Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012: The Year in Board Games!

2011 was the year I truly became a Board Game Geek, and 2012 was the year that I became a board game nerd; maybe I always was one, but I think I hit a new level this year (consider, for example, that I have probably put upwards of 6-8 hours working through this particular discussion). 2011 was the first year that I included board games in my year in review, and 2012 marks the first time board gaming has its own post in my year in review. In 2011, I started to track my plays on the BGG site and I started to do more research into designers and game mechanics. In 2012, I gained a fluency in the medium that is reminiscent of how I got into movies, for example; I can now analyze and discuss at least twenty designers, at least a dozen game mechanics, and I'm familiar with most of the major news and review sites for board games. I played, bought, and thought about more games than I ever had before, and it is inarguably the single most significant hobby in my life right now.
I would say that something changed for me in early February last year at Victoria's local gaming con, Gottacon. Until that point, it had mostly been a fun hobby; after that, I became much more intentional about my gaming. Part of the reason for this change was that, for the first time, I had a consistent gaming group. Most of my plays this year were logged with two other players, with another player on the periphery. It makes gaming a lot different as a hobby now that I know that I have two or three people who will almost always show up, as well as several other people that I can call in on little notice (including my wife). There are three of us who are thinking about games and, perhaps more significantly, buying games to expand our collection. Between the three of us, we have over one hundred games (without counting the nearly unavoidable overlap between collections), of which somewhere around forty are now part of our routine: we have played them together and we could pull them out with little issue at any time. I should note that it does present a challenge when adding new people to the mix, as there's a certain amount of "catch up" that needs to happen outside of group gaming times, but it's worth it. We have only now, after a year of gaming two or three times per month, finally played through at least once almost all of the games we have wanted to add to our collective repertoire. We have added at least two dozen games over the year, and there are at least another half-dozen that we have tried that did not stick. For now, we have fewer than half a dozen games that we currently own that we have not tried and/or added to our group (Eclipse and Lords of Waterdeep being primary on that list), so we should actually be "caught up", so to speak, just in time to add more at this year's Gottacon, which happens in the first weekend of February.
As a result of all of this, I played more games in 2012 than I had ever before; according to my records on BGG, I logged 230 plays this year - an average of 19 per month. My wife and I actively tried to play every game in our collection, and though we're still one or two shy of that goal, we have a much better idea of which games work for us (and we have a better idea of which games to get rid of). I tried thirty games for the first time, as opposed to eleven in 2011, all but one of which I now own (Alhambra). Of those thirty, I own seventeen and have since rid myself of two; of the remaining eleven, I would buy eight (eventually). I played five of my top ten "want to play" from 2011's Year in Review, and three of those games became some of my favourites this year (7 Wonders, Glory To Rome, Race for the Galaxy). I would estimate that there are around one hundred games with which I would feel comfortable playing with little review. In a lot of ways, I'm actually pretty happy as a gamer right now: I have a solid collection both of my own and within my group; I have a committed group that enjoys gaming; and I have a good idea of my top games to play. My two favourite games of the year, judging not only by my logged plays but my excitement about the games, are 7 Wonders and Pandemic. I recognize that this has been affected by the people with whom I game, particularly my wife, as these are two of her favourite games and not coincidentally the two games for which she purchased expansions for me for Christmas/birthday gifts. I have a lot of other games that I could put in a simple top ten, but I thought it might provide a clearer picture to divide my analysis of my plays this year into several lists.

My ten most played games in 2012 (in order): 7 Wonders; Pandemic; Battle Line; Dominion; Glory to Rome; The Resistance; Blood Bowl: Team Manager - The Card Game; Forbidden Island; Agricola; Dixit; Innovation; and Race for the Galaxy.

Five "emerging" games (not too many plays in 2012, but they're catching on quickly): Saint Petersburg; Cosmic Encounter; Galaxy Trucker; Among the Stars; and Fleet.

Ten games I want to consciously play more often after limited plays in 2012: Alhambra; Caylus; Citadels; El Grande; Jaipur; Le Havre; The Princes of Florence; Power Grid; Puerto Rico; and Thurn and Taxis.

Games I tried for the first time this past year: 7 Wonders; Among the Stars; Ascension; Battle Line; Bean Trader; Caylus; Colossal Arena; Condottiere; Cosmic Encounter; Dixit; El Grande; Evil Baby Orphanage; Fleet; Forbidden Island; Galaxy Trucker; Glory To Rome; Hare & Tortoise; Kingdom Builder; Le Havre; Lord of the Rings (co-op); Modern Art; Pandemic; Parade; The Princes of Florence; Race for the Galaxy; The Resistance; Saint Petersburg; Smash Up; Summoner Wars; and Torres.

One of the things that I have learned this year is how to know when I need to expand a game. I usually have to play a game at least ten times before I will pick up an expansion, unless I find it for a crazy good deal. Agricola and Cosmic Encounter, for example, each have several expansions available, but I have barely even cracked into the main game. I know there are some games that I am still learning, such as Race for the Galaxy and Saint Petersburg, that the expansions will make the game better enough that they are on my list despite relatively few plays. My wife just bought the top two expansions I wanted (Cities for 7 Wonders and On The Brink for Pandemic) at the perfect time; it's not that I'm tired of the original games, but I know that the expansions will greatly extend their lives. I also had fun this year ordering mini-expansions through the BGG store - these are the kind of releases that are usually distributed at game conventions and are not often widely available. I've had to learn the hard way that the items in the store rotate quickly, so I have to be more intentional about ordering items when they are available. Of course, it can be difficult to justify the price (often $5 including shipping for a few cards), but it can be worth it; I have the same issue with the expansions for Carcassonne - particularly the mini-sized ones. I will now pick them up when I see them because the publisher has changed (from Rio Grande to Z-Man), because I'm not sure when and where I will find them. The three I'll buy on sight are: Cult, Siege, and Creativity; The River II; and The Tower (a large expansion). I doubt I would ever buy the gimmicky Catapult, but then again, it might be a good one to have for playing with younger kids. I would also like to pick up the six recent minis, but at $6 for 7 tiles, I'll wait until they become more scarce. So with all of that in mind, my top ten expansions to buy are: 7 Wonders: Leaders; the three aforementioned Carcassonne expansions (Cult, Siege, and Creativity; The River II; and The Tower); Dominion: Prosperity; Dixit 2; Innovation: Figures in the Sand; Race for the Galaxy: The Gathering Storm; Saint Petersburg: New Society and Banquet; and Ticket To Ride: Europa 1912.

I was able to refine my collection a lot this year, partially because I have been playing more games and I am more aware of my gaming style. Three games I tried in 2011 for the first time made their way into my collection in 2012; thirteen of the games I acquired this year I played for the first time in 2012 (not having played ten of those games before I added them to my collection). Although I added twenty games and eleven expansions this year, I also divested myself of eighteen games through sales, gifts, and even trades. I find it remarkable, actually, that I have spent less than $200 over the past year on board gaming, although many of those games were gifts (and some from gift money I technically spent but don't fully count), considering how much money board gaming can consume. As a result, I am happier with my collection than I ever have been, and I would say that I am a lot closer to being rid of the "dead weight" games that I have just owned. I have gotten rid of a lot of party style games (Taboo, Buzzword, Catch Phrase, Cranium) that we never play because we have better party games, as well as a number of card games that just didn't catch on. I currently own 91 games and 36 expansions, and I fully intend to continue to refine my collection through not only addition but also subtraction. I will often let games sit for a time before I get rid of them, but it's a worthwhile process.

Board games (and expansions) I've added to my collection this year: 7 Wonders and the Cities expansion; Agricola; Blokus; three expansions for Carcassonne: Abbey and Mayor, King & Scout (mini), and Bridges, Castles, and Bazaars; Colossal Arena; Cosmic Encounter; Dominion: Hinterlands; Evil Baby Orphanage; Forbidden Island; Glory To Rome (and 2 expansions); Hare & Tortoise; Modern Art; Pandemic and the On The Brink expansion; Parade; Pente; Power Grid (+ 2 expansions); Race for the Galaxy; Saint Petersburg; Settlers of Catan Card Game Expansions; Things...; Ticket To Ride Europe; Tikal; and Torres.

I've surprised myself when people have asked me which games I would go out and buy right away. I do have a number I would go buy, but I can think of only large one - Kingdom Builder - which is not even that strong for me. (It would go well with our group's collection, since we don't have it yet, but I would buy it especially for people who don't game as much, as it has a very low learning curve but still has good strategy.) There are not a lot of games I would just go buy since we own a lot of them within our group. Most of those would otherwise be among my first purchases, and I would still buy any of them if I found them for the right price online, but I can wait for now. I have 109 games on my "want to play" list on BGG (edited down from 142 earlier this week), though I also know that playing one game from any of a few prolific and critically hailed designers whose games I have not tried (Martin Wallace, Stefan Feld, Rudiger Dorn) that could easily swing that number back up. Of those 110, I know that there are a number that I would buy because I know it's likely that I will like them from what I know of myself as a gamer. I should mention that I have used somewhat arbitrary distinctions of price and amount of time to classify the games in these lists roughly as "light, medium, and heavy". I know it's an imperfect measure, but I hope it suffices.

Ten party and/or word games I want to play (and/or would buy if I found them used): 25 Words or Less; A to Z; Alpha Bet; Alpha Blitz; Prolix; Super Scrabble; Telestrations; Time's Up Deluxe; Wits & Wagers; and Word on the Street.

Five card games $20 and under I would buy: Battle Line; Early American Chrononauts; Fleet; Jaipur; and Lost Cities. (Probably The Resistance, too, but we have that one for now.)

Top ten heavy/costly games I'm waiting to buy for the right price and time (because we have them already represented in our group's collection): Among the Stars; Caylus; Dominion: Dark Ages; Intrigue; Prosperity; and Seaside; El Grande; Le Havre; The Princes of Florence; and RoboRally.

The next "big" games I would buy, regardless of their status in our group: Alhambra: Big Box; Galaxy Trucker: Anniversary Edition; and Kingdom Builder.

I spend a lot of time also thinking about playing games, particularly insofar as it affects buying them. It amazes me how much play we can get out of simple card games - not to mention how many card games there are! They are mostly lighter games, though they can have some wicked strategy, and they often cost $20 and under (making them great filler games to get better shipping rates online). There are a few of these games that I would buy right away, having played them: Battle Line; Early American Chrononauts; Fleet; Jaipur; and Lost Cities. But then there are a number of games I would buy without playing first. Any that I want to really play I will just go buy. There are fifteen games $20 and under that I would without having played: Barons; Chronicle; For Sale; Fzzzt!; Gang of Four; Get Bit!; Guillotine; Haggis; Hey, That's My Fish!; Hey Waiter!; Insidious Sevens; Mu & More; No Thanks!; Space Beans; and Tichu. There are a couple of other games of this ilk, such as Friday, Redshirts, and Rockband Manager, that I would probably want to try before buying; then again, if I don't like the games, they're easy to re-gift.

In the "medium" game category (usually between 45 and 60 minutes of play time, cost between $25 and $40), there are again a number of games I would buy without trying based on reputation and knowledge. I counted fifteen again: Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small; Blokus: Trigon; Eminent Domain; Fresco; Hive; Ingenious; Jump Gate; Killer Bunnies and the Conquest for the Magic Carrot (a new base game); Nefarious; Starship Catan; Stone Age; Through the Desert; Tournay; Tsuro (or Tsuro of the Seas); and Zooloretto. There are another 25 or so games in this category that I would rather try for sure before buying, including: Africana; Alien Frontiers; Asara; Ca$h 'n Gun$; Cargo Noir; Chicken Caesar; Elfenland; Feudality; Finca; Hansa Teutonica; Hawaii; Hoity Toity; Jambo; Keltis; King of Tokyo; Kingsburg; Last Will; Mississippi Queen; Mister X; Ra; Seasons; Starship Merchants; Thunderstone; and Troyes.

There are a number of "heavy" (longer, more expensive games) that I would also like to try. I find it more difficult to think about buying these games before trying them, but I know there are a few that I could safely buy, such as The Castles of Burgundy or Tigris & Euphrates. The other 25 games in this category I would like to try include: At The Gates of Loyang; Amun-Re; Axis & Allies; Battlestar Galactica; Belfort; Brass; Core Worlds; Dominant Species; Glen More; Java; Louis XIV; Manhattan; The Manhattan Project; Mexica; Navegador; Notre Dame; Ora et Labora; Primordial Soup; Taj Mahal; Through the Ages; Tikal II: The Lost Temple; Twilight Struggle; Village; War of the Ring; and Yggdrasil.

Using my rough definitions, I have about 20 card ("light") games, 40 medium games, and just over 25 "heavy" games on my lists to play (other than the aforementioned Eclipse and Lords of Waterdeep) for a total of 85 games. (The rest of the 110 on my "want to play" are the aforementioned party/word games and a few outliers and expansions.) With all of this in mind, I decided that a top ten to play for 2013 might not be enough, so I'm expanding it to a top twenty. My goal, ultimately, is to somehow play all twenty of these games, or at least to top my 50 per cent success rate for 2012 (5/10). It seems entirely possible that I will own a few - or even a number of these - by the time I write my next year-in-review, and it seems even more possible that I will have bought some of these before playing them, but here are the top twenty games I want to play in the next year:
At the Gates of Loyang; Barons; The Castles of Burgundy; Core Worlds; Dominant Species; Eminent Domain; For Sale; Fresco; Haggis; Jump Gate; The Manhattan Project; Nefarious; Ora et Labora; Stone Age; Through The Ages; Tigris & Euphrates; Twilight Struggle; Tournay; Village; and Zooloretto.

And so concludes my ridiculously exhaustive commentary on board gaming in 2012. At 3000 words, I think I have fairly reflected my passion for board gaming, and I'm excited for the many more games I will play in the next year. I have a few to play before Gottacon in a month, and then there will be a whole weekend of great gaming in store, and maybe playing up to a quarter of my top twenty. Maybe, if I really get to it, I'll have to create a new list mid-year to replace the games I have already played. I would love to know which games you're playing and what you are looking forward to playing next year, so leave a comment and keep the dialogue going. And if you're ever in the area and you want to catch a game, you know who to call.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Airing of Grievances

"And it's been a long December and there's reason to believe / Maybe this year will be better than the last / I can't remember all the times I tried to tell myself / To hold on to these moments as they pass" - Counting Crows, "A Long December"

"I gotta lot of problems with you people..." - Frank Costanza

Today, as many of you know, is Festivus, which has somehow evolved from a joke in Seinfeld to a holiday that is actually somewhat widely acknowledged and celebrated. Part of the tradition is the "airing of grievances", a time in which participants are encouraged to speak out the issues that they have with those around them. If you know the Costanza family dynamic, you can imagine what that might look like; I'm taking it in a different direction. In our church (the Forge), we have been working through what it means to lament and grieve, particularly as a community. We had been discussing the idea of surrender since September, and we found a natural transition into looking at the idea of lamenting, which is often neglected in (Evangelical) churches. We tend to want to skip over grief and acknowledging that things are not okay, and we began to realize that we had been subject to that same oversight in our community. We have had a lot of challenges as individuals and as a community over the past year, and we have not really taken the space to lament together all of the things that had happened (and in some cases were still happening) in that time. It has been really challenging to open ourselves up to feeling these things together, and we have been further challenged with the unexpected death of one of the more vulnerable members of our community in the midst of learning to lament. It has been an interesting journey as we progressed into Advent, and our understanding of hope, love, joy, and peace has been shaped by our focus on lamenting over the past month. Perhaps the pinnacle of this process is our church's "Longest Night" service, held (appropriately) on December 21, in which we take some time and contemplate on the losses, challenges, and difficulties we have faced over the past year in the midst of the sometimes overwhelming Christmas season.
I have had a lot of time to think about my life and to work through where I am at over the past few weeks, as it has been a very different season of life for me since mid-November. I worked a fairly intense contract for five weeks from mid-October to mid-November in which I spent eleven hours a day from starting to prepare for work to the time I arrived home; in contrast, in the past five weeks, I have worked about eleven total hours. In all, the amount of time that I had off in September and since mid-November actually worked out to about the same as what I would typically receive over the course of the summer, but it has been much more challenging this fall on a personal level: I have been a couple of kinds of sick over the past five weeks, and I have had to learn how to lament losses and challenges in my own life (this is where the "grievances" come in). I know that part of my processing has been internal, and some has been external with close friends: discussing, praying, wondering, dreaming, submitting, thinking, reflecting, crying, lamenting, cursing, feeling. But there's a part of it that I need to do here, even if it's only for my catharsis (though I hope there is something inspirational for others here, too).
This is the first time I can remember that I haven't had a change of pace at Christmas; I have always been finishing school, and the holidays have presented a break from the routine. This year, the holidays ostensibly are the same as the past few weeks, save for the fact that I have no chance of being called into work over the next two weeks. One of the challenges is for me to actually rest in this time and to enjoy the holidays and for them to be a break from the various stressful things I have been working through over the past month. It seems that there has not been an area of life that has not been affected in that time: personal, relational, professional, financial; family, marriage, house, money, health, church - I'm having to work through it all in terms of what life looks like. (I know I alluded to this earlier this week, but I'm fleshing it out a bit more here.) This has all been in the context of turning thirty in two weeks' time, and in the midst of the least healthy month I think I've ever lived, so I'm really feeling it all right now. I have struggled with feeling fulfilled this Christmas more than I ever have, but what I have had to realize is that it is okay to not be "good" all of the time. It's okay to feel and struggle and lament and to not be okay, and the important thing is to surround myself with people who will allow me and encourage me to work through these big issues (which I have). I have kept on wondering how I can do Christmas in the midst of all of the stuff, and I am beginning to realize that there is something about the way that I do Christmas this year that will be important for me for a long time. I remember the Christmas that my grandpa died, and the Christmas when I was dealing with being recently un-engaged, and even the Christmas when I was dealing with a recent pay cut at work, and I see how each of those experiences has helped shape me and bring me to where I am today. So this season is more about the airing of grievances for me: recognizing those areas that are challenging, and letting them just be. I have decided to take a couple of weeks away from all of those things - job searching and to-do lists and church leadership stuff - to just allow myself to lament and grieve and to just be over the holidays, which appropriately conclude with my thirtieth birthday. I know it's not always going to be an easy journey, but it will be good; just give me some time to prepare for the feats of strength.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Freaks and Geeks

As my wife and I perused Netflix a couple of months ago, it came up that she had never seen or heard of Freaks and Geeks. I wasn't surprised - after all, she has some significant gaps in pop culture - but I knew that I needed to remedy that fact as soon as possible. As we watched all eighteen episodes of the seminal series, I realized that there were several episodes that I had missed along the way, including the series finale. Finishing the series was, as I expected, satisfyingly bittersweet (or is it the other way around?), and in the months since, I have wondered how to write about it here. Then last week, Vanity Fair released material online from their upcoming first annual comedy issue, in which they enlisted Judd Apatow as their guest editor. His first order of business: to feature his first love, the erstwhile cult favourite. He assembled the entire cast (save for creator Paul Feig, which was noted, though I did not see Rashida Jones, who played a bit part in one episode, either) in a high school gym, took pictures of the cast reprising their characters, featured an oral history of the show, and even a short commentary from Feig on what would have happened in the show's second season. Perhaps the saddest part of the Behind the Scenes video was when Apatow brutally concluded that this might be the last time that all of these people were ever in the same place, seemingly finally eliminating all hope of any kind of creative venture that channels Freaks and Geeks ever again. The same sense of bittersweet satisfaction pervaded my perusal of these treasures as I wondered at what might have been, celebrated what was, and lamented what will never be. But the question still remains: why does Freaks and Geeks hit that nerve and resonate so many years later?
I remember when Freaks and Geeks premiered on NBC in the fall of 1999. It seemed like a risky proposition even at the time: a dramatic comedy (this was before the portmanteau "dramedy" achieved any kind of cultural traction) set twenty years earlier with an entirely unknown cast. It had great promotion and reception by those of us who watched it, but it was a show that was before its time; even a year later, and it seems like it could have gotten the kind of traction in internet buzz that allowed some later shows to survive. Perhaps it would have remained doomed, one of those "too clever for TV" shows that may not ever have made it further than it did, but I would like to believe that it might have made it longer in a different era. Still, I'm not sure I actually would have wanted that, as even now, there's a bittersweet sublime perfection that presents itself in the brevity of the show's run. Part of the appeal of the show is that it never had the opportunity to lose its way or jump the proverbial shark, as too many shows do. There's something to be said for the British model of making TV series short and effective; North American media has started to catch onto that model with abbreviated cable seasons, but we're still a long way from perfecting the model. Nevertheless, I think part of the appeal of Freaks and Geeks is that it exists as a fixed entity: it never changed, adapted, or evolved - it merely exists as a snapshot of both its time and the time it chronicles.
There is something further to the ways in which prematurely abbreviated television shows are perceived and appreciated that adds to their mystique. There's an interesting list here (the video is okay, but you can skip it by highlighting the top 11 to reveal them) that presents 38 shows that voters felt were cancelled too early. There are a few mystifying inclusions on that list - notably NewsRadio and Heroes - but it provides a fairly good overview of shows that have passionate fan bases and how unjustly the cancellation of the show is perceived. There are also, of course, shows like Flight of the Conchords that featured short runs at the behest of their creators, rather than the networks' directives, but there's not the same kind of bitterness enfranchised in those kind of endings - more of a wistful yearning for what might have been. Shows that achieve narrative fulfillment, or at least a modicum of it, do not often inspire the same kind of passion; there's a certain tiredness or fulfillment that occurs (often by season 4 or 5) to which fans can acquiesce and appreciate what has been. This is why the cancellation of Arrested Development and the impending cancellation of Community are so maddening to their fan bases (and why cancelling Chuck after the second season would have been painful), ratings be damned: the networks realized what they had, demonstrated that they knew what there could be, gave fans hope, and then still severed their ties with a ruthless callousness that destroyed fans who had had a reasonable sense of hope. (Not to mention the ongoing presence of dreck, often on those same networks, in the place of these much-beloved casualties.) Perhaps that is part of why Freaks and Geeks works: it never had the opportunity to inspire hope for more. Even at the time, fans of the show were painfully aware of the limited scope of the narrative that would likely be presented, and cancellation was almost more of a reprieve than a threat. At least fans could enjoy what there was and rest in the knowledge that the show's makers had done everything they could to finish well.
I think that the show was also uniquely timed in its release, as it presented a shared experience for my generation and our parents. Watching Freaks and Geeks provided a surreal window into my parents' high school experience, since they were in high school in the late 70s and early 80s (my mom would have been one year older than Lindsay), but it was fun sharing that bond. I remember being an awkward kid in Grade 9 like Sam and Bill; my mom remembered hanging out with the freaks like Lindsay did. The music of the show - especially Rush - made me wonder what it would have been like to experience those songs for the first time even as I explored music from my time and that time. The juxtaposition of the two generational experiences made the point very clear: there are so many commonalities to being a teenager that transcend time and space. Maybe that was the most redeeming quality of the show and the biggest reason for its continuing appeal - everyone can resonate with its characters and situations, regardless of social status, geographical placement, or time of birth. I remember what it was like to feel outmatched when playing baseball, or the joy of playing a new video game, and seeing those experiences on Freaks and Geeks means something to me.
Regardless of how much I can academically detach myself and analyze the cultural significance of Freaks and Geeks and the various facets and meanings and deconstructions of what it tried to do, it comes back to a heart issue - I miss these people, and I wish I could have known them longer. Those people meant something to me, and they still do. I wonder what it would have been like for Sam, Bill, and Neil to experience the Challenger explosion or Return of the Jedi. I wish I could find out how Nick and Ken would have reacted to Van Halen. I want to know what happened to Lindsay after her series of poor decisions, and I want to be able to see how each of these families ended up. Maybe it's not too late to see: imagine what Feig and Apatow could do with a feature film that focused on the fifteen- or twenty- year reunion of that group. Are you telling me that movie would not be a success, with all of its stars and all of the good will engendered toward Freaks and Geeks and its creators over the years? I know it's a long shot, but maybe there's still hope. But at least I still have those 18 episodes, and I can keep on going back to that one glorious year over and over again - and someday I'll get to introduce it to the next generation and experience it vicariously through them; or, maybe someone else will come up with a new TV series that focuses on the high school experience in the late 1990s so I can share that part of my life with my kids someday.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Thinking about story

This season of Survivor, its 25th iteration, was one of the better seasons in recent memory. (Obligatory SPOILER ALERT!) It featured some very interesting players, including three returning players who had been medically evacuated in their previous endeavours. Although there were not many twists, turns, blindsides, or unexpected parts of the game - the only new records that were set were that the season featured a player going to every tribal council, and the only final three in which each participant was over the age of 40 - it prominently featured, [maybe] for the first time, a focus on narrative and story outside the game.

Returning players like Michael Skupin, whose Survivor story started in The Australian Outback, the series' second season, and Jonathan Penner, the third-time Survivor with a history in television, as well as first-timer Lisa Whelchel, the former teen star from The Facts of Life, all helped bring an awareness of how the story inside the game would be seen outside the game.

There has always been a focus on how players are perceived within the context of the game, but for the first time I can remember on Survivor, Penner invoked the question, "what do you want your story to be?" in a conversation with Lisa. It became a significant talking point for the remainder of the season, and it arguably became the lasting legacy of this season.

It was also very interesting to see how faith figured into the equation for both Skupin and Lisa, who are both outspoken in their Christianity. The last several episodes featured the two of them praying for God's will to be done with the game as they strategized how to win. They both lost to Denise, but they both seemed satisfied with their stories. Skupin's story was one of a second chance, and it felt like a fitting end to his Survivor story. Lisa, who was named player of the year by the fans, expressed that she learned a lot about herself in playing Survivor, and that her knowledge of herself is worth more than winning the game. In the Reunion show, when confronted by Jeff about why someone with her faith would play Survivor, she replied that she was inspired by reading Erwin McManus' book The Barbarian Way; in a conversation with him in which she asked him how to get to that primal realization of herself, he told her to put herself in a situation in which she was not in control and she would find it.

Even Penner, who was voted out in the jury, achieved the end of his Survivor narrative with one of the most theatrical jury performances (and I'm sure he was consciously performing as his last act on Survivor) in all 25 seasons. Perhaps that is part of the fascination of watching players who play the game repeatedly: viewers get to see how Survivor is part of their story, and we get to see a fulfillment in narrative across years of their lives, rather than one short snapshot.

This (in addition to the ratings it brings) seems to be why the producers continue to bring back returning players; in the last six seasons, four have featured returning players, and the two that did not were wholly unmemorable. Next season will be another "Fans vs. Favourites" season, with ten players returning with a chance to continue to see how Survivor shapes their stories. I, for one, love seeing how returning players see and experience the game, and how we get to see their narrative grow and change.

This whole line of thought reminded me of Donald Miller's journey of writing the movie for his memoir Blue Like Jazz, which he chronicled in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. In his account, Miller discussed the surreal nature of editing his life story to improve it for a movie. His experience in tweaking details about his life led him to make improvements to his own life and to be a better story: he started doing more charity work, he lost weight, and he embarked on life-changing experiences that made him live a better story.

Here's what I find really interesting: Miller's first book was published when he was in his late twenties, and Blue Like Jazz was published when he was 32. In the decade since that breakthrough book, he has written and published several more books, participated in making a movie, and started or contributed to several artistic, creative, and humanitarian efforts. He is now even part of Barack Obama's Task Force on Fatherhood and Healthy Families. But part of his journey was going through most of his twenties as an unrecognized, relatively unsuccessful writer, a journey which he has commented on and chronicled in his work. I doubt that Miller would say that he did much to make his story change; he just took one step at a time, and then his life's story resonated with an international audience. Even then, it took him years to work through what that meant and to step into a new reality as a writer, speaker, innovator, and entrepreneur.

I mention the Survivors and Miller in the wake of my reflections on my journey and how my story is shaping up. I will be thirty in just a couple of weeks, so I have been thinking about my journey and how it compares to where I thought I might have been by this point at different ages in my life. When I was 18, I thought I would be making it as a journalist by this point; when I was 25, I thought I would be happily teaching with financial stability and a burgeoning family.

But my narrative has been different than I expected. I'm happily married, but with no kids. I have taught for the equivalent of four years over the course of five and a half years, but I'm currently unemployed for the second time in three years, and I have had to work through that reality. I have a great community here, but it always seems that I'm removed from someone somewhere. I'm learning to make a home where I am, and not thinking about where I should be or could be.

I have short-term goals, long-term goals, and life goals, none of which seems close to fruition; then again, I recognize that a number of these ideas will come to life before I realize what is happening. I don't feel very happy with my narrative right now, but I also know that even as I cannot make it change, I have to be taking one step at a time.

After all, that's how stories work: a combination of perspicacity, tenacity, opportunity, and serendipity. We don't make our stories happen, but neither do they just happen. The challenge is in finding that sweet spot in the middle: giving yourself the space and opportunity for things to happen while taking the initiative and responding when that opportunity is there. That's where I feel that I am now: I'm in a space of opportunity.

I have worked through some really hard personal stuff over the past few months as I have been sick and not working, and I feel like I have an understanding of the pace of my life right now. I have a unique opportunity to be both a participant and an observer of how my story is shaped over the next six months, and it is my hope that I will see how this recent part of my journey has prepared me for the next step. I get to answer the question, "what do you want your story to be?"

Thirty is an opportunity for new beginnings, not a time for brooding about things that might be perceived as failures. And even better, I get to share my story and live it out in the context of both my immediate community and whatever this online community looks like. I think I'm finally ready to be thirty and for my story to have a new chapter; now I just get to help write my story by living it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Blue Bomber

Today marks the 25th anniversary since the release of Mega Man for the NES. It was one of the first games to prominently feature non-linear gameplay, giving the player choice in levels, and it started a format that has been duplicated dozens of times within its own series, which spans a dozen different sub-series and styles. My favourites are still the original NES series (Mega Man 1-6) and their recent retro reboots (Mega Man 9-10) and the SNES Mega Man X games. The format is perhaps overly simple: eight robots are on the loose, each of whom has a realm suited to their identity to get through before facing them in combat. If you beat the boss, you get their weapon; each boss has a unique weakness to another weapon, so part of the fun of the game is figuring out which bosses are susceptible to which weapons. It's a pretty simple concept, and it managed to stay (mostly) fresh despite a lack of variation with interesting bosses and levels and a few narrative developments along the way. The real joy is actually in the simplicity: play a level repeatedly until you can beat it, fight the boss until you beat him (or in one case, her), and use that weapon to beat other bosses until you have them all beaten, only to have the final stages revealed and know that there's a grueling duel with Dr. Wily waiting for you at the end.
I have a lot of fond memories associated with the Mega Man series. Mega Man 3 was one of the first games I ever bought; we had somehow gained a copy of Racket Attack and a baseball game and my dad and I traded them for MM3 without knowing what it really was.
I remember that the first time I beat Top Man, I jumped around in excitement at my victory and my foot hit the reset switch before I could write down the password. I remember renting the other games in the series over and over again, and the enjoyment that I had at beating each boss and discovering what their weapon would be. I remember when I was in Grade 7 or 8 being on a day-long canoe trip with some friends and my pastor, and somehow the topic came up and I ended up reciting all of the bosses and their weapons from the six games released up to that point. I remember rediscovering the games when I downloaded and played through the ROMs in my university years, and the joy of hunting for all of those 8-bit ditties during the heyday of Napster. I remember playing all of those hard-won mp3s with my roommate Schmitty (I really miss him sometimes. RIP, dude.) and guessing which themes belonged to which stages. Every once in a while, I put that playlist on repeat and just enjoy the memories. I remember the pure enjoyment of the release of Mega Man 9 and 10 in the past few years - even though I still haven't finished them. And lately I have been enjoying creating the different robot masters out of Perler beads.
What was it about this little blue robot that meant so much to me? I think part of the appeal when I was a kid was in the puzzle of it all and the sheer amount of information to be assimilated. There was something about the nature of the game that had an appeal like Choose Your Own Adventure books - you could ultimately determine how you proceeded and enjoyed. There was not much of a narrative, but there was something resembling character development in an overarching sense in the series, though it was only enough that each game looked slightly different than the previous one. But what is it about Mega Man that still makes me smile and go back to these simplistic pixellated stereotypes? (Mega Man 6 was the worst offender for this: Tomahawk Man seems particularly egregious, but Flame Man takes the cake.) It's not just nostalgia, because there's something that keeps me coming back It's not that the gameplay is very advanced, or that there should be high replay value like a puzzle game, or even that there's a wide world to explore (like The Legend of Zelda). I think that there's a place for simply enjoying the experience of playing a game over and over again and mastering it (pun intended). There's something in the familiarity of simple set-ups and uncomplicated play that provides a joy to which to return. There's something in those sequences that are "Nintendo hard" that require sometimes hours of play to perfect. But overall, I think it's the idiosyncratic nature of the game design and control that really draws me back in. Mega Man never really deviated from its pattern or style, even when it translated to other platforms, and it's just a lot of fun to keep going back and playing those same levels and bosses again and again. I guess it takes me back to being a kid again, and that's probably the best thing about it: I can just tune out the world for a couple of hours and enjoy the 8-bit bliss of ridiculous robots, just-made-it jumps, and preposterous power-ups. Thanks for 25 great years, Mega Man. I'm looking forward to a lot more.

Just as a little bonus, someone re-imagined other video game characters in Mega Man style. Enjoy!

Monday, December 10, 2012

On Peter Jackson's The Hobbit

The world was a different place in the year 2000. Y2K was recent memory, the dot com bubble had just burst, and 9/11 had not yet entered our vernacular. The internet was merely emerging as a widespread tool for disseminating media, and we were still learning what it meant to be wired at high speed. The cinemas, as one might expect, were also quite different at that time - maybe not different in a cosmic cultural shift sense, but different from now. In fact, the difference becomes clear even looking at the shift between 2000 and 2001.
In 2000, the top movie was The Grinch, at a whopping $260 million (that number would be good for 7th in 2012). Four of the five nominees for Best Picture were in the top 15 money earners for the year, and only five (5!) of the top one hundred money earning movies of the year were sequels or spinoffs (compared to five of the top ten in 2012). There had been no Harry Potters, very few superhero movies - the only one released that year was X-Men - and the top opening weekend ever had been The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997 at $72 million. The list of top earners of 2001 is indicative of the trend of the time since, even as a number of franchises that endured for that entire span began that year. There are more sequels, more "tentpole" pictures, and more front-loaded box office earnings. Titles were released based on assumptions of making money, rather than having to earn it through making a movie that people liked. There was an increasing rift between commercial and critical success, and a rapid polarization of moviegoers according to taste and even class. Perhaps the shift had already taken place - one could argue that it dated back to the early 1990s - but the reality of the finality of the shift became clear between 2000 and 2001. And nowhere was that shift more evident than in the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on December 19, 2001.
Just over two years later, the trilogy had earned several billion dollars at the box office and had collectively won 17 out of 30 Academy Awards, including 11 of 11 for The Return of the King, which also was the highest earning movie of its year at over $1 billion worldwide. It revolutionized almost every area of technical development in film-making - especially motion-capture technology - and it allowed the fantastical to become commercially and critically viable. It immediately inserted itself into any discussion about the greatest trilogies, epics, and even accomplishments in film ever. But The Lord of the Rings had been anything but a sure thing when it was released. Consider that the initial Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, earned only $47 million in its opening weekend, a number that seems almost silly even for that time. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is expected to open with at least three times that much - or more. That number alone demonstrates that people were not quite sure what to do with this new fantasy epic. Gladiator had been popular, but there had really been nothing like LOTR before: a mostly unknown director being given a blank slate to film arguably the most beloved books of all time all at once. New Life Cinemas was lauded for their risky business proposition - fronting a large amount of capital (just under $300 million) to make the trilogy happen - only after the initial success of the first movie. There had been excitement mixed with a healthy skepticism and trepidation at the prospect of the finality of a visual interpretation Tolkien's work, but the success of the trilogy may have muted our collective memory of those thoughts.
I raise those thoughts again as we anticipate The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which releases on Friday. Like The Lord of the Rings, it is considered an audacious project, but for different reasons. The financial insecurity is certainly not present - even if the movie is not up to the standard of LOTR, it would still be surprising if it were to earn under $300 million domestically. The possibility of critical backlash is almost irrelevant, though it would shock some prognosticators if the film did not earn a Best Picture nomination regardless of its particular qualities. This is a film measured more by its own breadth than by any of its contemporaries, and there will no doubt be discussions and defenses of its merits and shortcomings regardless of what happens. No, this Hobbit is audacious for several other reasons, most of which are connected with its director, Peter Jackson, who, despite some egregious missteps in The Two Towers, seems to have an understanding of the spirit of Tolkien's material and how to bring it to life. Many fans were excited that he decided to take over direction of the movie after Guillermo del Toro stepped out, but his presence presents a dilemma: what if this movie just is not up to the standard of the previous trilogy? What if it needed a more visionary director to bring it to life in a different way? Many critics are already commenting on scenes that evoke del Toro's sensibility, but what does it mean to be "Jackson-esque"? Jackson clearly has a vision for the movie, but might that interfere with its success? Of concern is Jackson's adaptation of the story of The Hobbit into a trilogy, which could run the risk of turning the book from a fairy-tale to an "epic legend". Jackson has already repeatedly commented on how he is fleshing out the story with annotations from Tolkien's notes and other works, and his goal is to create a pre-text for his established trilogy. Should The Hobbit be considered a "prequel" to The Lord of the Rings, or would it be better for it to be measured on its own merits? Even for all of the talk of shooting in 48 FPS and the upcoming revolution in cinema, what if it just doesn't work yet? There are a lot of possibilities of what Jackson could (and likely will) do correctly, but the challenge for him is that "good" won't be good enough. It's really a catch-22 for him - unless The Hobbit far exceeds The Lord of the Rings (which seems unlikely), this trilogy will be judged as "not as good as The Lord of the Rings", regardless of what it accomplishes on its own in story or technical advancement.
The Hobbit is one of my favourite books. I'm currently re-reading it (for the first time in a decade, surprisingly), and I have been immediately swept up in its story, just as I have been every time I have read it since I was eight. But I enjoyed it without having it attached to The Lord of the Rings; in fact, I did not read LOTR until I was 18, in my first year of university. I had never been able to make it past the dry prologue, and so for a decade, The Hobbit was separated from its spinoffs for me. Now as I read the Hobbit, I have its successors well in mind (and it is entirely possible that I will just keep reading on into LOTR after I finish The Hobbit), which enriches the story for me, but I keep on wondering whether this film needs to be laden with baggage from the earlier films. There's a beauty in the simplicity of the story and the different creatures that Bilbo and his company meet on the road that seems more childlike and innocent than the complex moralities present in LOTR, and I am concerned that Jackson will overcomplicate The Hobbit with some of those themes. The Hobbit is, in its essence, a children's story, and above all, it needs to be allowed to be for kids. I would not allow children to read or watch The Lord of the Rings without some preparation (if for nothing else than the level of language presented), but I would love for The Hobbit to be a movie that kids could watch. And in the end, I want it to be a movie that I can watch like a kid - to enjoy with wonder and merriment, without feeling like I have to evaluate or criticize or deconstruct. I hope that it is an experience of pure enjoyment, much like the first Lord of the Rings movie was for me. I want to watch it and to want to watch it again. I just hope that An Unexpected Journey won't let me down, regardless of what it does or does not do. I don't want to experience Middle-Earth this time; I just want to be a hobbit on the journey of a lifetime.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Master: Science Fiction edition

If there's one genre of entertainment of which I'm trying to become a master, it's science fiction. In fact, I would consider science fiction a hobby of its own; even though it transcends a variety of media and hobbies, the way in which they all tie together under this genre . Since I was a kid, I have been drawn to sci-fi as a genre in all forms of entertainment: literature, movies, TV, video games, and board games. It's crazy to think about the sheer amount of content that is generated each year that could be considered to be SF, not to account for the decades of history of the genre to investigate. I know there's no way I could be a master of all aspects of SF, or even just of one sub-genre, so I focus on trying to keep up with some of the general trends and watch and read the most universally acknowledged entries, whether by critical consensus or commercial success. But it's certainly not easy to do, so I thought I would take some time and evaluate my current status of SF mastery in several forms of media.

Literature: My interest in "mastering" the genre was piqued when I took a class in university on SF. We read short stories and 13 novels, many of which I was rereading. (I skipped a couple at the time, but they're still on my list to read.) The professor picked a fairly standard list of books to represent the history of the genre, but he openly acknowledged that he could have just as easily picked several other sets of novels and the genre would have been just as well-represented in terms of scope. Even within the accepted canon, there are hundreds of books that could be considered "must-reads" in order to fully understand the genre. I stopped trying to be overwhelmed by that list a few years ago, and I began to compile a list of SF books that I would like to read, based on commercial success, preference for authors, and critical reception. I took the list of Hugo and Nebula Award winners, cross-referenced them to see which novels were acknowledged on both lists, and derived a list of novels from which to start. I also have a list of "classics" that I try to work my way through. I would estimate that every second or third book I read is SF, and I try to alternate the classics with more modern entries from the genre. A cursory examination of my collection on Goodreads reveals that I have 67 SF books that I own to read, and a total of over 100 SF books on my "to read" list in general. I really enjoy my forays into the genre, and I look forward to continuing to expand my understanding of SF as I read more and more of the classics. Evaluation: close to mastery (maybe one year away).

Movies: In any given year, there are anywhere from 10 to 20 movies released that fall under the general "sci-fi" descriptor in addition to several TV series that fall under that category. It is rare that I miss out on a SF movie, since they require less attention in a way and they provide an easy escape and resolution - especially the weaker entries to the genre. In any given year, maybe two or three of those movies are actually good enough to be worth re-watching, with several just worth watching for the sake of the discussion. I still have quite a few that slip under the radar, but it usually ends up being about one movie per year that I miss. For example, for each of the last five years, I found one SF movie that I still need to watch, starting with 2012: John Carter, Another Earth, Never Let Me Go, Moon, and Hellboy II. If I were to go back a little further, into the late 1990s and early 2000s, I would add Minority Report, Contact, Gattaca, Donnie Darko, and Soderbergh's Solaris to that list, and I could go back even further and add classics (Gilliam's Time Bandits, Spielberg's Close Encounters, or even Fritz Lang's Metropolis) to that list. I don't really prioritize movies in this list, but I just watch them as I can, trying to alternate more classic movies with more recent entries (as I do with literature). I figure that at least knowing the movies I want to watch is a good step, and that I can just keep on chipping away at the ones I haven't seen. Evaluation: close to mastery.

Television: This is where I find the biggest challenge in keeping up with SF. Unlike novels and movies, which are self-contained entities that take a limited amount of time, SF TV shows demand a large amount of time and attention to do well. There is more SF out there on the small screen than there ever has been, and it's easy to be overwhelmed by the scale and scope of some of these endeavours. As much as I lament the premature demise of Firefly, at least the amount of content is manageable. We are currently partway through Season 3 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and we have been stuck for awhile because it just takes so long to go through each season. I can't imagine trying to pick up a series that I missed, and there have been quite a few: DS9, Babylon 5, Voyager, Doctor Who, Lost, and Fringe, to name a few. I might get around to them someday, but it's more likely that I'll leave them behind and just pick up something else. Then again, maybe this is the perfect time to pick up a new show, as the only SF show I'm watching right now (other than working through TNG) is Futurama. Maybe this is the time to finally get into Battlestar Galactica, especially since I picked up the first three seasons last March for a total of $30 at a thrift store; they're just sitting on the shelf, waiting for me, taunting me. But I have a deep dark confession to make: I have not actually watched a full episode of the original 1960s Star Trek. Ever. I know it seems ridiculous, but I just never watched it as a kid. Maybe I should make that a project for a couple of months: watching all 69 episodes before the new movie comes out. By the way, did you know that in 1968, all of the nominees for the Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation were episodes of Star Trek? That kind of feat has only been duplicated by Doctor Who, which, in the past seven years since its relaunch, has won six of seven Hugos for Short Form Dramatic Presentation, along with having 19 episodes nominated (out of a total of 37 nominations for all programs). Maybe I have to start watching Doctor Who now...sigh. Evaluation: More than average knowledge, but a long way to go for mastery.

Video Games: The area in which I'm the most behind in my SF intake is video gaming. I haven't invested in 6th or 7th generation consoles other than Nintendo, so I never got into a lot of series: Mass Effect, Deus Ex, Bioshock, Resident Evil, Gears of War, or even Halo. I'm not sure I would play them, since I'm not a huge fan of FPS games anyway. I do have some SF influence in my video gaming: I'm still working my way through Portal, and the game I'm playing through now (Star Fox Adventures for GameCube) is a SF. I do play a lot of the Metroid series, which is one of the classic SF video game series. But I still might have to pick up a PS3 or 360 and catch up on the last decade of SF video games. Evaluation: nowhere near mastery.

Board Games: I've actually started playing a lot more science-fiction themed board games lately. I have been deterred by a lot of them, often owing to how the theme often seems to overshadow the gameplay, especially in teaching a game to others, but I'm starting to reverse that trend. I own several games that have a primarily SF theme, including Cosmic Encounter, Race for the Galaxy, Chrononauts, Starfarers of Catan, Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot, Killer Bunnies and the Journey to Jupiter (even more SF version), and our recently acquired Evil Baby Orphanage. A number of other SF-themed games are either on my list to acquire (Galaxy Trucker, The Resistance, Among the Stars, and RoboRally) or to play (Battlestar Galactica, Core Worlds, Eclipse, Eminent Domain, Jump Gate, King of Tokyo). I don't see myself getting into the Twilight Imperium style of games that take several hours for one play, but I'm definitely looking to expand my SF board game collection. Evaluation: learning, working toward mastery in a couple of years.

So, after some self-evaluation, I've realized that I still have a long way to go before I achieve mastery in SF. I know I have a lot of experience in the genre, but I still feel like there are significant enough gaps in each area that I could not consider myself a master of any kind. Then again, SF is the one genre that I could actually see pursuing in a Master's degree, so maybe that's how I could actually achieve mastery. That, and a lot more time invested in all forms of SF media.


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