PART I: NOW
Video games can be fascinating, a fantastic way to avoid reality with great potential for a hell of a lot of fun, but like many dopamine transmitters, games can get you into trouble if you have a hard time achieving moderation. Under the right circumstances, a video game habit can easily spiral out of control, as it did for Tom Bissell, whose 2010 essay in the Guardian is the best I’ve ever read on the pleasures and sorrows of video games and addiction. He went on to write more about gaming in his book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter and has managed since to segue into writing the games themselves, including the recent third-person shooter, Gears of War: Judgment.
Unlike Bissell, I skipped the cocaine phase and these days never seem to be able to handle much more than three or four hours (once a week, usually) of sitting in front of my Xbox 360 and virtually shooting, running, ducking, diving, fighting, blowing stuff up or generally saving the world before I’m ready to call it a night. Although I admire Bissell’s writing, wish I knew how the hell to get started in his field as a game development writer and share his love for revisiting the perfect game repeatedly, my favorite game isn’t Grand Theft Auto.
It’s Epic Games’ 2011 futuristic science fiction post-apocalyptic hit Gears of War 3, which pits a scrappy international army of overly muscled humans (who curiously never break for the weight room or to quaff a protein shake but nonetheless waddle under their immense, rippled muscle masses like heavily armed Lou Ferrigno clones) against a horrifying array of evil monsters from underground known as the Locust Horde, who will stop at nothing to murder every last one of us in the most terrifying ways possible.
There doesn’t seem to be much left to fight for on planet Sera at this low point for humanity, but there’s a big boat with a veggie garden and vending machines, and some big-wheeled battle trucks that are pretty cool, along with plenty of burned-out and broken-down buildings rendered beautifully in their magnificent desolation. Unlike many futuristic sci-fi scenarios in games, films, books, comics and elsewhere, these future-human bull necks don’t shoot laser beams.
They rely on ballistic weapons that fire bullets, kick wildly, are prone to jamming and overheating, and often go empty. It is this grounding in the visceral, tactile weaponry and the sensation of slamming an oversize, armored soldier into cover amid a hail of enemy fire that makes Gears seem more real. Oh, and an assault rifle with a chainsaw mounted on it doesn’t sound all that realistic, but trust me, it rules.
In Gears, nobody pilots a spaceship or floats around in outer space. Nobody jumps and shoots at you from the air, mid-jump, either. In the Gears world, character models and environments carry a definite physical weight. Defending a pathetic little outpost with a small squad against increasingly desperate odds, shoulder to shoulder with buddies, relying on each other to help recover when knocked down and bleeding out…battling back the Horde of scary monsters for the absolute survival of the human species (instead of yet another depressing, dehumanizing human versus human war) never gets old.
Horde mode, a game variant first introduced in 2008 with the release of Gears of War 2, when my friends and I originally embraced it, got even better with the release of Gears 3 in 2011, adding a monetized reward system with expandable defensive fortifications like caltrops, razor wire, laser gates, turrets, sentries, decoys, mechanized attack suits and upgradable air support.
Horde pits a small squad of up to five Gears soldiers (known as Cogs), fighting desperately and cooperatively to survive, to protect the last semblance of human life on Sera by defending dwindling territories (and each other) against a merciless Horde of marauding, vicious, computer-controlled monsters who moan, groan and growl on approach and can briefly paralyze a Cog by shrieking in his or her face.
Shooting at Cogs with pistols, rifles, shotguns, flamethrowers, explosive arrows, “boomshots” (an apt description), missiles and satellite-guided lasers raining fire; swinging explosive ball-and-chains and jumbo meat cleavers at close range; lobbing incendiary, poisonous ink and fragmentation grenades; hurling car-sized blobs of liquid fire and striving unrelentingly to get close enough to literally stomp our skulls into messy pieces of gore, the Horde can really bring a few friends together.
My small group of married 30-something buddies all work full-time in three separate states and convene once a week to wear bulky headphones that allow us to chat as we each sit alone in darkened rooms, connected by our Xbox 360s via the innerwebs, drinking beers and making each other laugh as we battle the Horde together, a band of brothers, our wives occasionally walking by to make fun and laugh at us as we yell into our headsets:
Who’s got frags? Grinder! We need a frag here! Zerkers again? I HATE those guys! Somebody get to the Hammer of Dawn! Flamer coming up the stairs! Get that Kantus on the left! Must…reach…Hammer…of…Dawn. I’m down over here! Since when do Brumaks walk through walls? WTF? This underground "digger" gun is total bullshit! It’s ruining the whole retro ballistics aesthetic! Who’s got $200 for razor wire? Get the Silverback! Mauler on the stairs!
Yes, Gears 3 is a lot better than the more recent game in the series (Judgment)—though this is no fault of Bissell’s—and yes, I wrote to Epic to let them know just how surprised and disappointed my friends and fellow Horde buddies and I were and thus how thoroughly we had rejected Judgment. Having entirely eliminated our favorite game mode (Horde) with its simple, elegant design and replacing it with the messy, chaotic Over Run and Survival modes, with Judgment, Epic (or perhaps its subsidiary development studio) failed us.
After playing through the new campaign and wrestling with the new multiplayer and co-op modes for a short while, my Horde team sold all our copies of Judgment and switched back in frustration to Gears 3, but we continue to thoroughly enjoy the older game, hording away together across state lines once a week. I suggested to Epic that they consider releasing an "Epic Horde Edition" of the Gears franchise, including every map from each of the four games and the fortification systems from Gears 3.
This would allow Horde maniacs like us to take in all the different scenery from the entire series while enjoying the best cooperative game mode around. Plus, Epic wouldn't have to build another campaign, so this would keep development costs down. The content is already there; it just needs to be combined into one edition, and the price would be lower for us as well.
Epic wrote me back recently, saying simply that they had “nothing to announce” regarding Horde and that they were “going to have to pass after reviewing my skills and qualifications” regarding my interest in working as a writer in game development. Well, I don’t have any qualifications to write for video games. I work as a technical writer and was just asking for their advice on how to get a foot in the door for game development writing, but I guess I’m out of luck. You can't blame me for trying. Can you help, Mr. Bissell? How does any old writer become a video games writer?
PART II: THEN
Though I completely missed early 70s and 80s game machines by Magnavox, Coleco, Universal Research Labs, Mattel (Intellivision), Milton Bradley (Microvision, anyone?), Emerson (Arcadia 2001?) and other also-rans, I grew up alongside the introduction and evolution of popular mainstream console-based video games and can remember visiting my Grandparents’ home as a youngster and seeing PONG on the screen for the first time—my introduction to video games. Yes, doinking around a little white ball with a little white rectangle on my Granddad's little black and white TV was a memorable experience.
As a boy, I visited a neighborhood friend who always had every cool toy that any kid ever wanted (all the coolest Transformers including Jet-Fire and Metroplex; He-Man’s Castle Grayskull, Skeletor’s Snake Mountain; and every G.I. Joe vehicle I could possibly imagine, even the enormous aircraft carrier, which was just unbelievable at the time. Of course this kid had the Atari 2600 as soon as it hit the shelves.
I’d go over on Saturdays and play Pitfall!, Frogger, Space Invaders, Missile Command, Joust, Spy Hunter and Combat when we weren’t hanging out in the awesome custom treehouse in his backyard or enjoying Totino’s frozen pizzas and Kool-Aid.
I guess his next-door neighbor felt a little jealous of my friend’s mad loot because I remember him lobbing rocks over the fence at us for no apparent reason. I can barely remember my friend going through a couple more Atari consoles, including the 5200 and 7800, before we eventually lost touch. Meanwhile, I had discovered arcade machines and was into Gauntlet, Galaga, After-Burner, Operation Wolf and 1943 at my local arcade.
My first system was the 1985 classic Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). I tried the Sega Master system and wasn’t very impressed. The NES had all the good games anyway. As long as I had my homework taken care of, I could reasonably expect to play the NES as I wished, though at first I wasn’t allowed to have any “violent” games and recall begging Mom to let me buy Karate Champ at K-Mart with money I’d saved up from my paper route. “Mom! It’s a SPORT!” I pleaded.
That day I went home with Double Dribble, but eventually I was battling with my buddies on Castlevania, Double Dragon, Ninja Gaiden, Rygar, Karnov, Trojan, Contra, Kung-Fu, Life-Force and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!, but I still loved Tetris, Super Mario Bros, RC Pro-Am, and even Double Dribble.
Next up, in 1988, the Sega Genesis blew my mind with 16-bit graphics. The colors! The animation! The bump mapping! This system was a quantum leap ahead. Plus, it was black and looked super cool. My Genesis favorites included Golden Axe, Revenge of Shinobi, Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, Altered Beast (of course), The Sword of Vermillion and the seemingly little-known masterpiece Thunder Force III. After a couple years of the Genesis and a brief dalliance in 1990 with the Super NES (F-Zero was pretty cool), I dropped out of video games for about a decade.
The NEC TurboGraphx-16, SNK Neo-Geo, Phillips CD-I, NEC TurboDuo, Atari Jaguar, Goldstar 3DO, Sega Saturn and Nintendo Virtual Boy came and went. By the time the Sony PlayStation had conquered the next generation of consoles in 1994 (the year I graduated from high school), I had lost interest. I was more into playing in rock bands, skateboarding and listening to music than playing video games. The Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast and even the mighty Playstation II were barely noted blips on my radar.
Then something happened late in 2001. I was living with a few dudes in a house in between punk rock tours. We had homemade skate ramps in the backyard, a pool table under the carport, a mini-bike and a motorized grocery cart someone had drunkenly stolen and parked back there. One day I walked by my roommate’s bedroom door and happened to glance over his shoulder to his TV. He was playing Halo: Combat Evolved, on a new console called the Xbox, and I was helplessly drawn into the room like the Millenium Falcon caught in a tractor beam.
There was a gigantic controller, an intimidating array of buttons, and it was made by Microsoft. Microsoft? I just sat and watched my roommate play, transfixed. About six months later, my band had returned from a final east-coast tour and broken up. I wasn’t sure what I’d do next to make a living, but my first significant purchases were a decent bed and a new Xbox console with Halo.
My decade away from gaming had come to an end. I played through the first two Halo games, along with a few others, and received a new Xbox 360 at launch from my girlfriend in 2005, less than a year before we married, and I have enjoyed it casually (more on this later) ever since. During this time, I never really noticed Nintendo’s Gamecube, Wii or Wii U and doubt I’ll ever have a Nintendo console again.
It's still fun to revisit those old NES games once and a while, though. I briefly owned a PS3, solely for the blu-ray player and the excellent PS3 exclusives, God of War III and Uncharted 2. The thing is, I never liked the PS3 as well as the Xbox 360—not the software, not the controller, not the user interface, not any of it—so I soon sold the PS3 and bought a stand-alone blu-ray player for my movies.
PART III: TO THE FUTURE!
After eight years of the Xbox 360 and PS3, we are finally on the cusp of a new video game console generation, but things aren’t looking so great for casual gamers like me who seem to have been overlooked by Microsoft in its relentless drive to dominate every aspect of the majority of American living rooms. “Casual gamer” might not be really the right term. In fact, I don’t know what to call someone like me in corporate video game marketingspeak.
These days, "casual gamer" refers to people who play Angry Birds on their iPads, or Farmville on Fakebook with their smartphones. I may purchase two or three Xbox 360 games a year. It’s a safe bet that I’ll purchase the new Halo and Gears games as they are released, and sometimes I’ll bite for the odd Call of Duty, Battlefield or Medal of Honor update, but I usually sell those as soon as I play through their campaign modes once, barely even try multiplayer modes and am mostly content to find a small number of games I really enjoy and stick with them for a long time.
I guess I could say tend to play what are commonly referred to as the more “hardcore gamer” titles, but I don’t fit into that category because I’m not very competitive and tend to either play cooperatively with real-world friends (Horde mode) or by myself through cinematic solo campaigns. As a 36-year-old man, I have little desire to be relentlessly assassinated and insulted by vulgar, racist, sexist, homophobic little boys, should I attempt to dip my toe into random multiplayer match-up rooms.
But maybe, as a tiny minority of co-op/campaign gamers, I don’t matter. It seems the vast majority of Xboxers prefer to play online against each other. I prefer to either play cooperatively with friends that I otherwise don’t get to see very often or to play solo, working on the campaign story-modes of games, rarely even venturing online. My Horde team doesn’t even play the online competitive multiplayer modes.
Horde is co-op. We’re friends in real life. It’s not a competition against each other; we’re a team fighting against the computer and helping each other out. We’re not jumping into a randomized online competition with a bunch asshole pre-teens who will most certainly pound our geezer squad into Sera dirt because, well, what fun is that?
And I have other things to do! I have a wife I like to spend time with. I want to read books, cook (more) delicious meals, write stuff, play music and go canoe-camping on the river. Time spent in front of the game console, while fun and often sociable, does not feel productive or creatively satisfying, so it’s been relegated into a low-priority zone for me and gets less of my time than the average gamer who plays these kinds of games. So it’s not really “casual” in the sense of playing lighthearted, mobile or dance/puzzler games, but it’s still casual.
Is there even a demographic for me in the Xbox marketing department—a guy who likes shooters and actioners (and occasionally arcade classics and 2D, side-scrolling stuff) but doesn’t make a lot of time for them? A guy that barely buys two or three games a year and almost never even enters multiplayer matchmaking? A gamer who plays "hardcore" titles with "casual" intensity?
With the recent announcement of the new console generation, I feel overlooked and ignored, but it’s not surprising. I’m used to not fitting into categories comfortably, but I never would have predicted how disappointing the new Xbox One system would look. The NSA and Microsoft are proving George Orwell right.
Kotaku wrote that the Xbox One's reception was “a disaster” that “ranged from indifference right on down to hostility,” in response to which Microsoft tried to “massage the message and justify the extreme measures” and “failed spectacularly.”
Slate wrote about Microsoft’s recently filed patent that “suggests it is interested in using Kinect to count the number of people in a room in order to charge each person for providing pay-per-user content” and quoted Germany’s federal data protection commissioner saying (in Der Spiegel) that “the fact that Microsoft is now spying on my living room is just a twisted nightmare.”
Eurogamer wrote that the Xbox One “kills game ownership and expects us to smile” and “signals the most significant divergence to date of Microsofts’s goals for the Xbox business from our own. It also puts and unspecified expiration date on every Xbox One game ever made and gives you no control over it. Yes, at a point in time where consoles are becoming less relevant, Microsoft’s solution is to make them less permanent…under Microsoft’s new rules, we are no longer building a collection of games—we are building a collection of loans that may be recalled from us at any time.”
The Guardian agreed and wrote that “with Xbox One, what’s yours is theirs,” citing its “most drastic, restrictive copyright protection measures yet seen in the tech industry…this is the first time consumers will really have to grapple with the concept that an object, something you can hold in your hands, is not yours. Your game console and your game discs are merely entry tickets to a playground controlled by a vast, multinational company.”
TIME wrote that “the notion that we ought to embrace a set-top box that sits in our most intimate spaces, watching and listening to us, always connected to the Internet or minimally connected once every 24 hours, collating and transmitting usage-related information about us to Microsoft…well, Redmond has a message problem. And it’s done nothing at E3 to remedy that.”
Rolling Stone notes how the Kinect 2 is “always on,” and how it is “able to identify individuals based on face and body recognition, works in the dark, records audio and is constantly connected to the Internet and 300,000 Microsoft servers. Even when your Xbox One is off, the Kinect is still listening, watching and waiting.” I could go on, but you get the idea. Gamers are angry, but launch is still a few months away.
My top-10 list of what currently sucks about the Xbox One:
1. Forced internet “check in” every 24 hours or you can’t play the games that YOU BOUGHT.
2. Required Kinect spycam (with internet connection) that never sleeps. Apparently you can sort of turn it off, but it still listens and gathers data. It knows how many people are in the room, what they’re looking at and what their heart rate is. Microsoft says they won’t upload this data without your permission if you “turn off” the Kinect, which you can’t really even do. How kind of them.
3. No loaning or renting or buying or selling used games, though this is apparently left up to game publishers, who’ve been pushing for this change for years. TIME calls this policy “clear as mud.”
4. They’re not really your games anymore, are they? It’s a license. It can expire at Microsoft’s discretion.
5. If you play a game you bought and uploaded to your console (and automatically the cloud) and you want to play it with a friend on his or her console, you have one hour. One hour?
6. No backward compatibility for your disc-based games, plus eight years worth of purchased and downloaded Xbox Live games become worthless, as they will not transfer to the new system.
7. $500 for a system that Microsoft can tell you what to do with, when and how, with a fixed hard-drive that cannot be expanded.
8. Games playing themselves for you when you’re not? No thanks.
9. Broadcasting gaming sessions online? No thanks.
10. Policies may change at any moment. It’s not up to you how to use your stuff, even though you bought the stuff.
Top-4 list of what does not appear to suck about the Xbox One:
1. The new controller
2. Blu-ray integration (finally)
3. 500GB hard drive (much bigger but not removable or replaceable)
4. Halo 5 (Why not call it whatever it actually is: Halo 9 or 10?)
The PS4 truly seems to have the edge over the new Xbox. It has no limit on used game swaps or sales. No internet connection is required to play games. Developers can self-publish. The PS4 is $100 cheaper and has 20 exclusive games releasing in the first year. The Big Brother camera is optional. Games appear to be the system’s first priority, with music and video streaming included but secondary.
As the New Yorker wrote, the PS4 “won’t connect to a larger universe of devices, services, and software” like the Xbox One. As Sony’s CEO put it, “the most important thing we need to do is agree and understand that the PS4 is a great video game console that appeals to video gamers.” This appears to be the opposite message from the one Microsoft has been advancing.
To be entirely fair, the consoles don't release until November. Features could still be added or removed. It remains to be seen how Microsoft will react to the deluge of vitriol from gamers and tech bloggers. Here's hoping they wake up and snap out of it. They already appear to be on the defensive, issuing confusing sound bites and cancelling executive press interviews at the E3, at a time when they surely expected to be awash in our collective praise and awe.
Is it too late to change these Orwellian policies and give us what we want—ownership of the games, consoles and content we purchase and the freedom to use them as we choose without overt corporate surveillance and command? I guess we’ll find out in time for Thanksgiving.
So far, the Guardian has the best summary of the situation in the new console wars and for the first time got me thinking that another Sony system might be in my future, but for now, I’ll continue to enjoy my trusty 360 and Gears 3, Horde Mode, hoping for the release of an Epic Horde Edition of Gears, until my old console one day succumbs to the red rings of death or has its software and support yanked by the Microsoft monolith.
It was fun while it lasted, Mr. Gates.