Wednesday, March 28, 2012

#64 -- Why Reality TV Is Great (Once)

"Comfortably live."

Slouched on my brother's couch and combating a minor case of jetlag, I laughed my way through three hours of reality TV, comprehending in full the rage, the humor, the mendacity, and oh, the humanity that fuels this wonder-drug. I devoured The Voice and The Bachelor the same way a tourist in London consumes four pounds of fish and chips, runny grease and rubbed-off newsprint adding local flavor to the delicacy. There was so much I didn't know, and so much I wanted to know (and to declare out-loud) about each character's drama, and issues, and bullshit. To me, this whole production was such a layer-cake of motivations involving suckers and puppets that I went from giddy to superior to exhausted.

Now I never have to watch reality TV again. Nothing can top this experience. I don't want to chase the dragon. Maybe I'll come out of cryo-sleep in the year 2525 when The Hunger Games becomes real. Maybe. It's child-murder or nothing for me now. Until then, nope.

Make no mistake, The Voice's genius lies in its pop-cultural what-the-fuckery. The judges are all designed to have the most bizarre tendencies and, umm, unique silhouettes. The contest is perfect, placing singers against each other in the song battles like they were being picked for jury duty, each there to act as demographic representative and as a counter-point to one of the others. It's fascinating as hell that the producers have to cast and recast the contestants from week to week as their popularity shifts or their egos bloat. It's like March Madness: The Musical, starring Ceelo Green as a wizened desert djinn. 

Elsewhere, they were simulating an unsupervised middle school study hall over on The Bachelor. Actually, I'm holding back. It was The Bachelor: Women Tell All, a special they air it prior to the season finale to recap the season and hype the conclusion. The poor bachelor looked miserable already. Poor dude. One by one, they trot out the already-disposed contestants to talk to the host and cry and shit. Their paranoia is palpable and their self-esteem is a familiar, noxious fume that we thought we left behind as adolescents. Now though, we get to watch this drama unfold on the other side of the fish tank. We can even turn them off if we like. Personality-wise, everything we ought to know about these women is forced into two lines: age and occupation, which is enough for the audience to make a snap-judgment, and dang does making snippy comments about these awful women make us feel baddd. We get to learn the rest about them by analyzing their accents and spray-tans. These insufferable crows wear their roles on the surface, all are recognizable and understood, and even though reality TV is live, meaning it's filmed with untrained actors, it's exactly as live as we're comfortable with.

Comfortably live. Basic, rote, active, predictable, and comforting drama that we can all get down for. It's Shakespeare-in-the-Round. In many ways, reality TV, found-footage movies, and documentaries in general, with their acknowledged cameras and audience-recognition, isn't a terrible comparison to Shakespeare. It can be classy and cultured like Planet Earth or Macbeth. It can be fourth-wall breaking and aware like Paranormal Activity or A Midsummer Night's Dream. It can be cheap and moronic like Jersey Shore or Much Ado About Nothing. It's for the common man as much as it's for the dipshit British intellectual that insists any winking at the camera is confirmation that America is a failed experiment.

Reality TV is familiar theater. Bad theater, and occasionally good comedy, yeah, but it's bingable sucrose overdose that encourages you to take sides on a minute-by-minute basis in order to be in on the joke. It's a black and white cookie. Things get stale and dry up after being exposed to open air for three hours. I don't want this all the time. I don't want it year-round. I don't even want it every week. It's an event. That's its appeal, and if it happened all the time, (it wouldn't lose any mystique, because that's too strong a compliment) then we'd become desensitized to its hyper-engaging format, which is the biggest tool in its box.

And that's why reality TV is great. Once.

-- Alex Crumb
. . .follow the person on Twitter 

 Recommended related reading:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

#63 -- "Valkyria Chronicles" Reviewed | * * * *

"If there ever can be a best game about war, this is it. It's long, brutal, occasionally boring, always intense, and above all else, never really in your control."

We can think about life faster than it actually goes by. Without meaning to, certain events and entanglements can consume years of unconscious thought, running parallel to what's actually happening right before you, sometimes outpacing your senses, sometimes overwhelming them altogether. You often are not in command of your mind, and what it will be, as those years pass. A decade from now though, it may. Life does not embolden life immediately. Experience's benefits are staggered and we cannot derive clarity at first glance because memory is not good enough -- true clarity comes from acknowledgment and confrontation, a repulsive thing to face right here in the waking present.

Valkyria Chronicles is Japan's stylized interpretation of European nationalism in the late 1930's on the eve of World War II, set in a dramatized and renamed and rearranged version of the conflict. It focuses on war, and the people fighting it in, better than any game ever created. It terrorizes you with a swelling, banal dread that somehow accelerates beyond mere fear. The game gives you control over battle, because it's a videogame, and it gives you control of your squad's base camp, because it respects you. The story impresses upon you that the objective in war is to survive, but you will because you have you control over the battles, you can't help but be compelled to win the war. You never even had the chance to remember that people in stories don't have to wait until the end to die. 

Some have recently suggested that there should be a war game where the first twenty levels involve your character waking up and manning a machine gun nest for days on end with nothing happening, because that's what 90% of war is -- magnified boredom punctuated by magnified horror, the likes of which most of us will never have to experience in life. Nor will we ever have to comprehend or retell that horror for the people that are transcribing the history books. Actually, one of the best books ever written, Catch-22, is all about men in World War II doing their best to simply survive and maintain their sanity on an airbase in Italy while periodically bombing mostly-inconsequential targets, and a majority of the story is just them coping in their own personal ways. They seemingly have the power to stay safe on the base if they insist to their commander that they're mentally unstable, but if you have the wherewithal to make such a statement, then it's obvious that you have self-preservation, and could not be declared insane on those grounds. 

So these men have freedom and control that does them no good.

To kill time, some of them make a game of their letter-censoring duties. Others volunteer for ditch-digging duties on the base, reiterating that time, and life, never passes slower than it does when you're doing difficult manual labor. They're grasping for even the most meager control, and when they are able to claim just a shred, it's defiance, and it's life. Then Snowden dies. Seriously, ready it, it's brutal. Also, read Slaughterhouse Five, it's been a while since junior year of high school, you'll probably get what's going on this time around.

Joseph Heller did irony before it was cool, perhaps cementing himself as Hipster Prime. See, what Catch-22 did was show that there was routine and repetition in war, which kept people ironic enough to survive the insanity of methodical murder, but it also made the crueler moments all the more brutal. Valkyria Chronicles has a routine to it. You get to know your squad's strengths and its limitations. There are story missions that move things along, but there is squad maintenance to do around your base -- fix guns, add armor to your tank, coach recruits, generally just take a break from the killing. For a long while, the killing is cartoonish too, shit, it's drawn like an anime, but as the game goes (this is A Game That Goes, by the way) the war too goes, and goes, and goes. Seemingly minor characters that you've gotten to talk to in passing begin to die in combat because of your own tactical recklessness. Isolated stories about rescue (hints of Saving Private Ryan) spring up, and stories about investigating dormant supernatural artifacts in the desert (hints of Indiana Jones) appear, and shades genocidal racism (scary-hurtful hints of Schindler's List) creep the shadows. Not only does your squad of wise-cracking, individualized soldiers (hints of Where Eagles Dare) get all the dangerous missions, they end up having to revisit the places they once thought were liberated to find them blasted apart under choking charcoal-skies, understanding that the war is still going, and going, and going.

The game's true genius is the simple skirmish missions -- modified, re-issues of story missions with extra twists, suggesting that your squad is not simply pursuing the main mission, but continues to actively participate in sorties when the infantry demands it of them. And these skirmishes help your squad members, all of whom are actual people with faces and names and backgrounds, become accustomed and used to war. They get faster and stronger. It all happens gradually and it becomes routine.

And then the routine breaks so fast it gives you whiplash. Some battles involve careful planning and desperate engagements that inevitably end with the enemy claiming a smothering victory. And that's just how it happens sometimes, you'll lose, and the story forces you to deal with the loss. The softest battles are often the most intense. There's one where you have to assist the limping scout, Alicia, through the woods at night. There's the one where you return to your home town to find it blasted apart and overrun by snipers. There's the beach-head storming mission where you cut through an entrenched barricade to seize a bloody victory, only to have one of the best characters finally settle a grudge in the mission's closing mini-movie, the same kind that happens at the end of every mission -- and then the character is shot dead, and you have no chance to save her.

No matter what you do, it's still an interactive war that you can and must win, but it will take control away at the worst moments, exactly how it should. 

If there ever can be a best game about war, this is it. It's long, brutal, occasionally boring, always intense, and above all else, never really in your control.

Recommended related reading:
[Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty | * * *] by Alex Crumb
[The Prestige | * * * ½] by Ghost Little
[Jane Eyre (2011) | * * *] by Ghost Little

-- Alex Crumb
. . .follow the person on Twitter

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

#62 -- The Diffused States (Part 5)

"Don't answer that."

Read: [#23 -- The Diffused States (Part 1)], [(Part 2)], [(Part 3)], and [Part 4] to stay caught up. . .

As somebody that had been given the privilege of actually being allowed to look at her own brain on many occasions, Eliza knew that even though certain parts of it lit up when she thought about certain things -- hope and fear, anxiety and calmness, hate and love, they all spun different colors across the display -- she still was only consciously in charge of that famous 10% that people talked about. The rest of the processing power was running command loops to make sure her heart kept pumping blood and her ears kept hearing without a reminder and all the rods and cones in her eyes kept working hard. The 90% made sure the clock kept ticking without her ever knowing.

The nerves ticked all the way down. Eliza's eyes swung open. She tried to shut them but they would have none of it and they fluttered back, wider than before, realizing she had fallen asleep at her kitchen table again, luckily not on top of her tablet this time. It was raining in through the open window, and Eliza's legs ached, and when she winced in pain at the realization, she coughed her mouth dry. 

Dressing appropriately but preferring the misting spray over the encumbrance of an umbrella, she walked to the training facility, ignoring the weather. She had turned off her phone after the events of her post-race conference eight small hours earlier, it too was an encumbrance and an undesirable distraction, informing her of good news and bad news, neither of which she cared to hear. Again, an umbrella wasn't going to do her any favors. She imagined the exact advice each person would give to her during that coming day. Aran would encourage her to lay low. Han would assure her they were spinning it -- if he was even in today and wasn't out in the field glad-handing with sponsors already. Laureate would probably build her a playlist of world music and vapid pop-rock to make her forget her worries. 

And then there was Stro, who wouldn't even bring it up, whether on purpose or not, acting with refreshing consistency. 

So she kept her phone turned off, making her feel cool and invisible, and there was happiness for her in that sensation, all the while recognizing that she would speak to yesterday's events soon, give an explanation, maybe even a good one if she could summon the right feelings on the spot -- it did not burden her that she was running late as the clock struck seven o'clock. When she noticed the time upon entering, more nerves ticked in her and she woke up a little bit, wondering next if she would be allowed to have caffeine or alcohol that week.

It was Monday: on the docket was film, sync-strengthening, and probably time spent brainstorming with engineering and Smith or musical dilation with Laureate.

Stro had already begun his sync-analysis with Angel when Eliza arrived on the third floor. Eliza nodded hello at Angel as she entered the observation studio and they watched Stro on the opposite side of the glass. That was the room used to establish a Runner's biometric baseline so they could find a good kinetic sync with the D3's synthetic senses. Stro and Eliza secretly referred to that place as the Spiral, the empty, noiseless room with the soft wooden floors that curled towards the center like a hermit crab shell, built that way to channel their psyches down into the subconscious through sheer force of will. The floorboards were actually laid on top of very firm springs. It was kind of fun to walk on. In each corner of the room were white cylindrical machines that hummed with processing power, the black-glassed infrared scanners all up and down them pointed at the subject, who would sit the center. There was one long window and Stro sat, barefoot, with his back to it, and the rain drove hard against it without a sound.

"Almost all of my dreams," Stro's voice began to say over the speakers in the booth, projecting assertively within the audible silence Angel was recording. She and Eliza listened to him. "All of my dreams don't begin with me flying. But they all end there. If you know what that says about me, my sleeping brain obsessing over flight, please tell me. They all begin slow. I'm on the ground at first. I'm never alone, there are usually small crowds around me. The people approach me and I know them, but even though I know their faces, they are never themselves as I know them. Almost never. A lot of the time, the sound is gone when they talk, and somehow they figure out that I'm deaf to what they're saying. I know exactly what they're saying though. Of course I can understand, I tell myself. It's my dream. I can't convince them though. They don't believe me. Things speed up. They show me places I could go, different versions of the dream prepared and ready, like dishes on a buffet from my memories. I see all of them, recognizable patterns pulsing on top of my eyes. I hate all of them.

"Things speed up again," said Stro. Eliza eyed the machine taking periodic CT scans of Stro's brain. Different quadrants lit up different colors with each word, a visualization of his emotional associations as he spoke. Then Eliza saw the timer running next to it. 

"How long has he been in there?" she whispered to Angel. 

"Two hours now," Angel whispered back. Eliza calculated the time out in her head. "He just keeps repeating this. Over and over. Describing the dream. It never changes. Not a word." She nods at the CT scan refreshing itself. "Only that does."

Eliza sat, observing. "So he's working through it. Little by little." The scan refreshed, the colors pulsing in a pattern she couldn't recognize, deciding, anticipating. "Little by little."

Angel agreed. She had become very familiar with Stro's personality in her few short months on the team, staring at his CT scans all night and observing his mannerisms all day. Even though she was the youngest person on the team at just nineteen, she had many years of self-dependence after emancipating herself at age twelve. Certain states had loose child-rearing laws, particularly in the upper northeast wilderness where if you could swing an axe or sell well-priced crafts to tourists, you could make a living. She sipped a mug of plain warm water and put her feet up in Eliza's lap, getting comfortable.

"The ground gives way," Stro continued, Angel mouthing the line along with him, familiar with it by now. "And I'm running downhill in a dead sprint. The people that try to follow me fall, rolling head over heels. I'm in complete control. One final speed jump happens and when I feel ready, I leap, and I take flight. It's cold but I don't care because I'm ricocheting off of treetops like a natural, gaining altitude, my heart-rate ratcheting up until it's a mechanical rumbling. When I finally arrive at the realization that I can accelerate and change direction at will, the cityscape opens up underneath me, massive skyscrapers full of every colored light imaginable. Then I wake up."

Angel grabbed Eliza's wrist, startled suddenly when Stro's eyes opened. He looked at Eliza through the glass. "Angel, your know me, and you know how my subconscious interacts with outside forces -- how come it always wakes me up right then? How does my brain time it like that?"

"Umm, well, because we aren't allowed to be in control," was the answer Angel came up with, holding the talk button so Stro can hear her inside the Spiral. "And it can time it like that because that's where your mind wants you to end. I think that's the moment it wants you to remember. It wants your conscious mind to remember that lesson."

The three of them were quiet for a few moments. Stro's heartbeat and brainwaves were recorded on the machine that went on making odd sounds before blinking three times and the light on the front changed to blue. 

-- |  |  | --

"Stro, check this out," Smith drew a pistol out of his belt and pulled the trigger.

Stro winced, clenching his teeth. The snapping click sounded like tooth being broken out of somebody's head. But there was no gunshot. There was an intense green flame cracking at the tip of the barrel, which Stro estimated was the most threatening and complex cigarette lighter he had ever seen. Smith waved the gun from side to side, entertained by the intense green flame spewing sparks at the tip of the barrel -- Stro didn't share his enthusiasm. 

"Fire. Baaaad!" he said, exasperated, trying to calm his heartbeat. They were three hours into stress-testing the D3's Tuck stance. Stro had been holding positions as Aran had been calling them out from the booth over the speaker with randomized wind gusts being fired to test aerodynamics. The D3 was mounted on a rig that swelled and dipped to simulate the undulations in a course, which was good for practicing form, but lacked the g-forces felt during the real races. 

"Hard right," Aran would say. Stro followed the command with a precise turn from atop his mount, feeling the rig swing around accurately. His stomach muscles had already been killing him an hour earlier -- this was just Aran's constructive cruelty now. "Gradual left. Hairpin. Left turn. Right turn. Hairpin again. Medium jump, you can suck it up." Stro stood up in the saddle and absorbed the simulated roll in the track. "Chicane. Hold tight for the pitch, it's going to last for seven seconds. Maintain that for seven seconds, six, five, four, three, two, and hold it. Good, set up early for the next soft left and then there's a double-flush before things straighten out again. Hold, okay, now a medium uphill, one -- one-two-one-two-one-two." There was a gyroscopic hum swirling from side to side and Stro executed the simulation almost flawlessly. He held the tuck as tightly as he could, feeling his joints burn but his form held until Smith came over with the green lighter and distracted him.

"I modded it," the giddy Smith explained. "Do you know hot this thing is burning?"

"Very? Dude, hang on for a sec, Aran might be pissed you're down here."

"Extremely," Smith corrected. "Extremely hot is the answer. Hot enough to melt metal, hot enough to bake limestone into glass if you hold it on it for a minute or so." Smith stared, utterly in love with the green fire his home-made gun-lighter was creating. Not able to tear away his gaze, he put some plastic safety goggles on his stony face instead. With squinty eyes, he tried to look further into the center of the fire, then offered Stro some similar goggles, smirking and embarrassed by his own lack of manners.


One of the goggles' arms broke when he took them and Stro froze instantly, trying not to move too much while Smith had the lighter ignited; hot enough to turn rock into glass.

Aran's voice came on over the speaker.

"Alright, good session, you can ease back. Smith, thanks for the assist. Stro, we're going to spool up some lower tunes. Starting sync, shift to a Roid-stance, clamp down every sense except sound. You ready?"

"Well done, you stayed focused in the face of my casual psychosis," Smith encouraged, clapping his hand on Stro's shoulder again, and finally closing the flame on the lighter as Aran waved down at them, confirming that it was indeed all part of a sly distraction. "My advice to you, Frankenstein, is to live, and be happy, and make others so."

"Thanks, man," Stro answered. He exhaled and let his body ease up, secretly relieved by Aran's orders.

"Hey, also, what was the deal with Eliza's meltdown yesterday?"

"Meltdown? I might save the word 'meltdown' for a more severe situation."

"Have you talked to her about it?"

"Some people might need to talk about it, but I honestly don't really think she needs to talk about it. That's my diagnosis. She ain't exactly a girl in need of saving from her own fragile lady-thoughts." He nodded his head upwards at Smith. "Because they're oh-so fragile, right? Now, shoo. Okay, Aran, I'm ready when you are. Laureate, spool up the soundtrack. Hit me with a butt-kicker. I am strapped on, open-minded, and -- all the rest of the innuendo."

Stro exhaled. A darkening vibration numbed his body. The D3's mechanical exoskeleton collapsed onto his body, arms, and legs, armoring him and leaving only his face exposed as the vibration grew into a rumble. Getting comfortable, Stro leaned his head back just a little bit as he stood up with the plating fitted into place, allowing the backside of the helmet to find his neck so he could lower the facemask when it was time. He always heard his heart pump so hard when this happened, it reminded him of getting his blood pressure taken at the doctor -- the whole thing tightened, eased, and tightened over and over, alternating between rushing hot and vacant cold feelings.

He thought about his dream, and waking up from the dream, and asking Angel what it meant. The sync was all but done at this point, and he smelled the color blue in his nose, if that was possible. He felt present and comfortable. Fifteen feet tall and humanoid, all of his fingers wiggled just fine, the D3 handed over those sensations. He felt what it felt, wholly alive, relieved from the pain that was there a minute ago. He was in full-synchronization with the organism that the exoskeleton was laced with. It shared thoughts with him and he with it.

In the booth, Laureate scratched her nails across the guitar strings and thumped out a riff that would be more at home on a bass guitar or inside a sleeping man's chest.

"Alright, light it up," Stro said. He snapped his head forward and the facemask slide down into place. The UI-display loaded at the speed of light, bumping and rolling in perfect harmony with his breathing, with his heart, and with the music. Then Aran flipped a switch somewhere and everything went black, all of Stro's senses shut down except for sound. He floated, hearing, hoping that he was still breathing, left alone with Laureate's music.

It was fast and bass-heavy, driving ahead like it was catching up with something that had suddenly escaped. One-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two, one-TWO, one-two-three-four. Strings started to saw at double-time behind the beat before joining it in harmony.

To Stro though, deprived of four senses the moment Aran threw the switch, there was nothing but the sound. In there, without the rest, he floated. Just the sound. A beating, rotating, revolving, rising, waltz, spinning higher, speeding up, ascending out of dark into light.

"Feeling good?" he heard Laureate ask.

"It's a new dawn, it's a new day," Stro joked. It was odd talking and hearing himself speak, but not tasting the vibration from his voice box or the air coming out of his nose. It was still happening and he was acting on muscle memory, but he was numb in his nerves. Those senses belong to the D3 right now. In a little bit, the trust between him and the machine would be nurtured, and they would trade back. A great deal of practice was required to get used to this feeling, he remembered nearly passing out the first time he was hit with it. Here he was now though, without an active nerve-ending in his own fingers, retinas in his eyes deactivated, all of it, everything but the sound -- it was just the music now. He had to believe that the living creature, whose entire physiology and neurological systems were etched into the D3's frame, would recognize and honor him, and give him his senses back. 

The music calmed him and he felt no conflict, but he wasn't sure his body would be able to sense if anything was wrong where something to happen.

That was when, without meaning to, he started to see things. It had to be in his mind, but what was really the difference? Without the rest of his senses to occupy its time, his brain was finding other things to do, diverting power to something new. He decided that had to be the answer. It only started out slowly -- the blackness started to peel, showing frayed edges, giving way to color, always accelerating. He assured himself that he was imagining these things himself and he expected Aran to chime in, to tell him with what was going on, that this was a normal reaction, but there were no voices from the outside. Thoughts were still there. Thoughts were all there was, really, that and the music, which had threaded into the images. Stro kept himself from trying to control them, choosing instead to watch.

"Are Stro Gilroy?"

"Depends who's asking."

The response was human and as clear as any thought he'd ever had. "You do not have to be afraid. I am here to protect you, okay?"

"Why would you protect me? And protect me from what?" Even though the voice had suddenly become familiar, he asked, "Who are you?"

"I am Suede."

Stro drew his mind away. There was no resistance and he felt fine, and he wanted to be amazed and confused like somebody should be, but there was no mistake that he had just communicated with the D3's biomech, the living machine, and on a very simple level. The first thought he had was that it spoke good English. Still his mind demanded some intrinsic astonishment. He wished he could feel the air in his lungs -- he didn't think he was gasping, but he imagined a person in his situation would be. Normally, Stro would have been filled with disbelief, and questions would be trundling around in his head, demanding that he ask, ask, ask! This was different though. There was nothing to grapple with -- there was just comfort and a calm confidence that when he needed answers, he would get them.

Suede was a real entity, whatever that meant. She was there. He knew she was there and he could trust her -- and he knew that she was a she.

In the moment he decided on that fact, reality returned. "Take it down," he heard Aran say right there, and the music tapered out. Stro's heart thumped back into place as his senses came back. He flicked his head back, facemask sliding off. His senses started to come back, first his skin, then nose, and fingers. Aran approached now, coming into focus as Stro's sight began to return. He whispered something in Laureate's ear, who checked her watch and left the simulation bay. Standing nine feet taller than Aran still in the D3, Stro nodded at Smith, who was exiting the recording booth now.

"Umm, so," Stro started. "How'd it sound?"

"How'd it feel?" answered Aran. "Don't answer that. You shouldn't have felt anything. Stro, you were in perfect sync with the D3. Absolutely outstanding."

So that's what it was -- perfect sync?

"Yeah, thanks. The sensation of touch was still sticky, the signals coming from my brain still felt sorted and individualized, like when you get your nose back after having a cold for a while. It kinda resonates, even after we went into full audio. I still felt. . . well, it seemed I was in control, even when all I could hear was the music. Can I talk to Laureate about it?"

"In a minute. Now, the more you give yourself over to the D3, the more power you give it, and the less your pink little monkey brain limits its functions. There needs to be the balance though, you can’t just hand over all five senses, there's the danger of diffusing entirely into the cybernetics."

"What would happen then?"

"Your own consciousness would be gone, it would blend with the D3, you'd probably live for a few minutes, and then your fused sentience would turn on itself, viewing your fleshy meatbag as a gigantic tumor. Your spine would snap, all the water in your body would crystallize. Then you'd die. Both of you. You and the D3."

"Ah. OK, right. Balance that then?"

"Balance. Playing it safe, stick with sight, sound, and touch. The D3 is actually a fairly feral, animalistic organism, so giving over your smell and taste will only help you. It’s better at utilizing them than humans ever were."

"So you're basically part-man, part. . . -robot cheetah," decided Smith with a flourish. He pointed to the D3's exo-skeletal structure. "In a way, it's built more like a bug. Armor on the outside, keeping you and your squishy organs safe. However, for movement, we designed the plating so it could shift and bend in and out of itself like an accordion. Or, again, like a huge cat. It keeps you secure and also flexible. Eliza's been doing yoga. Have you been doing yoga?"

"No. No, I haven't been doing yoga." Stro worked his way out of the D3, climbing down, and stepping onto the floor. He looked up at the D3 frame, chest-cavity exposed like it was on the operating table, bones pried apart by a rib separator. Then he thought of Eliza and he reminded himself to tell her what he'd seen in there in the silence. What he'd been told.

Smith stretched his shoulders incorrectly, as inexperienced athletes are wont to do, until they popped a little and he noticed Stro was giving him they stink eye. "Stro," said Aran. "Do some kind of flexibility work before your spine suffers a spiral fracture doing a 5-g turn at 800 km/h."
-- |  | --

Laureate sat herself down opposite Eliza on the floor in the Spiral. It was exactly 6:00pm. Laureate's punctuality was rubbing off on her. 

"What do you have for the rest of the day?" Laureate asked.

"Stro and I have film to go over. That's it."

"That's more important, so I won't take up too much of your time. I know it's been a long day. How'd you sleep last night, Eliza?"


"No trouble? I can compose you something if you like?"

"Nah. It's fine. Thanks though."

"Sure thing. Now, for the pre-race prep next week, what song are you gonna use? Don't answer that. Listen first. It's so damn important. Sound is so damn important to your mood. It changes your mood and it changes your mind. It's memetic. It's not just a part of you. It's a part of all of us. A world can make a sound. A place that's never existed and an emotion that you've never even felt can have a voice and a sound and a song. It can send you back in time. The music can move and haunt you, manipulate you for good or for ill. Want to slow down time? It can do that. Want to speed it up? We can give you a sound that'll move your brain faster than any drug. It's a digital thought in an analog code. It's gonna make you a machine. It's gonna change every heartbeat in the world because they're gonna be watching you and they're gonna hear every move you make. And when they feed on your energy, you're gonna feed on their excitement, all because of the bassline and the rhythm and the words. The race is alive and poetic, and the music helps create the meter and rhyme, and you're the one that makes it all visible. You cast the light on it. All of that energy is gonna be synchronized and it'll call out to you, and when it does, you can sustain that grace -- you'll have them all in the palm of your hand. You can make them rise and fall. You can command them and then that soul will offer you strength back. You aren't God, but you can make all of them human, just like you are. Make them the best. Inspire them. That's what you can do. That's what you're here to do. You can't do that in the silence.

"Have you ever been in silence? Have you ever been anything but lonely in silence? Silence is never bright, it crushes all the other senses. On instinct, humans reach through silence. That's what you have to do."

"Then that's what I'll do."

Eliza lowered her headset onto her ears and sat herself straight, cross-legged on the floor so her body formed a right angle. 

"Eliza. You rule." With that, Laureate leaned in and flicked the noise canceler on the headset.

It was still raining outside. She let herself think about breathing, feeling air pass in and out of her lungs, and there was a dry smell that dust carried into her. "I'm ready," she said softly to Laureate. "Start the composition."

Laureate nodded, feeling confident, and switched on the music before she left the room. 

"Gonna conquer the world," Eliza breathed to herself. "Gonna break right into heaven."

Outside the Spiral, Laureate rubbed her eyes, feeling thankful that she could go home. She wasn't halfway back to her office though when her thoughts were interrupted by what sounded like a rather harsh conversation. She stopping dead, and feeling the air press up inside her chest, she heard the exchange down the corridor rise and fall, and she slipped into a side-hall, listening as hard as she could.

"Sponsors are a hairsbreadth from dropping us," Laureate could hear Han hiss, letting the volume bump up to a more normal tone when he added, "We need her to issue an apology."

"She'll race. She'll be herself. That'll be her apology." Stro's voice remained calm, as usual. "If we cave to the league's expectations and to the fans' expectations, that is a slippery slope. It's a part of who we are. We're human -- and we're better than human. If at all possible, we don't backpedal, we embrace our emotions and demonstrate our command over them. You came to me asking me to do the same thing once, and I did it, and what happened?"

"The league put us under investigation for the allegedly-deliberate on-track murder of another Runner."

"And we started getting slapped with bullshit fines and penalties every other week. They started targeting us. And how did we beat it? We won the crowd back -- Eliza won the crowd back for our team. She is the best there is and she can handle herself, and if you, or Aran, or anybody says something, you risk taking that away. People respect backbone more than manners."

"Sponsors don't, Stro! You--!" Han's voice spiked and he reeled it back in. "--You have to talk to her. She'll listen to you."

"I'm not going to manipulate her for you. I'm not going to go against her trust." 

"Then what fucking good is that trust, Stro?" Laureate made herself as silent as she could. "If you're going to keep it all to yourself, what have you and Eliza got? And what good are you to her, while we're at it? That's the simplest advice I can give you. Do as you please."

"Han, hey, wait. Listen, I will talk to Eliza. Trust me, I'll do what I can to smooth this over, but I'm going to do it my way, alright?" Han mumbled some agreement. "Cool. Oh, and one more thing. I know this has been a tough day for you, but I gotta know -- does it bother you to know that in another dimension, Bizarro-You is probably having one of the best fucking days of his life?"

-- | --

There was a rush of black smearing across the display that was beginning to pixelate, even at maximum resolution and scan-rate. It bolted from one corner of the screen to the other -- 

"--Here. Pause it here." Stro twitched his wrist and the film on the projector went static. Eliza focused on the frame and the instant it held, a single turn two-thirds into the Death Valley race where she had felt her rear wheel slip when she entered her Tuck and there was no way she could defend it. "Do you see it right here? You're coming into the turn very high and that's good. Then you get through the corner." He twitched his wrist again and the video went forward a few frames. It went back and forth when he scrubbed it between each moment and it was showing her something that Eliza couldn't identify. "I think you dusted just a little bit of speed here. You didn't need to either. See here? Come out of the corner and then just. . . stand on your legs. Trust them."

Eliza leaned forward and examined her form, trying to think. "What do you mean exactly?" She stood up then and pointed at the image. "I'm on top of the apex, aren't I?"

"Absolutely. Hitting the apex isn't your issue though, it's that you're losing velocity because of form within the turn itself," he pointed out, letting the film go forward a few more seconds. On the screen, Eliza struggled against the downforce in her Tuck. "You need to get your butt down. You're riding the thing like it's a horse. Except it's not a horse. The wind is knocking you around, destabilizing you, and then coupled with the rut in the corner, you get thrown a little. You're up in your stance and it's not because you're not strong enough. Were you afraid of wrecking in that turn?"

"I don't remember."

Stro chuckled. "You were doing almost 4oo km/h coming out of this turn and even as you set up for the next one, you hesitated, just for a second. Look right there." Stro held the image. "You're already being brave, entering a turn like that. You were in Tuck. You could be doing maybe 600 km/h. What's the deal here? Were you afraid of wrecking?"

"Eh, not really," Eliza answered. "Just got lazy, I guess. Cost me seven-tenths of a second?"

"Yeah, about." Stro checked the time-split with the video at full speed, observing Eliza enter the turn, body pinned in perfect form as she entered the apex with transfixing grace, and then emerge. "Seven-tenths exactly. This was the one that gave everybody trouble. You still nailed the corner better than everybody else did -- better than I did."

"Hey, what time is it now?"

"Right now?" It had been dark outside for a while now. "Eight. A little after."

"Fuck this day," she growled. "Fuck every ounce of this day." 

"You know Smith talked to me? He wanted to know if I'd talked to you." He scrubbed the video back and forth to distract himself before looking back over at Eliza. "About yesterday." 

"And what did you tell him, Tobias?" 

Eliza occasionally used his real name for comedic effect. The nickname 'Stro' had allegedly been coined by Aran, who insisted that it had come from Astro Boy, an old cartoon about a kid named Toby that was turned into a robot. The public loved the story, so the name stayed.

"Not much," Stro replied. "There's not much to be said about it. I don't think you needed to be talked--" He thought about his wording, "--at. That's probably what would happen." 

"Yeah, probably," she said, shrugging. Stro passed her the remote when she asked for it and she twitched the film between a few frames. "I need a new bathmat. Mine's getting groadie. I stand on that thing and it's all damp and furry and uneven -- it's like standing in roadkill. In roadkill." 

"My bathmat's a piece of shit." 

"Maybe I just need to wash it? Would that bring it back to life?" 

"No. Only washing it in holy water would do that. Then you'd have to dry it on a clothesline made of rosaries whittled from the bones of Saint Sebastian and then beat the grunge out of it with a piece of the true cross. If there is indeed a demon in it, that'd force it out." 

"Gremlins live in my shower and fuck with the hot and cold water." Eliza scrubbed the film back and forth between those same few moments a few more times and then gave up with an exacerbated sigh before wiggling in her chair and rolling onto her side as if she was preparing to fall asleep. But then she said in a normal voice, "Seven-tenths of a second. Game over. My brain has stopped functioning. I am out of brains." 

"Is your brain used up?" Stro joked. 

"I think I need a brain factory-reset. Do they have that? If that's a thing, I need that. I've got too much gunk clogging up my cerebral cortex. I'm running on fumes and burning motor oil over here." She spun her phone on the table and when it stopped, she added, "Eh, so it goes. I'll be more with it tomorrow."

"It's fine, we got a lot done today anyway, more than we should have. Still, I don't think I'd be able to think straight if I didn't have this," he waved at the room around them. "I mean, I like it. I like that our job is to be good and to be admired. What's better than being yourself, professionally? When the hardest part of your day is to persuade people that you're, in fact, a good person, that's a pretty nice feeling. Hit them with awe and just take the gravity outta them -- that's all I want to do and all I need to do. Nobody expects us to be sensitive. They just expect us to be honest." 

"People expect us to be kinda sensitive. Polite, vulnerable, and sensitive. As if that's the best thing a person in the spotlight should be, especially an athlete. Some talented, hyper-humane, yet sensitive flower in mid-wilt." 

"Sensitive people?" Stro shook his head. "We're still calling them that? Jesus, when do we get to go back to just calling them pussies? There's good, and there's bad -- politeness is just gentrification for people without the natural compulsion to be honest with kindness." 

Eliza lifted up her head to look at him. "You're polite." 

"I promise, it's not on purpose." He turned off the projector and the room went dark. In a moment, their eyes would adjust a little -- for now, there was just the dust for them to smell on the air, and Stro heard her rub her eyes and roll over. "It is on purpose sometimes -- I'll give my mom some credit for not raising a bum. Hmm. I was going to tell you something else. I can't remember what it was though." 

"If you remember it, tell me." 

A few minutes later, the temperature dropped, and the rain changed to snow. It was the third week of January and the next race was in five days in Nevada.

-- Doberman
. . .follow the person on Twitter 

 Recommended related reading:
[The Diffused States (Part 1)] by Doberman
[The Organ] by Ghost Little
[V.i.] by Ghost Little

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

#61 -- A Tube

"The doctor mentioned that if it kept up, it would dissolve the esophagus altogether, and the organ would fall out of orbit, and without a stomach, I assume I would have died."

"Are you choking?"

"No. I can breathe just fine." He slapped me on the back and water fell out of my mouth, splattering onto the chain-link fence. "I'm not choking!" He hit me on the back again. I swore in my head but didn't want to waste any breath in case I was a liar. An air-bubble the size of a fist expanded in my throat. When it finally snapped, hard, air rushed out of my mouth, and this time, Alfredo sauce came up with it, and he doesn't know it, but I can feel the heavy linguine nearby, being lazy. "What the fuck, man? I told you that I'm not choking."

"Then what is it?"

"I can't swallow."

"But you can breathe?"

"I'm forming consecutive sentences, aren't I?"

"But you can't swallow? Why not?"

I rolled my eyes. "How the hell should I know?" I belched and it came up in the form of another single, thick bubble. We both froze at the sight of it. He started to laugh and an SUV drove by and honked, encouraging me to hang in there, man, it's still early in the night. I pinched the bubble forming against my teeth, then pressing harder until it finally popped. There was still a lump inside my chest made out of hardened air.

I paced, jumped up and down, feeling movement but no progress. "It's like I'm smuggling a diamond into the country in my esophagus. Shit, this sucks." 

"I thought you saw the doctor about this?"

"I did. They fixed it, this can still just happen randomly sometimes."

I started to sweat because I was embarrassed and nervous and hungry, mostly, I hadn't eaten since early that morning. After the twilight faded into night, the phantom sensation passed, I breathed, and knew it was gone and done, and I went back to dinner, asking for my friends' forgiveness and threatened their lives with death if they ever described this moment in detail.

"Something wrong?"

"Nope," I shook my head. "Not anymore. All good."

-- |  |  | --

"Is somebody going to drive you home?"

"I think so. Somebody's supposed to come pick me up. My mom or my dad." I signed in a few more spots. The pen was dying. "How long does this take?"

"Not long," the woman behind the glass answered. "Maybe thirty minutes."

"But I need a ride home?"

"Honey, they're going to put you under. You didn't know that?" I told her that I did not. "They put the tube down your throat. If they find something, they cut it out. It takes about thirty minutes, then you get to go home."

"Yeah, they said they found a thing at the top of my stomach when they did that x-ray swallow thing."

I woke up in a chair and in my hand was a tupperware container. It had a blob inside it. "Twice a day until they run out, take these," the doctor said. He put some meds in my empty hand. "And there shouldn't be any more after this one."

"Okay," I agreed through misted anesthesia. "But what caused it in the first place?"

"It doesn't matter."

-- |  | --

The lab tech took a miniature dixie cup from the metal sleeve beside the sink and after he had filled it with something that looked like white honey, he passed it to me. "Drink this."

"All of it?"

The cup wasn't totally full, I tested its consistency, tilting it side to side. It stained the sides of the cup like cooking oil. "All of it," he said.

"At once? Or slowly?" I only wanted to have to do this once.

He guided me over to a slab of wall that was different from the rest, turning me sideways so my shoulder was against it. "Like a mugshot," he said. The slab was fucking freezing.

"Don't I get some lead shielding or something?"

"Nah." He lowered the x-ray rig. "It's a longer shot than a standard x-ray but we need to see you in action so we can see where and if there's an obstruction." I leaned on the wall, pinching the waxy dixie cup as he set up the x-ray. "This is a minor test."

"I know."

"I'm going to be back there and hit the button and you'll drink the stuff at medium speed."

Somewhere, my skeleton drank thick yogurt at medium speed, and they saw it.

-- | --

"You're getting steamrolled. And I hate to see it happen to you."

Also, people that I didn't even know told me I looked like shit. My body shut down in ways that I thought were made up -- dramatized snapshots that were enlarged to emphasize emotional texture. People imagined these things into existence so they could sell books and earrings to teenagers, didn't they? No, they really did not. These things can really happen, and that disgusted me all the more. My hair began to fall out. I cut off the rest. I couldn't eat. I wanted to eat, my body would not let me, there was a physical / mental revulsion that I couldn't overcome. Naturally, I weakened, and pretty quickly. I stopped talking. I thought that it was all in my head, but then the stress of the situation had been so severe, I finally went to the hospital after three years, and learned that my rolling stomach acid had started to dissolve the base of my esophagus, and miniature, tumor-like lumps had begun to callous-up to keep the thing whole together. By then it had become hard to get much more than yogurt through the narrowing hole. They went in with a tube and saw what was happening. The doctor mentioned that if it had kept up, it would dissolve the esophagus altogether, and the organ would fall out of orbit, and without a stomach, I assume I would have died.

At that point though, my body had become such a wreck, that it had chosen to grow lumps in my stomach so it would make it harder for me to eat. 

Why would this happen to me? What instinctive trigger went off, my body choosing hardened polyps over normal digestion? I thought about why people could get so afraid that they'd puke, the situation becoming so dire that a human would animalistically vomit everywhere, just so they could be light enough and fast enough to get away from whatever short-term predator was quite literally about to eat them right then and there if they didn't escape.

I wasn't concerned. I wasn't concerned about any of it. The symptom had surpassed its origin. I just wanted it to go away.

I wasn't fast coming back. When I did, I came back different. My body healed somewhat and I began to function physically again. Soon, I could eat. The rest was taking longer. I had rust on my mind.

After a little more, I could breathe, and then a few years passed, and I was awake.

-- Alex Crumb
. . .follow the person on Twitter

Sunday, February 26, 2012

#60 -- WTF's 2011 Game Of The Year Awards

". . .is the 2011 Game of the Year, and it deserves a trillion-trillion words to be spoken, written, and shouted in its honor."

It's awards season! 

Naturally, the most prestigious, and most accurate, awards are always handed out last, and even though the other games sites and magazines (hah!) have distributed theirs for 2011, we took our sweet-ass damn time to figure out what the best games were this last year. Because we can. Because you deserve to know which contain the most artfully-crafted designs, hammered and sharpened into entertainment-pinnacles that spike your reality-hating hearts, and you realize you should never choose a jaded soul over chop-sockey optimism. This is basically the Oscars of videogames.

It's better than the Oscars of videogames.

Reigning 2010 Game Of The Year Champion:
-- Sin & Punishment: Star Successor --
It will be difficult for anything that came out in 2011 to beat out last year's Game of the Year, Sin & Punishment: Star Successor (S&P2), which is not only the Best Game On The Wii, but one of the only game on the Wii that could only exist on the Wii. The Wii was a stop-gap and it's been trying to disown its mediocrity and motion controls ever since the developers realized sword-fighting is fucking awesome and waving plastic at a TV is not sword-fighting. S&P2 is so smashy, so carbon-fiber, so willfully-illiterate, so Japanese, so small-minded and grandiose, it's an entire roast beef sandwich forced onto a small dinner role and you have to dislocate your jaw like a Burmese python just to take a bite out of it.

It had. . .
2 characters: Dude and Girl; Dude has direct-accuracy and Girl has auto-lock
2 types of shots: Manual and lock-on
2 types of power-attacks: Sword-slash and power-charge

And that's it. No power-ups or new weapons or abilities to acquire. You can't squeeze blood from a stone and you can't grind success out of S&P2 without dying a whole lotta times. Your reward for playing well is that you get to survive long enough to keep playing. It moved as fast as a hovercar escaping post-apocalyptic Route 66 and it never surrendered control for a moment -- you were always shooting, blasting, firing, slicing, exploding, rocketing, bashing, flying, and surviving. That was why it was the Game of the Year in 2010. We almost inserted a clause that the new GotY had to be better than the previous game of the year. That made things too messy though and this process was already fairly protracted. This is the WTF GotY's, not the end of an awkward Thanksgiving dinner.

We got a buzz on, let's just knock this thing out.

Other unique caveats have been worked into our selection process though. We chose to add these rules because they strengthen the games that we chose. 

First, when we go back over the best games of a year, it doesn't necessarily mean the game came out in that year. It just means that we played it in that year. It's even more commendable that a game from a past year can still compete with new games, speaking volumes of its quality. This was a rule initially created so we didn't have to talk about how technically Mass Effect 2 came out in 2010, but we didn't play it until it came out on the PS3 in January of 2011, but then just decided, "fuck it, we run the show here and not many quality, memorable games came out in 2011 anyway." Spoilers, Mass Effect 2 appears somewhere on the countdown. Also, this qualifier removes the nostalgia goggles from actually new games and we don't have to say, "shit, they don't make games like this anymore." You don't have to say that and we're very guilty of it (even in this very countdown we are, how about that?!). Those old games still exist. You can go back and play A Link to the Past if you want, and we encourage you to do so. It's $8 on the Wii and it's way better than the Zelda game released in 2011. . . .


Best Game You Only Need To Play Once:
-- Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception --
It's a crime that this game is a one-shot. A damn good one-shot, but it simply does not play well enough to warrant a revisit it for the gameplay. They were almost too diligent at times with their level-design, usually in order to serve the story, which wounded it as a videogame. The best parts are where the game removes itself from the registered design-norm. The tragedy is that it didn't go far enough. It wanted to tell a movie-like story, pushing its tech to mimic a cinematic vibe. It's a videogame though. You play it on your PlayStation 3 console. It should be laughing at cinema's inadequacies and presented a story that could not be told in a movie.

It wanted to be a combination of Lawrence of Arabia and Die Hard, but instead, we got Speed 2: Cruise Control.  

There's a part where you have to wander through a desert and it does some passage of time stuff, and then the villain voices-over with some quotes from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" it is very cool. It was there to evoke the desert's expansiveness. It's over in about 10 minutes though. Some desert. This should take days. Literally, you should not be able to beat the level in one play session. We fucking dare a developer to transplant the misery of walking through a desert into a player. They won't.

Best Thing, Perhaps, That We Love To Hate On:
-- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim --
Below, we've transcribed an actual conversation that we've had with multiple friends, in person, via instant messenger, on the phone, or in any way humans communicate. It should be noted that these are not people that we would not label as active videogame-players.

Friend: "Hey, did you get Skyrim? I took an arrow to the knee!"

Response: "Bitch, please, we play Dark Souls."

Friend is no longer online.

A thing like Skyrim can't exist. It's too big, and so much time was put into making it big that there was no time to fill it with tangible things, and as a result, each thing, be it a quest or a sword, became as (in)significant and (un)important as the last. It is yet another sword. It is yet another quest. The "Main" quest was as brief and underwhelming as a swamp level in a JRPG, except it only lasted ten hours. Ah, but there's more in the world, right? Well, if people laud the game for having 90+ hours of content and they keep saying: "And we've barely scratched the surface!" then what have you been scratching at? What game gives you happiness, but also the qualifier that you've gone nowhere in 90 hours? What star-iron is this game made of that no amount of stomping on it will yield a scratch, hours later? That's a confused little game lacking focus right there. "It's so ambitious and expansive!" Its questing is a long shopping list. Its combat is a fly-swatting simulation. Remember how all sites started handing out freak-out positive scores to Skyrim and then everybody did an about-face and started posting apologist op-eds? Yeah, saw that coming.

"The dragon battles are epic!" You've been fighting dragons in videogames since 1985, how is this a selling point? "They can come at any moment!" Fantastic, you've invented random-battles (side note: No you have not.)."There's so much loot to collect. It makes my guy look cool." Then go buy a doll or adopt some fashion taste of your own, like, in real-life, man. Also, you play from a first-person view, you can't even see what you're wearing. "Third-person view is totally manageable this time." It still doesn't require any skill or technique to kill things.

The Game That Should Have Done Less:
-- Batman: Arkham City --
It's a fantastic fight engine, rad puzzles, logical story progression, reverence for the Batman mythos, and enjoyable locomotion. It's what Zelda should have become by now if Nintendo had balls. However, it treats the open world as an arcane menu-system to select activities from. The game was also surprisingly short. How can that be? We kept on planning on going off the beaten path when things got too tough at a boss fight, like you do when you realize you don't have enough missile tanks to properly confront Kraid. Rocksteady, go back to the Metroid-style, isolated environments like the first game, it served it infinitely better.

The Game That Makes Us Feel Like Children:
-- The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword --
Stop assuming that your audience has the intelligence of the coma-participant, Nintendo. We have functioning eyes. We can't review Skyward Sword (but we tried). It isn't modern. It isn't old-school. It will be good today, and it will be good tomorrow, but it won't ever be great, and if we were three years old and had never played a single videogame before, we might think it was the greatest thing ever. This game is the enemy. While other people were out trying to figure out how to be tasteful and fun in 2011, Nintendo seems keen on just writing to a librarian in Oxford, England, demanding that they change the very word "fun" to something that is more agreeable with their own marketing department. Skyward Sword is a signpost pointing to what developers think we want and deciding what we are. If you feel like it, don't listen to us. Instead, go buy a Wii, and a copy of Skyward Sword, and forget that other videogames exist for 30 hours. That's the only way you'll be able to to decide if you're three years old or not.

Game With The Most Fucked-up Moment In 2011:
-- Shadows of the Damned --
Did that man with the harmonica welded to his mouth just rip out his own heart? Did he then eat his own heart? Did the heart give him powers? Did the powers just turn him into a demi-weregoat? Did the demi-weregoat just summon lightning that turned a statue into a horse with a cat's face? Did the demi-weregoat just eat the cat-horse's heart and grow ten stories tall and then eat the rest of the cat-horse? Did the ten-story tall demi-weregoat just piss darkness into a fountain? Did the grim reaper just come down and cut off the ten-story tall demi-weregoat's head?

No, none of those things happened to you because you're a sane person and because you didn't just fight the second boss in that game. If you know nothing about Shadows of the Damned, and you like any of Sam Raimi's horror movies, then we cannot recommend it enough, otherwise, eh, it's just a strange little third-person shooter.

Honorable Mention For Games That We Don't Want To Leave Unmentioned:
-- Rayman Origins -- 
-- Super Mario 3D Land --
-- Child of Eden --
-- Resistance 3 --
-- Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker --
-- Driver: San Francisco --
-- Orcs Must Die! --


The sequel to Banjo-Kazooie that we never got as kids. And that makes us angry. Fuck Rare. Fuck Banjo-Tooie. Fuck hours 5-87 of Donkey Kong 64. Fuck Nintendo for letting Rare fall into mediocrity. Fuck Nintendo in general. Fuck the people that won't let Free Radical make another TimeSplitters game. Fuck Halo, and fuck Call of Duty, and fuck Xbox Live, and fuck creative freedom, and fuck our always-was-there desire to shoot shit ever since we played Contra on NES. Fuck Activision for realizing all these things could be compounded into the most profitable mixture in videogames. Fuck the death of the platformer. Fuck false incentives created to lure players through shitty games instead of making moving from point A to point B fun like Sly did all those years ago. Fuck the assholes that don't get boners for cel-shaded games. Fuck those same assholes that'd rather simulate murder than simulate an endless Saturday morning cartoon marathon. Fuck Disney, make real animated movies again! Fuck Pixar, stop making us cry! Fuck Cars 2, what a terrible movie! Fuck Nintendo again for not giving their characters character or context or a reason for being. Fuck all the indie devs that'd rather make platformers based on their old college creative writing pieces like Braid or Limbo instead of making them out of screws, nails, and undercooked Stegosaurus steaks, like Super Meat Boy. Fuck the iPhone, the videogame equivalent of a Dan Brown book. Fuck us for not playing the Sly Cooper games all those years ago.

#8 -- inFamous 2('s ending) --
This is a twist on a modern morality-slog.The problem is that "morality" in games has become a stat, a number, that you collect, the same way that you used to collect stars in Mario 64. Stars unlocked doors so you could play more levels. Morality in games like inFamous 2 and Mass Effect 2 are commodities that unlock more missions, conversations, and "game." If you think that they're trying to be representative of who you are when you play the game, like some sort of real-time tarot card reading, you might notice a stench and some signage around you reading: "Your Butt Welcomes You: Scenic Colon Overlook On Your Left!" In almost all cases, you are not playing as yourself in these games with morality systems because good is far too angelic and evil is like a ladling up yourself another helping of slow-roasted puppy meat at the Hades Buffet. Face it, you're just playing one side or the other because you want to either shoot evil lightning or have a heal-ray -- don't protest, that is always how the powers are divided up at the end game. What inFamous 2 does to great effect is force you to the opposing polarity after you've been playing the other for the entire game as if it knew you were being bad because you wanted to see the bad ending, not because you were actually a bad person.

After hours of being a goody two-shoes, it forces you to (++ SPOILERS ++, we guess) team up with the "evil" girl and then commit suicide to save a city that hates you. It forces you to take the moral high-ground to the n'th degree. If you've been bad the whole game, you must team up with the icy, callous, slightly-xenophobic, but supposedly "good" girl, who forces you to kill your best friend to stay alive. In the world of moral choices, inFamous 2 went the extra mile by forcing you to go further than you could have expected and after feeling in control for the entire game, it takes control away when you need it most.

#7 -- Dark Souls --
In the true sequel to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Dark Souls is the first ever game derived from a discarded NES game-design document to be released in HD. This is a game that goes. You know the kind. No downtime. No load times. Not a moment to rest. No map, just your brain. It's like a 400 page book with only 8 chapters and you've lost your bookmark but if you lose focus, you have to go back to the beginning of the chapter and start reading it again.You learn Dark Souls. There is no hint system to call up and no way to escape destiny besides moving ahead to face destiny.

Skill can take you so far. After that, it's all will, man. You have to face your addiction to failure and you have to want to get better.

#6 -- StarCraft II('s multiplayer) --
The best competitive (re: non-N64) multiplayer game ever. StarCraft II is a football game if you controlled every muscle, thought, and reflex of all eleven players on the field simultaneously. Also, your team, nay, your entire franchise is reset after every match, and corporate espionage and off-season trades are all part of your ongoing strategy inside of one game of StarCraft II. When you're doing it right, you should be forgetting that you're playing. This is another game that has changed so dramatically in the year since its release that we can unerringly justify it being listed here. StarCraft II, shit, Blizzard games in general, are becoming not just games, but social platforms. There is just the right balance of educated guess work and luck, coupled with total precision and game-knowledge, creating the best digital one-on-one mind-game to date. It's exciting to watch how it's played in one single game and it's even more exciting to watch how it's played in one single year.

Premium motor-oil for a dying genre. It makes Grand Theft Auto IV look like a corpse. It won't elicit any of the big words from game reviewers like visceral, immersive, meticulous, or revelatory. It isn't polished, refreshing, or innovative -- it simply wants to be drip fun into your veins, uncut. It's an antidote to the open-world tedium. Missions are handed out over your phone, limiting the backtracking through vacant landscapes that plagued games like Jak II or Red Dead Redemption (both exquisitely-crafted games in their own rights). Running and shooting is exactly what you want it to be: running and shooting, not put-the-dot-on-the-head. The dialog is funny, the story is self-deprecating, and as we said in our review, it's a strong feminist statement if you play as a woman. It does what it does and it has no flaws when it does them.

#4 -- (the first half of) Deus Ex: Human Revolution --
This game did five things well and then did those five things five times in a row. It's a late CD-Rom era computer game thrown in hyper-sleep for about a decade. It was then exhumed, given a texture package, and had the last third of its content excised. Yes, it ends abruptly and the story forgets to exist during the second half. However, it's first half by itself is superior to nearly everything else we played this year. You creep, manipulate, experiment, explore, and then go loud if you must, because that's your last choice. Eventually though, it becomes too much of a meta-game that irks you if you come across a bot you can't destroy or a safe you can't hack. You become obsessed with maxing out your stats, and that wasn't the point of the game at first because it was richer and purer, and that's where things turn. The first half of the game alone is still the fourth-best game of 2011 though.

#3 -- Mass Effect 2 --
The game that made us afraid for it to finish. The game that made us sure that everything is in place before confronting our immortal enemy at the center of a supermassive black hole. It instilled the compulsion to make sure that everybody gets out alive. To get out alive, you must grow stronger. To grow stronger, you must explore the galaxy. To explore the galaxy together, your crew must trust you with their secrets. Ergo, the best assurance that you can give yourself that your friends will survive is if they are your friends. To assure this, you must ply the stars of the Milky Way. You must learn alien cultures. You must negotiate when you can and know when the time for emotionless diplomacy is over. There is a tool for every task and you will need all of them -- weapons, friends, wisdom, focus, and emotion, to get everybody, including yourself, out alive. In order to survive, you are asked to find the strength to count your blessings before going to war.

#2 -- Portal 2('s writing) --
The way Portal 2 plays is inferior to the way that Portal played. Portal was about serendipitously discovering how smart you are and how much smarter the people that made the game must be than you. Comparing Portal and Portal 2 is like arguing over Alien and Aliens -- both are unequivocally creative and beautiful for different reasons, and you could argue preference for either, but what you won't argue is that one is good and the other is bad. True, Portal 2 had the speedy-gel and the bouncy-gel and fun co-op levels, and yet all of that falls by the wayside when you realize that it has some of the keenest, blackest, most chaotic, and most hilarious writing you'll find on this side of sanity. It has, what, four speaking-roles? Wheatley, GLADOS, Cave Johnson, and we'll even count the Turret. And you, Chell, the mute, all combine to build the best ensemble one-act play ever to coalesce in a videogame. You'll play the game for the puzzles, but you'll want to finish the game so you can listen to the Personality Cores shout at one another. You'll know what we mean when you get there. It's the writing in Portal 2 that will be immortalized for years to come.

-- Bulletstorm --  
2011 Game of the Year
Bulletstorm is the 2011 Game of the Year, and it deserves a trillion-trillion words to be spoken, written, and shouted in its honor. We want to go to the bar and get shit-housed on grog and go up to random patrons and explain to them just what exactly a Bullet Storm really is! See, Bulletstorm is sorta like a 2D Mario game with the B-button taped down, but you're also always fireball. Bulletstorm is like having three dicks. If you've ever been drunk on a pontoon-boat, and you are American, then you've been tempted to experiment with pistols and flare guns on a tropical-sticky afternoon, and Bulletstorm combines these temptations into one weapon. Bulletstorm was probably first designed for SNES with a Game Genie on, and then remade wholesale for the PS3, all within one development cycle, and it shows, man, it shows. Women should not look directly at Bulletstorm, it may cause them momentary discomfort, followed by nausea, followed by shortness of breath, followed by a complete slough of her skin, wherein she shall be born again and receive total consciousness. Men should give up trying to write poety; Bulletstorm exists. There are special whistles that can hit octaves usually reserved for canines -- Bulletstorm's weapons hit octaves usually reserved for over-sized coal-mining equipment. Bulletstorm will give sheep Post-Traumatic Joy Disorder. Bulletstorm will one day be cited as the inspiration for those famous words uttered by the first human to walk on Mars: "Continue to follow me, and I will kill your dick!" That human will be the baddest woman ever to strap on a space suite, by the way. 

Don't experience Bulletstorm under the influence of illicit substances -- it will in fact turn your urine to soft-boiled egg-yolk. Bulletstorm was conceived during sex on, like, a really nice spiral staircase. Shaving a sedated polar bear cub with a straight razor requires speed and precision, and Bulletstorm hands you a katana blade, demanding that you have the exact same speed and precision when negotiating with that sedated polar bear cub's momma. Wrapping an explosive bola around a mutated Australian-biker and kicking him so hard he disobeys Chrono-Law is Bulletstorm reminding you why flipping tennis balls to yourself and smacking them with a metal baseball bat into your neighbor's above-ground pool was the best date you've ever been on. It's a game that hates other games while embracing modernity and does meta-gaming so tastefully.

In fact, Bulletstorm also won FOURTEEN other honors from us in addition to being the 2011 GotY. Check them all out, we've listed them here:
  • The Funniest Game since Psychonauts
  • The Most Excited To Ruthlessly / Violently Dismantle Enemies since 4 | Resident Evil
  • The Best Housecat Playing-With-A-Dead-Mouse simulation since Turok: Dinosaur Hunter.
  • Best Space Pirates since Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.
  • Finest Shotgun since Doom 3.
  • Funnest Movement In A Shooter since Vanquish.
  • Best Female Sidekick Since Fucking Ever.
  • Most Gruesome Use Of A Cactus since Final Fantasy VIII.
  • Greatest "It Penetrates All The Enemies In A Line" Gun since Perfect Dark.
  • The Special Bayonetta Casual, Repeated "Fuck-Yeah" Award goes to Bulletstorm's plasma leash, which lets the player reel in, kick out, and inflect an area-of-effect juggle-attack onto enemies.
  • The Valkyria Chronicles Guaranteed Multiple-Orgasm Award for fastest "Start New Game" after watching the credits, 'cuz the first go-around was so goooooood for us.
  • Stickiest Sticky Grenade since Halo 2.
  • Killingest Kill 'Em All moment since Jet Force Gemini.
  • Best Time-Attack Mode since Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2.
How did we do? You can point out some factual inaccuracies or try to persuade us otherwise. We might listen.

Recommended related reading:
[F-Zero GX | * * *] by Doberman
[ExciteTruck | * * * *] by Ghost Little
[Final Fantasy IX | * * * *] by Ghost Little

-- Ghost Little and Doberman
on Twitter | @GhostLittle_WTF