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One Simple Rule

Dick

“Wheatoooooon!”

Everything you’ve heard is true; the holidays are coming. As if it isn’t enough that they return every year, lately they’ve been doing it earlier and earlier; this year the big-box whatchamacallits had their yuletide wares displayed on the day after Halloween, which is a full month before I even want to see a friggin’ Christmas tree. In a couple of years I suppose it’ll be Labor Day when they begin assaulting your ocular orbits with visions of merriment and splendor, along with exhorting you to drag your carbed-up ass out of bed at four in the morning on the day after Thanksgiving, freezing off said recently dragged ass while standing in line outside the store for two hours, risking death by Adidas when the poor minimum-wage-earning schmuck finally unlocks the door and the horde of bleary-eyed, ass-frozen, hive-minded thriftsters stampedes for the warm, succoring hole of commerce in order to save $10 on a blender. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

This year it’s different; this year many stores will eschew the traditional pre-dawn Black Friday openings and opt instead for opening on Thanksgiving Day, many of them at 8 p.m., but some as early as 6 p.m., with others conducting business on Thanksgiving like it’s just another day. That’s fine with me; many self-appointed defenders of American Tradition like to bitch and whine about the “death of Thanksgiving” and “family vs. greed,” but my values are not defined by the holiday hours of big-box retailers, or by the shopping habits of other people, so stores that stay open for 41 straight hours are not a threat to Everything That I Hold Pure and Good and Right. As long as your holiday plans don’t involve a high-powered rifle, a clock tower, and a 5000-word manifesto hand-lettered in 1-point Copperplate Gothic on a single Post-It note, I don’t give a roasted figgy shit what you do on Thanksgiving. Personally, you’re not going to catch me anywhere near a retail establishment over the course of Brown Weekend, but that’s because I’d rather eat my own face than associate — even by proximity — with people for whom “getting a bargain” is the highest priority on any day of the year.

If you do plan to brave the manic throng on either Thursday or Friday, please take a moment to first familiarize yourself with the following safety and courtesy guidelines rules rule from a handbook that I picked up while working in retail, published by the National Association for Systematically Teaching Your Customers Undeveloped Necessary Transaction Skills. Remember, the life you save might be your own, but the sanity you save will be everyone’s.

Rule le premier: The only rule of shopping in the immediate temporal vicinity of Thanksgiving Day is — you guessed it — don’t be a dick. That’s all you need to know. “That’s deceptively subjective,” one might say. “How might one know whether one is being a dick, and by what standard?” It’s simple; while shopping, imagine your child treating you in the same way that you’re treating other people — if you then want to slap the happy holiday fuck out of him, you’re being a dick. Stop it.

"Game over, Moon Pie!"

“Game over, Moon Pie!

If you don’t have a child, get creative; imagine the assistant manager at GameStop speaking to you in the same way that you spoke to her — if you then want to make a call to Grapevine and “get the bitch fired,” you’re being a dick. Stop it. (Though if you don’t have at least one kid, and you’re still out among the bleating undead lovely purveyors of thrift on Thanksgiving evening, you should probably make an appointment to talk about a few things with someone of a professional persuasion, ’cause…damn.)

Sure, a company needs money, but it doesn’t need your money more than it needs anyone else’s. A company needs customers, but it doesn’t need you in particular, so if you can’t buy a copy of Call of Duty: Ghosts for little Tyler-Dallas-Austin-Beaumont-Cameron-Houston-Galveston (or whichever city in Texas you named your kid after) without making Idi Amin look like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in Ted Danson’s roast regalia, do the world a favor and stay the fuck home. If you can’t wait in line without derisively tossing your purchases on the counter when you finally get to the register and passive-aggressively looking away as though you’re not a nimrod, consider that the person you’re dealing with has probably been A) there all day, B) dealing with people like you, C) making very little money for a large amount of work, and D) in a constant state of weighing the value of his job and/or clean criminal record against the pleasure of watching you stagger around the store with a computer monitor imbedded in your skull. (That specific visualization got me through 2003.)

Stop it.

Stop it.

If you absolutely must go shopping in a brick-and-mortar retail establishment this holiday season, and you’re prone to occasional or regular assholery (yeah, you know who you are), don’t overestimate the average retail worker’s grasp on sanity, or his ability to continue giving that last slim sliver of a shit, which might be keeping him employed and out of prison — you weren’t the first ass-monkey to walk through the door that day and you certainly won’t be the last, so why take chances?

A Foot-and-a-Half Note

The holidays are supposed to be a time of blah, blah, blah, and whatever, but I can tell you from firsthand experience in two states, across varying economic and social strata, that the holidays are responsible for exposing more raging dickheads than Pfizer, Bayer, and Glaxo combined, and in more ways than one; if the inevitable and tiresome defenders of tradition were truly concerned with preserving the spirit and sanctity of the season (they aren’t), you’d occasionally hear a peep or two from them along the lines of, “Hey, bro, don’t be such a dick this year,” but you don’t. You hear things like “it may take legislation” and the ever-reliable mynah bird squawk of “corporate greed.” If it’s greed that opens stores on Thanksgiving Day, what is it that fills those stores, and causes people to come lumbering back for more at 6 a.m. — or earlier — the following day?

The fact that no one has started a petition against customer greed squawks volumes about the motives of those who E) want corporations to shoulder responsibility for the actions of consumers, and who F) then seek to control those corporations through “legislation”; the acquisition of power — not merely over corporations and trade, but over you and me and the things we do and say and think — has always been the goal of people who would try to fashion their own values into law. To tell a corporation that it has no right to open on Thanksgiving Day is to tell you and me that we have no right to shop on Thanksgiving Day; while I might disapprove of when you shop (and what you buy, and where you buy it, and what you wear while you buy it),  I will defend to the death your right to spend your holidays however the hell it pleases you to do so, even if the very act of seeking that pleasure turns you into a total boob.

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Any Way You Want It

My mother had me tested.

My mother had me tested.

It’s often tempting to look back on the past and pine for better days as we wallow in the realization of just how shitty things have become. For example; in 1980 you could get an entire candy bar for a quarter; having sex with random strangers wouldn’t kill you (okay, it could, but no one knew it yet); Johnny Carson was alive and yucking it up on NBC for an hour and a half every night (which in September of that year would be scaled back to an hour at Carson’s request, a sure sign that the end, if not extremely nigh, was somewhat blurry yet still mostly visible from a great distance). Disco wasn’t quite dead yet, but it was sleeping a lot and wouldn’t come out of its room; gas was only about $1 per gallon in most places; and you could purchase the entire album that contained the song title of this post on LP or cassette for $6 or $7, respectively. Good times. Except for rewinding. Rewinding sucked.

Certainly the past must hold some sort of credible nostalgic merit beyond the value of a cheap sugar rush, tawdry coital liaisons, frivolous entertainments, and inexpensive carbon emissions? Surely we’ve grown as a global community and from our reflection on days gone by we’ve learned to empower ourselves through the appreciation of life’s higher sensibilities, which include but are not limited to the practice of love, duty, faith, hope, and charity, without debasing ourselves with the lower concerns of human existence, namely production, profit, and the volitional exchange of goods and services? Maybe just a little?

Not so much, no.

Precious Time

The past is a bastard. Every nostalgic syllable that falls out of its metaphorical mouth is half a lie, but in 1980 the words “role-playing game” had exactly one meaning: a bunch of nerds sitting around a dining room table on a Saturday afternoon engaging in an activity that upon casual observation more closely resembled a tax audit than any sort of recreational endeavor. Sure, there aren’t as many half-eaten bags of Cheetos at an audit, and there’s usually fewer vehement exhortations to “get that crap off my table before supper or you’ll be sorry, Mister,” but to the layman the differences are nearly indistinguishable.

Since the advent of sophisticated video games (basically anything post-Atari 2600), the term “role-playing” has been used to describe any game that includes experience points and a leveling system, regardless of whether that system actually enables the player to “play a role.” If experience points and leveling are not used as a means to player choice, that is, the player-directed customization of their character (and by extension the story), or if the game determines which character skills to improve or which statistics to upgrade, then by definition it cannot be a role-playing game.

XXX

The Hofstader-Cooper Atonal Modulation

Role-playing in any medium requires an initial and ongoing system of player agency; the original pen-and-paper RPGs were designed to be a form of collaborative and interactive storytelling, wherein each player helped to fashion the narrative through individual decisions as events unfolded. Video games that do not permit players to choose their gender, or their class, or to allocate their own skill points deny access to the customization mechanic that is essential to any role-playing experience, and as such remove themselves from consideration as role-playing games. Fable comes immediately to mind as a game that employed a leveling system, permitted players to allocate their own skill points, and offered a wide array of avatar customization options, but which cannot properly be called a role-playing game because of one simple omission — the option to choose the player character’s gender. Fable was a good game with many fine qualities, but RPPs (role-playing purists) were justifiably disappointed in that seemingly arbitrary decision. (Fable II changed this small but crucial oversight and stands as an example of the one of the best role-playing games ever made in terms of player customization and investment in the narrative.)

A more recent example of a game that shuns its role-playing heritage in exchange for a little accessibility to the button-mashing masses is Diablo III, which was released on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 last week. It’s a very good action game, but its role-playing elements are cosmetic at best; although gender selection is available for all five character classes, skills and attributes are allocated automatically upon leveling up. This denies the player access to the most crucial customization option — the ongoing process of character creation — which informs the player-authored narrative more effectively than any other gameplay mechanic.

Bazinga.exe has stopped working.

Bazinga.exe has stopped working. Please reinstall the drivers, reset the BIOS, reinstall the reinstalled drivers, and then purchase a different computer. Thank you for calling Dell customer support.

It is this aspect of customization in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim that makes you feel like a badass when you pick someone’s pocket and disappear into the night with nary an utterance spared for your larceny, or in Deus Ex: Human Revolution (technically not a role-playing game) when you sneak past a passel of guards and slip undetected through a series of laser tripwires using the Cloak augmentation; it’s not merely that the game allows you to do this, it’s that you choose to do it and develop the skills that make it not only possible, but damned satisfying.

Similarly in pen-and-paper RPGs, that satisfaction comes from the well-crafted illusion that you have helped to create the narrative with your decisions. It represents the very essence of the role-playing experience, and is a direct result of player agency; it cannot be achieved in any game or activity that makes your decisions for you, or orders you around like a chain-gang boss.

Departure

In order for a game to properly claim to be a role-playing game, it must have enough respect for you to get the hell out of your way and allow you to craft your own narrative within its larger story. Are you the thief? The assassin? The brawler? The pacifist who gets the job done in spite of your misguided refusal to use a weapon when some slack-jawed brute is trying to dismember you with a machete?

The best games let you answer these questions not only before you start playing, but as you play, from the creation of your character to the last step along the way. It’s not leveling alone that defines a role-playing video game, but the individual decisions that you are able to make as a result of that leveling — isolating a single out-of-context element and elevating it to a primary characteristic is like romanticizing the past; it might keep you entertained for a while, but you’re really only getting half the story.

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