Sunday, December 29, 2013

My Top 11 Games of 2013

Well, garsh....that was kind of an amazing year for games, huh?

As one generation wound down and another sputtered to a start with a phlegmy, throat clearing cough, we were left, in the end, with a rather monumental pile of great or at least very good games, on all platforms.
Thanks to the sheer volume of quality titles, this was the year in which I found myself back into handheld gaming with the 3DS,  and genuinely "struggled"  (if such a word can be used for such a joyous pastime)  to budget my time adequately and keep up with everything I felt I "needed" to play.  As such, I never even got to titles like Assassin's Creed 4, Super Mario 3D World, and more that might have otherwise made this list. So if you don't see your favorite game on here, that's one possible explanation.  Another might be that we just don't like the same things, which is okay and doesn't mean we can't be friends.  Also: I am personally singling out XCOM: Enemy Within as a game that I imagine, in an alternate universe, would not only be on this list but probably at or near the very top,  but is not here at all simply because I played so many hundreds of hours of XCOM: Enemy Unknown in 2012 (and 2013, on my iPad) that I am still in a heavy XCOM detoxification mode and could not handle rekindling the addiction.

As always, this list is the one I happen to be writing right now while I'm in the mood I'm in right now. That is to say, it is not based on science and is entirely subjective, to the point at which I'm likely to disagree with myself as early as an hour after I post this today.  Knowhutumsayin?

So without further waffling or bet-hedging, let's do this.  Oh, yeah, and,  I guess it probably goes without saying but my favorite overall gaming experience this year has been with Dark Souls.  But since that was last year's game, it doesn't count here.  But we all know what's what.

11.  The Swapper
Just barely edged on to the list at the 11th hour, thanks to a recommendation from Giant Bomb's Patrick Klepek. Which is why I'm giving it the 11th spot.  Before he pointed me in its direction, I hadn't even heard of it.  But this PC-only puzzle game from Facepalm Games (available on Steam and from the company's website) is a profoundly clever little game, reminiscent of Portal in its mechanics, and instantly hit that part of my brain that loves this kind of challenge. How to get from Point A to Point B?  It looks impossible.  It seems impossible. Until you finally figure it out and it seems like it was obvious all along.  Here's hoping it finds a bigger audience in 2014.  It deserves it.

10.   Bioshock Infinite
If the rest of the game was as awesome as the first hour,  it'd be at the top of this list.  I loved the opening segment to pieces, writing at the time I played it that it was the best opener since Half Life 1.  I still stand by that.  And while the game was thoroughly entertaining and great to look at throughout, I had the same problem as a lot of folks -- the combat -- which to me just did not mesh well with  and did not have the same high quailty as the rest of the game. Bioshock Infinite abounded in cool ideas and clever, suspenseful storytelling, which is why it's on my list, but the gameplay itself fell a bit short for me.  Plus, I'm just too stupid to understand the ending.  And don't want to go through the combat a second time to try to figure it out.

9.   Rayman Legends
Like my #1 game  (I know you've already peeked ahead and spoiled it for yourself), this is a videogame that revels in being a videogame.  There is no point to Rayman Legends other than to ensure that you have a great time. And that I did.  This platformer franchise has always been mysteriously underrated and underappreciated, and I don't know why. Is it because Rayman has no bones?  Is it because it's actually somewhat difficult?  I do not know.  What I do know is that, even when the game was kicking my ass, I always had a smile on my face.  It looks great, plays great, has fantastic music,  and can (and should) be played by everyone in your family.

8.  Rogue Legacy
I think my average lifespan in this game was about 10 seconds. At best.  I am not very good at Rogue Legacy.  At times it feels like the gaming equivalent of beating my head against a wall.  But goddamn if a good head-beating doesn't feel good sometimes. Rogue Legacy's unique skill tree and progression are really what kept me going: funny in concept but actually super-smart in execution, with new abilities doled out just enough to feel like you may actually make it five more seconds into your castle run than last time. Everyone keeps telling me how hard Dark Souls is...and it is.  But I'll tell you this, I'm way further along in Dark Souls than I am in Rogue Legacy.  But it makes the list for continuing to make me come back for more even as it keeps having its way with me. I'm Rogue Legacy's bitch.

7. Saints Row IV
The sheer ludicrousness of the story is what made this for me.  Unabashedly over-the-top was absolutely the right way to take a franchise that used to draw comparisons to GTA, but has since gone its own way, gloriously, right off the deep end into zero-fucks-given absurdity. I gravitate towards "funny" games. It's just the way I'm built. I'm not sure where this franchise could possibly go now, but the cool thing is that the developers have proven themselves so imaginative now in conjuring the ridiculous that I'll basically follow them anywhere now.

6. Gone Home
Enough digital ink has been spilled on whether this is a "game" or not, so you're getting no more of that from me here. All I know is that I was riveted the entire way through, keeping me guessing (incorrectly), messing with all of my expectations, until arriving at an ending that showed that sometimes the most riveting stories are just the simplest and most mundane. Like the #2 game on this list,  and #3, too,  it focused on family, in a real way, in a way that resonated. That's good enough for me.

5. Papers, Please
On paper, perhaps the most boring sounding concept for a game of all time.  You get to check passport documents and entry visas for people trying to enter into a fictitious Eastern Bloc country, all in gloriously pixilated 2D graphics. Yay?  But, again, execution was everything here.  And what might, in lesser hands, have been a tedious exercise in "hidden object" gaming, turned instead into a funny, often poignant, and surprising meditation on power and choice,  on duty versus morality, on selfishness versus altruism....all laced with grim humor and damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't decisions.  What would you do if this was your real job? Not many games ever really make you think about your own morality.  This one did, and did it while never forgetting to

4. The Stanley Parable
The funniest game of the year  - as long as you're already a gamer.  Like Gone Home (but in a totally different way), The Stanley Parable messes with our expectations around games themselves.  It assumes we've played many of them and then defies us to make sense of this one.  It has an answer for every wiseass decision we try to make, and then out-wiseasses us. Every time you think you may have finally figured out a way to "break" the game, you realize that the developers were still five steps ahead of you, and had a joke ready for you when you land there.  Super entertaining, hilarious narration,  a game about games that's still a great game itself.

3. The Last Of Us
This one climbed higher and higher on the list the further I got into the game.  I'll admit it: After the first hour or two, I didn't even think it'd be on this list at all.  I found the opening section tedious and underwhelming, with a whole lot of "Press A to continue" along with a story that didn't feel very original. Another zombie apocalypse?  Really?  And another character who may be the hope for all humanity?  And even the first rounds of combat didn't do much for me at all. As in Bioshock Infinite, I felt the combat inferior and subservient to the developers' storytelling ambition -- except at least in Bioshock Infinite the story felt original.  But..I kept playing.  And it grew on me. A lot.  The sheer detail of the world began to impress, and, much more important, the dynamic between Joel and Ellie began to gain weight and resonance.  As the story continues, the combat that at first felt mundane takes on increasing urgency, and the story itself takes enough unexpected, suspenseful turns to actually justify itself as the primary raision d'etre (sorry) of the entire experience.  I don't think it's the masterpiece that its strongest adherents feel it is, but it's the one "AAA" game I played this year that seemed like it ultimately justified its budget.  If this was mostly just a game as a big-budget movie, it was a movie I was glad - very glad - to have seen.

2. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Still, for all the emotional resonance that The Last of Us provided,  Brothers did it even better, and more profoundly, with far less.  And without even one word of dialog.  Brothers did something very cool this year, in the humblest of ways.  It presented an almost entirely new way of even thinking about game controls,  with one clever puzzle after another, while, simultaneously, telling an emotionally rich story with an ending as overwhelmingly brutal as any I've ever experienced in a game.  The game world itself is bizarre and mysterious and is never fully explained - thank god - as the developers seem to get that less truly is more, that showing is better than telling. The game looked and sounded beautiful, too.  I always think that the "games as art" discussion is pretty ridiculous.  Still, if any game was "a work of art" this year - whatever the hell that means -  it was Brothers.

1.  Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Pure joy.
I'm neither a Zelda nor a Nintendo fanboy.  I don't have a Wii U and don't particularly want one. I don't even remotely understand the history of Hyrule or how any of these games fit together, nor do I really care.  What I do know is this: I had more fun playing this game than any other game in 2013.  Every single moment in this game, every screen, every piece of music, every puzzle, was pure joy for me.  I played and played and played until I was finished, and then I started it again.   I've read complaints about the small dungeon size, and about the relatively easy difficulty level overall, but for me they were both just perfect.  So maybe that says something about me.  It probably does. But so does every list, and every choice on a list.  For me, A Link Between Worlds was just about perfect. Just challenging enough to make me have to use my brain, but not so tough that it held me up for long.  The wall merging was a brilliant gameplay addition, And that god.  I don't know what really constitutes a "best" game of the year.  Every game on this list was awesome.  But Zelda made me happy every minute I played it.  It was pure joy.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Period of Transition

Hi! Jeff Green here! You might remember me from such jobs as Director of Social Media at PopCap Games! Actually, I still have that title. So nothing has changed, technically, at least in terms of what it says on my business card and paycheck. However, since my online activity has changed of late, and as my name keeps showing up in new places,  like right here, I do have a little 'splaining to do, just so we're all clear on stuff. Like, for the record.

So here's the deal:  I am currently "in transition," as it were, at PopCap, and am not their day-to-day social media guy anymore. And it's all good. Astute readers of this blog may recall a post I wrote in August in which I alluded to the fact that I was feeling restless and ready for more, bigger, better things, and that is happily now the position in which I find myself. PopCap and I are still pals, and they and EA are, as I said, still my employers. I am in what we call "a period of transition" and will be working in a more advisory behind-the-scenes role for a predetermined period of time. And again, it is all good. My time at PopCap has been an awesome one - the best job I've had since the CGW days. We will split - when I split - as friends.

But this post does serve as kind of an official announcement that I am now actively working on and looking for my next thing. What is that thing going to be? I have a few schemes in the works.  I don't know which one, if any currently being considered, is going to pan out. It may be with another company, it may be my own thing, it may be something in collaboration with one or more other folks, like the magazine kickstarter listed above. One thing is almost for sure, which is:  I'll be staying in the gaming industry or gaming media, yabbering about this stuff that I love, as I have for the past 17 years. Because it is what I love.

So there it is. You're gonna see more of me - and hopefully that's not entirely bad news - on this blog, in speaking engagements like this, on my brand new Twitch channel, as part of Kickstarter plans like the one linked to above, and other various forms of online activity, none of which, I solemnly promise, will involve nudity.

Where this is all going to lead me, I have no idea. But it is an exciting and liberating feeling. At least until the money runs out.

So, hey. I'm available.  Pass it around. I've got a good resume and I'm mostly housebroken.  Plus, I yodel on request. Who WOULDN'T hire me?


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Oh boy! My PAX Prime 2013 Schedule!

Hi there!  Jeff Green here. You might remember me from such magazines as Computer Gaming World and game companies like PopCap.  You might also recognize me by my trademarked catchphrase "You're not the Lord of the Rings!" Or maybe you don't know me at all and don't really give a shit. No matter.  The point of this post today is to share my schedule for next weekend's PAX Prime in Seattle, either so you can find me or actively avoid me. 

I'm going to be on three (3) panels at PAX this time, and will also be findable at PopCap's booth on the show floor, where you can come up to me and yell at me about PvZ 2's free-to-play, or the fact that it's not on Android yet.  Really, it's all I've been hearing for the past week, so I'm totally used to it.  Alternatively, you can come up to me and we can talk about something else entirely, like Breaking Bad, or the weather, or Ben Affleck as Batman.  Doesn't really matter to me.  I'm just there for the good vibes, man.  And the convention food.

So below are the panels I am on. I will provide links to the PAX site so you can read more, if you are so inclined.  I'm pretty psyched about all three.  One because it is a fun gathering of old pals, the other two because they are very different from any other panels I have participated in previously.

Listed chronologically:

 Three Old Guys Playing Zork -
What started as a Twitter  joke between me and my friends Dan Amrich and Eric "e"
 Eric Neustadter is now a PAX panel. Yay!  It's basically exactly what the description is. We hope to make this be a fun (yet educational!) look back at one of the seminal works of interactive fiction. Audience participation encouraged!

It's Dangerous To Go Alone: The Take This Panel
What could be more fun at a gaming convention than to attend a panel on depression?  And that's the only joke I'll make on the subject,  as frequenters of this blog know that this is a condition I have suffered from.  Thus making it okay for me to joke about it.  In all seriousness, I'm very honored to be part of this panel, which will discuss issues surrounding depression and how to cope with it, as it relates to our Internet and gaming lives.  If you are at all someone who has suffered in any way, or even just wondering if you do,  I encourage you to attend.  We all have stories to tell. And the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.

CGW/GFW Radio "The Brodeo" Reunion #2: Even Eli Knows What that Means
Yes, just before they close the doors on the show for another year,  just as their putting all the chairs up and the janitors are starting to disinfect the place,  your pals the Brodeo crew will make a second pathetic attempt at relevancy with another reunion!  Yes, watch in awkward, trainwreck silence as these forgotten podcasters relive the old days for an audience of five.  Next year, we'll be on tour of suburban malls with the surviving members of Gilligan's Island,  so catch us now while you can!

Okay? So that's the deal. If you see me, please don't hit me. If you'd like to say hi, or buy me a beer,  I'm up for both, always! And I hope all y'all have a great PAX!

Monday, August 5, 2013

My Multiplayer Problem

I have always sucked at team sports. As far back as I can remember, this has been my curse.  Or one of my curses.  I'm sure I actually have plenty of curses.  But if I stop to think about that I won't write this post at all, and not writing blog posts is another one of my curses.

In any event, I was the worst team sports player I knew growing up.  Here's how bad I was.  I would not be the last person picked for teams when kids were divided up--I was the leftover after the last pick. That is, I'd always make it to the final two.  Me, and, say, Irving Needlebaum-- the blind kid with the wooden leg. The team captain would be looking us over with a pained look on his face, as if having to decide which piece of shit smelled less bad.  Eventually, inevitably, he'd say, "I guess I'll take Irving," at which point everyone would immediately disperse to the playing field without another look back.

"I guess I'm on the other team then?" I'd say to all the players' backs.  And then I'd take my gangly, redheaded, uncoordinated self out onto deep right field and then pray for an earthquake or plague of frogs or even spontaneous combustion  so that I would not have to field a ball or go up to bat.

Later, in the videogame world, I fared somewhat better, thank goodness.  Obviously physical prowess was not a factor, and the sheer amount of time I put into them (since I wasn't busy playing sports)  meant that I actually acquired some skill. Key word being "some."  Except for one game ever, Interstate '76, for which I had some kind of freak, natural ability, the best I could ever hope to be in a multiplayer match was Not Horrible.  Occasionally, if I was particularly inspired, or perhaps unplugged everyone else's mice, I might actually win a LAN match. But it would never last. I'd never get to experience the feeling of being great or dominant in a game.  And frankly, my childhood had prepared me for such inevitability, so I actually didn't (and still don't) have my ego tied into such things.  The difference between videogames and sports, however, was that in videogames I could at least compete.  I could at least score the occasional point.  And, of course, the anonymity of online meant that no one ever know that it was me who sucked. It was Tinkletrousers, or Mike Oxbig, who would endure the brunt of any humiliation.

Where it all began to fall apart for me online, however, was with the rise of team matches.  In solo deathmatches, I only had to worry about myself. I was liberated from having to prove myself to anyone. And my overall feeling would be one of triumph if I didn't suck. The fact that I knew that sometimes I could win, however rare, was enough to keep me going.

But once games like Counter-Strike started getting popular, where skill actually mattered, where players really needed other players to do their best, I was doomed. First, I was nowhere near good enough, from the start. By this time I was already older than the average player, and my reflexes were starting their slow deterioration to their current state of near total calcification. Second, there was the pressure. As in real-world sports, there was the expectation that you knew the rules, you knew how to play, and you were good enough to be on the field in the first place. Anything less, any sign of incompetency - like blowing yourself and your teammates up within the first second of the match by accidentally pressing the Grenade button -  was to be instantly shunned and scolded, and possibly booted from the team.

The problem of course, was and still is the barrier to entry. If all the players in a particular game are skilled and experienced, then it just makes it that much harder for a new player to find his or her footing, to gain any experience or confidence. And there is little to no tolerance by a lot (but not all) experienced players to put up with noobs on the team. Especially in games where everyone takes it totally seriously and winning is everything.

Sometime around 1996, when I knew my deathmatch days were numbered, I started getting all my online kicks in MMOs. In those games, I could hold my own much better. I could also either play by myself or with friends, where the pressure was minor at best.  Even if I played on PvP servers (like my main character in EverQuest), in the end it boiled down to one-on-one situations, where, again, I didn't feel beholden to other players, and thus did far better. Late in my Wow career, however, I had one experience with random players that has stuck with me ever since. I was playing my level 80 dwarf warlock, Eggbertt, a character I was quite proficient at. I was level 80. I'd invested hundreds of hours into the guy. I'd sacrificed a good deal of my life, ambition, and self-respect to build this guy up. Blizzard had rolled out the dungeon finder, which grouped random folks together looking to complete the same dungeon. Most of the time, this was awesome, and eliminated the need for begging.

One night, however, I found myself randomly grouped with Serious Players. Equipment checks were being carried out before we began. Roles were assigned. A plan was made. There was no time for idle chatter and thus no one appreciated my joke about Jim Belushi being the end boss. So in we went. And within 2 minutes,  the "leader" was yelling at me. "WTF EGGBERTT MORE DPS!" "DO U FUCKIN NO HOW TO PLAY?" And so on. I assured him that I did in fact know how to play and that he could calm down because honestly it was just a videogame and not worth the aneurism and, plus, we were just starting. I'd get my game on in due time. Except my time was already up. By the time we'd hit the next group of trash mobs, I suddenly, without warning, found myself warped back outside of the dungeon. I'd been kicked.  He'd taken a quick vote with the rest of the team, and they agreed that I was out.  And I honestly was infuriated. It was an outrage. I felt wrongly accused. I knew how to play this game!  But, that was that, and due to the anonymity of the thing and the millions of players, I knew I'd never find them again to plead my case. But what stuck with me was how serious these players were. How there was no tolerance for error. How the slightest perception of weakness was enough to get booted. And while I blew it off and jumped right back in, because, really, who gives a shit, this is the stuff I try to avoid online. Playing with players who are more intent on winning than anything else - like being civil or tolerant of others - is of no appeal to me. None. Because once you're yelling at people online and getting a busted vein in your forehead because someone isn't tanking correctly, you are beginning to miss the whole point of this entire pastime. (Unless you are a pro, which is another story entirely.)

All of which is a humongous, rambling preamble to what I really wanted to talk about, which is my reluctance to dive into either of the super-popular MOBAs these days - DOTA 2 or League of Legends. I've played through the tutorial levels in both games, and they are super fun. I get it.  I totally see the appeal. As someone who also used to have a blast with real-time strategy, I can see that, in time, I might not completely suck.  The problem is the "in time" part. Because, from everything I've seen and read, from the little I've dabbled in it, I can see that these are hardcore, serious games. Obviously.  And stepping into one of these games unprepared is like stepping onto the track of a horse race right as the gates are being opened.  You are going to be trampled, spun around, and dumped in a ditch within two minutes if you don't know what you're doing, with your teammates yelling at you the whole time. These are deep, deep games requiring a tremendous amount of knowledge and skill -which is their appeal - but which make them near impossible for the curious to dabble in.  Dabbling isn't even really possible. You either commit for the long haul, or don't play.  Yesterday on Twitter I quoted from a Giant Bomb tutorial on DOTA 2: "The first initial 100 hours will be tough."  Is that an investment I'm willing to make? Do I want to slog through 100 hours of abuse and humiliation, just to get to the point where I can start competing?  Don't I have a novel to finish? Oh, right--and a family?

So, I don't know. Maybe the sad fact is that these games are for the young and unencumbered. Back in college, I easily could've devoted 100s of hours to a game, because that's what I did, one quarter at a time, in the arcades.

Or maybe I just have to care about winning more.

To me, the gameplay is the thing. Doing well, and getting better, and having fun doing it.  I've learned, slowly, over time, that once I hit a point of any frustration or anger, to stop a game immediately. Because I know, right then, that  I have lost the plot.  If I want to get frustrated or angry, there are a million other ways to do it rather than ruining an experience I otherwise enjoy.

Which is not to say that I've given up on the idea of DOTA or League of Legends. I have not.  I actively look forward to possibly being convinced to try. That's about as strong as a commitment you're gonna get from me. But I'm telling you now, once you start yelling at me, I'm out. And once you start yelling at me, you should maybe think twice about what you're doing in the first place.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

On Second (and Third) Acts

I became an editor at Computer Gaming World in my 30s. At this point, I had already had many years under my belt as an editor for technical books and magazines--jobs that offered only mild satisfaction at best.  I was also already a father.

My CGW job--which of course bled in and continued through 1UP, GFW, etc--was the job that made me feel like I'd "made it."  It was the first job I was truly happy in, and not coincidentally, was the most successful at. There was not one day, ever, when I wasn't happy to be going to work,  when I didn't know how lucky I was.  Yes, it was not all good times every day, there were lots of politics and headaches, I frequently got angry and frustrated as in every job---but I knew, always, that it just felt right to be there.  It did not ever feel like "work" to me.  It felt like I had just gotten extremely lucky to be doing what made me happy and actually getting paid for it besides. The paycheck almost felt beside the point.  That job allowed me to fulfill a lifelong dream - having a humor column - but also helped me discover skills I had no idea that I had,  and, most important of all, gave me a sense of self-confidence I had lost, for a variety of reasons, around age 13 and until then had never regained.

I left only reluctantly. Only because I could see the writing on the wall (I escaped the notorious "1upacolapyse" by just a few months) and knew I would be laid off.  In addition, my magazine, the laughable and unfortunately renamed Games For Windows: The Official Magazine, had closed down for good,  and while I was adapting well to life online - and was having the time of my life with the GFW Radio podcast - my day-to-day responsibilities were changing to a point where I just felt like maybe my time had come.  So I left.  And that, so far at least, has turned out to be the end of that Act of my life - the act in which I had found my proper place in the world and was happy and thriving and fulfilling my dreams.

This Act, the act I am currently in, is...well, I don't know exactly what it is yet. I sort of half-jokingly called it the "epilogue" the other day to my daughter, and she was swift to scold me. At 51, I still have many things I hope to accomplish,  many goals still unfulfilled,  and much, I hope, to offer. But I freely admit that these last four years,  from the time I left 1UP until now, have not been the easiest,  however else it may appear to anyone who for whatever reason has any interest in me and my career.  Not being able to find a job in the press,  unadvisedly trying my hand at being a game producer, and now muddling along in whatever the hell "social media" is, has not done wonders for my sense of accomplishment or self-worth.  I don't actually know what "success" in these positions means, or whether it matters, or whether what I'm doing is of any remote consequence.   I'm not complaining or feeling sorry for myself or issuing a cry for help.  I'm just saying that it's hard not to feel at times like I'm "the guy who used to be Jeff Green,"  that the past four years have been some kind of glorified early retirement home for me,  even though I sure as hell am not ready for that yet.

In the end, it's all on me. Whether it's at PopCap or somewhere else, whether it's in videogames or something else, it is my personal responsibility to actually take my life in the direction I want it to go, rather than let life happen to me - which is something I've been all too guilty of in the past.

Do I want to write more? Do I want to podcast again?  Do I want to walk away from all of it and go sell bongs on the beach in Kauai?  Yes, yes, and of course not because that would be wrong and not legal and please don't worry mom it was just a joke. The point is that I am in a heavy duty period of self-reflection right now, trying to figure out how best to spend this part of my life, how best to turn this Act into one as vital as the previous one,  one that does not in fact feel like an "epilogue" even when I'm pretending I'm joking about it.

 "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans," according to a quote often attributed to John Lennon.   Sometimes, however, those "other plans" need to take center stage. They need to get shoved out from the corner of the closet they're hiding in and assert themselves. So that's kinda what I'm doing right now.  I'm trying to take those plans out of the closet,  see if they actually still fit, and then put 'em on and see if there's any swagger (as you kids say) left in this middle-aged doofus.

Answers TBD.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Small(er) World

In 1984, at age 23, I packed up a large orange backpack with clothes, some music cassettes, and a copy of Let's Go Europe, and took a one-way flight to London. I had no agenda and no time frame for myself. I might be gone a month, I might be gone forever. With nothing particularly promising going on for me at home, all bets were off.

Stories about that trip could occupy blog posts from me for months. It was one of the great experiences of my life, and a turning point for me in every way. I stayed for four months, returning for the birth of my brother's first child (who just gave birth to HER first child a few months ago). Had that not happened, I don't know how long I would have stayed. Probably a lot longer.

I've been back to Europe many times since then. Partly as an indirect result of that trip, I married a French woman, so as often as our time and expenses can afford we visit her homeland. I'm writing this now from Cabris, France, a small town near Cannes, where we've spent a week relaxing and sightseeing and generally trying to tune out.

The key word in that last sentence, however, is "trying." Because one thing I've been thinking about on this trip is just how much the world has changed, and shrunk, since I first came here in 1984. Back then, there was no email. Back then, there were no cell phones. Back then, there were no websites, or Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram to keep you constantly in touch with the people in your life no matter where in the world you were.

I'm not a Luddite by any means (I'm typing this on my iPad 3 with Bluetooth keyboard attached - there was no way I was going to travel without it - and I've used it constantly throughout the trip), but I do admit to feeling a little bit of old man nostalgia at The Way Things Used to Be while over here this time. On that trip in 1984, I truly felt the reality of my geographical situation: that I was on the other side of the world. No one I knew had any way to get in touch with me. And the only way I could communicate on my end was via postcard, or pay phone, which was an unreliable, complicated, and expensive process. The only news I'd get would be from the International Herald Tribune (or occasionally, depending on the city, the NY Times).

I kept track of my experiences rather meticulously in a written journal, which I own to this day--but this really just for myself. I wasn't sharing "updates" with either people I knew or in the kind of public postings (like this one) that have become a part of my regular life. What I was experiencing was private, and, at age 23, profound and overwhelming, for the specific reason that I was experiencing it alone, without a lifeboat, as it were, of contact with the world that I knew.

I marvel every single day at the miracle of the Internet, of the instant access to information and communication (it's how I make my living, of course), and would not want to have it any other way now. It's insane how lucky we are to be living at this time, with this incredibly empowering technology. If I'd known, back then, that there'd come a day when I could basically own any record or book within seconds of thinking of it, without even having to leave my couch, my head might have exploded. And this is without even getting into the far more serious political and social advances that the Internet has created, through the democratization of information.

But, sitting here in this house in France, knowing that I'm about to hit the Send button on this post, for anyone in the world to read within seconds, and knowing, too, that after posting this I will goof off on Twitter and Facebook and Reddit, connecting with everyone I know as if I never even left, I think something was lost, too. Yes, I could disconnect all my devices and pretend it's 1984 again. And for the most part, I have done that on this trip.

But whether I voluntarily choose to connect or not doesn't change the singular fact that the world is much smaller than it used to be. For better and worse, there's no going back. Being "on the other side of the world" will never again mean what it used to. We're all in each other's business all the time now. It's a freaking miracle, is what it is.

But I'm glad I got to live in a time when it wasn't always like this. When it wasn't a choice. When you were out of touch because you had to be. When being out of touch was kind of the point.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Artifice vs Substance vs Me

Well, I guess that's kind of a heady title for my first blog of 2013, but what the heck.  I'm a heady sorta guy!  Except not really!  Mostly I'm a middlebrow guy (at best) who just happens to like what he happens to like.

But what I've noticed in the last few months, as I've been going to a lot more live theater than I ever have before in my life, is how much I actually *like* artifice,  when done right, when done in a way that feels like it actually elevates the content,  or comments on the content in a cool way. That is, I think I'm okay with artists who kinda like to show the strings and ropes, who signal their intentions, who are consciously aware, and make us consciously aware that we are watching/listening to "art" as opposed to "real life." 

I just started reading David Byrne's new book How Music Works, and he talks about this a lot. About how, as he grew confident as a performer with Talking Heads, he started incorporating elements of Kabuki theater, etc, into his staging of the Talking Heads live shows, having the lighting and staging actually contribute to the mood and feel of each individual song, rather than just being a "live rock and roll show."  He mentions that not everyone, even amongst the performers, felt equally at home with the idea, that others felt he was sacrificing the spontaneity of rock for a more formal artifice. Byrne, while acknowledging the artifice, does assert, though, that the structure does not have to be mutually exclusive with spirit and emotion, and on this I totally agree.

In fact, the Stop Making Sense tour, around which this discussion takes place, remains to this day my favorite concert experience of all time, in part because the "show" that he presented so elevated the music to me, giving the songs even more weight to them than I'd previously felt. In addition, the entire cadence of the show,  from Byrne walking out on an empty stage, with an acoustic guitar and a boombox, to play "Psycho Killer" solo, to the end, when the entire extended band is joyfully grooving to the afro-funk rhythms of their later stuff, tells a story - the story of this band - in a way I'd never experienced before or since.

 I remember when I saw the show, even at the time, that I was aware how cool it was that Byrne had figured out a way to expand their sound and vision to encompass their ever-expanding audience. When I first saw them, in 1979 at Zellerbach Hall for the "Fear of Music" tour, it was just these four geeky, awkward musicians, playing absolutely intense (and great) music, but with zero flash whatsoever.  Anti-flash was really their thing, as it was for many (most) in the early days of punk/new wave. No rock star poses. No machismo bullshit. No elevating themselves above their audience.  And it was awesome.  Especially for uncool nerds like me, who finally had someone to identify with on stage. But as Talking Heads became surprisingly popular (or maybe not so surprising - given their immense talent, brains, and embracing of catchy pop melody), it was clear - even to a mere fan like me - that their original stage presence/persona was not going to translate to a bigger space too well. I actually worried about it.  "Are their new fans going to think they're boring live?"   And what I discovered at the Stop Making Sense shows (I went two nights in a row) was that Byrne, of course, had figured this out way ahead of me. He thought about the larger spaces the band was going to have to fill, and how, to reach those back rows, he was going to have to think differently, not just sonically but visually as well.  When you're in a small club or hall, the individual intensity of the performers is enough. But in a large space, especially from a distance both the band members themselves and the sound can become lost.  Byrne figured this out and took it as a creative challenge and embraced it wholeheartedly, and said, in the end, it filled him with immense satisfaction.

Reading about this stuff, just in the last couple days, was kind of a weird coincidence, since this topic had already been at the top of my mind after my last two experiences at the Berkeley Rep,  seeing "An Iliad" and "The White Snake."  In structure and format, these two plays couldn't be more dissimilar.  One is a one-man show, on a completely bare stage, in which the actor acts/recites/performs The Iliad -  a monstrously brilliant performance that only seems implausible until you remember that that's how The Iliad was presented/performed in the first place, back in Homer's day.  It was oral storytelling, and yet--it was also completely modern, in the way the actor shifted back-and-forth from "classic" text to modern vernacular -- but in a seamless way that didn't feel forced or gimmicky, even as it drew attention to its own artifice. The actor himself was playing a character.  He was a storyteller, THE storyteller, who'd been telling this same story for god knows how long, weary of doing it,  horrified by some of the stories themselves he'd have to tell, tired of praising some of the "heroes",  rebelling against his own job of having to do this.  In doing this, he made the audience - us- characters, too. That is, the performance specifically drew attention to the fact that we were sitting there, that the only reason he was there was because we were there.  We were the ones who were demanding that he do this, one more time. We were the witnesses to his own breakdown.  As with Byrne's songs, all of this artifice only served to make the stories that much richer -darker and more "real."  It was an emotionally overwhelming experience.

"The White Snake,"  on the other hand, was a gloriously rich and vibrant spectacle, full of wondrous staging, color, and light. It reveled in its own staginess.  And, in fact, the staginess, in this case, did kind of overwhelm the story,  for much of the time anyway....except that it was so brilliant that it was hard to just not sit back and marvel at it all.  Drawing from ancient Chinese folktales,  the play told not JUST the story of the white snake (who assumes the persona of a woman, joins the human realm, and wreaks havoc everywhere), but ALL the stories of the white snake, in all its permutations, as it morphed over the past few centuries.  That is, at times the narrative would almost literally stop dead,  as a character (a "narrator") would come on stage to inform us that "at this point the story  goes in many different directions - we'll go this way" - though in a few places they ALSO give us glimpses of those other paths the story might have taken.  In other points of the production, the actors freeze in place, as the narrator returns to brief us, before the actor unfreezes, on how the scene to come is representative of certain Chinese theatrical stereotypes.  It may seem a bit precious and clever for its own good - except for the fact that in so doing, it acknowledges us as a modern audience,  as people who might otherwise be skeptical or impatient, to tell us WHY we're seeing what we're seeing, as we see it.  Again, the artifice comments on the content.  And, for me, at least, adds a depth to it I might have otherwise not felt.  When, in the play's epilogue, the artifice is dropped almost entirely and the characters are allowed to shine simply as themselves,  it's a moment of near transcendence - the veil lifted to expose the humanity behind the spectacle.

As I think about my own writing - as well as the writers I love - I know that I too enjoy artifice over "realism." In my case, as someone who's still, in the end,  a total amateur and wannabee,  I worry at times that the artifice is a crutch, rather than a tool to get to the truth.  It's being clever for the sake of being clever.  Which, ya know, can be okay, in small doses. But may not be where I'm trying to get to. My first NaNoWriMo book, "The Cudgel of Xanthor," which I honestly hope you can read someday,  was all artifice: It was a dual story.  The story of an incompetent team making a videogame,  along with the story within the videogame itself, in which the reality of the game's main character, Xanthor, kept changing as the game's development kept spiraling further into chaos.  Basically, it was a mildly clever one-joke conceit masquerading as a story.   My second NaNoWriMo attempt, from this past November, I did not finish, but again it was all structure and not much else:  I was trying to write a book in 30 days about a guy trying to write a book in 30 days.  Parts of it were funny, but I ultimately gave up because I realized that all I was really doing was trying to be clever, rather than, ya know, having anything to say.  As it turns out, another story kept beating its way into this one,  which was about my experiences growing up as a teen in LA in the 1970s. It had nothing whatsoever to do with what I was writing, and yet I found myself drifting to it as I was trying to write my clever sentences.  So, at some point, I gave up THAT book entirely, bored with myself, and started jotting down my memories instead - first in the third person, then in the second (!), and then finally, when I felt ready to drop all pretense, in the first.

 I don't know really where I'm going with it, if anywhere, but I think I realized something in the process of doing this:  I've been using artifice to avoid being honest, to avoid exposing emotion. In the works I praised above, the opposite was true.  The artifice exposed and informed and ultimately deepened the artistic achievement.  That's what I'd like to do.  I have no clue whether I have either the talent, ambition, or drive to do any of this. Maybe I'll just keep wiling away the years playing videogames, listening to music, seeing movies etc--- enjoying OTHER people's artistic achievements.  Hey, it makes me happy.  But something tells me I'm not done yet.  I've got something in there to get out.  The key now, at age 51, is for me to let go. To stop messing around with "clever" and  go for something much more humble, yet something far, far harder:  Truth.