Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Walrus and the Carpenter

There comes a time, of course, when you have to pick your head up out of whatever self-preserving bunker you've dug out for yourself and take a good, hard look at your world.

There comes a time when you'd like to know if you're a bankable commodity to your employer, someone worth investing in... and when you ask, it turns out they'd prefer to keep you around on their terms.

There comes a time when it's time.

This, I think, is the last show. I've always had an overly romanticized notion of the Pacific Northwest, Seattle or Portland or the like. Maybe we should try our luck out there.

I'd like to open a sandwich shop. That's what I'd like to do.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Life Spent Video Gaming Part 1: The Early Years

I am a lifelong gamer. 
I am not a hardcore gamer, not by a long shot. You won’t find me on Xbox Live bagging achievement trophies, or building a meticulously detailed landscape out of Minecraft blocks, or anywhere near a line or pre-order form for the next Next-Gen console. What you will find is that, at every moment of my life from age eight on, ownership of a video game console has been a part of my existence.
I used to sit with the Sears Roebuck Christmas Catalog every year (remember those?) and stare at the poorly reproduced images of Atari 2600 games, all the more tragic a picture when I recall the amount of wearing down it took before convincing my parents to buy me one. It was the last generation of that console, the really really really small version…
… not the old let’s-design-this-to-look-like-a-piece-of-wood-paneled-furniture-or-maybe-a-radiator classic console.

That was the version one of the high school girls who would babysit my sisters and I used to drag over for us to play in a big carpet bag, when I was young enough to be too scared to play but old enough to be captivated by Ka-boom! 
So gaming has been a part of who I am, for as long as I can remember, and I have decided to honor that thusly: this is a four-part blog entry (that started life as a top ten list but quickly ballooned into something well beyond that) reflecting on NOT the best games ever made, but on MY favorite games ever… some of which are on many “best games” lists, and many of which are decidedly not. These are the games that have had the biggest impact on me and my life, as a gamer, as a writer, and as a consumer of culture and media.
We begin… at the beginning.
Part 1: The Early Years
My earliest memories as a gamer are dominated by two devices: a Frogger game watch and a Ms. Pac-Man tabletop game. 


I was very good at the former, as it was mine, it was on my wrist, and my sisters could not dominate it. I was not as good at the latter. It was my sister Lizz’s domain, the family perfectionist who was the best at everything she tried her hand at. (Except for school. That honor went to Maggie, who ended up going to Harvard. To this day she makes us all look pretty bad.) These two devices were my first two extended exposures to the world of video games, but by no means would I place them on my list of important games. No, the first spot on that list goes to…

Lode Runner (Tandy 1000)

Our first family PC was a IBM compatible box, the Tandy 1000, part of the user-friendly Tandy home computer line.
Cutting edge, amirite?
A strong graphics processor (16 whole colors!) made this a fairly powerful gaming computer of its day. We had several games for our Tandy, but by far the one that got the most playtime was Lode Runner.
Pictured: childhood time suck.
The Broderbund brick-drilling, gold-snatching, android-crushing classic, initially developed by architecture student Doug Smith, has been remade and re-released and re-worked many times, in many forms, most recently for iOS and Android devices (something I just now realized exists and excuse me while I go get it AND PLAY IT FOREVER.) The Tandy ran a port of the DOS version of the game, and it was a smash hit in my household growing up. I spent hours on Lode Runner with my sisters, eventually beating all 150 levels and designing probably twice that amount in the game’s ultra-awesome level designer, the best level design feature I’ve ever used in a game to this day. Our greatest joy in the level designer was no different than the joys players today take in designing levels for their friends and families: we wanted to create heinous, torturous boards that, while playable, would drive the others to madness. Kids are mean.
We played and controlled Lode Runner completely on the keyboard, controlling the stick figure hero with the arrow keys and drilling to his left and right with the Z and X keys in order to create holes to fall through and capture enemies with. I’ve since played Lode Runner in other forms with other control schemes and it has never been the same. I need to be controlling a stick figure, not a detailed sprite. I need to be playing on a keyboard, not with a control pad. I need to be playing a full screen version that allows you to see the whole board at once, instead of with a zoomed in view. And the color scheme must be: white player, blue bricks, red enemies. Anything else, as far as I’m concerned, is NOT Lode Runner.
Well, okay, it is. But it’s not MY Lode Runner.
Kings Quest II/The Black Cauldron (Tandy1000)
I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for games powered by the SCUMM engine, the old LucasArts point-and-click adventure engine, variations of which drove Sam & Max, the Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island series, and a whole slew of other classic PC games. But my love affair for the genre didn’t start there, nor are they the games of graphic adventure genre I remember most fondly. 
On the good old Tandy we, as did many PC gamers of the 80’s, found ourselves sucked into the worlds crafted by the California-based Sierra On-Line, founded by the husband and wife team of Ken and Roberta Williams. The Williams’ were pioneers in the graphic adventure format, realizing that the text-based adventure games they enjoyed could only be enhanced by the addition of graphics, something that seems obvious today but was once, in fact, an alien concept. By the time Sierra titles found their way into our home the company had been at it for almost a decade, and their wildly successful games had made the transition from text adventures with static black-and-white images…

Don't get scared now.
... to graphic adventure games featuring colorful three-dimensional fantasy landscapes and a player-controlled avatar.
He gave up rather quickly.
The most well-known Sierra series is arguably the Kings Quest series, and the game we had on our Tandy was King’s Quest II, which sent the series protagonist, King Graham, on a journey to find a wife to share the throne he had won in the first game.
He's all yours, ladies.
The game was a fantasy mash-up that borrowed from any number of well-known fairy tales and legends, including Little Red Riding Hood, Dracula, and 1,0001 Arabian Nights.
I didn’t play a lot of King’s Quest II, actually. The anticipation of the music that would blare out of the Tandy’s internal speakers whenever an enemy would (very suddenly) appear on-screen to capture or kill Graham was far too stressful for me to grasp. Furthermore, it’s to be remembered that the King’s Quest games were extensions of the text adventure genre, which required you to type in commands in phrases so specific that lots of the areas of the game that got us stuck were sections where we just didn’t possess the vocabulary to tell the stubborn King Graham what it is we wanted to do.
Also, like most Sierra games, King’s Quest II had a quirky, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and featured among its many Easter Eggs a cameo by the Batmobile.
Photographic proof.
The other Sierra graphic adventure that found its way into our house was The Black Cauldron, based on the Disney film of the era. 
It was the second of genre we played, and it came into our lives at a time when my sisters were losing interest in the novelty of the computer, and I was older so I wasn’t as easily scared by a video game. The Black Cauldron, then, holds the title of the first adventure game I ever completed on my own.
Now, let's be honest: The Black Cauldron film is not one of the better Disney animated features. The game is how I know the story of the film, and the game was excellent, featuring yet another breakthrough in the graphical adventure genre. 
See? Pig.
The entirely text-based gameplay of King’s Quest II was discarded in favor of a “hot keys” approach. The game came with little stickers that you would place on keyboard keys, designating each particular key as a popular command button through which you could tell the player character, Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper, what to do. (Again, it wasn’t the best movie.) 

Some of these sticker commands (“USE”, “LOOK”, “TALK”, etc.) became parts of the aforementioned SCUMM engine that drove LucasArts graphic adventure successes, and for a generation of adventure games commands and these like them are how you told your little digital avatar what to do.
Ms. Pac-Man (Arcade)
As a child, I loved maps. As a child, I loved mazes. So as a child, I loved Pac-Man. I was Pac-Man for Halloween one year. I had a Pac-Man lunchbox, the Pac-Man board game, Pac-Man finger puppets (they were awesome)... I even had the world’s greatest record.
That's a lie. It's terrible.
That said, in terms of actual gameplay, I’ve logged far more hours on Ms. Pac-Man than on the original game. Why? I think the answer is obvious: Ms. Pac-Man is a better game. Why? More mazes.
Count 'em yourself if you don't believe me.
It befuddled me as a child when I realized that Pac-Man only had one maze that repeated over and over and over again. Why would anyone design a game like that, and not like the far more enjoyable Ms. Pac-Man, with four whole mazes to play through? Also, Ms. Pac-Man and not the original Pac-Man was the game cabinet at our local pizza place. Rainbow Ices at Angelo’s and Ms. Pac-Man? Now THAT’S a friday afternoon.
Unlike Lode Runner, I find the Pac-Man games are almost unplayable without a joystick. These days my tastes tend towards the Ms. Pac-Man hacks you’ll find in some places, the Illegal Hyper-Accelerated Editions. One such cabinet showed up just a few years back in the cafeteria of the teen theatre group I was directing one summer, and a high-score competition quickly unfolded betwixt myself and the teens in my charge.
The show that summer was… not the best.
The Atari 2600 Jr.

Now, as stated earlier, my first true video game console was an Atari 2600 Jr., the little silver-and-black machine that was the 2600’s last gasp of air (and arguably the last good Atari console ever.) I got my 2600 for my birthday in 3rd grade, October of 1986, very late in the system’s life cycle and well after the much ballyhooed North American video game crash of 1983. As such, a lot of the Atari games I had were not the classic games the system is best known for, like Pong, Space Invaders, Adventure, Combat, etc., etc. These are all games I had played at friend’s houses (years earlier), but never actually owned. My 2600 catalog included games that came in the latter half of the system’s life cycle, with a handful of classics mixed in. Key components of my Atari game library included Centipede, Pitfall!, Super Breakout, Pac-Man Jr., and Ghostbusters, and allowing for system limitations they were all very solid gaming experiences.
More or less.
The most impactful titles in my library, though, proved to be impactful for all the wrong reasons. I owned the port of two games, well-known games, published by a company that was NOT primarily known for it's Atari ports. That’s right. I owned the little-celebrated 2600 versions of Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Jr. So while I was playing these:
That's a turtle. Trust me.
That's a child-sized turd. Right?
 My friends were playing these:
Can you spot the differences?
Look close now!
Or even worse… this:
The humanity.
We had reached the point, obviously, where the 2600 just wasn't going to cut it anymore. My parents, alas, were insistent that they would not purchase me a Nintendo Entertainment System. To be fair, money was tight. To be unfair, they thought one gaming system was just as good as any other.

I guess they didn't look at the pictures.
So while the Atari did provide me with hours of gaming fun, those hours were by no means countless. Little did I know that a Christmas miracle was waiting for me just two years later, and my true love affair with video games had only just begun.
Next: Playing With Power

Monday, February 24, 2014

Race McCloud! Awkward Teenager

Ten Years Earlier-ish
“Race, why didn’t you tell us you had mathematical dyslexia?”
Race shifted nervously in his seat and looked around. Students may have looked like they were studying, sure, but he knew they were actually staring at him. This is why Artie had wanted to meet in the library: so he wouldn’t make a scene.
Not that Race was really one for scene-making, but still: better safe than sorry, he guessed.
“Geez, Artie,” he said, turning his attention back to the glasses-wearing boy in front of him. “I didn’t think it really mattered. Half the time I forget it’s even a thing.”
Artie sighed and took off his glasses, wiping the lenses clean on his super-stylin’ ‘Chicks Dig Joysticks’ t-shirt. He had performed this gesture a bunch of times since he and Race had sat down for this impromptu president/treasurer get-together. Nervous tic, Race assumed… of course, he knew what happened when you assumed so he figured he’d better not assume anything. “Nobody would care, Race, but we went and made you treasurer of the Totally Radical Video Gridiron Warriors. You lost all of our money, our entire club budget. And we didn’t even have an event!”
“The trip could count as an event,” Race pointed out. “To the arcade?”
“Yeah, we’d BETTER be able to claim that as an event to student government. It’s where you spent ALL of our quarters.”
“That’s not fair!” Race protested, drawing a stern look and a ‘shush!’ from Ms. Grappone, the school librarian. “That’s not fair,” he repeated, lowering his voice. “We all used those quarters. Not just me. We all did.”
“‘Cause YOU told us we had the money in the budget!”
“Well, why’d you listen to me? I have mathematical dyslexia!”
Artie’s face turned a shade of red that Race had never imagined skin could be. It was at that moment he realized his cause was a lost one.
Minutes later he was at his locker, a black cloud hanging over his head as he rifled through wads of torn up book covers and half-eaten sandwiches, packing up the books he’d need for homework. They could have just removed me as treasurer, he thought to himself as he pulled his jacket on. They didn’t have to kick me out of the club. He closed his locker, sighed, and leaned his head against the metal door. Kicked out of the Westside City High video game club. This HAS to be the low, he thought as he slung his nylon backpack over his shoulder and headed for the stairs. Life CAN’T get much worse than this. Right?
Race climbed down three flights of stairs, out the school’s side entrance, and onto the sidewalk, where he hung a left and headed for the bus stop. It was later than usual, almost five, and he was so submerged in his own funk that he almost didn’t notice the commotion carrying on in the park just across the street. In fact, he was almost out of earshot by the time he heard the first cry for “HEELP!”
He froze. He wouldn’t look, he wouldn’t look, he wouldn’t look, he wouldn’t look…
He looked.
It was some freshman. Race had never seen him before. And if somebody didn’t help him he would probably never see him again.
Two guys. Older kids. Bigger. Nobody Race had ever seen before. They had the kid cornered. He was small, and Race couldn’t even begin to wonder what he had done to get bullied around by these guys. What would they -- ? Then he heard giggling, and noticed the three other players in the game. Girls, standing just outside of the would-be fight circle. Three of ‘em, laughing. For some reason this was impressive to them.
Maybe, though, the bigger kids were just playing around. It was tough for Race to tell sometimes the difference between joking around and legit fighting, and this might have been --
But then the kid got punched in the face and hit pavement with a heavy THUMP.
Okay, no joking.
Race took a deep breath and turned away, walking towards his bus stop. Over the past two months alone he had jumped in to try and stop two muggings, a domestic altercation at the movies, and a guy chasing a lame dog down the street with a pipe. His mom had told him, warned him, not to stick his nose in anyone else’s business anymore, not to get involved in something he couldn’t handle. “You’re not your brothers,” she had pleaded with him. “You’re not your sister. You’re you, Race, and you should learn who that is.”
She had meant to reason with him. It was the most she had ever hurt him. (She was right, of course, but that wasn’t the point.)
So he was walking away from this one. That kid would be okay. Kids got beaten up all the time, all across the country, and lived to tell the tale. It built character. It wasn’t Race’s business.
“Oh my god, Rich!” he heard one of the girls being impressed giggle-yell. “You’re so bad! Don’t hurt him too much!”
Aaaaaaand now Race found he had turned around.
The freshman kid was back on the ground. The girls only had eyes for their heroes, and the heroes only had eyes for the easy kill in front of them. One of them pulled his leg back and THWACK! Kicked the kid in the ribs.
Race quickened his pace and dropped his backpack. He bent down as he walked, scooping something up from the ground.
“Look, kid,” said the one called Rich, loud enough so Race could hear him as he approached through the trees from behind, “you don’t look at another guy’s girl like that. You don’t do it. You understand?” He kicked him again. “You understand OW!”
The guy stumbled forward, clutching the back of his head where the rock had struck him. “WHAT THE F--- WHO DID THAT?!”
The two guys and the girls they were ‘impressing’ all turned to Race, still standing between two trees with a second rock clutched in his hands. “Wow,” Race said. “First try. That was pretty good.”
The two guys started towards him, the one he had hit looking particularly furious.
“Nice to meet you guys,” said Race, backing up as they closed the distance between them. “I’m Race McCloud, high school student.” Behind the approaching bullies, the freshman Race was saving was making a beeline back towards the school, hugging his ribs in pain as he went. Race sighed. “It was probably too much to hope he’d stick around to help me while you guys try to punch my kidneys out. Also, LOOK OUT!”
They both turned and ducked at Race’s cry, and Race, in turn, turned from them and ran.
Even as he ran as hard as he could (he tried to scoop up his backpack as he went, but missed) he could hear the feet of the two kids gaining on him. For some big fat bully-types they were surprisingly swift… either that or Race was surprisingly slow. If… they’re… going… to… catch me… anyway… Race thought as he chugged along. He stumbled to a stop as he hit the sidewalk outside of the park and turned to face them, putting up his fists. Rich and not-Rich pulled up to a stop just short of him. “All right, boys,” Race said. “Let’s make this quick.”
Thankfully, they did. The two guys just blackened one of his eyes, bloodied his lip, and gave him a few hard kicks to the ribs before dragging him back into the park and tying him up in a sitting position to a tree, his back to the sidewalk and facing the woods. The knee was torn out of his jeans and a sleeve ripped off of what had been his favorite hoodie. It was a sort of super-villain showy thing to do, leaving him tied around a tree with a jump rope 100 yards from his own school, and even though his eye had swelled shut and he could taste the metal tang of his own blood on his lips, Race had a begrudging sort of respect for it. Not for the perpetrators of the crime, mind you, just for the audaciousness of the crime itself. The sun was setting and he was working at the ropes binding his wrists together (not an easy thing to do with his arms wrenched back around the big oak) when he felt a pair of soft hands upon his.
“Let me help you,” she said when he jumped. “Please.” The hands began working the knots.
“No, yeah, sure,” said Race. “Help away. You just startled me, that’s all.”
“Sorry,” whoever-she-was said. “This is an easy knot; I learned it when I was a kid as a Treehugger Girl… there.” The jump rope fell away from his wrists and Race immediately pulled his arms back in front of them, grimacing in pain as he rubbed some feeling back into his hands. “Can you stand?” his hero asked.
Gingerly, he raised himself up onto one knee, turning his head to look at her. “Yeah, sure, I --”
The sun was setting behind her, but even with the shadows cast upon her face he would have known that mane of brown-and-crimson hair anywhere. He had been staring at it for two and a half years. “You’re… you’re… Ariel Belle.”
She smiled and offered her hand. “Yes I am. And you’re Race McCloud.”
He took her hand, soft and delicate and firm and unyielding all at the same time. “You know my name?” he asked, wide-eyed with wonder as he got to his feet. She was exactly as tall as he, and the round green pools she called eyes were on level with his own.
She laughed, and it sounded like a thousand angels singing. “We’ve gone to school together for three years, Race!” she said as she brushed a stray lock of hair that had fallen loose of her casually messy ponytail back behind her ear. “I’m pretty sure we’ve spoken before. Why wouldn’t I know your name?”
He shrugged. “You’ve been in honors classes since halfway through freshman year. I most decidedly have not.”
“So?”
“That’s all I’ve got.”
She chuckled, then frowned, her attention turning back to the situation at hand. “Your eye is swelled shut pretty badly. And your knee needs to be washed up. The school nurse is probably gone for the day but the basketball team is practicing, so their trainer must be in the gym. Can you walk?”
Race took a few tentative steps. He was sporting a pretty pronounced limp but seemed otherwise mobile. “Yeah, I’ll live. I can just go home, really. It’s okay.”
Ariel put her hands on her hips. “No, you can’t. Not until we get you looked at. Now come on.”
Race was about to protest, again, but decided he didn’t feel like it… and to be honest, he didn’t mind the idea of spending a few more minutes in the company of Ariel Belle. He nodded. “Uh… sure. Okay. And, you know… thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.” Ariel bent down, picking up Race’s backpack. “Let’s go.”
“I can carry that,” said Race.
“Let’s go,” she repeated. So Race just feel in step beside her. His knee screamed in protest and he realized he’d have to go even slower than he had thought.
“So how’d you find me?” Race asked as he limped towards the school, Ariel strolling beside him.
“I was at school for a late Student Council meeting. Afterward, I found Byron Miller… the kid who was getting beaten up? He was sitting outside the nurse’s office, not far from my locker. I took him down to the office to call his parents and then came to find you.” She looked askance at him. “He told me what you did. That was… that was very brave.”
Race rubbed at his wrists, still burning from the jump rope, as his knee gave another squelch of pain. “Brave, huh? I was going to go with ‘stupid’.”
Ariel smiled. “Well, I didn’t want to say it, but…”
She laughed, and Race along with her. As they climbed the steps into the school he found his knee actually didn’t hurt anywhere near as much he thought it had.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Recipe: Shredded Chicken

Doing shredded chicken for tacos tonight. I'm winging it. In the slow cooker I've combined about 2 lbs of boneless skinless chicken breasts, a sprinkled coating of equal parts garlic, onion, & chipotle powder, and 1/4 cup of low sodium chicken broth. I've set the cooker on low for 5 hours, and if all goes according to plan the chicken will be enjoyed later this evening in taco form. I'll update later with photos/outcome.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Deadly Amazon

So I just read that massive New Yorker feature on Amazon, where the online megastore was portrayed as, at worst, the mortal enemy of democracy and fair trade and, at least, as the worst thing to happen to the publishing industry since the invention of the radio. (Check out the thoroughly readable and enjoyable article by George Packer here.)

I'm of two minds on the subject. Which is a clich├ęd paragraph opener and I'm not sure my mind is of two, really (a turn of phrase, in turn, that makes no sense but I'm going to allow it.) I'm not clued well enough into the industry to be very opinionated on the battle between the data-crunching tech-wonks of Jeff Bezos and the NYC publishing literati, but I get the threat posed by Amazon to the publishing old guard and their way of living. Amazon sells everything, but let's just talk about books, the first product they ever sold, a product chosen not for love of literature but because (according to the New Yorker feature) it was the product that best allowed Amazon, for better or worse, to get a massive foot in the door off the one-stop shopping online marketplace.

Now Amazon is two clicks shy of a monopoly and venturing into the business of publishing their own books, and the loathe/hate/need relationship between the site and book publishers big and small as reported by Packer is fascinating. 

I worked at a Barnes and Noble Superstore while in college, during the mid-90's infatuation with expensive coffee and comfy chairs, when B&N were at the peak of their popularity more for their ambiance than for their product. A brick-and-mortar bookstore that hires booksellers for the same skill-sets McDonalds looks for in cashiers is not a great sales model. It takes smaller, indie stores with passionate salespeople well-versed in the sprawling world of books-in-print to really service customers in a physical location that contains a mere fraction of the world's published literature. But even then, let's face it: online shopping of books and e-books provides the ideal customer experience, and Amazon has expertly cornered that market. Cheap books from a near-unlimited catalog that have no shelflife wear-and-tear, shipped for near-free if not all-the-way free? That customer experience beats the one provided by bookstores in almost every way, provided you don't go book shopping to indulge your love of overpriced espresso drinks and filthy armchairs (homeless people sleep in those). 

So yeah: I buy books from Amazon, doubly now that I have a Kindle. And nothing in Packer's article provides much impetus for me to stop. More pause here, though: I plan to self-pub my first e-book on Amazon Kindle Direct. Why wouldn't I? It's the most widely used e-reader, after all, even if Amazon is famously reluctant to release precise sales figures. But the hatred and venom that traditional publishers spew in Packer's article towards anyone who publishes breeds some hesitation: do I really want to risk torching those bridges before I've even had a chance to peek across them?

But then I realize: I've been trying to break into the traditional publishing world for years and they haven't wanted me. So fuck 'em. The only constant in life is change, and a DIY world of e-publishing, driven by Amazon or an Amazon clone, is the future. People will always love good stories. That's the only given in this equation. However it is they get them, whether via the old guard or the new, isn't my concern. I'm a writer. I have a story. If the old says they don't want it, then on with the new. 

Sitting in one monopoly, blogging about another.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Maple Chicken Apple Hash

So dinner was approaching, I had random ingredients, and I didn't feel like making a pasta dish (too heavy). I threw this together and it was awesome.

Ingredients:
4 chicken breast cutlets
salt & pepper (to taste)
4 pinches chipotle powder
2 golden delicious apples
cinnamon sugar (to taste)
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
2 tbsps butter.

  1. Season the chicken breast cutlets with salt, pepper, and the chipotle powder. Grill and let rest.
  2. While the chicken is resting, dice the apples into roughly 1/2 inch cubes, leaving the peel on.
  3. In a small bowl combine the apples with the cinnamon sugar and the maple syrup.
  4. Dice the chicken into roughly 1/2 inch cubes.
  5. In a saute pan, melt the butter. Add the apples and chicken and stir until coated and combined.
  6. Serve while warm.