But the engrossing, soul-consuming world of computer gaming is the reason I’m taking forever to finish the multi-part series of blog entries I foolishly promised last month. In order to finish that series, there’s lots of stuff I have to read first, and who has time for reading boring old books when I can be crafting mods for my .308 combat rifle with the calibrated receiver, recoil compensated stock and reflex sight (nicknamed “Thunder”) or my laser rifle with the maximized capacitor, full stock, and beam focuser (“Lightning”)?
Or I can be magnanimously providing clean water options for tiny, post-apocalyptic survivor communities, or accepting assassination contracts on chem dealers preying on the inner cities, or protecting the settlers at Oberland Station from an onslaught of green-skinned Super Mutants and nefarious Raiders.
I should add that I also have a .50 sniper rifle with a night scope, a souped-up .10 mm pistol (“Cobra”), a .44 revolver that fires two projectiles with a single trigger pull (“Double-Down”), and a short-barreled, close-range shotgun that adds 10% plasma pulse damage with every hit (“Barker”). I can also build picket fences, practice taxidermy on horribly mutated wildlife, and select tasteful artwork for settlement walls, among a thousand other options.
Yes, I am three weeks in to Fallout 4 (level 40 as of this writing), and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the incredibly intense, rich world the good folks over at Bethesda Softworks have concocted to gobble up every second of my free time. My formerly rewarding career is now merely the 8 hours a day in between Fallout 4 sessions. Family? One son is leaving soon for college, and the other is a sophomore in high school who spends most of his time in his room with the door firmly closed. My beautiful wife has her own obsessions (she is a chronic Candy Crusher and binge-watcher of various Netflix shows), so she doesn’t begrudge me mine. Books go unread on the end table (including the ones needed to complete the blog series). My TiVo has been on the fritz for almost two months, recording nothing, and I’ve barely noticed.
Funny thing is, I have had far less experience with video games than most people of my generation. For large chunks of my life, I’ve had no interest in video games whatsoever. But it’s been a long, multi-decade dance of seduction. Video games and I would flirt, move closer for awhile, then split apart for months or years, until I was drawn in again, and the process would repeat itself.
Us Gen Xers were at the forefront of home gaming systems, not counting the archaic, late-70s Pong. (Pong was what Mom & Dad and older sister idly played in the downtime between our Kraft mac & cheese dinner and the latest episode of Alice.)
Like many others my age, I navigated Pitfall Harry over crocodile-infested ponds, and guided a weird, square-ish Pac Man around his maze, devouring dots with a loud “bonk”ing sound completely unlike the arcade version. This was 1983, or the “Summer of the Atari 2600.”
I even had the infamous E.T. game, which we picked up for a dollar at a garage sale. Its reputation is well-deserved.
After the appeal of maneuvering indistinct blobs of pixels randomly around my TV wore off, video games and I parted ways for a long time.
The original, iconic Nintendo Entertainment System hit store shelves when I was about eleven or twelve, and I suppose I could have had one if I wanted one, but I couldn’t care less. I thought of myself as above it all. I was reading Tolkein and Asimov and Vonnegut. I was an intellectual. Literally every single one of my friends had it, though, and I was often cajoled into joining them in a rousing round of Duck Hunt, silently seething every time that idiot dog giggled at me for missing both ducks. My eye-hand coordination was never (and still isn’t) anything to write home about, which is why I took no interest in sports, either. I just consoled myself with John Irving novels and the knowledge that I was superior.
Except I wasn’t. I soon discovered some deeply-buried pleasure center in my brain stem was tickled by Tetris, which I played at a girlfriend’s house until falling blocks and 8-bit versions of Russian classical music played in my head as I was trying to fall asleep hours later.
At a later girlfriend’s house (I was a senior in high school by this time), I discovered her younger sister (a sophomore) had an NES in her room. Big deal, right? You bet it was a big deal — I discovered this obscure little title called Super Mario Brothers, and it was all I wanted to do. I spent a wildly inappropriate amount of time in my girlfriend’s sister’s bedroom.
The girlfriend was understandably concerned, and asked me a number of pointed, suspicious questions. But the fact that I only had eyes for bricks, mushrooms, turtles, and Italian plumbers emanated from every fiber of my being. She correctly concluded the situation was harmless, and the obsession would pass.
Flash forward a year or so. The same girlfriend was now working a full-time job. I was bopping around community college and working part-time at a video store — that also rented video games. This was the early 1990s — the grand era of Super Nintendo vs. Sega Genesis. The girlfriend still lived with her parents and had nothing to spend her relatively massive paycheck on, so she bought me one of the new Super Nintendo systems, which we used to play one game and one game only — Super Mario Kart. (“Press ‘B’ To Start.”)
This is where my lack of true video game interest rears its head again. I had free and total access to my store’s massive stock of rental games. I touched almost none of them. I did not care for any of the sports games. No NHL ‘94 or Madden NFL for me. I thought the super popular “fighting” games were especially ludicrous — the various Mortal Kombats and Street Fighters could all be thrown in the river as far as I was concerned. The early quest-based fantasy RPG games like Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past were just too visually primitive to hold my interest. I was anti-Sega for very good reasons that I have long since forgotten, so Sonic the Hedgehog remained a stranger.
The few times I did bring home a game from work, my choices were idiosyncratic, and kind of lame. I greatly enjoyed the Old West side-scrolling shooter Sunset Riders, the Looney Tunes-themed Daffy Duck: The Marvin Missions, featuring Daffy in his “Duck Dodgers” persona, and the game that was essentially just a commercial for 7-Up, Cool Spot, where you attempted to maneuver the shades-wearing “Spot” character from the TV ads of the era around various obstacles.
And all of them were a dead-end to me past the second or third level. The hand-eye thing, remember? (I would die in the first three minutes of Lock On, guaranteed.) Video games exited my life when I left the video store. The SNES gathered dust on a forgotten shelf (as did that girlfriend — I wonder where she is now…)
And then came DOOM, the computer gaming phenomenon that put the term “first-person shooter” into the national lexicon. Even I wasn’t immune to its blood-splattered charms. My college roommate had several shareware copies, and I played it into the early morning hours for weeks, with Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York and/or R.E.M.’s Monster playing on an endless loop in the background. Its repetitiveness soon tested my limited attention span, so I was on the outs with video games yet again.
When my friends started getting the Nintendo 64 around 1997 or so, I found a new way to enjoy video games: as a spectator. And these friends were not the apple-cheeked schoolmates of yore. No, me and my peer group were now technically adults — adults with cheap apartments and student loan payments, and just enough disposable income to buy video games, even if we had to sit on lawn furniture to play them. Gaming sessions were a social occasion. I greatly enjoyed sitting on a sagging, curb-giveaway couch, drinking a brown-bagged 40, passively watching these guys play another universally-loved first-person shooter, GoldenEye, and listening to them shit-talk each other in obscenely creative ways. The cheapest evening’s (or afternoon’s, or late morning’s) entertainment ever. $1.99 for a Mickey’s from the Quick Stop on the corner, combined with some bacon-and-cheddar potato wedges from Jack-in-the-Box on the opposite corner, and you’ve got a full stomach and a decent buzz for about five bucks! I never laid hands on a Nintendo 64 controller, except to every so often get totally dusted by everyone at the re-vamped version of Mario Kart. (I never mastered the power skid, and the Mickey’s did not help the hand-eye thing.)
The new millennium…by the fall of 2000, I was working full-time as a teacher’s aide and “permanent substitute” at a small private school — not much, but a foot in the door. My too-early first marriage was already failing two years in, and we separated. I took solace in a game I observed the students playing during the after-school hours in the computer lab — the dark fantasy dungeon-crawler Diablo II. I watched them maneuver their Rogues and Warriors around rain-swept moors, and thought this is for me. The aerial third-person view with the point-and-click (“hack-and-slash”) interface was simple, the exploration and loot-collecting were addictive, and computer game graphics had finally caught up to my imagination.
I bought both Diablo and Diablo II, and those were my only gaming experiences, off and on, over the next five or six years. The combination of Diablo and a cup filled with one part vodka and two parts Sunkist orange soda got me through many rough nights. The first wife and I reconciled, split, reconciled again, split again. I went back to school (online), finished my credential, and became a for-reals teacher. I would still occasionally slip into the world of Diablo, until continual Windows updates made my computer no longer compatible. I actually beat Diablo. I never beat Diablo II.
Then came divorce, and single parenthood…I checked out of the gaming world, for good, I assumed. My kids grew older and worked their way up to the Nintendo Game Cube, which they still say is the best gaming platform ever — it’s one of the few things they agree on. Game Cube, The Beatles, and Kevin Durant are the common ground for them. They’ve also had a (used) PlayStation and a Wii.
I touched none of them.
I was finally lured back into gaming by the Elder Scrolls series. Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim came out in the fall of 2011, but I decided to go for the previous game, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which was noticeably cheaper at that point. I continued on to Skyrim the next year. I assumed the Elder Scrolls thing was a one-off (or two-off) fluke, and I was almost right. Even though I played them via the CD-ROM, a Steam account was required to make them run. So I got a Steam account…
… and I realized there was a whole realm of immersive, open-world “sandbox” role-playing games that suited me perfectly.
I could slide the difficulty level to “Very Easy,” which eliminated my whole hand-eye disadvantage, and allowed me to explore the game’s world to my heart’s content, without having to worry about getting slaughtered every time I turned a corner. (And screw you, Assassin’s Creed series, for not having this option.)
I played through the full Mass Effect trilogy, and was depressed for an embarrassingly long amount of time when I finished it. Spoiler alert: There is no “good” ending to the Mass Effect trilogy, only various sad and shitty endings. The little party you have with your shipmates in your apartment before you all go off to possibly die is one of the grimmest gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
My kids got an Xbox One a few Christmases ago, and as usual I paid it no attention until I stumbled across Halo: The Master Chief Collection for a ridiculously low sale price on Amazon one day. I decided to try to master the intricacies of the Xbox One.
And it’s around this time that I can thank (blame?) Conan O’Brien’s regular feature “Clueless Gamer” for causing me to spend hundreds of dollars on games I may not have cared about otherwise. Seeing them extensively and lovingly demoed by a guy who wasn’t very good at them was like catnip to me, and I scrambled to hit the “Purchase Now” button on Grand Theft Auto V, Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and several others.
And — except for Halo — I couldn’t really play them. The Xbox One controller has, like, seventy-five buttons and levers and triggers, with multi-colored Xs and Os and triangles and rhombuses. I was a fumbling mess. I missed my three-button mouse and my WASD movements. But my computer just didn’t have the horsepower for the level of beautifully-rendered, graphics-heavy games that I wanted to play. Anything beyond the level of Rage or Dishonored, my little Dell couldn’t really handle.
So I decided to build a Hardcore Gaming Rig. I talked about it for months. It may have just been all talk, but my wife’s family surprised me with a custom-built one last Christmas (thanks mostly to my engineering-whiz brother-in-law.) It has a graphics card the size of a cinder block. Seven — count ‘em, seven — cooling fans whir away inside. Its jet-black, massive tower case makes it look like something from the Death Star, and it’s attached to a twenty-four inch monitor. Game on.
I spent a couple of months playing through The Witcher trilogy. (Highly recommended.)
Then it was on to playing through Far Cry 3 and Just Cause 2 (the sequels to both are already in my Steam library).
(Every so often, I get a cruel trick played on me. I see a commercial for a game that looks jaw-droppingly amazing, like Titanfall, or Destiny, or the new version of Star Wars: Battlefront. Then my heart is broken when I realize it’s a [*gag*] multi-player game. What is the point of that? I play games to shut out the world, not deal with a bunch of online jackasses. And I’m still bitter that the open-world Western, Red Dead Redemption, which I know I would love, was only ever released on the now-obsolete Xbox 360)
Then I tried Fallout 3 — it did not get along with Windows 10. Then I tried Fallout: New Vegas. It was a glitchy, buggy mess. What the shit, Bethesda?
Finally, I went ahead with Fallout 4 (which I had intended on saving until the holidays), and all was forgiven. So I ended up where I am now. Unable to read a book or finish a blog series for who knows how long.
The dance is finally over. I have succumbed.
A word of advice? Don’t fuck with me when I’m packing “Thunder” and the difficulty is set to Very Easy.