I like games. I like Thirty Flights of Loving. Let’s dissect it.

The great Mongolian lie

What do you do when you’re already out, gathering groceries and finishing other miscellaneous errands before the weekend ends? You go to lunch, and since you’re far enough away from home and the usual spots, you check Yelp.

Yelp led me to one of the greatest restaurants in Renton, Wash. area a few months ago. A small barbecue place where the orders—ribs, chicken, turkey, and brisket, usually brisket—meet you at the table as soon as you sit down. The immediacy is a good thing, because the food was tremendous the last three or four times I’ve visited.

Where would Yelp bring me to next? I would say my hunger for Mongolian grill was subconscious, but as soon as Yelp’s local recommendation was a place of the type, the recent lack of it jumped right to the front of my mind. It had been too long since the steam of a salty combination of grilled meat and noodles sat under nose. You have to be practically voracious for the heaps of food you’ll walk away with at a Mongolian grill—and I was. Lunch was decided.

My only comparison to Jasmine’s Mongolian Grill in Kent, Wash. was the two Chang’s Mongolian Grills I had spent the last 5 years of my life bouncing back and forth from. The Mongolian grill is a simple idea, one that I doubt is capable of flubbing. You’ve got a buffet-style line of fixings—thinly sliced meat and poultry, vegetables, noodles, seafood, and an assortment of flavoring liquids—that lead to a massive, circle-shaped, flat grill at some ungodly amount of heat. You slide through the ingredients filling up a bowl or two, soak it in a brew of liquids like soy sauce and garlic that only a true witch could love, and you hand it to the chef as he orbits around the grill.

I’ve learned during my frequent visits to Chang’s over the years that there’s a secret game at play while you listen to your concoction char and sizzle on the grill in front of you. The chefs dump each bowl of food onto the grill in order and you have to remember which one is your’s. The trick is to remember the order, because everyone’s mixture is meat, vegetables, and noodles too. I’ve gotten someone else’s creation before and I was very confused and soon disappointed as I made my trek back to the food aisle with a new bowl. If you want to eat what’s rightly yours, you’ve got to pay attention.

With this elaborate lead up to the actual eating of the food, you’d think it would be full of depth and texture to make it all worth it in the end. No, not really. It’s mostly a confusing mixture of Asian flavors, mostly soy sauce, and noodles. In a lot of ways, it feels like the equivalent of a KFC chicken bowl with its lazy combination of chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, gravy, and cheese. It’s like someone threw a bunch of ingredients into a bowl (heh) and thought what better way to bring this all together with way too many noodles? The result is an overwhelming plate of carbohydrates and grease, not all that different from the drive-throughs that lined the the way home. I can’t say I was surprised; I just forgot.

I’ll give Jasmine’s points for making waddle-inducing food look like it has some amount of class. The place breathes with a high ceiling and wide walkways. Chang’s always feels so needlessly congested with tables and booths behind two imposing walls to funnel you to the grill. I realize the whole concept is not far off of a scientist testing to see if a rat is smart enough to find the cheese at the end of the maze, but it doesn’t need to be that obvious.

What cemented this devious relationship between food and eater is my discovery tonight as I was doing a little research on the history of Mongolian grill cuisine. I found out it’s essentially a lie. It’s actually defined as Mongolian barbecue, but it’s neither Mongolian or barbecue. It’s roots are in Taiwan and its popularity spread into America. This is the second time today that I can’t say I’m surprised. Mongolians typically eat lots of meat because their cold climate doesn’t allow vegetables to grow reliably. Mongolian barbecue is more related to a Japanese style of cooking called teppanyaki, which consists of food fried on an iron griddle. Leave it to Wikipedia to reveal to me the truth of what I gladly put inside of my mouth.

The internet brought me to Jasmine’s and it will probably keep me away. Let this be a personal reminder that there are so many better options out there than a plate of food with a fake ID and the power to make me hate myself tonight. I will not be fooled again.

On the artificiality of choice in The Banner Saga

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Writer Walt Williams says there’s a third option to each of the big choices in his game, Spec Ops: The Line. The choice between two horrible things, like killing someone in cold blood or putting your own teammates in danger for example, has an out, one that is available for the rest of the game. It’s the only choice that absolves you of the sins the game asks you to do. It’s simple, and one that is available before you even interact with the game. He was surprised so many players had not chosen it.

He says it’s the ability to quit playing the game.

Stop playing and no more bad can happen in the world. The weird, meta-level choice, which could prevent all of your participation in the horrors of Spec Ops: The Line, isn’t acknowledged in the game. It sounds like a cop-out, like telling someone to cover their eyes if a film becomes extra violent. It still happens, whether you see it or not.

For the players who reached the point where the events of Spec Ops: The Line were too despicable, quitting the game is probably a very powerful decision. But for the majority of players, the decision is only strong in hindsight, after you’ve done all the horrible things.

I thought The Banner Saga had answer to the problem. It was so close.

The depressing world of The Banner Saga is full of choices similar to Spec Ops: The Line. They’re all bad, it just depends on how you look at it. The correct answer is completely subjective.

You have to make these decisions throughout the game as your character quickly becomes the leader of hundreds of people traveling from town to town trying to survive the beginnings of an apocalypse. Lots of people die because of your actions.

The Banner Saga’s grim tale is just as clear in the game’s turn-based combat, where the speed of attack and the number of units outweigh calculative strategy. The game isn’t afraid of surrounding your team with enemies that will almost always take several of your fighters with them in death, which gives the victory screen a unnerving tinge of uncertainty every time.

Near the end of the game, my character had seen the worst. He was exhausted, and in my case, was without food, water, and sleep for several days. The damage to his nerves from failing as a leader and the approaching army of enemies at the gates of the town were driving him mad. He solved a riot in the streets not with the righteousness that his people had believed in him for, but by showering all of them, bad or good, with arrows. A massacre was easier than thinking, because thinking is what led to the mess he was in.

He had cracked and his last hope of redemption was the arrival of a mysterious woman who could save them all. He could continue waiting for her as the walls of the town were slowly overrun or he could escape with hope that she might catch up to them if she was really coming, because even her existence was doubtful.

In severe desperation, and by the game letting me choose to rest the days away, I chose to wait for this woman. I waited until we ran out of supplies. I waited until everyone but my closest friends had left. My character was spent, and he wanted to die.

But The Banner Saga wouldn’t let him. Once it became clear the game wouldn’t support my decision I had to move on and escape the town. I felt lied to. For the whole game, the numerical values that were associated with the warriors and clansmen in my group were false. The numbers didn’t matter. The characters in the game acted like we still had hundreds of people following us. We should have died in the town.

I’m left wishing it would have given me a game over screen like it does when you’re defeated in battle. Why can my character only die by fighting? The Banner Saga is as much about leading people as it is about war, why didn’t it support a death that felt natural given the choices it let me make to define my character?

Instead, I had to see the game through to an authored completion that the developers forced me to see. And it was far less affecting than the one I had created myself using the options I was given. Looking back now, all the choices I made are undercut by the artificiality of the game. It’s hard for me to disconnect the way it damaged the larger themes of the game from my appreciation for everything it was going for.

The third option to stop everything, to essentially have my character kill himself was there, but it didn’t follow through. So, maybe Williams’ solution was speaking to the idea that games don’t like to let you fail. It’s a stop-gap answer to a problem with games not representing their themes through the actual interaction. It’s in protest of the game suddenly disregarding your input. I don’t think alienating me was The Banner Saga’s point, but for now, quitting the game is the only choice left. Hopefully more choice-driven games will come around that challenge that idea.

On the Dark Souls resurgance

Dark Souls has made a come back in the last few months leading up to the sequel’s release. Notable people who have dismissed the game from both a distance or after having played it for a few hours, are getting back into it and discovering what it’s really about. It’s like the jocks are discovering that Dungeons & Dragons is actually cool.

Of course, everyone who already gets the game knew that after several hours with it everything clicks into place and the language of Dark Souls switches from being antagonistic to educational, clever even. It’s not like other games. Most games have short tutorials, it’s designed to teach throughout, provided you’re willing to listen.

Similarly, I had a difficult time reading Cloud Atlas’ Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After chapters, where narrator Zachry Bailey speaks in very fictional, but plausible, broken English. It was a hard turn from the rest of the book’s dialect, which felt pretty historically accurate in my narrow knowledge of the early 1800s and 1900s. It took 10 pages or so before Bailey’s accent clicked and imagery of the words returned. And it was somewhere near the end of the whole book that I realized how brilliant author David Mitchell used language as a tool to teach you about a character and the setting.

In Dark Souls, the point where the game really begins to make sense, just like the words in Cloud Atlas, takes much more time, but when it gets there, it hits hard and re-contextualizes much of the game, which is why I also believe Dark Souls demands a second playthrough. On that second time through the Undead Burg, you’ll see that enemy placement and the complex environment are there to teach you. They probably already taught you, but it was more a cerebral understanding you had before you realized the design was always there staring at you while you fumbled through your early attempts.

So is Dark Souls’ inability to speak the same way other games do a flaw? I think that purely depends on taste. I think it’s stunning that a developer like From Software can escape tradition and make a game so vastly different than others and do it well.

But It’s okay to say Dark Souls could be more accessible by explaining itself better. You shouldn’t have to spent 20 hours with it before you like it. It’s incredibly frustrating, just as it is trying to tell what someone who has a thick accent is saying. Sometimes it just comes down to having an open mind, that’s willing to learn and to change.

It’s assuring for me, then, that many people are giving Dark Souls another shot. They’re trying to expand their knowledge of games. Some works take time to interpret, and games have that ability to let you screw up and misunderstand. It lets you do it for its entirety, I actually think failure in the game is blatantly intentional—but that’s another article. Even if it did take them too long, its inspiring that the medium supports a game that can keep its secrets held tight inside the very design of the game, that the best writing can only barely convey, and still surprise and seduce newcomers years after its release.

Nothing but a candy bar

I felt helpless. I went in unprepared, which always turns out to be the downfall of people in situations that involve monsters. We went to find some fellow survivors in a farm house down a dirt road. The zombies were light on the drive there. The farmers weren’t happy with our arrival as we pulled up. I took the risk of moving toward the house when they could have shot me. I had nothing to fight back with other than a gun I had only used once before. My stick broke beating a zombie the previous night.

We were just doing what we were told. I didn’t want to be kicked out of the church with the other survivors. I had no way of living on my own, and my partner was badly injured, stuck to a bed for the last day. What else could I do?

I asked, no I demanded they come back with us. Me? Where did the girl who drove with me go? I had only met her the day before. Maybe she abandoned me. We didn’t talk on the drive here. Did she know? How could she know? I couldn’t waste time. It wasn’t supposed to be this complicated.

They told me to get inside. A horde of them were coming. I immediately felt like the odds were against me. Out of my element. I looked around the house, but I couldn’t pick up the discarded wooden boards. All I had were my arms and my legs to fight against these horrors. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. They’ve done this before right? They’ve survived for two weeks, surely they’ve done this before. One farmer ran upstairs to tend to a wounded farmer friend or brother or someone. The third was down with me. We tried to board up the windows before they arrived. We had only recently finished before the flesh-eating beasts were tearing down our work.

I used my revolver first, I couldn’t go out there and face them. I shot and shot. My bullets were more dangerous than they were. Each shot tore apart the boards, exposing the safety of the house to them. But I had already begun shooting and it was at least narrowing their numbers down. The farmer with me kept it defensive and tended to the broken boards. I kept shooting. I started to miss and the panic set in. My thoughts escaped my moment-to-moment actions and felt distant. My body kept shooting, missing horribly, but my mind was already planning on the inevitable hand-to-hand battle that was next.

Click. Out of bullets.

My mind returned. Someone outside mentioned a larger zombie was approaching. Was it her? It sounded like a man. I could figure this out. I scrambled around the house in search of a weapon, something, anything at all. Damn my unpreparedness.

The big one was standing outside. I could hear its deeper, guttural noises. I knew it was a problem that needed to be faced as quickly as possible. I couldn’t see it through the boards though. I took a breath and rammed open the front door, not realizing my own adrenaline-fueled strength. To my surprise, and likely its too, we met face-to-face. I had no choice but to start slamming my fists into its rotund form. It picked me up and squeezed. I should have died there, but it loosened its grip long enough for me to wriggle out.

I stumbled back through the door, forgetting to close it. It couldn’t fit itself inside. Thank god. One of the farmers ran up to him and got the same treatment as I had just did. He didn’t make a sound, ran through the door, also forgetting to close it, and went back to work. While it was distracted I had given it a few more strikes. Maybe out of anger, maybe out of hope that I could go out with dignity.

I was quickly distracted by the zombies finally crawling through a neglected window. Too many and too fast. I was caught, and one latched onto my neck. Blood everywhere. This was it.

Wait, I had pills! Hope. I plucked them out of my pocket, but as I tried to fiddle with the child-proof lid—damn those things—I was volleyed between the undead beasts. The pills eventually found my mouth and I swallowed. They couldn’t heal the pain fast enough. I knew these things couldn’t help, those liars. I fell in exhaustion, again and again. Each time, I got back up before they could pile on top of me. I was weaker. I searched through my pockets for something to save me. Nothing but a candy bar.

They bit me again. There was more blood on the wooden floor of the farmhouse than inside of me. I fell again, this one felt harder than the rest. They surrounded me. I felt tension, someone pulling me out from under this savage nightmare. It must have been her. But all I could see was there glowing eyes. It kept pulling and pulling and I looked down as my belly began to tear. I went into shock before I could scream as my body was split in two. Damn my unpreparedness.

—-

I was playing State of Decay and thought I’d try something new.

Notes on: Tearaway

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Tearaway is a lot of things. It’s charming, bright, cute, and novel, often all at the same time. It’s also a lot of other things.

1. Tearaway is contradictory. It’s a world made of paper wrapped around a journey where an animate envelope helps animals in order to eventually reach a You, as in you, the player. It’s a game about helping the wildlife in a world made of dead trees, bent and curled into an artist’s vision. Then there’s the irony of a game built, in fiction at least, with old media on a modern electronic device.

2. Tearaway is a love letter to mechanical games? As the game progresses, the input methods become more and more artificial and gamey. A jump button, then a roll button, then a vacuum weapon. And eventually, the game fully inherits its medium and becomes a tricky platformer, not unlike a modern Mario.

3. Tearaway must be about the loss of the purity of tangible, touchable, art, then? A bit pretentious, maybe, but people like to throw around the word “hipster” a lot these days and it might be the best example in game form. In a way it’s almost as final a sentiment as the ending of BioShock Infinite. Here is a game that fighting against itself, irony be damned. Is it developer Media Molecule’s final work? I doubt it.

4. Tearaway is a tragedy, then. It begins so hopeful and pure and sides with the other end of the argument by the end. Which doesn’t make much sense in a medium that only exists because technology has advanced to a point where we can simulate things with computers. I don’t think that invalidates the game, but it surely is interesting.

5. Maybe Tearaway is about the beauty and complexity of the human hand. It’s so articulate and powerful. It can create and destroy. Two things you’re required to do throughout it. But it never demands you draw a certain thing, it only asks. You could draw anything really, and it would accept that. One key moment had me draw a snowflake. I did, and it doused the snowy landscape in my freakish, blue snowflakes—which were really just stars because I lacked the patience to revise my first draft. As soon as I saw my work replicated in the world, I thought of what hideous things I could have drawn instead, and the game even lets you re-do it too, but again, my patience was too little. It even lets you collect and print out paper versions of the objects inside of it for use in reality. See how intricate all this is? You can do it too, with your hands.

6. Okay, instead, maybe Tearaway is some kind of comment on human selfishness. For the entire game you control a character on its way to you, or a camera feed of your face. You, as previously mentioned, create and destroy. The creatures of the world are never not fascinated by your ability to correct wrongs. It’s all about how great you are and ends telling you about all your accomplishments. Thinking about it this way is gross. Video games aren’t the only thing about you these days though. “What’s on your mind?” my Facebook page asks. Twitter used to ask me something similar, now it’s all about gaining followers. Of course, video games too are about you. RPGs are about your imagination, shooters are about your skills, puzzle games are about your intelligence. I don’t want to get too reductive, but it’s possible it’s almost deviously worshiping you for the length of the game to appease a sickening, modern view of being entitled to everything.

So, in conclusion, Tearaway is secretly some kind of devilish thesis statement against the modern, digital era. Or not.

Maybe I’m reading into it too much. Maybe I have no idea what Tearaway is. I do know it’s good, and it’s worth playing.