Archive for November, 2009

A Long Way From Here

The truth is, I’ve never much cared for Thanksgiving Day. When my family used to host every year, it meant a day and a half of housecleaning while my parents became testier with every second that brought us closer to Zero Hour. Plus, I hated most of the food we made for the feast. Green bean casserole? A box of stuffing? That weird can-shaped blob of cranberry “sauce” quivering atop a china serving dish?

And turkey has never really deserved its reputation, when we get right down to it. It’s 50 / 50 whether it’s going to be tasty or bone-dry. My sister might have finally cracked the code last year when she brined the hell out of it, but that’s probably the only memorably delicious turkey I’ve had.

As for the celebration, well, for years that meant dealing with my mercurial grandparents and aunt. My grandfather was perhaps the only one who seemed legitimately happy to be eating with us, and most of that was sweet potato-induced. “Hooo!” he’d cry as he peeled back the aluminum foil over the dish. “Look at that!”

But my grandmother or aunt would usually decide, without warning, that it is time to leave right now and vanish into the car before the coffee and pie had been served. Sometimes my grandfather would just disappear after dinner, and then we’d look out the window and see him, arms folded, in the back of the Buick.

Dessert conversation among my parents, sister, and brother-in-law usually revolved around what was that all about? On the television, we’d make a desultory effort at watching the Lions get their asses kicked, but the Lions have been unwatchably bad for as long as I can remember.

So I’m not really very sorry not to be celebrating Thanksgiving Day with my family this year. I feel terrible that I’m now reduced to seeing my sister and her family about once or twice a year, but the holiday itself has always been a bit too much trouble, too strongly associated with anxiety and inconvenience.

But I am crushed to think that Wednesday night, for the first time I can remember, I won’t be sitting down to spaghetti casserole by candlelight with my parents. We won’t be watching Jason Robards’ You Can’t Take It With You, which my parents recorded off PBS many many years ago, or drinking my father’s chocolate eggnog at the intermission.

Almost as bad, I won’t be putting up the Christmas tree this year, which traditionally marks the first time my parents break out The Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin and the John Denver & The Muppets Christmas album. Thanksgiving itself might be the heart of the holiday, but the real family traditions lie on either side of it. And this year I couldn’t make it.

My partner and I have a nice weekend planned, and God knows we need a break. We couldn’t spare the time to make it back to Indiana, so we made reservations at our favorite restaurant in Cambridge. We have some great movies to keep us company through the weekend (I’m looking forward to introducing her to Easy Living) and plenty of sweet treats and relaxing beverages. My mother passed along the spaghetti casserole recipe, and my father air-mailed us a copy of You Can’t Take It With You. I have the supplies for chocolate nog. It will, in some ways, be the first Thanksgiving that is my own, and in others it will be very much like home.

But I can’t shake this sense of dislocation. For over twenty years I’ve been home for Thanksgiving Eve and I’ve hung decorations on Friday afternoon. Even when I was away at college I made sure to make it back no matter how hellish the traffic got around Chicago. So as I drink my coffee here in Central Square, and watch last light fading over Mass Ave., I keep asking myself, “What am I doing here?”

The High Cost of Wargaming

Before I ever heard of Doom, a wargame made me a lifelong PC gamer. It was Adrian Earle’s Fields of Glory. Hardly anyone seems to remember it now, and in fairness it had some significant problems. But the little marching soldiers, crackling musketry, and drummers beating the attack made it about the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen.

I didn’t go to Babbage’s looking for a wargame, but my intentions were lost the moment I saw the box art and read the copy. My father had promised me a game that day, something to see if PC gaming was all it was cracked up to be, and that was what I wanted. We ignored the action games around us, and took home a wargame. A flashy one, true, but a wargame nonetheless. From that game flowed a lifetime of strategy and wargaming.

That couldn’t happen today. Wargames have been driven from store shelves to make room for acres of Sims expansions, real-time strategy clones, and a prodigious selection of shooters, many of which no clerk should sell in good conscience. The specialty software shops are gone, their place taken by the protracted adolscence represented by GameStop and the lowest common denominator approach championed by the trinity of  Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy.

Most outlets no longer bother to review most wargames. The service that PC Gamer, Computer Gaming World, and Computer Games Magazine provided in their heyday has been dropped by their online replacements. When these magazines slapped an Editor’s Choice award on a gnarly, stat and hex-heavy wargame they were saying, “If you are a gamer, of any sort, you need to play this.”

They were right to agitate against the narrowing of the mainstream gamer. Steel Panthers was a brilliant game, and people would see that if they just gave it a chance. Writers like Bill Trotter encouraged gamers to take that chance.

But let’s not overlook just how difficult wargame publishers have made it for gamers to justify taking those chances. Glancing through their catalogues, it looks to me like they have given up on doing anything to win new customers and have instead decided to milk their core players for every penny.

A few nights ago, after getting bulletins from GamersGate, Steam, Impulse, and Direct2Drive about a bunch of intriguing sales and almost pulling the trigger on a few of them, I felt guilty because I never remember my old friend the wargame when it comes time to grab a new title. So I cruised over to the Matrix Games site and started browsing the catalogue to see if the $20 I was debating spending on Demigod or an indie-game compilation could be spent on a wargame instead.

Helpfully, Matrix has a $20 or less section in its store. Less helpfully, this section includes add-on packs and strategy guides along with complete games. Only a dozen items can be purchased for less than $20 at the Matrix Store, and most of them only digitally. The way it sounds on the store site, Matrix only makes the digital copy available to the purchaser for 30 days. While I would hope customer service will provide extra downloads after that date, the given terms do not seem like much of a deal.

Outside of that section the convenience and security of physical ownership comes at a steep price, one that seems immune from the passage of time. 2007′s Guns of August is $45. 2006′s Conquest of the Aegean is $70!  2003′s Korsun Pocket is $40.

Matrix not an outlier by any means. You’ll get as fair a deal from them as you will anyone else, except maybe some of the specialty shops you can find online or in big cities. The entire wargame market is significantly pricier than the PC game market in general, and rarely grants discounts.

This creates a problem for me, because I feel like I am being punished for not fitting the traditional wargamer demographic. I’m 26, at the start of my career, and my disposable income is minimal. Matrix Games, HPS, and the rest of the gang have a business model that only seems to work if you’re a little older, a little farther along in your profession, and a little wealthier. That, or you simply value wargaming so far above other genres that a good wargame is worth two or three lesser titles.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case with me. There is no way I can justify to myself, and certainly not to my partner, that I should spend $40 – $60 on one game when my typical game purchases are less than $20. And I can’t honestly say to myself that I’ll get more enjoyment from a game like Guns of August than I will from buying, for the same price, Stalker, Company of Heroes Gold, Europoa Universalis 3 Complete, and Psychonauts. That’s a steep opportunity cost.

Now I’ve spoken with wargame designers in the past, and I know that making a profitable computer wargame is forbiddingly difficult (which is why so many of the greats stick to the tabletop formats). And Matrix must be doing something right to be thriving when so many of the old publishers have folded or come under the Matrix umbrella.

But I guess I just don’t see a future in it. I’m a gamer who has been conditioned to pay $5, $10, and $20 for his games and, on balance, I spend quite a bit of money each month on new acquisitions. But I expect a certain amount of utility for my money, and the ratio seems all wrong with wargames. So all of it gets siphoned into other genres, where publishers are more willing to discount their back catalogue titles.

Worse, I can’t convince my non-wargaming friends to give the genre a chance. Ten or fifteen years ago, I could sell friends on Steel Panthers, Close Combat, and The Operational Art of War. Now they are likely to nod while I talk about how great TOAW3 is, but they get to the website, look at the screenshots, look at the price… and they pass. Better to stick with the familiar rewards of JRPGs and RTSs than dive into something that looks like Spreadsheets and Hexagons XII.

The risk to publishers, I suppose, is that they will dismantle a business model that works (however tenuously) in favor of going after customers they are not certain exist. If they start cutting older titles down to $20, and the existing customers just start playing the waiting game while new ones fail to materialize, the publishers are sunk.

But frankly, I don’t think that would happen. How many devoted wargamers would wait three years for a price cut? How likely is it that someone is abruptly going to decide to buy, at full price, a wargame that he has ignored for six years? On the other hand, how many gamers might give themselves the chance to get hooked on wargaming, if publishers would only make games available to them? I could personally guarantee a half dozen titles that I would jump on tomorrow if they hit the $20 price point. I can also guarantee that I won’t buy any of them the way things stand right now.

Nothing Good about 2001

I told Troy Goodfellow that 2001 would be a problematic year for me in the decade retrospective that he is running. Still in high school and not working a job, I had a small gaming budget and could only buy one or two new games per year. Being an impressionable idiot, I decided to give that honor to Black & White.

I’m sure there were good strategy games that came out that year, but I missed all of them in favor of spending weeks with a game that didn’t work. Now, at the close of the decade, I can finally tell my tale.

The Magical Mystery Tour of Teamwork

I still don’t understand Left 4 Dead group dynamics. Why is one group of four people an unstoppable killing machine, cutting through each level like a surgeon’s knife, and another is so inept that they’re all dead within one hundred yards of the starting area? I can explain the tactical miscues and individual failings that crop up during a failed campaign, but the source of success and failure remains a mystery to me. When I play the game now, I’m spending most of my time watching the group, trying to catch a glimpse of the variable that drives the game: how well four people can come together for a common purpose.

The Left 4 Dead 2 demo put me in the mood to revisit the original game, and I find myself enjoying it as much as I did when it was new. The community is a bit thinned-out, and it takes a little more patience to start a good game, but I’m still fascinated by the strange chemistry between players.

Friday night I decided to try some Expert campaigns. The “What Are You Trying to Prove?” achievement (awarded for surviving every campaign on the highest difficulty) has been taunting me for a year, and while I have completed every campaign on expert, the game has ignored some of my victories and, in others, my character has perished while the rest of the team made its way to safety.

Much to my surprise, the random group that assembled to play through Blood Harvest turned out to be cheerful, laid-back, and unbelievably proficient. We spoke little, but soon slipped into a groove where we seemed to be sharing one brain. I wouldn’t say any of us were remarkably skilled players, but somehow we were beating the AI Director at his own game. We rallied just before each horde arrived, fought them off with a minimum of fuss and no panic, then sprinted through the levels, stopping just before the Director’s next wave could catch us off-guard.

Friendly fire incidents were minimal and nobody seemed resentful of any mistakes we made. Just four guys, hanging out on a Friday night, kicking zombie ass.

We were working so well that after beating Blood Harvest, we went after Dead Air. I noticed that, as a group, we were growing deadlier as the evening wore on. No sooner would a Smoker latch onto one survivor than another would coolly blow him apart with a rifle burst to the head. The last stand at the end of the campaign was so perfectly managed that it was almost sedate. Each one of us covered a quarter of the field of fire, and every one of us knew the others wouldn’t let any infected through. I saw one coming at me out of the corner of my eye, but didn’t stop shooting the zombies coming from behind some wreckage. The zombie coming after me was not, after all, my responsibility. I knew that the guy to my right would stop him.

It was a perfect playthrough from four strangers who barely talked and only made plans a couple times each campaign. We just knew our roles.

The next night, Saturday, I played with another random group and understood, instantly, that we were doomed.

There was nothing I could really put my finger on to explain why we were a terrible team. Individually we all seemed competent. We mostly tried to stay together and provide cover. The guy playing as Zoey was, I’ll admit, problematic. He racked up three times as many kills as anyone else on the team in the first section, but he did it by constantly racing ahead of the group so that the group became 3 and 1 instead of 4.

But the biggest problem was that nobody seemed comfortable playing a role. Guys were shifting around in firefights when they shouldn’t have been, so now you had to worry more about giving and receiving friendly fire. Trust never formed between us, and I can’t explain why. We were all nice guys and didn’t mind our occasional screw-ups. In most of the identifiable ways, it was the same kind of group as I’d played with on Friday. But there was something in the way we moved across the may that made me certain that we didn’t have the chemistry.

That single, intangible factor was the source of a disastrous evening. After a few failures, desperation creeps in and new problems compound the old ones. The Saturday group had one guy (who sounded a bit like Bill Murray voicing Garfield) who decided that he had to take charge. Except his only idea was to go hide at the top of a tower at the start of the level, so we left him behind. He called after us, “Dudes, where are you going? What’s wrong with you guys? Jeez.” Then, as we were wiped out by the tank he refused to come down and fight, he said, “See. Toldja.”

We never made it to the fourth stage. Mistakes got more bone-headed. The guy playing Bill fell off a ladder on the wrong side of a fence and made us wait for a long minute while he trekked back to our position. He never made it: we got to him just in time to see the Smoker finish him off.

Another time, about two minutes into our journey, I realized I had never grabbed ammunition for my assault rife. I was down to my last clip halfway through the level.

The best failure, however, came when the guy playing Francis said, “Hoo, we’re off to a pretty bad start, huh? Wonder what’s gonna happen next?”

He got his answer as the tank exploded out of the shed three feet behind him. He was laughing as his body went flying into the woods.

A Pizza Well-Tasted

The biggest disappointment I had last night was when I bit into the pizza I’d just pulled out of the oven and discovered that it was delicious.

I was using a new recipe from Peter Reinhart that Robert Ashley linked on his Twitter account a few months back, a recipe that calls itself the best pizza crust recipe ever. Since Robert’s photos always looked delicious, and I’ve been getting a little bored with the modified Alice Waters’ recipe that I usually use, I decided to give the Reinhart crust a try.

From the first steps, it’s a bit trickier to work with. It’s a finicky recipe. The dry ingredients have to be chilled before you start the dough. You have to work it together for about ten minutes, stirring against the dough’s thickening, strengthening gluten strands. The recipe says the dough should be “sticky” and not just “tacky” to the touch.

I got it nice and sticky, then turned it out and divided the dough as instructed. Which led me to my next problem: finding a place to rest the dough overnight.

It has to be rested in the refrigerator, you see, and unfortunately I do not have room in mine to park a large baking sheet full of six dough balls overnight. Between the large pot of rice I had set aside for fried rice later in the week, the large cannister of chicken soup that was lunch on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and the usual assortment of vegetables, five square feet of rack space was simply not available.

My partner swooped in to play Fridge Tetris, and had the ingenious idea of putting the milk on top of the rice inside the pot. This gave us the extra inch of clearance we needed to shut the door. We couldn’t get food or drink from the fridge, but at least the dough had space to rest.

(Truthfully, this was a first-timer’s mistake. There’s no need to make the six pizzas right away. I should have frozen half the dough and put the other half in the fridge. Still, there are a number of ways in which I feel like this reciple makes me serve it, rather than serving me.)

Last night I took the dough from the fridge and patted it into discs about two hours before baking. The dough seemed not to have risen at all, and it was stickier and less consistent than it had been the night before. When it came time to shape the pizzas, the dough promptly crawled up my wrist and forearm while I was trying to toss it. Then the strands snapped and there was a hole in the dough.

You can see how it is translucent on the left side from being too thin.

You can see how it is translucent on the left side from being too thin.

Heavy sighs all around. The dough would roll away from the center, so that the center was always tissue thin while wads of dough curled up around the edges. It also had some crazy springback. The pizzas never got much larger than they had been before being tossed.

I gave up and handled the dough how it wanted to be handled: barely at all. I warned MK that we were probably in for some terrible pizzas, then put the first one in the oven. Plain cheese, to see if this could even work.

By then, I didn’t want it to. I didn’t want this recipe to be good enough to warrant making again, because it was such a pain in the ass compared to my other, hassle free recipes. I wanted it to suck, so that I could run the recipe through the shredder and forget about it.

Sadly, it was delicious. Crisp but not “crackery”, tasty in its own right (I’d happily eat one of these crusts topped with nothing but oil and salt), and pleasantly chewy, it was exactly the kind of dough that suited the kind of pizzas I’m increasingly interested in making: fewer-toppings, more vegetables, better cheeses.

Sliced artichoke hearts on a spread of artichoke and ricotta puree

Sliced artichoke hearts on a spread of artichoke and ricotta puree

In went the artichoke heart on an artichoke-ricotta puree. Followed by pepperoni on the puree, then chicken on the puree, a pineapple and chicken on rosemary tomato sauce, and then a bog-standard pepperoni pizza. All of it was excellent. By the way, a salty puree of artichoke hearts and ricotta cheese is a fantastic subsitute for red sauce, if you’re a bit tired of it.

As we nibbled at our various pizzas, I told MK that the Reinhart recipe had won two more invitations back to my kitchen. If it remains as fussy and annoying as it was this time, it’s leaving the rotation. But if more practice makes this recipe faster and easier for me to prepare, as practice usually does, then this was going to become as much a standby as the recipe I modified from The Art of Simple Food. I just need to nail down the reasons why the dough handles so poorly, and find whether it can be made a bit more user-friendly without sacrificing the texture. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know. In the meantime, I need to reheat some for lunch.

The Real War Will Never Get in the Games

Note: I wrote this one year ago on my old blog. I didn’t know it was Armistice Day until after I published it. Not many people read it, but it still seems like a fitting subject for the day. So here is what I wrote when Call of Duty: World at War was released.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps far earlier than I was willing to admit to myself, the World War II shooter genre started become reprehensible.

I had my moment of clarity yesterday morning when I watched the video of the first five minutes of Call of Duty: World at War, with it’s slick opening cinematic (leaning heavily on the style of the “War Corporatism” antiwar video) and grotesquely cliched in-game cutscene. About the only thing that I can say in its favor is that it at least takes note of the fact that the US embargo against Japan was, from the Japanese point of view, casus belli. Beyond that, I think we may have reached the genre’s nadir.

The game appears to open with a scene from every crappy action movie you’ve ever seen. The villain is torturing and interrogating one of the good guys, in this case a captured US Marine, and the good guy shows his defiance by spitting in his face. This is the thing to do when otherwise powerless, apparently. The villain reacts calmly, takes a drag on his cigarette, then extinguishes it in the Marine’s eyeball. The villain orders another Japanese soldier to execute him using, naturally enough, a sword.

Then Kiefer Sutherland shows up, carrying a Ka-Bar knife and all the baggage of being Jack Bauer in one of the most over-wrought shows in television history. Whoever directed his voice acting decided that Jack Bauer is exactly what this game needed, and there seems to be no trace of the fine character actor fromA Few Good Men and Dark City. All that’s missing from this 24 moment is the Ford Expedition that Jack and the Marines presumably drove to this island.

Now that the player is free, the Marines launch into a standard Call of Duty action sequence, promising to “make ‘em pay for what they’ve done”. The Marines also say “fuck” and variations of the same, coyly demonstrating that the game is hip to what it’s like “in the shit”.

I don’t mean to unfairly single this game out. It’s probably a very good war-themed shooter with glittering production values and sobering bromides about warfare that pop up every time the player is killed, just to show that the game is sensitive to the fact that war is not a game. The Call of Duty series has always been very good at slipping little antiwar messages into its militaristic fortune cookies. The fourth time you die crossing a field, Douglas MacArthur will remind you that it’s fatal to enter a war without the will to win it. The fifth time you die, Barbara Kingsolver is on hand to talk about the inhumanity of man.

This has been bothering me lately, and I’m hard pressed to completely explain why. There were always things about the series that never sat quite right. The quotes are one example, but there was also the annoying way the games were so barefacedly ripping-off Band of Brothers, Enemy at the Gates, and a slew of other World War II films. The games were never about the war, but were instead about movies that were about the war.

Except that the games always had such a stench of horseshit coming off them, far outstripping Hollywood in terms of jingoistic revisionism. The movies at least acknowledged some of the human cost of the war. Not just in terms of the awful damage it inflicted on so many human bodies but also the minds and hearts of those caught up in the maelstrom.

The Call of Duty series, always so careful to keep its ESRB rating, redacted any of the physical cost of war. More insidiously, they whitewashed the monumental cruelty, stupidity, and misery of the war. The troops rather cheerfully went through each mission with their grizzled sergeant character, playfully bitching about their orders, and then celebrated after their victories. War, as the early Call of Duty series liked to portray it, was kind of like a big football practice. And it was all for a good cause.

Where were the fuckups? Erased from gaming’s recounting of the war are all the stupid and pointless wastes of lives that made such a contribution to the war’s final, staggering death toll. Hurtgen Forest, where several divisions of US infantrymen were devoured in a long, bloody, and ultimately meaningless battle for a piece of land with no military value. The wholesale slaughter that occurred along the Siegfried Line after Market Garden failed, and the Allied offensive lurched back to life only to find that the Germans had used their brief reprieve to fortify the border. Anzio? The daylight bombing campaign? Dieppe?

Naturally, games aren’t unique in this regard. Starting with the 50th anniversaries of the war, World War II became a big business and our culture began a very dangerous love affair with one of the greatest catastrophes to ever befall mankind. In retrospect, what a strange spectacle it was to see a nation ostensibly honoring its “Greatest Generation” with a series of increasingly lackluster movies, TV specials, sentimental bestsellers, and finally videogames. And how thoroughly that primed us for the misguided adventurism and empty promises that marked the past several years. The Bush administration may have misled the country into a war, but would the country have been so easily manipulated if it had not spent the previous decade reliving a time when we slew dragons?

What I am sick of is the disingenuousness we see in our military shooters. Hell’s Highway was marketed, on the one hand, as the most historically accurate and respectful World War II FPS ever made. The series had the pedigree to support that claim. On the other hand, the game included a feature that was basically a “fatality” cam, letting gamers revel in the carnage they inflicted. So what we had was a bit of two-faced marketing, where one developer video would talk soberly and respectfully about how serious this game was, and the next was all about “sweet kill” and “check out the gibs”.

I don’t think gamers are burned out on World War II games, but I know that I’m burned out on this particular kind of World War II game. I’m tired of playing games that present a vision of historical reality that I know to be false.

Go read Paul Fussell’s books to understand what I’m talking about. Actually, you only need to read the final chapter of Wartime, “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books”. There is a guy who saw the war firsthand, nearly died over in Germany, and who fifty years later was still filled with a palpable sense of rage over the pity of the entire damned thing. He writes about the stupidity of Allied command, the shoddy equipment that most definitely cost lives on the battlefield, the lies that were told to the “home front”, and most of all the Disney-fication of the war.

Read some Kurt Vonnegut, particularly an essay from Armageddon in Retrospect called, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets”, in which he talks about Dresden. After annihilating the city, the Allies send bombers over a few days later to drop leaflets explaining why there was a sound tactical reason why the city had to die. Vonnegut explains:

The leaflet should have said: “We hit every blessed church, hospital, school, museum, theatre, your university, the zoo, and every apartment building in town, but we honestly weren’t trying hard to do it. C’est la guerre. So sorry. Besides, saturation bombing is all the rage these days, you know.”

There was tactical significance: stop the railroads. An excellent manoeuvre, no doubt, but the technique was horrible. The planes started kicking high explosives and incendiaries through their bomb-bays at the city limits, and for all the pattern their hits presented, they must have been briefed by a Ouija board.

Tabulate the loss against the gain. Over 100,000 noncombatants and a magnificent city destroyed by bombs dropped wide of the stated objectives: the railroads were knocked out for roughly two days. The Germans counted it the greatest loss of life suffered in any single raid. The death of Dresden was a bitter tragedy, needlessly and wilfully executed. The killing of children – “Jerry” children or “Jap” children, or whatever enemies the future may hold for us – can never be justified.

The facile reply to great groans such as mine is the most hateful of all clichés, “fortunes of war”, and another: “They asked for it. All they understand is force.”

Who asked for it? The only thing who understands is force? Believe me, it is not easy to rationalise the stamping out of vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored when gathering up babies in bushel baskets or helping a man dig where he thinks his wife may be buried.

It’s useless to ask that war not be exploited for entertainment purposes and I’ll cop to enjoying good wargames, movies, and books. I don’t mean to be sanctimonious. But I simply cannot handle any more sentimentalizing when it comes to war, especially World War II. It was a nightmare and one from which the world has not fully recovered, and it is crass to see games wilfully over-simplifying and idealizing an event that killed scores of millions of people.