. Talk about a disappointing experience. As it turns out, the damned thing requires a precise throw in order to return back to you. You're not going to get a boomerang to even begin to fly back your way unless you spend at least a few hours practicing throwing and, inevitably, retrieving a stick that you've tossed with all your might. How awful is that?

Now before all you RL Defenders out there get on my case about the value of learning a skill, or impart on me the difference between pushing a button and holding a tangible physical object in my hands with a weight, a smell, or a feeling against my hands - don't even bother, mate. It's just a boring old, dolled up non-magical stick. And learning to throw it, as a skill? Please. I don't know how to fix a pipe, a roof, or like, any part of a car. Those are the skill I'd should actually learn (but probably won't) before learning how to properly throw something that, no matter how much training I undergo, will never be able to collects coins off the street along the way before returning to me. What a waste of time!

Video games took a semi-interesting object in the real world and improved upon it in every single way.   They've successfully taken the concept of the boomerang, and digitally perfected it.

So thank you video games. Like our friend the boomerang, no matter how many times I give you up, I'll always keep comin' back.

-Matt


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Factions


I've been playing a lot of Factions, the online multiplayer mode in The Last Of Us. I find the combat incredibly addicting, though I'm actually not very good at shooting other people. I mostly run around healing my teammates and crafting items for them. There's something kind of funny about being a video game medic, desperately trying to stave off the endless cycles of death all around you. I mean, I still get awarded lots of parts for my efforts, so whatever.

I love games like I love nothing else and I take them all very seriously. Some might argue too seriously, though I would certainly disagree with that. It's an old habit from childhood that I don't really care to change, much like my unwillingness to lower my voice in public settings.

If you and I are hanging out in a group and the suggestion of playing a game comes up (most likely from me) and you don't want to play any games, this will upset me. Why would you not want to play games? Games are great. Games are fun. Why do you dislike great fun?

If you agree to play a game, but then show no investment in said game, this will upset me even more. Why are you not taking this game seriously? Games only work if everyone takes the game seriously. Why do you enjoy ruining everyone's fun?

The key to winning in Factions is finding a solid group of players that all are willing to work together. Ideally they all have mics so they call out or respond to tactics, and no one plays Rambo and runs off on their own. I always play the de facto leader of the group, but if someone pushes hard for the role, I will happily acquiesce. After all, you are showing a level of commitment to the game that I have the utmost respect for.

One of the players on my friend list is a guy who goes by the handle BCity. I am RCJester, which is short for Royal Court Jester. I don't know what 'BCity' is short for, but if I had to take a guess I'd say Bliss City, 'cause BCity is always in a good mood.

"Yo, you fuckers just got schooled!" someone on the opposing team shouts into the lobby after we've lost a game.

"Hah - you seriously trash talkin' after one game? That ain't nothin'," BCity says.

"Check the scoreboard bitch," the voice responses.

"Uh, how about you check the scoreboard, bitch - look at my goddamned level and tell me I haven't won more games than you."

This is great because I mostly stay quiet during the post-game whether we win or lose since I don't want to ever come off like a hypocrite. At most I'll pretend as if I've heard "good game," and return the imagined sentiment.

"Hey BCity - do you think you're tough because you're black?" the same voice says to him. Now I kind of wish BCity hadn't said anything because we're about two sentences away from the n-word coming out.

"Why do you think I'm black? Is it because that's the color of the guy who fucked your mama last night?" BCity says, all with a casual tone. He's clearly handled this kind of comment before.

Our opponents log off and it's back to just me and BCity in the lobby.

"Haha, damn. Can you believe those kids thought I was black? That's fucking hysterical."

"Hah, yeah, seriously," I say. I also believe BCity is black. It's the kind of thing you can tell in a person's voice. He's either black, or he's a very talented and committed performer.

One of my favorite things about online gaming is that once the game gets going you can't pause it or take a time out to interrupt things. If anything in real life comes up and you have to put the controller down your character is now just helplessly standing there in the game world, fully exposed and likely soon dead. It's pretty much the highest level of commitment you can find in a gaming experience.

What I love about BCity is he's one of the few players I know who's never disappeared in the middle of a game. Even I've had to step away on occasion and I hate myself for it. I always apologize profusely when I come back and make sure to craft extra gifts for my teammates to make up for my absence. But BCity doesn't stop for anything. Even when his young daughter is screaming in the background for his attention.

"Yo Kaitlin - shut the fuck up and let daddy play his game," BCity tells the little girl who sounds no older than two. "I told you I'll feed you when I finish a few more rounds, okay?"

The idea of a grown man yelling at his likely starving child (whose real name I now know) is mildly disturbing, but also this game is really close and BCity is our best killer.

"Language, BCity!" I say jokingly, hoping a polite teasing will sink in later when he's not playing. Plus I have my own reputation to uphold. They don't call me RCJester for nothing. Well, I mean, technically I named myself that, but also there's this persona that I maintain. Whatever.

"Haha, it's cool man. She don't know what the fuck I'm saying."

I drop the subject and focus on the game. We wind up winning handily. Back in the lobby, BCity bursts into a rap that I don't recognize. I offer up some beatbox sounds in support.

"So, you gotta go now BCity?" I ask, assuming his time is up.

"Nah man, I'm good for a few more if you're around."

His child cries in the background. She sounds pretty upset. But also, we're officially on a streak now.

"Yeah, definitely. Let's do it up."

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

[Onion Wedges] 22nd Century Time Traveler Claims Our Tragic Future Is Not Worth Worrying About At This Point

[AUSTIN] In the eight days since he appeared in a flash of indigo light, confirmed time traveler Declan Yeun has done everything in his power to be ignored. He claims that, while he does have explicit knowledge of the future horrors that humanity will soon be facing, it is far too late to do anything remotely useful, and that the best thing for everyone to do would be to just enjoy the time they have left.

"The truth is someone in my time had a major goof, they must have hit the wrong button or whatever, and since time travel is a one-way trip, I'm basically stuck in a period when I'm no good to anyone," Yeun said. "Please just carry on and pretend I'm not here. Before you do though, could someone point me in the direction of a Chipotle, or some other meat-serving establishment?"

Declan Yeun, in a futuristic 'swirl-o-suit,' which he stated: "will be the only way to "stave off cancer rays" without any additional context.
After painting a brief but harrowing vision of what kind of ecological and economic disasters are about to plague the world, changing life as we know it forever, Yeun claimed that he was meant to travel back a century earlier, when our impending doom could actually be averted.

"My goal was to play this vidcapsule to 1913 societies everywhere that shows what happens over the next 200 years, and let them know of the many small but feasible changes required to give their descendants a fighting chance. You know, when there were less than seven billion people fighting over the limited resources available on this planet. But here, in this time? Pfffffffffff....yeah, it's way too late."

Yeun soon relocated to a small beach in Costa Rica where, in between yoga lessons, he's continued to answer questions from teams of scientists, politicians and reporters from his bungalow:

"Look, the 2113 guys crunched the numbers. This era's a runaway train that can't be stopped. I mean, if every last one of you immediately gave up on oil, fossil fuels, and every form of non-clean energy tomorrow, you could possibly make a difference. But you'd also have to stop all of your wars, dismantle every nuclear armaments on the entire planet, collectively switch to vegetarianism, and effectively all stop voting Republican." After leaving a dramatic pause to sip from his soy latte, Yeun continued: "So...yeah. You should really just enjoy this while it lasts. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take a swim in some non-toxic ocean water."

On a more positive note, the man from the 22nd century - who has since traded in his futuristic biosuit for a stylish pair of khakis and a polo shirt from Banana Republic - has begun spreading the word about the few good things that humanity has coming its way:

"I could go on and on about the lava quakes or the genital plague all day, or I could tell you guys about how frangin' awesome your television shows are going to be over the new few years. There's going to be this kickass show about an elephant detective, this one reality show where everyone's always using stun guns on each other, and then there's that one amazing HBO drama about a team of scientists who save the world from falling apart right in the nick of time. It's high-fantasy, obviously, but it's well written and uplifting in a way pretty much nothing else will be after that. Oh - and you guys haven't even seen the final seasons of Mad Men or Breaking Bad yet! They're really great. They were actually playing them in a retrospective at our Museum of Cultural Achievements just before roving marauders tore the whole place down."

Lately Yeun has had limited contact with the press, spending most of his time attempting to form a long form improv team and creating a believable OKCupid profile. When asked during his most recent appearance if there were anything meaningful that could be done here in this time, Yeun mulled over the question for some time before responding:

"I urge you all to take a long hard look at each of your lives, and ask yourselves what's the most impor-oh wait! Is James Gandolfini still alive? No? Man, that's a shame. Actually, while we all still have electricity, we should totally have a Sopranos marathon."

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Do Kids Deserve Less Cartoonishly Evil Villains?

I recently finished watching the first season of The Legend of Korra, the sequel to the fantastic Avatar: The Last Airbender series on Nickelodeon. I like this new series a lot too, and not just because there are more people shooting water, air, fire and earth all over the place like elemental ninjas. The world feels alive, with well-defined characters filled with hopes, fears, and desires that the show doesn't simply insert and drop to fit a given storyline.

I especially like how the show handles its villains. A year ago I wrote about how thoroughly pleased I was with the The Last Airbender's treatment of the series' main antagonist Zuko, who struggled with his morality and eventually became an ally and true friend to Aang and the others. Continuing that tradition, every new villain in Legend of Korra is given a fair amount of depth and backstory explaining the motivation behind their actions. A tragic death of a loved one here, a shitty childhood/father there, and you can essentially get what drove these characters to the dark side.

The three dimensions are, uh, harder to see with the mask on.
It seems like such a simple thing, but looking back, none of the cartoon villains I had growing up had any kind of backstory whatsoever. It pretty much just boiled down to Always Be Cravin' - power, money, or whatever the heroes had that they didn't. Skeletor, Shredder, Cobra Commander, Megatron, Dr. Claw - I can think back and remember each one of their maniacally evil laughs, along with their individual promises to the heroes of the days they will rue, or the eternal reminder that next time, things will be different. But nothing deeper than that.

It reminds me of the whole anti-drug campaign I grew up being bombarded with: Don't do drugs kids, they're for losers. Drugs will rot your brains. Drugs will make you into an instant addict. Going into high school (no, I didn't encounter drugs before then), I blindly believed it all. Then I showed up at my first party with a room full people smoking pot. After five minutes of not seeing anyone's brains turning into fried eggs, I thought: "well, I guess that was total bullshit." Couldn't at least a portion of the anti-drug message allow for the fact that there are some drugs that are worse for you than others, and that some drugs, like marijuana, are actually pretty harmless? Are gray area messages that like too hard to pull off to kids? Something tells me that's not true.

Or we could just boil it down to name calling.
While the drug issue might be a little trickier to pull off (I honestly can't see ads saying: Okay don't do most drugs kids, and if you're going to smoke pot, that's fine, just don't become a full-on stoner, not because it's going to kill you, but c'mon you know stoners are super lame), I don't think there's any harm in portraying more three dimensional villains in children's entertainment. Like the mystical "dope" I'd heard so much about but never actually saw, I've never met anyone like the villains on the shows I watched growing up. You know who I did meet? Bullies with emotional issues. Pricks who thought they were better than everyone else. And some people who always acted really nice but would eventually reveal themselves to be selfish, inconsiderate assholes. There were like, zero episodes of the Care Bears dealing with those kinds of people.

Actually, I've met far more people who just come from a very different ideological place than me, and we have conflicting opinions on how the world should be. These are people I'll probably never be friends with, or maybe we won't ever be able to be in the same room together. But at the very least I can understand on some level where they're coming from, even if I don't agree with them. That's something very few children's programs prepared me for at all. Not even just the silly cartoons, either - I'm including things like Sesame Street and Mr. Roger's Neighborhood here.

And I don't think they get away with this simply because they're made for kids. The stuff I watched growing up for hundreds if not thousands of hours shaped me in a lot of ways. My moral framework probably came just as much from Superman and The Berenstein Bears as it did from my parents or what I learned in school. But as a result I know I came to believe that the world was a lot more black and white than it actually is. I definitely believed - unconsciously if not outright - that people were generally either bad or good, and that they always presented themselves that way (unless, you know, they were dirty evil liars whose dirty evil lies hadn't be exposed yet). And I had a much harder time unraveling this lie, since it was told to me about a thousand times as often, and the truth didn't present itself quite so clearly.

No, of course he wasn't a bad guy. He wasn't wringing his hands together and cackling like bad people do!
Now, I'm not saying I need to see the Smurfs politely agree to disagree with Gargamel on the whole 'turning Smurfs into gold' issue. Or show a Mumm-Ra flashback where he's being sodomized by cat demons. I just think programs like The Legend of Korra show it's possible to have the exciting stakes and the drama of any of the shows I watched growing up with just a little bit of pathos for the villains thrown in for the sake of telling a complete story. Maybe seeing that these villains are flawed and human-like in their misguided ways might condition kids early on to see the world less strictly filled with good guys and bad guys, or combinations of 'us' versus 'them'. Instead, they'll see a world that's just a little more complicated, with lots of people who have varying degrees of hangups and all different kinds of motivations. Wouldn't that make for a better take-home message?

-Matt

PS: I don't have kids, so I'd be curious to know what any parents might think about this issue. Maybe I'm thinking about it too much from an adult perspective. Thoughts?