Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Death of a Bird Salesman

"There's a dead bird, daddy."

Well, that's a great fucking way to start the day, I thought.  If I smoked, I probably would have pulled out a cigarette, casually flicked open my lighter, shielded the tiny flame with my other hand, and lit the tobacco before calmly putting the lighter back into the pocket of my bathrobe, then taken a few pensive puffs before heading over to see what was going on.  But since I didn't smoke, and had never owned a bathrobe in my life, I had to feign the kind of nonchalance that smokers tend to exude.

It's hard to wake up when you know the rest of the world is still asleep.  It's soberingly lonely because for all intents and purposes, everyone else might as well be dead.  Next to sitting around a campfire, driving around on deserted city streets at three in the morning was, for me, the time for quiet contemplation and self-indulgent philosophizing.  It was like, being left alone with the world you finally felt you had the privacy so you could ask Her the really big questions.  Talk about your relationship.  Maybe think about seeing other people.

This wasn't one of those times.

My daughter was on the front lawn saying goodbye to her grandmother who had come to visit for the weekend.  And now, instead of metaphorical death, here I was confronted with the real thing.  A bad omen, I remember reading somewhere.  A dead bird.  Or a bird in the house.  A dead bird in the house?  Either way, the discovery of a decaying corpse on your front lawn, no matter its relative size, never really seems to sit well.

I dragged my ass to the front curb to take a look at the alleged deceased, and I had to calm myself.  One step at a time.  Slow.  Deliberate.  Play it cool.  Nothing to get worked up about.  It was just a dead bird.  It was just death.  Nothing major, you know.

I mentally took a few more deliberate puffs on my metaphysical cigarette.  I'd never really smoked before, except for a couple of cigars and, lately, a little weed.  But I wasn't a habitual, hardcore smoker with a two pack a day habit.  In fact, I can't recall ever even trying a cigarette.  To me, the whole proposition seemed immensely stupid.  I mean, you really have to be mentally retarded to do that to yourself, especially living in an age where decades of medical research had all but conclusively proved that the daily, habitual indulgence in cigarettes increased your chance of developing life-threatening and debilitating maladies up to and including cancer to a degree no sane, free-thinking individual would rationally accept.  Even the most hardened gambling addict would be loath to take those kind of odds.  And yet, the fact still remained that as retarded as it was, smoking cigarettes still looked fucking cool.      

While I could not fathom the mentality that drove people to chronic smoking (as opposed to smoking chronic), I could appreciate the the philosophical appeal.  Everything could be put on hold for a few seconds to inhale a few puffs of smoke.  The kind of zen that only a long-term, habitual smoker could ever probably fully understand, that sense that no matter how pressing or urgent a situation, there was always time to breathe.  Smokers could mentally put the world on hold, and somehow through the haze they saw a light that the rest of us missed that told them that for the short time they sucked on that little, white roll of burning floral matter, the universe would continue on, and wait for them to catch up.  Not too long, of course.  But whatever bullshit was waiting for them would still be there after the next puff, and in the grand scheme of things a few moments to steel their resolve against the next great barrage cost them little, and would most likely reap impressive dividends.

And then there it was.  A dead robin.  Just lying on my front lawn.  I don't know what it was about that bird just lying there, but all of the sudden, I felt something come over me.  In all the excitement of saying goodbye to granny, I managed to slip into the garage to grab a plastic Wal-Mart shopping bag.  With my wife keeping an eye on the kids, saving them from almost certain doom on the deathtrap of a street in front of our house I managed to abscond with the corpse without anyone noticing.  Normally, my first instinct would have been to toss it in the trash, but for some reason, when I went to toss away the lifeless body in the master garbage can in the garage, I hesitated.

I have no idea why.  I don't think I've ever been accused of being a sentimentalist when it came to animals.  I can't comprehend the strange emotional attachment that people seem to develop with animals.  The domestication of animals for the sole purpose of keeping them as pets to serve as some sort of emotional placeholder baffles me.  That's not say I don't appreciate the majesty of nature's creation, but to me actual interaction with animals should serve some kind of utilitarian purpose.  I can understand keeping animals if they are to be used to provide sustenance for me, or if they are to be used for transportation or trained to rip out an intruder's jugular should my house become besieged by hooligans or their ilk, but not for companionship.

But for some reason, standing there with the lid of the garbage can in one hand, and a dead bird in the other, staring into the stinking abyss of trash, I couldn't bring myself to just toss out his body like so many soiled diapers.  I remember a thought that I couldn't shake, that I couldn't push to the periphery of my consciousness, a thought that came to me unbidden with a startling clarity:

He deserves better than this.

I felt compelled.  I slowly closed the lid of the garbage can and set the plastic bag and its grim contents aside in a corner of the garage.  I waited until the next day when the kids were in bed and my wife was at work.  Then I went to the garage and retrieved the body and a trowel and went to the back corner of the garden in the back yard.

Underneath some bush I didn't know the name of, I dug a small hole, and solemnly laid the dead bird at the bottom of it.  I don't know what I was thinking.  I don't know if I felt some sort of connection to Mother Nature, and the communal, sacred spirit of All Life Everywhere.  I don't know if it was some sort of psychological transference where I saw the bird as an emotional surrogate for myself, or some part of myself.  I don't know  if it was supposed to be a symbolic gesture for god knows what.  I just know that I felt that the bird was dead, and even though it was just a bird, he still deserved to have his time here acknowledged somehow by somebody.  He was just out doing whatever shit it is that birds do, and wound up dead on my front lawn.  He was just out probably looking for something to eat, and then he was just... gone.  He just left for work one day and never showed up at home again.

I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything.  I just sat there for a couple moments on my knees, then I got back up and headed inside, hoping the neighbours didn't see me and start wondering what the fuck I was doing.  Before I went back inside, I turned and looked at the bush in the corner of the garden, where the dead bird was buried.

He was dead and I was still here.  I was still alive.  In my head I lit up another cigarette and took a long drag.  The rotation of the Earth seemed to slow to a crawl.  Then the moment was over, and I went back inside, back to my life.      

Monday, September 10, 2012


I didn't end up playing Bethesda Studio's Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion until about four years after it came out.  In fact, I believe I played through Fallout 3 (a couple times) before I went back and cut my teeth on Oblivion.  I didn't have any specific aversion, and in fact I grew up on the RPG video game genre, after a very steep learning curve with the first ever RPG I ever played, Final Fantasy Legend III for the original Game Boy back in the 90's, back when Kurt Cobain was an up and commer making waves in the music scene, the Diet Coke "Just for the Taste of It" slogan was out in full force, and the sanctity of the sandwich was still intact, defined as foodstuffs between two slices of bread and not, as the execs over at KFC would now have us believe, meat between more meat with a side of MSG and carcinogens.

Final Fantasy Legend III was unlike any game I had ever played before, and as a young whippersnapper of maybe ten or eleven years of age who had mostly played side scrolling actioners, as well as some Artari classics like Yar's Revenge or Frogs and Flies, I was quickly overwhelmed.  It was Christmas Eve, and I eagerly tore open the box completely ignoring the unusually thick instruction book and fold-out reference chart, rammed the new game into my Gameboy, and promptly lost complete interest in the game after about half an hour of trying to figure out what the fuck was going on.  I believe I received the game as a gift from my aunt and then-uncle as a total lark, the random purchase of adults who had no clue about games or gaming culture.  They knew I had a Gameboy, they gave me a cartridge that apparently had compatible software, problem solved.  It was the same twisted logic used by the first man to shove a small mammal up his ass.  Lost and alone in the woods, running low on food and fresh water, looking for one last tender moment, our hiker stumbles upon an unsuspecting squirrel, which he deftly snatches up then after a quick mental calculation about the daily amount of calories a full grown human being needs to facilitate basic survival and maintain simple organ function (including sphincter control), decides that instead of trying to fillet, roast, and consume the furry bastard and merely prolong the inevitable, he mind as well have one last thrill before he shuffles off the mortal coil and since he's already discounted oral and digestive pleasure realizes that the only other orifice he has readily available to accommodate his unsuspecting new playmate is his anus, which has thankfully already begun to slacken due to severe malnutrition, drops his trousers, braces himself, then winds up for the pitch, because, hey, he's got a hole into which another object fits, so what's the difference, really?

Well, thankfully, things worked out better for me and my Gameboy than for our hiker friend.  Months later, in a fit of boredom, when I finally picked the game up again and actually gave FFLIII a chance, I became a lifelong addict of the RPG video game genre.  I actually had an embarrassingly long learning curve on my first RPG experience, as I seemed unable to beat the first major boss I came across.  Luckily, after much cursing, bashing of my head against the wall (both literally and metaphorically), and repeated failure, I somehow miraculously defeated my First Boss, and shortly thereafter discovered the importance of upgrading weapons and that all that "armour" stuff was actually quite useful.

Is that an indistinct group of pixels
on your screen or are you just happy
to see me?
I'm not sure if it was a stroke of luck or the Hand of Destiny, but thankfully Final Fantasy Legend III turned out to be a kick-ass game, that still holds up as one of my favourites to this very day.  For the amount of computing power they had to work with "back then" the developers of this particular little gem turned out a surprisingly immersive (and fairly long) gaming experience with an incredibly detailed and engaging narrative that set my expectations for the RPG genre extremely high.  After my long and trying initiation, I eventually expanded my world with such titles as Might and MagicDragon Warrior, Faxanadu, Crystalis, and Dragon Warrior IV (another of my personal favourites), and then with other legendary titles like Chronotrigger and Earthbound.  There were some missteps along the way, like the disappointing Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, but overall, video game role playing treated me far better than I likely deserved.

Fast forward to Christmas 2011.  Jolly old Saint Nick (the holiday icon that makes obesity fun!) pulled his head out of his ass and got me The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim just in time for Christmas.  This was actually perfect timing, as it let me continue a very special holiday tradition I started by accident a couple of years ago.  As it so happened, my wife ended up working on that fateful Christmas Eve, and after putting the kids to bed, I found myself alone and bored.  So, I decided to head on down to the basement and pop a little game called Knights of the Old Republic into ye olde Xbox 360 and give it a whirl.  KOTOR had been released for the original Xbox way back in 2003, so I was only about six years late to that party.  But as it turned out, the old adage "Better late than never" proved to be all too true.  KOTOR not only turned out to be another amazingly detailed RPG experience, but also the perfect way to spend the holiday season, away from crying kids, arguing relatives and the general grab-assery that tends to accompany these occasions.  I love my wife and kids, and it's really shitty for my wife when she has to work Christmas, but I have to admit that a quiet night of contemplation in the basement with some solid RPG video game action has become my preferred modus operandi for the most wonderful time of the year.

Of course it helps if the game is totally kick-ass, which Skyrim definitely is.  Skyrim is definitely not a large departure from the classic sword and sorcery RPG, and you get your typical array of weapons, armour, and magic.  I mean, let's be honest, nobody's reinventing the wheel genre-wise with Skyrim.  Like previous entries in the Elder Scrolls series, it sticks closely to its fantasy roots.  That's not to say it's not original.  I think of genre within the analogy of music, where musicians take something like the classic twelve bar blues progression, and then riff off of that shared thread and do something unique.

Simply put, Skyrim blows away (most of) the competition.  It is, perhaps, the most emmersive, intricately designed game world I have ever had the privilege to explore on any console.  It's just so fucking comprehensive.  Truly this is the next evolution in the video game RPG genre.  I use evolution in terms of a sense of progress.  It's so obvious that the folks over at Bethesda have taken what they've learned in previous games, and made significant improvements to the latest iteration.  Skyrim puts the RP back in RPG.

Case in point, Skyrim's levelling system, which has been completely revamped since Oblivion.  It seems like they took the best concepts from both Oblivion and Fallout 3, and combined them here.  What makes the levelling system in Skyrim better than Oblivion is the fact that it is totally customizable.  In Oblivion, depending on your class, you were kind of stuck having to boost the same half a dozen stats, with no real opportunity to branch out.  But in Skyrim, you don't choose a class like knight, or wizard, or haberdasher.  As you level up you get the chance to upgrade various skill trees with a system reminiscent of Fallout 3's Perks system, but a lot more in-depth, and with greater customization.  The result of which is a thing of beauty, both functionally and visually.     

Ohhhhhh, shiny
 The thing I love about Bethesda's take on levelling up is that it's deceptively simple.  To get better at a thing, you do that thing over and over again.  Kind of like... uh, what's that thing I'm thinking of... oh yeah, Real Life.  Gone are the days when you levelled up after receiving theoretical experience points after killing faceless monsters and ne'erdowells (although, senselessly murdering hordes of bad guys (or even good guys) still does give you a boost).  There are many aspects to the game, and not all of them involve wanton death and destruction.  I didn't learn until much later into my adventure how important things like enchanting and blacksmithery would become (hint: keep some leather around).

Just like the levelling system, the game play too is deceptively simple, yet disguised in such a way to make it engaging.  The central game mechanic in Skyrim is not the combat system (which, although satisfying, is nowhere near comprehensive, and one of the few aspects about the game I hope they'll overhaul for the inevitable sequel) or any other individual skill, but rather an overacrching, recurring narrative structure, something I've come to label as the Boomerang Mechanic.  When you break it down, each quest basically follows the same structure.  Some dude sends you on a quest, usually to find some ancient artifact, you go and retrieve said artifact, then return to the same motherfucker who sent you, much like a boomerang.  Which -especially for some of the smaller side quests- can wear on you and get a little repetitive.  For the main quest and the guild story lines, it's not nearly as glaring because the narrative is very engaging and you're waiting for twists and turns in the story, but when Mr. Joe Nobody off the street asks you to retrieve his +0 Generic Artifact of Plainness and bring it back to him for *random reasons*, you sometimes find yourself wishing there was a dialogue option for "Why should I give a fuck?"  There's nothing that says you have to complete this random quest, except, of course, for the existential reason "Because it's there" and also for the fact that it clogs up your quest menu with yet another quest.  Don't think I used the word "quest" enough in this paragraph.  Quest.

Narrative is an important part of any game, but perhaps in no genre more so than the RPG.  In a first person shooter, for example, the narrative only exists as a means to get me killing NPC's or my family and friends.  Wow, that last sentence would sound so wrong taken completely out of context and presented as evidence at a sanity hearing.  Just to be clear, I'm making a distinction here between the framed narrative and the ludonarrative, as defined by Tom Bissell in his book Extra Lives, which contains some incredible insights into the video game as an art form and the struggles game designers face moving forward as well as Bissell's own hard-to-shake coke habit.  Basically, the framed narrative is the narrative provided through expository dialogue, text, cut scenes, or through the structure and limits of the game itself whereas the ludonarrative is essentially the unique gameplay experience that each player has as he interacts within the limits (however they are defined) of the game world.  The problem, as Bissell points out, is the disconnect between the two, and difficulty of bridging that gap, a problem not entirely dissimilar from reconciling a feuding pimp and his ho.  Or maybe it's entirely different, I don't know.  The pimping game has changed a lot since I left.

The main problem, especially when dealing with more narratively complex, open-world games, is that the chasm between the framed narrative and the ludonarrative has a tendency to become more apparent.  In part, this is because the parameters of the framed narrative are rigid, having been determined and set in digital stone by the programmers and developers months or even years before a player even interacts with the game world, while the ludonarrative is fluid and may produce unforeseen variables or consequences via either a technical glitch, or a loophole created by an oversight on the part of the authors.  At some point or another, these two narrative components just don't seem to mesh properly.  One solution to this would be some kind of advanced, super-intelligent AI which continually developed the framed narrative in accordance with the player's actions in the ludonarrative, in essence a story which wrote itself as you read it.  As you can tell from the italics in the last sentence, this idea seems far too insane to even be feasible, plus the super-intelligent AI would probably go all Skynet on us and plunge humanity into an epic battle for survival (instead of travelling back in time a couple hundred million years and just wiping out all the cave-folks before they became a problem... but then humanity would never have existed to build Skynet in the first place!  Oh my god!  The TERMINATOR time travelling assassination thing kind of almost makes sense.  Because of causality, the machines can't just alter the past all willy nilly; they have to be strategic and precise... of course, it was only because of the original T-800 going back in time that Cyberdyne Systems got a hold of terminator technology and built Skynet in the first place.  Curse you, time paradoxes!).

While it's important for the framed narrative and the ludonarrative to mesh for any game, RPG are specifically driven by narrative, so the concern becomes paramount.  It's a philosophical and technological conundrum that may not be solved any time soon, and the only strategy now is to mitigate any particularly jarring disconnects, which is achieved admirably in Skyrim.  Basically all this to say that the narrative in Skyrim is engaging and coherent.

One of the ways games -and particularly RPGs- try to branch out narratively is by having different endings based on choices made within the game, perhaps the most notorious example of recent years being the Mass Effect trilogy.  But Bethesda took a different approach than Bioware and dared to ask that unspoken question that hung on our lips and in the air:

What is better than a game with multiple endings?

And they then dared to answer:

Dude, how about a game that never ends?

Having never played an MMO, I'm not sure how the quest system works in those types of games, but for a console RPG, I've never witnessed such a spectacle.  With Skyrim's revolutionary new Infinite Quest Generator System* (*not the actual name), the game just randomly generates quests, and then then continues to pummel you with them, over, and over again, until it wears you down into a mere husk of your former self, then takes that husk, crushes it into dust, incinerates the dust, then scatters your ashes into the far reaches of the galaxy, there to float in an endless sea of purgatory from which no mortal has ever escaped.

I suppose it's all an attempt on the part of game makers to game-ify life.  Nowhere is this more evident (except, of course, for games like The Sims) is this more evident than in a game like Skyrim.  What open-ended, open-world games like this allow you to do is, in one way, create your own game within the game, that has nothing to do with the original game.  It's all very meta.  You can game-ify elements of a game that have nothing to do with the intended rules or limits of that game which, in turn, had already game-ified elements of an even larger game better known as Your Life, that have nothing to do with the intended rules or limits of that game. For instance, thanks to the internet, I now know about a player who just goes around robbing people and leaving a vegetable as a calling card.  I can't unknow that.  You could literally go through an in-game cookbook, buy or collect the necessary ingredients, and sit around and cook vegetable soup for eight hours.  Or read thousands of pages on the history of an imaginary world.  Or collect scores upon scores of dinner plates.  Why the hell not?

In attempting to draw inspiration from the real world and incorporate them into their games, developers have attempted to create something as engaging as real life.  The result is actually much better than life, because it can keep going long after you die.  It then becomes less a case of casual gaming, and more a case of anthropological study.  The games we play may well be some of the only evidence passed on for posterity, documents your progeny will ponder over to try and get a sense of their own history.  What will your grandchildren learn about you from your saved files?  That you had a strange fascination with discarded brooms or calipers?  And how weird is it that they will be able to step into the lives of their grandparents and continue living them, continuing on their lifes' work?  It's actually kind of creepy.

Fuck yeah!
 Bottom line, Skyrim fucking rocked.  It embodied everything I've come to love about my video game RPG experience, and then added a bunch of stuff I didn't even know I loved yet.  Like werewolves.  Did I mention that you can become a werewolf?  The game is far too detailed to explore every aspect of it here, and if you're a (video) gamer, and especially if you love the RPG genre, and you haven't already played this for some reason, then pick this shit up now.  Skyrim is and easy 10/10 and in my list of top ten games ever.

10 Things I Learned From Skyrim

1. You can make dragons your bitch, but giants will continue to fucking own you.  Bullshit!
2. Double fisting - uncomfortable in the bedroom, great when casting spells or wielding weapons.
3. Giant fireballs burn friend and foe alike. 
4. Just like in real life, children are indestructible.  I really wish Skyrim would let me build my armour out of children bones instead of dragon bones.
5. Hundreds of pounds of metal armour in no way hamper buoyancy.
6. Transforming into a werewolf is totally awesome!... unless you want to talk to people, recover health at a decent rate, or not randomly get attacked by every random buttfuck in Skyrim who, no matter their differences, seem to be singularly united in their hatred of werewolves.
7. The best way to determine the properties of random plants you pick is to eat them indiscriminately.  Which is great, because I have these mushrooms growing in my bathroom, and I wanted to figure out if they were poisonous.
8. Not even saving the entirety of existence from certain destruction will result in a discount in goods or services from your local merchants.  Nope.  Nada.  Not even a free goddamn cup of celebratory ale at the local pub.
9. Blacksmithing is, perhaps, the easiest trade ever conceived of.
10. All bandits hide out in caves, and all caves contain bandits.  And sometimes ghosts.