Archive for the ‘Personal’ 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.

Don’t Look Back: Choice, Consequence, Unrest

Posted on: August 2nd, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

The Next Leap…

The mission prompt informs me that I am now Tanya, an introverted, intelligent peasant girl of fifteen, but it doesn’t really insist on it. Following the introductory sentence, the narration shifts to the third person. And that’s just as well, I figure. From my experience with the two preceding vignettes, short but potent, I know that I ought not become too attached, lest heartbreak follow. Pyrodactyl’s Unrest, with its heady mix of fictional politics and human drama and its cast worthy of a Tolstoy novel, is not, after all, Tanya’s story. Not exclusively, in any case. I have a god’s eye view (paradoxically both detached and focused) of her drought stricken village, but I have already learned that my power is limited. I am not God. I am not even Doctor Sam Beckett. According to the description on the tin: “…there are no heroes of legend, there is no mystical quest, and fate has not chosen you.” Foreboding words, but the proof is in the pudding.


From the very beginning, it was clear to me that Pyrodactyl’s promises of deep interactivity and role playing freedom have, in fact, been fulfilled, but what the player can and can’t actually accomplish is really a matter of scope and scale. As Chitra, a seasoned ambassador from the Naga Empire (a prosperous nation of sentient and comparatively enlightened serpent beings that serves, in large part, as a convenient means to address xenophobia), I had full reign over my words and actions, if little else. I decided that Chitra was to be a paragon of diplomatic virtues, cordial, sensitive to cultural differences, quick with a joke when it suited him, and, above all, dedicated to his mission, one of peace, security, and mutual profit. I could, however, have easily turned him into an arrogant, demanding hard liner, or a cold and calculating manipulator. I couldn’t predict or avert the inevitable disasters to follow (there wouldn’t have been much of a plot otherwise), nor could I leave the confines of the royal gardens, where the controversial treaty between the Naga Empire and the humans of Bhitra was to be negotiated and signed, but I was free to do my best, free to choose how my character, my charge, responded to the limiting circumstances at hand.


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?