Posted on December 25, 2020
Like any true millennial nerd, reared in the lap of Microsoft and Sony, I’ve recently been playing through the now completed (I think) Halo: Master Chief Collection. As the name implies, it’s all the games rolled now into one volume. And a total delight. Most of my teenage existence revolved around Halo. All my friends played it. My brother’s friends played it. Everyone played it and played it religiously. So to have the means to play through them all as (for all intents and purposes) one continuous experience? What a thrill and, surprisingly enough, enlightening.
Halo: Reach, the last game in the series to be developed by the original studio, Bungie, is conversely the first game in the continuity. The story follows a squad of Spartans (cybernetic supersoldiers) as they fend off an alien invasion of the planet Reach and is a direct precursor to the very first game, Halo: Combat Evolved. Reach itself is an action-packed romp that brings together all the highlights that the series is known for and adds a few more finishing touches to round out what is an excellent experience. At the time, the game was at the pinnacle of game design for first-person shooters. But this isn’t meant to be a review of a game that was released 10 years ago.
Naturally, having beaten Reach, I flowed right into Halo: CE. And the transition was almost disorienting. Everything had been stripped away. All the ephemera gone, not even the ability to sprint left behind. I wasn’t playing through someone’s idea of a real futuristic war anymore. This was a game. There are few other instances that so starkly juxtapose how much game design has changed, two different eras right on top of each other. I noticed the small but fundamental differences almost immediately.
Something strange happened on the second level, right after you make “planetfall” on the eponymous ringworld, Halo. I’m driving along in the now-famous Warthog battle humvee with my marines in the side seat and manning the turret. Things are just as I remember. What a joy. Then I roll into the first interior environment. Your stay is brief, but revelatory. There is a pitfall ahead. Harmless. Simply drive back up the ramp and approach from a different angle to get the lift needed to jump the gap. Then off you go on your way to avenge the human race against the alien Covenant. An entirely forgettable experience, until of course you remember.
When I played Combat Evolved for the first time as a wee lad, I questioned nothing. It was a fun little puzzle and, as any self-respecting Halo player knows, one of the most entertaining things to do in the game is to wreck your Warthog in new and inventive ways. But now, as a full-blown Lad, I see the structure for what it is: something designed, ostensibly by a sentient race of beings. This creates an obvious question. Why is there a random pitfall? The answer is also obvious. Because it’s fun.
That will seem strange to anyone reading this who started their gaming odyssey after the advent of Xbox Live and the widespread adoption of consoles. But aren’t games still fun, you ask? Don’t I have fun while I’m playing a game? Of course I do. Otherwise what’s the point! What indeed. It’s not so much that games are devoid of fun now; rather that their sort of fun is of a different kind. It isn’t the fun of ‘play’. It’s the fun of simulation, of immersion. Of feeling like you are really there on the battlefield. Visceral.
I thought back to my time playing Reach, which offered such a different experience than that which I was playing through now. Fighting from point to point, guided again and again by markers on my HUD, linear path after linear path after linear path. I thought about the years between the titles, a not inconsiderable decade of changes and advancements in tech and design. I realized one change in particular had snuck by. Over the years, hidden in the undercarriage of massive leaps in graphics and artificial intelligence. An Achilles Heel, almost: gone were the jumps and pitfalls of Halo: CE, arrived were the linear levels and boxy buildings of Halo: Reach.
These days pure playful fun seems to be a lost art in modern gaming. When you’re playing Combat Evolved, you’re playing a game and conscious of playing a game. You’re not playing a simulator. You’re playing a game. That isn’t true anymore. Which is why Halo: Reach feels so different. It’s why many games these days feel so different and something of the original feeling of playing a game can only be recaptured by playing Nintendo titles like Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey. Those experiences alone disprove the theory of nostalgia warping the idea that games are different now. And it’s worth noting that Nintendo remains an industry force simply by keeping alive that kind of game design.
Halo is an interesting series to examine in this light. The first installment, Combat Evolved, came at a turning point in gaming. Real gaming. Not arcades and Super Mario, but as an art form. It had the unique experience of bridging the gap between these two eras. Halo: CE launched the industry into the next era and popularized video games in ways never before seen; and yet it also retained enough of its roots to still feel like a game, something light and fun, down to even the awkward movement and buoyancy of the vehicles.
One of the hallmarks that transcended each game in the series, like a piece of retro DNA, were the incredibly high and incredibly slow jump mechanics. These moon leaps were so baked into the gameplay that the multiplayer almost centered around them. While everything else changed, elements like these remained the same. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Halo also remained a stalwart of multiplayer gaming even as the story stagnated under the care of new developers. It’s such an almost metaphysical quality, a secret sauce, that there’s really only one word to describe it: fun.
Posted on December 14, 2020
The most intense flood of relief I’ve felt in years came when I placed the barrel of a rifle underneath my chin the evening before Election Day.
Finally: no more attempting to hold things together, no more trying and trying and trying to be happy. No more wondering what more I could do if therapy and antidepressants weren’t cutting it, if quitting my job to follow my dreams did as much as playing video games all day in college. Which is to say, nothing. No more anything. I thought I’d succeeded in pushing away anyone who ever cared about me. And if no one cared, then that meant I didn’t need to care anymore either. Finally, was the only word I could think. Finally.
That was, at least, until my wife walked in just after I’d loaded the magazine.
Something was always wrong. I just didn’t know what. No one else did either. Mental illness runs in my family like a hereditary birthright. This was normal. We knew nothing else. And even after years of therapy and medication, I could not imagine anything else. I ran aground time and time again. I was out of ideas as well as energy and hope and just a general will to continue. This past year, horrid for anyone with a soul or at least bills to pay, had thoroughly depleted me. Beyond just the looming sense of doom, the noxious atmosphere hanging over all our heads, it was easily the worst in my own personal hell.
I started and quit a job in two months that I thought was going to last me for decades. I thought I finally grabbed the brass ring. Not so. Quite the opposite was waiting for me. Then the pandemic hit. I didn’t last long after that. My health, physical and mental, quickly started to spiral. My antidepressants were increased twice, but to no avail. So I did the only thing I thought would help and quit on the spot. And for a minute? It did help.
Then the minute passed.
The months that followed were a tidal wave slowly rolling to shore. I was free and clear from that awful job, but what did that mean for the next job? Was it the job, or was it me? Could I work again with my particular cocktail of mental and physical chronic conditions? What did it mean for me if I couldn’t? I’d be dead weight. I was dead weight. If the job killed the engines, then leaving it started the nosedive.
I wouldn’t realize until later that I was caught in the trap of a misdiagnosed mental illness, that I was in freefall and flailing. Looking for anything to hold onto or at least keep the blinders on. And each time I found something? The winds changed. Every therapy appointment was a new solution. Whatever I’d found the week before didn’t fit anymore. Inexplicably. It must be something else, then. Right? Wash, rinse, repeat. Until I got tired of looking around for an answer and in the process drove a lot of the good out of my life, drove a wedge between myself and those who loved me.
I came so close to tying the whole thing off with total blackness. In the days before and after, I thought about the release many times and in great detail. So much detail, in fact, that after learning rifles were not ideal for home defense, as the round can penetrate through walls and injure a neighbor, I started to think about which way I would lay in the bathtub so not only would the mess be minimized but also mine would be the only death. I even tested the sit of the muzzle to be sure I wouldn’t just suffer a brain injury and become a vegetable for someone to take care of. I am profoundly lucky that my wife had not gone to sleep as I thought. Profound luck is the only reason I am still alive. I made it to the next morning and an emergency psychiatry appointment.
And, lo and behold, I was correct. Something was seriously wrong. After taking a deeper look at some of my symptomology I was diagnosed with not just Bipolar Disorder, but Bipolar II Disorder. The condition is notoriously hard to diagnose and worsens over time, leading some experts to declare it the worse of the two varieties. Traditional Bipolar is characterized by the low-low’s of clinical depression and full-blown mania with (sometimes lengthy) spurts of normality in between; but Bipolar II is not so clear-cut.
Again and again I saw the metaphor of a snowball rolling downhill, noticeable only at dangerous proportions. Only my snowball had a little help. Bipolar Depression, already a cause for mood dysregulation and personality disturbances, becomes incensed when unknowingly medicated with an antidepressant. Hypomania goes from simply excessive to dangerous. Mixed episodes increase, and your mood cycling becomes much more volatile and rapid. I became far more aggressive and agitated than happy or excitable. My life had turned into a game of Russian roulette, the gun pointed inward and outward and upward and downward. But now, with my revised diagnosis, I could finally see the gun.
Suddenly all the pieces started to fall into place. I soon realized this had been happening for many years. I never had any throughline or baseline to work from. My interior self operated entirely of its own accord. My emotions (and consequently my feelings toward people) seemingly changed with the wind and without any rhyme or reason. I ran down so many ghosts in life and in therapy, shuttered myself into so many roads forward, that I’d ended up nowhere I wanted to be and with no way to get back.
You see, this illness–undiagnosed or, worse, misdiagnosed–is not unlike being caught in limbo. Nothing is real, everything is changeable, including yourself. You pinwheel through a chaos of emotions and personality disturbances until you’re not you anymore. Put simply, it is hellish. For yourself and everyone around you. You can imagine how much pain and destruction you’ll do to yourself and leave in your wake by following a broken compass. So step one was of course getting a new one.
That reorientation came in the form of a little white pill called Lamictal. The change, while not immediate, has been profound. Each night I log my mood for the day, checking with my wife to be sure I’m not deluding myself. And I can’t believe I’m able to say I haven’t had a bad day, much less a mood swing, in well over two weeks. That hasn’t happened in a long, long time. When I’m happy, I’m just happy. Calm, contented. When I’m down, I’m just down. I can turn away from negative thoughts and hardly ever feel the compulsion to brood.
I haven’t felt this way in over a decade. I finally feel like I have choices now. That I’m not chasing these weird emotional winds that vanish and reappear and blow in different directions, obeying this supposed and secret will of the universe.
But this hasn’t come without a cost. All of this has been really hard to bear. Harder to bear, I think, than if I was anyone else. One thing I’d always been able to hold onto is my durability. That I was a survivor. Because truthfully I’ve survived a lot. I’ve kept climbing whatever mountain this is even when I was too weak to stand. And I really, really thought I’d got high enough to not worry anymore about falling. Until I did. All the way to the bottom. I suppose it’s not surprising. Even the best climber tires out if the summit never gets any closer. But now that I’m at the bottom, free to rest and recuperate, I can see all the paths to the top for the first time. The mists have cleared. I know which way to go now.
So in the end I am glad this happened. I am proud to say this was all for the best. I don’t know where any of this goes from here. Except to say that when you’ve hit your nadir, the only way to go is up. A lot of work remains to be done; but I am hopeful for the first time in many years. Truly hopeful. Not guardedly, not suspiciously or waiting for the other shoe to drop. The other shoe has dropped. And I am still alive. I want to remain alive and to rebuild my life. Put simpler: I ‘want’ again, and not to be dead or forgotten. I have a feeling that nearly succeeding with self-obliteration will have been the best thing to ever happen to me.
Don’t get as close as I did: get help if you’re thinking about the unthinkable.
Posted on December 12, 2020
I have survived
Too long, too much
To fall now
Down, farther into greater shadows
The light will not drift
I will not allow that
I have allowed too much
Crawl across the spine
However bent, however broken
Taking little pieces of me
I will not bear their weight
Anew, fresh in the morning
Their snares, fog
Their hooks, mist
Burnt off under
The touch of the sun
The tunnel has lengthened
But not grown too long
To swallow any hope
Of reaching the end
Flock of witless vulturous
You amalgam of offal
Disgorged from a creature as
Deceitful, as pathetic and simple
I am broken clay but
There is more to the stone
Than there is to you
Posted on December 10, 2020
It’s an experience, and I don’t say that lightly. I’ve been religiously playing games since I was old enough to hold a controller and reach all the buttons. Before I could go through the whole alphabet, I could go through every level of Super Mario World. So when I say that Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the best games ever made and easily the most immersive, even at its bug-ridden launch, it’s not without some amount of weight. And I’ve already sunk in roughly ~20 hours since the game first came online at 7:00 PM EST on December 9th, with each hour building to some crescendo I keep expecting to come. And I know I haven’t hit the high water mark yet. I’m fully prepared to be blown away, perhaps literally.
Your introduction to the world of Cyberpunk 2077 is through the eyes of V, a rough-and-tumble mercenary who’s lately returned to their netrunning alma mater and the game’s main setpiece: Night City. And what a city it is. An elegantly mad gestalt of genre tropes that are so seamlessly blended and remolded that you barely notice them at all. Part Blade Runner, part Neuromancer and part Snow Crash–each titans that spawned a genre–this simultaneously glittering and grungy metropolis is host to a delightful hodgepodge of cultures, aesthetics and social classes. And all of this is backlit by neon and holograms, permeated with the sort of debauched and euphoric techno-misery that only cyberpunk can conjure.
Navigating my way through Night City, dropping in on gangsters souped up with cybernetic implants, hacking soda machines for fun and profit, driving around in my robotically bulky yet sleek car, I can confidently say that this is the first time in all my years of gaming I’ve been able to say that I really feel like I’m in the game. CDProjekt Red have succeeded in crafting their masterwork of a complete gaming experience. You don’t question for an instant what you see relative to the setting. The combat is fluid and has weight to the point that even using the standard weaponry is a total joy. If you remember seeing something in a movie, you can probably do just that thing. Almost every part of the environment is traversable and makes for a multitude of approaches to any objective or self-assigned task, not least of which are the many open world missions that dot the map and bring the city alive in their own right.
And this is to say nothing of the story. One might be tempted to deride it as cliche, an overdone and tired homage to greater works that falls flat. But this is not so and for the very reason that the homage is carried off so well. Like many cyberpunk stories, and even cyberpunk adjacent games like Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2077 centers around a heist, the details of which I won’t reveal and mostly because I haven’t gotten that far yet. I’ve been too busy, you see, gallivanting around and cutting clean through Night City’s seedy underbelly with my katana. But what I’ve seen so far is nothing short of thrilling, if not for the simple fact that I don’t have to distort it to fit my idea of playing through a Blade Runner or Neuromancer. Rather it is a perfect reproduction of what that experience would look like. Each character I meet is meticulously crafted to set the scene, to enliven and broaden, and yet so familiar that I feel right at home in the backseat of a fixer’s limo. I have to do no work, and what a gargantuan relief it is.
Cyberpunk 2077 succeeds everywhere that Deus Ex: Humankind Divided fell short, and precisely because CDProjekt Red didn’t take the easy route. You aren’t a cop, a corporate operative or special agent for some kind of cyborg control unit. Those are villains of a different kind, no different from the pushers and fixers. You’re just lowlife scum like the rest of the downtrodden masses that populate Night City. Only you just so happened to have survived long enough to make a name for yourself and trick out your body with cybernetics. Indeed, you only exist above the rest because you were just more brutal and resourceful than the rest. As such, merc-for-hire V doesn’t exist outside the system or its effects on the world around them: You’re an intrinsic part of it, spat out from its ugly chrome womb and molded into a killer. The luxury of looking down and looking in on this twisted reality, brought about by corporate oligarchy and runaway technological advances, does not belong to you. Those in power are as distant to you as the heights of the towers you look at from the sidewalk. Like the police chief in the original Blade Runner says, “If you’re not cop, you’re little people.”
And in the world of Cyberpunk 2077, little people only have one way out from under the boot: cutting through or stealing from enough people to buy a chance at freedom. We’re just lucky it’s so damn fun.