Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Memento Mori 02: Chocolate or Vanilla, Choose

Posted on: October 11th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

“Who wants a library full of books you’ve already read?”

– Harlan Ellison (Paladin of the Lost Hour)

“A Man Chooses”

If you’re a PC gamer with an adequate rig and a modicum of disposable income, you’re probably familiar with what I’ve termed the “Steam Daze.” With all the sales, and the deals, and the special offers, it doesn’t take long to amass something of a collection, a neat and ever expanding line of cheaply acquired titles just waiting for you in that lovely sidebar to the left. There are so many games to play, so many worlds to adventure in, so many virtual experience to sample. It’s nice, at first. It’s exciting.

Then it comes time to actually sit down and play something. You’ve been waiting for this moment for hours, perhaps at school, perhaps at work, perhaps at your cousin’s wedding: finally, it’s “you-time.” You settle in. You boot up. You crack your fingers. You open up Steam. And suddenly you become aware of your own mortality, more than you ever have been before. In stark white on gray are etched the lines of a dire prophesy. Never before have you known finitude so completely. Never before have you felt so utterly limited, so utterly dazzled and confused by the terrifying specter of Cronos, with his scythe, with his uncaring stare.


It’s true what they say about choice: having too much of it can often feel like having none at all. Unlike the kid in a candy store, who, we would presume, will gorge himself until he is hopelessly sick, you are more akin to the scholar standing in the midst of a vast library. It could take you days, sometimes months, to consume just one of the items on offering. And the very act of your having bought a game, even at eighty percent off an already reduced price, serves, by default, as an implied contract, stipulating that you do intend to play it…at some point.

But how much time do you really have? Even if you live to a ripe old age, and the world doesn’t end in catastrophe, and your income remains steady, and your leisure time is plentiful, will you ever be able to get through everything you’ve ever wanted to get through. Will you even be able try out everything you’ve wanted to try out?

“And that has made all the difference”

I realize that the philosophical problem at hand is a great deal bigger than games, and that this is an extremely privileged manifestation of said problem. It comes down, much more universally, to the sometimes terrifying question of how to best spend one’s extremely finite allotment of moments among the living. The issue is a great deal more profound than whether you’re feeling like a first person shooter or a point and click adventure game on any given evening. Nevertheless, one’s solitary leisure time (which is something that even extroverts benefit from, and introverts absolutely require), one’s time away from work (both meaningful and meaningless) and from social obligations (both happy and unhappy), is a significant part of life, and should, in my opinion, be factored fully into any discussion of said question.

On your death bed, in your death throes, will you regret those five hours you’d spent farming gold in your favorite MMO, or those ten hours it took you to finally defeat Ornstein and Smough in Dark Souls, or the twenty hours you’d spent on Assassin’s Creed 2, or the eighty hours you’d spent on Assassin’s Creed 4? I should probably avoid dwelling on games like Skyrim, lest I suffer a full on existential meltdown. Could you have spent that time better? Could you have spent it more wisely? Might you have had more fun playing something else?

Note that this isn’t a matter of “games” versus real life. I have firmly established elsewhere that I believe engagement with interactive art to be as valid and potentially meaningful as engagement with any other medium. It’s not a question of whether or not you’d regret having a virtual experience when you could have been merrily skipping through a dewy meadow with your significant other (while giggling ecstatically, of course), or working hard on finding the cure for cancer, or making your way through Ulysses. It is assumed, for the purposes of this discussion, that you already do those things, or something along those lines, in their own assigned time, and that you’ve already carved out a part of your day, or your week, for recreation anyway. This is a simple matter of choice. We know that one experience can easily be more enjoyable and more meaningful than another, simply because we, as human beings, have tastes and preferences. But, just as someone browsing in the aisles of a book store or a record shop, just like someone surfing the channels or compulsively reading the summaries on Netflix, we don’t always know what is what.

As a result, it’s easy to simply seize up, to freeze, to gloss over. You stare at the screen, at all the treasures you’ve accrued in your vault, and you fail to choose, to enjoy, a single one of them. Paradoxically, you find yourself procrastinating. You watch a video, or read an article, or (god forbid!) do some work. Before you know it, your coveted alone time has melted away, and you haven’t played anything at all.

“I Choose Vanilla”

In college, my roommates and I used to go to this meditation class on Wednesday evenings. It was held in one of the dorm buildings, in the fitness center down in the basement. The building used to be a small women’s hospital, and the basement was rumored to have served as the morgue. You wouldn’t really know it to look at it, though. The room was brightly lit, with exposed brick walls, lacquered wooden floors, and mirrors everywhere.

One Wednesday night, seemingly out of the blue, our instructor turned to the student at the far end of the room, made fists with her hands, and held them up as though she were presenting the student with two ice cream cones.

“Chocolate or vanilla, choose,” she said.

“Umm…chocolate?” said the student.

“Why?” she said.

“Because I like chocolate?” said the student.

“Wrong!” she said. The teacher focused her attention on the next person in line, and asked her the very same question. She chose vanilla, and claimed that she chose it because vanilla tasted better to her, as an individual. “Wrong!” said the teacher, and focused on the next student. And every student, in turn, was wrong, whether he or she chose chocolate or vanilla.

“Do you want to know the answer?” asked the teacher, after every single one of her pupils, including myself, had apparently failed the cryptic test. We nodded in assent. She paused meaningfully and surveyed the room with something like triumph.

“I choose vanilla,” she said, and paused again, “because I choose vanilla.” She grinned excitedly.

“Isn’t that a mindfuck?” she continued.

We agreed. It was, indeed, a mindfuck.


Choosing to Choose

Most people overcome the “Steam Daze”, or whatever other gaming or non-gaming equivalent they might be most familiar with. It’s intermittent. We can’t keep falling victim to it night after night, even if we can’t hope to become completely immune. We understand that the daze is unproductive, that it ultimately prevents us from living. It becomes difficult to enjoy anything if you’re constantly second guessing yourself, constantly wondering if you might not have been better off having chosen something else. The grass is always greener and so forth. The ability to choose, and to stand by your choice, is a skill, and a very powerful one. In the end, that which you didn’t choose, for whatever reason, you simply didn’t choose. There is no inherent value to any such choices. All value is perceived.

But I’ve no right to wax philosophical. There is actually no great lesson here and I can’t claim to know the true answer to my meditation teacher’s koan, nor do I have the definitive solution to the problem of indecision. I suppose what tends to work for me is either picking up something short and sweet (or something that can be played for a short period of time) and going from there, or committing myself to something sweeping and epic, something I can play from one evening to another for a while, without having to think too hard about it. Sometimes I concede, and do something conventionally perceived as productive. Ultimately, the meaning we make, and take, from both our lives and our hobbies needs to be determined on an individual level.

I’m only publishing this because it’s been a rough couple of months, on oh so many fronts, and because my other articles are still in the shop and because, wracked with fear and dread, I can’t seem to decide which one of them to finish.


Remember, Thou Art Mortal

Posted on: August 21st, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

I first became aware of my own mortality, not merely as a possibility but as an inevitability, when faced with a game over screen in a mediocre licensed game for the Sega Genesis. That much I know for sure. That much I remember. I don’t, however, remember my thought process. I don’t know how or why I arrived at that precipice, only that I did, and that it sucked. I was six or seven years old. It was a quiet, peaceful, unremarkable evening. The game, in case you’re wondering, was Tom and Jerry: Frantic Antics. It was colorful, cartoony, a little bland in retrospect (although I was enthralled at the time, mainly because it was what passed for “next gen” back then). I’d seen hundreds of game over screens before, and I already knew, intellectually, what death was. It was nearly bedtime. I was allowed one more try. I fell into a pit.

That’s when it struck me. Someday, after a certain amount of time had passed (and nobody could predict exactly how much), I, along with every single person alive, will die. For good. Game over. No continues. No save games. I’d had a fairly secular upbringing, so my thoughts didn’t turn to celestial palaces, eternal country clubs, or eventual resurrection. In fact, the concept of an afterlife didn’t occur to me until years later, and even then in the purely theoretical sense. To be frank, I didn’t really know how to process it at the time. And I basically still don’t.

I remember going to bed and staring at the darkness. It was the inevitability part, I think, that was new to me, the concrete understanding that just as my birthday, no matter how far away it would sometimes seem, eventually came around, just as the summers and the winters eventually came around, so too would the moment of my own death.

I wish I could remember what it was about that particular game over screen that did the trick. But, unfortunately, I can only speculate. And my speculations on the matter aren’t especially interesting. Since then, I’d torn through more avatars than napkins (most of them in Dark Souls, though Hotline Miami is probably close behind), and I like to pretend, like most adults, that I’ve come to terms with the reality of death, so unlike the common fictions and conceits of the medium.


The panic attack I’d experienced while grinding my way, death by death, through Heide’s Tower of Flame and the Lost Bastille and simultaneously listening to the recent This American Life segment on hospice care is surely nothing to be alarmed about. It was just incongruous, confronting the permanent and inescapable nature of actual death while thoughtlessly eating lance after lance, while watching the words “you have died” flash on the screen again and again, and knowing that no, I actually haven’t, not just yet.

When I hear accounts of actual war, it is not uncommon for me to feel guilty about occasionally enjoying simulated violence. Sometimes (too often), I feel guilty about writing in such serious tones on a medium that is still often conflated with child’s play, while all kinds of awful and serious things are happening all across the globe. But this, well, it’s different. For a moment there, I did feel a twinge of guilt. Where do I get off, resurrecting at the nearest bonfire like it’s nothing while real people are suffering through painful, and irreversible, endings!? Then I realized how stupid that sentiment was. It assumed, once again, that I was somehow exempt, that I wasn’t going to end up on one of those hospice beds sooner or later, without any power ups or magical rings to save me, just as surely as taxes are due every April. This was a problem that my several layers of privilege can’t protect me from. Some people die old, and some people die young, but all people die (transhumanist fantasies aside).

I once lived next door to an elderly artist. He’d take walks around the neighborhood sometimes. As I passed him on the street one bright, spring day, I smiled, said hello, and asked him how he was doing. “I am over ninety years old,” he answered. “Just yesterday, I looked young. I looked like you.” He didn’t bother asking how I was doing in turn. He sort of just kept walking. And while his demeanor might have been outwardly cantankerous, he’d earned the right to say what he wanted, and he exercised it when it suited him. I liked him for that. He died in hospice about a year later.

I had no reason to feel guilty. Yesterday, he looked like me. Tomorrow, I would look like him, and that’s only if I’m very lucky. I’m fairly sure that he ate more conscientiously than I do, and exercised to boot. I, on the other hand, have been playing fast and loose with my future corpse (shudder, shudder, shudder) since a fairly early age.

Ornstein…umm…the Old Dragon slayer, ran me through again. I rose to my feet beside the bonfire, on the edge of a vast sea, among the sunken ruins of a once thriving, now long dead, civilization. Unreasonable guilt gave way to perfectly reasonable existential dread. But, in the end, I kept listening, and I kept playing. What can you do? So it goes.

The End of Something: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Secret World

Posted on: July 23rd, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

“They finally immanentized the Eschaton”
The Eye and the Pyramid (from the Illuminatus Trilogy),
by Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson

“…Mountains sit in a line, Leonard Bernstein…”

Unlike most roleplaying games, Funcom’s The Secret World doesn’t hide the apocalypse behind vague prophesy or in a pocket dimension at the terminus of time. The End isn’t couched in the endgame, something to anticipate and prevent. It isn’t a matter of a final showdown, or a final revelation. In The Secret World, the eschatalogical event is the main floor show and the opening act. Even the lowliest lowbies, fresh from their faction hubs, quickly learn that what they’ve been made privy to is, quite literally, the end of the world as we know it.

Zombies and sea beasts have all but overrun the once sleepy (now feverishly tossing) town of Kingsmouth. The small Egyptian settlement of Al’Merayah is besieged by a legion of Filth infected cultists and the Biblical plagues (those are some big goddamn bugs) seem to have returned in full force. The Transylvanian village of Har’baburesti stands on the front line of a vicious vampire crusade as the monstrous legacies of Soviet experimentation emerge from their former obscurity and stomp across the frozen ground of the Carpathians. In Tokyo, the dark, viscous substance known mainly as “The Filth” (that same mysterious abomination that lies at the root of the global conflagration) pours out of the subway tunnels and snakes up the sides of skyscrapers. A massive Quarantine wall has been erected around the affected area, but while it does appear imposing, even oppressive, to the fleshy human observer, some of the Filth monsters can fly. The Filth is infectious, virulent. It overtakes and corrupts any ordinary life form it comes in contact with. It’s only a matter of time.


Strangely enough, the power remains on in Kaidan (the epicenter of the Tokyo disaster). The streets are well lit. The billboards and neon signs wink at their surroundings. But the sidewalks and the roads are eerily empty, eerily quiet. What remains of the citizenry has long been transformed by the squirming blackness.

These recently infected once-people are the most disturbing of all, worse than the giant locusts, or the vampiric soldiers, or the ravening undead. You encounter them in every corner of the world, humanoid husks (many wearing the clothes they were “caught” in) with blackened skin and glowing eyes. They don’t merely growl, or snarl, or chitter. They speak, they rant. The ones in Kingsmouth rant in English, one moment pleading for some unmentioned entity to leave them alone, to get out of their head, the next obsessing over their misplaced keys. The ones in Kaidan speak mostly in Japanese (which I don’t understand), but a few of them, on spotting an investigator, have been known to utter a hearty “fuck you” as they pull their target toward them (at least I think that’s what they’re saying).

While the Bees, Gaia’s Chosen, (the players) have the enviable benefit of functional immortality, and the heads of the Illuminati, the Dragon, and the Knights Templar do their best to put on a confident facade, there is no permanent safety in this new world. Even as you relax over a pint in Ealdwick (the Diagon Alley of The Secret World), or watch the rain from a Karaoke bar in Seoul, or rub shoulders with the occulted hipsters of Brooklyn, you understand that all too often a haven is, in fact, merely the eye of the hurricane. Somewhere out there, the darkness isn’t waiting. It’s tearing the world apart, slowly but surely, molecule by molecule.


The Ghost of Gaming Past

Posted on: July 9th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

Insofar as I can recall, my first console was a surprise gift from a visiting relative, an unexpected and (at the time) incomprehensible boon. Gaming was still very new to the Russian mainstream, and while I understood enough to be excited, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. There were no commercials on the television. There were no video game magazines that I was aware of. Nobody I knew owned anything more advanced than a Game and Watch trinket, more mechanical marvel than digital art. The console came in a colorful (in that early 90’s way), tape encrusted box bearing a photograph of a black, plastic thingamabob. Both the lettering on the package and the instructions were printed in pictograms, mysterious and inscrutable foreign symbols. I’ll never know for sure what language the text was in. I’ll never find the box, even if, by some miracle, it still exists.

I don’t remember much of what transpired between our receiving the enigmatic treasure and those first moments of play. The system, which was, in fact, black and plastic, came with a single cartridge, which was yellow and plastic. When we turned it on, the television began to play a melancholy chip tune. There was a pixellated sky, a pixellated ocean, and a line of pixellated beach, complete with pixellated palm trees. On opposing sides of the screen stood two pixellated figures, presumably a man and a woman.

In the space between them stood a wall of more incomprehensible pictograms, each line marked by the much more familiar Arabic numerals. I quickly discovered that I could cycle from line to line using the directional buttons on the controller (which, at the time, appeared to be delightfully alien and thrillingly advanced, like some artifact out of a science fiction movie), and that moving past the bottom of the list would bring up a whole new page, make the man and the woman take a step toward one another, and move the big, pixellated sun down closer to the horizon. In the end, it was nighttime on the beach. The man and the woman sat together around a bonfire…I think. Or maybe they kissed? Google hasn’t been especially helpful (maybe I’m not searching for the right terms), so all I have to go on is my memory. How many copies of that bootleg cartridge were ever assembled, I wonder – a few thousand, a few hundred, just the one? How many are still intact?


Summer Madness; The Lingering Effect

Posted on: July 3rd, 2014 by Arie Salih

It’s late out. I’m dressed in an old rustic brown striped coat, and I’m quietly staring at the Chicago skyline glittering from the abandoned rooftop of an old warehouse. I went up here to hack a ctOS server in order to get the power grid back on, and numerous activities have now surfaced on my map of the city. Most of these activities involve “Fixer” contracts to take down a criminal on a designated set path before they arrive to their destination, or “Gang” missions to clear out a large number of faceless goons, to help stabilize the city.

But none of the modes of engagement in Watch_Dogs feel more fascinating than taking a stroll around the city and enjoying the ambiance. I’ve been following BLANK, a fellow insomniac that’s drifting about in the late hours. Observing the pedestrian behavior of the random inhabitants in the city is a marvel in itself. On our walk around the block, I stop and am transfixed by the sight of a freestyle battle, complete with a boombox. Two rappers are flowing back and forth about guns and cars, while a group of onlookers move robotically in rhythm to the verses dropped in succession. Across the yard, I catch sight of a man juggling a soccer ball with great skill – awestruck by his endless energy in popping the ball up without letting it hit the ground.


I must’ve watched BLANK kick the ball for nearly five minutes, before realizing that the freestyle battle has been looping. The character behavior that can appear so wonderful, and completely immersive, is broken if you stick around too long. It’s the lingering effect – a rule in open world titles; it breaks credibility if you stare hard enough, or wait around to see if something dynamic will occur. Often times, following a unique individual halfway across Chicago results in nothing more than a beautiful walk as the day/night cycle marches on outside of scripted missions. I carefully nudge the soccer aficionado enough to stop the juggling, only to be met with an angry remark (“HEY WATCH OUT!”). I watch the man enter a walking animation as the ball drifts into the street, as if he and I both were pretending that he wasn’t Franck Ribéry’s spiritual successor in the World Cup.

The dynamic behavior of NPCs, and a player’s interaction with the world, can vary dramatically. And that’s a piece of the open world genre that is evolving, but very slowly. As I ambled about in Chicago, trailing the insomniac, I paused and witnessed two drivers get into a fender bender. The tires screeched as a car went slamming into the back of another. I stopped trailing to watch the drivers get out of their vehicles – each muttering some expression of their own disappointment. Neither seemed to acknowledge the other’s presence, and each were trapped in their own thoughts about being upset with the situation. After nearly a minute of yelling out loudly (not at each other, but to themselves), they both calmly walked away from the scene, carefree as their smashed cars lay deserted and smoking in the street.

And it’s precisely this – that even in the best roleplaying scenario, I’m invisible. Utterly, and completely. Outside of prescribed crimes to intervene in, or mini-map objective markers placed to engage in a chase or assassination, I’m Aiden Pearce – a blank slate of a man, willing to destroy and kill thousands to protect his sister and nephew. I can be a vigilante when the notification pops up, signaling that a crime is about to occur. I can hack into other’s phones, read text conversations or listen in on phone calls, but I can’t speak to anyone. I get yelled at occasionally for disrupting another person from incessantly continuing their animated activity – usually by mistakenly bumping into them. I start to forget that my character has a voice, until I fall from great heights to hear his howling, or him grunting from pain. I don’t utter words, or have meaningful interactions with anyone in the city. I’ve got a phone – a phone to be endlessly entertained by: live vicariously through the funny little messages of other people, or hear terse phone calls that occasionally end in a bit of surprise. I can use this phone to spy on the people walking around, or playing soccer for hours, or to go on scary digital trips. In one, aptly titled “Alone,” I’m being hunted by city dwellers (transformed into monstrous robots) in the darkness, and I’ve got to creep about in order to liberate sections of the city without getting attacked. It’s a silent nightmare.

It reminds me of Leigh Alexander’s critical piece concerning power fantasies and the lack of interaction in Grand Theft Auto V (Link !). She writes: “I drive my shiny car around Los Santos and I kind of wish I had a turn signal. Stranded in traffic, I honk the horn over and over again, and nobody moves. I am triangulated by some missions, none of which I really want to do, stuck in the city’s web of repetition.” It’s a similar situation – we’ve got guns, batons to beat down the bad guys, and this time around, a phone to manipulate the environment to kill more bad guys. At least in this iteration, there’s a new emphasis on stealth-killing all the “red ones,” in closed areas, if you so choose, even as the plot remains mired in family melodrama and superficial hacking psychosis. But there’s the rub – the story mission markers directly force you into closed areas to take out enemies. The more open, expansive backdrop of Chicago is there for you to peacefully enjoy how you see fit, silently. Just don’t linger too long.