We Don’t Have To Fear What We Don’t Understand

Next week I’m turning thirty-one. I’m okay with it; I don’t mind getting older. But I’m scared to death of getting old.

Bill Dwyre of the L.A. Times is an old man. I don’t know how old he physically is, but I can read this column where he called advanced statistics in baseball “gobbledygook” and know that he’s an old man. That column is embarrassing enough on its own, all but pining for a time when guys just “wanted it more” or whatever cliche newswriters told themselves in their time; that it’s attached to the dying medium of a newspaper makes it almost tragic. At least the L.A. Times isn’t locking its content behind a paywall, like the local Kansas City Star has done.

There are plenty of strong takedowns of Dwyre’s article already, like Graham Womack’s and Matt Welch’s. I don’t watch baseball, so I don’t have anything specific to add in that respect. But I do pay close attention to articles like this, if only to know what to watch for in my own life.

We’re all engineered to be selfish and prideful. The things that we like are the best things, and the things that we don’t like are less than the things that we do like. Our choices are correct. If I spend my day watching television and you spend your day playing videogames, the immediate reaction is to say that I made the right decision, and that the thing that I like is better than the thing that I don’t like. If there’s any reason to feel guilty of the thing that I like — societal or otherwise — this reaction is significantly stronger. It’s something I’ve struggled with before, and as I get older i’m very mindful of it.

I watch a lot of football, and football is obsessed with lionizing the previous generation. Anyone who played in the seventies is from the Golden Age of Football, Back When The Game Really Meant Something. A bunch of guys slamming into each other for regular three-yard gains, that’s when Football Was Football and Men Were Men. This current generation of football, the read options, the spread offenses, the disguised zone blitzes, any change to the rules, any change to the stars, it just further separates football from Football.

It’s not enough to idolize the previous generation, though, the current generation has to be torn down to make room for the memories. A few years ago NFL Network did one of their Top Ten episodes, with the topic being tight ends. #8 on that list was Tony Gonzalez, then playing for the Kansas City Chiefs. Ranking above him, a selection of “classic” tight ends, like Dave Casper, John Mackey, and Mike Ditka. I could fill an entire column with my hatred for this list, but I’ll keep it short; the list was made by a bunch of old men afraid of the current generation, so they tore it down to make room for their memories. The best tight end of all time, the only offense for the Kansas City Chiefs for a decade, a player who could not be covered by a linebacker, cornerback, or safety, a man whose only professional drawback as a player is “he is an enthusiastic, but only capable, blocker,” never mind his actual role on the team, and they rank him #8 so they can pat themselves on the back about how great things were in their day.

It’s cowardice.

I’m all angry again.

I get 90% of my videogame coverage from Giant Bomb, and I’ve noticed two really good changes this year. The first thing is coverage of iOS games, and they’re treated with equal respect on the site. There wasn’t a period of hand-wringing, there wasn’t a disclaimer of “these aren’t REAL games,” there’s just Brad Shoemaker obsessing over Kingdom Rush, Patrick Klepek getting spooked by Year Walk, and Jeff Gerstmann commenting on any number of ninety-nine cent games on the podcast. That’s fantastic. Gaming is changing, and there’s no point in being afraid of it for change’s sake.

The other thing came out of a podcast, and I don’t have a transcript or the podcast itself handy, so I’m going to paraphrase. In the midst of a discussion on Gears Of War: Judgment, Ryan Davis made a casual derogatory remark about the fiction in Gears of War, and Jeff Gerstmann cut him off. “I don’t think the problem is with Gears of War, the problem’s with us. Just because this doesn’t resonate with us doesn’t mean it’s bad. There are people — I’ve seen them! — that really, really care about the Gears stuff, and that means Epic’s doing something right there. It doesn’t do anything for us, and that’s fine. It does a lot for them, and that’s great.” Ryan Davis hesitated, then said, “You’re right! That’s a good point! I’m sorry!”

That’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t listen to much new music. I don’t watch any new TV. I’m excited for games that remind me of things that I played when I was younger. I read a lot of books again, books that I’ve read multiple times, books that remind of my childhood or young adulthood. But I’m trying to balance this out. I try to read books by new authors at random, to find new stuff so I don’t get in a rut. I play games I wouldn’t otherwise, like Asura’s Wrath, Hakuoki, and Bastion, to try new things. I’m on a forum full of people older than me and younger than me, and I find that mix of viewpoints and opinions really valuable. I need to keep finding it that way, too, or I’ll stagnate creatively and personally. And if that happens, why bother trying at anything anymore?

I don’t understand a lot of what’s popular now. I don’t understand the appeal of the ‘fun.’ band (I cannot figure out how to reference them) or paranormal romance novels. I don’t understand the appeal of tower defense videogames or anything like DOTA. I don’t understand the appeal of the Adventure Time show, or why you’d want to put a bunch of GIFS in your book reviews on Goodreads.

But my lack of understanding doesn’t mean it’s bad, it doesn’t mean I’m right, and it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It just means they’re different, and there’s never been anything wrong with being different.

I don’t mind getting older, but I don’t want to be like Bill Dwyre. I don’t want to get old.

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It’s Time To Get Serious About How Serious We Are In Videogames

Edward Kenway, allegedly much more interesting than his humorless grandson.

Ubisoft announced Assassin’s Creed 4 today, a week after the rest of the internet announced it for them by leaking everything from box art to Gamestop posters to plot synopses to bar codes. The timeline of the game’s development doesn’t make it strictly a reaction to the reception to Assassin’s Creed 3, but a few words I’ve read in the previews have pointed to that being at least part of why Edward Kenway is who he is. One of those words was “Ezio,” and if the plan is to have Edward be like the charismatic Italian from the three Assassin Creed 2s, then the series has a chance to be great again.

There are plenty of problems with Assassin’s Creed 3, but I want to focus on one of the biggest problems for me. Assassin’s Creed 2 was one of my favorite surprises of this generation, Brotherhood was nearly flawless, and Revelations had some incredible high points, and easily avoidable low points. The element holding these games together was Ezio Auditore, and his journey from the easily-angered novice assassin in AC2 to the world-weary snarker in Revelations, the end of his story. Ezio was a fantastic character, one of the best of this generation, and I think that’s in no small part due to the fact that he was never afraid to smile.

The gameplay of Assassin’s Creed 2, for me, was running along rooftops, boffing archers in the back of the head, and then throwing dirt in the eyes of guards that came to investigate before inserting hidden blades into eye sockets. When I was done with that, I’d run up to the highest thing I could find and then fling myself off of it into a hay bale. Do you know what that is? That’s hilarious. And while Ezio wasn’t cackling like a madman as he plummeted 150 feet into three feet of hay, he handled most twists and turns in his story with a wink and a nod, a general acknowledgement of how crazy these things were. Sure, he may be chasing after the most corrupt of the Borgias, but he’s going to take the time to chat up the pretty lady. He might be investigating the disappearance of Altair’s artifacts, but he’s also going to go on a picnic with this gorgeous bookseller who seems to be the only other person in Constantinople with the same level of smirk.

Connor lost all of that. He had an unbearably tragic backstory, sure, but so did Ezio. There was hardly ever a smile, hardly ever an acknowledgement that this was fun, just grim political drama played out around a young man who couldn’t be bothered to even learn what was really happening. There was no fun in Connor, which was strange because much of the game was still fun, if you define fun as springing out of a haystack with an ax to ambush an innocent deer.

Lightning vs. The Guy With The Purple Feathers In His Hair

Another series had a similar problem for me, which is a shame, because five years ago I considered Final Fantasy to be my favorite videogame series. Final Fantasy XIII, the showcase for Final Fantasy for this generation, told a story that was almost entirely devoid of mirth, and what comedy that was there seemed to be a little too close to a minstrel show with the portrayal of Sazh. This is a series where Cecil regularly broke out into dance, Bartz was Bartz, an octopus played the piano, Cloud dressed in drag, Squall dreamed he was a moron, Zidane paused mid-escape to grab a girl’s butt, Jecht got drunk and fought a shoopuf, and Vaan repeatedly botched talking to girls. It’s a series that wasn’t afraid to laugh, and it was much stronger for it.

Why is it so important to be able to smile? Because without it, we have no point to return that character to.  Lightning’s always been a bitter pill, Connor’s always been a stoic jerkass. Why do we want to get invested in this character? They’re not any fun, they don’t have anything to be happy about.

Compare to the Investigation Team in Persona 4.

Investigation Team GO
Investigation Team GO

Persona 4 Golden is one of the funniest games I’ve ever played. That humor serves two purposes — it humanizes the characters, and it endears them to us. It also gives us something to invest in — we’re not hoping for some fantasy time when the characters can be happy, we’ve seen it. We see it in how they interact with Nanako, with the trip to the beach, with the ghost stories together at the ski lodge. A smile doesn’t prevent the writer from being able to deploy drama throughout the game, it just weaponizes that drama. Separating Connor from Achilles doesn’t make us feel anything but anger toward Connor because it’s Connor’s own fault, and they just yell at each other all the time anway. Separating Charlie from the rest of the Investigation team because you know all those wonderful moments because you played them, you laughed along with them, you’re invested in them. Angry Man With Gun isn’t a character any more than Joe Doom was in Doom.

It’s okay for videogames to be fun, and it’s okay for the protagonists to have fun when they’re in the game. It feels like a bunch of people missed that this generation and made as many humorless games as they could, all in a row, and we were buried under a glut of grim-faced men holding guns on box art, because in the grim dark future of videogames there is only grimacing masculinity and laughter is for babies.

Even To The Moon wasn’t afraid to crack jokes, and I bawled during that game. Repeatedly. Those jokes further made those characters people, more than any number of maudlin chords and This Is When You Are To Be Sad moments would have, so when those moments did come along my heart broke just like it was supposed to. The jokes never took away from it, they just made it so much more powerful in the end.

It’s supposed to be fun, people. Don’t be afraid to smile.