Archive Page 2

Is this a kissing book?

One of my… let’s call it a “characteristic”, that’s a neutral enough term… is that when it comes to fiction, I always finish what I start. The reason I have so few played-but-uncompleted games in my collection is that I am constitutionally incapable of setting something aside until I’ve seen the end. Once I’ve put a certain amount of time into something, I feel like I’m owed the end, so I’ll push my way through to the finish.

The drawback here is that quality doesn’t come into play. I have no doubt that if someone had tricked me into reading Twilight or Eragon, I’d have read the whole series by now. Sure it sucks, but I have to know what happens.

The irony of having this characteristic while being unable to finish any of my side projects or keep a consistent blogging schedule is not lost on me, I assure you.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because I’ve been listening to audiobooks at work over the last several days. Free audiobooks, which should set off warning bells right there. The part of my brain which detects quality is screaming at me to stop, but, well… I’ve come this far, and I’ve got nothing but time on my hands.

I can’t even say that I’m not enjoying them, really. The books tickle the nearly-suppressed part of my subconscious which has an almost childlike infatuation with schlocky airport fantasy. Most of the fantasy I’ve been reading in paper form these days has been of the modern, somewhat nontraditional take on the genre, but this stuff almost wallows in conventions. It’s like I’ve fallen back in time twenty years… and Stockholm Syndrome is taking hold.

One, Murder at Avedon Hill, is a murder mystery, but the author was very obviously weaned on those old SNES RPGs where you had to perform a half-dozen fetch quests before you could get anything accomplished, and so you ended up spending about ten hours just trying to get a bridge fixed by the most roundabout method possible. The book takes a prologue+six chapters before the characters even begin to actively work towards solving the mystery which is the book’s main plot thread. They need a letter of introduction to get into a manor to talk to the lord to convince him to lift a roadblock, but the only person who will write it for them needs a certain kind of moth, which lives in a cave in the wilderness… but only a living moth, which is out of season right now… you get the idea.

I understand the point of all this, of course; it’s a way to set the scene and introduce characters who will be important later on without being too obvious about it. You can’t just line up your major players and have them tell the protagonists who they are and what they do… except the author does that anyway later on, but anyway…

The point I’m driving at here is that fetch quests are effective in games when used well because they’re a method of exposition that allows for player interaction. Instead of just having some asshole tell the player that things are pretty crummy in Shitsville, you contrive some trivial errand that sends the player to Shitsville and they can see just how crummy it is for themselves, and hopefully become more motivated when the time inevitably comes to do something about it. It’s not as effective in literature, where it just feels like padding.

The book’s got other problems as well… there’s the exceedingly irritating perspective-hopping issue I’ve complained about before. It’s got a pretty serious case of the burly detective syndrome, exacerbated by the fact that the two main characters have inexplicably similar-sounding names. It’s also heavy on the infodumping, which would be tolerable if the world did not appear to be stock Tolkeinesque medieval. The mashup between high fantasy and a down-to-earth Law-and-Order police procedural is a strange mix, and one that I’m not entirely sure works particularly well in this case. (I’ve seen it done well, but you kind of have to emphasize the hard-boiled noir aspects of the setting. Placid small-town charm clashes with the tone.) It’s kind of hard to get invested in the search for clues and the grilling of suspects when you have a sneaking suspicion that vampires are behind everything, you know?

The other book… well, I’ll decline to mention the title since I’m about to spoil it rather heavily… has different issues. It’s much better-written than the other, keeping a consistent viewpoint and having fewer noticeable language issues. The major problem here is that its plot twists are all entirely predictable. It’s unbelievably frustrating to work out all the mysteries literally whole books before they come to fruition and having to listen to the characters fumble their way through it. The moment the main female character was first described my immediate thought was “there’s a refrigerator with this woman’s name on it.” It took two full books, but lo and behold. I actually felt bizarrely happy when it finally happened, because it meant I could stop anticipating it every time she stepped out of the main character’s sight. I was fairly certain the author wouldn’t kill her off in sight of the main character, but rather that he would come back from some adventure to find her ripped to shreds or strangled to death with her own hair or something and set him off on a quest of righteous vengeance.

Farewell, [redacted]. You were too good for both this world and this story. But hey, at least in passing you’ll be spared the hokey “revolution against the evil church” plot the book seems to be drifting towards, which is more than you can say for me.

That’s another thing that bothers me about the plot here… The religion here isn’t even secretly evil like most evil churches, it’s obviously evil. It openly condones what amounts to the sacrifice, enslavement, and cannibalism of obviously sentient beings, but what tips people off to the idea that this isn’t A-OK is the revelation that OMG the dragons aren’t really gods!? I dunno, guys, seems like you’d have a bit of resistance even prior to that. It was almost cute watching the book clumsily hint that the high priestess might be evil. Figured it out on first sight, thanks.

The book also does that annoying fantasy thing where it stars nonhumans, and so feels the need to replace the words “man” or “men” (even species-neutral words like “person”) with an equivalent phrase every… single… time. I get that this helps the fantasy flavor, but it’s unbelievably distracting and even a little jarring, since you have to do the mental translation every time it comes up. We already know they’re not speaking English in-universe, so why not extend your translation a bit?

There’s one more that I’ve been listening to off and on, Nina Kimberly the Merciless, which I downloaded just because I was intrigued by the premise (the barbarian hero’s spoiled teenage brat of a daughter trying to follow in his footsteps and live up to his legacy), but I was immediately turned off when the title character’s personality did a complete 180 not two chapters in. She’s supposed to be a fearsome warrior, but hot-tempered and short-sighted. Imagine my surprise when she goes on to lose every fight she participates in and solves most conflicts with level-headed diplomacy. Go figure.

There’s also a clumsy romance which just goes on… and on… and on. I’ll be waiting over here when they’re done giving each other soulful looks across the campfire.



Thoughts on what I’m playing: The return

1) I beat Mega Man Powered Up using Mega Man after letting it lay fallow on the final stage for almost a week. I had fun with most of the game, but the final stage is such a trainwreck it sapped my will to continue. It consists of a long, twisty corridor with a lot of enemies that takes forever to weave your way through, a moving platform with a jump that is literally pixel-perfect, and a boss which is almost a complete roll of the dice. Some of Wily’s attacks seem literally undodgeable, especially Oil Slider, and others might as well be in certain configurations, like Fire Storm or Ice Slasher when Wily is moving towards you. Your only hope is for Wily to use the harmless Time Slow a lot. There also seems to be a way to keep him locked down in hitstun, but if there’s a rhythm to doing it indefinitely I wasn’t able to work it out. And hey, if you run out of lives you can always spend the next twenty minutes faceplanting into spikes again.

I toyed around a bit with some of the other characters, but by that point I was pretty bored with the game and ready to set it aside.

2) Speaking of frustrating bosses, Ys. I picked up this game because it looked Zeldaesque, and I’m a sucker for anything that even remotely resembles Zelda (except, apparently Okami — at my current rate of progress I’ll probably beat that game sometime in 2040). And it’s fun… mostly. The bosses, though, appear to be exercises in frustration. The first one just had an exceedingly demanding pattern with little room for error, exacerbated by the fact that Adol apparently thinks jumping isn’t cool and will occasionally decline to do it even if you press the button. The second one could disassemble you in seconds and was only balanced by the fact that it was pretty easy to do the same to him.

The third one, though, is absolutely stupid. It doesn’t seem possible to outrun it, it follows you too tightly and quickly to avoid it, and trading hits with it will only take you so far. Even dialing the difficulty down as far as it would go didn’t seem to help — its movements appeared unaltered. I did eventually beat it, but I was clinging to a sliver of health at the time and I have little doubt that it was mostly luck. This is the third boss. How am I ever going to beat this game?

3) In my spare moments I’ve been fiddling around with Maria mode in Symphony. Maria’s an interesting character because she provides a markedly different playstyle than either of the other two playable characters in the game. She lacks both Alucard’s survivability and Richter’s sheer damage output, but she’s by far the most mobile character, able to fly through the rooms at warp speed.

With Maria, the game becomes about not killing monsters, but dodging them. She doesn’t level up, so there’s no need to kill anything. Her attacks deal so little damage that clearing a path is both dangerous and takes forever. She’s got a double jump, a slide, a super jump, a glide, and a single-button infinite-use air dash, though, so if there’s empty space between enemies and the walls chances are Maria can worm her way through those spaces somehow. Stopping to kill an enemy becomes a calculated risk that you do only when you have to, rather than the central aspect of the game, which is a very different flavor of gameplay and one which platformers don’t often take. It reminds me a little of NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits, where the PC was slow, sluggish, and nearly useless on the ground, but possessed almost perfect mobility in the air, which switched up the platforming gameplay considerably. I’d like to play a full, fleshed-out game designed around avoiding enemies in a 2-D space rather than just slicing your way through them.

4) I’m nearly done with Final Fantasy Tactics, but I’ve kind of stalled out near the end… I’ve reached that dead zone where my characters are about as good as they’re going to get and I just have to muster up the willpower to force my way through the last several chapters. It would be good to do it soon, too, because I’ve got Tactics Ogre, Jeanne d’Arc, and Wild ARMs XF waiting to go as far as tactical RPGs, and I can only focus on one of those at a time.

This is probably its own post, but I wasn’t as absorbed by FFT as I’d expected I would be, especially after having my life devoured by the Tactics Advance games. Everyone keeps telling me how much better the original is, and in some ways it still stands far above its progeny… but in others, it’s almost unbelievably primitive. As in, “I can’t believe they didn’t fix this shit when they were remaking it” primitive. Far too often I felt like I was fighting the game engine and user interface rather than the game itself, and that’s an awful feeling to have.

5) Bizarrely, the game I’ve spent the most time on recently is the one I thought I’d “beaten”, Dissidia. Weird thing is, I don’t really have a goal here, either. I’ve experimented with Labyrinth mode… played around a bit with quickbattle… exploited custom rulesets to powerlevel some level 1 characters… even given some thought to tackling the brutal postgame. The game has great pick-up-and-play value, and basically all my gaming these days has come in the form of picking up and playing.

Despite the fact that he’s my best character, I set aside Squall for a while (mostly because using him makes the game too easy) to focus on exploring some other character options. Surprisingly, I fell in love with Terra; her ranged game is a lot of fun and her difficulty killing things fades away once you learn Ultima, which is astonishingly easy to hit with. Yuna, too, becomes amazingly easy once she learns Megaflare, which the CPU opponents seem completely incapable of dodging.

I’ve put a few levels here and there into Cloud and Zidane, who are fun to use even if I can’t quite get a handle on how they’re supposed to play. I’ve tried out the Warrior of Light too, but he completely baffles me — I have no idea how his attacks are supposed to fit together, which is especially infuriating given that the computer flows through these long, graceful combos. I also want to learn Firion, Shantotto, and Prishe, but haven’t touched them in a while.

Here’s how disconnected from the gaming mainstream I feel.

I’d been having such a good experience playing the late-adoption game with the PSP that, when I heard about my quarterly bonus, I considered trying it again with one of the HD Twins. After all, people have been telling me for years that the Wii is a stupid baby system with no games, and if you’re really serious about the hobby, the Xbox 360 or PS3 is where it’s at. Before, I hadn’t been able to support more than one system+portable combination at once, but with the Wii on life support, the DS nearly dead, the 3DS not having a compelling library yet, and PSP games being so cheap as to be nearly worthless, why not close this hole in my gaming experience?

So I went to Metacritic. (Which, yes, I know is not the be-all-end-all, but I still consider it a good resource for figuring out what games I should be aware of and making sure I don’t overlook anything really important.) And proceeded to become incredibly depressed.

The PS360 library is just shooter after shooter after shooter, with the occasional tournament fighter and plastic instrument game thrown in for spice. Even games which, you know, aren’t really shooters (like Portal and Mass Effect) use an FPS interface. I have zero interest whatsoever in shooters, and even less in shooters that look like the sidewalk after a rainstorm, which appears to be all of them, currently. The thing about the PSP was that it was a niche system that clustered around games and genres I liked a lot — RPGs, tactical RPGs, and platformers. The occasional shooter or God of War game was just a bone thrown to the Sony faithful. The Xbox 360 and PS3 are almost the exact opposite, being built on a foundation of games I have almost no interest in and engaging me only on the fringes. Even at cheap, I don’t see a lot there.

To get my money’s worth out of an HD system I’d have to soften my stance on games from “no shooters” to “shooters that are good enough to make me overcome my distaste for shooters”. I mean, you don’t have to get too deep before you’re starting to look at things like Sands of Time HD and the Team ICO collection as potential gets, and I don’t really want to buy a new console for ports of ten-year-old games, even ones I haven’t played and probably should.

“Dusting off the Wii” is so common that it’s become a cliche, as the system is infamous for long software droughts (like the one it’s currently in), but I have a feeling that if I’d gone all-in on a PS360 at launch it’s a cliche that would have applied to me. If you’re cutting out first-person shooters, third-person shooters, survival horror, open-world sandbox games, tournament fighters, and music games… the HD systems start to have a pretty barren release schedule themselves. I’ve no doubt that the systems have deep and varied libraries for many, and perhaps most, people, but they don’t for me. I’m not really looking for people to say “What? No, I had tons of fun with my Xbox, don’t put words in my mouth” or give me recommendations; I’m just trying to express how I feel.

The worst part is that this appears to be the way the industry is headed, if E3 is any indication. This stuff sells, and has become what the “core gamer” expects out of the experience. Even Nintendo appears to be retreating back to this crowd rather than compete for the casual crowd with Apple’s McGames, as every game they announced for the WiiU looks to be of this set — gritty, “mature” action games and shooters with a muted color palette and not an ounce of originality or life between them. If this is where we’re going, where does that leave me, a gamer with no interest in this? I still love games — I don’t feel like I’ve outgrown the hobby or am ready to leave it behind. But I also don’t feel like I should be forced to play genres I hate just for the pleasure of moving characters around a screen and interacting with a game world.

A Tale of Two Mega Men

I beat my first game in over two months late last night, while catching up on Leverage. In fact, I beat two games. One was Dissidia 012, which was the culmination of 50 hours of plugging away at it in small doses here and there. The endgame was disappointingly easy, mostly because Squall ended up being a dreamwrecker. In the last post I went on and on about the Dissidia learning curve, but it turns out that Squall throws that out the window, since he started crushing things from the word go and never really stopped. It almost got boring after a while, because Squall doesn’t have any of the cat-and-mouse or positioning games that the other characters have to play; he just walks up to the other guy, Brave Breaks ’em, then takes ’em down in one shot. I stuck him at the front of my party for the final chapter and he ended up carrying me more or less the whole way, ending up twelve levels ahead of the next-highest character (Bartz).

The final boss was supremely disappointing. Backstep, HP Attack, watch credits. That was literally all there was to it.

There’s certainly more to see here, but it appears to be the sort of grindy incremental-gains numbers-for-numbers’-sake type of postgame that all-too frequently turns me off postgames, so it remains to be seen whether I’ll stick with it. The sheer number of things left to buy at the PP Catalog is simultaneously encouraging and daunting. I’d at least like to experiment with the villains, but grinding them up is no easy task.

The other game was Symphony of the Night, which I ended up turning to when I wanted to play something, but wasn’t in the mood for the twitchy pace of Dissidia or the extremely deliberate one of Final Fantasy Tactics. My thoughts on the game from my playthrough earlier this year still hold up, although I kept my promise and set aside my Crissaegrim this time around. I filled up enough of the castle to get the best ending, but I didn’t see everything — for one thing, I’m missing a relic. (The Nose Demon card, I believe.) SotN demands to be replayed, though, so I imagine this portable version will be a frequent sight in my PSP in the years to come.

To fill the void I’ve turned to a pair of Mega Man games: Powered Up and Maverick Hunter X. Believe it or not, I was on the scent of Powered Up even before Brickroad started LPing it. The only NES Mega Man game I haven’t beaten yet is 1, mostly because everyone keeps telling me it’s kind of mediocre — more of a necessary jumping-off point in the vein of Metroid or Dragon Warrior 1 rather than something that actually needs to be played — so I figured that a remake with a ton of neat features, including a buttload of alternate characters (Protip: If you want Tanto to like your game, add multiple playable characters) and a level editor, would be the ticket. Although Maverick Hunter X was on my radar, I hadn’t intended to buy it — unlike Mega Man 1, I’ve played Mega Man X 1 more times than I can count, and the new features didn’t seem worthwhile enough to justify re-buying it when I could just grab it on the Virtual Console. However, I was poking around on the PSN Store late last night and noticed that the game was on sale for five bucks, which more or less made my decision for me. Principle is fine, but five bucks is five bucks.

Contrasting these two games is of great interest to me. They’re similar in a lot of ways — they’re both remakes, they both use a kind of cruddy polygonal graphic style, both bombed hard enough to kill plans to extend them into series. But they’re different, too, both in terms of my experience with them and in their design philosophy. As I mentioned, I have very little experience with Mega Man 1, so I ended up lurching through the levels like a drunken baby, dying to just about everything that looked like it could potentially kill me. Part of that was inexperience, but at least some of it was the result of bad hit detection (Mega Man’s hitbox is quite a bit larger than his character model) and the fact that the screen is zoomed-in relatively close, so you don’t have the expansive view of the level you’re used to. In addition, I was trying to unlock all the Robot Masters as playable characters, which meant I couldn’t use their weaknesses against them (assuming I knew them, which I didn’t).

MHX, on the other hand, I’ve always been kind of iffy about. Initially I resented it, because it resulted in a gimped Mega Man X Collection. The story is, supposedly MMXC was going to be much more comprehensive — Inafune was going to rewrite the story to make it more comprehendable and rebalance some of the more bullshittier parts. (Seeing them make something worthwhile out of X6, on either count, would have been worth the price of admission by itself.) However, he was persuaded to hold off on these updates so they could be implemented in a full-blown remake series, the Maverick Hunter X series for PSP. The first one bombed, though, putting the kibosh on that and leaving us with unchanged ports on the Collection and a remake of the only game in the series that didn’t actually need one. Mega Man 1, you could argue, needed a remake because it was a flawed game. You can’t say that about X1, though — it was golden in 1993 and it remains golden today. There’s nothing there to fix.

Actually playing it, though, all that drama slides away. It feels like coming home. The levels were changed a little bit, but not much (the boots are in Flame Mammoth’s stage now, which merits a new stage order), and I sleuthed through half the Mavericks without dying once in the time it took me to beat my first Robot Master in Powered Up. It was so easy that I’m considering banning weapon use for future playthroughs — I almost felt bad for Spark Mandrill, as he didn’t even get to move as I Shotgun Iced him to death.

You can beat Vile in the intro stage now. I don’t know what’s up with that.

Beyond that, though, it’s interesting how the two fit together. You get the impression that these games are channeling the “true vision” for the series — Mega Man classic as cutesy, goofy, and fun, and Mega Man X as brooding and dramatic. It’s telling to me that the changes to Powered Up are almost exclusively in the name of making the game more varied and fun, while the changes to MHX are in the name of making the story more prominent. That’s fine for the initial entries — you can’t exactly make X1 more fun, as noted — but it becomes an issue down the line with regards to games like X3 or X5 that need serious trimming on the gameplay side, or X6, which needs a complete overhaul. And the story… let’s face it, the X series doesn’t have a good story. It’s the same “blue guy kills robots” stuff from the classic series, it’s just not as self-aware about it. Trying to polish that turd will only take you so far. You can cut “What am I fighting for” but then people might start noticing that the problems with X4’s story go further than a terrible translation and hokey voice acting, you know?

It’s probably good that both series petered out before they got too far. The additions both added were nice gimmicks, but I think they’d have worn out their welcome before too long. (Is anyone beating down the door to play as Top Man or Toad Man? How is playing as Flash Man or Bright Man going to differ from playing as Time Man?) Powered Up’s terrible engine would have reared its ugly head in games that are better on their own, like 2 or 3, and MHX would have found fixing some of the X series’s weaker entries to be a more challenging task than it had anticipated. Better that we get a taste and dream about what might have been rather than become inevitably disappointed by what ended up being.

Dissidia and the Development Problem

One of the major problems with modern video game design is that it’s inbred. That is, you’ve got teams that make third-person shooters and nothing but third-person shooters, teams that make RPGs and nothing but RPGs, teams that make plastic instrument games and nothing but plastic instrument games. The obvious advantage of this is that a team with experience in a genre knows its ins and outs and (hopefully) won’t make rookie mistakes.

I think we lose something, though, by forcing genres into ruts like this. What would happen if we took a team that normally worked exclusively in shooters and told them “make a 2-D platformer”? What if we took a fighting game team and set them to work on a turn-based RPG? I bet the game we’d get would be a lot different that the normal fare in those genres, and even if it wasn’t, you know, perfect, that different take would be something that could be built upon. I think companies and fans are too inured to stuff that’s “just part of the genre” to consider what could be done if it, like, suddenly wasn’t.

Dissidia is kind of like that. Square-Enix makes its bread almost exclusively in JRPGs these days, and yet Dissidia is a fast-paced 3-D fighting game that lacks a lot of the elements we’ve come to expect as part and parcel of the fighting game experience after twenty years of Street Fighter. However, the game’s RPG roots are still very evident, with lots of RPG trappings. I can get behind this 100% — the technical side of fighting games goes over my head, but give me some numbers to crunch and I’m right at home. Some of the aforementioned trappings (like equipment) are pretty superfluous and are only there as a legacy of the home series. Others — specifically levels — are not.

In Dissidia, each playable character starts at level 1. As they win fights, they earn experience, and their level goes up. As they level up, their stats go up, they can equip more skills, and they learn new moves.

That last one’s the biggy. Although characters can equip up to twelve moves in total — three Bravery and HP attacks each for both the ground and the air — they start with only six or seven, and learn a new one every five levels or so. Just knowing a move isn’t enough, though — you also have to equip it, which costs a resource called AP. Once you’ve had a skill equipped for a while, you “master” it and the number of AP it takes to keep that skill equipped is permanently reduced, allowing you to equip more skills at a time — but this can take dozens upon dozens of battles.

What this means is that all Dissidia characters start gimped. At level 1 you have only the vaguest of ideas how characters are supposed to be played and what their priority is. As you play them more, though, not only do you start to get a grasp on what the character is all about, but new skills and abilities are gradually dribbled in, allowing you to add them to your mental cache of options only once you’ve internalized what you’ve already got. I have no idea if this is actually true, but I’ve always envisioned high-level fighting game skill as the ability to decide, based on a single frame, whether to use medium punch or strong punch, and I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around that. At my core I’m a button-masher and a move-spammer — I start out trying to use all my moves and vary my attack patterns, but the moment the going gets rough I panic and start using my best move over and over. Having to raise your own character is good for breaking that habit, though, because every time you learn a new move you’re so sick of what you’ve already got that you’re falling all over yourself to use it every chance you get.

The problem arises in the way you end up raising your characters. The good guys, at least, end up gaining most of their levels over the course of the main story, and the main story is structured as a series of vignettes starring each of the characters. That is, you receive a character, play through their story for a while, then are handed a new character.

This completely destroys the development flow.

You can’t make the individual stories too long… because if a player gets stuck on a character he doesn’t like for hours and hours, he might just quit in frustration. (Cecil and Tidus’s chapters seemed absolutely interminable to me, but I doubt I spent any extra time in them.) However, what usually happens is that you’re handed a fresh character and fiddle around with them in complete bafflement for a while. Then you learn a few moves and start to really figure out what they’re about. Then you’ve worked out the really good moves and are starting to kick some ass, and you feel like you could take on the world… and it’s at exactly this point, every time, that the game takes away your character from you and hands you another scrub.

I just don’t think the concept of individual character stories is compatible with the kind of character progression RPGs are known for. The last game that bothered me in this same way was Clash of Heroes for the DS… but in that game, by the time you were finished with a character’s story, they were more or less done developing. Being forced to play as a peon again after raising an army of titans might be galling, but at least you’d seen everything the previous character could do. In Dissidia, you often feel like you’re just getting started with a character when it’s time to move on.

This is to say nothing of the villains, who don’t get a story mode and have to be raised in quickbattle.

The solution here is already in the game, I think: Parties. In a party, you’re carrying around multiple characters at once, and only the guy in front fights most of the time. In the story, most characters have a friend running around with them most of the time anyway (usually serving as their assist), so it would be easy to give the player more options on who they want to control. If I’m playing (say) Terra’s story but I hate her guts, I should be able to switch to the Onion Knight or Cloud for a while and let her gain experience passively.

Or you could write an actually good story that doesn’t require each character to go on an individual journey of self-discovery. That works too.

Stuff and Nonsense

1) In my town, on the Fourth of July, a whole fleet of hot air balloons is brought in for the population to ooh and ahh at. When I was driving home from work this morning, I saw them bringing them in. It was an oddly beautiful sight, if a bit postcard-y — zeppelins drifting silently (from my perspective) out of the morning mist. It was like I’d stepped out of work into some alternate steampunk universe.

2) Ever since becoming employed I’ve undergone a curious transformation: I’ve become a person who buys games he doesn’t immediately intend to play.

You have to consider that I’ve never before in my entire life been that kind of person. The reason my backlog is so small compared to most people’s is because if I bought a new game, it was because I intended to rush home as quickly as possible afterwards and stick it into the appropriate machine. Buying a new game just to stick it on a shelf with vague intentions to “get to it someday” seemed to me to be the height of extravagance.

And yet, when I was thinking about how I wanted to spend the portion of my next paycheck that I’ve allotted to entertainment, I found myself on Amazon sticking PSP games into my cart willy-nilly. Never mind that Dissidia’s still not done. Never mind that I’m not even halfway through Final Fantasy Tactics. Never mind that I’m planning to participate in the Suikoden Fun Club, which starts on the very day I get paid. Never mind that Sonic Colors, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy III are still staring accusingly at me through my Wii Menu.

My internal argument went something like this: These are games that I’m going to want to play sooner or later. I don’t have anything more pressing to spend my money on. Why not let Amazon’s courier take his leisurely jaunt through the countryside now, while I’ve got other things occupying my time, rather than after I’ve finished everything and am jonesing for something new to play heresoonnow? Also that last sentence was way too long, internal dialogue.

Reel, in the comments of the last post where I addressed this issue (albeit more obliquely), characterized this attitude as “pent-up consumerism”, and he may be right. It may be that I was always like this; I just didn’t have the means to act on it until now. Still, it’s probably not a good idea to buy so many games that I’ll be backed up for years, so I should probably find something else to invest in so that I don’t blow my entire wad of spending money on these things. I’ve been thinking for the last year or so about upgrading my computer and putting together a machine that’s more capable for purposes of gaming and LPing, so maybe that might be a good investment? I’d have to research it first, though, given how limited my computer knowledge is.

3) And if all that weren’t enough, I’ve been kind of itching to replay Final Fantasy VII, of all things, recently. It’s a shame I came to that game so late — I honestly wish I had it when I was twelve. If I had, I would have undoubtedly played it two dozen times and would know hundreds of obscure little facts and tricks about it. And its (unquestionably numerous) flaws would be crushed under the weight of sheer nostalgia, just like Ocarina of Time. As it is, I spent about five years arguing to anyone who would listen that it was impossibly overrated (which it is), only to develop a weird, almost grudging affection for it. Can you really have nostalgia for something if you didn’t experience it the first time? Who can account for the strange directions the game mind moves in?

I haven’t written about the Braves in a while.

I should maybe do that.

I’d have a hard time explaining to a fan of, say, the Twins or Mariners why I haven’t been too enthusiastic regarding the Braves this year. After all, they’ve got the third-best record in baseball. They’ve got a four-game lead in the Wild Card race as of the halfway point. They’re on pace for 94 wins. They’d be leading four of the six divisions in baseball and would be tied for second in the fifth. By most measures you can think of, they’re having a fabulous season and living fully up to their preseason expectations, which had them as the second-best team in the league, behind the Phillies.

Part of that has been that I haven’t been able to see them play much, of course… It seems like it’s been forever since a national outlet has picked up one of their games, so the most I’ve been able to interact with them most nights is by finagling away the remote in the break room at work long enough to check the score. It’s harder to keep your perspective when you’re not breathing it in every day.

But I think the major reason is that as good as they’ve been, I think they’ve blown a lot of chances to be even better. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not a perfectionist. I know that losses and setbacks are just things that happen to baseball teams over the course of the season. Still, I think they could have easily been hanging with the Phillies if a few other things had gone their way… Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward’s absolutely inexplicable collapse. Rashes of injuries… Mediocrity in the bullpen resulting in overuse of the only reliable guys down there… Terrible managing… Somehow they “feel” like they’re having a much worse season than they actually are. If I didn’t know their record but you told me that they were 40-43, I’d believe you. And yet here they sit at 48-35.

It’s likely that the core of my grousing really lies in the fact that the Phillies are having an even better season. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more charmed team in my life… it seems like teams are falling over themselves to give away games to the Phillies in the most embarrassing manner possible. Whenever I go to check the Braves score SportsCenter is always running highlights with titles like “Phillies comeback” or “Worley dominates”. I’m mature enough to concede that they’re better than I thought preseason (when I was probably reading too much into Utley’s injury), but that lineup? That bullpen? On pace for 102 wins? No way. At least when the Yankees were having everything magically working out for them they had the good grace to do it with record-breaking payrolls and All-Stars at every position. The Phillies, though? Weak ground balls squib through the infield. Line drives fly inches above leaping fielders. Lineups flail against spot starters. Bullpens cough up leads, aces hang fastballs, managers mismanage. In absolutely every situation, you find yourself thinking “How is this going to turn to the Phillies’ advantage?”, and lo and behold, it always does, no matter how unlikely. If they were just bludgeoning people to death being behind them wouldn’t be so galling, but they always look so beatable. And yet no one ever does. (Except for the Braves and the Cardinals, the only two teams with winning records against them so far this season.)

They can mostly credit this to that great pitching, which keeps them close enough that when things start to turn in their favor, it can be decisive. And it’s not like they haven’t had some injury issues themselves, which have been well-documented. I still can’t shake the feeling that everything that’s been going wrong for the Braves has been going right for the Phillies, though, and that’s irritating. It’s entirely possible that if the Braves were in another division (where, as Patton Oswalt once said, mediocrity holds sway) they’d be winning handily and having a nice little season. But the 2011 East Coast is too cutthroat for “nice little season” to get you anywhere.

The Braves are supposedly on the hunt for offense, but it’s hard to think of anyone who both fits on their team and would be a big improvement. I mean, Hunter Pence? Josh Willingham? Talk about acquiring a guy a year too late.