Friday, January 26, 2007

Ode to a Gamer Friend

In 1999, I started playing D&D with some guys that I met at school.

Over 7 years later, some of us still play together.

Sure, the group of players has changed. One of the guys has dropped in and out of the group as schooling allows. Some drop by for one week stints whenever they're in town.

I miss those folks that I don't get to play with regularly anymore. But there are four of us that have been there almost every week for seven years running. That's pretty amazing.

For the past few months, we've been playing Shadowrun on Thursday nights. We've got a few additions to the table for this game, including some of the friends I met playing WoW, but that core group was still together.

Until last night. One of the players informed me after the game was over that he needed to spend more time with his family. Obviously it's a decision I respect and understand completely.

We've all seen a lot of changes in seven years: new jobs, kids for some, engagements for others. We've been through a lot of strange and wacky times together. I lived with this fellow in particular for 3 non-sequential years, in 3 different places.

But throughout all those moves, all those triumphs, and yes, sometimes arguments... I could always count on seeing him every week, like clockwork.

Already we don't see enough of each other anymore. Our lives have taken us in different places... good places, mind you, but different. There will be opportunities to hang out, even if they are reducing in frequency.

But it still feels strange, and a little sad, knowing that next week, such a constant in my life is going to be missing.

So here's to the paladin that took up the sword of prophecy, only to destroy it to save a nation.

Here's to the rat bastard thief in his snake skin hat.

Here's to the feared and misunderstood warlock who surprised everyone by sacrificing himself to save a girl he barely knew.

Here's to all the characters that you made me and everybody else you played with love.

Here's to one of my best friends.

Here's to you, Gary. There will always be a chair and some dice for you at the table.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Five Things You Don't Know About Me

You may have seen this post title circulating around other blogs. It appears I have been tagged for this now by DM Osbon, so as a good blogging citizen it is my duty to comply.

1 - I used to design video games when I was a kid. Using pencil and paper I would draw up game designs and mail them to video game companies. This last Christmas while visiting my parents in Atlanta, my mom actually dug up this box of old junk that I did when I was a kid and I got to page through the stuff (my savvy mom having made copies, anticipating the potential for future hilarity).

I made a game called "Rushan Special Forces" (I'm not kidding on the spelling), which was basically a blatant rip off of "Rush'n Attack". Later I designed a second game called "Valcor", including primitive level design. Perhaps in a future post I'll scan the pages of my masterpiece and put them up for mockery.

2 - I had a recurring nightmare for over five years. When I started going to college, I would have the same dream once or twice a week. I'd dive into a swimming pool, with friends and family standing around the outside. I'd swim around underwater for a bit, but when I'd come back up for air, there would be a thick block of ice on the surface. I'd scratch and claw at it, trying to get out, but to no avail. The creepiest part was I could see everyone standing around the outside, looking in the pool, watching me drown. Bet an analyst could've had a field day with that one.

3 - I once had a hamster named General Zaroff.

4 - I played the Phantom in a sixth grade production of Phantom of the Opera. This was basically the first time I did any acting, which I continued to enjoy for years afterwards. I think my parents still have a tape of this thing lying around somewhere though: it was hilarious because no one had ever actually seen the show, so there was some guesswork as to the actual plot. We (the thespians) also lipsynched all the songs.

On top of that, I wore white socks with my black pants, cape, and shoes during one of the performances leading my mother to call me "The Phantom in White Socks" for years afterwards. By far the coolest part of doing the show though was getting out of class for an entire day to make the mold for my Phantom mask, along with the piece of latex they'd attach to my face to make me look deformed.

5 - I was a semi finalist in the Nintendo World Championships. Some of you may remember this event in 1990, which was basically an excuse to charge people money to play a machine that, if they were attending the event, they likely already owned. The competition toured all over the country. At any rate, you paid the entry fee and then played in a group of a hundred or so. If you finished in the top seven, you played again, this time in front of the crowd that was watching the competition on big screen TVs, including a play-by-play announcer. I remember the whole thing being slightly nerve wracking, but if you finished in first place out of that group of seven, you became a "semi-finalist", which meant a certificate and a VIP sticker that got you in the door for free the next day.

I got absolutely smoked during the semi-final round, but the cool thing was I got to play all the demo games with a lot fewer people in the convention center. Plus I have a certificate signed by Mario himself.

I now tag Motorcycle Manifesto, Cross Thoughts, (get off your lazy butt and update), Last Best Angry Man, and The Uber Dude.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Top 10 Favorite Things About 2006

You gotta love a New Year.

Even better than a New Year, you gotta love stealing tired old ideas for blog post topics.

This list is pretty simple: these are my favorite things from 2006. They come from a variety of categories with no real connection, rhyme, or reason. They may be things, they may events, or they may have just made me laugh.

10 - Dwarf Fortress

The fine blog Dubious Quality was where I first heard of this little game back in September. At first I didn't pay it much mind, but in December I finally reinstalled XP for the sole purpose of giving this game a whirl.

Holy. Crap.

Never you mind that the graphics are borderline pukeworthy. Once you get over the craptacular ASCII, you realize that the focus in this game has been all about *gasp* gameplay. Trying to summarize this game is nigh impossible due to its incredible complexity, but at the basest level the game is about trying to keep a bunch of dwarves alive through harsh winters, attacks from various beasts, and even personal emotional crises.

The whole thing is still in an alpha stage, which is absurd for how polished the game actually is. I encourage you to download the game (it's free) and take it for a spin. You'll definitely want to look over some of the wiki for some tips on starting out... the game and interface can be overwhelming at first, but I promise you it's worth it. If my endorsement doesn't persuade you (and why would it really?), I encourage you to read some of these stories from player experiences in the game in the Dubious Quality archives (or just search for "Your Dwarf Fortress Stories").

How does this little game make the top 10? Because it is everything that mainstream gaming isn't right now (with the possible exception of Nintendo). It is gameplay focused, ambitious, and is willing to believe that graphics should be secondary to complex, detailed gameplay.

9 - 10,000 Days

Being a Tool fan, this was an easy one. By far my favorite album of the year (with the Decemberist's Crane Wife coming in second), Tool went to strange new places on this one, to the chagrin of more than a few folks.

But I like it when a band isn't afraid to try something new. Besides, at its core, 10,000 Days is still Tool: the melodies and lyrics are still complex, the songs still challenging, and the song lengths epic. Yay!

8 - Guitar Hero

Had I actually received my copy of Guitar Hero for the Playstation 2 sooner (technically I got this just after New Year's) this may have ranked higher. In fact, an argument could be made this shouldn't be on the list.

But the game is just too damn fun to leave off. No matter how silly you might think it is to buy a controller for the sole purpose of playing one game (in this case two if you have the sequel), once you try this game you will find it hard to stop.

There is something unbelievably satisfying for a schlub like me who cannot play a real guitar at all to rip through "Sweet Child of Mine", even on a video game. The whole experience is incredibly immersing: from the sound of the crowd responding to how well (or how poorly) you are playing, to the "Star Power" game mechanic, which gives you bonus points when you hold the guitar vertically like a rock icon, the thing really makes you feel like you're the real deal.

Plus it's just hilarious to watch other people play it.

7 - The Departed

The best movie I saw this year was Martin Scorsese's Departed. It was nice to see him get back to formula that has always worked for him: foul language + violence + gangs + ass kickings = good cinema entertainment.

When I heard Scorsese was doing a remake of Infernal Affairs, I thought it would be okay (since that movie was just okay). I was wrong. The Departed is like a rabid, snarling pit bull let off the chain running amok in Williams & Sonoma.

6 - Dems Take Congress

I tend to sit on the liberal side of the fence on social issues while leaning towards the conservative side on economics, but in the end I like it best when government is split.

It just seems to me that things run a whole lot more smoothly in situations like these because it is harder to pass crummy laws that only a few people actually want. The checks and balances work best when no one party has all the power.

I have no illusions that anybody will get much done in the next couple of years before the next Presidential election, but I actually prefer deadlock to insane laws like the Patriot Act.

5 - Quitting World of Warcraft

Let me preface this by saying, AGAIN: I did not write "The View From the Top".

My own story of quitting WoW was much more tame than Andy's now (in)famous guest post.

I started playing Warcraft when Julie (my fiance, then girlfriend) was studying for the bar. Having recently moved to Delaware, this left me with some free time, and a buddy persuaded me to try out WoW to do some gaming with him.

The whole thing got a little out of control. I played the game constantly and found myself thinking about it all the time. I persuaded other people (Andy included) to try the game out. I didn't even mind anymore that I was barely able to see Julie... the game was just so damn fun.

Long story short, Julie passed the bar. And I was still playing the game. In the end a number of factors combined to result in my quitting. Primary among them was getting to spend time with Julie again, which made me want to play the game less. When you are level 60 and play the game less, you fall behind your friends and guildmates, who are able to get better gear/stronger characters. It wasn't long before I was basically left in the dust and the decision became pretty easy.

Since quitting Warcraft though, with that newly acquired time I have lost 40 pounds (which was not due to WoW, although I'm sure it didn't help) and participated in NaNoWriMo, successfully writing 50,000+ words of a novel.

I still play games and still love them. The novel isn't done, and I still slack off when I go home. But quitting WoW freed up the ability to do a host of other things (some useful to personal growth, some just other ways of slacking off) that I wasn't able to do while playing and keeping pace with my guildmates.

I don't hate WoW. But I like doing all the other stuff instead.

4 - Nintendo DS

Which transitions us nicely to another time waster: the Nintendo DS. This thing made me completely rethink what was possible on a handheld platform. The games like Brain Age and New Super Mario Bros. are clever and can be played in small doses. Games like Final Fantasy III and Castlevania can waste hours of your time.

Altogether the unique methods of input (writing with the pen and actually talking to the thing in particular) make this thing second to none. The PSP has better graphics capabilities, but it was the DS that made me realize once and for all that graphics are really at the point where they should be a non factor when we are talking about games. What the DS provides is a great platform to try some new ideas (Elite Beat Agents, anyone?) and get designers out of the FPS/RPG/RTS rut.

3 - Prince of Nothing

If you haven't heard of this trilogy by R. Scott Bakker, do yourself a favor and at least check out the first book, The Darkness That Comes Before.

If you don't like it, stop right there. If you do, pick up the next two because the books get progressively better, unlike certain other series.

I didn't pick up the first book until the end of last year, but this series makes the 2006 list because the final book of the trilogy, The Thousandfold Thought, was released in February.

In my personal opinion, this series is even better than George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. A lot of folks will disagree with that due to some of the hurdles in Prince of Nothing (I initially had a lot of trouble keeping the complex names straight), but those who stick with it I think will find it very rewarding and above all, quite original.

2 - iMac

At the beginning of the year I bought the Intel iMac, my first Apple computer.

At the risk of sounding like a frenzied fanboy, it has completely changed the way I think about my home computer.

I'm not a Windows or a Microsoft hater. In fact, Microsoft platforms are part of the reason I have a job in the first place.

But the whole Mac experience is different in so many subtle ways that it is sometimes hard to explain to the average PC user why it is better.

The whole thing is just so seamless, simple, intuitive... and damned if it doesn't all just work the way you'd expect. Is there anything the average user needs that a Mac can do that a PC can't? I can't really think of anything.

But it's like the difference between driving my Hyundai Accent and a BMW. My car will get you from point A to point B (well, probably). But the BMW will make you enjoy it.

1 - Getting Engaged

Yeah, I know, cheesy.

But if this didn't rank number one, I think I'd have to reevaluate a lot more than this silly list.

Seriously though, how could I not be excited about marrying a great girl like Jules?

If 2007 is even half as good as 2006, I'll be in damn good shape. Here's hoping that 2007 brings all of you happiness and prosperity.