26 April 2011

The Slow, Painful Death of the Instruction Book

As a younger man, before videogames came into my life, I played a great many board games. I was obsessed with three board games in particular: Mouse Trap, Master Mind, and a game with a cheery exterior but a vengeful, dry heart called Sorry!.

My brother was the more creative soul of the two of us. He was perfectly fine with inventing his own rules for board games. But I would not tolerate such anarchy. So, by default, I became the Official Instruction Book Reader of our household. (Another one of my part-time jobs: TV Guide Reader. I enjoyed the crossword puzzles, the profiles of James Garner, and scrutinizing the program listings for other nearby cities, which were surprisingly robust compared to the anemic, three-fuzzy-channels programming our middle-of-nowhere town had to offer. Example: I would note in TV Guide that Son of Godzilla was airing at 2 p.m. in Utica, a city located about an hour's drive away from us. Then I'd stare at the clock and watch 2 p.m. come and go while I was treated to Bowling for Dollars on our local station, followed by an edge-of-my-seat episode of Meet the Press. In fact, now that I think about it, I'm fairly certain that the reason why I have chosen to reside in cities for most of my adult life can be traced back to my childhood TV Guide obsession: I live here largely because Son of Godzilla is broadcast here. Also: I would eventually grow up to see Son of Godzilla. All I will say is: What a movie.)

Instructions for board games were always of an amazingly low quality. They were usually either posted on the inside of the box cover, or were printed on tissue-thin paper in a tiny font known as Inscrutabilica. Regardless, I studied these documents with the dedication and curiosity of a scholar translating the Dead Sea Scrolls from Hebrew, sometimes even employing the small magnifying glass that my mother kept in her sewing basket.

Once videogames came along--in the form of an Atari 2600 which my Uncle Bobby owned, who still lived at home with his mother (my grandmother) and would not marry and/or move out for another decade; also, he was a prodigious farter, which partially explains why he would not marry until late in life--I naturally became the Instruction Book Reader for all videogames.

The quality of the instruction books for videogames was tangibly higher than it was for board games. These books were actual books, printed in full color on heavy paper stock. And, unlike the board game books, they were often written with style, humor, and a touch of attitude. A fine ex

ample: the cover of the instruction book for Kaboom! included the following sentences: "You're about to face the world's most unpredictable and relentless 'Mad Bomber.' He hates losing as much as you love winning."

I remember reading this, then chuckling to myself while thinking, "Mad Bomber, you have met your match in me. You are in for it now."

On the next page, I studied the game's point system. It seemed straight-forward enough. Group 8, the highest group possible in the game, featured 150 bombs--wow!!!!!!!--with a point value of eight points per bomb, bringing the total point value of the group of 1,200. Underneath this explanation was this message: "Once you reach this level, all bombs that follow will fall at the same rate of speed and are worth the same points as bombs in Group 8 (unless you miss a bomb--see next page)."

I was anxious turning the page, bracing myself for the consequences of missing a bomb. Would it be wrack? Ruin? Both? "When you miss a bomb," the next page explained, "all bombs explode and you lose a bucket. Lose all three buckets and the game is over." This was indeed the sort of wrack and ruin I had been fearing. I'm not kidding. Though it might not seem so by today's high-definition standards, words like "bombs," "explode," "lose" and "game over" carried a lot more weight in the minds of gamers in 1981.

Other interesting facts that the Kaboom! instruction book informed me of: for every 1,000 points I scored, I'd be awarded a new bucket. That sounded pretty fair to me. The book also had a section titled "Getting the Feel of Kaboom!" ("Try to get a feeling for the bomb patterns that develop") and a section called "Join the Activision Bucket Brigade!" which explained that if one could achieve a score of 3,000 points or higher, one could mail--with stamps and everything--a photograph of your television screen to Activision, and they would send you a special membership patch which one could have sewn onto one's jacket and which would no doubt ensure that one would wind up living at home with one's mother for a large part of one's adult life.

"If you ever reach the maximum 999,999 points," the book said, teasing me to the brink of madness, "please send us a photo! Such a remarkable achievement must be recognized."

But recognized how? The Kaboom! book, unfortunately, would not say. I imagined parades. I imagined oversized checks like the ones they gave away on Bowling For Dollars. The ambiguity, the nuances of that sentence--note the exclamation point after the word "photo"--fascinated me for days.

For me, reading the Kaboom! instruction book was gripping stuff, far more personally affecting than A Separate Peace by John Knowles, a long, boring novel which my seventh teacher practically had to use a buggy whip to get me through.

Finally, at the very back of the book was a section titled "How To Become a Master at Kaboom!" which included a grainy, black-and-white photograph of a smiling, bearded man named Larry Kaplan. Larry was described as one of Kaboom!'s designers. At the time, I had a hard time fathoming where videogames came from. I still do, to some extent. (All I know is that a bunch of people go into a building and two years later a game comes out the other side. What happens in between remains a mystery to me.) Yet here was a person, here was a man, who had worked on a videogame. I was looking at his face.

Here is a sample tip from game-maker Larry Kaplan: "If you hit the 10,000 point level, that really impresses the 'Mad Bomber,' and he'll show his appreciation. Watch for it." I was thrilled by the coyness of the phrase "he'll show his appreciation." I could not wait to find out exactly what Larry Kaplan, a.k.a. the newly crowned master of understatement, was referring to here.

Finally, at the end of his tips section, Larry Kaplan closed with this sentence: "Please take time out from your bomb chasing to drop me a line. It would be great to hear from you." This personal statement was followed by his signature--Larry Kaplan--in a tight, cramped script.

The entire book ends with the Activision company address--3255-2 Scott Blvd., Santa Clara, CA 950551--which is where you could write to Larry and mail in your photographs of your Kaboom! achievements. (Note: woe to the Fotomat employees who had to develop those photos.) In an age when game companies are now usually equipped with more security than Sydney Bristow's SD-6, when even trying to find the location of game developer can be a challenge, this sort of transparency, this personableness, seems charming and quaint.

For me, the event that would come to be known as The Reading of the Instruction Book has always been almost as important as the event known as The Playing of the Game. More than merely relaying information about a control scheme or giving me tips on how to handle certain enemies, I learned to count on instruction books to give me clues about the kind of experience I was about to have and to give me some insights--to tell me something tangible--about the people who created these experiences.

True story: after purchasing a copy of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past from a game store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago in the early '90's, I boarded an overcrowded uptown bus headed back to my apartment. Despite my very public surroundings--there were at least two attractive girls in my vicinity at the given moment--I was so beside myself with anticipation for the game that I thought, "Protocol be damned," and I broke it out its shrink wrap and began reading the instruction book right there in front of god and everyone including two attractive girls.

Forty minutes later, I looked up and realized that I'd missed my stop.

For years now--and this is going to sound very strange, so you should probably sit down for this one--I've been in the habit of taking videogame instruction books to bed with me at night. It's true. If I am enjoying a game, but I'm too tired to continue playing, I'll get into bed and--that's right--I'll peruse the instruction book for awhile before falling asleep. For example, I remember doing this many nights in a row with the hefty instruction book for Super Mario 64. Just before dozing off, I would read a sentence like, "Not all courses are entered from the paintings on the walls. Some entrances are found in unexpected places, so search everywhere." Then I'd drift off to sleep, my brain soaring through the game world, half-searching for, and half-dreaming of, all of the unexpected places I would find the next day.

Beyond pathetic, I know. But those were not unhappy dreams.

One of the game-related stories that I've been pitching for years--and it's one that always gets rejected by editors, for the obvious reason that it would be completely boring to read for 99-percent of all readers--is a story that traces the slow, inevitable demise of the videogame instruction book. In the name of cutting costs and corners, and as games transition from being tangible objects to virtual objects, those books have became booklets. The downward, death spiral has been going on for decades now.

With the April 19th release of Mortal Kombat, the instruction booklet finally reached one-page/pamphlet status. At the top of this post, what you're looking at is a photo of the actual instruction booklet/pamphlet that comes packaged with game. Yes, people: that's it.

Attitude? Gone. Panache? Gone. Dream-inducing sentences? Long gone. Gone also are the photographs of bearded, glasses-wearing men and the addresses of game publishers. What remains is small-print legalese, a bunch of technical jargon, and don't-sue-us warnings about seizures. It's a sad, sad day, people.

I can no longer merely stand idly by and watch these instruction books waste away before my eyes. If

instruction books were terminally ill patients, this is the moment--right here, right now--when we'd be doing the right thing by pulling the plug.

Despite Larry Kaplan's tips and a great many hours of dedication on my part, I never did achieve the 10,000-point mark in Kaboom!. I never impressed the Mad Bomber. I never discovered how, once impressed, he would show his appreciation. I did, however, reach the 3,000 point threshold. I badgered my flatulent uncle into snapping a blurry picture of the TV with his camera. My mother mailed it off to Activision. I'm still waiting for a response.

12 April 2011

My Tokyo Massage

[A couple things before we get started here: 1. If you've been with me since the Crispy Gamer days, you're likely familiar with this story already. 2. Game writers have two core fantasies when they get into this business. One is to go to E3 in L.A. The second, somewhat more far fetched fantasy is to one day travel to Japan for the Tokyo Game Show. I've been fortunate enough to go to Tokyo--pre-devastation--three times for the show over the last few years. Each time, without fail, I returned to North America wondering if I really went to Japan or if I dreamed the whole wonderful, terrible, surreal episode. What follows is an account of one of those moments that, I am relatively certain, actually happened to me. Enjoy.]

While waiting for colleague John Teti to arrive in Tokyo for our Tokyo Game Show Adventure, I had a day all to myself in Shinjuku. I decided to sleep, eat, drink lots of water, read, monkey with my computer, play GeoDefense Swarm on the iPhone, and generally attempt to recover from the 10-plus cruel and unusual hours I spent yesterday folded into that coach seat on my JAL flight from Vancouver to Narita.

I'm single, as the entire world knows by now. Without a wife or a girlfriend to chase after me with her rolling pin or make me sleep on the couch tonight, I have no one to answer to these days. I can do what I want and not have to fuss over messy guilt or hurt feelings on the far side of it. That being the case, I believe it's a universal law that if you're single and your hotel room telephone has a button with the word MASSAGE embossed on it, one must press said button and see what happens.

So I pressed it. Ring. Riiiiinnnng.

A nice-sounding Japanese girl answered on the other end. Her English was terrible, but she understood what I was asking for. I wanted a one-hour massage. I have enjoyed my fair share of massages in my life, enough so that I'm no longer confused by the underwear-on-underwear-off question. (Answer: Always underwear-off.) I wrapped one of my room's postage-stamp sized towels around my naked waist, then put on the hotel's complimentary paper-thin robe which made my shoulders itch. I was fairly confident that this was an appropriate outfit for an in-room massage. I also cued up Leonard Cohen at a very low volume on my MacBook, as I imagine the silence during a massage could be rather oppressive.

Then I waited.

While waiting for the massage person to arrive, I attempted to calculate the sleaze factor involved here. According to the little card in my room, massages begin daily at noon; and the last massage is at 3:00 a.m. Who offers massages until 3 a.m.? That did seem a bit sleazy to me. I sat on the tiny bed, nervously looking at the clock--my massage-ist was due to arrive at 1 p.m.--and pacing in my paper robe. I thought, Maybe she will be a cute Japanese girl. She would scratch my back with her long finger nails and say things to me that I couldn't understand--I love the sound of Japanese being spoken, even though I don't understand a word of it--and maybe she would like me a little, and I would like her, and she wouldn't steal any of my valuables (I had put my PSP and my new camera in the in-room safe, just in case) and she would give me a chaste kiss at the end of my back-scratch/massage, and perhaps later on I would meet her out for some udon and sake. I have a very active imagination.

One o'clock, the doorbell rings (note: all hotel rooms in Tokyo have doorbells FYI). I open the door to find a 4-foot-tall, 55-year-old homunculous of a woman wearing a double-breasted white lab coat thing that makes her appear as if she'd only seconds earlier vacated her subterranean laboratory after shouting the words, "IT'S ALIVE." The woman speaks no English. None. I start to remove my robe. She panics. She blushes and turns away. She clearly wants me to keep my robe on. "OK, OK, I get it, robe on, yes, yes. Ha, ha." Suddenly, the Leonard Cohen song playing in the background--"I'm Your Man"--sounds impossibly suggestive. Understatement of the day: This is not going well.

I'm nervous. The woman is nervous. Nervousness, I realizes, is a universal language. She motions for me to lie down on the bed on my side, saying words to me in Japanese that I do not understand. I try to relax, try to breath. She is poking at me, hurrying from limb to limb, working quickly. It feels like obese squirrells are crawling over me.

In seven minutes, she is basically done with the entire massage. I imagine this is what it would probably be like to get a massage from my Accountant: rushed and mechanical and cold and somewhat resentful.

With 53 minutes remaining of our time together, she proceeds to repeat what she has already done a second time. And when she is done with that, she repeats it a third time. I try to breathe through it all--inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale--wondering if I should go ahead and ask her/motion for her to leave. But then parts of the seven-minute routine are actually kind of therapeutic, so I let her continue.

She then decides that she wants me to do something different, but because of the language barrier, she has no choice but to act out what she wants. She lies down next to me in my tiny hotel room bed, stomach down, head on the pillow. I notice that she has her shoes off at this point. She is wearing small, black socks.

I make an "Ah-ha!" sound, which I'm certain, like nervousness, must transcend all languages, and I get into the position she has demonstrated for me. She works her hands into hard little hammer shapes and begins pounding me on top of the head. She wails away. It hurts a little, but it also feels good. Then she uses her hammer hands to pound away at my back. Again, it hurts, but some of it feels good, maybe 10-percent of it, so I endure. I notice at this point that she has a smell about her--she smells like dried wax and cold hot dogs.

Then, with her shoes off, she begins to walk on my legs. She's surprisingly light. Her weight barely registers. I can't believe what is happening here, that I am in a tiny hotel room in Tokyo with a four foot-tall woman walking back and forth across my back. This is too much. It's like some sort of joke-y, inverted, surrealist version of Godzilla. I start to laugh a little as she walks on me, stomping back and forth, working her toes into my back. She stops walking and peers down at me. She pauses, apparently waiting for me to stop laughing. I stop laughing. Then she continues walking.

Once the time is mercifully up, she climbs down and puts on her shoes. It's hard to tell which one of the two of us is more relieved that this is over. Her breathing is labored. Her breath smells like medicine. I sign a slip of paper confirming that, yes, I have just received a one-hour massage for 6,300 yen (about $60).

After she's gone, I look into the bathroom mirror and start laughing again. Moral of the story: Just because your hotel room phone has a MASSAGE button does not mean that one should always press it. Also, if you haven't already, go to the Gamers Heart Japan website, watch the documentary, then make a donation. You'll be glad you did.

04 April 2011

The 100 Things That I Just Love List Is On Final Approach/Cleared for Landing

One especially gloomy January morning a few months back, on the ropes after the holiday season and vexed by the milk-gray skies above Vancouver, I decided on a whim to make a list of one hundred things--places, books, stories, games, albums, etc.--that I love in the world. (Because this blog is the equivalent of a New Jersey Turnpike filling station, here are links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the 100-Things posts.)

Now that it's over--you'll find entries 40 thru one below--I'm pronouncing my experiment an unmitigated success. Proof of said success: I'm smiling 60-percent more often these days. And, as you well know, I am not a natural smiler, not by a long shot. My face usually doesn't work this way. (Vic's face does. Mine doesn't.)

So exactly why did it work, and work so well? I think it had everything to do with the way that my "research" figured into my day to day life. Is the Spicy Miso Ramen at Motomachi on Denman Street list-worthy? I went back to the restaurant on a recent Sunday afternoon to find out. (Answer: It is.) Did Warren Zevon's "Tenderness on the Block" merit a place on the list? Well, I figured I'd best give it a few listens, to make sure. (Answer: It's great.) Does Chris Smith's American Movie hold up a decade after its release? Better dig out the DVD and give it a watch. (Answer: Sure does.) For three months straight, I was eating food that I loved, listening to music that I hadn't listened to in years, re-watching great films, re-playing great video games, re-reading great stories and novels--all in the name of cutting-pasting together my 100-Things list. Every entry on this list, I came to realize, taught me a little bit about the world, and more importantly, who I am in that world.

Though the list is officially complete now--I actually finished it late last week--I'm still discovering things on an almost daily basis that are probably deserving of spots. (Example: The three fights that Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti fought in 2002 and 2003.) (Example: David Foster Wallace's great Harper's article, Shipping Out.) Indeed, the 100-Things list seems to have achieved a kind of critical mass, and now appears to have an oddball gravity all its own, perpetually attracting even more positive thoughts and feelings (as well as novels, games, documentaries, etc.) in its direction.

Because a good part of my daily life as a writer and a critic involves consuming bad movies and bad games--some days, it honestly feels as if I have a sewer pipe connected to my face--that an experiencing, or rather a re-experiencing, of these quality entertainments--entertainments with soul, and depth; entertainments with intelligence and heart--not only worked to hose out my sullied palette; it also helped me to remember, a hundred times over, why ever I got involved in this whole damn writer-critic business in the first place.

Finally, to quote every character in Killzone 3 who says this particular phrase at least once in the game's final three-hour stretch: Let's finish this.

40. Rome, the HBO series, in its entirety.

39. The Advance Wars series on Game Boy and DS.

38. Danny Boyle's 2002 film 28 Days Later. Zombie greatness, rivaled only by [see: number six].

37. Sudoku puzzles. Which I loathe and love in equal parts.

36. Settling into a five hour-plus plane trip surrounded by an inexhaustible supply of games, books, and movies. Sometimes I honestly think, I hope this plane never lands...

35. "Random Rules" by Silver Jews, which features this opening line: "In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection..."

34. Jarhead, Anthony Swofford's terrific memoir about the Gulf War. Pair it with Tobia Wolff's In Pharoah's Army and voila, you've got a nice, war-y double-feature.

33. Tom Waits' "Postcard From a Hooker in Minneapolis."

32. Spielberg's 1981 movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was so completely knocked out by this movie that a few hours after seeing, I recounted it scene for scene and line for line from start to finish, to a neighbor kid. That remains the sole instance I've ever done that in my life. Also: What a complete dork I am.

31. Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

30. Tetris, any version. Recently started playing this on the DSi--Tetris Party Live, which you can pick up for about $5--and my come-on-long-skinny-one obsession began all over again.

29. "Going For The Gold" by Bright Eyes.

28. Pixeljunk Monsters, Dylan Cuthbert's masterpiece.

27. One Story, a Brooklyn-based magazine which publishes one short story every couple of weeks and sends it to you through snail mail. (Though, from what I understand, they now have an e-reader-friendly version, too.)

26. Alfonso Cuaron's great 2006 film, Children of Men.

25. The Mountain Goats' terrific song, "No Children." ("I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow/I hope it bleeds all day long.")

24. Sergio Leone's "Man With No Name" trilogy.

23. Valve's Half-Life series.

22. George Sprott 1894-1975 by the cartoonist Seth.

21. Capcom's Dead Rising series.

20. "You Don't Need" by Jane Siberry. One of the few songs that can always leave me kind of misty eyed by the end.

19. Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenross. "You see this watch? This watch costs more than your car."

18. id's Doom, which did two things to me: 1. It nearly made me fail out of graduate school, because I was playing it obsessively; 2. It was the first game that I would see on the insides of my eyelids when I'd go to sleep at night.

17. The Evil Dead Trilogy. Sam Raimi would go on to make many bland, large-scale entertainments, but this no- to low-budget trio of zombie movies are his finest--and B.C.'s finest--work.

16. The Devil May Cry series. Numbers two and four were awful, but one and three are two of my favorite games of all time. Thus, the DMC Rule: Even-numbered games are terrible; odd-numbered games are great.

15. When We Were Kings, Leon Gast's 1997 documentary about Ali and Foreman's 1974 bout in Zaire. Ali: "I'm young, I'm handsome, I'm fast, I'm pretty, I can't possibly be beat."

14. The first three quarters of Goodfellas. It sort of goes to hell in the home-stretch, but at that point, what has come before that was so good that I'm almost always in a forgiving mood.

13. Paul Verhoeven's masterpiece Starship Troopers.

12. Strange Brew (1983), a movie that introduced the word "hoser" to the U.S. public school that I attended.

11. Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. I saw this in a theater in Chicago with a girlfriend. She's no longer my girlfriend. And not because I took her to this movie. Well, maybe part of it is because I took her to this movie. (Sorry, Amy.)

10. Merle Haggard's "Misery and Gin," the single greatest song about self-pity ever written.

9. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I read it about once a year. It's great, and it makes me miss New York (and wish that I'd gone to a prep school), and it's proof that John Hinckley has good taste in books.

8. 2006's Casino Royale. I was in the middle of a life transition a few years back when I popped this DVD into my laptop late one night. I stayed up until dawn watching it. What a movie.

7. The Punch-Out!! series. Even as I type this, I can still hear the theme from the NES version. (Doooo-de-doot-doot-doo-doot/dooooo-dooooot/dooooooo-doooot, etc. etc.)

6. Dawn of the Dead, George Romero's 1978 masterpiece.

5. The fourth quarter of the New York Giants' win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII in 2008.

4. Let It Be, the 1984 album by The Replacements, in its entirety.

3. Egg sandwiches from any deli in New York.

2. Any Seinfeld re-run.

1. Mad Magazine. I'll let Robert Boyd speak for me, because I could not say this any better than he does: "[Mad Magazine] instilled in me a habit of mind, a way of thinking about a world rife with false fronts, small print, deceptive ads, booby traps, treacherous language, double standards, half truths, subliminal pitches and product placements; it warned me that I was often merely the target of people who claimed to be my friend; it prompted me to mistrust authority, to read between the lines, to take nothing at face value, to see patterns in the often shoddy construction of movies and TV shows; and it got me to think critically in a way that few actual humans charged with my care ever bothered to." [Well said, sir.]

Cue the medal ceremony music from Star Wars, as well as two, maybe three beatific smiles from Princess Leia.

Roll credits.