Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Spooky! is the word of the day, today.  That's spooky! with an exclamation point, which in this case is integral to the word.  Don't remove it.  That wouldn't be very spooky! would it?

Alright, enough silliness!  Tonight is Halloween and I am full of candy and burrito, so something must have gone right.  My girlfriend has sadly sent me home for the evening so she can study for a midterm tomorrow, but all in all we've had a wonderful hallow's evening.

And this being Halloween, it's only right that I should be absolutely terrified, quaking in my pajamas and huddling under my covers for warmth and protection.  This has nothing to do with me watching American Horror Story an hour ago (not scared, not scared!), but rather the usual demons of self-doubt and fear for the future.  You see, a few days ago, two of my three roommates abruptly announced that they were going to be moving out of the house at the end of November.  Faced with the choice of staying on and assuming greater responsibility over a house I've only lived in for four months, the third roommate and I have elected instead to strike out on our own for a smaller place to live.  That gives us one month to move before our rent effectively doubles.  Spooky!

So tomorrow, we're getting on that, visiting new apartments and places and making hard choices.  Among other things, I really need a job.  One that doesn't pay sporadically and inadequately like my current moneymaking pastime, substitute teaching.  That's what's really scary, I suppose.  That and werewolves.

But it's nice to take a break from all that on a night devoted to fear, and spend it pretending to be afraid of bloodsucking monsters.  I really love Halloween for that; but I also need to take a break from eating candy.

Happy Halloween, everybody.  It's now the witching hour, so I'll leave you to your spooky! night!

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Zelda Wars

I recently read a fantastic and persuasive essay by a writer on the internet by the name of Tevis Thompson.  If you have any interest in classic and modern video games, his essay Saving Zelda is a must read, for the way it balances nostalgia with a rigorous critical eye.  When I say it is a must read, I mean just that: you must read it.  Go ahead, I'll wait.  Even if you only read what he's written, without returning to consider my after-the-fact commentary, I can't really say I'd be disappointed.

Please do come back, though.

Like Thompson, I've also done a bit of writing about The Legend of Zelda.  This spring, I wrote a review of the most recent game, Skyward Sword.  But a few years before that, I wrote a series of reviews of each installment (from the original to Twilight Princess) on the old Game Informer forums (they got deleted, so don't try looking for them there).  The Uber Review, as I called it, was overlong and could have used a lot more editing than it got, but I was in college at the time, and I had actual assignments to write at the same time.  Having made such an attempt at putting the entire series in perspective, I felt as though I had to make some kind of response.

Now, obviously Thompson and I have a fair bit of distance between us on this issue.  He refers to Skyward Sword as the "worst" Zelda game, and I recently called it "a latter-day masterpiece of design."  He argues to the effect that the series has been going downhill since it appeared on the Super Nintendo; I hold the (relatively mainstream) position that it peaked on the Nintendo 64, particularly with Majora's Mask, but has been holding strong into the modern era.  His evaluations are strictly informed by the aesthetics of the first two Zelda games (and of late 1980s-era games in general), while I have been generally forgiving of its later developments and its evolution away from the original design.  In fact, you might even say I've been too easy on Zelda.

Even if I have been overly forgiving, Thompson's viewpoint can never be mine.  I've enjoyed every Zelda game I've ever played, so his characterization of a series with no soul just doesn't ring true for me.  As far as I'm concerned, the overworlds have gotten more immersive since the 8-bit days, and I relish each new chance to explore Hyrule.  For me, this series is very much alive and kicking; I keep coming back, not only for new games but also to replay the ones I've beaten.

But even if I don't agree with his big conclusion, a lot of the specific criticisms are undeniable.  The endless parade of talkative sidekicks stopped being anything close to endearing about ten years ago.  The difficulty curve has nearly collapsed under the weight of hand-holding tutorials and overly generous combat.  The abundance of disconnected gameplay mechanics can often seem like make-work, no matter how solid the fundamentals are.  The burgeoning mythos that can't seem to decide how seriously it should take itself has gotten in the way of what was once a very simple tale about the balance of power, courage, and wisdom.

So in spite of my love for Zelda as it is, I would very much like to play the game that Thompson yearns for: entirely open-ended, streamlined and punishing.  That isn't to say I agree with his ideal conceptualization of the series, but it would be bold and it would be incredibly fun.  Why not question every assumption the series has held since A Link to the Past?  Why not trust the player to define their own relationship with the world?  Why not leave the cinematics to the cinemas, and craft a uniquely game-like experience unbound by linear narratives?

There is a scene in Twilight Princess that captures the sort of atmosphere that I believe would suit Zelda well: when Link explores deep in the forest and uncovers the ruins of the Temple of Time, a major landmark of its spiritual predecessor, Ocarina of Time.  The chance to play archaeologist as well as octorok-slayer, learning about the landscape through the ruins and artifacts left behind, has been my dream-experience for Hyrule for some time.  Modern Zelda games have dithered between pursuing this concept and stabbing at new directions, never really settling on one.  But I believe that impulse does exist in the series today: it just hasn't been treated as the core concept.

I don't necessarily want Zelda to become skull-blisteringly difficult again; as disappointing as an easy game can be, I happen to believe that 8-bit games were generally much harder than they actually needed to be.  Neither do I want to see Link lose his hookshots and bottles and go back to the bare-bones sword fighting of yesteryear.  But there is a universe of design possibilities that Nintendo has more or less closed itself to in designing new Zeldas, because it seems so reluctant to throw any elements away.  The name itself will sell plenty of copies; I don't see what anybody has to lose by experiencing something radical.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Living with Democracy

One month from today, we'll finally learn for sure who will be President for the next four years.  This will come as a massive relief to some and a sharp and sudden disappointment for others, and I really hope that I'm among the former.  My preferences have been made known, and I'll reiterate them today: Barack Obama may be a flawed President, but he has made progress on issues that I care about.  We need him to stick around so that he can make the next round of Supreme Court appointments and defend his legislative legacy.  Mitt Romney has promised to undo or roll back much of that legacy, and there's a better than even chance he means to do it.  The man may be a weather vane, but he's still a conservative after all.

So we wait now, for the ballots to be cast and the map to turn red and blue in various places, and then we'll know what we're dealing with.  Frankly, it's kind of a pain to be so unsure, but that's just the way things are.

Never let it be said that I am anything but a democrat, with an emphasis on that miniscule "d."  I may rail inwardly and outwardly about the foolishness of the masses and my desire to dictate the lines of an ideal government policy, but in my mind there's no getting round the problem of legitimacy.  There's no good basis for government power except the social contract, so the people have absolutely got to have a stake and a choice in how they're governed.  I wish to God they'd make better choices sometimes, and actually select the most ethical and intelligent among them to do the governing, but sometimes they won't and that's all there is to it.

Ever since the big blowout in 2010, I've had to make peace with an idea that I hadn't really faced: sometimes, people who I strongly disagree with are going to win elections.  Sometimes, I will cast votes and be rewarded with nothing but losses and fervent plans for "next time."  That really, really sucks, but that's democracy.  I don't resent the principle for how it may be perverted or abused, or even how it may disappoint me personally.

So I've been watching the Presidential election like a hawk.  I've visited Nate Silver's blog, Five Thirty Eight, virtually every day since he unveiled his Presidential forecast model for 2012.  Nate Silver is my political guru, in so far as he informs my perspective on the political process.  He cuts through a lot of the bullshit and identifies the variables that actually matter for making accurate predictions.  At the same time, he always recognizes the limitations of the idea of prediction.  He doesn't make promises or use the numbers for propaganda: he just wants to get at the truth.  I recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about how this process actually works, or even if you just want to watch the most accurate horse race around.

It's been considerably comforting to me that Silver's forecast model has shown Obama to be the favorite for most of the past few months.  The President's chances of reelection are currently pegged at 80.2%, though that's down from a couple of days ago and likely to go down a bit more before all is said and done.  But that's fine.  Uncertainty is the name of this game we play, and we deal.  When my ballot comes in the mail I'll fill it out just like I said I would, and hope for the best.  Then in a month, I'll know whether the good news holds.