Nerd Notes: game-shopping with Brian Taylor

Solstice: NES title screen

My friend and colleague Brian Taylor visited Chicago over the weekend, and I tell you, I barely got to drag him all over town the way I’d planned. In another life we might’ve gone to Three Aces, Grange Hall Burger Bar, and all the other places the foodies have not yet discovered and ruined. We did visit Myopic, but there wasn’t time enough to go around the corner to Quimby’s. (We did hit up the Paramount Room, even though I warned the burgers aren’t as good as advertised, and then my hamburger was ridiculously delicious, and then I felt foolish in a really nice way.)

Mr. Taylor and I went directly from the airport to Videogames Then & Now, which is this fantastic store out in Norridge. If you are ever in Chicago, do yourself a favor, rent a Zipcar, and make the drive.

We ought to have recorded ourselves talking in there, because we were hilarious. As a matter of fact, the gentleman behind the counter thanked us for being such lively loiterers, and I admitted to him that ordinarily I am very in-and-out of that store, all business. This time I was excitable, even a little bit twerpy; I’ve seldom had so much fun in public.

BT and I spent a long time among the stacks of NES cartridges. We are both great fans of the MacVenture games and their NES ports, and I found Shadowgate pretty easily. Brian wanted his own copy of Déjà Vu, and I located that pretty nimbly, too. I also snatched up the NES Gyruss—that “tube shooter” is only the greatest arcade machine ever—while Brian, who is even more into hardboiled crime fiction than I could ever aspire, picked up a bizarre little game called Nightshade. I hope he decides to write about it.

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Second-Person Shooter: or, this is much more comfortable for me

Screenshot from 'Diablo III'

You know how we love it when you talk about your writing process, so have at it!


If you can’t produce a single original thought about something, you try to stay away from it. Right?

Well. This is a terrible attitude for a would-be writer to have. As a result, you will finish your column on May 20, then sit on it, waiting for thoughts to clarify and the final, original idea to strike. You will be able to use that glimmering original thought as the article’s resolution, you hope, and then you will be able to send this shitty mess of writing to your editor, apologizing the entire time.

But you have, meanwhile, been reading reviews of Diablo III, because these reviews are written by peers and friends. That is when you realize that your summation—that the game is “cute”—is hardly a revelation at all. You wait for inspiration to strike, but soon you have stopped thinking about Diablo III completely.

By yesterday you have decided the piece is dead in the water. So you have to make a choice. Kill it? Or email it to your beleaguered editor?

You finally decide that having an original thought is not the most important thing after all. The most important thing, instead, is to read zero reviews of Diablo III anytime you are trying to write about Diablo III. Because you have, from inside your vacuum, been searching for a point nobody else has already made, but everybody already made it while you were off fretting, and anyway, it is silly to try to make a unique point, since you live in a universe of simultaneities and timely, collective experiences.

A few days ago you went ahead and added a little bit about “spatial working memory,” which is actually a concept you tried to introduce in an article you wrote a long time ago, and boy are you ever a fraud, the way you are recycling material, here. You feel really guilty about this.

Also, the points you make about the third-person vantage being more comfortable than the first-person vantage, you kind of owe all those arguments to a phone conversation you had with your friend Brian Taylor. But at the time Taylor was all “oh, don’t bother mentioning me,” and you realize your writing improves when you cut him out of your column, so you don’t bother mentioning him (in your endless, nervous quest to cite every source, you’ve already mentioned Kurt, Julian, Andy Pressman, and “Sega Juice,” you goddamn name-dropper). (You also guiltily tweet about how much you owe Dave, not in any specific way, but in a vague “thanks Dave” way.)

And now you are helplessly sending your overdue mess of a column to your editor, all the while acknowledging that it is baggy fluff with no honed direction. Great! Now you are supposed to go on your merry way. Do some laundry; live a little.

But you don’t do your laundry; you are supplying your editor with line edits instead. Then! Just as your editor announces he is preparing your piece for publication, you suddenly write five new paragraphs in a span of twenty minutes, all of which insert wholly new ideas about “spatial distortion” into a column that was originally about a game being cute (and then you bizarrely add something else about Disney World). Nice job! These five new paragraphs are supposed to go between the sentences “I can see through walls, here,” and “I have difficulty reconciling ‘space’ and ‘distance.’”

Somewhere in the next time zone, your editor is rolling his eyes. Your poor editor.

So it went with “Diablo III is Adorable,” your newest column at Unwinnable. It is a stupid, nonlinear mess, and you forgot to use spellcheck.

Your editor helped you with line breaks. Smart move, Stu.

second-person shooters

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Failures in Edutainment: the mid-’90s “girl game” fad

Paprika the Fortune Teller from 'Chop Suey'

Brandon Boyer, via Twitter, inadvertently (advertently? well, whatever) directed me toward this post at Jezebel about girl games.

Its writer, Anna Breslaw, opens her piece with a quick hat-tip to a 1995 computer game called Chop Suey, which I’ve mentioned on Infinite Lives thrice before and am about to mention again. That’s because it is a great game that isn’t mentioned often enough. I’m trying to change the world, here, people.

But yes, our coincident timing is totally awkward, ha ha. Earlier in the week I’d snuck a bunch of Chop Suey playthrough videos onto YouTube, hoping to jog memories. (For a long time the only footage of the game available online was Bruno’s.)

But also, I was already laboring over this Chop Suey retrospective. Please do read it! It is a tragedy Chop Suey isn’t better remembered: it was celebrated in its day, and with reason. But most people did not use the Internet in 1995, which is to say, Chop Suey and all its accolades have not been very well preserved. (Duncan’s extraordinarily bizarre death doesn’t help anything; it’s almost impossible to discuss Chop Suey without mentioning that part, too, and the game is thusly difficult to google.)

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were such a great time for edutainment, and while the medium isn’t entirely dead (your child’s school computer lab may yet have Storybook Weaver!), I do think the middle-’90s’ “girl game” craze went a long way in murdering it. Worse, the “girl game” genre probably scared a generation of woulda-been PC gamers away.

Most girls did not actually play girl games in the ‘90s, of course, because most “girl games” were stupid. Girls are not idiots. Girls are not boy-crazy strumpets. Girls are 8. Girls are 9. Girls play Oregon Trail and You Don’t Know Jack. Can people not picture 9-year olds?

This is what girls really want: girls want horse training simulations; they like fortune-telling; girls read spy stories and tales of adventure and daring; girls enjoy the Super Nintendo version of Mario Kart and computer games about being in outer space. Girls would like chemistry lab sets for Christmas, or planetariums and cheap telescopes, or periscopes and walkie-talkies. Girls like crafts. Girls like Minecraft! Girls like dolls, toy theaters, replicas, scale miniatures, and “character editors.” Girls like She-Ra. Girls like Labyrinth. Girls like sci-fi, unless it’s just a bunch of dweeby dudes standing around talking into their own lapels. Girls like pirates and especially stowaways, and especially stowaways who look like boys but are secretly girls. Girls like scrappy heroines—resourceful, freckle-nosed troublemakers—heroines with scraped knees and scuffed shoes. Girls are impatient to learn something new, and if you don’t give them brain-food they eventually wander off. There! There is your blueprint for a “girl game.”

So, yes, Breslaw’s and my Chop Suey -themed posts both went up on May 12, both incorporating that same playthrough footage. Oops! How embarrassing. It’s a little like arriving at a dance in matching dresses.

Fortunately, the dresses aren’t identical! (Ha, ha, ha!) Breslaw’s piece isn’t about Chop Suey at all, thank goodness. It’s actually about a new project called FEMICOM, an online museum that aspires to catalogue and archive every manner of game-for-girls. This is noble work—it’s why I’ve made Chop Suey evangelism one of my pet hobbies, actually—exactly because the project illustrates the enormity of the gulf between “this game or toy is edifying” and “why would you ever give your child that.”

The nicest thing about seeing this article about “girl games” on Jezebel, though? It’s elicited all these comments, where the readers themselves are essentially sorting the lady-treasures from the lady-tripe. One reader mentions Heavenly Sword for PS3. Oh, boy, do girls love that game. (Because we love third-person beat-em-ups starring She-Ra! It’s pretty much the only game you should give an adult woman. There, I said it.)

Other notable “girl-friendly” game mentions: Sim City. The Sims. Little Big Planet. Metroid. Zelda. Carmen Sandiego. Ecco. Pokemon. No One Lives Forever. Nancy Drew games. Street Fighter, Soul Calibur. Doom, Marathon, BioShock. Killer7 (most girls do really well with first-person rail-shooters; this has something to do with spatial attention). Final Fantasy. Fallout. Diablo. Starcraft. Mass Effect. Star Wars KOTOR. Guild Wars. Skyrim. Braid. Age of Empires. Civilization. Portal and its sequel. (“I loved that about Portal…really the only way you knew the character was female was from the brief glimpses you got of yourself if you lined Portals up right. Her female-ness wasn’t a factor one way or the other in the game.” Thank you, Susan Fry! I agree.)

And a thread, four comments long, about Woodruff and the Schnibble.

And also from the Jez comments,

See, this is why I get so frustrated with the whole conversation about games for girls. If you’d tried to design an ideal non-people based game for little girl me, it would have featured dinosaurs fighting each other, not dolphins swimming around being pretty.

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Required Reading: ‘A Theoretical War, Part 3′

Ludology, Wired Magazine, 2006

Me: i was reading this tonight
Me: http://www.electrondance.com/a-theoretical-war-part-3/
Me: i was feeling out how joel goodwin feels
Me: i think i like where he takes it
Me: how much about games criticism do you read

Julian: not much

Me: LUDOLOGY VS NARRATOLOGY: THE FUNNEST ARGUMENT

Julian: man I hate it when things become binary

Me: mhm

Julian: that said, I was thinking that I don’t want my game-playing to be interactive infographs either, you know?

Me: ah, here it is!

Narrow definitions of games are perfectly valid within little contextual spaces. Ludology can have its rules-based framework. Narratology is free to pursue games through narrative. Art games can co-exist with the FPS, the RTS and the platformer. They don’t have to compete. Why can’t we have different theories for different situations, each one handling their own definition of game?

Every voice and viewpoint is valuable. What’s so maddening are the destructive attempts to own the word game. Mathematics blossomed into a thousand different branches, so has games and so should the theory. Some will care about narrative. Some will care about rules. Some will care about player experience. Some will care about monetization. And some will try to change the world.

There’s enough space for everyone.

Julian: music is kind of like that too
Julian: hardcore music theorists are all about structure (and usually against tonality)

Me: i inadvertently read that the wrong way
Me: as people who are not hardcore into music theory,
Me: but rather, into hardcore music……… theory

Julian: haha

(This all came up because Julian had actually sent me this, and I became very, “oh, hmm.” )

(P.S. If you happily follow all Goodwin’s endnotes, you might suddenly discover it is a quarter after 10pm and you have not yet washed a single dish or glass.)

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Rise of the Welcome-to-My-Meltdown: on video games and working alone

couch

Instead of reading and publishing Kevin’s latest piece, which is still in the queue (sorry, Kevin!), I am directing you toward my newest thing, a review of Anna Anthropy’s debut book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. I might also continue to ignore Kevin. One of my 2012 resolutions is “sly self-promotion,” and I know Kevin will pardon me.

Most people will not read my book review, but I hope they go ahead and read Anna Anthropy’s book. The review itself is about a lot of things, but it’s also about video games and game development and writer’s block and emotional paralysis. I’m a little surprised that Stu used my quaint joke title (“Rise of the Existential Crisis”), but I’m mostly unruffled.

I’m new to freelancing, by the way. Many people were surprised when I gave up the celebrity gossip blogging gig, which was a sure bet, a daily, paid exercise that I enjoyed doing. And anyway, freelancing is hard—really hard. Most people can’t do it. I am not sure I can. I haven’t been any sort of success (hasn’t anyone noticed I’ve only published two things since February?).

At some point I might have to give it up. It makes me very happy, kind of, to sit here and write nothing and hate myself, so I’m not sure I will give up so soon, but I keep thinking about it.

But what no one tells you is that it isn’t a living. In fact it’s the total opposite: it’s figuring out how to afford full-time freelancing.

Writing for yourself is luxurious, and like all luxuries, it can be expensive. Even at this early stage in my tiny career I already waste a lot of time. Mostly I waste time trying to devise sneaky plans to help myself afford this glamorous, bohemian lifestyle.

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Formspring Tuesday: Why “virtual reality” will never catch on

VIRTUAL REALITY

Some of you might know that I cultivate and maintain a semi-active Formspring account, where I try to answer both queries about video games and humiliating questions about my personal life just as accurately and plainly as I can.

Recently somebody asked,

What happened to virtual reality? Remember the promise of a Sega Genesis and Atari Jaguar helmet in the mid-90s?

This is a great question! My reply is off-the-cuff, and now that I’ve written it I think I might like to expand on it later. But here is v1.0 anyway:

VR just gets turned into other stuff. Like, Second Life was actually supposed to be a type of VR, with the headset and haptic feedback and everything.

What it really comes down to is, people aren’t ready and willing to look that fucking stupid. And they never will be.

Did you ever see the “early adopter” on the airplane, watching his movie in his little hd widescreen movie spectacles? The year was like 2001ish, and that guy was a full-on dweebazoid. He takes a segway to work, and he’s happy because he’s living in the future, and I’m glad for him, but his eagerness to strap every type of laser to his body will never, ever be cool.

Similarly, I remember seeing a prototype for a type of wearable keyboard—it fit in the palm and it was really easy to learn to touch-type—in a magazine called ‘Shift.’ Boy, did they try to glam up that wearable keyboard, but there was no way. Attaching a computer to your body is not, will not be “cool.” The problem with VR is, if anyone catches you wearing a headset, you might as well close down that OKCupid profile.

I’m borrowing a lot of these points from an article I read—I don’t remember when or where—about the consistent lack of commercial success with all these repeated iterations of the “videophone.” Sure, times have changed since that article was written, insofar as Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangout are totally viable, but the truth is, I’m not going to take some random call when my hair is a nest and my face is splotchy, just like I’m not going to run down to answer the door.

Here’s an unhappy truth about technology: the real obstacle is vanity. Take elevators, for instance. There once was a hotel elevator, and it was too slow. The elevator’s inventor thought long and hard about how to speed up the elevator’s mechanisms. Do you know what he did instead? He put up a mirror. He hung a mirror right next to the sliding elevator doors, because people wouldn’t notice the subpar elevator technology. They’d be too busy looking at themselves.

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Adventures in Shit Games: Cho Aniki #1 and #3

from Cho Aniki: Bakuretsu Ranto Hen's opening titles

I promise, I’m really trying to not use Infinite Lives as my own professional pinboard these days, but I do have a column about Cho Aniki: Bakuretsu Rantou Hen at Vice Motherboard:

The game’s wackiness and camp are superficial. They’re just show. All the while, Bakuretsu’s characters and backdrops hint at something darker. To borrow from Baudrillard, there is a gradual “perversion of reality” until, at last, we are looking at a “facsimile” with “no original copy.”

Really, I’ve never had so much fun writing something in my life. Am I really serious? Who can tell!

I also made a supplementary video:

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Link can’t lose

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Recommended Reading: When games can’t contemplate life’s intricacies

Not without my daughter: Silent Hill's Harry Mason can't catch a break

Joel Goodwin is not too sure a video game can simulate some of life’s complexities. In his recent “Parenting Is Not an Escort Mission”—an indirect response to a thing I wrote in January about Creatures—he warns against using games to reify life events that are not so simple. Parenting, for instance, is not so simple.

In the same way that I used Creatures to think about parenthood, Goodwin worries that game designers, too, are guilty of the same abstractions. He catalogues some games about parenthood, and almost every single game he names is an “escort mission,” one that reduces love and caregiving to something as banal as “safely haul this potato from point A to point B.” Ehm, my words, not Goodwin’s.

Next he suggests subtler or alternative game mechanics that might go further in reproducing (NO PUN INTENDED) real-life experiences. He poses the possibility of games that, if developed, might represent parenthood in a happier, healthier, more intricate way. (In the comments, some readers name games that do just that.)

It’s a fascinating read, and I wholly recommend it.

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A review of ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ in under 1,820 characters

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial title screen

I’m a big, big fan of “My World of Flops,” an ongoing series of movie reviews by Nathan Rabin of the A.V. Club. “Flops” conducts post-mortems of critical and commercial failures, reevaluating each film with fresh eyes. And Rabin gives every movie a fair shake (his review of Tom Green’s Freddy Got Fingered is, in a word, generous), ultimately grading each film as a “failure,” a “fiasco,” or a “secret success.”

I have always held that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the 2600 is a “secret success” (Kevin agrees), and when Rabin first announced to Twitter that he was going to score the video game for “My World of Flops,” I was floored with delight.

For one, this is the first time a video game has ever made it to “Flops,” and E.T.’s notoriety certainly qualifies it for inclusion. For another, the “Flops” series was only meant to last a single year; not only has it endured, it has spiraled out of control! Video games! Licensed video games! What next?

So I was totally thrilled when Rabin tweeted that his review is complete:

@nathanrabin I just turned in my first, and possibly last game-themed My World of Flops piece on Atari’s E.T. It is less than glowing.

In an effort to rally interest in Rabin’s upcoming E.T. review, I took to Twitter to inflict my own opinion of the game on everybody. There are a lot of inactive verbs. The whole thing could stand a rewrite.

Here, now, and unedited for posterity (mostly), are my E.T. tweets.

jennatar In honor of E.T. (Atari 2600, 1982) making it onto @nathanrabin’s Flops, here is my GLOWING review, presented one painful line at a time.

jennatar E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is about an extra-terrestrial named E.T.

jennatar In it, you play ET. You are trying to assemble an “interplanetary” phone, because you believe in liberties and that VOIP ought to be free.

jennatar In the game, your only ally is a 10-year-old child named Elliott, here rendered in stark, rudimentary pixels.

jennatar In the film, Elliott’s idealism and childlike naïveté are tested when Spielberg replaces all the guns with walkie-talkies.

jennatar Your adversaries, alas, are numerous. There are, for instance, a number of gov’t agents who are trying to strip-search you.

jennatar There are also scientists, no doubt working for Big Pharma, who probably want to capitalize on your organs and turn you into the latest pill

jennatar Despite all that, your greatest obstacle, poor ET, is yourself. Yes, the landscape is riddled with enormous pits. Step carefully, ET!

jennatar You could become a captive—by your own hand!—in one of these deep furrows, which itself is a metaphor for the “liminality”

jennatar For you are a stranger in a strange land, stretching yourself across space and time in search of a moment of connection, and small candies

jennatar It is during these liminal fugues, when ET is lower than ground itself, that most players, disgusted, switch the Atari off.

nathanrabin @jennatar Color me impressed. Beats the hell out of my infinitely more verbose take.

jennatar @nathanrabin Shh! Not yet; I’m not finished.

jennatar That players leave w/out finishing—that is, without making “contact” with “home”—is a potent metaphor for a collective lack of agency.

jennatar Finally, the graphics are OK but maybe the framerate could have been better. I’m not sure the 2600 is being pushed to its full potential 3/5

P.S. This E.T. “strategies” video rules (thanks, Andrew!).

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Why soccer games?

FIFA

Two nights ago I went to a small book-release party for a writer called Adam Levin (he wrote a book called The Instructions, and his new book is called Hot Pink). I didn’t know most people there, but I did know Adam, Adam, and Ben. I was very socially nervous.

So I was sitting in the Rainbo next to a person who had introduced himself earlier as Carson, and now he was turning in the booth to ask whether I were also a writer.

After a long think I blurted “Yes!” and this made Carson laugh, because I really had been having trouble deciding, in the moment, whether I might also be one. Carson wanted to know what kind of writing, and I told him games writing, which is to say, writing about video games and game culture. Carson asked me whom I’ve written for, and I told him about a magazine from awhile ago, and he was very impressed.

“But I don’t do that now,” I corrected myself in a hurry. “There are other types of games writing, instead of news or scores.”

Carson was frowning now, and he wondered if there were any particular genres I play. This was a much harder question. “No,” I said finally. “And you?”

“FIFA,” he said. “Only FIFA games.”

I laughed, and I told him that I hate sports games except for soccer, and now I was pulling my cell phone out of my bag to show Carson an anonymous Formspring question I had received lately, which was in response to my stupid dumb thing about sports video games. The question reads:

Why soccer games?

So I showed that question to him. Carson became animated.

“I’ll tell you why!” he said.

“Tell me,” I said, a little helplessly.

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Post-mortem: I’m not sorry

Follow-up: in March, during GDC, writer Dan Cox interviewed me via email about this “controversy.” His questions, along with my answers, probably go much further in explaining my attitude. My editor and I also explain our “go big or go home” mentality—as well as our happiness in playing the roles of villains—in the final quarter of this episode of Unlistenable.

OK, I’m sorry for just one thing: I’m sorry I have such a wonderful editor.

I was barely into the thread itself by the time I was hard at work on a YouTube-type comment.

In considering both the comment thread and the blog above it—which I’d interpreted as some litany, as some unreal catalogue of hither-and-thither complaints—I wanted to respond, because I know that professionals who are enmeshed in any sort of politic business are unable to respond to these types of criticisms, or with any passionate emphasis. This makes me angry all on its own.

Also, professionally and personally, I was deeply unimpressed.

As my remarks snowballed, though, I realized I should write something for myself, just to let it all out. Well, and when I say “for myself,” I mean “for Infinite Lives,” which is my site and oh my god I periodically drag my co-writer through the mud when I irresponsibly follow some wild livejournal tangent.

So suddenly I wasn’t working on a frothing Internet comment at all; I was writing a piece for this very site instead.

My editor IM’d, wanting to know whether my column were finished yet, and I was very, “NOT NOW I’M BUSY” to him. He wondered what I was writing, so I sent it to him in four or five chunks over IM. He announced he wanted to publish it, and from there we really giddily lost our minds, our enthusiasm mirroring and magnifying. He cut one chunk and I cut another, and now we agreed the piece was totally ready to go. He gave it a much better title and suggested some images, and I told him I was all-in. I endorsed every addition myself. I was furious and happy.

For me, it was as much about “fun” as it was “ire.” I decided, if I were going to feel irate about something, wouldn’t it be great fun to just run all the way? Because it’s totally true—I’ve forced my writing to be this very level-headed, contemplative thing for a long time. I’ve always held that “manners are how we show strangers we care,” and I certainly believe it.

But I’ve also noticed I do that thing girls do: I rely on “hedged” diction to couch everything I say in some sort of apology. Maybe it would be nice, for once, to forget judiciousness.

So here the article is again.

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Linksplosion: Martin Amis, ‘Minecraft,’ and Emporium Bar Arcade

Hello and hi. I collected a couple links a couple days ago, but I hadn’t yet posted them—until now! Lucky you!

  • Joystiq – Minecraft building blocks (via Metafilter.

    The correct reaction is “what the—”

  • Eater – Emporium Arcade Bar Opening in March

    A Barcade-style barcade is coming to Chicago, and everyone is freaking out:

    Expect a focus on Midwestern and local beer with half of the beer on tap always being from the Midwest. The plan is to rotate their selection often, so there will always be new brews to try. There will also be a large whiskey list, with a selection of standard and upscale varieties. A full bar will be available as well and there may be more specialty cocktails down the line.

  • Writer Martin Amis once penned a video-game near-classic, Invasion of the Space Invaders. The Millions has a review of the book (via Slate).

    Photo: Martin Amis's 'Space Invaders'

    Since the book is impossible to buy used, some Good Samaritan is publishing Amis’s book’s very best lines as a Twitter feed.

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Tunnel Snakes rule

Some days I am happy to be alive.

(Thanks to Mike Emmons for, uh, whatever.)

ETA: as a scant few members of Kotaku’s readership rushed to mention, yes the video is old OK.

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How I feel about Sports Games

NBA Jam (via retrosection.com)

I like using Formspring. Every once in a while I’ll get an interesting question about video games and how I feel about them, which is incredibly gratifying/ego-stroking.

Sometimes I bluff, but sometimes it turns into this “thought experiment” prompt and I end up stream-of-consciousnessing some overwrought missive (look out! It’s how I actually write everything, ugh).

And very rarely am I so pleased with my Formspring answer, I might repost it here. (And then again, once in a great, great while I get a vaguely lewd question, but this happens not so often as you might think, which is nice.)

This afternoon, as I was hurriedly typing something about Adam Levine’s new record label, I received this question:

So we’ve established games are art. Are sports games (something like Madden ‘07 to pick a random one) art?

What a great question! It’s exactly the type of thing I plan to cop out on answering, too, because who can answer a thing like that? So I defy you to call my bluff. Below, the full text of my Formspring response:

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