From Mario to Master Chief: How Gaming is growing up

Video games as a form of entertainment and as an industry are growing up. The days of the eight-bit sprites and kid-centric marketing are all but over. This maturation, coupled with a tsunami of popularity, has brought with it waves of controversy about guns and violence in a medium just out of diapers. Games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty have been at the forefront of the debate and will stay there as long as they sell millions of copies. However, this fixation on guns and gore is not what the industry is about. Military shooters and gangster-focused crime are just a small part of what video games have to offer.

As technology continues to improve and the internet creeps into millions more homes around the globe, video games sit at the crossroads. Budgets have ballooned into the billions and Indie game studios have begun their march into the American psyche through games like Bastion, Braid, Minecraft, and Fez. Indie game studios have gone from a niche on the Xbox dashboard to being the push behind some independent consoles like the Ouya. Mobile games on Android and Apple and the Free-to-Play craze have pushed the medium even further into an identity crisis. Should developers get rid of physical copies of their games and go to a digital download format like iTunes? Should studios focus less on budget and graphics and more on the aesthetics of play?

You would think that this crisis affects only gamers and their families, but that just isn’t true. Just like the latest box office blockbuster decides the landscape of cinema so to does the decisions of millions of non-gamers affect the gaming industry. Parents have more of an affect on the gaming industry than I believe they realize. It wasn’t the hardcore gamers who made the Wii the phenomenal hit that it was, it was parents. The landscape of gaming before the Wii and after are so fundamentally different that Microsoft and Sony poured millions upon millions of dollars into the motion-control gaming arena with varying degrees of success.

Looking into the future, studios like Irrational Games (creators of Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite), Supergiant Games (creators of Bastion), Quantic Dream (creators of Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls), and Jonathan Blow (creator of Braid and The Witness) will have close to, if not more, of an impact on the direction that video games take as studios like Infinity Ward (creators of Call of Duty), Bungie (creators of Halo and Destiny), and Epic Games (creators of Gears of War).

This paradigm shift has seen the resurrection of Adventure Games, a genre long proclaimed dead, by Tell Tale Games (creators of the Walking Dead adventure game) which was awarded Game of the Year by GameInformer magazine. Furthermore, the industry saw the rise of the crowd-funding model which has allowed Tim Schafer of Double Fine Games to raise over three million dollars for an adventure games the big publishers said was “not profitable.” This shift has also lead to the departure of many industry leads from big companies to found their own independent studies.

Hopefully, this means the argument will shift from guns and gore to which games deserve to be in museums right alongside the Mona Lisa. Hopefully, this will lead to the drive for the preservation of classic games in the same way Cinema enthusiasts are striving to preserve their own history.

Video games are the perfect medium to explore the human condition and what it means to be good or to be evil. It is the perfect medium to raise the question of choice and whether our free will is an illusion or something that makes us who we are. Video games can include the player in a way that no movie or book can. The current shift of game design has gone from cut-scenes and button prompts to more realistic moral choices and a focus on player agency. This push is overriding the lowest common denominator of meaningless violence and “harmless” fun in mainstream video games. I believe that very soon we will see video games asking bigger questions in more unique ways and evoking more discussion than movies like Inception or the Matrix. Soon it won’t be unusual to see a player craft their own unique adventure that is unlike any other player’s in the entire world.

Gaming is growing up.

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Explaining the Vision of an Author

Goal of everything I write is to teach some truth or impart a little piece of knowledge into someone’s life. I don’t write frivolously, although I will admit the task of writing is fun (and simultaneously ardous), the intention is not simply for entertainment. When I am writing, at least the current books, poems, etc., I am working on, are all built around some ideas or ideals that are self-contained metaphors. I don’t write to reflect current culture but rather create worlds that may, or may not, parallel current events or situations I find fascinating.

To give you a for instance, in my current novel Graveyard of Dreams, which started long ago (five, six years ago to be precise) as simply the backstory of a villain in a video game I liked. This “plot” was a juvenile goal that began to grow beyond its simplistic confines as soon as I took the task of writing. The next step in its evolution was that I wanted to create an anti-hero. Someone you wanted to cheer for but put you up against the moral qualm of his “means to an end” approach. Or it didn’t because that fit your moral paradigm but it at least brought that worldview into the forefront.

However, that skeleton was far too devoid of muscle for my taste, so the nest step was to add a world of conflict and opposing views that could further fuel my machinations. My inspiration was drawn from three video games Bioshock, Bioshock 2, and Bioshock Infinite. Each of these games did (or are doing since Bioshock Infinite is just currently being released) revolutionary things. They combined story, atmosphere, ideology, and scenery to create one complete vision.

I wanted to reflect that same design. So the world that my character inhabits is artificial and for good reason (which I won’t spoil). Built in some improbably fashion beneath the ancient remains of a simultaneously more advanced and far more primitive culture, at least in the eyes of the general populace. Add a cult that worships and wishes to control these spires and a government that, much like the Matrix, is hiding things from its citizens for its own reasons, and you have the recipe for difficult choices.

I now had my anti-hero. I now had a world he could inhabit that would give him meaningful choices. Choices that would force you, the reader, to look at your own moral compass and determine whether he could be held accountable for his actions or if he was coerced, or even brainwashed, into those actions. I now had my vision.

This was not an easy process and, in fact, I had to scrap over one hundred and forty pages of a nearly finished version of my book to realize this goal. The version I am currently writing is only thirty pages long but is already far better. One very good reason is a technique that I am gleefully borrowing from the aforementioned games: deleting “cutscenes” wherever I can.

Now I know what you’re thinking, books don’t have “cutscenes”. And in essence, you are right. However, books do have “text dumps” where the author is forced to give page after page of exposition about the world, the people, etc., to give the world context. I abhor such practices because it doesn’t allow for the exploration of the world by you, the reader. Instead, you are treated to a tour where you are force-feed knowledge you don’t need and will tune out at every possible convenience.

This technique is so prevalent in books you probably have no reference by which to judge their success. Let me give you two examples, both  are excerpts from my book, to show the difference. Each are detailing the world the main character, Mitch, lives in.

Except 1: First draft of Graveyard of Dreams

“As the haze of sleep slowly lifted from my mind, I thought back to the night before and the dreams or should I say dream that haunted me relentlessly. The images came rushing back like a flood, overwhelming me. A feeling akin to being doused in ice-cold water, leaving my body covered in a glistening sheen of bone-chilling perspiration. This quickly broke me loose from the fog of sleep and drove all thoughts of sleep from my mind.

If only I could wrap my mind around the mystery of why I was having this same dream over and over again, then maybe I could have peace. Even if it was momentary, it would still be a respite from this endless cycle of feverish dreams and exhausted mornings. My mind needed a break or, I feared, it might break. I wanted to sleep so badly.

The dreams were trying to tell me something and I wasn’t getting the message. Almost as if it was a bad transmission or a fragmented message or I was just broken, which I had already come to suspect and had plenty of evidence in favor of.”

Excerpt 2: Second draft of Graveyard of Dreams

“The hologram blinked close and Mitch checked the time. It was only quarter after six. Far too early to be conscious. He groaned, wishing he could crawl back under the covers, but he got up nonetheless. He threw on a jacket and a pair of raggedy jeans and stumbled his way out of his bedroom.

He plopped unceremoniously down at the table and slumped as far down as the chair would allow.

His mom raised an eyebrow at his entrance. “Dramatic entrance, princess.” She moved around their kitchen flipping eggs, turning over pancakes. “Why are you tired lately?” she asked, concern evident in her voice.

Mitch paused, unsure of how to respond. Bursts of images from the night before flashed through his mind: “He’s losing a lot of blood get him to the ER quick!” Hospital beds and hospital gowns. Cold eyes staring at him through goggles and white masks. “I don’t think he’s going to make it! His breathing has slowed way down.” His skin still felt icy cold and the feeling of déjà vu was overwhelming.

“Mom?”

“Yes, honey,” she replied, completely unaware of the battle that raged inside her son.

“Have… Have I ever been in the hospital?”

A plate shattered on the floor. Mitch jumped in surprise. His mother stood motionless in front of the stove.

“Mom?” Mitch asked slowly.

She half-turned then moved to clean up the mess. “It’s nothing, sweetie.”

“Really?” He raised his eyebrow in disbelief.

“Mitch, really I’m fine,” she replied, doing her best to reassure him.

She quickly cleaned up the mess and returned to cooking, acting as if the strange moment had never happened.”

Notice the difference? No? Go back and read through how much was really revealed about Mitch’s dreams in the first draft and then check the second draft. In the first draft, lots of words, words, words surround the simple statement:

“I thought back to the night before and the dreams or should I say dream that haunted me relentlessly.”

In the second draft, that same thought is summed up in this few sentences:

“Mitch paused, unsure of how to respond. Bursts of images from the night before flashed through his mind: “He’s losing a lot of blood get him to the ER quick!” Hospital beds and hospital gowns. Cold eyes staring at him through goggles and white masks. “I don’t think he’s going to make it! His breathing has slowed way down.” His skin still felt icy cold and the feeling of déjà vu was overwhelming.”

This may seem like more words to read but did you notice that right after the internal monologue it flows right into a conversation that includes his mom and the strangeness surrounding her reaction (a fact that in the first draft didn’t happen until ten pages later). I eliminated over fifteen pages of words to sum up what could’ve been said in just a few sentences.

By deleting the “cutscene”, I can now spoon-feed you as a reader, tidbits and details about Mitch’s dream without resorting just to mountains of text. And now it flows faster, you as a reader don’t get bogged down in detail. Same amount of character development, much less detail. My goal as the author is to give you as much fun, as much complexity as possible without resorting to mountains of words. So why not let the world speak for itself? It has a mightier voice than I could ever muster.

More Questions than Answers

The tone of my thoughts,

The pace set by my emotions,

Steadily heads towards the realm of uncertainty.

I have asked these questions before

And I’ve never been less certain of the answers.

Why God did I have take this path?

Was this pain planned in sovereignty?

I didn’t want to be broken and betrayed

Once,

Let alone twice.

I didn’t want to lose, who I thought,

Was my soul mate.

I didn’t want to open myself up

Only to have a fresh twist

On an old betrayal.

Once so naive about love,

Now helplessly jaded,

And slightly afraid.

Vision of the past

Don’t seem to fade,

I wish for reconciliation,

The only thing to make everything all right.

I will bend, almost until I break,

To make things right,

When its not my fault everything went so wrong.

Why does life have to be so hard?

Why why why why?

I ask the question over and over again,

Without an answer from the skies.

Why are you silent tonight?

Where were you when I prayed?

I asked, I pleaded to know

What your will was,

But I never wanted this.

Why did you take me to such familiar territory?

Why did we have to go here?

Don’t you know, Lord,

This is the realm of my fears.

I was here once and was destroyed,

So what reason could you possibly have

For a return trip?

I am losing faith

In the concept of love.

I am tender-hearted

And I have been hurt,

Left with more questions than answers.

I’m told I’m kind,

I’m told I’m gentle,

I’m told I’m a great guy.

All beautiful words,

That don’t soothe the feeling of loneliness

That creeps in when the light fades into night

And I’m left to wonder about my life.

Doesn’t help me

When I wonder why I wasn’t good enough to keep.

Why did he have

That I couldn’t give?

What could I have said differently

To persuade you to stay?

What could I have done differently

To keep myself from being betrayed?

Why do I care so much

If you’re hurt, sad, or confused?

Why can’t I accept circumstance

And not rail against fate?

I’m left with only tears

And questions without answers.

Reminders of the past,

Pop up like putrid flowers

In the cemetery of my past relationships.

I understand the doom and gloom

Of my seemingly hopeless words,

But sometimes the night seems endless,

And the light so far away.

I’m stuck in the moment,

Not understanding the grander plan.

I want to obey,

And seek your face.

But failure after failure

Have slowed my step a pace.

Anger, bitterness, and salty tears

Make me hesitant to step out in faith.

I’m sorry, Lord,

I wish I was stronger,

But I’m just a broken man.

I haven’t faced the devil himself,

But I’ve met his devils

And they’ve done fine work.

I want to persevere

I never want to step back,

But, Lord, I’m tired.

I’m tired of being alone.

I’m tired of making mistakes.

I’m tired of being betrayed.

Why can’t this be easy?

Why can’t you shout in my ear

Shatter my eardrum with good news?

More questions than answers.

Need to Please

I was contemplating the different things going on in my life and I discovered something. We are all, in some way and to different degrees, slaves to the “Need to Please”. We need to be liked or loved by someone. We need to be at peace with our friends. We need to be at peace with our bosses and employers. We need to peace with those in our churches. We are forced, daily, to please others.

Before I continue, I need to clarify something. I am not talking about the necessity of doing what we are told and treating others with respect, whether this is at work, home, school, or church. I’m talking about the inherent, self-conscious, detrimental NEED to make sure that everyone we encounter is pleased with our behavior and is not in conflict with us. This is demonstrated through what could be perceived as sacrificial, others-focused behavior that may be deemed as humility or a servant’s heart. Thinking of others first and more highly than ourselves is great. BUT if it comes at the cost of allowing others to walk all over us or causes us to revolve our entire world around one person, then it has gone beyond what is healthy.

We are built with a Christ-shaped hole in our hearts that, when combined with a lack of self-confidence and healthy self-image, causes a black hole affect. We are constantly searching for something to quell the sense of loneliness and someone to make us feel loved and valuable. People suffering from this “Need to Please” are unable to trust, unable to believe that someone truly loves them, since they perceive love and acceptance through the lens of pleasing that person. They are constantly working towards a goal they can never achieve, since the finish line always backs up and they find themselves trying to perform rather than just live life. This creates additional pressure that can end relationships and strain friendships.

How do I know this? I too suffer from this syndrome.

I’ve discovered that my fear of being alone, combined with my non-confrontational attitude (which depends on the person) and insatiable desire to please whoever I’m with at great cost to myself, fuels this inherent need within me.

What does this look like in practice? No matter what time I get a call, I have to respond. I over-analyze every text I send and every word I say, apologizing even when I shouldn’t. I constantly have the fear of offending that other person and constantly feel the pressure to please that other person. I refrain from being honest because I don’t want to “make waves” or upset that other person.

Not healthy.

I understand myself well enough that I know that I can, and will, change this. I trust that God is making me into who He wants me to be because He has put people in my life who trigger this behavior and then He taps me on the shoulder and points out the flaw, revealing it for what it is. A monster is only dangerous when its under your bed. Once you can see it and fight it, it loses half its strength right there.

And I’ve seen my monster and I’ve been forced to be honest with myself and evaluate my behavior. God, in His infinite wisdom, is constantly leading me into territory I’m not comfortable with. He isn’t driving out my “Need to Please”. He is just redirecting the focus back onto Himself, where it should’ve been in the first place. And what I have found is

Freedom.

I am free to make mistakes. I am free to fail. I am free to upset others when the situation warrants honesty. I am free to be alone since I’m never truly alone. I am free to be me and be ok with the fact that I might lose a relationship or two because of that. I’m free to not be driven by the need to be perfect for someone else or do everything possible for them to like me. I’m free to remove the mask and let them see my heart, my honesty and genuineness of spirit. I’m free to stumble and fall. I’m free to make a fool of myself while I’m learning how to “court” someone. I’m free to not be stressed or worry. I’m free to make bad decisions and once I realize my mistake, I’m free to move past my mistake and try again.

I am free to not be concerned about the what-ifs or maybes but rather just step forward in faith and trust it’ll work out.

The Lord has used my weaknesses to prune out the idiosyncrasies and bad habits that I have picked up along the way. The Lord has blessed me so that no matter what the result is I have learned so much along the way. I’m not the kind of person who is confident, but the Lord has pushed me into situations where honesty is needed and confidence in Him is required. And I’ve learned the hard way that His way makes so much more sense and, even though its hard, its so much more fulfilling.

He has introduced me to some amazing people and I won’t embarrass one person in particular by naming her. HOWEVER, I will talk about this person because of how impressed I am after spending time with her. I’ve learned that many of the things I’ve assumed to be true about others are not always true (yes, I generalize at times and judge a book by its cover). Sometimes when someone says I don’t know, they actually mean it. I’ve never met someone with the genuineness of heart and love for the Lord that I’ve seen in this lady. The grasp of the Bible and the desire to love others and treat others with respect was incredible. I never thought when I first met her that the person underneath the surface would match the person I thought I saw. Guess what? I assumed and I was wrong. The Lord humbled me mightily and pointed out glaring issues in my life when I compared our lives. I praise God for the lesson that, thankfully, was private between Him and I and not public like He has done previously.

I know I’m not the only one struggling with this “Need to Please” so let me tell you this: You are special just the way you are. You don’t need others to complete you. The only Person you need is Jesus. You were uniquely created by Him to serve Him and be yourself. You don’t have to be ruled by the need to please your parents (although you should respect them), or your friends, or any boyfriend or girlfriend. If you can’t please your parents now, then maybe it has nothing to do with you. Maybe you are fine just the way you are and you are loved by heavenly Father. It is such an addicting drug to fool ourselves into believing “If I just change this” “If I just do that” then “maybe they will love me, maybe they will tell me they’re proud.” It is an endless cycle that doesn’t help anyone and hurts everyone.

Get rid of the need you have inside of you to please others and just focus on being who you are. Focus on being a person that the Lord would be proud of. It hurts me so much to watch friends of mine struggling to gain approval from people who don’t know how to show it and should’ve given it to them a long time ago. It hurts me to watch the faces of my friends when someone they love says the wrong thing, hitting the button that destroys them. I can see it clearly, even if everyone else doesn’t seem to notice.

I wish I could convince you that what I say is true, that what I say changed my own life and that what I’ve experienced is the real deal. That the God I claim to serve is truly Almighty. That if you just listen and believe what I have to say that you can find peace. I’m not saying its a miracle drug or a magic cure but it is the rock that you can hold onto when the parent disapproves, when the job you loved is lost, and when you’re left behind when another dies. The truth that I wish you’d believe is that life is never over even when it feels like it is. You can continue on even though you have to leave behind that special someone or something, dead and buried. The pain may never fade and it may be terrifying to move on but it can be done. The “Need to Please” doesn’t need to extend beyond the grave and tie you to that moment in time when you’re whole world was turned upside down. It is the most difficult thing to do but you will find freedom and peace in the road beyond.

Girls Are From Venus

We have all heard the rhyme as children “Boys are from Mars and girls are from Venus”. At first, I thought “Nah, that’s just a silly rhyme. It doesn’t reflect reality.” Then, I started dating and I discovered just how true this rhyme was. Women look at the world and experience the world in vastly different ways then men. Am I saying this is better or worse? No, just vastly different. My analogy for dating, courting, whatever term you want to use is equivalent to the feeling of walking on the moon for the first time.

Everything is new, everything is exciting, and everything draws drastic emotional reactions from you. There is a feeling of danger, exploration, and discovery. And there is another emotion that accompanies all of these that clouds our judgment, makes our hearts race, and makes us care far more about this one person’s thoughts and feelings than anyone else in our lives. And that feeling is LOVE. Now, I wonder if we use the term “love” to describe a feeling of affection only or a deeply-rooted, confident expression built upon a foundation of friendship, companionship, and that feeling of affection we call “falling in love”.

I believe that it is easy to “fall in love” but hard to “stay in love”. Because real love is the kind of affection that exists despite sickness, poverty, and angry, bitter words. It is what remains when everything else is taken away or is lost. It is what gets you through the loss of a child, chronic illnesses, and job loss. Do we understand that as modern-day Americans? Do we follow this standard or do we believe that we can always “Go back to our own planet”? If we truly believe that there are always second, and third, and fourth chances, do we really open ourselves up for hurt and make ourselves vulnerable? Because if we don’t, we hold this barrier between ourselves and this person that we “love”.

Loving someone with an unconditional, selfless love is hard and isn’t as “fun” as simply “falling in love”. Courting someone from another planet is extremely hard. You have to learn a new language. You have to get to know that person in a deep and intimate way. Its work and its hard. And guess what? Love doesn’t always look like a movie. Sometimes you have to fight for your happily ever after and sometimes the pieces don’t always fall into place. Sometimes it takes awhile to complete the jigsaw puzzle of your life.

I’ve discovered that in my life, I love figuring someone out. I love getting to know them and understanding their story. And when you’re learning “Venution” (the language of women), you have to be a good listener, Guys. You have to know her favorite color, even if you guess it wrong a few times afterwards. You have to know what she likes and what she dislikes. And you especially have to know how to make her feel special. You have to be willing to make mistakes and be hurt. You have to be willing to be open and honest about yourself. And guess what, Guys, maybe you’re going to have to go at her pace and focus on her.

Now, you may wonder how all I know all of this. Am I some “girl whisperer”? Nope. I’m just as awkward and uncomfortable around women as most men. I’m average-looking  guy, with a sarcastic sense of humor, a big heart, and a thirst for knowledge (code for “I’m a nerd”). However, I listened to my parents, especially my mom, when they told me how to treat a lady. You treat her like a queen and you romance her all throughout the relationship. My Dad always told me “Don’t ever stop doing little things for her. You’re dating her your whole life.” And I learned from making mistakes. Some big, some small. Do I have regrets? Oh, you better believe it but I understand that if I don’t move forward, I will never have the great moments you have with a special someone.