The 90s Disease and The Global Star Wars on Terror

This is the first of two editorials tangential to political things including 9/11, the Global War on Terror, and how much of a cunt George Lucas is.  I have written this particular piece while in a rather spirited mood.  There is offensive content here and its payload has been calibrated to maximize its potential.

I was in a World History class, freshman year of High School when it happened.

This is one class I will not forget, though I don’t know it at the time.  It will teach me far more than I expect.  We are to be taking a short test on some material we recently covered.  I wasn’t worried, my memory always did serve me well in areas like history.  Twenty-five questions, and then a new lesson.  Twenty-five questions on the origins of Islam.  The strange mechanisms of the world already winking at my future self through a multiple-choice pop quiz.

When the television went on I saw the towers burning.  They still stood over New York, then.  At first the world thought “Tragic Accident”.  Then the second plane hits.  At first the news thought the towers couldn’t fall.  Then they did.  We all watched them fall.  We all watched them die.  Many of my classmates had family working in the Pentagon.  DC is very much a company town.  I’d never been to New York.  I knew people there, the internet had permeated my life in a Very Big Way already, and through IRC I knew people who lived and worked there.  My mind was too dumbstruck to register that they might be in danger.

The reactions of the students were telling.  Mine was that of pain and rage.  None of us had known the horrors of the Cold War, the grim sword of damocles that was Mutually Assured Destruction was foreign to us.  War was something other people made.  We were observers, all, and none of us knew that our world had just been swapped for some new monstrosity, a warped mirror that reflected all the wrong parts of ourselves.  I knew there would be a war.  I knew whoever had done this would feel the unchained rage of an empire.  I knew we would feel the same rage.  And I knew that rage would always be more dangerous to us than it ever would to our enemies.

There is no image I can think of that is so primal, so repulsive to the very core of one’s humanity, and so mortally terrifying than that of a mushroom cloud.  Nuclear annihilation.  As I said we were the first generation removed from the Cold War.  We didn’t know the same fears.  A mushroom cloud, the modern face of death itself, was now all that I could see.  I saw the towers fall, I saw the fires and deaths, the jumpers, the secondary collapses.  I saw them and I thought “Yes.”  I saw mushroom clouds rising over some foreign land.  I thought that death by nuclear fire would be too kind a fate for those responsible.  For the first and only time in my life I was posessed of a terrible notion: We Must Kill Them All.  No exceptions, no hesitation, no remorse.  The world would never before or again see a more fearsome reprisal.  This would never happen again.  Not while We stood upon the bridge.

Some of the students, however, watched, riveted to their seats.  I realized something awful.  They were actually being entertained by this.  Whether the sheer magnitude of this was too much for their feeble minds to grasp I do not know, I do know that there was more than one person that I previously thought was smart who actually commented on how “cool” this was.  And everyone knew why this was getting people off.  I’d seen such destruction before, we all had.  We all paid for it at the movie theatres in the summers.  We lined up to eat popcorn and watch aliens or asteroids or some Other destroy us, only to be vanquished by the might, ingenuity, and wisdom of Humanity.  The 1990s was the Great American Victory Lap and it showed in all our media.  We’re All So Fucking Great, because we survived the Cold War.  If we could avoid annihilating ourselves, we could truly overcome any obstacle the universe would send our way.  The 1990s are why George W. Bush would later challenge the terrorists to “Bring it on”.  The threat to us in the 1990s seemed to never be human.  We had conquered our demons, we were masters of our domain.  Without nuclear war to worry about we could build fantastic new wonders like the Internet, cure diseases, bring the world together, throw down tyranny and lift humanity into a brighter future.  We were building a space station, we were mapping the cosmos, the whole world seemed to peek its head out into the blinding light from a dark cave, just for a moment.  We thought everything was going to be okay, soon.  What could this new millenium bring other than the triumphant dawn of mankind?  And, admittedly it was understandable, justified even.

Star Wars should have taught us differently.  Episode One, specifically.  At the ass end of the ’90s the most sacred of our pop culture icons was going to return with all the majesty of modern CGI and budgets greater than the GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa.  A great big fucking fireworks show to cap our cultural bender.  It didn’t even occur to us that it would be remotely possible for Star Wars to be Bad.  Try and remember that time.   The time when Star Wars was always going to be good.  The time when its only blemishes were written off as a minor misstep by the visionary Lucas.  Its important to remember the time when Star Wars couldn’t possibly be fucked up, even if  spasticated rhesus monkeys suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, smoking crystal meth wrote the screenplay in the AIDS-infested mongoloid spunk of the aborted baby Jesus.  Star Wars was perfect.  Then, Episode One came out.  It was a fuckfest of legendary proportions, childhoods were retroactively ruined, and the insult would only seem to get worse with time.

Why was Star Wars bad?  Why, when the first film was made at the end of the Vietnam War, and the series improved to its crescendo in the last great arms race under Reagan, why was this new Star Wars, forged over years in the victorious, pre-utopian 90s, so bad?  Well, the problem was that Star Wars was perfect.  Only someone who no one thinks can do wrong would or could fuck up Star Wars that badly.  People around this man should have slapped the shit out of Lucas, the studios should have detonated his script.  And it was the ultimate 90s script, no tremendous conflict, just a small backwater trade dispute, some political maneuvering, you know, easy shit.  Shit that normal humans deal with all the time, nevermind Jedi.  Shit that Yoda should have sorted out in five minutes.  The whole of Industrial Light and Magic blackout drunk with money, and the entire production in a dissociative trance of denial, with no one challenging the fever-dream bullshit spewing from George Lucas.

A New Hope was made in the fucking desert with props that constantly broke, never-before-tried effects techniques, a veritable shoestring budget, and more problems than anyone knew could happen on a movie.  Everyone thought the movie was going to be horrible!  It was the exact opposite of The Phantom Menace in almost every way.  The script was chopped, cut, tightened, until it was lean and unrelenting.  Comedy and drama in balance, the Hero’s Journey updated for the modern era, and most importantly: Good Triumphs Over Evil.  Not an ultimate triumph.  Significant, but ultimately just another battle.  It was exactly what it needed to be in that time, in that place in 1977.  Star Wars made everyone remember “Hey, we’re the good guys.  We can do this!”  The Phantom Menace made us ask “Hey, you’re supposed to be the good guys, are you sure you can do this?”.

In its own way TPM is also exactly what it needed to be in its time, which is to say an overproduced monstrosity.  A monument to excess.  We let it happen.  We were so busy telling George Lucas how great Star Wars was that he forgot the adversity that gave it a soul.  In the 1990s, we were all in the business of buying our own bullshit and confirming ever so politely to each other that our shit did not in fact stink.  The Millenial Generation had arrived and the Baby Boomers were going to kick back and get nice and fucked up with the hottest new drug for them: Unlimited Power.  How could America possibly get punched in the dick by the Actual Sand People from Tatooine?  Even if that happened, how could America so fuck up their response as to get bogged down in not one but fully two Vietnam-grade quagmires?  We learned that lesson!  We won, remember?  We’re the good guys!  We can do this! What are a bunch of irritable brown people going to do to us, nothing, because we’re America and we’re so fucking Perfect.

In the 1990s the US Economy boomed thanks to the Internet, we had the largest budget surplus in history, and our biggest problems according to the news were blowjobs and sharks.  We gathered all that money, and all that confidence, and when we were attacked we hit back with our own great big Phantom Menace.  An obnoxious, showy, over-budgeted, over-produced foreign-policy Hindenburg called the “Global War on Terror”.  We named our enemy.  The “Axis of Evil” ooh, scary, very Sith Lords, love it.  For Iraq we even got our own Attack of the Clones complete with equally farcical justifications for a war!

The best thing about those movies, the prequel trilogy is that for all its flaws it does one thing incredibly right:  From start to finish, episode one title crawl to episode three credits, the good guys manage to give the bad guys exactly what they want.  The Jedi, through arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence fuck absolutely everything up.  The bad guys play them like a fiddle and achieve almost every aim.  The only thing that stops them from winning completely is that at the eleventh hour, a couple of people get their shit together just long enough to set the stage for the next generation to fix everything they broke, if they can, maybe.

And America did the same.  We gave the bad guys exactly what they wanted, first we got good and scared.  Then, we got good and angry.  We started a war with too much confidence and rage and no decent plan.  We alienated potential allies with our rhetoric.  After 9/11 even Iran was chomping at the bit to help us.  And why not?  They’re fairly modern, certainly when compared to their neighbors.  They’ve got just as much an interest in making sure the Taliban and Al Qaeda quiet down as we do.  We were on the way towards real dialogue when President Lucas threw it all away by naming them to the axis of evil.  And we got distracted, went off podracing in Iraq.  We give radical groups decades worth of justification for their agenda in places where they were as welcome as syphillis.  Now the western economy has tanked, and what did we get for all of this?  We managed to get our shit together just long enough to shoot the guy responsible in the eye.

This is a tough one.  And now, like it or not, its up to my generation to fix everything the grey-hairs broke.

If we can.

Maybe.

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The Return

June 21, 2010.  It seems like a date that never should have happened.  Some science fiction land where the aliens have landed to meet with the robot overlords on the nuclear-charred wastes that once were home to the human race.  While our current dystopia is wildly different than those imagined by Arthur C. Heinlein K. Dick, et al, it seems as good a time as ever, even at this late hour, to write once more.

The story of my world, this corner of planet Earth, just outside Washington D.C. continues to be one of absolute insanity.  The populace seems to be barely holding back their personal Deepwater Horizons of madness, rage, and sadness.  In fairness, that could be me projecting.  I continue to live in a truly ironic fashion, penniless yet owning no end of treasures.  Lonely but less physically alone I as a sapient being have ever been.  So it should come as no surprise that I was watching stand-up comedy when the panic struck.

Allow me to rewind the clocks to earlier in the day.  My life of quiet contemplation mixed with brief interruptions of gunfire from video games continued this day much as it had the prior.  I was playing a game, (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic if you must know) for the umpteenth time, having just created a character,  I saddled him with a horribly offensive name as that is the only way I can be evil in a video game, to create something so obviously not myself that I have no problem acting like the violent, impulsive cockend that defines the bad guy end of the Manichean morality systems that have been in vogue for oh so long.

Then the phone rang.  Rather, it buzzed with an odd sort of swooping sound, denoting receipt of a text message.  I was glad to receive it, as it had been sent by one of my very favorite people in the world.  I never got text messages often; I don’t know why I do now.  It strikes me as positive momentum, though.  Perhaps soon I’ll be a real boy.  The message was short and sweet, and I do emphasize sweet.  I was oddly touched by it, enough for the sudden uptick in my opinion of humanity to cause Double Hitler (my intrepid dark Jedi) to be nice to approximately three people before the force-choking of adorable animals began anew.  June 21, 2010 continued its unremarkable trajectory.

Several hours later, possibly, time gets fuzzy when you’re building a megalomaniac, I receive another message.  My great friend would be visiting!  Visiting soon no less!  In a week or two, they would be here! In my world!  Not their world, which to me always strikes me as far more appealing, and indeed I am far more appealing when I exit the orbit of this one to visit the other.  The reality didn’t sink in at first.  In fact I’m reasonably certain I committed at least ten more digital atrocities before it struck me.

I am not only uncomfortable in my world, I am embarrassed by it.

I sit, typing this in a room that has, over the course of twelve years, been engineered specifically to distract me from the fact that I have spent the majority of my life in the same room.  A room, which I must add, that is roughly 100 meters from the previous room I occupied, for the prior five years.  And an equal distance from the room that I first occupied, when I burst screaming into the world on August 24, 1987.

Spend twelve years in any one place and it will begin to reflect certain details of one’s life that you would rather leave behind you.  There is an inconceivable amount of garbage that has accrued in the dresser drawers, spaces behind and under objects, and closet space over the course of the occupation.  To remove it all would be impossible under present circumstances.  Indeed, objects exist in these areas that predate my own existence.  There are marks on the ceiling telling the tales of when I discovered that a pool cue for an overpriced games table I once owned could quite easily make small craters in the drywall.  Uneven paint shows where a large NASA sticker once covered a portion of the door for far too long, being possessed of some hell-adhesive that anchored it long past the point of novelty’s failure.  Most embarrassingly, a carpet stained with substances ranging from the bright pink remnants of spilled strawberry milk as a much younger creature, the not-quite-erased spot where 32 oz. of vodka and bourbon were jettisoned by my body.  Bits of snot that I concluded belonged on the walls, floor, or carpet for preservation through the aeons of the world.

Twelve years has shown a clear portrait of a messy tornado of a human who is obsessed with shiny things, and not terribly worried about being an unhygienic mess.  The results of my anthropological study prove stunningly accurate.

Yet twelve years is a long time by anyone’s count.  Has my carefully constructed world become a prison of my own design?  What will my friend think when they leave the fresh, polished world of the promised land behind to visit the wasteland?  She is far too nice to cast her judgment publicly.  Still, what sort of adult would continue to exist in this place?  Can I even allow her to see it?  Just how much can I clean this hellhole up before she arrives?  Will the strawberry milk stains finally come out?  Have I finally turned pro?

At 11:30 PM, on June 21, 2010, I turned over in my bed as I attempted sleep, tormented by the questions that now flooded my mind.

“Fuck.” I muttered aloud.

And then I wrote it down.  Welcome back Andrew.  This is the story of your life.

How to Beat World of Warcraft

Every week I hear a new studio talking about how Licensed MMO X will topple World of Warcraft and ascend to the throne of MMO supremacy.

They’re all fucking morons and 100% wrong. They know it, too. Most of these people will be ecstatic should they breach 1 million subscribers.

World of Warcraft is far from an unassailable tower, provided you hit it from the proper direction. So far, studios have lined up to make Generic Fantasy Mummorpurgers before the gates of Mordor, marching proudly with their gleaming swords and armor, only to toss all that crap aside at release and ritualistically disembowel themselves, gut-shitting a final product of intestines and bodily fluids into retail (see: Vanguard).

Here’s a simple guide to would-be developers as to how to unseat the King, or at least become one yourself.

  1. Do not make games based on nothing. This should be obvious. World of Warcraft built upon the storyline of the Warcraft RTS games, which themselves stole liberally from Games Workshop, who stole liberally from fantasy writers X, Y, and Z. No one gives two shits about Everquest Lady and with good reason. Have something to build on.
  2. Do not make licensed MMOs. Same problem in the opposite direction. Here you are trying to build your empire in the middle of someone else’s larger, more profitable empire. No doubt you’ll be forced to put Han and Chewie into the starting area just to appease the suits. This is one of the reasons Age of Conan and Warhammer Online will fail: They’ve got too much baggage. Warcraft had three successful games plus expansions.
  3. For fuck’s sake don’t make a fantasy game. It’s been done. They own fantasy. Make a fantasy game and you’re setting yourself up for failure. Everyone who wants to play a fantasy MMO is playing World of Warcraft or one of the stragglers around the periphery that hasn’t been crushed by Blizzard’s massive dick.
  4. Limit yourself to blatantly stealing only one thing from WoW at a time. I suggest the interface, they did it about as well as you can do it, and left the community to fill in the gaps. The interface is accessible and functional up until the final levels, when they’ve already got you smoking their crack. At that point, you’re hardcore enough to go out and customize it on your own. For many interface customization in WoW is a meta-game, try to make the sleekest interface, so you can post it on forums to enhance your e-peen.
  5. Make a Sci-Fi MMO. This is the only strong point from which you can take on Blizzard, and believe me this window won’t be open for long. Blizzard is no doubt already making plans for a Starcraft MMO. There are many properties in gaming that would be conducive to a sci-fi MMO. Halo. Get to work, Microsoft.
  6. Failing that, don’t make it an RPG. MMOFPS has been attempted, albeit ham-fistedly. With a compelling enough storyline an MMOFPS could work. MMORTS is far dicier, given the non-personal nature of RTS units versus player-characters.
  7. Make it for consoles and not PC!  It’s a gambit but one that will work out some time.
  8. Above all else: Stop saying that you are making a “WoW Killer”.  Its like a “Halo Killer” or an “iPod Killer”.  You can’t beat a product that has ascended into the cultural lexicon so completely that it becomes the measure for success.  You can beat a product, you can’t beat culture, unless you’re the Chinese Government.

You’re welcome, game designers.  Now I gotta go farm primals to pay for my epic flyer.

The Chaos Fold’s Year in Review Pt. II – Buy Teh Haloz

While storytelling in video games has made a tremendous leap forward over the past year, not all games had grandiose storylines, eccentric writing, or clever twists. Most games didn’t.  Perhaps most notably, Halo 3 ended up being, well, Halo 3.

It was Halo.

Halo 3 didn’t demolish the world under the weight of its code.  Halo 3 didn’t annihilate the multi-media brand-scape with its nigh-megalomaniacal marketing campaign.  The soda didn’t taste half bad, though.  Many gamers, though, felt as though Halo 3 was a failure in some way.  It’s hard to blame them.

The first Halo wrote the holy book on how to make a console FPS, from controls, to vehicles, to voice acting and storyline.  Halo wrote the book.

The second Halo’s online multiplayer has been the yardstick by which all other games are judged since the very day of its release.  Just as the first Halo nailed the basics, the second finessed the multiplayer experience.

By the time Halo 3 rolled around, their revolution was already over.  And how do you live up to two consecutive revolutions?  You can’t, and the only reason Halo 3 is as good a game as it is (and it is a damn fine game) is that Bungie didn’t try to reinvent their own wheel.  They instead focused on adding non-essential features that would give the game legs beyond its predecessors.  Four-player online co-op, rudimentary level-editing tools, video capture, screenshot capture, and file-sharing aren’t revolutionary, any PC gamer worth their mouse and keyboard will tell you that these features have existed for over a decade, on PC.  In the end Bungie’s greatest strength was knowing what it could do and what it couldn’t do.  On September 25, they shipped a product that wasn’t out to move the Earth, rather a labor of love, a gift to all those who made them what they are.

Halo became more than the sum of its parts because of timing, and likewise that same timing neutered some of what Halo 3 could have accomplished.

Instead of a graphical revamp, they stayed true to the old art style. It doesn’t get in the way, but the old art style is so shamelessly ripped out of Aliens that they missed an opportunity, here. Likewise the pulpy bits of Halo’s storyline, grunt-humor and all seem to get in the way of the more serious aspects, with Halo 3’s story playing it altogether too safe. There wasn’t a single event in the plot I didn’t see coming from a mile away.

I said a while ago that Halo is gaming’s Star Wars, the parallels are staggering. Star Wars was a film that was in many ways revolutionary, with effects that gave legitimacy to an otherwise maligned genre. Likewise, Halo was incredibly advanced for its time, and became the first console FPS to stand on even ground with its PC counterparts.

Star Wars was released in 1977, still very much in the shadow of the Vietnam War. The unmolested-good vs. indomitable-evil storyline very much spoke to audiences at the time. Halo was released November 2001, two months after 9/11, its own storyline pitting a human hero against a genocidal faction of religious aliens.

Both went on to massive sales and acclaim despite very real flaws, notably campy storylines and dialog, the sort normally reserved for sci-fi channel originals. Halo is arguably the first true gaming blockbuster, with lines stretching for hundreds of yards on the release of Halo 3. Their impeccable timing and resounding themes made them far more than the sum of their parts.

When the dust finally settles and no more cat helmets are sold, Halo’s legacy will take on a similar tone.  Hushed, reverent, respected to a fault, perhaps.

Just hope they don’t make a prequel trilogy.

Bungie’s Split.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recently-announced split between Bungie and Microsoft. Mostly due to playing a lot of Halo 3.

After my brief dalliance with consoles as a youth, I became a big-time PC gamer. My laptop, however, was a Mac, so I became an early and avid supporter of Bungie. I played Marathon and Myth to death and back. I even bought, played, and beat Oni when it came out shortly before their purchase by Microsoft.

If ever there was an odd sight in a junior-high-school cafeteria, it would be a goofy-looking kid with blonde hair going on about how Bungie has sold their souls to the devil, and that I could only hope that Billy Gates didn’t get his hands on the Soul Extraction Machine.

Now, it would seem, that Bungie has completed Step Six of their long-standing credo, the Seven Steps to World Domination. Step Six, “Stage bloody coup of new parent company.” was what they were on.

Well, I for one, am glad. Microsoft no doubt holds right of first refusal, and Halo is theirs eternally, but a world in which Bungie makes nothing but Halo is a lesser one than one with an autonomous Bungie. Microsoft did something great for Bungie, though, they put them on the map in a big way. Halo wouldn’t have been the phenomenon it was on the Mac or even the PC. Like Star Wars, it was a product of circumstance. The stars aligned in such a way that Halo transcended its relative quality to become something indescribable.

Star Wars wasn’t a particularly well-written movie, nor was it a particularly inventive movie in the narrative fashion. Yet because of the tensions of the era, the cold war, the vietnam war, it offered something powerful: Escape. In the wake of 9/11, Halo offered a similar escape to a new generation of bruised and disillusioned souls. Star Wars gave a hero to a generation.

The launch of the Xbox added another dimension to its perfect-storm appeal. This was exclusive, and it was new, and it was cutting edge. That’s a sexy combination. Halo, in the right place and at the right time, did what neither Bungie or Microsoft could have done purely of their own wills. It became the Star Wars of Video Games in a sense.

Granted, video games are a far more niche medium than film, but the paralells are valid. Perhaps a more apt financial comparison would be Jaws. No single game before Halo truly became a “blockbuster”.

Now that Bungie is its own entity, I’m relieved in a way. Halo stands on its own. I’d be perfectly happy if there were never another Halo game. I have my closure, even with a cryptic post-credit scene. Bungie can now do something that while it will almost certainly not be the cat-helmet success of Halo, will be new.

One bit of speculation before I wrap this one up, though: Bungie’s next project? Sci-fi MMO.

It could be Cyberpunk or pulp space opera, or steampunk, any number of subgenres, but I’m thinking that they’re going to aim at World of Warcraft, try and grab some of that pie for themselves.

There aren’t many studios that are equally equipped to do so.

LAFS can go die in a fire.

So I’m home again.

Taking classes at the local community college while LAFS figures out just how badly they fucked me over.

Oh, and I’m 20 now. That’s about half as old as Star Wars. Heavy shit, man.

(edit: My good friend Travis pointed out to me that I am in fact two-thirds as old as Star Wars. Math sucks, anyway.)