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?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

7:00AM


So I’m trying this new thing where I get up early in the morning to write. And boy do I hate it.

I mean, this really sucks. I’ve never gotten up earlier than I wanted to play video games, so you can imagine how motivated I was to get up and do something significantly more mentally taxing and less fun.

But I’m a writer dammit! I should be fully embracing this time, treasuring every opportunity I have to sit down in front of my computer and create art with words. Ooh, would you look at that - “art words” (or “word art”, if you prefer) could be another name for writing. Wow. Has anyone made that incredibly stupid observation before? Do you see how my brain isn’t even fully awake yet?! I’m making a terrible mistake.

Sigh.

Now, in order to get myself up and writing I made myself a deal. I’m allowed to basically spend this entire god-awful early morning writing time complaining how much I hate that I’m writing this early in the morning. And whatever other tangents await me.

So let’s talk about the things I’d rather be doing right now. It’s a pretty short list, to be honest. 

1) Sleeping

   1a) While sleeping, dreaming about discovering my latent flying/mind control/time travel powers finally activating, and becoming a superhero.
 
   1b) While sleeping, dreaming about canoodling with Christina Hendricks, who has a secret fetish for short bald guys. Post-canoodle I realize my latent flying/mind control/time travel powers have finally activated, and I become a superhero - telling Christina Hendricks she’s the only one can know my secret. 

   1c) Mid-sleeping, waking up, looking at the clock, saying to myself “Hah! I don’t have to be up this early!” then immediately going back to sleep.

You know, I bet Steinbeck didn’t struggle like this. I bet he would easily rise up out of his old timey bed (which was cushioned with hay or something) as soon as he heard the rooster crow. Then he casually make his way over to his old timey desk, sit down with a quill and some parchment, and say to himself: “might as well shove out a few chapters of East of Eden before I have my morning D.R.” That smug bastard! Oh, and in case you didn’t know, ‘D.R.’ was slang for ‘Depression-era Ration’. Inside the breakfast D.R. was a dry packet of oats you were forbidden to combine with anything else because those were some hard times.

"Actually, I started writing around 5:00am." "Screw you Steinbeck!"
But hey, forget that. Steinbeck actually had a huge advantage over me, one I have every right to complain about. See, he didn’t have the neurons in his brain altered while he was growing up by countless hours of television, video games and the internet. He didn’t have to work against all the distractions I’m showing incredible resolve not giving into right now. I’m knee deep into this game The Last Of Us. I’ve got the fate of the game’s characters weighing on my mind as well as the mentally complex skillset I’ve had to learn in order to take down hordes of fungus-filled undead. What the heck did John Steinbeck have to distract him from writing? Hunger? Poverty? High infant mortality rates? C’mon!

Lord knows I’ve tried evening (wait, that’s not right. Even-ning? My 7:00am brain can't make heads or tails of these kinds of problems) the playing field. But it’s still not enough. I’ve tried for a long time to build up my own natural discipline, but I think I’m going about it the wrong way. I need to lean into what my brain wants and is used to at this point, rather than resisting it. If I’m going to keep doing this more than just today, I’m going to need some hardcore ego validation. I’m talking likes, favorites, retweets, +1’s, and even better, MEGA-UPS which don’t exist yet as far as I know but totally should for things like this (and to be clear, not for stuff like baby or engagement announcements - those are self-validating enough already). But that’s not all. In fact, I’m only just getting started.

To get me out of bed in the first place, I want there to be a sensual-sounding woman’s voice to wake me up. This sensual-sounding voice should belong to a princess (or the societal equivalent) who is proclaiming that she desperately needs my help to save her kingdom, (or village, or time period) and that only an amazing writer like me is up for the task. My brain is not nearly functional enough right now to come up with a reason explaining how a writer could possibly save a kingdom/village/time period (start with like, I dunno, an enchanted pen?), so that’ll be someone else’s job. But the details are important here, as lip service will only lessen my resolve. It should be a well written, Steinbeck-worthy plot that gets me to get back to my own writing. Note that it can’t be so great that I find myself wondering if I could ever come up with a story that tantalizing. At that point I might just crawl back into bed forever.

I’ll also need dramatic music playing while I write to add some stakes. Dr. Wily’s Theme from Mega Man 2 should be playing on loop, sung by this guy if possible, with added lyrics involving my struggle. Something like:

It’s time for writing, it’s time for writing, yes it is
It’s time for writing, yes inde-eed
It’s time for writing by Matt Shafe-eek
A master scribe who will survive...this pain!

Every sentence I write should be accompanied by alternating manly cheers and sexy lady moans. A point value should be counting up with every word in the corner of my laptop screen, and once I’ve hit my writing goal for the morning, cheers erupt from all around me, and I’m given an opportunity to strike a pose while the Super Castlevania IV victory theme plays. Baaa-ba-ba-ba-badaba-ba-ba-ba!

My accumulated points will be counted and can be used to leveling up my writing-related abilities such as dialogue, character descriptions, and conjugations. Yes, I know my writing will naturally progress as I spend more time doing it, but game designers have clearly perfected the formula for a sense of growth. Numbers filling up number tanks, topping off with fanfare, and getting to see my talent definitively improve rather than having to...I dunno, just somehow sense it would definitely get me just as hooked on writing as I have on every RPG I’ve ever played.

You know what? I'm going to put all my points into Erotica.
So that’s what I need to feel properly motivated to write first thing in the morning. Someone please get on setting all that up. I’m just gonna go rest my eyes in the meantime.

-Matt

PS: If any of the above doesn't make any sense, you can't hold any of it against me. 7:00am brain.

PPS: Full disclosure: this was written over the course of several 7:00am morning writing sessions. But always way too early in the morning. So continue to not hold any of it against me.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Addressing The David Sedaris Problem



I first discovered David Sedaris in the early 2000's, shortly after I graduated from college. At the time, I had subconsciously given up on books forever in response to my newfound freedom from school, parents and societal norms. After being forced to read an ever-increasing amount of material I had no interest in for the better part of my life, it came as no surprise that I practically gave up on literacy altogether. Besides, video games, movies and television were far more exciting to me. This was the staying-up-past-midnight or eating-cookies-for-dinner of my early 20's.

Around this time I was handed a copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, and was surprised to discover that I could not put it down. I was completely drawn in by Sedaris' brand of self-deprecating humor, a creative choice that mimicked my own, both in person and in writing. I devoured everything I could get my hands on, and with each new book I found myself even more impressed. I couldn't imagine how someone could draw so many interesting stories from their own life, let alone simply remember them. His name rocketed to the top of my list of favorite authors, mostly fantasy writers like Piers Anthony and J.R.R. Tolkien. And while reading his work, I found myself thinking: "I can see myself doing this someday."


When I finished reading Sedaris' latest essay collection Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls, it left me with a nagging thought that started with his previous collection, When You Are Engulfed In Flames. With some exceptions, I've found that his stories are just not nearly as engaging as they once were. It seems like an obvious statement - the man has six different collections of stories from his life - at some point that well's gotta be tapped, right? But I have a personal stake in this statement being wrong. Sedaris' style is something I've been mimicking in my own writing for years. I named him as my biggest influence when I recently applied to an MFA Writing Program. I don't want to believe that a person's life stops being interesting (or at the very least, bite-size story-worthy) enough to write about after a certain point. Especially if you've proven yourself to be a gifted writer who can mine humor and narrative out of the mundane (and, if I'm being honest, the not-so-mundane - the man himself is a little kooky). But if it's not that, then what is it?

I have a few theories on why some of his more recent stories fail to grab me as a reader, and hopefully I can learn something from them in the process as a writer.

1) The most important person in his life is boring, or is deliberately being portrayed as such

I was out to dinner at a vegan restaurant with my mother a few weeks ago. She's trying to mix up a lifetime of meat and dairy consumption after her recent visit to a healthy diet commune (she called it a fat farm). The deal was sealed after she watched a documentary thoroughly detailing life-changing benefits of a plant-based diet. I don't blame her. She's fifty seven years old, and on top of the heart disease and diabetes that run in our family, her older sister is dealing with a persistently spreading cancer. It's not a bad time to make the switch.

During the dinner (which was delicious by the way - veganism is easy if you can afford to eat at expensive vegan restaurants on a regular basis) the topic of my non-fiction writing came up, and with a knowing laugh she pleaded with me to not write anything bad about her. "I've been a good mother to you, right?" she asked. I told her that yes, she had been a very good mother to me, and quietly dodged the subject of what I would be writing about her someday down the line.

The above two paragraphs contain more detail than we've ever gotten about Hugh, the man David Sedaris has been dating and living with for well over a decade. Though he's now in the majority of the stories Sedaris tells from his life over the past ten years, I can recall exactly two details about the man: he is the handier/manlier of the two of them, and he apparently walks quite fast. That's it. There are small details mentioned here and there, but by and large the man is a blank slate, and their relationship could simply be loving and stable, or violent and destructive for all I know. By contrast, Sedaris' family members are all fascinating characters (especially his late mother), in whatever stage of his life they're portrayed in.

I suspect Hugh must have made it clear at some point that he doesn't want to get the same treatment that Sedaris gave his family. It's either that, or he is simply the least interesting person on the planet, and Sedaris finds himself unable to make a story-worthy character out of him in his work. Both scenarios are regrettable - in the first, Sedaris is making a compromise that hurts his career and the second, much less plausible scenario actually makes him a lazy, poor writer. Either way, every story he writes focuses squarely on himself, his family (again) or someone he spends a negligible amount of time with.

2) His success has led to an end of any genuine struggles

My initial draw to David Sedaris was in following the life of a vulnerable man desperately trying to figure out his place in the world. Lucky for him (at least, from a writer's perspective) that journey took much longer than usual. He spent years working menial jobs, moving all over the country and regularly getting high. When he finally starting telling the stories of his life, he had a treasure chest full of wonderfully specific details and colorful pre-Hugh characters: working as one of Santa's elves at Macy's, dealing with a homophobic neighbor and her child in a rundown apartment in the South, and getting into all sorts of trouble while hitchhiking his way across various U.S. cities.

Nowadays his stories are all told from a place of comfort. When he travels to new places for months or weeks at a time and tries to integrate himself into the culture or learn the language, it's clear the intended effect for the reader is 'stranger in a stranger land.' But there's never really anything at stake. Worse, it's just plain less funny because we're dealing with a successful man who is able to keep everyone around him at a distance (wherever he is) and is not making particularly interesting, or better yet, stupid choices. He's more or less living the life of a well-to-do writer who gets to buy whatever he wants and live wherever he wants for however long he wants.

Young David Sedaris was neurotic (he literally had nervous tics and rituals he went through), needy, and always seemed to take two steps back after taking one step forward. There's a hint of this in Sedaris' newer stories, but it's just not the same. Now - I'm not saying I need Sedaris to purposefully screw up or give up his fame and wealth (the man has suffered long enough), but he's definitely going to have to dig deeper into some untapped material if he wants to keep writing about his life. I can't say what that material is, but honestly, he needs to find it. His fiction is far worse than any of his personal essays to date. Speaking of which...

3) His judgments of others seems far less forgivable these days

Sedaris makes no efforts to hide his liberal political leaning, which on its own is fine. But the bias leads to some uncomfortable moments when he's describing or dealing with a person who is obviously not on the same page as him. The most egregious example of this is in the handful of fictional stories Sedaris mixes into his latest book of essays. They're all written from angry, one-dimensional nut-jobs who have always have a grudge against someone, and that someone is usually President Obama.

It's already a sign of a lack of material to include random pages of fiction in a non-fiction collection* (and as a reader, without any warning of the transition, you have to start each story off wondering where this new side of Sedaris came from until it clicks that it's not him anymore). I may side with him politically, but I'm not reading his work expecting a Michael Moore-esque commentary on the state of this country, especially as he doesn't actually live here anymore, and very much comes off as an outsider looking in.

On top of this, Sedaris' commentary on the people he comes across nowadays feels snarkier than it ever has before. I understand it on some level. Opinions on people - especially groups of people - are tricky. This is something I struggle with a bit myself in my own writing, because Matt Shafeek the character living in the story can and should have an opinion on the people in his life, but Matt Shafeek the author needs to make it clear that he is unbiased in his descriptions, otherwise you're a un-trustworthy, judgmental jerk-faced writer.

I think David Sedaris was better able to handle this contrast in his earlier works, but is less able to maintain (or just cares less about) the separation now. Whether it's laziness, cantankerousness, or just the fact that the man has a much higher status now, it's very distracting to me as a reader.

The take-home message

It's unfortunate that I'm not enjoying the work of my favorite author as much I once did. Hopefully David Sedaris turns all of this around in the future - perhaps after reading this blog post (I didn't opt for an open letter this time, but hey, it's still a public posting).

In the meantime, what can I learn from all of this as a writer? The way I see it, I just have to take a few simple precautions, and I should be okay: I have to be willing to talk openly about everyone in my life (don't worry mom!) without blatantly trashing or getting on my high horse about them (see mom?), and also I have to ensure that I never get famous or wealthy, so that my life struggles come to an end (sorry mom).

Sounds easy enough, right?

-Matt

*I understand he may have done this in one of his earliest works, the only book of his I haven't read yet. I'd be curious to see if the idea was better executed here.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

More Tragedies, More Times

Look guys - it's my first SERIES!
This is just a quick plug post to direct you guys over to my (now) monthly series Tragedy Plus Time on the awesome comedy nerd blog known as Splitsider. These pieces are always a huge effort to put together, but I really enjoying digging into the lives of so many different comedians and their respective pasts.

I plugged the earlier ones before, so I'll just give you the latest since then.

I recently wrote one about comedians who've dealt with divorce:

http://splitsider.com/2013/04/divorce-is-hilarious-sometimes/

And just today got my latest piece up about comedians dealing with war & terrorism:

http://splitsider.com/2013/05/fighting-or-at-least-responding-to-war-and-terrorism-with-comedy/

I also finally saw this movie.
Hope you enjoy 'em. Spread the word if you do!


-Matt

Monday, April 29, 2013

Flirtation Calibration

Worth it for the catchy rhyming title alone, yes?
Did you guys know I'm a bit of a pick up artist? Well, ok, that's not exactly true, but I have learned a thing or two over the years from various sources that have helped me tremendously within the world of dating, self-confidence and attraction. It's a fascinating realm and though I still have a long ways to go, I've felt experienced enough to share a little bit of what I learned:

http://www.gutsygeek.com/flirtation-calibration/

Gutsy Geek is a great resource for people like me who come from a lifetime of living through games and other media and find that matters involving the opposite sex are way more difficult and intimidating than we were led to believe. Check out the site if you're interested in the life of a gamer who faced his fears head on and turned it into mastery, something I always respect.

-Matt

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

An Open Letter To Just Burgers


Dear Just Burgers,

Hey buddy - Matt Shafeek here. I live right around the corner from you in Astoria. You know The Acropolis, that large building complex that you're attached to? Yeah, right in there. Pretty interesting name, right? I actually just found out the other day that the word 'Acropolis' is Greek for 'City on the Extremity.' Now, that may be appropriate, geographically speaking, but it's definitely much less cool than what I came up with in my head, which was: 'Home Base For Autobots.' I dunno, maybe that's just me.

Anywho, I'm writing you today because when I passed by your storefront recently, I noticed you were closed, and I saw this sign on your front door and I got a little worried:


It's no secret that you've been going through a lot of changes in the past year or so. When I first arrived in Astoria, your menu remained pretty true to your namesake. I mean, you pretty much offered just burgers. Sure, there were fries on the menu, and hot dogs, and shakes and so on. No one's going to give you any shit for that. But then one day I noticed you had added chili to the menu. That was kinda weird, but hey, if you've got some extra meat, why not throw it in a pot with some spices and offer your customers another delicious beef-alternative (and by that I mean, an alternative way to ingest the beef they crave), right? Works for me.

Cookies were next. Those are fine, I guess? I mean, if you've committed to eating a burger, you're pretty much giving up on the idea of a healthy diet at that point, so why not continue indulging, right? Sure, whatever, cookie it up like there's no tomorrow.

Finally, you added a "Healthy Wraps" section to the menu. What the fuck? Healthy Wraps? What were you thinking Just Burgers? I want you think about this for a second. Think about two people sitting in their apartment in Astoria, getting ready to go out and grab a bite. I want you to tell me how this sounds to you:

"Holy shit, brah, I'm starvin'."

"Me too, broseph. Say, wanna go to Just Burgers and grab a bite?"

"Mmm, I dunno, what do the have to eat there again? I forget."

"Well has-bro, I'm glad you asked. They actually have a wide variety of options on their menu, including, but not limited to, burgers. They just added a 'healthy wraps' option the other day."

"Ah, bil-bro baggins, that's great news! I was just thinking about how much I really wanted to go a burger joint and get something that would not stand out in any way taste-wise from any other corner deli or say, McDonald's."

"Totes Magotes. Which reminds me, how many times have we ordered healthy wraps and salads from McDonalds?"

"Oh man, that's a tough question brahnanana-nananana. Probably like a million times, right?"

"Yeah, bro, that sounds exactly right."

If that sounds at all realistic to you Just Burgers, I've got some sour news for you: it's not. I mean c'mon, "Totes Magotes?" These were highly fictional characters portraying a totally unrealistic scenario. If Lena Dunham had written this scene into an episode of Girls, she'd be lambasted by the AV Club's Todd VanDerWerff for 'lack of verisimilitude,' and also for 'seeming like she randomly inserted an unconnected scene containing two strange, never before seen characters that had nothing to do with anything.' Are you starting to get it?

Look, I understand. You're going through that awkward teenage restaurant phase right now. You were popular for a while until Bare Burger came into town, and wowed everyone with their 100% organic menu and multiple meat offerings (for the record, I thought their boar tasted kinda like shitty ham). You want to be everything to everyone. But you gotta be true to yourself brother. You're not Bare Burger. You never have been, and you never will be.

Yeah, I get it. You're jealous. This is the Joseph Gordon Levitt of your world.
I'm gonna share a little story with you. I'm a short guy. When I first realized that girls liked tall guys, I tried walking on stilts for a month. True story. And in the five seconds I was stable on them before I inevitably fell over, I would shout to any girl within an earshot: "LOVE ME, FOR I AM THE TALLEST  MAN!" And yet, for some reason they didn't love me. You know why? Because any attraction they briefly had for the towering figure before them was tainted by the stench of my desperation. And that's whats going on with you right now Just Burgers. These constant changes all seem pretty desperate. You're like Matt Shafeek on stilts times a hundred, plus one.

In conclusion Just Burgers, I hope that these renovations you're going through are leading to a reboot of sorts. I hope that when you reopen I'll see a menu stripped of all unnecessary offerings, and in it's place a return to the restaurant you know you've always been, with the delicious meat, cheese and bun combinations I once indulged in regularly, or at least whenever I was took lazy to walk all the way over to Bare Burger.

Remember that spicy Mexi-burger you had, with jack cheese and jalapenos? That was excellent! And that veggie burger...well, uh, let's just say if you decided to focus your menu even further, that maybe wouldn't be so bad.

So please, forget everything else you were trying to do and focus on just motherfucking burgers. Or else please, just change your blatantly misleading name. Here are some suggestions, free of charge:

'Burgers And Such' 
'Burgers & Other, Non-Burger Shit' 
'Burgers & NO WAIT, PLEASE, WE HAVE OTHER STUFF!'
'Just A Burrrr-geoning Restaurant of Yummy Goodness!'
'Burgers And Also Whatever Else Diners Have - Yeah I Guess We're Basically A Really Small Diner'
'[A PICTURE OF WIMPY FROM POPEYE SHRUGGING]'
'BEAR Burger (LOL, Rowrrr!!)*' 
'Just Whatever'
'Just Please Give Us Your Money'
'We Are The Post-Pinkerton Weezer Of Food'
'Here's A Blank Menu - Just Write Something On It And We'll Try Our Best To Make Whatever It Is! Oh Come On, 'Spaghetti And Dick Balls With Fart Sauce?' Seriously? Fine, Whatever, As Long As You Pay For It, And Also Leave Us A Positive Review On Yelp'

[*note you will have to order actual bear meat in order to not get sued. Also, Bare Burger might still sue you]

I look forward to your re-opening.

Sincerely,
Matt Shafeek
Astoria Resident, Burger Enthusiast


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Every Day I'm Out There Makin' MattTales (Oooh-Ooooh)

Just wanted to share a few fun things with you guys today, starting with this:


Pretty cool, huh? Technically I didn't actually have anything to do with the upcoming Improv Everywhere documentary, but I have been in a lot of Improv Everywhere missions throughout the years, and now my famous Carousal Horse Race Mission where I wore my favorite, brightest costume of all time is going to be seen by many more eyes wherever this movie is being promoted. I'm super flattered, thanks guys!

In other news, I've written two more posts in my new Splitsider series Tragedy Plus Time since sharing the first one last month. The second article is focused on gay comedians dealing with their homosexuality and coming out of the closet (less of a tragedy, in the traditional sense, but certainly something every gay person understands as a struggle) and the third one, which just came out today, is all about comedians dealing with addiction. Check 'em both out here:

http://splitsider.com/2013/02/when-comedians-come-out/

http://splitsider.com/2013/03/using-comedy-to-help-overcome-addiction/

Lastly, I wanted to announce today that I'm currently working on my second game! I've got nothing to show off just yet, as it's very much in the planning stages, but I can say it's a matchmaking game involves pairing off singles at a dating event. Should be a lot of fun. Look for playtesting requests soon!

-Matt

PS: Also, I watched DuckTales this weekend.

Friday, February 22, 2013

More Like PS-Snore, Amiright??

Look at me, jumping on the meme-wagon.
Have you guys heard? There's a new Playstation console coming out this year, and it's going to usher us (along with the new Xbox being announced later this year) into the next generation of video games. I should be totally excited right now, right? Me, the guy who had to force himself to stay away from video games for an entire year. You'd think, at this very moment, that I'd be frothing at the mouth at the mere prospect of a new gaming era...

...but I'm not. In reality, I'm actually surprisingly unenthusiastic about the whole thing.

Following the Wii-U's launch last year, this now makes two new system announcements in a row that have left me feeling vaguely uninterested in something that used to occupy my thoughts nonstop. I waited in line for over 10 hours in the freezing cold back in 2005 during the Xbox 360 launch. I did it again for a somewhat less crazy handful of hours for the original Wii. Granted, this was all before 'Paused.' Surely I must not be the same gamer now that I was back then, right?

Wrong. Sorry. But I promise that's the last time I'll pull the rug out from under you like that.

The only difference in my relationship with games between 2005 and now is that I don't have as much free time as I used to. Nowadays I buy very few games because I know after a certain point that I'm never going to get around to all of them. But when I get into a game, it still carries the same hold on me that it did back when I was a 5 year old kid who had to be pried away from his Atari 2600 before bedtime (I'm pretty sure that to this day my parents still regret getting me that system and starting my video game habit).

I still make time to play board games with friends almost every week. PAX East is a mere month away and I could not be more excited, even though I know I'm mostly going to hang out in the less crowded board game section the entire time. I have a whole system in place for the weekend. First I walk around to all the vendors and ask them what's new and what they've been playing. Then I check out any new games being demoed on the show floor. I dabble in everything I can, and then a short while later I walk out of PAX with the games I enjoyed playing the most while I was there.

It's an incredibly low-fi process, and yet I'm WAY more excited about doing that than I am about the Playstation 4, or Wii U. Why the hell is that? Honestly, I think it's because we're finally reached a point with our current video game technology that simply doesn't beg for the next generation. There's no obvious justification for a new console at this point. Sure, I'd love better graphics, a better processor,a bigger hard drive, and all that jazz, but until I see a game that promises me an experience I could not have on any of the consoles I already own, I don't any reason to swap out one of the old boxes under my television for a new one.

The thing is, it's definitely not going to be a big fat hard drive or jaw-dropping graphics that's going to wow me at this point. And I honestly don't really know what will. It's tough to say what I want out of a new console, but I do know that whatever it is, I haven't seen it yet. I crave new experiences, not bigger, louder ones.

I actually feel kind of sorry for the console manufacturers, who have the unenviable task of trying to convince gamers that we need a fancy new box to get these supposedly improved gaming experiences, when in reality, the only truly innovative gaming experiences of the past few years are coming from everywhere but the traditional console. Pretty much everything I played and loved last year was something I downloaded and played on my PC, my iPhone, or yes, my Xbox 360 or my PS3, but note that none of my favorite games were actually big budget major studio releases. In fact, they mostly all cost me $15 or less.

I know we haven't seen everything there is to see about the new systems. All the details for the PS4 aren't out yet, the Wii U is very early in it's life cycle, and we know nothing about the upcoming new Xbox (my favorite console of this previous generation) yet. A lot could change in the next year. But I really do hope that, in making this big push to salvage what apparently is a very dire situation in a changing consumer climate, the ones in charge realize it takes a lot more than sequels to your well known franchises and new buttons on your controllers to get people off (and then ultimately back on) their couches these days.

So come on guys. Get me on that freezing cold line at 11:00pm in the middle of November again. Metaphorically speaking of course - honestly, that experience was awful.

What I'm saying is: you did it before. Here's hoping you can do it again.

-Matt

PS: Actually, if the video game industry crashed tomorrow, I have a large enough back catalog to get me through the next few years, easy. Decades if I really go back and play everything I ever missed that was worthwhile. Ideally though, this crash would happen after Bioshock Infinite and The Last Of Us come out.

PPS: As un-inclined as I am to buy the Wii-U, I will say, I've had some real fun playing Nintendoland (specifically the Animal Crossing game) with a room full of friends.

Monday, February 11, 2013

To Do


I'm a List Guy. Also known as a Big Time Planner. More so than you can probably imagine. On top of a regularly updated and cleared out To Do list, which I know is fairly common, I also keep a list for every source of entertainment I'm invested in: To Watch (Movies & TV), To Read (Books & Comics), To Listen To (Music & Podcasts), and of course, To Play. Way back in 2008 when I first started this blog I showed off my original To Play list that helped comfort me through my year off from video games. I'm sure I'll always have a To Play list, simply because games are just the most time consuming form of media there is, and I'll probably never be able to get around to enjoying all of them. But oh, how a man can dream.

I also maintain a list of Places To Visit, of things 'To Write,' of karaoke songs I can't wait To Sing, and something I have taken to calling "Scatterbrained Ideas" (which hopefully will graduate at some point to the "To Write" list). One day I made a 'Double Dates' list, because I got excited by the prospect of going on them with every one of my coupled friends. Technically 'list' is a bit of a misnomer, since it was actually a spreadsheet with suggested activities and topics for discussion for every pairing. I don't mess around you guys.

While getting through an item on one of my lists always comes with that rewarding sense of accomplishment or enjoyment, I realize now that I also take pleasure in the creation of these many lists of ideas, events and consumables. Not necessarily for the sake of getting to everything (though I'll certainly try - I actually could probably make a pretty huge dent with just a few years of unemployment) but more as an ever-expanding collection of what I potentially have to look forward to. It's satisfying in a way I can't totally explain. I imagine it has something to do with the feeling (illusion?) of having control over my life, along with what I'll label as 'enjoyment of the hypothetical.' Or maybe I'm just subconsciously a believer in The Secret, and I think whatever goes on one of my lists I must be willing into existence. Though if that last part were true, my list of "Women I'm Sure Will Want To Have Sex With Me" would't have gotten me into nearly as many awful situations as it has.

Here's a crazy but totally real example of what I'm talking about: as much as I love occasionally impulse shopping on Amazon, I can pretty much get that same giddy feeling by adding whatever I'm interested in to my Amazon Wish List, without any of the guilt and zero expense. Knowing that I can have that thing someday (if I ever really want it) totally scratches that "I want something new!" itch. And while planning something like a trip to Hawaii may not seem to be as exciting as actually going on the trip itself, fantasizing for months in advance about recreating all six seasons of Lost with my friends while I would be out there (something I sadly never got around to) is very much its own separate, worthwhile pleasure.

This whole blog post has been an extremely long winded way of saying this: the best laid plans of mice and men may oft go astray, but Matt Shafeek's many many plans are gonna work out pretty well for him one way or another.

I hope you've enjoyed what this semi-cocky little stream of consciousness. Hey, I got years of self-deprecation under my belt, so I figured I could get away with this. One final thought - I've heard it said that apparently 'life is what happens while you're making other plans.' Well, guess what? I'm pretty much always making other plans, so I guess it's safe to say I'm living the fuck outta life right now, one additional list item at a time.

Booyah!

-Matt

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Check Out My New Splitsider Series: "Tragedy Plus Time"


Friends - I'm back on Splitsider with a new series called "Tragedy Plus Time," and I'd love for you to check it out. The topic of the first week is cancer...but uh, it's funny. And also sad. But also uplifting! But also a harsh reminder of the frailty of each and every one of our lives. Ok, why don't I just stop and let you click here:

http://splitsider.com/2013/02/finding-the-humor-in-cancer/

-Matt

Sunday, January 13, 2013

My Favorite Gaming Moments of 2012

Look at that. We all survived the Mayan Apocalypse. I'm glad we did too, because that means I get to keep playing games, and also reflect on the amazing gaming experiences I had this past year, as has become my latest New Year's ritual:

Becoming A Badass Ninja (And Making Stealth Cool Again)
Mark of the Ninja
Of all the tasks video games have attempted to make fun, "being stealthy" ranks just slightly above "planting a garden," and "fishing" (sorry Pro Bass Challenge fans). But wouldn't you know it - one of my favorite games of 2012 involved doing just that for many many hours. Mark of the Ninja truly embraces all the tropes that come with playing a modern day ninja - lying in the shadows, skulking in vents and dashing across rooftops to avoid detection, only attacking with the element of surprise on your side. And it's empowering as hell. Did I mention you get a blowfish-toxin-dipped terror dart later in the game that freaks enemies out, making them shoot at each other, and eventually committing suicide? Ok, less stealth-mechanics involved there, but still super awesome.

Bonus points to this game for putting together a clever story with a final decision on the player that makes you question your character's sanity. The ambiguous ending - something I normally hate - leaves your decision hanging in the air and running to the message boards (for me at least) wondering if you made the right choice. For a game I imagine most people purchase purely for the awesome mechanics to have a discussion-worthy story (if only because of the twist, but still) is no small feat.

Speaking of choices...

Making Some Pretty Impossible Choices (And Crying!)
The Walking Dead
Loyal readers of this blog would probably be surprised if I didn't mention this game, since I've written more posts about it than any other game/topic in 2012. Critics of The Walking Dead game say there's very little "game" to play here, but I would argue the monumental decisions put in your hands are some of the toughest things I've ever had to do in a video game, ever, even if it only involved deciding between whether to press the "X" or the "B" button.

I mentioned this in my last post, but I'll reiterate it here - the game's ending made me cry, and that has never happened to me while playing a video game before. So you know, kudos Telltale.

For more insight into this incredible game, read my thoughts here, here, here and here.

Victory (But Mostly Defeat) Over Some Really Terrible Odds
FTL
Unlike the other pictures in this post, the above snapshot is taken from an actual game I played. I took this picture after I'd just tried taking on the Rebel Flagship (which it was my mission to destroy) and they had escaped from me, but not before doing some serious damage to my precious slug ship, The Man Of War. My slug captain Eoin, the pilot of the ship from the beginning of the mission, was killed in the onslaught. Brave Ariadne, the Rock Princess who defected from her betrothed to join us in our quest, had volunteered to take control in his stead. The ship was badly damaged, and victory seemed impossible as the team made one last jump to protect the Federation.

They all died after their ship exploded nineteen seconds into the next fight.

Pretty awful, right? And there was no going back to that specific ship/crew either. It was gone forever. That snapshot is all that remains (I actually took it thinking about cool it would be if I managed to win with what I had left, but it's actually much better now as the tragic story I posted above). Such is the plight of FTL (Faster Than Light) an immensely difficult, but incredibly rewarding real time strategy game that exists only for the foolhardy in search of a true, old school challenge.

You start each game with a fresh ship and crew, and you embark on a quest you are likely to fail. Events are randomly generated, almost every area is hostile towards you, and despite there being no save points in the entire game, the universe makes no attempts to ease your burden. If you barely scrape by after a deadly firefight, you'd better hope the next place you go is a friendly location, otherwise you simply delayed your death by the time it takes to make a brief jump through hyperspace.

All this means that when you do manage to beat the odds, you pretty much feel like a god. This is my proudest gaming achievement of the entire year right here:


You have no idea how many of my own ships I had to see explode before I finally saw that page. And even though it sucked dying over and over again, obviously I wouldn't have kept playing if I wasn't having fun every time. But seriously, winning is the best.

Co-Piloting An Epic Journey
Journey
I used to play games online with other people. Sometimes friends, but more often than not, total strangers. When Xbox Live first came out, I thought it was the most incredible thing, being able to game with other people through the magic of the internet. Then I discovered most people on the internet are people I don't want to interact with in any capacity, including my video games.

I say all of this to preface the fact that I had basically lost interest in most online gaming, and also that I figured I'd seen everything that could be done with online gaming in general. That was until I played Journey right at the end of the year. The game is gorgeous, and the titular journey you find yourself on is presented through a wonderful combination of minimalist details - a beautiful, but unobtrusive soundtrack, an open landscape mostly free of typical game clutter like collectibles and monsters, and from what I recall, only two buttons ever needing to be pressed. None of this was interesting enough to me until a second player joined my game and silently (as in, without the ability to talk to me over a headset or otherwise communicate with me aside from in-game "singing") joined me on my quest.

It's fascinating how constraints within a game can lead to a stronger connection. The only goal in Journey is to press on, and should you choose to do that with a partner the game randomly pairs you with (as far I can tell, you can, in theory, succeed on your own), you've now bonded yourself with a total stranger whose goals are forcibly aligned with yours. The game has been stripped of any competitive elements, so in a way, the only choices are to help each other out or ignore each other (and c'mon, why would you do that? take a long hard look in the mirror if that's how you played this game). The person I played with was patient, helpful and friendly (he sung a few notes back and forth with me whenever we on long stretches just trudging along).

Those little details reminded me the difference playing a video game with another actual human being makes. No AI partner would understand the stupid little things I was trying to do to test the boundaries of the map, or how many notes your character can sing through rapid-fire button presses, but the person I was playing with totally joined in with me. And it's safe to say that, with only the canvas of the game in front of us to interact with each other, we bonded. To have a connection like that form in such a way is remarkable, and this game definitely deserves all the praise it's been getting.

Giving Back To The Gaming Gods With My Own Creation
Placebo
I would be remiss not to mention that among the many hours of board gaming, Dungeon & Dragons/Pathfinder, poker, PAX East and time spent playing party games with friends late into the night (all great moments I consider tied with everything else on this list), my decision to finally try my hands at game creation led to some truly wonderful moments. Watching friends play the game I created - learning the rules, forming strategies, and frankly, breaking it by doing something I hadn't thought of, was a delightful crash course on the intricacies of game design. While I am very much learning as I go, it's been a really fun ride so far, and I'm looking forward to seeing how far I can take my game (and who knows, maybe another!) in the new year.

I still can't say too much about Placebo just yet (or more than I said before), but if you live in the NYC area and want to try it out, please drop me a line.

Bonus: A Grave Discovery!
Dust: An Elysian Tale
This is technically kinda dumb compared to other big moments I've listed here, but when it happened I got so excited I immediately snapped a photo of it and added it to my draft list of favorite gaming moments. So I'm throwing it here at the end as sort of a bonus/footnote.

There's this great Xbox Live game that came out over the summer called Dust: An Elysian Tale. It's a 2D action-RPG-platformer-type hybrid, and all you need to know to get this story is that the game has an old school feel to it, with lots of little hidden secrets sprinkled throughout the world.

While exploring the 'Sorrowing Meadow' area about halfway through the game, I came upon a single unmarked grave with a rose in front of it. Because I noticed that the game's protagonist Dust looks like he's genuflecting whenever he ducks, I thought it seemed appropriate to do that in front of the grave just because it created a nice little tableau on the screen. I held it there for about 2 seconds, and all of a sudden my controller started to vibrate and I was teleported away to a secret area! What the what?!?!

As it turns out, this was another of the game's little secrets that creator/lead programmer (who by the way did almost the entire game by himself, which is incredible) put in there for people like me who will do random  things like that while exploring the world. The reward inside wasn't anything super exciting (after all, how much could you lock away in an area hidden so randomly?) but it was still super cool to find it.

I later discovered a note hidden elsewhere in the game essentially tells you to "pray" in front of the grave, making the secret a little more accessible to gamers who don't normally make their characters strike poses, but I was still glad I managed to find it on my own.

(Jump on over here and skip to 7:15 if you want to see the actual event happen in the game)

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That'll do it for 2012. It's been another amazing year. Can it be topped with even better gaming moments in 2013? Let's go find out, shall we?

-Matt