320. Tank Rush

Years ago, when I was but a 10-year old still learning how to do my multiplications and divisions in primary school, I played the legendary RTS game that was Red Alert 2 and its expansion, Yuri’s Revenge.

(just kidding. I was learning how to use Graham’s Number in a mathematical proof. I’m Asian after all. What did you think?)

I liked playing the game on Normal mode. It made me feel good, because I felt like I was a pretty decent player: not too soft that I have to play on Easy, and not too lifeless that I can’t find a challenge unless I play on Hard. It was like the Goldilocks’ in-between point anyway: Just Right.

Now the thing about computer AIs back in the early 2000s, if you remember, is that they were not very bright. And as far as strategy in Red Alert 2 was concerned, there wasn’t a problem that couldn’t be solved with more tanks. The Grizzly Battle Tank for the Allied faction and the Rhino Tank for the Soviet faction were my staple units: I’ll just build about 200 of them and quite literally run the enemy’s base over.

Again: AIs were not very bright, and there was nothing they could do but watch in imaginary, digital horror as a sea of battle tanks rolled up the hill to mow their bases to the ground. They could fight, yes; but in the words of every chessmaster supervillain ever written, they were only prolonging the inevitable.

Yesterday evening, in a fit of nostalgia for the RTS games we knew so well, I went to a nearby cyber cafe with 2 friends to have a friend bout on Command & Conquer 3.

You can imagine just how well my tank rush tactics worked against human players.

In short: I was pummeled to death/defeat in the 2 games that we played together. A combination of rusty skills, slow reflexes, a distracted mind, and a total ignorance of strategy made the work pretty easy, methinks. Thankfully, in the 3rd round, we decided to go cooperative and fight 3 AIs instead, and I even got to lead my own skirmish against an AI player’s resource-gathering outpost while my friends wiped out the three main bases.

(I call it the Duct Tape approach to RTS: if it isn’t working, you’re not using enough)

It was like scratching an itch that I didn’t know was there. You know the sort – it feels amazingly good and relieving, but the only way to make the itch go away completely is to scratch until the skin breaks and pain replaces the itch. Writing this, I have half a mind to get me one of them old games and just plow through the campaign for the hell of it. Maybe this time, I’ll actually employ some sort of intelligent design in my strategy.

But hah, what do I know about intelligent design anyway? I’m a hack even when it comes to strategy games. So eh, I probably won’t.

Not until the itch comes back.

(just kidding about Graham’s Number earlier on. What are we, insane?)

264. Board Games!

Yesterday, I was thinking about all the things I’d do on Monday. I’ll sleep comfortably until maybe 9A.M. or 10A.M., wake up, have a nice breakfast nearby my house, and play Skyrim all day long. It was a good idea. Why, I could even imagine myself waking up to the sunlight streaming in from my bedroom windows, the air still chilly from the rain that fell the night before…

And then I remembered that I had a board game date on Monday.

Shit.

(yes, I have just begun playing the 5th installment in the Elder Scrolls series. Don’t judge me)

It was 6A.M. when I finished writing Sunday’s 2,000 words for A Song For The Rain. I had the choice, of course, to stay up and forget about sleep entirely. But if there’s anything I learned from university life about pulling all nighters, it was that you have to go and get yourself some sleep, no matter how short – 3 hours, 1 hour, or 15 minutes, you go and sleep.

So taking that advice in, and also to avoid having to answer mom’s questions when she came down the stairs some 30 minutes later, I shut everything off and went to bed.

If I didn’t feel like shit upon remembering my date on Sunday afternoon, I sure did when I woke up some 3 hours later, at 9.30A.M.

Mercifully, I didn’t have to make the drive to Kota Damansara. Again, if I didn’t feel like shit when I woke up at 9.30A.M. after 3 hours of sleep, I sure did when the clock hit 11.30A.M. and I hadn’t had anything to eat.

Thankfully, food came swiftly; and when it came, it came in generous portions and respectable flavors. I flat out refused to do anything else until I had been fed, and luckily for them, my companions felt the same way.

(there was a little episode in between eating and what comes next, involving getting severely disappointed with a couple of stores in the Kota Damansara area, but we shall not go there)

What followed, at about 2P.M., were board games.

Now I’m not much of a board games kind of person. I’ve always thought of myself as more of a PC or console gamer. There’s just something about the waiting for other players to make their moves that grates me so, and there’s also the problem of getting a bunch of people together for an entire afternoon to sit down and play board games.

But I guess enjoying board games are like enjoying alcoholic beverages: if you don’t, you just haven’t found the right one yet.

(the same could be said for love, I believe)

Over the course of 4 hours, we played 3 different board games: an interesting one called Carcassone; another highly amusing one called Ankh-Morpork (which I had taken to call “The Game of Screwing Each Other Over), based on Mr. Pratchett’s Discworld; and finally, a good dose of black humor with a card game called Guillotine.

I don’t have much to offer on the subject, except that, well, it was pretty fun. And you should try it out if you have the time and opportunity too.

In the meantime, I must catch up on lost sleep.

(I must also catch up on the word count for A Song For The Rain, but after 1,000 words tonight my brain just refuses to work anymore. I’ll just have to make up for it tomorrow)

222. The Computer Is A Cheating B—–d

I’ve been playing Borderlands 2. Over the past few months, I have been trying to kill that son of a serpent called Terramorphous the Invincible.

Damn thing just refuses to die.

When I completed normal mode at level 35, I was wondering, “How difficult can this guy be? Level 50? Hah, bet he’s just a big dumb boss. No problem at all!”

When I died within 5 seconds, I accepted that I was severely unprepared to fight the behemoth. So I did what any reasonable player would. I swore vengeance upon it, and went away to train, level up, and get better loot. Earlier this year, I returned to Terramorphous Peak with a level 52 character, a legendary gun, and a legendary shield to boot. Come on, Terry – not such a tough guy now, are you?

I died again within 10 seconds.

Frustrated, I tried again. And died again. And tried again. And died again. And after losing about 2 million in game currency, I came to the conclusion that the computer is a cheating bastard.

(oops. I said it)

You know it’s true. There’s no other way to explain the behavior of the AI. The computer doesn’t want you to win – it wants to show you that it’s better than you. It wants you to know who’s boss. It wants to tell you that your skills cannot match its.

I recall my first experience with the cheating computer. I was playing Megaman Legends – the first installment. The ultimate boss of the game was this utter douche whose attacks were, while predictable, devastating and almost unavoidable.

I died so many times. Frustrated, I backtracked to do some side quests so that I could get an invincibility buff, and used that to pound the sucker into oblivion.

(this happened twice. Because I didn’t know about his second wind, and died yet another time)

Another time. I was playing Drakan: Order of the Flame, and there’s this part at the end of the game where you get reunited with your personal dragon (it’s a long story). I found my dragon, hopped on it, and got this really sick upgrade for my dragon which was supposed to give it the ability to spit molten frickin’ lava at my enemies.

That didn’t happen. My dragon ended up with poison breath, which was a skill that came early in the game. Useful in that level, which had claustrophobic tunnels. Not so useful atop a volcano with skeletal dragons firing green lightning bolts at you (it’s a long story).

So I did what every self-respecting gamer would do: I used a cheat code to make myself invincible.

(I found out much later that I could cycle through my dragon’s breath attacks with the “[” and “]” keys)

Things were so easy in the days with invulnerability potions and cheat codes. As I rummage through the internet, hoping to find something that will help me murder that snake-faced abomination called Terramorphous the Invincible, I must confess that I have become desperate. I even tried looking for a weapons mod to make myself an insane gun just to gib the hell out of the beast.

Alas, my efforts are in vain. Though there’s a glimmer of hope: some speak of a glitch spot in which I can stand, where the damn thing cannot hit me. I cannot wait to exploit this, if it turns out to be exploitable.

The computer has no reservations in cheating me. I shall make no hesitation to cheat in return.

15. About Gaming, Part 3

The most immersive game I have ever played was BioShock Infinite.

I’ll admit that I did not bother with the first two installations in the BioShock series, despite my friend’s insistence that I tried it out. (It was one of those “the story is so good you just have to try it!” incidences.) I did not think much of BioShock Infinite either, even when the gaming community exploded with excitement over it. What drew my attention to the game in the end, was when I saw Anna Moleva cosplaying as Elizabeth, the girl from the game with a half a pinky missing.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for pretty girls.

So two weeks before the game was released, I started to look more into the game, and found out more about the world in which the game takes place, the different elements the creators have brought together, and also reading reviews written by people who managed to get an advance copy of the game. Invariably, the responses of those who finished the game went something like: “The ending. Speechless.”

In a good way, of course. And all of this only added to my intrigue of what this game was all about. Still, I mainly just wanted to see Elizabeth in action.

About two weeks after the official release of the game, I managed to get it on my home computer. There was a 10-minute prologue of sorts to the game, and then the playable was launched (literally) into Columbia.

(“hallelujah”)

And my jaw dropped at the sight.

The glimmering city in the clouds, sunlight glinting off the white-and-gold surfaces like heaven itself. The music kicks in: a dreamy piano tinkling notes in perfect harmony, preparing the way for the song, and then the choir fades in like a chorus of angels.

I was instantly won over by the spectacle. It was the closest thing to perfection I have ever seen or heard in the visual and sound departments. All of this, before I even got to stab anyone or rescue the pretty girl from the tower!

The game only got better from there onwards.

It was one of the very few games where I felt personally connected to the story. I wanted to know what was the story behind the working replica of heaven. What was up with the girl locked away in the tower. What will become of these characters I have come across. I fought each battle with all the desperation of a man trying to stay alive; I felt his terror as I walked through the empty halls of bedlam house, footsteps echoing off the walls; and I unleashed some unspeakable rage when anyone DARED to lay a finger on Elizabeth.

Then at the end of the game, my mind was promptly blown together with the playable character’s, as every mystery in the game came crashing down to the reveal of the horrible truth.

Bam. Gameplay, visual, sound, and the fourth element – storytelling thrown into the mix. It was the finest thing I have ever seen, and probably will see in a long time.

I looked all over the internet in the weeks following my completion of the game, and I saw the journey of the crew that made the game happen. The months and years spend brainstorming ideas, re-imagining ideas, modeling, animating, acting, voicing, directing – and it was incredible to see how much love has been put into the project, that it was able to turn out the way it did.

(I guess I was also suffering from awesomeness withdrawal)

What can we learn out of this? That a delayed masterpiece is invariably superior to a rushed half-job. That love is essential to creating good art. That it takes a team full of committed, passionate people to create something great.

And that it never hurts to have a pretty girl around.

14. About Gaming, Part 2

The second-most immersive game I’ve ever played was Assassin’s Creed 2.

(apparently, wordpress does not recognize “immersive” as a word. Strange)

This comes as a surprise to most, but despite being a writer/storyteller, I don’t play games for the storyline. The same goes for movies. I get people coming to me all the time, saying, “Dude, you really need to check out (game/movie), the story is AWESOME!” And I’ll politely smile and tell them I’ll check it out, because I can understand where it’s coming from. When I choose a game to spend some quality time with, though, what I look for are these things, in order:

1. Gameplay

The experience is everything, and gameplay is a big part of everything that a game is. Between a game where I get to stab people, and a game where I get to interact with thousands of characters to find their stories and how their lives intersect, I’d go for the stabbing. You see now why I liked Assassin’s Creed 2 so much.

The first Assassin’s Creed was a great game in its own right, but the only thing I couldn’t stand were the endless exposition scenes that came with eavesdropping and the after-death sequences. I need to go back to stabbing people and throwing them into scaffolds!

To The Moon was one of the first games I played “for the story”, and I found most of the experience dreadfully boring. It was a great story, mind, and my pulse did quicken as the plot thickened and the truth about the subject’s life gradually came to light – but it’s not a game that I’d want to revisit. More than storyline, I need a good gameplay element. Give me a good enough game, and I’ll completely ignore your crap storyline.

(I’m looking at you, Tekken)

2. Visuals

I am a very visual kind of person, and I NEED my games to look beautiful. Colors, lighting, design, composition, and details all come into play here to create an aesthetically pleasing environment.

Doubling back to movies for a little while – this is the only reason I’d watch a Terrence Malick film. I have absolutely zero comprehension of the plot, or what the characters are talking about – but damn if every frame of the movie wasn’t the most beautiful thing I have ever seen committed to the silver screen. Makoto Shinkai is also this to me, but to a lesser degree. More on him later.

For this reason, I gravitate towards games that feature a wide-open sandbox environment, where I can explore every intricately designed pixel of the city. Mirror’s Edge could have been great because of how great it looked, but unfortunately it lacked the compelling gameplay element that I needed.

Now Assassin’s Creed 2 – renaissance Italy, a great lighting engine, and a wonderfully rendered environment that showed off years of research, all with that depth of historical accuracy. I couldn’t help but to fall in love with it immediately.

3. Sound

This covers both the soundtrack that accompanies the game, and the sound effect that comes with my interaction with the elements of the game.

Freddiew made a tutorial about sound design for short films, and made it abundantly clear that if you have great visuals for your film (or game), there is an even greater demand for you to have a great sound to go with it, or the whole experience just falls flat, and this couldn’t be any truer.

(“truer”. Is that even a legit word?)

Dead Space, Slender, and F.E.A.R. wouldn’t be one-tenth as terrifying as they were if not for the love committed to the sound. There’s a great video on YouTube that redoes the sound in the first episodes of Game of Thrones so that it sounds like a 90s sitcom instead of the low fantasy epic that it is – go check it out, and you’ll see how crucial sound is to creating the world of the film, or the game.

I mentioned Makoto Shinkai earlier, in Visuals. Like Terrence Malick, Makoto Shinkai’s movies are beautifully made – deeply saturated, lovingly crafted, and I appreciate how Makoto Shinkai’s films are a lot more comprehensible, compared to Mr. Malick’s. As great as his films are, however, what draws me even more to his work is the soundtrack composed by Tenmon. 5 Centimeters per Second and The Place Promised In Our Early Days are the finest examples of how stunning visuals coupled with a great soundtrack can create a memorable experience.

(also notable is When Five Fell, a 10-minute short film by Wesley Chan of Wong Fu Productions. Check it out)

The greatest sound design is almost subliminal – so discreet, so subtle that you don’t even notice that it’s there until you start actively listening for it. And I must admit that it wasn’t until Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood that I even noticed the soundtrack that played in the background at different points of the game.

Genius.

I’m going on longer than I had originally intended to in this post, but that pretty much sums up the top 3 things that I look for in a game: gameplay, visuals, and sound. The story, unfortunately, comes in fourth place – it’s a great extra, but if you manage the first three with finesse, I don’t even need a story.

The most immersive game I have ever played, though, was BioShock Infinite.

(to be continued)

13. Dinner and a Movie

(I’ll get back to continuing that post on gaming after this one)

I had the opportunity today to spend some time with some of my favorite people on earth. Over 4 hours or so between 8P.M. and midnight, we talked, laughed, ate, and learned how to roll sushi together. And just like what we do with anything we’ve just learned, we took it to the logical extreme, just to test the boundaries of weirdness. This is what we ended up with:

Chicken sausage and a banana fritter wrapped with Japanese rice in a sheet of seaweed, covered in mayonnaise.

Needless to say, it was the strangest thing I have tasted all week; but far from the strangest thing I have ever tasted in my life. But that is one memory to be shared another day, in another post.

We all gathered around the TV area, tummies full of oddities, and watched Hugo – the one directed by Martin Scorsese – from start to finish, and it was beautiful.

I could talk about the amazing performances delivered by Asa Butterfield, Chlo√ę Moretz, and Sir Ben Kingsley; or the intricately-designed sets that planted us right in the middle of a train station in 1930s Paris; or even about how every frame of the movie was so beautifully shot, every detail so perfectly saturated and textured.

More than all the above, however, was the sense of wonder it inspired. The storytelling, if you may. It was a simple, clean movie – no line of dialogue was wasted, no single shot that seemed unnecessary. It wasn’t a movie that tried too hard; neither was it one that was unambitious. But by the pure virtue of it being so honest to what it was, the film’s message resonated in me in a way that few other things could have.

Brilliantly executed, with performances as natural as breathing in the air around you – it’s not too far a stretch to call Hugo a masterpiece, delivered by master craftsmen and craftswomen.

(I sound like I’m fanboying here; but really, go and watch the film if you haven’t It’s wondrous)

I’m not the kind of person you’d want to watch a movie with. Not alone, at least.

Especially after watching movies as insightful and as well made as Hugo, I tend to lapse into a super-INTP state where I begin picking the movie apart and examining it in my head, to appreciate the whole for each of its individual parts. Watch a crappy movie with me, and I’ll laugh with you about how ridiculous it was after it has ended. Watch one that is beautifully made with me, and I’ll retreat so far from the real world that you may begin to think that I was offended by the movie or something.

After contemplating upon Hugo, I guess there will always be an innate part of us that appreciates beauty – not just visually, but also on deeper, emotional levels, whether we admit to it or not. As much as some of us may embrace the darkness in life and the harsh edges of reality, I believe these things only serve to highlight the things that make life beautiful.

We appreciate the light because we have seen the dark. We have come to love the thing that is good because we have seen the face of evil. The shadows we see are what helps us perceive depth – and really, what beautiful thing has ever existed that was without depth?

12. About Gaming, Part 1

A recent conversation with a friend went like this:

FRIEND
I can’t take it when I spend the whole day looking at the computer screen. My eyes dry up and they hurt like hell.

ME
Hey, don’t blame the computer. I play games all day and I don’t feel a thing.

FRIEND
All day? I did that once, and felt like my entire day was wasted. Don’t you feel that?

ME
I feel something, alright.

FRIEND
What?

ME
SATISFACTION!

(she was rather reluctant to continue that conversation)

I was first introduced to games when they were still being introduced on floppy disks, or on giant compilation CDs. The first game I ever had the pleasure of starting (but not finishing) was The Prince of Persia for DOS.

Some of you may remember playing that; and if you do, it’s about time you realize that you’re getting old.

The Prince of Persia for DOS was a pretty straightforward game: the grand vizier has usurped the sultan’s rule, thrown you into prison, and has taken the princess has hostage. You have one hour to navigate the 12 levels of the dungeon, crossing swords with guards, escaping deathtraps, leaping¬† across chasms from platform to platform, and figuring out if the colorful potion would give you one extra point of health, make you float, turn the map upside-down, or kill you outright. Needless to say, it was a pretty nifty game, and the mechanical sounds of metal jaws snapping shut still haunts me in my nightmares.

It was a 2D platformer, with no great graphics to speak of – every pixel that built up the character, the floors, and the torches that flickered in the background were as big as a button on a blackberry phone. And that was how I discovered computer games, from the very beginning.

The game that I played for the first time without any adult supervision was Red Alert. The first one, not any of its campy sequels. And like The Prince of Persia for DOS, it blew my mind: you could put cinematic interludes into games? You could finish the mission any way you wanted? So many choices of buildings, tanks, and ships to build? I can use an ATOM BOMB?? AWESOME!

(this game is also the reason why I knew what Tesla coils were YEARS before I knew who Tesla was. Until then I just assumed that “Tesla” was synonymous with “electrical death ray”)

The very first mission I played involved guiding an Allied spy (complete with a British accent saying “For King and country!”) into a soviet base to rescue a special operative named Tanya. The mission began with the spy landing on enemy shores, and from behind the shroud of war I could see a unit in red patrolling with a dog.

And I thought: dogs are good, right? Let me approach it and see what happens.

That, ladies and gentlemen, was how within the first 2 minutes of the very first mission I ever played in the original Red Alert, my spy was unceremoniously killed by an attack dog, and I failed the mission.

The very first First-Person Shooter I played was Doom. Not the original one – this one was titled “The Ultimate Doom”, and the cover art displayed a muscular man in a gladiator’s breastplate, a space marine’s breathing mask, cargo pants, dual-wielding submachine guns atop a mountain of corpses, and gunning down demons left and right.

I was seven years old, and it looked pretty awesome.

(before Doom, I played another game called Bounty Hunter, which also involved shooting people with guns – but Bounty Hunter was more of a scripted-events kind of game that did not really give you the freedom to roam around as modern FPSs do; and in my mind, an FPS that does not allow you to roam is not an FPS)

My father apparently did not even realize he had the game. To be fair, it was one of the many games available on the aforementioned giant compilation CDs. I was already in the second level of hell, gunning down imps, cacodemons, and pinkies before my father found me playing the game, and banned me from playing such violent games.

Of course, I didn’t listen to him, and I immediately regretted everything when the cyberdemon appeared. To this day, I have never replayed that level.

So kids, listen to your parents. Seriously.

(to be continued)