March

March.

I am walking down Vesey Street, or what would have been Vesey Street, had there not been the constant construction, Fernet Menta on my tongue, and the glimmering remains of sunlight on the horizon ahead.

I am meeting people I have only known over email, and I am learning so damn much.

I am responding to an email about a friend who ripped me off, to an acquaintance who is concerned about the well-being of said “friend”. I assure the acquaintance that given a pocket-dialed voicemail weeks prior, the “friend” is likely still drawing breath.

I am at The Dead Rabbit, constantly. Always on Fridays.

I am switching my phone between arms, extending it back into a scrum, hoping to catch something resembling a quote from the front office of a team that hasn’t yet hired a player.

I am at dinner, talking about authenticity, and marketing, and college over spicy tripe and pici carbonara. I am right about the lemon bars, but that’s less about me and more about the lemon bars.

I am in a locker room, getting pushed in the back by a cameraman who is grumbling loudly about not being able to get a shot. I was here first. I relinquish my spot so that he’ll stop whining. I am not thanked.

I am throwing up just a little in my mouth. I am regaining my composure.

I am perpetually on the phone: solving problems, comforting, joking, advising, and trying my damnedest to get things done without losing my composure.

I am trying to perfect my marinara recipe. It’s not bad, it just could be better.

I am coming up to the surface from below; the last vestiges of the sunlight is gone.

I am explaining a joke that involved someone in Portland (Oregon) casually soliciting me for an illegal drug. The person I am explaining the joke to, who was rather aggrieved that I would make such a joke in the first place, responds “Ha, fair enough. What part of town? I’m more surprised it was meth, not heroin.”

I am asking for feedback but getting very little. It is okay. I am used to this.

I am breaking news and getting name dropped, which is quite a change from a year ago.

I am playing games: Infamous Second Son and Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls and Luftrausers and Goat Simulator and South Park Stick Of Truth and Zoo Keeper Versus. They are all enjoyable in their own ways.

I am tired of the cold, and tired of telling people I’m tired of the cold.

I am standing at a soccer-related party, with Katie and my friend Dave. The team comes out. Katie shouts “THIERRY!” as Thierry Henry walks by us. He looks over, and smiles. She puts her hand up. He high fives her emphatically. All I can think: wait, did that just happen?

I am inserting myself in someone else’s drama. I know this is never a good idea.

I am at a bar I haven’t been to in six years drinking alone. People I see frequently/occasionally/never show up. We share that smile of friends that don’t intersect as much as we promised we would.

I am eating at a restaurant I haven’t been to in eight years. It has lost whatever limited character it had.

I am wondering when I became so numb to the rich variety of my life that I started believing that very little happens during my average month.

Cheers to The Dead Rabbit

Despite it seeming to have been burned into my genes, I have never been much for drinking. Call it something between a character quirk, a lifestyle choice, and an explicit desire to not act like a complete fool. It was only within the last five years or so that I began to appreciate alcohol a bit more.

New York, being a rather thirsty city, has endless opportunities for those who need a drink. Dive bars, frat bars, pubs, trendy cocktail lounges, speakeasies – the city manages to run the gamut from slouchy to upright, from $2 PBR to $15+ for a mid-shelf cocktail.

Over the last decade, I had not yet found that one place to drink, the bar that feels like home. Something not snooty, not a dive, but just kind of nice. Somewhere with character, but not a gimmick. Somewhere preferably with decent food (because drinking on an empty stomach is deadly). A decent location. Those sorts of things.

It was April 27th of last year when I first stepped foot into The Dead Rabbit, and knew pretty quickly that I had finally found that one place. Downstairs was pints and meat pies, an absurd collection of irish whiskey, and high-quality takes on classic cocktails. Upstairs was teacups of punch and dollar oysters, someone at the piano, and bartenders in red shirts and suspenders moving so rapidly between tincture bottles it’s occasionally indistinguishable from magic.

I defy anyone to try the Irish Coffee and not fall in love.

So try to ignore their daunting list of industry honors after only being open one year: “Best New Bar”, “World’s Best Cocktail Menu”, those sorts of things. Try to put the long wait to get upstairs out of mind. It’s worth it. It’s incredibly worth it. And I say that as someone who’s not much of a drinker.

To Jack, to Pam, to Chris, to Anna, to James, to Laura: happy birthday, friends, and thank you for everything.

Games of 2013: The Best, And The Rest

Some Of The Rest Of The Games Of 2013

As eluded to in the last post – which was a month ago – this series was perhaps doomed this year. It is hard to want to write about games when there are still so many to play.

That said, I still want to call out the remainder of the games I was going to write-up (I do try to plan this out), as well as the handful of games I was going to include in the “The Rest” compendium at the end of the series.

I need closure. Bear with me as we whiplash through about 40 games in rapid succession.

The Best

Surgeon Simulator 2013 (PC/Mac) was perhaps the best surprise of the year; not since QWOP have janky controls lead to such perverse hilarity. It’s one of the few games I got 100% completion on – until they added the expansion levels, at least. (I am still waiting for an eSports league specific to the game, even though my skills are a bit rusty.)

It was a good year for unique storytelling. Blackbar (iOS) brought us into dystopia through redacted text; Papers, Please (PC) showed us a different utopia through the bureaucracy of immigration. Gone Home (PC/Mac) had us exploring an strange empty house with a sense of dread. And, in an experience that isn’t over yet, Kentucky Route Zero (PC/Mac) helped re-invent the point and click adventure. (The way to best enjoy KRZ: pour a glass of iced tea, add a shot of whiskey, turn out the lights, and let the game take it from there.)

In the first game to ever make this list twice, a remade and revamped version of The Stanley Parable (PC/Mac) came out. Absolutely can’t miss for people who love narrative structure and the tweaking of video game conventions.

Trading card games made a pretty huge leap this year, as everyone seemed to be making one. Scrolls (Mac/PC) seems promising from the bit I’ve played of it, and Hearthstone from Blizzard will undoubtedly be huge. Other upstarts like Ironclad Tactics (PC/Mac) and HEX (PC) are filling the niche as well. Yet weirdly, it was a little simple card game called Lil Alchemist (iOS) that stole my heart and a solid month of gaming during my daily commute to work.

Spurred on somewhat by The Binding Of Isaac, the roguelike formula crept into more action games this year. Super House Of Dead Ninjas (PC) is frantic, tense, and addictive as hell. Rogue Legacy isn’t quite as frantic but controls great and has some fantastic metagame elements. Risk Of Rain did so much right, including bringing multiplayer into the equation. And Spelunky (PC/PS3/Vita) freed itself from the clutches of Xbox exclusivity to be an instant Steam classic.

The beta finally hit at the end of the year, but no matter: Starbound is exactly what I wanted it to be when I pre-ordered it. Once the last character wipe happens, there goes my free time.

I gave top honors to Sleep No More in 2011, and while it’s not the top spot in 2013, Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man is, like its predecessor, a must-experience. I was lucky enough to make two trips during the week we spent in London; it is in many ways what I wanted SNM to be. The set dressing is immense, the soundtrack perfectly picked, and the cast is devastatingly talented. The run’s been extended, so if you find yourself in London, don’t hesitate – just go.

Valve finally pushed DotA 2 to 1.0 status in 2013. As someone who has dabbled in MOBA games before, and who was overwhelmed with DotA when I tried the earlier beta, I wasn’t sure the hook would ever come. The point it did turned out to be during The International, the massively hyped tournament that becomes oddly compelling television. I remain pretty poor at the game as a whole, but I’m having fun, and I suppose that’s what counts.

And thus, with the rest of the major candidates out of the way, my Game Of 2013 is Bioshock Infinite. It is by no means perfect, or flawless, or without its detractors. But the ambition connected more times than I could have ever expected, the storytelling hit all the right notes, and I left Columbia feeling wholly satisfied. More than any other game I played in 2013, it had a lasting sense of place and atmosphere, one that I can still feel 9 months removed from playing through the first time.

The Rest

And now, the speed round for everything I didn’t play enough of (or didn’t love or hate enough) to warrant inclusion in the larger list.

868-HACK – a quirky roguelike on iOS. Fun, challenging, but not quite the same infectious hook of other roguelikes.

The Last Of Us – in what I’m sure is a criminal act, I only got a few hours in, and lost interest given other titles that came calling. I hope to get back to it sometime this year.

Dragon’s Crown – a glorious side scrolling beat’em’up that I pray gets a PS4 port so I can play on the big screen.

Intake – a hidden gem on Steam that kind of mixes Ikaruga and skillful clicking. Really addictive but not so deep.

Tearaway – the reason to own a Vita. Delightful 3D platformer from the Media Molecule team. If you can play it, do so.

GTA V – another casualty of too many games coming out this year. Certainly loved it, but GTA games require an absurd time commitment to truly wrap your hands around them.

Super Motherlode – a surprisingly fun driller/exploration title available on PSN at the PS4 launch. Really needs network play, though.

Need For Speed: Rivals – a really well executed racer, ruined by an over the top plot about authoritarian cops and the racers they chase. Criterion, please go back to making Burnout games.

Antichamber – a first-person puzzle that’s just going to make your head hurt. Worth a look if you loved Portal.

Super Amazing Wagon Adventure – Oregon Trail meets a side scrolling shooter on acid. An acquired taste, I suppose.

Gunpoint – a very well done action puzzler, full of intrigue and jumping great distances to kill people.

PAYDAY 2 – I liked the concept of the first PAYDAY, but didn’t like the execution. Problem solved in the sequel – if only I wasn’t so many levels behind everyone else.

Mercenary Kings – still in Early Access mode, this Kickstarter-funded title feels like the second coming of Contra. Will be incredible when the final version releaes.

Saints Row IV – after loving Saints Row 2 and 3, I actually felt let down by 4. The Saints finally overextended, and it felt repetitive and played out.

The Secret World – probably the only MMO I’ve enjoyed in a good long while. Weird, but good.

La Mulana – the indie darling finally hit Steam and made me acknowledge once more how terrible I am at video games.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – a Western FPS that, besides being well executed, does some fun things with the storytelling. Surprisingly worthwhile.

Shadowrun Returns – needs more of my time and love, but as someone who clocked way too many hours on the SNES Shadowrun game, I can’t not love this.

Tomb Raider – the least offensive Lara Croft game in years. Have not gotten far and may be compelled to dip for the PS4 remake coming out next week.

The Wolf Among Us – Telltale’s latest is much more appealing to me than The Walking Dead, especially the gorgeous art style.

Games of 2013: Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2013 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I have been doing in recent history, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting about one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2013 posts.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Those who tend to hone in on this series over December may have noticed that an entire week went by without a post. There’s an understandable reason.

Besides work, life, and the standard holiday crazies, this is the first time since I started doing this end of year series that we’ve actively hit a new console generation – one that started just a month before I was due to start writing. This has lead to an unfortunate crash of priorities: do I write about games, or do I play them?

While both the PS4 and the Xbox One are not exactly killing it with exclusive launch titles, there are some excellent multiplats that joined the generation, and the one that’s struck me the most is Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, or as some have opted to refer to it, Pirate’s Creed.

AC has been one of those series for years that I’ve wanted to like much more than I actually ever ended up did. The first one was an exercise in janky framerates. The second was stronger, but followed by two not-entirely-necessary followups. The third game was a step backwards.

But Black Flag finally shatters the cement wall of apathy for three key reasons, which are occasionally helped by being on next gen platforms:

First, the framerate is finally stable and playable.

Second, they’ve created a plot that is stripped down in the right places (the endless modern day drama with Desmond Miles is replaced with you being a nameless Abstergo employee) and scaled up in others (the West Indies is your playground for a pirate adventure).

Lastly, building on the pirate setting, the game is just damn fun. Whether you’re exploring random islands, taking down naval forts, harpooning sharks, or just terrorizing any boat that comes anywhere near you, you’ve got a wide array of activities at your disposal.

It’s still flawed, with the main plot line including a number of painful stealth missions and the combat still being a clumsy ballet. But when you’re drifting over the waves in the Jackdaw, it’s easy to forget the jinxed pedigree of the series, and feel like you’re playing something entirely new. That’s quite the accomplishment for Ubisoft.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is available on most every modern platform. My experiences were with the PS4 version.

Games of 2013: Divekick

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2013 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I have been doing in recent history, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting about one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2013 posts.

Divekick

In the twenty years that fighting games have been a integral part of the gaming landscape, I’ve learned one very important thing: I’m terrible at them.

It’s not for the lack of trying. the Street Fighters, the Mortal Kombats, the Samurai Showdowns, the Tekkens, the Soul Caliburs, the Brand X vs. Brand Y, Guilty Gear, Virtua Fighter, King of Fighters, Dead Or Alive…I’ve tried them all. I love the pure competition of fighting games, but I just don’t have the precision muscle memory (or countless hours to burn) to really excel.

Enter Divekick. Strip everything you know about fighting games and reduce it to two buttons: Dive, and Kick. (There’s no joystick.) First hit wins the round. First to five rounds wins the match.

In that simplicity, the genre boils down to something very pure, endless psych outs and feints. There’s still special moves and meters, sure, but without solid diving/kicking technique, you’re going to set off the fraud detection.

Some intentionally goofy characters and story lines round out what many ruled as a “joke game”. And while there wasn’t a ton of competition in 2013, it’s easily the best fighting game of the year.

Divekick is available for PS3, PS Vita, and PC. I spent time with all three versions.

Games of 2013: The Swapper

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2013 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I have been doing in recent history, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting about one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2013 posts.

Typically, when I do one of these posts, I include an image, something representative of the memories I have of the game.

The Swapper deserves a trailer because the screenshots were what stood between me and a purchase initially. There’s something just a little off about the screenshots, probably because the models and the world were apparently built out of clay. Some games just look better in motion, and this is one of them.

I don’t want to give too much away about The Swapper because it was such a surprise delight, but let’s just say it ticks all my boxes for a puzzle platformer: atmosphere, sound design, plot, difficulty, controls. Strongly recommended for those looking for something to puzzle over.

The Swapper is available for PC.

Theme Switch

For the seventeen of you still reading, please note that I’ve swapped themes somewhat arbitrarily.

While I do dearly love my color palette (and it’s still sort of in this theme), I was running into some typography and readability issues that didn’t seem worth deconstructing a stylesheet. Hence, a swap to the new WordPress default, and hopefully a little less concern about my eyes bleeding.

Also, this is an “aside”, whatever that means. I guess these are Tumblr-esqe post types?

Games of 2013: Desktop Dungeons

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2013 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I have been doing in recent history, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting about one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2013 posts.

Desktop Dungeons

In 2010, a little three man team in South Africa released an experimental roguelike RPG called Desktop Dungeons. It was meant to be consumed in short bursts: the games didn’t last longer than 5-10 minutes and there wasn’t any deep character progression.

A brief stab at how the rules work: you are a level 1 hero. Walking into an area of the map that’s unrevealed reveals the tiles, which can heal you. Monsters will be shown with a level, and the game clearly telegraphs what will happen if you attack (WIN/SAFE/DEATH being the three most common states). Beating up monsters gets you experience, which can help you level; beating monsters above your level is riskier but yields more experience. Your goal: kill the level 10 monster somewhere on the floor. There’s more to it than this, but that’s the crux.

Now, in 2013, the “final” version has finally been unleashed on the world. The core gameplay is still the same, but much like when Triple Town jumped from a straightforward iOS puzzle into a desktop version with some meta-game elements, so too has Desktop Dungeons. There’s a deep series of unlocks that bring you more classes, better start states, and differing environments.

I was going to say I love Desktop Dungeons because at its core it’s a beautifully stripped down RPG experience. Then I realized it may be unfair to call it an RPG – it’s a puzzle game that looks like an RPG. And while most game modes don’t run on into infinity, there is a familiar impending doom that you might get yourself stuck, with no good options but to crash your run and start over.

And having just compared it to Triple Town, I can’t help but realize that this is essentially my Triple Town of 2013. It’s that same addictive bite sized game that requires a level of strategy and critical thinking. Despite it being short, you can lose hours to it.

I just fear an inevitable iOS version.

Desktop Dungeons is available on Mac and PC. I played both versions evenly.

Games of 2013: Battlefield 4

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2013 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I have been doing in recent history, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting about one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2013 posts.

Battlefield 4

This isn’t really a post about Battlefield 4. It is without question a rather nice shoot-shoot-bang-bang game, one that rewards a little more patience and execution than recent Call Of Duty sequels. It looks lovely on the Playstation 4, and it has the sort of grindy level progression that tends to get me to sink lots of time into games.

It’s lovely, really. And even if I’m pretty bad at it (my K/D rating is almost always rock bottom), I like the feeling of sort of contributing by hiding very close to a flag until it flips to my team’s color.

The real reason the post is part of this year’s series – ironically, on the day of Doom’s 20th anniversary, the truest start of the FPS era – is realizing that I am finding it very hard to get excited about shoot-shoot-bang-bang games in 2013.

I’ve lost track of how many bullets I’ve shot (not that I was ever keeping count). I’ve lost track of how many dudes I’ve killed, or how many times I’ve had to respawn. There was a time and place in my life where a frantic FPS game would be my jam, where I would happily throw down against friends.

But starting at some point last year, when I see first person, I’m expecting something a bit more cerebral. I crave exploration, for discovery, for (if there needs to be gunplay) variety. Straight military exercises have been done so much over the last 20 years, and it’s a new generation of first-person titles (many of which will show up later in the series) that are redefining what a game with WASD controls can and should do.

So nothing against you, Battlefield 4. You’re quite good at what you do. It’s just that I don’t need a bunch of games like you any more to be happy.

Battlefield 4 is available on PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC. I played the PS4 version.

Struggling with the dark and responding to the light.