PAX East 2013, Part 1

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This was my third time at PAX East.  Each year it’s different for me: in 2011 I drove down each day, I was singlemost , and went alone because hey, PAX East, why not!  I loved it and it was amazing, and I was excited to go the following year.  In 2012 it fell on Easter weekend, so I only went Friday and Saturday; I had a boyfriend, we had a hotel, and it was across Boston from the convention center so we had to pay double in parking because we had to drive.  It was also my first year cosplaying, and I learned a lot about the process of costume making and the aftermath of it all.

This year I have a fiance, we went for three days, and we scored a hotel across the street from the convention center, making things extremely convenient.  I had people I met last year and got to meet up with and share our love of gaming.  And I did two costumes for myself.  All in all this year’s PAX may have been the best yet, as this and the next couple posts will likely show.

I came to the decision that I need PAX East.  I look forward to it like most people look forward to a Disney vacation.  There is something exhilarating about being surrounded by 20,000 other gamers; not to mention the bright colors, bright lights, swag, costumes, demos… the list goes on.  And this year I was able to, unlike in past years, truly experience the joy of being a fan.  But more on that later.

So first off: Friday.  Bard and I left the house a little after 7:30am, in costume and me in costume and full makeup for my first cosplay of the weekend, Serana from the Dawnguard DLC for Skyrim:

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(Funny enough, I got a Facebook message later that day from a friend whose wife was pretty sure she’d seen me stopping for coffee, but the black wig confused her!)

We were making good time in light traffic until about Winchester, which is only a few miles outside Boston, when we hit the crawling traffic.  From Winchester to the top of the exit 23 ramp, it took us a full hour of stop and go, inching along traffic.  Good thing we weren’t planning on attending much of anything at 10am!  I’d thought of trying out the Con Cosplay Survival panel, but I’d read a lot on good preparation and such for costuming, and felt fine missing it.  Bard and I found the parking garage for our hotel, and a friend who was,  staying with us met up to stow his gear in my car.  I finished up putting on my costume, we clipped on our badges, and we were off to the BCEC!

When we got inside we met up with MLHawke, checked our mutual schedules (MLHawke, Bard and myself all used the Guidebook App–VERY handy for scheduling, mapping, and figuring things out!) and decided to meet back up later in the afternoon to check out the Elder Scrolls Online food truck.  Hey, free lunch provided by #ESO?  Yes please!

My first panel was about education and gaming.  The speaker, Steve Swink, is a gamer, game designer, and educator who really knew his stuff, and was very passionate about where we have things wrong as far as education in this country goes.  We treat our students like flashdrives.  They sit down (plug in), we load them with knowledge that sometimes seems randomized and is often impersonal, then expect we can just get that info back later on in the form of a test.  The issue is that they’re not flashdrives.  Flashdrives process information the same way whether they’re 4GB or 64GB; students are people who process differently.  Swink’s presentation dealt with how we can use games to reach students, and now they don’t have to just be supplementary to the curriculum, but could even be the curriculum itself!  It’s a great idea, though I’m not sure that the district I work in will ever embrace it (or at least get the technology for it) during my time there.  We’ll see.  At least it gave me some ideas to go off of.

Then we all met up and hit the #ESOFoodtruck for lunch.  It was located on Congress Street.  We started walking, all happily discussing our mornings.  It was a bit farther away than I’d thought or expected, and MLHawke and Bard were FREEZING by the time we arrived!  Luckily Serana is a multi-part costume with a lot of layers, so I didn’t do too badly in that regard.  Lunch was good, and they had a photo station with a green screen, where I got the greatest picture of my cosplay:

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We headed back to the hotel after that, and Bard changed out of his costume because he was super cold in it.  Silly wind.  I fixed my makeup and my wig, then it was back to the BCEC.  I went to a panel on parents as characters in video games, on which Mike Laidlaw of Dragon Age sat.  It was interesting, and it has made me more aware of the changing role of parents in games, and given me stuff to work with in class with the books we read.  Bard and I met up again and I saw our friend Ted, a Tetris Attack beast, and caught up on life since last year.  My final panel of the night was on curing chemicals and special effects cosplay, which was interesting.  While I know that some of that will improve my cosplays immensely in the future, it’s a little daunting.  There’s a lot of prep work and measuring involved, but anything worth doing comes with some difficulties, so who knows.  Maybe I will attempt it at some point, just out of curiosity!

Then it was back to the hotel for the evening to make myself human again (sort of literally, since Serana is a vampire after all!).  The night was spent debriefing about our day’s experiences, and plans for the next.

Tomorrow’s recap will cover Saturday, with cosplay number two, and the awesomeness that is BioWare!

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I Just Saved the World! (Now What?)

This is something that’s been on my mind for awhile, but it wasn’t until recently that I decided I should sit down and write about it in earnest.  See, I did something important a month ago or so.  I saved the world.  Twice, if you think about it.  And nothing happened.  Life went on.

Okay, so I didn’t save our world.  I saved Skyrim.  But I’m still rather perturbed about it, because it is the most anticlimactic thing I’ve ever experienced.  I spent hours scouring the countryside helping villagers on their quests.  I stole thousands of dollars of merchandise, picked dozens of pockets, altered hundreds of books, and picked a few hundred locks to restore the Thieves’ Guild to its former glory.  I overtook the Dark Brotherhood.  I killed a few dozen dragons, and then I killed the mightiest dragon of all: Alduin.  I sundered the space-time continuum to travel to Sovngarde and meet the beast on his plane of existence, and I killed him and restored peace.

At least I thought I did.  When I came back I was on the top of the mountain surrounded by Paarthurnax and his buddies, and they were like, “Good work.”  And that was it.  So I figured I should fix the whole Imperials vs. Stormcloaks thing, and maybe then I would feel better about saving the world.  And maybe other people would, too.  Because I didn’t get a single thank you from any villagers, even in dragon-ravaged towns, for killing Alduin.  If anything, I had to keep my head down because of all that Dark Brotherhood/Thieves’ Guild stuff.  Everywhere I went I heard, “Wait, I know you!” and I did wait, because I wanted to say, “Yes, yes you do; I’m the badass who killed Alduin and saved your world!”  But as it turned out they knew me because I was a wanted man and I had to bribe them, or else kill everyone in sight.

So I went off and spoke with Ulfric Stormcloak and made Windhelm my new home.  My affiliations with Whiterun were over, and I led the charge on that first fair city that had welcomed me in after I escaped from Helgen.  I betrayed the Jarl and oversaw the change of power there, and then helped Ulfric take Solitude.  I killed General Tullius and freed Skyrim from the clutches of the Empire.  I returned it to the true Sons of Skyrim!

And when I went to talk to Ulfric, he said it would take some time for him to become high king, but now that the Empire was gone his chances looked good.  He thanked me for my help, which was nice, but then… what?

I helped end the civil war tearing my country to bits.  And life went on in Skyrim, much as it had prior to the war and to Alduin.  In fact, I even got attacked by several dragons along the way.  I found myself wandering aimlessly through the land of Skyrim, lacking purpose and function.  Even when Dawnguard came out… wait.  Spoilers ahead.  You’ve been warned!

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30 Days of Video Games: Day 23, Best Graphic/Art Style

I honestly feel like I’m a bit out of my element here with this one.  I can appreciate graphics as an art form, and can appreciate the importance of graphics to gaming.  But I’ve never gotten my knickers twisted about good versus bad graphics, and I think it’s because my priorities lie more with story.  If a game has gorgeous graphics but a lousy story, I’m not apt to like it as much as a game with mediocre graphics and good story.  But that’s just me, after all.  I’m sure I could get an onslaught of responses telling me how vital graphics and art style are, and I’m not denying it in the least.  Just saying that for me, personally, I’m not that anal-retentive about graphics and art style in games.

Not to say I don’t appreciate it.  I’ve been thinking of the games I’ve played recently and trying to think about games that have nice graphics and style of art.  I thought about being a wiseass and saying Tetris, because seriously, how can you screw up four blocks (graphically/artistically speaking)?  You really can’t.  So then I considered it more.  A lot of games’ graphics suit the style and purpose of the game: Left 4 Dead has a gritty, realistic, ruined look to it.  BioShock’s underwater sanctuary of Rapture is heavily influenced by the art deco style, evoking a retro feel.  Sera of Gears of War has a lot of realism, but just enough of the obscure and futuristic to make it seem unearthly.  Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker has a cartoonish, cel-shaded style that matches ic)with the whimsy of the game.  And I could go on.

I won’t be a wise ass, but I do feel like I’m copping out with my final choice.  I’m going to go with Skyrim. I’ve spent countless amounts of time wandering the rugged, untouched landscape marveling at the beauty surrounding me (matched nicely by the music).  It has a strong sense of realism while still remaining otherworldly.  The use of color is fantastic; the textures are beautiful and really make me feel like I am immersed in the world: like I could reach out and touch it, and feel it and absorb it. I play on a console, and feel the impact of this detail; MLHawke’s husband Paladin showed me how, on the PC, one can change the resolutions of the texture layers to make the world even more graphically intense and I nearly had to wipe drool off their office floor.

The various night skies, the sunsets over the mountains, the northern lights, the way every place you venture is a different visual experience?  It’s just amazing.  Aside from being a huge game to play through and absorb playing-wise, Skyrim is an auditory and visual treat.

Tomorrow: Day 24, Favorite Classic Game.  Or, JayRain waxes even more nostalgic than she is wont to do already!

30 Days of Video Games: Day 19, Game Setting I Wish I Lived In

This one’s a little tough, because I feel that all game settings have something about them that make them unique and enjoyable.  This question actually came up on Grey Wardens recently.  They asked which setting we’d rather live in: Dragon Age or Mass Effect.  I wasn’t sure.  Whether it’s the dystopian Art Deco of Rapture, the rugged lands of Ferelden, the vast galaxies of Mass Effect or Halo, or the rough Old West of Red Dead Redemption, each one has something appealing to it.  I mean, ME and Halo, and probably Rapture, will at least have toilets, so that’s something.

But upon thinking about it more, I decided I’d like to live in Skyrim.

I know it too probably doesn’t have plumbing or working toilets.  But everything about traveling through Skyrim reminds me of Iceland.  The soaring mountains plummeting into frozen seas; the desolate yet beautiful tundra; the simple towns; the untouched shorelines.

There’s a raw beauty to Skyrim.  I could (and have) spend hours just walking around enjoying the landscape.  Add to the fact that the music is so beautiful and just evokes what’s happening with it, and it’s a wonderful setting in which to immerse oneself.

So yeah, there are dragons, which does put a damper on things.  But still.

Come on.  Who wouldn’t want to live there?

Tomorrow: Day 20, Favorite Genre.  Or, 2/3 in!!

Lessons Learned

Who says video games and sci-fi/fantasy are a waste of time?  Who says you can’t learn anything from them?  For those that do, I present 10 lessons learned from my gaming and sci-fi/fantasy career:

1. Try not.  Do, or do not.  There is no try.  – Yoda

This is one maxim that is used quite frequently, but it’s true.  There are many things in life that you can’t try to do; you simply have to just do them.  While Nike has the market on the “Just do it” slogan, Yoda one-ups it with the idea that there is no try.  Some things just must be done; trying  is weakness.  Things must be done, or remain undone.  Think of it in terms of laundry (which is what got me thinking about this).  You can’t try to do your laundry; you do it or you don’t.  When it’s done you feel accomplished, when it’s not it’s a pile of clothes threatening to eat you every time you walk by it.  Trying is tantamount to not doing.  So do, or do not.  Don’t try.

2. Keep your head down and your mouth shut and everything will be fine.  – Delvin Mallory, Skyrim

This has been on my mind a lot lately.  The problem I’m having is it’s good advice in that it keeps you out of drama and away from other peoples’ business.  But it also keeps you from getting involved in things and speaking up when you need to.  Delvin is a member of the Riften Thieves’ Guild, so his advice is pretty sound when it comes to Thieves’ Guild activity.  It’s all illegal; so keeping your head down and your mouth shut helps you avoid notice, and therefore trouble.  But what about when you’re trying to do the right thing?  Keeping your head down and your mouth shut keeps you from getting on the bad side of things, but you also have to be able to look yourself in the eye every time you look in a mirror.  It’s good advice at times, but definitely something to ponder.

3. Funny how the Blight brings people together.  – Alistair, Dragon Age: Origins

Well, not always a Blight.  But a disaster brings people together in ways that peace does not.  I remember back to September 11th 2001.  I was a senior in college, just north of Boston when everything happened.  I still remember the fear, the disbelief, the uncertainty.  But what I remember most of all is how for the next few days, everyone, everywhere, was just a bit nicer.  We all shared the experience on some level, and knew we were in it together, so we were all a bit nicer and more willing to help one another. 

On another level, it’s amazing and funny how the smallest, strangest things can bring people together as well.  Dragon Age stands as a great example.  Without Dragon Age I would not have met the most awesome group of friends, ever.  Without fanfiction I would not have met my best friend.  Bottom line?  We never know what will bring us together, so it’s important to be on the lookout for those opportunities.

4. We make our own luck. – Master Chief, Halo

Luck is described in many ways: blind, dumb, a lady… luck is fickle and changeable.  We can’t always rely on it, and must do our part to help ourselves along.  What some people would call luck, others would call the result of training, hard work, and perseverance.  In the Halo universe Master Chief is known for his luck, but if you look deeper into his backstory you’ll also see that in spite of the fact that he was considered lucky, he still worked his arse off.  He knew what he needed to do to win, and didn’t rely on his ‘luck’, preferring instead to make his own luck.  In short, his actions paid off because he was willing to work for it; when the moment of truth came he had what it took to follow through.

5. I fight so all the fighting I’ve already done hasn’t been for nothing. – Ulfric Stormcloak, Skyrim

I started out my Skyrim game wanting to join the Imperial Legion.  But the more I played and saw of them, and the more I heard and saw of Ulfric Stormcloak, the more I lean toward the Stormcloak rebellion.  And this line is one of the reasons.  There are many reasons to fight, and to keep fighting.  Maybe it’s your convictions, maybe it’s survival, maybe it’s to move ahead.  To stop fighting, and essentially give in, is to nullify all the fighting you’ve done to get where you are.  This hit me hard when it came to last week’s disappointment with the writing contest.  I had a few moments where I was ready to give up because I didn’t know why I should bother anymore.  But then I realized that allowing that one thing to stop my writing would make a mockery of all the work I’ve done to get where I am as a writer.  To keep fighting, even when it seems hopeless, shows conviction and strength of character.  Maybe Ulfric is a jerk about some things, but he has conviction, and in this at least he gives sound advice.

6. Artists use lies to tell the truth; I created a lie and because you believed it, you discovered something true about yourself. -V, V for Vendetta

This always sticks with me, especially as a reader, writer, and lover of fantasy.  Most people criticize fantasy as being too escapist, and think people read it to get away from reality.  This is true sometimes, but what many critics don’t realize is that fantasy doesn’t nullify reality.  In his On Fairy Stories essay, Tolkien posits that fantasy actually can enhance reality and bring it to a higher level.  As such we discover truths about humanity and about life through the lens of a fictional reality.  In The Neverending Story Bastian’s first reaction to Mr. Coreander is that “it’s just a story.”  Coreander says that it’s more than that, and if we allow stories to cast the spell over us, we may be swept away but we also learn something true about ourselves.

7. I’m not locked in here with you.  You’re locked in here with me. – Rorschach, Watchmen

Life is all about perspective, and Rorschack is all about challenging our perspectives.  He never compromises; he has strong convictions and sticks with them.  Though this makes him a bit of a vigilante and definitely morally ambiguous, he certainly challenges and changes our perceptions of things.  Sometimes when the numbers seem like they’re not in our favor we have to look at the situation and decide if we’re going to accept the status quo or view it differently.  Rorschach was in prison, surrounded by inmates; most of whom were in there because of him.  Theoretically he doesn’t stand a chance; but he chooses to see things from a different perspective and as a result comes out on top.  I don’t advocate coming out on top the way he does; violence of that caliber isn’t a good thing.  But the idea of changing the way you look at things is.

8. You can’t predict how people will act… But you can control how you’ll respond. In the end, that’s what really matters. – Commander Shepard, Mass Effect

Life is full of things we can’t control or predict.  The uncertainties can make life fun, but also terrifying.  There are so many things that worrying can’t change, and the actions of others are part of that.  When we try to change people and control their actions we set ourselves up for disappointment and failure.  But we can control our own reactions and responses.  We can decide what we will do in a given situation, or say to a particular person.  That choice is ours to make, and it is definitely something we can control.  In the end we have to be able to look at ourselves and say “Yes, I can live with what I said/did.”  That’s what matters most, because that’s what you have to live with.

9. We stand upon the precipice of change. The world fears the inevitable plummet into the abyss. Watch for that moment… and when it comes, do not hesitate to leap. It is only when you fall that you learn whether you can fly.  – Flemeth, Dragon Age 2

While it’s nice to do things right and feel like you have them under control, the true test of abilities is how you react when you’re out of control.  When you’re in freefall will you feel out of control and fear crashing into the ground?  Or will you realize you have wings to spread and learn to fly?  It’s a scary thing, making that leap, especially when you don’t know what to expect.  Again, you can’t always predict things, but you can predict your reactions and choices.  So will you keep falling, giving into forces beyond your control, or will you choose to fly?  Flemeth is a great example of this because she has such a long history.  On my Dragon Age forum on ff.net we were talking about her and how in her long history she had to have gone through a lot of trial and error to become who and what she is.  It would be easy to give up, but just when she was falling, she discovered she could fly.

10. All we can decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  – Gandalf, Lord of the Rings

Again, we can’t control time; we can’t control what befalls us.  But we can decide what to do with what time we are given.  Will we settle into a rut dreaming of if-onlies and what-ifs?  What happens isn’t for us to decide.  The decision we have, and can control, is what to do with what happens.  How will we as individuals react?  Will we do, will we fly?  Will we change our perspective, or just keep our heads down and our mouths shut and hope to avoid trouble, even if it nullifies all the fighting we’ve done up to this point?  It doesn’t matter what we decide.  What matters is that we decide.

Adventures of a Crossclasser

I begin by openly admitting that there are extensive gaps in my RPG gaming repertoire.  Growing up I preferred platformers to turn-based RPGs.  As such I’ve never played a single Final Fantasy game; in fact, my biggest issue with Final Fantasy is why there are well over a dozen games when it was supposed to be the final fantasy.  But that leaves me in danger of digressing.  I haven’t played… well… name an RPG and I probably haven’t played it, because I’m having issues coming up with titles.

My first RPG, aside from Dragon Warrior for the NES when I was twelve or so, was Mass Effect on the xbox 360.  Prior to ME I had mostly shooters: Bioshock, Halo, Borderlands, Gears of War… that sort of thing.  My gaming library is far from extensive in terms of most anything.  So when I picked up ME I was skeptical about it being an “RPG” because my limited experience left me thinking RPGs were clunky, turn-based, and too drawn out.

But ME managed to combine the best aspects of an RPG, as far as story and character, with the aspects of a good shooter.  I found myself getting into the character development, and forging a relationship with Kaiden Alenko.  I loved the story and the exploration, and once I got the hang of the game I was in love.  My cousin got my ME2 for my birthday last year, and I played through that to the exclusion of some of my work (not my proudest moment, but it makes for a good teachable thing).  One element of the Mass Effect franchise was, however, that you need to choose a class based on how you fight.  ME has some basics, and then makes combinations of them.  It’s been awhile so I don’t recall what I am, but I think I chose one of the combo classes because I felt it afforded me the most options.

Mass Effect was my gateway to Dragon Age.  In Origins, the first of the series, you can choose your character’s backstory and a basic class: warrior, rogue, or mage.  You get to specialize between those, but in general, DA doesn’t really allow for a lot of cross-classing.  My first rogue fought mostly with sword and shield, and it was passable, but when I started using her rogue skills and and using lighter weapons, she throve.  Mages can specialize as Arcane Warriors, who channel magic through their bodies and into weapons, but they’re still mages at their core.  It’s very similar in DA2.  You’re one or the other, and very rarely can you be both.

Now, this worked for me.  I chose a class and went with it, and found ways to specialize within my class to be the best rogue or mage or warrior I could be.  I was comfortable with this system.  I generally play rogues because they’re versatile, though my mage Hawke in DA2 is quite enjoyable to play.  I specialized her as a Force Mage, which means she basically picks people up and slams them down… with her mind.  It’s a lot of fun.

Enter Skyrim.

I’ve also never played an Elder Scrolls game before this one, so please don’t chastise me about how I should have realized this, and the like.  I created my character: went through designing him, choosing his background, that sort of thing.  And when I saved, the game started up again.  “But I haven’t chosen a class yet!” I said to myself, and probably one of the cats who was sitting nearby.  I played through the opening escape from Helgen and as I followed a fellow escapee out of the sacked town I still hadn’t chosen a class.

As the game began in earnest I found myself just going with it.  I named my male Nord Cailan, after the king in Dragon Age: Origins, and thought to class him as a two-handed warrior, like his ill-fated namesake.  I started out using various axes and greatswords.  And then I hit one particularly difficult quest where no matter how much I blocked or healed or shouted I couldn’t do it.  While talking to MLHawke, she mentioned that she had a good one-handed sword and was working on strengthening her destructive spells.

Weapons+Magic?  Huh.  I’d never thought to learn to be a mage.  I was going to be a warrior!… who’d already picked a few dozen locks and upped his sneaking (also appropriate for Cailan, for any of you who know my Dragon Age fic about him).  Well, I was already on my way toward cross-classing two ways; why not go three, since I could?

Cross-classing has made a huge difference in how I enjoy the game.  I feel like I can experience a huge variety of things and do many more that I wasn’t previously able to as a single-class character.  Now, I don’t use magic as often as I would if I were going for a full mage; but the fact that I can use it as I wish, and most importantly am not limited to only using it, is what makes it enjoyable.  I fight primarily with the Nightingale Blade, though I’ve done my fair share of archery as well.  I’m good at sneaking, and have a high lock-picking rate.  And while I’m on my way to leading the Thieves’ Guild, I’m also a pretty good assassin for the Dark Brotherhood and take down dragons like no one’s business.

In short, by combining classes and skills I’m getting a fuller experience and developing what I feel is a more well-rounded character.  And I think that’s not only the key to moving forward with the game, but in life as well.  Yes, there are people who specialize in life; there are people who decide on one career path and follow it without deviation.  But then there are people who branch out and try new things.  They’re unpredictable, but it keeps things exciting.  These are the cross-classers of life.  The people who are not just professionals, but professionals who maybe game or sing or play an instrument on the side.  The ones who play sports as well as music, or do art in addition to games.  Basically, having a wide range of interests and abilities enriches the self, and enriches the world.

So maybe I haven’t really played many RPGs, and maybe I’m completely off.  But my experiences in life are translating into my Skyrim play, and my Skyrim playing is making me think more about life.  In the end, isn’t that all we ask of media?  That it makes us think, or helps us reflect on our world in a new way?  Even though my RPG experience may be limited, the experiences I have gained from the ones I have played have definitely given me pause.  Though classifying oneself into one class may be comfortable, and overall easier, cross-classing and being a little bit of everything opens one’s eyes to a whole new way of seeing and experiencing the world, both in the game and in real life.

Screw Your Arrow!

I would start this out by saying “In the gaming world…” but the fact is the “Arrow to the Knee” phrase has fast become a cliche even among non-gamers.  In Skyrim, just about every other NPC guard or soldier you pass by tells you, “I used to be an adventurer like you.  Then I took an arrow to the knee.”  It’s become a joke, but with my recent disappointment in the Dragon Age fanfiction contest, I realized that the arrow to the knee is a pathetic excuse.

It started when I publicly announced my disappointment on my facebook, and friends were super-encouraging and told me to keep going; write for its own sake, follow my dreams, that sort of thing.  The fact that I have such friends makes me feel truly blessed, and I know that they don’t just say those things because it’s the ‘nice’ thing to say.  I replied to one, “Oh, I’ll keep writing, no doubt about that. This isn’t an arrow to my knee by any means. Right now it just kind of stings because I’d had such hopes for this.”  I confess that on my way home from work I had a fair share of sniffles in the car.  I moped about my apartment until now, and I’m still not feeling all that great.  Even though I worked hard to write a well-crafted story, I felt almost ashamed of it for not making it.  I briefly entertained thoughts of deleting my Dragon Age fanfiction and crawling into a black hole of shame and self-loathing and whiny blogging.

And then I realized that’s what the Skyrim soldiers did.

As an adventurer throughout the land of Skyrim I’ve been burned, frozen, and shocked, and those are just the magic attacks.  I’ve been skewered with swords and hacked with axes and nommed by dragons.  I’ve taken arrows to my FACE.  And I keep adventuring.  I keep fulfilling Dark Brotherhood contracts and doing numbers jobs for the Thieves’ Guild.  I keep seeking out dragons to kill and words of power to learn.  I chug healing potions and hide from enemies and sneak for miles after targets.  If I gave up after one arrow to the knee, things would be boring, nothing would get done, and the world wouldn’t get saved.

Okay, so my writing, fan or otherwise, isn’t world-changing or on the level of saving the world.  If I don’t write again, it’s not like the world’s doing to collapse.  But my world might.  Another friend who’d entered and fared the same as me said she was trying to remember that she wrote for the sake of writing, which is what I’m trying to remember.  Who am I?  I am a writer, pure and simple.  Writing is an art, and appreciation of art is subjective in the end, even if there are objective aspects to what makes it ‘good’ or ‘contest winning worthy’.  If I were to let one lost contest cripple me and take me down for the count, what sort of writer would I be? 

So Skyrim soldiers?  Screw your arrow.  If one arrow to the knee is going to make you complain about how you can’t be an adventurer anymore, maybe you never deserved to be an adventurer in the first place.

Gaming Confessions: I reload to save my horse

The other night I was on my way to perform an assassination when a dragon attacked (cool story, bro).  I whipped out my bow and began tracking that thing through the skies, and letting loose a volley whenever it came close enough to hit.  When it landed I fired arrow after arrow at it and occasionally got caught in its fireballs.  No big deal, because I just used the time when it was flying to use my healing spells.  Its health was down to nearly nothing when…

My horse attacked it.

Now, I appreciate the fact my horse wants to get involved, however, she doesn’t wear armor, and her only weapons are her hooves.  Throughout the course of my current Skyrim playthrough she’s run off cliffs, been set on fire, and eaten by wild sabre cats and dragons.  I find myself wishing I could engage tactics and set them to tell my horse to STAY PUT.  I can’t, so she dies.  And you know what?

I reload my last save and replay that part to result in my horse’s survival.

I did reload several times when the nearly dead dragon killed my horse.  I’d like to think there are practical reasons behind it: a new horse costs 1000 gold, and since I make most of my money from theivery and sneaking about, I’d rather not go drop 1000 gold on the nearest horse when my current one is only dead because of its own stupidity (or mine, when I run it off a cliff by accident).  But the real reason is that I’m a sap.

Yes, my horse is mere pixels, but darn it, those pixels have carried my Nord all over Skyrim in the search to max out skills and lead every covert outfit in the country!  What show of gratitude is there in just leaving it to rot at the bottom of a ravine?  What thanks is there in leaving its horsey corpse to decay next to the skeleton of the dragon it was too stupid to engage with its hooves, only to be pwn’d by fire breath?  Right, there is none.  So I will reload and save my horse, thanks.

I began to seriously think about this when, at one point I got into a pretty unfairly stacked fight with a dragon and some wolves and bandits.  I left my horse where I thought she would be safe, and began to traverse the area slicing up bandits who got too close while I was waiting for that dragon to come into sight so I could switch to arrows.  I heard a whinny and up on a grassy ridge, my horse was fighting off wolves and the dragon.  Naturally I raced to the horse’s aid, the dragon took off… and so did my stupid horse.  I wound up going miles out of the way to a watchtower, killing the dragon from up there, and when I went back I couldn’t find my horse.  I fast-traveled to Whiterun (and when you fast-travel, your horse goes with you).  My horse didn’t come with me, so I could only assume she was dead.

But there was no way I was going to replay that whole battle.  It was insane, and not worth my time.  I sighed and went to the stables to talk to the owner about a new horse.  Oddly enough, the horse for sale looked a lot like my dearly departed one.  And when I spoke with the owner, everything he said pretty much confirmed that it was the exact same horse.  So I gladly parted with my 1000 gold and figured having to re-buy the same horse was the horse’s version of sticking it to the man.  Only it was sticking it to me, with a reminder not to let it die again. 

Do I overthink these things?  Obviously.  I will be the first to admit that I do.  But why is is that I can go assassinate NPCs and wipe out legions of Markarth city guards and only feel slight qualms… but when my horse dies I have to reload and make sure it survives?  To be fair, with the guards I’m pretty nonconfrontational and try to sneak around them until they attack me.  So it’s self-defense.  At least, that’s what my Nord tells himself to sleep better at night.  And though I looked at the contradictory idea of the Chosen One being a jerk in an early post, it really is just a game; I personally wouldn’t go off killing city guards if my IRL city had guards, just because they ticked me off.

I think it comes down to the idea that there is a bond between people and pets.  And yes, that I am a sap.  Horses are personable animals and highly intelligent.  Yet they bear our weight and the weight of our gear; they pull plows, they jump over fences to look pretty; all done out of a bond of trust with the human asking those things of it.  They’re truly amazing animals, and I’ve loved them nearly as long as I’ve loved dinosaurs.  I remember being 7 or 8 and seeing The Neverending Story on TV and bawling insanely during the scene where Artax, Atreyu’s faithful horse, dies in the Swamps of Sadness.  The only thing that made it worthwhile was that Bastian wishes Artax back to life when he recreates Fantasia at the end of the movie.  It’s a good thing I was 17 years older when I read the actual novel and found out that once Artax was gone, he was gone for good.
 
I also have pets myself, and my pets are my companions.  Some might call me a crazy cat lady, but I only have two, thank you very much.  My cats are pets, but they’re also pleasant company.  They’re warm and fuzzy, they’re sweet, and they amuse me greatly.  They’re very social with one another, and with me.  While I know they’re animals and have a lifespan, I try not to think about it, because there is no reload once that happens.  So perhaps that’s why I feel the need to save my horse.  Not just to spare myself another 1000 gold, but because in the world of the game, she is faithful to my character to the point that she will put herself in danger to save him.  Rarely do we see that kind of loyalty in people, and we’re the same species.
 
Perhaps I am a sap, and feel free to point and laugh at this confession.  But when I load up Skyrim this weekend, and I know I will, there will likely come a time when my horse attacks a dragon or runs off a cliff.  Or gets attacked by a dragon while running off a cliff.  Regardless of what happens, you can be sure that I will reload to save my horse.

The Benefits of Being First: A Political Rant

Life’s little ironies surprise me sometimes.  One of those is that so many games involve politics, and I generally hate politics.  Even as far back as Super Mario Bros., the Mushroom Kingdom was in turmoil because the Princess had been kidnapped; in the original Zelda, Hyrule was on the brink of collapse because Gannon had Zelda and was looking to use the Triforce to take over the kingdom.  The games went on from there, relying on the premise of the country/kingdom/land in danger of collapse because a villain had thrown the political scheme into a raging tempest.  And now the games I enjoy like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Skyrim all rely on politics as the basic framework for the storyline.

I can get caught up in those politics.  I can put effort into thinking if I’d rather join the Imperials or the Stormcloaks; or if I want to side with the templars to become Viscount and run Kirkwall the right way; or if I want to leave Anora on the throne, or execute Loghain for his treason, or make Alistair king…

But ask me a political question about the real world?  I’m useless.  What’s more, I’ll probably try to change the subject, or just run away a la Sir Robin (yes, Monty Python reference, couldn’t resist).  It’s strange because my job is extremely political.  Every election year the union promotes certain candidates over others because of their stance on labor and/or education, and contract negotiations depend heavily on who’s been elected.  And yet I can’t seem to stomach it.

What I can stomach even less is when every four years the media, press, paparazzi, and a slough of candidates swoop down upon my state and kiss up to us all for our votes.  It’s part of being first.  We get just about everyone who hasn’t yet run out of money or run into so much scandal that any hope of being elected is gone.  We get the super conservatives and the ultra liberals.  We get the independents.  We get the ABC debate with all the big-time anchors sitting in a local college analyzing the candidates’ stances and how they did.  Basically we get a political and news circus.

Come primary day in January the circus reaches a frenzy.  It’s like some sort of political Baccanalia, minus the drunken orgies.  Or so I’d assume.  You never know with politicians.  Today I will walk the gauntlet of sign-bearing, chanting supporters.  I will keep my eyes front and my face blank and go in, get my ballot, and fill in my dot.  I will make sure to keep my party affiliation at independent (another reason I have issues choosing between Imperial or Stormcloak–in real life I’m very moderate and remain a registered independent).  And when I walk out I will try to dodge the pleading smiles and stares of supporters who are certain I picked their candidate because he was the best.

I really hate primary season, but there are some good things about it.  One, there’s no school today for voting, which I’m totally okay with; I have a ton of stuff to get done around here anyway.  But the most important?  After today the circus leaves town for at least another 8-10 months until the general election in November.  Like a town bereft of its circus, there will be fliers and signs strewn about that have no significance; they only remind us of the excitement that happened, and is now gone.  But that’s okay, in this case.  There won’t be anymore political ads on TV for some time.  The media can finally leave us alone.

Being first is a pain, but after today’s primary, we don’t have to worry about it anymore.  We’re done.  Other states will have to deal with the ads and the campaigns and the mudslinging (and the psychos in the media, and those running for office).  The news can go on to analyze other states and their voters, and the candidate pool can dwindle down until the party conventions when they officially choose a candidate to run… but at that point EVERY state has to deal with what we dealt with.  But from January onward?  We can relax.

So while I rather dislike being first because of the craziness associated with it, I’m glad we are because we can get it over with.  God, the Maker, the eight deities, whomever, be with the states who come after us.

And just because I have to: I was going to go out and vote for your candidate, but then I took an arrow to the knee.  (and voted for who I wanted to win).

Am I Really A Gamer?

There are a lot of things that keep me awake at night.  I worry about the next day: do I need to make copies before class, will I have a chance to grade a set of essays, do I have the answer key to the vocab sheet.  Stuff like that.  I think about my Dragon Age rogue armor: can I pull it off?  Can I get it made before PAX East?  Is my new design idea viable?  I think about finances and bills and how a relationship might be nice if only to have someone helping with the bills.  I think of a lot of things.  Usually my identity isn’t one of them, but today I got to thinking about my identity as a gamer.

I’m a high school English teacher, so the fact that I game instantly gives me +50 approval with a lot of students.  Suddenly I’m not so alien.  My interests are the same as their interests, and there’s suddenly common ground for us to talk about.  For a few moments I don’t hold their grade in the palm of my hand, and they aren’t expected to learn about literature and writing and vocab.  For a few moments we’re just people.

In a way, I think that’s what I’ve always liked about games and gaming: they bring people together.  There’s no gender or age discrepancy.  Growing up, there weren’t any girls my age in my neighborhood.  They were all just a few years too old to be bothered with me, or just a few years too young.  My best friend lived across town.  So what did I do?  I hung out with my brother, my two male cousins, and their male friends.  I remember the year one of my cousins got the first Nintendo console… and everything changed.  It didn’t matter that I was a girl, or that I wasn’t a fast runner or didn’t like sports.  When we played Mario and tried to get to the Minus World we were all the same.  When we struggled through dungeons in Zelda, or tried to figure out the mysteries of Metroid, we were all on the same level.  Beating a game?  Was a big deal.  We started a club: the Nintendo Nuts.  That was the year I got a Nintendo calendar from the Scholastic book order, and we all chose characters to be our code names, and diligently wrote our meetings into the calendar.

If I can recall all those details so clearly, then it’s evident gaming always has been a big part of my life.  I’ve had my hiatuses from it: high school and college and summer jobs and homework and everything else made me drift away.  But now that I’m an adult, living on my own, I’m back into it, and it’s a major hobby of mine.

But am I really a gamer?

I have consoles: my most current is an xBox 360, which I purchased in 2010 just before Kinect came out, so I don’t have Kinect.  I have a Nintendo GameCube, and an N64 I got a couple years back at Game Stop.  I have a DS, but it’s a first-generation one from 2005-2006.  I could have traded it up for a DS Lite when they came out, but since I got it in Belfast, Northern Ireland, it has some sentimental value.  I have a GBA-SP, which I keep so I can play my ancient, ancient Gameboy cartridges.  I do not have a PS3, a 3DS, or a Wii.  My gaming library consists of 22 titles,  quite a few of which I bought with the system (it was a good tax return that year).

We’re now in the dawn of 2012, and so far the only game I want is Mass Effect 3, which is coming out in just under two months.  I’ve never played Portal or Portal 2; never played Assassin’s Creed or any of the Final Fantasy games, and ironically, I know a great deal about Call of Duty Black Ops without ever having played it.  My gamerscore isn’t in the tens of thousands; heck, I was just happy to break four digits!  By some standards I have large gaps in my gaming background.  And of course, when talking about games with my students the question comes up: “JayRain, are you going to get insertepicnewgamehere when it comes out??”

Usually the answer is no.  Most of the times it is financial; I am a public school teacher with grad school loans, after all.  But the real reason is I’m just not interested.  I subscribe to Game Informer, so I am informed about what games are coming out, but I’m just not that interested in purchasing most of them.  If a game really intrigues me or is another installation in a franchise I like, I’ll find a way to shell out for it.  With Gears of War 3 I used my tax refund and paid in its entirety when I pre-ordered, for example.  I pre-ordered Mass Effect 3 today, and used some gift cards.  For Halo: Reach I put down $10 a month for the Special Edition.

But I didn’t get Battlefield 3.  I didn’t get the Halo Anniversary edition, much as I love Halo, and while Homefront and Bulletstorm looked cool I couldn’t bring myself to shell out around $60 for them.  Even Dante’s Inferno, based on a work of literature I love, didn’t sear my wallet begging to be bought.

This all begs the question then: what is a gamer?  And with this I think I’m referring just to videogaming– I know there’s card and tabletop gaming, as well as roleplaying, all of which were included with video games at PAX.  But as for what makes a video gamer: Is it someone for whom gaming is life, regardless of price or time commitment?  Is it someone who just enjoys picking up a game and playing for a few minutes to relax, and then moving on?  Is it someone who engages in social gaming on Facebook or with iPad/iPhone apps?  I don’t know.  But I do know that when I think about it, I think I really am a gamer.  I don’t have a wide range of games, but the franchises I do enjoy I am loyal to and I play them frequently.  I read through my Game Informers every month for the insider news and information as much as for the previews and reviews of games.

But most of all, I love game culture.  I like analyzing the storytelling elements and the characters.  I love puzzles.  I love becoming someone else even if it’s just for a few hours, and I love exploring new worlds or new versions of our own.  I don’t have a lot of games, or the newest consoles.  But what I do have I enjoy and it’s big part of who I am.  So when I shut down Skyrim tonight after joining the Bard’s college, I may have other worries that keep me up.  But my identity as a gamer will not be one of them.