The Definition of Video Games (Etc.)

Today I watched a video where a YouTuber claimed that a video game was not a video game. Of course, that statement doesn’t actually make sense. What he meant to say was that he had encountered a video game that did not neatly fit his definition of what a game was supposed to be. That statement got me to thinking. How do we decide what fits into certain categories, and what doesn’t?

Studying literature has created a greater sense in me of discussions like this one. Every couple of years someone new claims that the novel is dead. What they really mean by this statement is, much like the YouTuber, the novel has changed form into something that they can no longer recognize. In a way, it’s unimaginative, not to mention lazy.

I talked a little while ago about Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a book of fiction that in many ways defies definition and category. There have been works of art, films, television shows, and video games that have done the same exact thing. The difference in many instances is that some critics have the breadth of imagination to envision a possibility of something belonging to a category rather than closing off the category to other alternatives.

The best example I can think of in regards to this phenomenon is Journey, the game that the YouTuber I previously mentioned said was not a video game. He called it an experience, and there’s nothing wrong about that statement. Journey is an experience. It is also a video game. How do I match that definition? In the case of Journey, I am using the definition of the developers of the game, I am using the definition of the industry where it was called game of the year, and I am using my own definition of how I experience interactivity. Yes, the last part is personal, but the first two are understandable ways to establish definitions. Still, if someone crafts a spoon, hands it to you, and calls it a fork, you’re probably going to have questions. How does Journey stack up to what a game should offer?

First, it has mechanics and interactivity. The button inputs are minimalistic, but they are there. The player interacts with the game. That’s key. It’s not just pushing a button for a cut scene. Next, it has a story. Some games are loose on this regard, but most games have a story to tell. Finally, the player uses the mechanics to achieve a goal. In the case of Journey, that goal is to reach the top of a mountain.

Why might people not think of it as a game? Well, it’s not possible to die, there are very few enemies, and it’s a linear experience. Each of these problems has an easy response. To the death possibility, consider the fact that death was originally used as a means to snatch quarters from children. Many developers have gone away from using death as a punishing mechanic. In regards to enemies, there’s no necessity for there to be negative forces in a video game. Guitar HeroPokemon Snap, and Flower (another game from thatgamecompany’s canon) have no enemies. They have obstacles to overcome. The difficulty with Journey is that it is a linear experience, but linearity has only recently fallen out of favor in the gaming community. Many of the greatest games of all time (Super Mario BrosDonkey Kong Country, and Sonic the Hedgehog, etc.) could be faulted with this curse of linearity.
The real heart of this situation is that it is easier to declare that something does not fall into a category than to expand our definitions. Novels, video games, or any other creative categories exist in a state of constant flux. Accepting that they may change is the way to bring about new experiences. Closing off to the possibilities can lead to more intolerant outcomes on other matters. It’s probably better to stay on the side of reasonable and open-minded. Then again, that’s probably good life advice in general.

AWP Take Aways

AWP is always a hot bed of ideas and suggestions. Everyone has their own opinions, but there’s usually something available for everyone who’s interested in listening. These are just a few things that I thought after attending AWP. Some of them are impressions of people, others are ideas to tuck away for the future, and there’s a few ideas that were incredible as well.

1. Fiction Collective 2 publishes incredible books. Seriously, everything that I saw from this press has just reinforced my impressions of them as one of the best independent presses available. They are experimental, full of incredible talent, and know what they are doing when they bring new people into the collective. There’s a reason that FC2 has been going strong for so many years.

2. Crowd reactions matter at AWP. There are certain topics that can completely turn away an audience member at AWP. I’ve been to three AWPs at this point, and each of them has seen a contentious panel or an uncomfortable reading. It doesn’t matter how good a reading is, or how rhythmic the prose is, if a reading doesn’t please the crowd, then there’s little chance that such an author will be selling copies. However, the inverse is also true. Certain approaches and topics will impress audiences at AWP as well. The authors that impress people will stick in minds for a long time. I saw Roger Reeves speak at my first AWP in 2012. I’ve followed his poetry ever since, but I’m a fiction writer. I imagine there are poets who have not only tracked his career, but they could also want to go to the school he teaches at now. That’s the power of possibility at AWP.

3. There are ruthless self-promoters at the book fair. Someone might want to give you their card, or say a couple of words about their press, and that’s fine, but there are some people who will talk to someone for fifteen or twenty minutes about nothing, or pass out self-published manuscripts. I’ve got no idea what the people that participate in these practices are thinking, but they are a bane for everyone working the fair. These self-promoters can get in the way of other people that a journal or program may be trying to reach. People will often pass by a booth if there’s someone standing at that booth already, not wanting to be rude or wait. They might think they’ll come back. I thought that myself many times, but I never returned to those booths. I can’t imagine that I’m the only one.

4. Don’t preface panel questions with what you think you know. I watched a panel goer get rebuffed completely when he said that he thought the workshop method worked. It was painful. His reality looked like it shattered. Assuming that someone agrees with your point of view before they say anything on the subject is the fast track to losing credibility in the room. Nobody wants to be that guy.

5. Speaking of the workshop method… Matt Bell and Michael Martone both spoke of the workshop method, and they had wonderful things to say. Matt Bell spoke of how to empower the author in the workshop, and Michael Martone’s idea of the hypoxic (or breathless) workshop were both interesting and impressive ideas as to how to refine the workshop method to work in different circumstances. One of the later panels that I attended even referenced Matt Bell’s workshop cover letter proposal two days later. It takes a lot for an idea to stick with someone for 48 hours in an environment like AWP. Being able to reach someone else like that is the goal, right?

6. The most important people to form relationships with are those that you already knew. Making new friends and contacts at AWP is a common practice, and it’s one that should not be ignored, but fostering the friendships of the past is just as important, if not more so. It’s easy to think that hanging out with friends could be a loss of focus, but those people will mean a lot under many different circumstances, even if they’re just a friendly face that you never expected to see again.

7. The book fair is always full of hidden gems. Tucked away on the far left and far right of the book fair are presses and journals that don’t get nearly as much foot traffic. There are great discoveries to be made on these margins, and the people that you talk to will be that much more appreciative and enthusiastic to meet you (for the most part). Some of the presses toward the center seem to have people that are exhausted by day three, and many of them can’t match the enthusiasm of those presses and journals that are young and hungry. For instance, Fiction Collective 2 is great, one of my favorite presses by this point, but people behind the booth are pleasant and calm. Give me awkward and enthusiastic any day.

Conferences, the Best and Worst Part of Being an Academic

I just got back from New Orleans on Saturday. I will leave for Minneapolis in roughly a day and change. All of this over what was supposed to be my spring break. I enjoy the mental marathon that is conference travel, but this is the first time I’m doing them back to back. We’ll see next Monday how I felt about the decision.

For now, I love conferences. They are the epitome of the academic community, and I have met many friends in those small spaces. The fact that interactions are taking place between people with such similar interests makes conferences a hotbed for many different faces of academia. I will never forget a professor regaling the tale of a particular drunken elder statesman of composition theory dancing at a conference.

The inverse tales of creepiness are not lost on me, though. I remember last year when a certain guy was floating his power fantasy on Craig’s List before MLA. The reaction to it was justified in its divine rage.

The point is that people forget who they are sometimes at conferences. It is a chance to see people at their best and worst. I gave a reading to a crowd of fifteen people, and watched double that discuss the finer points of Dungeons and Dragons. (Seriously, as a side note, the Pop Culture Association conference is incredible to attend. If you ever find yourself there, and you’re not sure what to do, go in for the last roughly thirty minutes of a session. I’ve never been disappointed yet.)

The conference that I’m heading to this week is the grand daddy of writing conferences, AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs). I will be blogging for Assay while I’m there, but I will also be putting in hours for Rougarou and the online journal that I’m heading, which will be releasing its first issue in the summer. As my mother used to say, God willing and the creek don’t rise. Linguistically, that phrase doesn’t make sense, does it?

I’m rambling at this point with a little bit of self-promotion thrown in. In the end, that is probably the most accurate representation of conference travel that I could hope to provide. Exhaustion reaches new heights, but the best are forged in the fires of the academic conference. Or so I’m told. I don’t like fires. Or pain.

I do like sleep, though, and there won’t be much of it coming for the next couple of days, so I think I may cut this post a bit short. A full report from AWP will be here next week. In the mean time, get some rest in my stead, will you?

The Genius of The Things They Carried

Spoiler alert. In this post, I will discuss specific passages from this book in detail and have quotes. If those two things bother you, please go read something else and be happy with that decision. Thank you.

Also, this post is not a review. It’s a collection of things that I enjoy about this particular book. That collection does not seek to be critical in the negative sense, but to examine what makes the book special in my eyes (and thus critique in the positive sense). If you are looking for traditional reviews, I would suggest looking elsewhere.

The Things They Carried is a modern masterpiece. Tim O’Brien’s book of fiction defies most every label, and it has become one of my go-to texts for looking at craft in writing. It is the fiction book to read about the Vietnam War, and it puts the reader in the same state that someone might have experienced actually being in Vietnam. Many people who love this book might point to the titular story of the book as to why they love the craft of it, and this post isn’t to say that they are inaccurate, but my own love of this work comes from a different section, a sometimes harder section to discuss or pin down: How to Tell a True War Story.

How to Tell a True War Story is the narrative where O’Brien (the narrator, not the author) fully discusses the loss of a member of his platoon. Over the course of the narrative, reality gets harder and harder to differentiate. O’Brien discusses the rules of how to actually tell a story about war, but they get more muddled and contradictory as the text goes on. By the end of the section, O’Brien paints a surrealist painting about the death of Curt Lemon that is not to be ignored: “Twenty years later, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon’s face. I can see him turning, looking back at Rat Kiley, then he laughed and took that curious half step from shade into sunlight, his face suddenly brown and shining, and when his foot touched down, in that instant, he must’ve thought it was the sunlight that was killing him. It was not the sunlight. It was a rigged 105 round. But if I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree, if I could somehow re-create the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which for him must’ve been the final truth.”

This passage is not only one of the most beautiful descriptions of violence I’ve ever read, but it also straddles the line between reality and the fantastic in a way that most authors wouldn’t have done. Tim O’Brien’s work stands as something that completely defies examination. Is it a novel, a novel-in-stories, a story collection? Is it fiction or nonfiction or both at the same time? Is it realism, surrealism, or fantasy? Is it postmodern or metafiction? When you get down to it, this defiance of explanation and category is the real genius of the book.

I recently gave a lecture on this book to a group of undergraduate students, and the first thing I wrote on the board was “fog of war.” This entire book exists in the fog of war that O’Brien himself (the writer, not the narrator) experienced in Vietnam. The first inclination when discussing this book for those students was to try to categorize it, to put it in a bow. I submit that such an inclination is antithetical to the book to begin with. O’Brien’s work almost purposefully defies every category that someone would try to put it into, and that design is a large part of what makes the book such a powerful experience. Too often as critics and theorists, we rush to judgment on what a book is, what it should be, instead of experiencing it at its heart. The Things They Carried is one book that forces you as a reader to accept it on its own terms, and that is amazing.

Emerging from the Literal and Allegorical Cave

Plato would be proud of this post. Or at least the image of it. #redpillorbluepill

It’s been a while. I thought maybe I wouldn’t write on this blog again. I thought maybe this project was something that I just did for a while. I thought maybe that I had quit. To say that I have started blog posts over the last six months without completing them would be an accurate statement. So accurate that it causes me physical pain to admit it. Not really. Consider that part of the allegory.

So, why? Why have I not written on this blog in so long? There’s a couple of reasons, and I’d like to talk about them, if you’ll indulge my indulgence.

The first reason is cultural. I looked at things that were going on in the discourse around me, and it felt like there was nothing I could add. In a time where political rhetoric was high and people’s lives were on the line, it didn’t seem right to be composing posts about video games and writing and culture and graduate school. I had no right and no voice to talk about the only things that were on my mind, so I remained silent. For a long time. It wasn’t exactly personally healthy, but it seemed like the only option. No one would have cared about what I had to say anyway, which is why I write about the things I know about. The final decision on this issue is that I will write about the things that I can add to the discourse with. I will leave those topics in the political spectrum to people who are more knowledgeable and passionate about those topics than myself. I have a great respect for political commentators with diverse perspectives. I might highlight some of them if I think their work is relevant to what I’m doing here.

The second reason is personal. Personal is harder to pin down (and harder to know how much to discuss in a public forum), but I think I can at least admit here that the last six months have been a period of great personal doubt. Everyone experiences impostor syndrome in graduate school, they say. Everyone deals with it in their own way, they say. Things could be worse, they say, stroking their magnificent and well-groomed beards. Yes, there is an inherent amount of privilege in the ability to focus on problems like doubt. Yes, my life could be much worse right now. No, that does not make things any easier. In fact, marginalizing those feelings of inadequacy and sadness probably made things worse for the last six months. So, how have I solved this one? I haven’t. One of my colleagues has taken to telling me “fake it until you make it” with a smile on his face. He’s a wonderful person, about ready to go out into the world as a PhD in the field of awesome, and there’s wisdom in making things that simple. However, I’m going to use this small platform to solidify myself in the areas that I care about a lot. I might make some additional posts about literature, maybe something about some of my favorite books. Whatever the case may be, it won’t be fake. I understand the sentiment of the maxim, but in this space the continued discussion will revolve around topics that I’m most comfortable with. And eventually, maybe, I’ll come to some greater career epiphany.

The third reason is professional. I’ve been writing a lot. I write way more when I’m sad (cliché, I know), so my output has been good during this period. I’ve written enough on a novel to know that I’m not ready for the ambition of that particular project, I’ve finished drafts of six different stories (and feel confident enough about three of them that they will probably be sent out for publication this summer/fall), and I’ve completed one book review (while working on another that will probably be finished by the summer). That is a large output for also working on coursework. It’s an output I’m happy with. Overall, my word count for this academic year is nearly 30,000, and this calendar year looks to be better (at about 12,000 so far in three months). How many of those words will make it into literary journals? Maybe none. I’ve come to a point where I can recognize improvement in my work, though. I can see that there’s not a ceiling, which is a feeling that relates back to reason number two. All I have to do at this point is keep working. This issue is a matter of output. What should I be working on at any one time? Considering this blog helps keep me going in the right direction mentally, I don’t think it’s a problem to put some additional focus on this project. It might even help my overall writing output to change things up every now and again.

So, there’s the roundup. I place these problems in the past, present, and future, but as much in the past as I can. For those of you who noticed my hiatus, my apologies. For those of you who were glad I had stopped saying things, my apologies. For that one person in Russia who happened to click on this blog on accident, my apologies. However, we’re going to start this train moving again, because there’s more for me to say. It’s just been a while since I felt like the person saying those things had any worth. Thank you for the indulgence and for the patience. Posts will start again every Monday for I don’t know how long, but I hope you’ll accept my invitation to go along for the ride.

The Aesthetics of Two Dimensions

A weird thing has happened recently. In the wake of AAA video games that seek to make games more and more photo-realistic, a new movement has happened among independent game developers (including some fans) to make games that are 2D. Maybe this movement was spurred by the increase in literal 3D games on the market (thank you, Nintendo), but no matter what the cause, the effect has been really interesting games. This list includes games that have been out for a while like Braid and Super Meat Boy and more recent offerings like To the Moon, Crypt of the NecroDancer, and Monaco.

What is behind the popularity of these games? That’s a difficult question, because popularity is a relative concept. In an industry where AAA games struggle at times to make back their budgets, the amount of copies needed to put independent developers in the black is not nearly the same. It’s probably easiest to discuss this type of math in terms of the film industry where budgets and grosses are much more public. Imagine an independent film has a budget of a million dollars. If that film sells roughly a hundred thousand tickets, it’s made back its money. However, the latest Spider-Man movie sold roughly 20 million tickets and barely made back its money.

Because independent games need to make less to turn a profit, they can take more chances. It’s the same reason that independent presses and filmmakers are able to thrive at times in markets where the biggest creators can struggle with big budget productions. If a book only costs ten thousand to go to print, selling a thousand copies could be a huge success. A game like Super Meat Boy had two developers, but sold over a million copies. Most AAA games are looking for much higher sales numbers, but in the independent market Super Meat Boy is legendary.

However, even though it is easier to make a profit on these games than it is with huge productions, there has to be something else there, too, right? Some might point to nostalgia as a factor, but my inclination is to point to the fact that most of the iconic video games that our culture thinks of when asked to describe a game are games like Mario and Zelda, things born in the 8-bit era. Looking at MoMA’s video game exhibits, 12 of the 21 selections have an 8-bit style (or less) to them. The height of video games could be considered either the 16-bit era or during the beginning of the 3D era depending on who is making the argument, but it would be hard to make an argument that games are being made right now that define the industry. Really only a couple come close (Minecraft being the obvious frontrunner in any discussion, and it was selected to be part of the MoMa exhibit).

With that in mind, the question becomes what do people really look for in games? A couple of interesting titles might provide an answer to that. There’s Halo 2600, which re-imagines Halo as an Atari game, but more exciting to me is the game that’s currently in development, Ocarina of Time 2D. The thing about these games is that fans are making them. Something has driven people to remake games that they love in a radically different format. It would presumptuous of me to say that I know what makes these fans tick, but maybe this question is one that doesn’t need to be answered.

What I can say is that the games that continually drag me back to play them over and over are games from the early handheld generation and the PSX era. Those games recreate a time for me when I was a kid, first learning what playing a video game meant. Maybe that feeling is recreated in a lot of people, or maybe the aesthetics of two-dimensional games are more familiar to some gamers. Whatever the case, these games will likely stick around for a very long time, and their popularity will force larger developers to re-examine what makes a successful game.

Why Did You Go To Graduate School?

The amount of times that I’ve been asked this question feels more numerous than the pages I’ve written over the course of my tenure in graduate school. It’s a question that is build on a false premise. That premise is that it is possible for me to explain to someone who is not interested in graduate education why I decided to take on such a burden on time, money, and the psyche. The truth is that I will most likely be unable to explain this, but I will try.

Graduate education is all there is for me. The place that I’ve felt most comfortable in my life has been in the college classroom. That space has been occupied by my greatest triumphs, my best friends, and my closest mentors. The classroom is a symbol of comfort. When I’m enjoying a class, it’s like eating a plate of biscuits and gravy or pizza or (insert amazing comfort food from childhood here). It is personal feeling of euphoria that has been unmatched by anything in my working life. Even when I enjoy reading a book or a story at this point in my life, my thoughts immediately drive toward wondering if it would be possible for me to teach a course on it and things like it.

For me, academic thinking is the default position of my brain. The connections that take the average college student entire semesters to figure out click with me within minutes of reading a text. It’s a systematic function of my brain that has been there for as long as I can remember. The same mechanism that told me what the answer was to algebra problems without doing the work on the page has created mental bridges in much of the reading that I am doing in graduate school.

Between the hard wiring and the comfort of the classroom, it doesn’t seem to me like any additional explanation is necessary. To put things into perspective, if I had the ability to solve complex differential equations from the age of ten, then I would probably be a mathematician. However, there is one other thing to directly address. Why the field of English? Why literature? Why creative writing? The answer to that question is writing has been the only thing to challenge me in my life. The type of thinking that is involved when generating fiction is incredibly difficult for me. When generating any kind of creative content really. History was simple, math was easy, and science was boring. These are not objective statements, but an expression of the subjective reality of my brain.

My most common answer to why I write is that I must. I feel compelled to do it. Like a priest answering the call to attend seminary, writing is an almost spiritual experience for me. No, it’s not almost. It is a spiritual experience. That’s why the title of this post says nothing about choice. There really was no other option for me, and if I encountered someone that was on the fence about getting a PhD, I would do my best to encourage them not to. The academy to me is a place that a person goes to when called, not a place where someone goes when they have an option. So, why did I go to graduate school? I guess the real answer is that it was the direction which my soul was compelled to go, and I answered the call.

The Curious Case of Adam Dunn

(Note: This post was originally written before Adam Dunn made the comment that he may retire after the 2014 season. I decided not to change this post, because the strangeness of Dunn’s career is compounded by his own decision to possibly end it when he should be on the cusp of greatness.)

Statistics make me happy. I can’t explain it, but numbers for some reason are interesting to me. Because numbers interest me, baseball is the only sport I really pay attention to. Baseball has numbers for everything, and for a long time it had meaningless numbers at the forefront of its decision-making process as to who the great players were. Then Bill James came into town on a slightly smelly horse to tell everyone that they were wrong about everything, and the rest is history. But sometimes there are players that defy logic. Their numbers just don’t make a lot of sense. When those numbers are placed alongside the numbers of other players, head scratching will surely follow. This post has one of the most head-scratchy players in mind, Adam Dunn.

Adam Dunn is a power hitter. In fact, he’s statistically one of the elite power hitters in baseball. Ignoring a season where he was injured, he’s hit over 30 home runs in nine straight seasons. He’s hit 40 or more home runs in six of those seasons. For comparison, the most likely power hitters to be bound for the hall of fame this generation are Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. Albert has had 12 30-home-run-seasons and 6 40-home-run-seasons, while Alex Rodriguez has had 14 30-home-run-seasons and 8 40-home-run-seasons. Dunn is only 40 home runs away from the 500-home-run club, a club that was once considered a sure ticket into the hall of fame (though not any longer). He has also has over a hundred RBIs in 6 seasons. Over the course of his career, he’s amassed nearly 1200 RBIs, which is close to enough to warrant hall consideration on its own as well (1500-1800 seems to be the threshold for many power hitters). These numbers would indicate that Adam Dunn good at being a power hitter, but there are other numbers to consider.

While Adam Dunn’s power is elite, he also strikes out more than anyone else in the game. He actually has the third most strikeouts in history, behind only Reggie Jackson and Jim Thome (one hall-of-famer and one future hall-of-famer). The only difference is that Dunn has only played for 14 years, while Jackson and Thome played for over 20. In roughly two years, Dunn will surpass them, and that’s not a good thing. In fact, while Dunn is one of the most consistent power hitters in the game, he’s never led the league in home runs, but he has led the league four times in strikeouts, and that isn’t his only weak spot. He also has an incredibly low batting average. A good batting average is usually somewhere between .275 and .300, depending on the amount of walks a player gets and how much of a power hitter they are. Anything over that is great, anything under is below average. Adam Dunn’s career batting average is .237. It’s abysmal. He has had seasons where he barely came in about .200, which is considered to be the absolute lowest that a player can hit while still contributing to a team (referred to colloquially as the Mendoza line after Mario Mendoza, a great defensive player with a career .215 average).

Those two factors would be bad enough for Dunn, but he also is one of the worst defensive players in baseball. Wins Above Replacement is a statistic that is calculated differently in different places, but I will use Baseball Reference’s numbers to illustrate. Dunn’s offensive WAR, or the collective amount of wins he’s contributed to teams over the course of his career, is 34.1. On the other hand, his defensive WAR is -29.4. For how good of an offensive player he is, he’s nearly as bad of a defender. So, while some of his numbers would indicate that Adam Dunn should be in the hall of fame, he will likely not get strong consideration unless he plays into his late 30s or early 40s with consistent production. If he gets to 600 home runs over the course of his career, I’m not sure that a case could be made against his entry on that basis alone. (Only eight other people have made it to that threshold, and only Albert Pujols is likely to join that club any time soon.)

On the other hand, if Dunn merely secures the 500-home-run threshold, it’s unclear as to where he would stand. He’s never been an MVP. He’s only played in two All-Star games (usually 8-10 All-Star appearances are the norm for hall-of-famers). His numbers just don’t match up with his popularity as a player. It will be interesting to see if he forces himself into consideration, because he’s shown little sign of slowing down. If there’s anything to be learned from the case of the Big Donkey (probably the best nickname in MLB history), it’s that if a player can hit enough home runs, a team will sign them and put them in the lineup. In the case of Adam Dunn, four different teams have had him wear their colors so far, and the Oakland A’s have just traded to have him join their lineup. The future could be bright for the rest of Dunn’s career, and the not knowing is half of the fun when it comes to statistics.

The Game of Graduate School, Part Two

All of the orientations and pontificating over the beginning of the PhD program are over, the first week has officially happened. Like any beginning of the semester in graduate school, the first week hit me like a semi, but that wasn’t unusual. Going from doing nothing for any amount of time (though nothing is a relative term) to hitting the ground running makes for an interesting transition. In a discussion with a professor last year, I came to the conclusion that the only real break in graduate school comes on Labor Day weekend, because it’s close enough to the beginning of the semester that it doesn’t feel wrong to take a break. Well, that conclusion was tested this weekend as I began reading for the journal here, graded student writing, and read for my own classes. It was not as relaxing of a weekend as I would have liked, but such is life.

The first week itself was full of oddities. The first lectures from professors that I had only met in passing set the tone for an interesting semester. While I don’t dislike any of the professors I’m taking, they are very different from the professors at my previous institution. In some ways the professors here fit into interesting stereotypes. Not bad by any means, but it’s just something that I’ve not been used to. The first week of my research methods course was focused on finding a place in graduate studies, and that was incredibly insightful. Considering the two years of my first graduate program were some of the most alienating of my life, I found the focus on personal needs in graduate school to be a welcome change of pace. In that avenue, I would recommend that anyone who feels alienated or suffers from the impostor syndrome in the first year of their program look for some community to become a part of. Without community, there really is little point in seeking an advanced degree.

Going down that road, I’ve found incredible similarities between myself and other students in my cohort. There were vast differences between myself and others at my previous institution, but it seems those differences have melted away as the ladder has been traversed. Even small things like an affinity for similar hobbies has been a refreshing change of pace. The fact that I know off the top of my head of at least three people that would accept an invitation to play board games for an evening is enough to make me feel at home. On the flip side, though, there’s still a concern that the feelings of being an outsider will come back as I get to know people, and the fact that my birthday is a week out in a place where I know no one very well hearkens back to the first semester of my undergraduate program where I felt the most lonely that I ever remember feeling when I turned 18. Oh well, at least I have the bird brain with me this time through.

But the integration into a community here is palpable. Everyone that I’ve met so far has been pretty friendly and welcoming. It seems like a trend that I hope continues. A massive group of people came out for the first Thursday night reading, and that makes me hopeful for when I take a turn in a little over a week. Any questions that I’ve had have been answered by various students in the later years of the program, which is a major difference from going to a terminal MA. In the terminal MA, no one had their feet on the ground. Having people around here that have been in the program for three or four years gives me the sense that maybe I’ll get my feet on the ground here much like I did in the final year or two of my undergraduate program. In the mean time, it seems like movement is the order of the day. My attitude has always been that constant movement will help me get through, and that has proved itself time and again to be true. We’ll see if the road opens itself at this point or not.

There’s No Accounting for Taste

I was watching a let’s play on YouTube the other day, and the LPer was sharing his thoughts at the end of the game (a common practice in LPs, which are gamers playing video games and providing commentary as they play through). In his discussion, he talked about another game in a series that is near and dear to my heart, the Kirby series.

Now, Kirby is one of my favorite game series of all time. My list of favorite games usually include eccentric titles like Ni no Kuni, Journey, and Eternal Sonata, and Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda have always been favorites as far as series go. (Games like God of War, Assassin’s Creed, and Dragon Age would be further down the list, but that’s not really here nor there.) The point is that I love a lot of different games of varied mechanics and types, but Kirby has a way of putting a smile on my face that no other game can do. Except maybe the original Spyro trilogy, but that’s a story for another day.

The LPer proceeded to say that Kirby’s Return to Dreamland was a great game, and Kirby’s Epic Yarn was an awful game. Let me be clear. I like both of these games, but I felt like Return to Dreamland was just fun, while my feelings about Epic Yarn would be best summed up by random capitalized characters with a multitude of exclamation points following for good measure (i.e. AONDAINFWOIDNFOIWNDFIWHEFOIHWEFIH!!!!!!!!!!!). Epic Yarn just felt so different to me as a gaming experience that it gave me the same feeling of wonder that I had when I was first playing Kirby’s Dreamland on the Gameboy (one of my first gaming experiences). It was different, and that mattered to me.

So what were the LPer’s complaints? It had a weird aesthetic, it wasn’t difficult (there was no death mechanic), and it didn’t include the copy abilities that made the Kirby series famous. The last of the three I felt was a legitimate complain from my perspective, and I had a similar complaint when I was first playing through, because some of the stages got repetitive without having different abilities available. However, the first two didn’t make sense to me. I chalked up the aesthetics to difference of opinion, but why would it matter if it wasn’t possible to die?

To that LPer the ability to die gave him a consequence and challenge to face. For me the lack of death in Epic Yarn made it friendly for new gamers (like many friends that I introduced to gaming through Epic Yarn’s two-player mode), and it still gave a challenge in that getting through a stage without death gave better rewards and got the player closer to 100% completion of the game. Also, there were additional challenge stages that had to be completed in an allotted time on each stage to add more depth. For a casual gamer, though, the game worked as a get through the stage, battle the boss, and have some fun doing it romp.

To me there are no better games than the ones that function on multiple levels for multiple people. Having separate difficulty levels, additional challenges, or things of that nature give different players the experience that they want. That’s the pinnacle for me, but not for everybody. The point here is that the definition of what makes something “good” is often a strict adherence to a certain set of conventions that a particular set of people think are true. The reality is that there is no one single definition of good. To claim that there is one definition of good is to ignore the possibility of parameters that haven’t even been thought of yet. Why limit the mind that way? It doesn’t make sense, and that’s not even discussing the hubris involved in feeling that one’s own definition of good is better than the entirety of human history.

What is this leading up to? Well, in the coming weeks, I hope to do a few reviews of games, books, movies, and television shows as I jump chest-deep into my PhD program. Reviews are easier to do in some ways, and that will let me keep this blog running into the semester. All reviews that I do here will keep the idea in mind that there can be no defining set of features that amount to “good.” Instead, I will try to talk about expectations, conventions of the genre that the work is presented in, and other similar traits. It is my solemn and sworn duty to make fun of the word “good” and all of its forms as much as possible. We’ll see if that works out.

Soundtrack: Whispy’s Woods from the Kirby’s Epic Yarn OST