My Life with Video Games, Giant Bomb

So maybe this seems like the most obvious of subjects to touch on, but a lot happened today. As of this writing, this is the day that Jeff and the guys announced their being purchased by CBS Interactive and moving back into the Second Street offices with the Gamespot guys. It’s impossible for anyone to say what this means for the future of the website, but what I do know is that I’ve been a member of this site for nearly three years now. I may not chime in much on the forums or write extensive wiki entries and guides, but I contribute when I can because I believe in this site. Everything about it has struck a chord with me that truly no other site has ever done for me, and I feel it necessary to expound how GB has changed how I feel about video games.

One of my good buddies stumbled on and sent me the original Endurance Run around episode twenty. I watched it, couldn’t make heads or tails or the game or “the two guys who sound alike” and their humor. At just about the fiftieth episode, I found my way back, I tried it again out of a lack of anything better to do online. Within a few days I mindlessly answered trivia, found the quick looks, and very quickly made a marathon out of every video on the site. A couple months later and I was ready to listen to my first podcast. I felt like I was wasting time sitting in my room as I listened to something for so long, but the laughs that I got out of those three hours were well worth the time. At my worst, I watched the drunken escapades after the first Big Live Live Show Live in its entirety!

Giant Bomb became my home page right quick, and more importantly a hobby unto itself. When the quest system started up, it gave me motivation to do all the things on the site that I haven’t touched before. After submitting pictures, getting the attention of some higher-ups, and even writing an entire wiki page, I felt like I was actually a part of this great site run by some guys on the other side of the country. Like many of you, Jeff, Ryan, Vinny, and Brad all seem like distant friends. What at first annoyed me about Brad and Dave (sorry duders, just being honest!) I now find endearing. It was strange when Patrick came in, but since the guys accepted him, I knew he was a good guy. And now things are sure to change in the near future for the site. A design rehaul has been hinted at, and I’m sure Vinny’ll have way more things to multicast on Brad’s head. I don’t expect to like it all, but it’ll be from these guys, so I know I’ll stand by it.

Video games used to be something I did with choice friends and let take up plenty of my time, but not all that important. With Giant Bomb, I realized that not only could I enjoy the supplemental parts of the culture, but that video games were a major part of my life. I, by chance, had work off today and I’m glad I was able to see the guys announce this live (and a bit spooky as I threw on my member's shirt today of all days). Even though I’m of the camp that this will likely be a great boon to the guys and what they aspire to do, it’s still been at the forefront of my mind for the better part of the day. And that just tells me how important these guys and how they entertain and inform us is to me. The sole reason I’m writing this very blog, the reason I’ve played great games I never would have otherwise like Shadow Complex, Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes, and Mass Effect is because of these guys and their passion for the medium.

I’ve loved video games most of my life, but Giant Bomb has made it my life. I’ll never be able to thank the guys enough for everything they do for us as a community. I can only hope that this change of business means bigger and greater things with the same caliber of insanity and frankness that we’ve all come to love.

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My Life with Video Games, Emotion

I love video games, I really do. They keep me distracted when life is difficult, relaxed when times are stressful, and entertained when things are slow. But there have only been chance instances that games have made me truly feel for their stories. As a kid, I typically had no idea for my character’s motivations or mythology concerning the world around them. Once narrative became an increasingly important and ultimately primary part of the gaming experience, sure there were sparks of feeling for a dying love interest or a dark revelation, but very few of these sentiments carried past the credits. As for those rare experiences where my mind and heart were still dealing with what had transpired days or weeks after the story had concluded, I can only wish that more games would be so interactive as to truly affect me.

Warning: massive spoilers are involved, as only an elegant conclusion could ever bring about such emotions.

Was I upset that Aeris died? Sure, but only because she was my main healer and I had spent so much time getting her best limit break. Did I feel bad for what happened to Lucca’s mom in Chrono Trigger? Well yeah, but it was a short segment that even if you did realize the impact it held, it was hard to revel in it short of watching Lara walk about. The twist in Bioshock and the jump scares in Dead Space were neat but didn’t shake me to my core. Two recent games, however, have truly tested what I thought about not only games but my own principles. Perhaps the language is a bit inflated, but as the ideas both these games brought up still go unanswered in my head tell me that a chord was struck that hadn’t yet been plucked by any book, movie, or medium yet discovered by my humble bite into the knowledge of the world.

It may feel similar, but it did something different

The first one is Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. A beautiful looking game that seems to have a somewhat controversial standing with most gamers, I easily fell in love with the game partly for my admiration for the eponymous Chinese tale of Monkey it draws on. The characters were stock, two-dimensional archetypes, but you didn’t need to know their backstory or motivations to appreciate the sincerity and realistic portrayals they were given. By the end of the game, Monkey, Trip, and even Pigsy were believable in a way only some well written scripts and nuanced actors can pull off. This made the climax of the story all the more tragic: our heroes are faced with the realization that the humans being snatched from their lives were (possibly?) being saved and brought to a sanctuary from the outside world and into a mental fantasy fabricated from memories of the past. Ultimately, the decision is made (not by the player, mind you) to destroy this sanctuary and its caretaker and free the people back to their savage world. But as Trip so aptly put it once it was done: “Did I do the right thing?” with no clear answer and a solemn song plays during the credits as you think about the choice.

The impact of this event hit my hard primarily because Monkey and Trip weren’t brazen heroes or pure-hearted and honorable. The characters went through a bevy of emotions with one another as well as the world around them before this point. It also helped that some moral choice wasn’t given to the player in some ham-fisted manner: this was a choice of the character, and anything else would have detracted from that character development. And I’ll be damned if anyone can so easily tell me what IS the right answer for that situation. Ignorant heaven or a cognizant hell, it’s a question that comes up often in such epics, and too often is it tackled by those destined to be heroes or the true-hearted souls. Monkey and Trip were just bystanders who didn’t even know what they were doing even after they had already committed to their choice. Who the hell are they to assume they know what’s best for humanity? But as the credits rolled, I realized that how I felt about myself too. Maybe I hadn’t pressed A to make the choice for them, but their emotions led mine to the same place, and even though their story had ended, I was left wondering how to feel.

Don't even wanna talk about what happened here.

Where Enslaved brought about feelings of sincerity and some true ambiguity from its end, Nier is a game that left me nearly troubled with the things that I not as a character in the game but as a player made happen. First off, I will say that the soundtrack for this game is the best I have ever heard from a video game bar none. The heartstrings this game pulls with only its musical cues much less everything else gave me genuine pause. Music aside, the story and how the world reflects that sentiment is so poignant it nears metafictional. The people at cavia know how to weave a story about suffering, and Nier is likely the pinnacle of this effort. What few characters there are in the game, each one has their own plight that is “Japanese” in that they are all intensely convoluted. But that does not detract from the effectiveness of each sacrifice or point of no return that happens. It’s easy to play the game without paying much attention to the story and seeing it as a half-finished product with little redeeming value, but as with many modern games, the story is of a high enough quality that what gameplay issues there are can be readily excused so that the story behind it all can be followed.

Perhaps what makes the game most effective in pulling you (and I mean YOU) into what its selling is its most traditional trappings mixed in with a complete abandonment of such notions. You have levels, boss health bars, different weapons, item collection, and modular magic spells. But this is a game best explained as a third person action-adventure bullet hell. An entire level is text-based while another is an overhead dungeon crawler where you collect keys to open doors. This mish-mashing put me in a state where it wasn’t so much about the game as what was happening, and for that I commend the developers for making me think more about what I was doing. What was I killing this whole game? Why do the people that help me out do so? And worst of all, am I any worse than the persistent evil that I’m fighting because I, like all other games, will do what is necessary to beat the game? Because after beating this game a first time, the biggest revelation is yet to come. The second playthrough of the game reveals something that simply cannot be expressed here, but I will say that it will, in a narrative context, make you feel bad for beating the game. I mean bad. Just telling someone what happens does not give you same impact as going through the story with these characters, only to see the truth unravel the second time, helpless to do anything but the same exact thing despite these revelations. And cavia knew exactly what they were doing when they designed the game this way! I didn’t do it, but if you collect 100% of the weapons (a la Drakengard) and play through the game 3-4 times, the true ending, in a narrative and metanarrative move, actually erases all your save data. Affecting the gamer so directly is a dangerous move, but this game pulls it off magnificently.

I strongly wish that there was a cinematic version of Nier where all cutscenes and important gameplay sequences were parsed out and available to watch. But where that would work wonderfully with Enslaved (which was originally supposed to be a CGI movie), Nier would lose something because of its direct interactions with its players. Sure, it could be a great, touching movie, but it makes an even better game. And for that, I have to say that that game has made me realize that video games can do more than simply be “as good as a movie/book”. They can actually accomplish more because of the medium they are. As of this writing, is it half a year later, and I still feel bad for the way that game made me feel playing through it. There’s no other way to play it – and that’s the point! – but I still harbor regret for what I did to some fictional characters, my protagonist’s avatar included. And that tells me that they did something right.

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My Life with Video Games, My Friend Atum

Most of my childhood friends were maintained by our mutual love for video games. Some weathered the test of time better than others, but games were an indelible segment of how my friends were made and enjoyed. And no friendship was stronger or more impactful both for life and how I saw a world of select and start buttons than the one with my friend Atum.

Atum was a pretty quiet kid who got crazy as soon as he was comfortable enough. His parents were relentless on him putting on a proper face for the world (i.e. the only 9 year old that wears a bow tie on picture day), and he was a great student. But he was also just as fun and excitable a kid as any other once the school day ended. We met in first or second grade and our common interests made the friendship blossom quickly. Before we knew it, we had planned to hang out at his house after school. Still at the age where we were anxious with anticipation the whole day, it was all the sweeter when we finally maneuvered our respective mothers to give us an entire two hours together!

Mario felt outclassed this day

Having spoken to Atum about his game collection before, I knew going in that I would be outclassed in sheer numbers and skill, but I was still amazed at his collection. His subscription to Nintendo Power humbled what I thought I knew about games. He was the first kid I knew to have Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. I had never before played on a Genesis. The controller was confounding, and Sonic 2 had no patience for a learning curve. Before I knew it, we had blown through our time together even though a literal pile of games I had never heard of yet lie in wait. I was in awe of this boy and what he had at his disposal.

In retrospect, I can see how I at times had put too much emphasis on my friend’s video games instead of his friendship like I should have, but I don’t believe I was too lecherous in this regard. If anything, Atum seemed to enjoy showing me the newest games his older brother and he picked up. He became my primary source of information in new games, cheats for old games, and how approach gaming in a whole new way.

As Hamm's song says, veryveryveryveryveryverygood

We played the first 10 hours of Final Fantasy 7 together, giving me my first taste of RPGs and how satisfying watching those numbers go up could be. It was Atum that made me think that some stupid, nature-loving game box that held no interest every time I walked by it at Blockbuster was the complex and joyful world of Secret of Mana. He showed me the insanity of Japanese games like Bust-a-Groove (of the Kitty-N variety), and we grinded out the most lopsided character to fight that big ass Oozaru in DBGT: Final Bout. We laughed at how dumb the healing in Quest 64 looked. Whatever it was, we always had a great time together.

Once we got to high school and had no classes together, we kept in less and less contact to the point that we didn’t really talk anymore. There were never any arguments or ill feelings, our lives simply didn’t meet up anywhere. Now almost a decade since we last spoke, I miss the guy. Atum showed me games that had more than just getting to the end or beating a boss. Or that you could make your own fun in a game (think the avoiding the 1up in Mario 64 video). He showed me that I didn’t just like games, I loved them. And for that, I am forever grateful to the man, even if he’s moved on from such pursuits himself. I know that somewhere inside of him, he still looks back and remembers what we accomplished in so many hours after school.

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My Life with Video Games, Chicken Pox

My immune system won the fight here.

It’s incredibly easy for me to remember when I got the chicken pox. I was in third grade and a girl named Emily who was absent for a few days was running next to me at gym. She said she was absent because she had chicken pox and that I shouldn’t be so close to her because she was super contagious. But a few days later, I was sat at home for the whole week. For most people, the ordeal is irritating to no end: oatmeal baths, oven mitts, and physical anguish. But I can say with complete sincerity that getting the chicken pox was one of the most fun weeks I ever had.

Why you may ask? This all just happened to happen in late November of 1991, mere weeks after my birthday where I had gotten Super Nintendo, Super Mario World, and Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally. As you can imagine, it was a dream come true for my eight year old self. But school kept me busy to the point that I basically hadn’t really touched the system until then.

Perhaps it was simply the psychological distraction, the physical occupation of my fingers, or a mix of both, but for that whole week, I might as well have not been sick in the first place. Playing a Mario game as exciting as SMB3 without that evil Sun, Big Bertha, and other such difficulties for my young self was exhilarating. And in a time before the internet, being cut off from the more traditional networking of talking to friends during recess about game secrets, I was left to find keyholes, exits of ghost houses, and block buttons all on my own. By the end of that week, I had gotten somewhere in the Forest of Illusion where Wigglers and football players were too new and overwhelming for me. And that’s to say nothing of the entrance to the secret Cheese Bridge (or whatever that one where you have to get Yoshi past all those saws) that I didn’t yet know about.

Secrets this hidden were like fever dreams to 1991-me

It says something about the caliber of that game that I didn’t once touch Road Runner in that week. And that’s without going through two main worlds and that baffling star road and its 90s-slang-named conclusion. Realizing the utility of video games at this age provided me with amply fodder for the times my parents heckled me for spending so much time playing. I had been able to all but ignore a disease that all but crippled my sister when she subsequently caught it from me (at the insistence of my parents for her to “play with me” so she’d get it too, the ill-dispersers that they are). If there’s one thing I know from experience that video games can do – for better or worse – it’s that they keep idle hands and minds expertly distracted.

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My Life with Video Games, Turtles in a- Wait, What the Hell?

It’s no secret that I was a huge Ninja Turtles aficionado as a kid. We’re talking shampoo, action figures, puzzles, a portable pinball machine (did ANYONE else have this? There's nothing on the internet about it existing), those sorta gross vanilla pies all just because they had the four green brothers attached. So it was no question to my parents that if there was a TMNT game out, the least they could do was make sure I had it. And sure enough, it showed up. As you can imagine, I was elated. I’ll be able to beat up foot soldiers, mousers, Shredder, Krang! Well as we all know, the first Ninja Turtles game to grace the NES had, let’s say a loose interpretation of their world.

A Frog, Eye-flowers, and Fire mummies? Sure

Going into one of the sewers, you may get the purple mousers and flies with shirtless chainsaw guys. Fine, I can accept that, and hey, there’s even a foot soldier! But down the second or third sewer, you see one of two groups when you come down: blue/red moths and an immolated mummy or a skin-eye-UFO thing, ceiling legs with spikes, and a chi-channeling guy. Huh? It was years later that I found out that Konami simply didn’t have any material on the universe aside from the important stuff, so they pulled a Super Mario Land and just did whatever. Sure they had Bebop and Rocksteady, but the damage was done; this was a weird approximation to what should’ve been a supremely simple sell.

In addition to the weird bad guys and slightly unusual environments, the game proved incredibly difficult for what I would imagine to be its target audience. I mean, just try to go back to the dam level and defuse all the bombs, it’s still excruciatingly difficult. And the few times I did pass that, why couldn’t I go any farther you ask? I couldn’t figure out how to shoot those ropes across the buildings to progress!

Just look at that big screen TV!

Thankfully, this tarnished product didn’t make my love for the last vestiges of the word Cowabunga waver. And just a couple years later, that loyalty paid off with TMNT II: the Arcade Game. I’m pretty sure I never actually played this in arcades, but praise the people who decided to have it grace the NES. The simplicity of a left-to-right, jump and attack system made this game everything my seven year old self could get behind. Tons of foot soldiers, almost everything taken straight out of the cartoon (what the hell was that samurai ghost though?), it even had proper Pizza Hut advertisements! It was this game that washed all the horrid memories of the original game away, practically never to be touched again. And much like its successor (IV, not III), this is a game I've come back to every few years for the mindless enjoyment of returning to my childhood memories of yore via jump kicks and shell shock.

What did this all mean for me though? I soon realized that the shows and toys that I loved could all find themselves into the video game world. Granted, that didn’t guarantee it would be good (i.e. 1), but if done right (i.e. 2) became a necessary component of its fandom. Later on I would discover Chip n Dale, Batman, Mickey Mouse, even Where’s Waldo. Yes, this was nothing new to the video gaming world at large. But for me, to have my childhood favorites enjoyably playable made sure that I wouldn’t be able to simply pass the world by without giving it to Shredhead myself.

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My Life with Video Games, My First Love

The exposure that I initially got to Nintendo and its plethora of games was severely limited despite my owning the system. It wasn’t really a topic of conversation for me (or whatever you’d call the dialogue between two 5 year olds), and remained a low priority for a while. However, my uncle (the same one who gave us the NES in the first place) and his two sons would infrequently come over and show me the full potential of the system in twofold. First I remember trying the surfing in California Games and finding it amazing despite me never really getting it. At this point manuals were too technical for me, so any game I couldn’t figure out on my own were squandered. But my cousins could play these more complex games that were simply beyond me. This not only showed me a world beyond the running-and-jumping sort of adventure, but also gave me an appreciation for watching games being played.

Second, and probably more mind-blowing was my uncle’s van. My uncle must’ve had a bit of scratch to play around with, because in 1989 he was rolling around with a TV and NES system installed in his van. I only got to play it once, but the best way to describe it would be, “No one man should have all that power”. There’s a sad ending to that, as not long after the van was broken into and everything was swiped. Nonetheless, from my cousins’ varied and seemingly limitless supply of new games, I soon realized that what games other people had to play was more exciting than what games I had. I would go as far as to say that the majority of my friendships up through middle school were at least partially built upon sharing and playing each other’s video games, bonding over our respective collections and the microcosms of the gaming world that we were growing up in.

Point in case, one of my first best friends was a boy named Billy. We met in Kindergarten and immediately hit it off. We played tee ball together, ran all over the place together, and even got to that critical point where I had my first sleepover at his house (that’s still a big deal, right?). Well as I mentioned before, games were rarely discussed at this age for me, but knowing we both partook in games, I wasn’t sure what to expect as we sat down in front of his TV in the side room (while his grandmother watched some made-for-TV horror movie in the other room that I can still see perfectly, still haven’t found the name of that damn flick…). What I encountered was the game and game franchise that I could argue as one of my all-time favorites: Mega Man 3.

Now at this point, I’m pretty sure my library had expanded with TMNT 1 and LoZ if not a couple others (not sure, I’ll have to ruminate on the order I got my games some other time), but the things that Mega Man brought to the table for me were unstoppably savory. It had the password system to track your progress even though we sucked at writing them down properly much less not losing them inside of a week. The option of choosing your path (but fuck that, we had our path of Magnet/Hard/Top/Shadow/Gemini/Snake/Needle/Spark and we stuck to it despite that not being the real way) was not as overwhelming as it was in Zelda, but still let you feel like you had choice. But I gotta say, what clinched the entire game for me was the high jump/pit-vincible cheat.

For those who aren’t savvy to it, if you hold down right on the directional pad of the second controller, Mega Man not only jumps four times as high, but he can also jump right outta pits like it ain’t no thing. This made a game that would have likely been otherwise impossible for us six year olds playable, and more importantly, enjoyable. We even messed around with the toggling the second pad real quick to get the real invincible Mega Man where his life bar was depleted and the music stops, but that glitched up on us a lot. The ingenuity we felt like we had doing these things was immense. And I do mean we: doing this cheat took two people (well, until I got the game and used the leg of a tray to press the second controller for me. That’s right.), and as dumb as holding a button down for player one may sound, it was hugely rewarding and gave us a chance to play symbiotically rather than waiting for our turn.

There was something about the balance of platforming and shooting in Mega Man that was perfect for six year old-me. Shooting was inherently cooler of course, but the one time I tried Contra or games like 1942, they were frustratingly too difficult. But Inafune’s porridge was just the right amount of cartoon-y and action for me to get on board. I’m pretty sure the next day I immediately pleaded to my mom for the cartridge, and the following Hanukkah got the game that dominated that me and the pictures taken that week (always at Snake Man’s level). This is a game that another one of my cousins and I still look back and talk about fondly because of how much time we put into those wrecked levels where you fight the Mega Man 2 bosses. Billy likely doesn’t know that his influence is the reason for my love of Mega Man and perhaps why I enjoy video games as much as I do today, but I wouldn’t take my jump-while-going-through-the-door shenanigans away for anything else.

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My Life with Video Games, Day 1

First off, I’m elated to see the Blog Initiative, as it has inspired me to give back to Giantbomb in my own little way. My list of beaten games is ever-growing, but there is more to do with the profundity of gaming experience at my fingertips. While I could write 800 reviews, this isn't a huge contribution to an already saturated corner of gaming on the internet. Instead, I'm going to test the very limits of my memory. I am going to write this blog to catalog my life and how video games have been a part of it as best I can. This will include as much as I can remember from when I first picked up a controller to now: where I was in life, who was playing alongside, what the game did (or didn't do) for me. Hopefully, bringing this bit of personal context will put some familiar territory into new light for you fellow aficionados.

Well, nowhere better to start than at the beginning! Me and gaming first met in 1989 when I was all of five years old. Wee me had not yet experienced games on any screen (the Apple IIe was still a year or two away), and while my dad was against spending money on expensive “TV games”, my uncle surprised the whole family when he showed up with a Nintendo system complete with Super Mario/Duck Hunt. After moving the Betamax aside and hooking it up to the TV, I was curious but not necessarily in awe. The menu baffled me as is, and even with a tutorial from my uncle, working two buttons at the same time in accordance to that guy on the screen proved far more difficult than it looked. My sister also found the game too challenging and mostly dismissed it, but I kept at it. I should note here, despite being the younger sibling (by two years), my predominance with the machine understandably made me First Controller as default. It wasn’t until kindergarten that friends clued me into warp zones and levels beyond flying cheep-cheep insanity, so much of my early experience with the game remained in 1-1 and 1-2.

While Mario was a challenging curiosity, Duck Hunt was another story. Being able to wield that Zapper and watch as what I shot at go down was supremely satisfying. The pattern became that I’d give Mario a couple of levels, figuring out what pipes worked and where hidden 1-ups were for maybe 10-50 minutes, but then it was onto Duck Hunt. I’d of course stand adjacent to the television with the gun up to the screen so I could actually hit something, but my parents worried both for the TV and my eyesight being so close. We came up with a system where I’d put this big red pillow between me and the screen and that was the minimum distance I needed to be at all times. At some point I used the sights some (which improved a bit), but never got real great at it. Keep in mind, this is all One Duck play, rarely Two, and Clay Shooting was a pipedream. And no, we never figured out the pointing-at-a-light-bulb trick when it would’ve been useful. I still question whether or not the second controller can control the ducks.

And with that, the world of gaming was opened up to me. This ephemeral joy that I could only play if and only if no one else wanted to watch TV, and even then it never seemed like enough time. The goal wasn’t yet to “beat” anything, but instead to explore. After 15 minutes, most of my interest was gone and I’d usually be off to run around outside or get back to the Ninja Turtles battle I was simulating. But the NES and Mario had found their way into my wheelhouse for good that day. I like to think for the better.

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