Friday, June 7, 2013

(Xbox) One is the Loneliest Number

In the years since I have been erratically throwing words to the wall in this blog, I have been unapologetic and forthright about my identity as primarily a 360 gamer. I love the 360. I adore the achievement lists and Gamerscore, even though they are as transactionally worthless as acquiring karma on reddit. I like the passive social aspects and the dashboard. I even embraced the more media-centric addition of Netflix and movie rentals.

The first sign that my beloved little console was starting to turn its eye away from me, its grinning, controller-holding audience, and shifting towards its ‘earning potential’ was when a little box arrived on the dashboard containing the words “Advertisement.” It was easy to dismiss, however. The only time I was reminded of its presence is when I accidentally scrolled over it on my way to another page and the sounds of grating music and voiceover buzz words interrupted my path. Every time this happened a little thought bubble would gurgle up, my inner anti-advertising voice reminding me that I was paying $60/year for this service, so essentially, Microsoft is making money from both me and an advertising company, which is, to me, a red flag.

A little backstory here. For seven years, beginning in 2000, I worked for Blockbuster Video. I started in their heyday, when VHS rentals were still the main way people watched movies and DVDs were just starting to creep up and overcome their more clunky and meltable predecessors. From 2000-2004, BBV was a very fun company to work for, as they mostly loved their employees and we all got to sit around chatting about movies with each other and customers. But in 2004, the model changed. Suddenly Netflix was encroaching upon beloved BBV territory and seeing themselves about to be steamrolled, Big Blue decided to eliminate late fees. I am sure this idea sounded great in a room in Texas, where ten white guys sitting around a table wringing their hands made the decision to implement it, but after a year or so of explaining to customers that “no late fees” meant that after a couple of weeks your credit or debit card would be charged for the retail price (which at BBV meant anywhere from $20-$35), the business didn’t come streaming back. But BBV was definitely trying to sweet-talk its customers back from the arms of Netflix, offering concession deals and coupons and whatever it took to get them in the door. They even started up their own online service, counting on the idea that their well-established brand would bring the herds back to the corral. This also didn’t work. 

It was about this time, however, that being an employee of Blockbuster Video became much less fun. In a company that once treasured their employees, then their customers, now it seemed the only thing that mattered was to find some way, any way to bring the money back. Sales targets were absolutely mandatory, and failure to meet them meant termination. Coercive suggestive selling was encouraged, and new marketing tactics switched out so often nobody, not even the customers, knew what to expect each week. Coaching sessions were aggressive and threatening. Managers who had given Big Blue their blood, sweat & tears over twenty years were moved out to make way for newer, more inexperienced “sales” managers. It was terrible for the employees, and terrible for the customers. The rules became so anti-consumer and ultimately, so convoluted, that the experience of heading down to the local video store to pick up a movie and popcorn soured for everyone involved. I left long before the Red Box nail hit the Blockbuster coffin, but watching the downward spiral of a giant corporation from the inside is a clear lesson to me why you should first and foremost be innovative and embrace change, but you should also care more about the needs of your employees and your customers over the demands of big money.

Didn’t anyone tell BBV that you will get more flies with honey?

So here I sit, reading Microsoft’s new Xbox One terms and feeling very melancholy. I love my Xbox, but I just can’t live with some of its new requirements. I like to play games within weeks of launch and utilize the rental service, GameFly, to help me support that goal. My social networking includes a lot of gaming folks that get first dibs on most releases, and I enjoy playing them in order to keep up with the dialogue. I know this is a personal preference, but it’s one that makes me happy and is a part of my online social life I find enjoyable. I also use GameFly to help me spread my net wider than the normal consumer, gathering little unknown releases and giving them a fair shake where if forced to purchase them for $60 at retail I wouldn’t even consider them. I am not exactly destitute, but I definitely don’t make enough money to buy all of my games at release for the current asking price. So if the new Xbox One does not support rentals based on its new licensing rules, they have effectively eliminated me from their demographic. Just with that one decision regarding rentals and, poof, I am no longer a player. My Gamerscore is upwards of 60,000G, so I think I am a fairly hardcore supporter of the console, but regardless, Microsoft is telling me Game Over, Player One. You no longer matter to us, because of some arbitrary pirating/used game problem that is apparently an epidemic to publishers (cough, EA, cough).

I don’t pirate games. I don’t usually lend them to friends. I only buy the occasional used game through GameFly using their Keep It program. I don’t have a Kinect because I don’t care much for motion/voice controlled machines and I live in an apartment in the middle of a city where the space between my couch and television is roughly five feet. Thankfully, my Comcast connection is fairly strong, or else I would be nudged out once again by the Xbox One’s online requirements, but my friend in Idaho doesn’t have this as she lives in a rural area with spotty dial-up connection. So, she and her family of six are also apparently out.

I’m not even going to talk about the rumor I heard regarding achievements for television shows, because that little anti-advertising voice starts stuttering in incoherent phrases and I’m not even ready to deal with something that offensive to my sensibilities until it’s officially announced.

Microsoft, what are you doing here? Take some advice from someone who watched a company stop listening to the needs of their customers: The epilogue is not a fairy tale, where consumers come to love your wicked ways. We are your audience and we are screaming here. It may be that you think you are conforming to some new order based on how things like iTunes works, but you make a video game console, and your primary fans are video game players. We were all very satisfied. Get out of your Eastside bubble and remember that not everyone lives in a castle in Redmond, stroking their lines of Google Fiber and buying piles of games with the touch of a debit card finger. You are making some of us very sad, and we are the ones who have loved you for years. I know that asking a corporation to think of anything other than its monetary needs is ludicrous, but here I am, typing. And trying. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Internet Love

Artist Jeff Langevin is selling prints on Etsy of this sensational piece of fan art devoted to my beloved series. I am especially fond of the mask, as the carnival scene in AC2 remains high on my list of favorite scenes. Dancing, mingling, gossiping, flirting, stabbing...

You can see plenty of other game related pieces in his shop as well, including a new Tomb Raider one that I am currently admiring. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

The List

Since my recent confession regarding a growing list of backlog items left behind mostly due to my own snotty failings, I have become a little obsessed with finishing. I am pretty sure I have admitted to being a bit of a checklist lover in past posts, and creating to-do rosters and shopping lists in order to feel that tingly sense of accomplishment once all items have been ticked off is a cringe-worthy guilty pleasure. I didn't realize it when I wrote about Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed 3 last week that the actual incarnation of something resembling a list would ignite a bit of a fervor in my mind, and now I can’t stop thinking about it. Children, OCD is a very serious illness (she says, gleefully punching in the remote settings to record Hoarders marathons). But it can also lead to “fun things,” such as completing otherwise abandoned video games and rabid searches through Xbox achievement lists to then spend several hours collecting flags. What started as an innocuous list of personal failings has become some sort of flamed-eyed drive to each game’s finish line. And even while my brain starts fretting about what it will take to accomplish that minor feat, my checklist motivated eyes have started to drift back to a virtual shelf of incomplete experiences that were based on challenge and not play and the list begins to grow…

The most difficult part of picking up an incomplete experience is gathering the enthusiasm to insert the disc into the drive. When the thought first pops into my head, “Hmm, maybe I will make some headway into Assassin’s Creed 3 tonight,” it is almost instantly driven out by doubts, “Ugh, I remember stopping because I kept getting massacred by dudes in furry hats and kilts,” distractions, “Oh! But I wanted to watch the new episode of Top Gear tonight!” or just sheer laziness, “the couch is so comfort…c’mere kitty kitty…"/drool. But last Wednesday I finally had the perfect mix of opportunity: a sick day. Sick days are the perfect excuse to get things done that you normally put off, such as mopping the kitchen floor, re-organizing the sock drawer or jumping back in to a game that has been gathering dust for awhile. After a couple hours of mindlessly petting the cat and drinking peppermint tea, my OCD brain woke up and started obsessing over The List. It’s a strange thing to explain, but it’s somewhere between a focused chant and an architectural schematic, where tiny nodes begin laying out a perfect plan for progression behind your eyes if you would only just climb on board again. But, brain, what about that Scottish dude with the ax? Him? He’s nothing to worry about, you’ll be f-i-i-i-ne, you just need a shit-ton of poison d-a-a-a-rts. Hmm…I really hate those QTE wolf attacks, brain. We’ll just move around them, no w-o-o-o-rries. Still, Connor is such a bore. But you just bought him a flashy new outfit, remember? Now he’s wearing bl-u-u-u-e. And on it goes, until suddenly I find myself sitting in bed with a controller in my hands listening to an Ubisoft logo chime.

My cat really hates this horse. 

The second hardest thing about jumping into the middle of a gaming experience is remembering the controls. For me, this one is easy because of the plethora of years I have been playing Assassin’s Creed games. In fact, I am pretty sure that I begin all games assuming RT is fast run and am surprised when it’s a sub-machine gun auto-aim instead. Sadly, Assassin’s Creed 3 probably has the clumsiest of navigation systems and item wheels, and even as I progress deep into Sequence 8, I am still having trouble with the map; I only ever use one piece of it, as the hunting portions mean nothing to me, and I still haven’t figured out how to send my one assassino baby on a side mission (I haven’t gotten any more, because either I have no idea what to do or my attempts to complete those missions have been met with death and subsequently avoided). Some of this is obviously player error, not game error, but I've played FOUR previous titles with ZERO trouble. The mold has been tweaked a little too much, so instead of feeling upgraded, it just feels over-complicated. But as the hours passed, with Connor and I exploring Boston, marching through Bunker Hill and climbing up ship masts to poison guards in their stupid faces, I felt a sort of gamer inner peace settle inside me. Moving through the environment from feathers to chests, side missions and main storyline finally started to align into a recognizable pattern and deep into my comfort zone. Little icons on the map start to disappear as I complete them, tic, tic, tic.

The worst thing about settling back into an experience left behind is remembering why you abandoned it in the first place. I dislike the setting very much. I miss the tall spires of Gothic churches and obelisks, the grand embellishments on every building and the brightly colored costumes of the NPCs. America is dirty, grim and brown. The trees are oddly geometrical and flat, and most of the Frontier/Homestead regions are ringed by frustratingly tall sheer cliff sides that force the player to run around for way too long before reaching an intended destination. The story missions are hard, but not in any sort of calculating way, just brutish. The characters are bland and lack the sort of teasing personalities of those in Europe. Even Altair’s story, while gritty, was beautiful in its landscape qualities. Connor is determined, but in such an overly serious way that it makes you wonder if he feels anything at all beyond a sort of sullen curiosity to become a better curmudgeon. He readily agrees to anything people ask of him for seemingly no reason at all, other than player mission marks. Because the combination of intimate story and current events is so basic and shallow, it is difficult for me to connect to either one and become involved in their motivations to liberate America from the pervasive redcoat presence. And, finally, the difficult scale seems terribly unbalanced. One mission will have you free a prisoner from a set of guards dispatched easily while the next requires you to eliminate fifteen in such a clean way it is practically impossible considering the limitations of your toolbox. And mechanically, there a bugs o’ plenty. Every time I use a smoke bomb in a group of coughing guards, I can no longer use my weapon to kill them. Little bits of Animus geometry twist through the streets of Boston but lead to nothing. Duplicated environment pieces make the areas look bland. I keep getting swallowed into cliff sides instead of climbing up them. Between the dismal characters, thin, overarching storyline and environment bugs, it’s no wonder I put it aside last November. This is not what I expect from my beloved series, but alas, it’s probably a vision of things to come.   

The comfortable pattern of play is currently outweighing the drag of character and story. I stopped during a low drama moment, as I promised myself I would, and am now grudgingly looking forward to playing it again over the weekend. I am now 100% sure I will finish Assassin’s Creed 3, as I have found a sort of happy place within its narrow borders and my checklist brain keeps lighting tiny OCD fires every time I close my eyes (Skyrim! Skyrim! Skyrim!). But unless something significant happens to Connor on a personal level, and it’s something I can connect to, I imagine I shall remain disappointed. It’s possible that my love for Renaissance Europe and Ezio have clouded my vision for all future chapters in the series, but it may also be that the golden days of Assassin's Creed are over.

Arrr, only time will tell, maties.      

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Challenge Accepted

If I could engrave one piece of gaming advice into my controller that I would have to adhere to every single time I start a new game it would be this: if I am rambling through at a fairly even pace, but find myself in a bit of a prickly situation, I should NOT stop playing. Can’t beat a boss fight? Maybe I need to replay some areas to gain more health/mana/skills. Can’t complete a mechanic easily? I should slow down, breathe deep, and focus simply on the correct button combinations without even looking at the screen. Can’t figure out where to go next? Look up a walkthrough to get some assistance. Never stop. Because if I do, it will be an entire month (probably more like months) before I go back, as a mental block as high as the creeping molecules flitting about the upper reaches of the atmosphere will fall into place, convincing me that I have reached an impassable point and filling me with a sort of exasperated dread when I even consider starting it up again.

My name is Jessica. And I avoid challenges.

Sometimes, when I sit back (a piece of wheat tucked between my teeth, a foot lazily draped over the side of a hammock) and consider my favorite games, I realize that none of them are what you would call ‘difficult’. I am notorious for choosing the easiest levels: casual, human, very easiest easy, so I can spin around inside pretty environments and traipse about main storylines and side quests without needing to do much more than bitch slap a few enemies into submission for getting in my way. I am very easily defeated by circumstance and frequent failure. Which is admittedly silly and not constructive at all, continually keeping me from enjoying those intense touchdown moments after completing a particularly wicked encounter. I love finishing games; seeing credits roll is one of my favorite things. Therefore, my 2013 goal is to get better at pushing through these mental barriers. I will only stop during positive points in the game, such as the end of a level, or an innocuous save point in low drama instead of during moments of hardship. But to overcome, I must go back and wrestle with a few demons in order to prevail.  

Challenge One: Skyrim DLC
After completing the game last winter, I downloaded the extended chapter, Dawnguard, the day it came out last summer. I played as a vampire…until avoiding the daylight became too cumbersome, so I restarted as a human. I didn’t want to have to deal with the whole ‘need to feed’ and ‘avoid the sunshine’ bits-too much work. And then I stopped playing during a rather endless afterlife scene because it was ridiculously boring (re: I died more than once without saving). More months passed. I started it up again, finished the area, took the next quest, died in a cave and…done. I had no energy to even start it up again. If I would have survived the cave I might still be playing. But all I can remember now is dying. In a cave. And it was dumb. And I don’t want to die in a cave again. The only conclusion is to never play it again, obviously.

New Objective:
Don’t die in a cave. Finish Dawnguard. Start Hearthfire. Finish Hearthfire. Start Dragonborn. Finish Dragonborn. Beat fists against chest and roar, berserker style.

Challenge Two: Assassin’s Creed 3
“What?” you say. “A mere paragraph about Assassin’s Creed 3 in this blog? I shan’t believe it.”

Are you kidding? I’m still trying to invent words for how I feel about Assassin’s Creed 3. Let’s just say this: I was so disappointed in AC3 that not only did I not stop less than halfway through, but I think it stunted my video game life in some permanent way. I feel very fucking let down by AC3; but ultimately I quit because I kept dying. I’d be all stealthy-stealth, quieting loading my stealthy gun (?) and get clobbered by some jaunty-hatted guard with moves like a spider on a rooftop, instantly de-synching. In between the unrelenting, always killing, never stopping British presence in Boston and constantly being mauled by wolves or elk (??), I could not even fathom playing further. I never had play-stopping difficulty issues in the previous games, but then again, I didn't actively wish my main character (my love, my life, my Ezio) would somehow kill himself and get it over with already. Christ, Connor is a downer. I kept imagining all the ways I could perish (in a boat, on a boat, by a boat, listening to Ben Franklin talk about sexing up old ladies like it’s supposed to be funny but instead is creepy and achingly boring), and I chose not to continue. I didn't want to be challenged by it, I just wanted to kill the shit I was supposed to kill and move on to better, more interesting things. Like…chasing pieces of paper. *sigh*

New Objective:
With Assassin’s Creed 4: Where Has All the Rum Gone? [sic] announced for a fall release date, I realize that finishing three is my only option if I want to stay a superfan. Whereas I don’t want the series to die in a flaming ball of money grubbing corporate monkeys, I can appreciate the effort to please fans with new chapters every year…sort of. But Ubisoft really needs to pull the franchise out of 18th Century America. It’s NO GOOD THERE. I’m trying to find a little pool of desire within myself to finish it; not for comatose Connor, but for Desmond, but that place is tucked behind a huge wall of library books and perpetual laziness. The right combination of caffeine and nostalgia will need to get me through this one. I make a vow that by…June…I will be finished with AC3.     

Challenge Three: The Cave
Hooray! Double Fine! I love this game, it’s funny and charming. But now the puzzle is hard and I don’t really know how to…um…huh. Oh, I get it. But I still can’t really maneuver it. Um…huh.

New Objective: Wait, this is a puzzle game. Never going to happen. *sings Dust in the Wind*

Challenge Zero: DmC: Devil May Cry
I've always been really good at loving Devil May Cry, conceptually, but never managed to actually play it in a successful way. Too hard. And not in a ‘this is fun but now I can’t beat this boss and I don’t wanna’ whiny sort of way, but in a real ‘I am not a good enough video game player to achieve success while playing this particular title’ way. However, Ninja Theory’s DmC is fan-fucking-tastic. I breezed through the first ten chapters with ease, loving every sassy, sexy, rock n’ roll moment with Dante and Vergil. Ridiculous fun. Not challenging in the slightest. Then I hit an enemy around Mission 16 called the DreamRunner, and my fluid little slide through Limbo skittered to a blood-soaked end in a series of encounters that I could not quite kick through. My normal jumble of combat combos couldn't save me. I was defeated. The game sat, collecting dust for an entire month while my stupid brain screamed at me that it was impossible, never going to happen, why bother continuing? After soaking in a my little pity pool for a week or so I finally took to Twitter to get some advice from some pros, which helped immensely…but I still didn't head back in until another three weeks floated by. But then I did it. I went back. I took the advice. I creamed some Dreams. And I finished the game.

I hope Ninja Theory designs all future titles in the series. Their blend of story and scenery, combined with characters that feel like they could actually exist in our reality (not overly burdened by fantastical, supernormal environments and demands) through supernatural-colored lenses, is incredibly compelling. Even the hardcore industrial soundtrack was fitting, giving fight sequences and big boss encounters a sort of heart-racing quality, tempered by an intense, throbbing beat. A blend of surreal scenes within a nightclub were crazy, full of sound and neon and madness. I loved Enslaved, and now love DmC. I’m keeping Ninja Theory on my love list.

Achievement: Unlocked; New Objective: None; Taunt Level: In Your Face

By finishing DmC, I have taken step one. This list of challenges is merely the tip of a backlog list (which includes many D-related titles such as Darksiders II, Dragon’s Dogma and Dishonored) that will take ages to complete. But hey, with Bioshock: Infinite holding up the status in my 2013 book as “only game worth playing in 2013,” I think I may have some time.