Archive for the ‘ A Quiet Normal Life ’ Category

Straight into the Wall

At Tosci’s tonight, I overheard a guy say this to his date.

“I used to watch a lot of movies, but now I mostly listen to NPR.”

That brought my head right around. At a table by the wall, a bro-stereotype straight out of a Mountain Dew-Halo ad sat across from a cute, brown-haired girl who seemed to be saying little. A few minutes later:

“Oh, I guess you’re really liberal, huh? Ha-ha.” The girl was wearing a stony expression. An awkward moment. “My mom’s a Democrat.”

Rabbitcon

This entry could easily be 5000 words long, a blow-by-blow account of the glories of Rabbitcon. You cannot share a house for four days with such excellent and interesting people, doing nothing but talking and playing games, without walking away with some stories. But I’ll restrain myself for now, and just share some of the highlights.

Rabbitcon is one of those things that I always wished I could attend, but never really expected I would. I first heard about it on the Gamers with Jobs Conference Call, back before I really knew anything about the guys behind it. Once or twice a year, Julian “Rabbit” Murdoch has an army of friends over to his house on a long weekend, and they all spend that weekend playing board games and catching up. It sounded like the greatest slumber party ever.

But then I moved to Cambridge, started doing the Three Moves Ahead podcast with Troy and the gang, and eventually met Julian. Not too long after he and I started recording podcasts together, MK asked if I thought he might ever invite us to Rabbitcon. It was mostly as a joke, but we both thought it sounded like a great time if you could get on the list.

That did not seem likely, however, because the things Julian chooses to keep private, he keeps very private. I mean, the very first time we talked I sensed him clamming up the moment the conversation drifted toward personal information. Since we’re both New England residents, I asked him whereabouts he lived and he responded like a man pulling up the drawbridge and posting sentries on the castle walls.

“I live in the… west-errrn part,” he told me, which is to say he lives somewhere west of the Atlantic. For all that we’d chatted via Twitter, and knew one another’s work, I was still a stranger from the internet. As someone who lives on the internet, I can understand it. So much of your life becomes publicly available that the few things you hold back to maintain your privacy and sense of security become absolute no-fly zones.

To my delighted surprise, Julian was nice enough to invite MK and me to the Memorial Day Rabbitcon, and that’s where I was for Memorial Day weekend. We got to his place in the early afternoon and, after a whirlwind tour of his house, were immediately pulled into a game of Shadows over Camelot with Lara Crigger, her husband George, Allen “Pyroman” Cook, and Mike “McChuck” Bretzlaff. This became my primary game group for the remainder of the weekend.

So here is a smattering of stand-out Rabbitcon moments from 4 days somewhere in rural New England.

Who Knew It Was a Role-Playing Game?

I’m on bass, Sean Sands is drums, and McChuck is McCartney in Beatles Rock Band for “Oh, Darling”. McChuck starts strong and we’re powering through the song, but McChuck is lost in the moment as we hit the refrain again and again. By the third time he’s screaming, his voice at the breaking point and the mic is completely overwhelmed as he hammers, “OOOOOOOO-OOOOOOOH DAAAARLING! PLEASE FOR-GIVE ME!”

People start coming in from the rest of the house to find out what the fuck is going on. McChuck’s face is locked in a rictus of rock, and Sean, who has been giggling since the first verse, completely loses it. He dissolves in gales of laughter, curled over the drums like a seasick sailor pitching over the gunwales. This starts the rout. The laughter is contagious and my bass line starts to get shaky. McChuck plunges onward, no drums, no bass, and inaudible guitar. “-VER MEANT YOU NO HARM.”

Beatles: Rock Band pulls the plug on us, saving McChuck’s life and allowing Sean to breathe again.

Steve Holt!

The game is Last Night on Earth, perhaps the coolest board game at this party. The way George describes it, you’re all characters in a bad zombie flick. In the background, a soundtrack that ships with the game casts a gloomy yet chintzy pall over the proceedings. One each of the lavishly illustrated cards is a dramatic scene from the movie in which you are trapped: the Sheriff and the headstrong son getting into a shouting match while other survivors look on in nervous fear, or the sexy farmer’s daughter weeping into her tied-off plaid shirt.

Right now MK is playing Sam, the ex-Marine turned small-town diner cook. George is playing the zombies / film director, and played an affliction card on MK that makes Sam feel overconfident. The effect is that Sam cannot run from the zombies anymore. As the text on the card says, “Leave this to me!”

Our group of survivors has gotten involved in a melee in a barn while looking for some gasoline. My character, the town priest, is overwhelmed by zombies so I play the, “Let’s go, TJ!” card, in which I just stumble across a convenient and friendly horse named TJ that can whisk me away from the slaughter. I fend off a couple zombies and then make a break into the gloaming on the back of a white steed.

Then the lights go out on the rest of the survivors. Amanda the Prom Queen uses her flashlight to escape while Sam stays behind to fight a ridiculous number of zombies. He’s tough as nails, but the odds are against him. Someone finally turns over a card that lifts the “Overconfidence” condition. The gravity of his situation abruptly dawns on Sam and he begins trying to bull through the crowded darkness of the barn. He’ll never make it.

Then McChuck plays, “Hey, guys, what’s going on?” In which T-Bone (or some such name) the linebacker stumbles into the battle and rescues you. The card is magnificent. A corn-fed American boy with pudgy cheeks and thick, heavy features wearing a royal blue letterman’s jacket smiles up at the player, totally unfazed by the walking dead.

McChuck says, “Man, he’s just like that one guy in Arrested Development. What was his name? He always said, um, oh, yeah, ‘Steve Holt!” And we thrust our arms into the air in celebration as Sam escapes the barn.

“I’m really hurt that you guys all think I’m a Cylon.”

We’re playing the Battlestar Galactica board game, and a combination of probability and logic dictate that Cory Banks / Starbuck is a fracking Cylon. Allen, our resident Cylon, has just given Cory two loyalty cards. Since a single Cylon card makes you a Cylon, and Cory has four cards in his hand, the odds of him still being on Team Human are vanishingly small. To top it off, he contributed two cards to a skill check, and we only had two unaccounted-for bad cards in that check. He’s a Cylon.

But now it all gets screwed up. Lara Crigger / Boomer can check someone’s loyalty card. I only have one unknown card, so she wants to eliminate the possibility that I’m a Cylon. I think this is plainly a waste of a special power, because there is simply no way that I’ve been a Cylon agent. Lara and I turn on each other immediately. Why does she want to waste her check on me? Why doesn’t she check someone else, like Cory?

Cory starts whining. There is really no other word for it. “Why don’t you guys trust me? I’ve been helping out so much this entire game and now it’s like you’ve all turned on me.”

Lara won’t check his cards. “I can check one card, he has four. It’s a wasted check. It probably won’t tell us anything about whether or not he’s a Cylon. With you, I can be absolutely certain.”

“We’re already absolutely certain. This is a blown check.”

McChuck has lapsed into angrily disinterested silence at the head of the table. He’s reading his cards and looking at rules.

Cory looks like we’ve just told him he’s adopted, or that Fluffy ran away. “This sucks. Can I just show you my cards? Will that make you guys trust me again?”

“You can’t show us your cards.”

“But I’m not a Cylon!”

“The hell with this.” Lara stands up, marches over to the crowded bar, and grabs a bottle of Corazon. She yanks out the stopper, flips it on the table, and takes an epic pull of tequila. This game has officially jumped the shark.

“Allen, you fucked up my life,” Cory snarls at Allen, who is watching us meltdown with a smile of suprise and delight. He cover his mouth as he is overcome by a fit of cheerful giggles. The Cylon is the only person still having fun.

Lara finally checks my card. She reads it, turns to the table, and says, “He’s not a Cylon.”

“Gasp,” I say.

The check is passed. A turn later we do an emergency jump away from the Cylon fleet. Since Cory is the admiral of the fleet, he chooses our destination. We end up at a dead world, out of fuel. Game over.

Cory flips his cards over. “I was a Cylon. Being Emo-Boy was my only defense.”

Back among the Living

This has not been the best month so far. Just as MK was starting to feel better, I felt a familiar rawness at the back of my throat and a creeping lightheadedness. After a week of being unaffected by whatever MK had caught, it mugged me one afternoon while I was doing a little housework.

These two bouts of sickness could not have been better timed to screw up my life. First it reduced how much time I could spend researching and writing a feature for The Escapist because I was busy taking care of MK and household chores, and then it forced me to actually write the damn thing with a strobing pain between my eyes. This meant requesting another deadline extension from an editor I’ve never really worked with before. Always nice to get a relationship off on the right foot like that.

In other news, I bought a PS3 from Amazon, asked my parents to send me the 5.1 surround system I’d loaned them, and tried to buy a TV. So I now know exactly what the home entertainment setup will be, and how it will be arranged for maximum viewing pleasure… I just don’t have any part of it yet.

We found a really good deal on a used HDTV here in town, but when MK went to check it out the seller basically reneged and admitted that she was waiting for a better offer. She was also a catty bitch. There were thinly veiled snide remarks at the fact that MK and are not married, an implication that she’s doing us a huge favor by selling us this TV if she does sell it to us (a pointed look at MK’s frayed housework clothes), and a reminder that this woman cannot do anything until her “chaaaasband” gives his say so. It was great.

Since this TV could save us a couple hundred, however, we’ll wait for this progressive couple to get back to us. Besides, it’s not like we have anything to hook the television up to right now, since PS3′s are apparently tough to come by right now. Best Buy has no idea when they’re getting the next shipment, and could not reserve me a unit. So I just bit the bullet and went with Amazon. Not sure when I’ll get the console.

However, when I do get all the pieces together, I’ll have the best entertainment center I’ve ever owned. And I will finally be able to watch some of my favorite movies on a real screen, with a great surround setup, and the option of high-def. I can predict a lot of Michael Mann blu-rays in my near future (Mohicans, if it ever comes out on BR, Heat, and Collateral). But the inaugural movie is likely to be Ratatouille Blu-Ray or Die Hard.

The broader question for me is how to get the most out of my PS3. I worry that if I just end up using it as a BR player, a place to stream Netflix, and an occasional gaming platform, I’ll be under-utilizing it. I also have to admit that I have misgivings about the the BR format. I keep hearing that there are a lot of half-assed transfers , and that you cannot trust a BR disc to deliver BR quality. That would drive me crazy. I notice stuff like that.

In the meantime, before all the components are delivered, I will continue watching TV on my little laptop and it’s mighty 15 fps when streaming Hulu. But when I dream, I dream of home theaters.

A Time of Plague

I’ve been trying to get some work done around here, but I’ve been kind of distracted by the fact that MK has been stricken with some sort of “stagnation o’ th’ lungs”, as the butcher of All Creatures might say. I’m not exactly certain what’s wrong with her (medical science is still working on that) but she’s been kind of zonked out for the past four days.

That’s not ideal in a small apartment, where the living room shares space with the office. Besides which, I have a hard time motivating myself to do much cooking or cleaning when I’m the only one with an appetite or an interest in the apartment’s cleanliness. So I’ve mostly sat with MK here in the shadows, trying to get some research and writing done.

As it has in the past, Good Old Games has come to MK’s rescue. She bought an old childhood favorite, Creatures, and has been happily curled around her laptop for most of the last 72 hours. She’s less miserable when she’s playing it. It seems to be such a remarkable game that I have a hard time believing it exists: it’s a late 90′s genetic sandbox game, where you monitor a population of Gremlin-like creatures and try to make them robust and self-sustaining while addressing potential problems like disease or genetic defects. There’s no saves beyond a self-overwriting autosave. You screw up genetic line or an entire species, you can’t go back and undo it. You just have to fix it.

It’s something I’m going to have to take a look at, because it seems to be very similar to the game that people once believed Spore would be. MK spent several hours trying to perfect a cross of the game’s three species that would combine the best of each, but she eventually had to admit defeat as undesirable traits kept manifesting and the mature crosses showed no inclination to procreate.

Unfortunately, we also lost an old nemesis this week: MK’s HP laptop. In the three years we’ve owned it, I would estimate that it has been broken or RTMed for at least one year. Now, eight months after yet another round of repairs and six months out of warranty, it’s videocard is dead. We will probably not be repairing it, since I have every expectation that another part would fail within a few months.

Since we primarily used MK’s laptop for media,  it seems like it is time to get a TV. And if we’re getting a TV, we might as well get a console to play DVDs and stream media. So that’s exciting. Now I just need to pick one: PS3 or 360?

Staycation

Someday I’ll be comfortable with what I do, and I will be able to believe that it is a job at which I work very hard. But it is hard for me to say that with conviction, when I spend so much of my time playing games I love, and discussing them with people I like. It is harder still to acknowledge any toil of my own when I identify and agree so completely with this passage from A Connecticut Yankee:

There are wise people who talk ever so knowingly and complacently about “the working classes,” and satisfy themselves that a day’s hard intellectual work is very much harder than a day’s hard manual toil, and is righteously entitled to much bigger pay. Why, they really think that, you know, because they know all about the one, but haven’t tried the other. But I know all about both; and so far as I am concerned, there isn’t money enough in the universe to hire me to swing a pickaxe thirty days, but I will do the hardest kind of intellectual work for just as near nothing as you can cipher it down — and I will be satisfied, too.

Still, writing is work. And if you play enough of them, and if you have to play them because you’ve promised colleagues and editors that you will play them, games become work as well. Consider, also, that I still try to play games for relaxation, I also try to read a bit for enjoyment, and I still try to write for pleasure. Then, of course, there is the fact that a lot of my work involves strategy gaming, which requires rather more than shooting character models until they stop moving.

I get tired, and I don’t acknowledge it because I don’t feel I’ve got the right or the reason. But sometime in this past week, it dawned on me that I could not remember the last time I took a weekend off from work. I could not quite recall the last time I had played a game that wasn’t eventually going to be the subject of a Three Moves Ahead, a column, a review, or a blog entry. So MK made me promise not to do any work on Saturday or Sunday, including playing games for professional purposes. I agreed, and worked until late on Friday so that I could keep my part of the deal.

What I needed the most, besides a break and a day full of stiff cocktails and buffalo wings, was violent and kinetic videogaming. I needed brutal power fantasies and faster-than-thought gameplay, and I needed games without a single fucking hotkey. Feel free to argue with my choices, but Mirror’s Edge and Grand Theft Auto IV seemed made to order.

Ultimately, Grand Theft Auto was the better game for my purposes. When you’re running in Mirror’s Edge, and the motion blur starts to creep in around the edges of your vision as Faith kicks it into high gear, the rush in incredible. But the endless dying and capricious save points means the game delivers that feeling only sporadically.

On the other hand, the game gets me so involved that I find myself leaning forward with every long jump, willing Faith to go farther. I flinch when she hits the ground too hard. Few things are more satisfying than sprinting toward a SWAT trooper as he draws a bead, and dropping into a slide-kick just before he pulls the trigger, punting him to his death with a savage kick to the stomach.

Still, GTA IV was the more mindless, escapist activity. Niko Bellic gave me a simulated life to live in the endlessly involving Liberty City, and I enjoyed role-playing his character. Thrilling car chases, brutal back-alley killings, and the casual carjacking of a driver who nearly hit my on the street was my kind of diversion. Like Niko, I didn’t need to think or plan what was going to happen. I just waited for the phone calls that told me where there was killing to be done, and then I went and did it.

Recipe for a Great Spring Day

This spring is making me ridiculously happy, in part because it’s the first real spring I’ve experienced in many, many years. In northern Wisconsin, where I used to live, the ground is covered in snow and ice until April, until it abruptly melts into mud, then bakes in the heat throughout May. “Spring” is what you call the nice couple of weeks that precede the summer heat wave. The weather isn’t much better in northwest Indiana.

Boston winter may have sucked, but it’s making it up to me with days like yesterday and today: sunny, breezy, and cool. It was so nice yesterday that I decided to go work elsewhere, and took  a stroll down to Toscanini’s ice cream in Central Square. There is nothing like eating Caramel Delight ice cream for lunch on a weekday morning to make you feel like being a grown-up is everything you thought it would be when you were a kid.

At the risk of seeming like an unprofessional novice, I will say that yesterday also marked the first time I’ve had two pieces of paid work published on the same day. I could and perhaps should let the occasion pass unremarked, looking on with a cool detachment that says, “This happens to me every day.” But the fact is that it does not happen every day, and yesterday’s milestone was further proof that I am continuing to move the ball down the field. Such morale boosts are important, especially when there are nothing but deadlines as far the eye can see.

The first piece that went up was my GameShark review of Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943. No reader of this blog will be surprise to find that I gave it a positive review, but I reserved most of my judgments for the review itself. This game would have been in “A” territory easily with a little more polish and a less infuriating interface, but even with the user-unfriendliness that I’ve come to associate with eastern European PC games, it’s a really good wargame. A patch was just released that I haven’t had time to play with. Hopefully it addresses some of my complaints.

The other piece that went up is a feature on The Hunter and its moral code that I wrote for The Escapist. I’ll definitely have more to say about this game and this piece later this week, but for now I’ll just point you to the article and let you read it.