Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Everyone Loves You, Nobody Cares

DISCLAIMER: If you're already sick to death of games writers writing about gamers writers and games writing and getting all hyper-personal about it, go ahead skip this whole mess. I don't blame you, I generally can't stand it either. But to critique it, I have to go hypocritical and actually use it. Feel free to just ignore this whole mess and comment that you did so. I won't be offended in the least.

I'll probably manage one more Real Game Thoughts thing before year's end but this sure as heck isn't it. No edits, no running it by a friend; it's raw and kind of disjointed, but whatever. I had feelings and this happened, so, you know, sorry in advance. Happy Hanukkah, free Palestine.


There is no worse possible lens to experience life through than a video game. To attempt to faithfully render humanity through a finite, fixed and pre-ordained system is to utterly destroy any semblance of it. No matter what people within a small, self-congratulatory circle of thinkers on the Internet might crusade for, the truth is that they are ultimately insignificant ephemera. Even the most sedate and routine life has more spark, more verve, and vastly more value than any streamlined and over-workshopped program could ever render. Which is why there is nothing more frustrating than watching writers fall again and again into the trap of using video games as a framing device for their own lives. So now it's my turn for Story Time.

When I was 12-13, my mother's breast cancer metastasized for the third time and I spent that winter watching her deteriorate, sunken eyes and bald head, slowly losing her mind on a morphine drip. Most of my vivid memories from that time are listening to her hallucinate spiders in the fluorescent ceiling lights through her drugged stupor and burying my face in algebra homework in empty break rooms in an attempt to pretend my world wasn't collapsing around me. I watched my family come within an inch of permanently fracturing as friends and acquaintances by the dozens either fled from or were driven away by the chaos. When she was transferred to a convalescent home for palliative care, I refused to see her for months and admit to myself that this time, unlike when I was six or when I was three, all hope was lost. I saw her there once, breathing slowly in medicated sleep; I touched her hand, told her I loved her, said goodbye and went home. I was the one who picked up the phone the next morning to hear she had died.

I've written about my experiences for catharsis before on a few occasions, but that was more for me than any audience and I've shared it very sparingly. Some of that has been part because of how I choose to present myself and how rarely these kinds of things come up, but mostly because whatever I reveal and how I do so becomes part of what I leave as my memories of her. I know that there is as little mercy for online strangers as there is in the real world, and so I am generally very sparse with what I choose to share about my life. Even those in my circle of Internet Friends who I've confided in are few and far between, but they can tell you what I've said here is true. Know that my choice to share this small fraction of my inner self with you should signal that I'm not fucking around.

Now, you tell me: at any point in that passage, did you wonder what video game I got that Christmas?


I get that most people who write this much about video games do so because they feel a deep need to justify their own significance by prattling on endlessly about how mature and deep and artistic and life-affirming and gosh-darn meaningful games are now. More so than ever before, in fact, because their forebears were a bunch of hacks making kids' stuff, where that could never still be the case because there are epic cutscenes and binary moral decision trees and Hollywood voice actors and fleeting name-checks of social forces and lots of guns/gore/boobs. This desperate clamor for vindication leads to the subsuming of the medium's strengths in service of hackneyed linear narratives that clumsily grope at humanistic themes and pat themselves on the back for cribbing presentation notes from Cinematography 101. It's why we are now plagued with senseless preening over faux-retro gallery installations, hosannahs for the Cult of Indie Game Auteur and 50,000-word exegeses on ham-fisted military shooters that take their emotional cues from Crackdown. It's all different acts in the same farce.

Highly experiential works of creative non-fiction that try to shoehorn video games in double down even further on this problem by forcing me to watch capable, skilled writers repeatedly try and fail to imbue a bunch of trivial, banal software with life and purpose at the expense of their own. Reading personal memoirs of tragedy and woe and overcoming hardship, which should be powerful all on their own, ring needlessly hollow when forced to pivot around some nugget of computer code that ever more and more discounts the user from having any meaningful input. It's torturous to me to watch people subsume even a moment of their lives, let alone their most defining peaks and valleys, into discrete chunks of data they had no hand in crafting. As far as I'm concerned, claiming games now have the kind of emotional palette to delve into the human spirit when they struggle with something as fundamental as the value of a singular, finite life is borderline sociopathic.

I have other issues with these joyless compromises between baring one's soul and staying within an editorial byline. Some of it is a question of motive and ego, and starts to get into deeply personal territory that's unfit to share. It's why I didn't submit this for review to a publication; it didn't seem like the proper place. It's an ugly neologism, but "netiquette" is a very real and vital consideration whose finer points seem to be utterly lost on people. Granted, I've failed a few of times on the basics, but overall I'd like to think I manage.

Truth is, I only started writing as a lark, almost on a dare with a couple of other chuckleheads who were similarly fed up with this incessant empty posturing that constitutes the bulk of popular games analysis. I kept at it longer than them, not because I was any better, but because my time is more worthless and I have a steady stream of nonsense to rail against regularly enough to warrant publication. I can't pretend I haven't become at least partway invested, since I've gotten emotional over it to a fault and said things I still regret for more than just the consequences I've suffered. I carry on because I realize the value of having even one more halfway-competent voice to help try and shout against the din, despite the fact I get no value added from nattering my own head off.

I wouldn't want writers I criticize or deeply disagree with to stop, even if my opinions had any bearing on their lives. When I bother to get all riled up and complain, it's because I see something that has the makings of the real way forward but going horribly wrong at a crucial point. I don't argue or analyze the work of people who I consider to be of no value; I laugh at them and go on my merry way. I don't waste my breath on repackaged press kits and entrenched fanboy drivel. It's this new guard of writers that drive me up the wall, having all the potential to be there if and when a sea change comes in their chosen subject, but quickly falling into the same patterns they claim to be railing against.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I try to live with an open and sympathetic heart, which is what makes trying to connect to someone through their writing so hard when there are these needless obstructions in the way. No life is of any greater or lesser inherent value than any other, but it's this kind of writing that seems to invariably assume the contrary. Losing a loved parent young doesn't grant me any kind of authority or emotional high ground beyond knowing a pain that nearly everyone will have to suffer, twice, and having a brief head-start on being able to get some distance after intimately knowing that sorrow. I chose to reveal this not out of seeking pity, or trying to elevate some coincidental artifact of my life to a place of significance at the cost of my own life's intrinsic meaning, but to illustrate that no person is without a story to tell.

I gave you this tiny window into my existence beyond video games (i.e. most of my existence) as proof that there are other modes of coping, more solemn and more silent, and that such stories will only ever fly in the face of the innumerable others never to be told. Writing these kinds of pieces for mass consumption means you attempt to measure yourself against the unknowable unspoken worlds of your colleagues, your audience, and other people you will never even know the existence of. If you have a story, and it's almost certain you do, just tell it and that should be enough. Don't try to contort it to fit some cockamamie content filter, because it's diluting a part of your soul, and the only thing more sickening than doing that in exchange for nothing is doing it for money.


If you really want to know, fine, here's your big reveal. It was a used copy of SSX Tricky for GameCube. After constantly renting it over and over again from Blockbuster, it just made sense to just own the copy they were trying to get rid of. Even as I insisted it was OK not to get it, my father got it for me spur-of-the-moment because he knew I liked it, and it would help distract me for however long I would play it. It was just a gift from a distraught father to a distraught son, a simple token of love that could have taken any physical form and meant just as much. It never went under a Christmas tree or into wrapping paper; neither of us was really in the mood for it. We were too preoccupied with our real lives.

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