The Unreturn.

It should be pretty clear to anyone who's followed this thing that the reason I don't post here anymore is because I've been busy with writing for Bitmob. It's not a job, more like volunteer work in the sense that I don't get paid. Still, it's a good learning experience to write on a regular basis, so you can get more familiar with putting your thoughts on paper (or, as the case may be, on GoogleDocs).

I cross-posted a lot of the content I wrote for Bitmob on here for some reason, but stopped because it's pretty likely that no one is going to come here for the definitive review on anything. I used this thing as a place to put all of my work in one place, but Bitmob does a pretty good job at keeping all of that stuff in check, and if I ever need to whip out a body of work to show anyone who might be hiring me (and please do, anyone!), I'd prefer to use the prestige of Bitmob as opposed to a blog that honestly won't give me any credit.

So, if this thing is now a futile exercise, why write here anymore? Well, there's something to be said for writing like no one is watching. It doesn't have to go through editorial evaluation, there isn't any pressure about whether or not it'll be good enough to get the hits that'll give me any sort of recognition, I don't have to worry about word counts, and I don't have to pour over a post several times to see if it's up to snuff with I believe should be on Bitmob. I just write for the sake of writing on here.

What I'm trying to say is that I'm writing for fun on here, which is something that I may or may not have lost while worrying about whether or not I'll finish something by a self-imposed deadline. If you want to read what I have to say about a game or anything game-related for that matter, just hop over to my user profile on Bitmob. Hell, jump on any of the user profiles. There are a lot of great aspiring writers there who don't get the credit they deserve.

Don't expect updates on this thing to be too frequent, since I'll only write here when I don't have anything else to do. But I encourage you to keep an eye on it! After all, for fun or not, it's always nice to have feedback. For now, this will be the waste basket, used to just let the flow of thought flow. It's recreational, and that's it. Or maybe someone will look at this someday and think twice about giving me a job writing about games. Could go either way at this point. 

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The Continuing Adventures of an Idiot Who Bought a PSP Go.

"But...I really wanna play Portable Ops."

When I was contemplating my PSP purchase, this phrase was a key priority. There were two reasons I wanted to purchase a PSP: Lumines and Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, with the latter being a higher priority; Metal Gear Solid 3 is my favorite game in the franchise, and any opportunity to play as Big Boss again was one I didn't want to miss out on.

So, the question you're most likely asking yourself now is why I chose the Go over the 3000, when the 3000 easily gives me the option to play both games. Originally, I had decided that I would put my decision on hold until I saw the PlayStation Store update for the first of October, and see if Portable Ops was among the games available at the Go's launch; sadly, it wasn't.

I had thought that the game not being available would convince me to buy the 3000, but instead it made me debate with myself even more. It seemed fairly obvious that Konami would make it available at some point, and if I bought the game on UMD and then saw it available on the store for download, I'd feel like an idiot for jumping the gun. Then again, I really wanted to play it before Peace Walker came out, and the release of the new game was a likely date for the release of the older one.

Of course, there were other factors that went into consideration for my purchase, but I'd be lying if I didn't say Portable Ops was chief among them. Without the weight of back catalog that most PSP owners cited as their reason for not buying the Go, I felt that, as a new customer, I could seize the chance to start fresh and enjoy the benefits of digital downloads and not feel like I wasted a bunch of money.

I ended up buying the Go with the hope of Portable Ops being available at some point. At launch, I didn't actually buy much, opting to sustain myself on demos until something I liked came out. I enjoyed the "Lite" copy of Rock Band: Unplugged that came with the unit for all of an afternoon, played the Patapon 2 demo for about two hours -- much longer than I thought I would -- and then bought Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness, which was on sale at the time. Disgaea happily ate up the majority of my time with the system while I waited for something else to come out.


The first big PSP release that I bought was Half-Minute Hero, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but I quickly learned something: I'm not very excited to buy many new games for the system. It isn't necessarily that the PSP lineup isn't good, it's that for some reason, it's hard for me to spend forty dollars on a download. As big of a fan as I am of digital distribution, I realized that most of the stuff I buy online is under twenty bucks. Half-Minute Hero was an exception at thirty; so far, I've bought Disgaea and games like Super Stardust Portable, Echochrome (Both of which were five dollars, as part of a recent deal), and Street Fighter Alpha 3 MAX (twenty dollars).

When I saw new games like LittleBigPlanet hit the store, I was excited to buy them, but I couldn't make it past the page where it showed the $39.99 price tag. Every time, it simply occurred to me that it was possible that the price could go down, then I realized it probably wouldn't for long time. I was prepared to call myself a hypocrite and trade the Go in right then and there.

Then Portable Ops showed up on the store last Thursday, for the modest price of $14.99. I didn't feel vindicated per se, but it did stop me from trading in my Go. Sure, the games on shelves are no doubt cheaper than those on the digital store, but I still don't want to bother with UMD's, or any other physical media. Buying these cheaper titles on the store is how I think I'll end up enjoying the Go the most. Sony would do well to encourage publishers to put their older, by now cheaper games on the store, along with the newest releases.

There are also the smaller things that add up. The "pause" feature of the system, which allows you to stop the game at any time and save it for later, kicks in when you're out of batteries, which has saved me more than a couple of times. The ability to connect a PS3 controller is limited by the fact that you can't take advantage of the second analog stick, but it's definitely something to use then you've got the game hooked up to a TV. These features aren't going to get anyone to trade in their old PSP for the Go, but they're definitely something I'd rather not be without now.

Should I have bought the 3000 over the Go? Probably; it has most of the Go's features, as well as the access to older PSP games. If I really wanted to go down the digital distribution path, I still could've done it with the 3000, with the added safety net of buying whatever isn't on the store. But, I won't be trading the Go in. The only other game I think I'm missing out on is Lumines, which should in some form or another arrive on the store soon. It may have been the wrong choice, but I don't regret it too much, now that Portable Ops is on me at all times.

That game better be worth it.

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The Hybrid: Fun Efficiency

  As I mentioned in my review, Borderlands brandishes its "Role-Playing Shooter" banner with pride. It's one of the game's main selling points in trailers and on the back of its box. This Hybrid factor, along with its cell-shaded art-style, is the game's most defining feature, as well as the one that most easily separates it from the "sameness" that haunts the current array of first-person shooters.
 
As I played the game, I felt it was constantly throwing its RPG structure and style in my face, with a combination of arrogance and overcompensation. It wasn't that it offended me (in fact, that arrogance was one of things I liked about the game), it's that I felt it was unnecessary. It was doing a good job as a game at sucking me in regardless of its attitude.

That, and the mixing of genres for the sake of a better product isn't as uncommon as Borderlands would make it seem. Most games just aren't as aggressive about it. The most obvious "fusion" of genres is the Action/Adventure genre, which, at this point, is something of an ambiguous label. "Action/Adventure" can mean any number of things, and can describe any number of games. In fact, a quick look at the Action/Adventure page on Giant Bomb will show that the majority of games released nowadays have that label. It seems to be the standard for third-person games that offer more than a linear path.

Of course, there are other, more distinctive blends of genres. Most recently, we've seen games like Brutal Legend, Gyromancer, and Knights In the Knightmare that take two concepts and attempt to make use of both of their strengths. In these cases, whether the end result is good or not, they're at least commended for trying something new and different.

However, it seems that most games are combining the good aspects of other genres in order to survive. In an industry where a AAA title can cost in excess of $10 million, a good way to secure as many sales as possible is to find a way to appeal to as many people as possible. And appealing to the fans of more than one genre will ultimately lure more people than a game that is purely one thing or another. So in reality, exploring how different concepts work together is as big of a safety net as it is a creative decision.

And although the biggest-selling franchise right now, Call of Duty, is as "pure" a shooter as is possible, even it isn't exempt from this trend. It's not hard to see that the game's multiplayer is structured very much like an RPG, with a leveling system, incremental upgrades, and, in its most recent iteration, loot.

 
On the flip side, RPG's are becoming more action-oriented. Where before these games were turn-based battles of tactical attrition, many of the leading RPG franchises are catering to the more action-oriented among us. Real-time battle systems are the standard rather than the deviation, and the instant reward is more and more common. Equipment and stats still do matter, but you are much more involved in the action than you were before.


I could also go into more questionable territory and mention that stories in games are a part of this trend. Where a game's gameplay alone might've been enough to see it through development, big-budget games have to be blockbusters as much as movies do, so telling a story can be as much of a marketing decision as it can be a creative decision (I'm not privy to the development process in any way, so this is all speculation on my part). This isn't to say that a game's story is usually an afterthought (far from it, many games seem to be centered around their story), but from a publisher's perspective, it's definitely part of a "complete package".
 
This picking and choosing of traits from different areas of gaming is ultimately a way of evoking players' tendencies to be drawn towards certain things. Adding RPG elements to games like Borderlands shows that people tend to obsess over things like their class and what abilities they have in any game, whether it be a shooter or an RPG. Having the player control their party members means that people like to feel as if their actions have as direct effect on the outcome of a battle as their stats and equipment.

Budget titles don't have to worry about appealing a mass-market audience, so they can afford to experiment. We can see that many independent games are anchored around simple concepts, many of which wouldn't benefit from the complexity that mixing multiple genres could entail. But in the field of games without multi-million dollar marketing budgets, originality is what shines most, and adding new flavor to genres by mixing them is definitely a way to make your game stand out.

In every aspect of gaming, developers are blurring lines. This is certainly a good thing, because it allows the people who make the games we love to try new things, it lets people with new ideas shine, and I believe it will ultimately lead to better games. I'm also all in favor of people choosing what sorts of games they like by what they think is good, rather than stick to certain formulae and not try new things.

Borderlands may be maintaining the status quo rather than blazing new trails when it fuses the shooter and RPG genre, but that won't stop me from pouring over fifty hours into it. In fact, as it is now, I'm fine with it.

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I'm the idiot who bought a PSP Go.

Against all common sense, warnings, cynicism, and even my own advice, I bought a PSP Go. I don't believe I have to defend my decision to buy a PSP; the stack of games I've wanted for the system has grown large enough to merit the purchase. The point of contention is why I chose the Go over the more versatile 3000 model. The Go presents itself as a "premium" version of the system. It's more expensive, looks sleeker, and stands firmly on the platform of being an iPhone competitor. I won't go into a comparison between the two here, though suffice it to say the Go lacks the function of being a phone and an internet connection outside of hotspots. With that in mind, the assumption that most people come to is that it's in an overpriced piece of plastic that does nothing but reinforce brand loyalty.

So why buy the Go? Well, first of all, the 250 price point is less inflated than you might think. Right now, a PSP-3000/16GB Memory stick is around $230, so the Go and its internal 16 gigs are actually only 20 dollars more than the alternative. It's not exactly a fair comparison, though, since the Go is more likely to use up that memory than the 3000.
 
The most divisive facet of the Go is, of course, that fact that it lacks a UMD drive, which means that any games that someone looking to upgrade to the newest version of the system might have would be useless. It's possible that most of the ire directed at the Go comes from PSP owners who feel maligned and abandoned by the company they've been supporting, and that's a natural reaction to have, really. If, say, the DSi went digital-only, I'd be peeved about having to re-buy all of the games I have.
 
But from the perspective of a new buyer, it's extremely tempting to start fresh. UMD's, like most physical formats, are cumbersome to carry around, which is especially important with a portable device. Your options are limited by what's on the store (I, for example, am still waiting to play Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops), but those are the sort of growing pains that come with the territory.
 
Price comes into play as well; The one store you can buy from doesn't have to compete with anything else (or at least, anything that's legal), so there's little chance we'll see bargains or deals unless they're from the publishers/developers themselves.
 
The upside to this, though, is that I won't have to worry about whether or not the money I put down will go to the developer. Used copies are pure profit for retail and retail alone, so I suppose what I'm saying is that I'm willing to take the price hike in exchange for supporting the people who made the game. I don't have any more or less money than anyone else, so it may mean I'll end up buying less games in the long haul.
 
The biggest reason I bought the Go, however, may have been to support the concept of a digital-only device. I may be overpaying for it right now, but I feel like I should be supporting such a platform from the get-go. The PSP may not have been the right console to go with on this front, but I'd like encourage anyone of thinking this way as much as I can.
 
Or maybe I'm just trying to validate a bad decision.

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E3 2009: Changing the way you play games...or not...but really!

I think it's almost a guarantee that anyone you ask will tell you that this year's E3 was one of the "good ones". The '09-10 forecast, before a mostly barren horizon that only a few could see clearly has become much more vivid, with the titles coming at the end of the year and next year really looking like an industry role call. This E3 was presented as being all about the games, and the press conferences varied in quality depending on who you're talking to, but most will agree that it was definitely a high point in the industry (whether it's the games industry in general or the E3 industry I can't decide).

The other big talking point, was, of course, all the motion controllers and how they're going to change how we play games and who we play them with. At first, I was skeptical of Microsoft's Project Natal, or any new motion controller at that point, really, and was ready to dismiss it as an attempt to grab onto the Wii's market share. However, they did manage to show it off in a way that got everyone talking, predicting this and that about how it could change games, and it was impressive that it was more than just a tech demo at this point. They were demoing the technology with Burnout, or so I've heard. It isn't some pie in the sky concept that will never see release; Microsoft probably won't let you forget it exists for a while.

Sony also showed off its motion controller attempt, and reactions were mixed. Personally, it's my favorite of the three, a halfway point between Natal and the Wii. The wands' articulation to hold objects (as superimposed as they were) and strike with accuracy really gets me excited, and it was probably the best of the demos, between Kudo Tsunoda's almost irritating arrogance and Nintendo's boredom with its own product.

It's hard to argue that these new ways to interact with games aren't an attempt by companies to syphon the success of the company that made a technology big, and that these products will eventually lead to something interesting down the line (who it'll be from is anyone's guess at this point), and that soon we'll be off our couches and moving about and become more engaged with playing games, and that this will in turn lead to more immersive games.

Which raises the obvious question: Is something wrong with our current input method?

All three press conferences seem to be saying yes, then saying no, or "not yet". Microsoft showed off Natal, saying it was the future of games, and how it was going to change the way we play games, right after we'd been shown ten or so games that showed the exact opposite sentiment. Sony's was much the same, cramming a tech demo for their motion controller and saying how it was going to change the way we play games in the middle of Metal Gear and Assassin's Creed demonstrations.

Nintendo, at this point, is the only console entirely committed to their motion control, but at this point it doesn't seem like enough. Clearly, if you have to add another motion sensor to the one you already have, then you weren't too committed to the idea that moving around as a valid input method. The Motion Plus will add a certain amount of ingenuity to games that handle it, but introducing "true" motion control wasn't part of their plan until this late in the game. And Sony and Microsoft are only now banking on the idea of motion control, after it has proved to be successful.

What this is saying is that they weren't confident enough in motion control to begin with. At the time, it seemed like Nintendo was taking a bold stance on where games were going, while Sony and Microsoft were both fighting to see who could get the most polygons on-screen. They were both fine with using controllers to play games.

And so were we. We were doing just fine pressing A to jump and B to shoot. Even as controllers got more complicated and added more analog sticks we haven't been yearning for more creative controls. We can play games on most any controller they make, and will, no matter how horribly designed, adjust ourselves to the feel of button placements and trigger responsiveness.

The counterpoint here is that most people are intimidated by controllers. They see way too many buttons, too many things to do, as well as interfaces on games so complicated that they would never dare pick up something so obtuse and use it with any sort of grace. Controls have gotten so out of hand that regular people can't be bothered to learn how to use them, because it'd just be too hard.

I don't think this notion is right at all. If the average person is so intimidated by game controllers, why are they so prone to master cell phone interfaces, not to mention computers? A windows interface or a common Nokia phone menu and controls can be just as complex if not more so then a 15+ button setup. Computer are definitely more complicated, helped along by mouse controls, but dampened by a seemingly cluttered interface. But there they are, people as young and old as the Wii's target demographic, blogging, chatting, twittering, and checking news on their computers and phones.

So I don't think that the problem with controllers is necessarily with the our "intimidating" interface. So why don't these people play games? The amount of time and money that's being spent on trying to entice new people to play games certainly says that there are throngs of people just waiting to play games (Nintendo's "Maybe") and have some sort of barrier to entry. Like I said, I don't think it's a matter of people being afraid of picking up controllers and learning to use them. I think it's a matter of people not having a need to pick one up.

To the people who just don't want to play games at all (Nintendo's "NEVER"), the reason that they don't play games in general isn't because someone hasn't handed them some streamlined interface that is easy to use and intuitive, but because they don't feel the need to play games in the first place. They occupy the time that we'd normally use playing games with other things that aren't playing games. It may not be that they're condemning games (at least not all the time), it just isn't what they do. Playing games an interacting with environments just doesn't appeal to them.

Even if they are interested in playing games, they don't see the need to buy a dedicated game console. They may play games on their iphone or on their laptop, which they see as part of the deal of that product. They don't want to buy a $400 console to play their games when they can just as easily play Peggle on their phone or computer.

Just because there are people who will never play games or don't want to buy a console doesn't mean console makers shouldn't try something new, though. They just need to know who they're going to sell these things to. Games have done a pretty good job of immersing by just letting us press buttons to perform actions. There aren't too many people complaining that their experience was ruined by having to press buttons. What lets us as players get so engrossed in games isn't how we're interacting with our experience; it's that we're doing it.

And also, for people who've played games for a while, the imperfections of an interface that presents itself as a more realistic way to play will present themselves, as a sort of uncanny valley (the closer you get to the real thing, the easier it is to find flaws). We know that controllers aren't going to let us do everything we want, and we accept it and suspend our disbelief accordingly. When someone tells us that we can do anything with something new, and we find we can't, points are going to get docked not because of the technology itself, but because we've been set up much too high be anything more than let down.

With as much of a damper I've been putting on these new techs, I think I'll end on a high note. There's no doubt that new interfaces like this will attract a certain number of people to play, and that if these new technologies really catch on, that developers will try their best to exploit it and wring something great out of the whole thing. These things are, as they say, the future. People just shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the way we've been doing things up until now so easily (I'm looking at you, Spielberg).
 
From: My Generation is For Sale.

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Backlok trackbag #1 - Preferred Templates

I haven't been writing as much as I should be, and I won't be using the "life is getting really busy" defense because it isn't (and I wouldn't lie to you, readers!). It's mostly because I haven't found much worth writing about, and writing about business deals and NPD numbers doesn't appeal to me, and it seem pointless to write about news, because let's face it, this isn't likely your primary news source. There also isn't much in news that I'm interested in writing about, with one exception. I've been spending most of my time plowing through my backlog, and it's building up for a pretty good while, so I'm spending the lull between Resident Evil 5 and Infamous to see if I can't wring some good times out of these things I've been ignoring for some time. And hey, It gives me an excuse to write (even if they are old games you're all most likely tired of hearing about by now). So yeah:

Penny Arcade: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode Two: Episodic gaming seems like an idea still in its infancy, even though it's been around for a pretty long time, probably because high-profile episodic games are few and far between. And when they do happen, they often don't see the end of their plans, mostly because funding dries up for a variety of reasons, and then the developers are unable to finish the games. That said, I really hope PA: OTRSPOD gets to wrap up its dev cycle, because I'm really enjoying the series. The first episode had some really good ideas, but got a little bogged down towards the middle, when you had to go around chasing down questlines that go a little hard to follow. Episode Two does a lot of cleaning up, and in tidying up makes the game more fun to play. Blocks are now more easily executed, or at least more easily visible, which becomes inconsequential when I'm not paying attention. There's still backtracking, but it usually occurs only when you're headed back there with a purpose, not looking for something you've overlooked.

The dialogue is still Holkinsic (Holkins-esque?), with the worldplay and characters still up to par from what we've come to expect from Penny Arcade. Between the adventure game template and the RPG-lite gameplay, this is something that I was at first interested in, and am now genuinely in love with. The writing only marginally trumps the combat as the primary reason I enjoy this game, and with that I'm saying that both aspects are good. The final boss battle is nowhere near as much of a setpiece as it was in Epiosode One, but the rest of the game is fundamentally better. It just troubles me that there is no word yet on Episode Three, (just like with Half-Life 2...) because I fear that this series won't be able to reach its natural conclusion.

Shadow of the Colussus: I am very late to the party on this one, and perhaps that will tamper with my appreciation for the then-astounding graphics that this game presented. The new format which it uses, though, isn’t affected by the fragile passage of graphics over time. This is often cited as a poster boy for the “games are art” argument, but regardless of whether you believe in the merits of interactivity to be something that is “subject to aesthetic criteria”, what it does is definitely different. It has something that many games today lack: a sense of calm. This calm comes between often exhilarating boss battles, to be sure, but this alone is rare. There aren’t any filler enemies that are just a nuisance. Focusing on only the 16 bosses as your enemies of the game likely gave team ICO more time not only make them better, but also evokes a feeling of isolation not found in many games (Portal comes to mind when trying to think of other examples).

The Colossi themselves are very well designed, each of their bodies acting like a puzzle rather than an object to mash B on until death occurs. They are their own levels, and finding out how to beat them is a bigger part of the battle then hitting them (which also feels good to do, after a 30 minute session of “how do I get on this guy?”). The bosses only format is something I think other games could benefit from (No More Heroes could’ve been a much better game if it had stuck to something like this).

I could go on listing merits of such a format, but it’s important to point out that I do have some problems with the game. For all the intents to make it feel like a real horse, the horse control like utter crap. The many times this stallion prevented me from getting where I wanted to go didn’t add to the sense of immersion; it made it feel more like a game. I could’ve steered that horse much better in real life (and don’t ride horses at all). The camera suffers in small areas. These sound like minor complaints, but the moments where they affected play are strewn about the game, and it ultimately lead to a lot of frustration.

The game is still fantastic, though. And in this first segment of making my rounds through games I’ve missed, I’m glad that I’m still finding games that do something new, even in this far into games as a form of creative expression. I’d use the word art, but I grow less and less fond of that word the more we compare it to games.

From: My Generation Is For Sale

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The Quitter or The Masochist?

For a video games news site, a drought in releases means focusing on the news, doing features, or coming together with whatever it can to keep the clicks coming. For the savvy consumer, the one who simply must keep up on the latest games, it means a reprieve from spending large amounts of money, mostly on games that will no doubt be put off. It could also mean going even further back than what could be deemed as "current releases", back into games we altogether missed because of either lack of interest or money. For me, it means playing Final Fantasy XII.

The RPG usual cliches aside, I was enjoying it. The MMO-style battle system is just enough of a change from the average RPG to make me throw aside the problems I was having with the game (generic characters, played out storyline, way-too-familiar setting), as well as push back the nagging feeling that I should be doing something other than undertake such a long game in such a short and unstable repose.

The feeling of elation at the unique distortion in the common RPG language was short-lived, however. The novelty of how I was playing this new game simply did not withstand an assault by the almighty grind. In a dungeon that had all of one save point, overwhelming groups of enemies (though this turned out later to be untrue, the outcome of our fight being that they were whelmed), I was defeated by a boss in such a way that echoed that, in no uncertain terms, I needed to be stronger.

This compounded frustration caused me to rage quit the game. Becoming stronger meant going in and out of rooms that I had been through previously for the purpose of killing every monster there in large amounts of repetition. This was not my idea of fun. I had other things to do, other games to play. To spend time with a game and have the general sign of progression be that numbers incrementally increase was, to me, not time well spent.

But why was I mad at having to have my numbers be higher so that I could defeat another set of numbers? I wasn't in love with the story the game was communicating to me, and the reality of the battle system was still determined by sets of numbers anyway. They just weren't in my favor. Not only that, but I had been fine doing that up until this defeat. I had been defeated in this same way before, not too long ago. So why was this moment so crucial?

Was I quitting the game because I lacked the necessary diligence to see something through to completion, or was it because I was mad at what I thought to be a poorly-designed genre of video games? Was it the game's fault, or mine? I thought long and hard (while playing another game, of course) of the folly committed and who was at fault. I've had an increasingly frequent habit of quitting games, so perhaps it was that I was more at ease with the thought of abandoning games than I used to be, because there was now always something else to do.

On the flip-side was the argument that this design philosophy of requiring a sufficiently high set of numbers, acquired by monotonous grinding, to advance was a way to lengthen games and archaic. The thought that my defeat was perhaps not caused by inability, but by lack of commitment, something that lead me to believe that I was no longer looking for a game resembling this aged structure.

Eventually, the forces in my head came to a consensus: return to this game, if only as a device into which time falls into, never to be retrieved, with the thought that while this monotony was preventing the completion of more fulfilling tasks, it was a great venue to amalgamate the various thoughts that produce blog posts.

From: My Generation is For Sale.

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