A clumsy, but likable, papery hug.

My face scowls in the sun. Suddenly aware of his audience, my face opens his mouth wide and makes a series of quick, sloppy gestures before disappearing behind the horizon.

I did that on purpose, of course. The Vita’s front facing camera picked up my dumb head and stuck it into Tearaway’s sun and I couldn’t resist being a moron on screen. It makes me wonder why iota wants to deliver a message to me. I’m an idiot every time I show up in the game. But iota is earnest. Tearaway, as a whole, is earnest. Its papercraft world, blunt and saccharine storytelling, and borderline non-sequitor cast of characters could easily come across as hokey and forced, but surprisingly (and much to its credit), it usually does not.

That is not to say Tearaway doesn’t stumble. It does. As an omnipotent sun-dork, my job is to force myself into iota’s world and help him deliver his message to me. The Vita’s touch screen screen, the rear touch panel and even the gyros are put to work here, and it’s a double edged sword. On the one hand, poking, prodding, swishing and tilting are all novel inputs for a platformer, and Tearaway generally pulls its ideas off to good effect. It’s fun and engaging. But on the other hand, the Vita is a large, heavy system. Fumbling around with it to do what the game asks of me is, at times, downright annoying. At one point, I had to interact with the rear touch panel with two fingers while also guiding iota with the left analog stick. What the hell kind of hands does Media Molecule think I have?

With Media Molecule’s reputation, in all fairness, I expected a lesser game. The single player campaigns in the LittleBigPlanet games are dull and exhausting affairs, to put it kindly. Tearaway doesn’t break any molds; iota trucks through a linear adventure finding hidden presents, collecting junk and helping denizens with the most simple of tasks, but despite having done all this in any number of Nintendo 64 platformers, Tearaway does what it does well. Media Molecule wisely sprinkles new ideas for both platforming and combat at the right time to keep the simple systems from growing stale. A few segments drag on a bit too long, but it’s rarely boring.

Tearaway asked me about the size of my hands, the color of my skin and even which gender I prefer to be addressed as. It’s a game that tries very hard to be likable, to put you in a creative and prominent role in the story. Sometimes, especially the ending, it comes across as heavy handed, and the variety of inputs are occasionally cumbersome. But Tearaway dusts itself off and tries again, and I’m glad that it does.


The Nintendo 64

Shelter in a disaster.

My siblings and I had kind of bad upbringing. Not “oh no I’m grounded because I did something stupid and I can’t get my way” kind of bad. Tumultuous, hungry, turbulent, lonely, even violent bad. We poor, abused, confused.

In the mid to late 90s, we found solace and solidarity in otherwise mundane things. Fall afternoons shooting Nerf guns at each other. Hours wasted away watching Nickelodeon and The Simpsons. Three controllers plugged into a curvaceous, charcoal Nintendo 64. Small, unremarkable bubbles that kept us safe.

I’m not interested in discussing sales numbers or the rate at which new releases appeared on the Nintendo 64. I’m not even interested in discussing the quality of the games. All of that whiny shit is just fodder for boring people with no other way to measure the worth of the dollars or time spent on some appliance that now rests, slanted to one side, somewhere in their closet. The value of the Nintendo 64 is not measured in numbers or dick waving for me.

To understand the value of the Nintendo 64 is to understand what it is like to have nothing else when dinner is but toast and watered down Kool-Aid. The terrifying feeling of not knowing when your parents will be home. To know what it’s like to be scared, to not know where you might sleep tonight, to absolutely hate every other moment of your life. Four controller ports. That’s all it took to stave off depression, anxiety, frustration, anger. Nothing else at the time could have bound us together.

The Nintendo 64 was a port in a storm. Shelter in a disaster. It brought me and my brother and my sister together around a mediocre 20″ tube TV, its cord severed and taped together after our father cut it in some fit of rage. Cartridges shoved into a console. Loose, wobbly analog sticks. Shit talking, wailing, complaining, mostly just laughing. We had so very little else. It’s not a number, it’s not just an appliance, it’s not just video games. There is no argument; it might have been all we had.



Bored and restless.

I’ve long liked video games. Why has always been a moving target, and so what I look for in a game, what I enjoy in the industry, has always changed. It is an eager, insatiable desire to experience and learn all that I can. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like the industry has kept pace with my appetite.

I own somewhere in the neighborhood of 2000 games and have played thousands more. I read and talk about them; I’ve written about them both as an enthusiast and as a professional. I’ve covered events, interviewed developers and taken hundreds of photos. I know there are a lot of people in the same position and I have no idea how they maintain driven or excited. I’m bored.

I don’t finish my games nearly as much as I used to and I’ve made peace with this, but in many cases, I feel aimless and tired even within a couple hours of beginning to play a brand new game. I was probably even looking forward to it. But it’s composed of the same systems I’ve experienced dozens of times over, propped up by a paper thin narrative stretched out over 10 or 20 or even 50 hours. I cared, and then I got the game in my hands and then I stopped caring. Most games just feel like sleepy fall afternoon.

Earlier this week, discussions erupted about the resolution differences between games on the upcoming Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Players and writers alike weighed in. Twitter, GAF, blogs. It was pervasive. And I just don’t care. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a judgment. I think other people can value whatever they please. But I don’t value this and I can’t help but feel like a medium, a hobby, an industry I’ve loved for decades has been careening into a direction I can’t understand. My favorite system right now is the 3DS. It’s the size of a couple of Pop-Tarts, it’s the least powerful of the modern machines and it doesn’t get what are considered AAA or blockbuster experiences. I’m on a different planet all together.

Compounding my frustration is that I am a collector. I like holding and preserving these things I really enjoy. The harsh reality? Many of today’s games just aren’t worth preserving, even many of which I actually really like. They’re redundant and too long. Too banal. They’re not challenging, and I don’t mean “challenging” as in difficult to play. I mean powerful, alluring, arresting, interesting. They don’t just challenge me, they challenge the entire medium. Why are these games so few and far between?

Proteus challenged me. Gone Home challenged me. I am glad for them. I wish, though, that more games like them existed. I wish they were physical, I wish I could save them, share them, return to them. Touch their art and flip through the pages of their manual. There isn’t much posterity in a downloadable game. In 10 years, it will be difficult to return to it and in 20, it might not even be reasonably possible. What a blow to what is still a growing a medium: Its most compelling games are essentially born with an expiration date.

Maybe I shouldn’t have gobbled up games and knowledge and experiences like I did. Maybe I’d still be content playing just a handful of samey games a year. Maybe I’d care about resolution and RAM. But maybe the industry can stop chasing overwrought, super long chore generators. I’m tired of the tutorials and all the terrible dialog and the 15 minute credit scrolls. There’s gotta be more than this.


The Wind Waker HD

Solid blue extending in all directions.

The concept of the ocean terrifies me. Not water and not even the ocean itself. I swim, and living on a coast, sometimes even in the ocean. It’s really more the thought of a vast expanse of, like, nothing. And only seemingly nothing. An entire universe of things lurk below the surface. I’m never in the middle of the ocean so the fear rarely rears its head, though seeing photos of things in the water that don’t belong in the water (sunken ships, cars in pools, that stupid LEGO dragon) will trigger a sudden wave of anxiety and dread. No, no, no. Get out of the water. You don’t belong there. It’s primal. It’s my subconscious telling me “Don’t die here. You will be lost forever.”

Before The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Link had traveled the ocean just once and it ended in disaster. He was on his way home. He was done. Almost there. And BAM! A bolt of lightning reduces his boat to splinters and he sleeps on a log for eight dungeons or something. Not an all together pleasant experience. Of course, Link’s Awakening Link and The Wind Waker Link are different lads, separated by centuries and a couple of retcons, but man. Wind Waker Link should have just stayed on Outset Island and chalked up his sister’s kidnapping to the rough and tumble life in Water World. Let Kevin Costner handle it. Stay safe. Forever. In his hut with his grandmother’s soup.

The Wind Waker’s Great Sea is filled with dangers: Cyclones, pirates, ghost ships, fucking giant helicopter fish with crazy clown mouths full of teeth. They’re all just waiting out there, somewhere, far off on the hazy horizon. But they’re not the real menace. No, the flying fish of nightmares are just victims of circumstance. They didn’t ask for this giant, stupid ocean. The ocean is the real enemy here, and it’s at its worst when it is at its most idyllic.

In Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, the 3D Zelda games preceding The Wind Waker, Link swam in translucent bodies of water which made Lake Hylia and The Great Bay only slightly less terrifying. Even in the games to follow, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, the waters are clear. Not so in The Wind Waker. Every body of water is a cold, hard, opaque cerulean. It’s an entity all its own and it’s hiding secrets like a sentient being.

Out here, in the middle of nowhere, the solid blue extends in all directions. Link’s tiny boat creeks and groans over the waves, and somewhere below us the entire kingdom of Hyrule sleeps. Dark and slimy. Decaying. Hiding. And I can’t see it. I only let Link leave the safety of the boat if I must. The immensity and the loneliness of the Great Sea is all the more apparent when the momentum of the boat is halted and Link leaps from his craft into ocean. His small frame cannot match the scale of anything in the world around him. I can’t see half his body. The little orb that tells me how long he can swim alone is emptying and Link struggles to even tread water. He’s coughing and sputtering. Why can’t this child from an island village swim for more than two minutes and oh dear god why am I in charge of him?

So we stay in the boat, the closest thing to shelter we have. I keep my eye on a soft, gray shape in the distance. Maybe it’s an inhabited island, maybe a platform, but it’s probably just a scraggily cluster of rocks. A few blades of grass waving in the breeze. It’s a lifeless clump of nothing, and I want to get there desperately but it’s so far away and I can barely see it. A few Tingle Bottles drift aimlessly along the way. I scoop them up and we read them. Brief notes. Photos. People had been here before and now they’re gone. No one is here now. I scribble my own note and toss the Tingle Bottle into the Great Sea.

Don’t die here. You will be lost forever.


Grand Theft Auto V

Flawed, stupid and tone deaf, but what can I say? I like it.

As I cruised through Los Santos, a woman cowering behind a trailer in an alley called for my help. She was a celebrity of some kind and wanted assistance in getting past the paparazzi converging on her location. I was confused, so I really didn’t know what to do. She sighed, said she would do it herself and jumped into a nearby SUV. I jumped in with her. She drove. More specifically, she plowed through several paparazzi and barreled through a bunch of intersections. I was given a single star Wanted Level for her transgressions. She slammed on the brakes and fled the vehicle. With the cops steadily approaching, I took the wheel and tried to outrun them in a giant busted pile of steel. I crashed into a tree. As bullets flew everywhere, I ran into the nearby hills where I was chased by a mountain lion so I shot it in the face. I looked up. I was at the Vinewood sign.

This bizarre series of events is a prime example of some the best and most surprising stuff Grand Theft Auto V has to offer. Unexpected, emergent situations. You can’t write this stuff, and the stuff you can write? Well, maybe it’s not so hot.

Grand Theft Auto III once felt scandalous. We huddled in Becca’s basement, passing the Dual Shock 2 controller around, taking turns jacking cars and beating people with baseball bats. Matt would pounce up in down on the couch with each blow. GTA III offered unbridled cartoonish freedom. Violence was how you communicated with the world. Dealing death was your agency. Years on, GTA has lost its bite. It’s a rockstar that has long since forgotten what made him so punk rock in the first place.

Over the years, a shift occurred. Even the box arts communicate the change in tone from a silly cartoon to something more serious.

A lot of modern games try to spin “mature” and “serious” yarns and most fail, so I won’t hold that against GTA. Poop jokes and dogs humping each other, though, are all still par for the course in GTA V. It’s lowest common denominator kind of stuff, scatological humor awkwardly wedged between realistically animated cut scenes about moving up in the world or forgetting one’s past. It’s a complete tonal misfire, appealing to the sort of people who still think GTA is “satire” because it lazily tackles low hanging fruit like Facebook or iPhones. I sort of just wanted to help Michael with his family, and get Franklin a construction job or something. I’m uninterested in poop.

So GTA isn’t written particularly well. It doesn’t play very well either: GTA V still has clumsy physics, cars that don’t really handle like cars, sloppy shooting and many missions ripped right from the franchises’ history books. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. If the game didn’t have a marketing budget rivaling the GDP of small nations, or an enormous and visually pleasing map, I would actually swear it was a middle tier franchise knocked out the door by Atari or something. Which is to say little more than I don’t understand the bold and grandiose statements proclaiming Grand Theft Auto V to be the greatest achievement of the generation. Or ever. Guys. The writing is really stupid and the shooting still sucks. We can do better.

But that isn’t to say I don’t like GTA V. Surprisingly, I do. Much more than I thought I would, in fact. What I don’t like is easier to deconstruct. The only game in the series with consistent themes, art, narrative and gameplay might be Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (so it should come as no surprise that it’s my favorite). GTA V is inconsistent across the board. But the things I like are more abstract and harder to articulate. I can drive down a dusky highway listening to Robyn. I can plan a jewelry store heist and make a clean getaway. I can shoot a mountain lion in the face. GTA V is fun and for all its faults, that’s still worth something.