People always ask me what I do. I guess I look like the kind of guy who you'd be curious what I do. I'm pretty sure that this isn't a desire I project on purpose. I "ended up" this way.
If I were wearing an Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirt (after years of "Abercrombie" being the one to get his name on the shirt, now it's just "Fitch"), a baseball cap, some cargo shorts, and a pair of white socks under Birketstocks, you wouldn't ask me what I do. You'd probably have the basic idea just from a glance.
Usually, people ask me what I do because they mistake me for a high-leveled child, realize their error, and then decide that any person who could manage to look like a confused high school student while actually being thirty-one years old probably has some fantastic excuse-like method of keeping himself alive financially.
I don't know how I usually refrain from telling people I'm a "freelance writer." It's such a simple explanation, and it moves the (usually unnecessary) conversation on to the next subject (whether or not I have any drugs to share, for example). Every time I've used the freelance writer explanation, it's moved the conversation along, yanking the steering wheel right toward the nearest brick wall.
A question about your profession normally means the conversation had graduated beyond the "who are you" (or, "where are you from?") phase, and right straight into getting to know each other. The typical passer-by in this world we call life is — I've discovered — usually a con-artist of some sort, and they know brevity is the soul of wit, so they only ask one getting to know you question before opening the con. I had a guy use a Spanish Prisoner on me the other day. That's my favorite con! (And "The Spanish Prisoner" is one of my favorite films.)
He asked me how old I was, what I did for a living, and then if I liked to party. (For the uninitiated, when a stranger asks you if you like to party, it means he wants to know if you smoke marijuana.) He told me I was really cool and that he was in town for a week with a bunch of friends of his who worked with a catering company. He told her that one of the girls, who was, like, one of his best friends, would absolutely love me. I was just her type. Anyway, she'd just sent him out to score some weed, and man — he was ten dollars short.
"If you give me ten dollars I will take you with me right down the street and we will buy the weed together — you'll even see that it's real weed, like, I'm not just trying to rip you off or con you or anything." I said all I had was a credit card. He told me there was an ATM. Somehow I wrangled the conversation around, for my own amusement, and got him to write down my email address.
"Go into your hotel and give this to the girl right now. Tell her to add me on Facebook. If I get a Facebook friend request within the next twenty minutes, I will come down here and give you fifty dollars." He took the piece of paper, flipped it over like it was a leaf from some imaginary tree suddenly willed into real existence, and slipped it into his pocket. I could see the wheels turning: maybe there was some way to get fifty dollars out of me. Could he make a fake Facebook profile? Could he get one of his Facebook friends to go along with the scheme — just, get her to post on her wall that she was in a hotel in Hawaii? Eventually, he gave up thinking — and the friend request would never come — and asked me, out right, "Man, do you have any weed on you? Like, you want to go smoke some?" I told him I didn't have any weed that I knew of, unless someone had slipped some into my pockets as a practical joke. "So, are you, like, gay, or straight, or bisexual, or what? How long are you in town?" I told him I was or what, and that I didn't know how long I was in town. This guy was built like a bowling pin and had a voice like Mike Tyson. He was wearing the most comically oversized LeBron James jersey — I was wearing a vintage Charles Barkley — and he was very obviously island-born and raised.
Clue number one about how I knew this guy was attempting to con me: When he asked what I do for a living, I told him I was a "game designer." He didn't skip a beat before bringing up the subject of weed, and the girl he'd introduce to me if I could help him get some for her.
What I'm saying is, when you tell people you're a game designer, if they are the least bit interested in talking to you, they're going to ask you what, exactly, the hell a game designer is.
(Challenge for game designers in the audience: try to design a game where you play the part of a low-rent street con-artist, trying to skeeze ten dollars off passers-by. Dream up a conversation system that, unlike that of Mass Effect or Oblivion, is actually more fun than fighting or killing the person.)
When an attractive female asks me what I do, I almost always tell them I'm a freelance writer. The follow-up question is invariably, "What sorts of things do you write about?" The answer I give is some variant on "this and that." Maybe twice I've said, "A little bit of this, a little bit of that." Sometimes I get an "Anything I might have read?" Pick-up artists (a club to which I do not belong) will tell you that conversation with females is a game, and that a third question from a female on the same subject normally means the girl possesses some perhaps-subconscious desire to have sexual intercourse with you. I know these rules because I read a lot of books on various subjects, from life in Russian prison camps to picking up girls. All of the books not about life in Russian prison camps say that you should find a way to turn the conversation about yourself into a conversation about her at this point, to massage her desire to talk to you more, which will basically amount to her massaging her own desire to sleep with you.
Maybe because I know these rules and it makes me sad, sometimes, to turn conversation into a "game", I sabotage the conversation. I steer it right off a bridge. I say something like, "If you had read anything I'd ever written, that would mean you are a terrible human being, and my mom probably wouldn't want me to be talking to you." Just like that episode of "Seinfeld" where George decides to do the exact opposite of his every instinct, and ends up finding terrific success, however, this turns out to also be a pickup technique. It's "self-deprecation" and it works on "some ladies." I find the whole pickup "game" thing pretty screwy. Basically, what they're saying is that any guy has a shot with some girl out there, somewhere. They tell you to play the percentages.
This is how you end up with hundreds of guys on Kuhio Avenue in Waikiki, Honolulu, Hawaii, seven nights a week, from two hours before the bars close to two hours after, yelling the most terrifying things at every girl who walks by. At midnight, they strike up conversations, they like what girls are wearing, they're deeply concerned about girls walking around in this part of town alone at night; at four in the morning, near-fatally inebriated, they quite tiredly exclaim to a passing girl that they wish she would get hit by a bus.
Oh; as I mentioned a few paragraphs up, I am in Hawaii now. Hello from Hawaii! For the time being, this is where I am going to be instead of Japan. I mean, why not? How I ended up in Hawaii, who knows? The point is that I'm here now. I'm making the most of it. Let me tell you, there is a lot of the most to be made of Hawaii. What is going to happen if I end up just, like, living in Hawaii? Like, how does that happen — how do you go from being somewhere to living there? That's one of those fine-line situations that might be an integral part of what I'm about to write, or it might not be. Hawaii is more or less what I want to talk about today, though I may in fact be talking about a lot of other things.
Here in Hawaii, it's easy to meet people. When you meet a friendly new chatty person in Hawaii, chances are that, like many people here, they aren't from around here. Nearly everyone is a tourist. Tourists are people who, for better or for worse, are escaping from their everyday life. "Not talking to people you meet on the street" might be an integral part of that everyday life. (It sure as hell is part of mine.) It's funny that two people from New York City — where I think "Always Look Down" is the tourism slogan this year — might meet on the street in Honolulu and be best friends immediately.
Lately, I've been making an uncontrolled effort to be more direct with people in superfluous conversation. I'm doing this in the interest of — if I had to conjure a reason off the top of my head — better and more sincerely acquainting myself with the finer workings of the modern world, so as to grow into a more personable CEO. Part of this effort requires me to tell people that I am a "game designer," not a "freelance writer." I'm not a "freelance writer," no matter how many zeroes — three — are on the end of the number representing how much money freelance writer has paid me over the last decade. (Note that the preceding sentence doesn't rule out the possibility of my having made literally billions of dollars from freelance writing.) I pound my fingers against the keyboard, and somehow tens of thousands of people see this. Hey!
Hawaii is weird. It's an idealized slice of world. You could say it's a fantasyland, like something made up for a movie. I used to live in the largest sex district in Tokyo, the Yoshiwara. Whenever I told people about it, they would literally say, "Oh, wait, that place isn't real." For the longest time, I felt the same way whenever someone said they'd been in Hawaii. Hawaii is definitely a country set firmly into the Romantic Comedy genre.
You know who writes romantic comedies, by the way? You guessed it — guys just like me. When you get right down to it, writing a romantic comedy film is about the same thing as designing a game. In "When Harry Met Sally" or "Sleepless in Seattle," you have two people meeting each other, overcoming some kind of hardship, and eventually, at the end, presumably staying together forever. Maybe they get married. Instead of a male lead and a female lead, a video game is about a player and a game (a computer-imagined video contest with stimulating frictions). Rather than necessarily unfolding as a joyful exercise with labyrinthine twits and turns that arrive at a conclusion regarding everlasting love, a game is designed to keep the player playing, and possibly to keep the player playing forever. Games like Pac-Man, or pinball, are pretty direct about this. I'm going to stop talking about this for a minute, though. If we're lucky, we'll end up back at this point at the very bottom of this essay-like thing.
So, guys like me are the people who write romantic comedies. For as long as I can remember talking to girls, I have been told that I am "not like other guys." In college, this doesn't always mean intercourse. It can means weeks, months, or possibly years of frustration. Sometimes, life throws you a lesbian who tells you you're "not like other guys," by which she means she wants to have sex with you; other times, you're in Hawaii, in Denny's, tired, at four in the morning, and a girl in a miniskirt and six-inch heels walks in, mascara reaching out and touching her lips, sits in a booth across from you as you're reading a book and drinking coffee, and within ten minutes it's like you're her gay roommate, all of a sudden.
More generally, I'm saying that people in Hawaii are relatively easily impressed with people who aren't precisely like other people. I'm wearing a pair of purple Adidas Originals basketball shorts, a gray tank top, and a white dress shirt. I have this Swedish schoolgirl hair and these cartoon-character glasses. I guess I look nothing like the bros wandering the streets, screaming and violent even with each other. I look like someone you might stop to talk to, if you're here. I've had conversations with old tourist couples, with Japanese businessmen, with bros, with Hawaiian natives, with professional surfers, and with girls who really feel like idiots for having gone into that club. In the last seven days, I've told maybe sixty people that I am a "game designer" by trade, and not a single one of them had any idea what a game designer is, or what a game designer might do. This has been a fascinating exercise in polishing my pitch.
FOURTEEN YEARS AGO
Long before I found myself in Hawaii, and six months or so after I decided to end my life as an overweight mute and instead start working out and talking to people, there I was, reasonably attractive (if not quite like other guys) and talking to people. My goal hadn't been to just talk to people — it had been to talk to girls. I was Of Age, and biology was A Thing. Films such as "The Graduate" had taught me that some ladies like guys who are not like other guys. I wanted to find me one of those ladies. It proved difficult. So I expended a great deal of energy in the name of blending in with other guys. I wore cargo shorts. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I had cruised through high-school as a misanthropic, perpetually flanneled Jesus Lizard listener, and in the name of getting laid I was shopping at Old Navy and listening to the radio. I had a job at a Target store. I was the guy who pushed carts in from the lot. Man, that got me pretty ripped. So many hot girls worked at that store. A lot of them were Russian. A lot of them were blonde. If you made a Venn diagram showing the distribution of blondes and Russians, you'd have a healthy overlap.
I liked this one girl who went to a Catholic school in the area. I really wanted to bone her! I never did, of course, or else I wouldn't be talking about her, because of her being a Catholic and all. I could go on about this all day, though in the interest of moving right along, I'll say that Target gave us a ten-percent discount, which I used, and often, in conjunction with price matches from Best Buy advertisements to obtain Previously Unheard of Low Low Prices on video games.
Where I'm going with this is: I would time my video game purchases so that I was never buying a new game on a day when this girl was working. I just didn't want her to see me carrying a game. I figured that, if she did, she'd just melt on the spot, like the Wicked Witch of the West. I guess that was the kind of girl I was attracted to: she looked something like a young Disney villain in training. If you painted her green and pulled her nose really hard, she definitely would have turned right the hell into a witch. I'm not even making that up. The sight of a video game would have melted her.
Why did I think that?
It might have had something to do with the environment in which, until then, I had experienced video games. My dad was a US Army guy; he'd never explained what his job had entailed, though it probably wasn't very interesting. He did a lot of work with computers. Like many other people out there's dads, he had supplied a gold-mine of those hilarious statements about computers that survive even now — you know, about how you'd never need more than a 256 megabyte hard drive, or what have you. The one time I saw an office where my dad had been working, it was in a building that used to be a military hospital. His office was a former X-ray room, lead-lined and, as he put it, impervious to enemy attempts at intelligence. I am pretty sure that nothing he was doing in there was anything that, say, the communists would have literally killed to get their hands on; it was a cute coincidence, nonetheless.
At home — and when I say "at home," I mean "in one of the many homes that we lived in as we flip-flopped around the country three or four times a year" — my dad made every subconscious attempt to hide the technology from prying enemy eyes, as well. Wherever we were living, the personal computer would wind up in the dingiest, invisiblest part of the house. We were living in Fort Meade, Maryland in 1992 when my dad finally decided that maybe his earlier claim about it being literally impossible that anyone would ever need a color VGA monitor was wrong. That doesn't mean he bought one right away — it just means he was considering it. This was in the day before Best Buy, or Circuit City, and definitely before Frys. I mean, maybe those places existed, though I sure had never seen one. Every time I'd ever scored a videogame, it had been from a toy store, or from a retailer like Target, where they kept them locked up in a glass case; if your mom was buying the game for you, and she was doing other shopping, you'd have to get some guy in the back to open the glass case and then escort the game to the front registers. You mom would then inform the cashier, "We've got a, uhh, video game up here somewhere." Where things like computers or computer monitors came from, the twelve-year-old version of me had no idea. In Fort Meade, the computer was in a room that I think was supposed to be some kind of walk-in kitchen cupboard. The ceiling was so low my dad had to crouch down just to sit at the computer. Why he had a computer at home, I don't know. He barely ever touched it. I guess he got his fill of computer-touching at work every day. He'd sometimes let me and my big brother play with it, though only if we really wanted to. It was kind of hard to want to, because the surroundings were always so uninviting. Eventually, we had a color monitor, and my dad installed a game that a work buddy had given to him. The game was called Scorched Earth.
Few games had as big an impact on me as Scorched Earth. To be honest, I don't know why I've never written about it. You might have played it before: You're a little tank who, for some reason, can't move. When my brother called the player character a "tank that can't move," my dad corrected him, saying it's a turret. Your turret is positioned somewhere in the middle of some randomly generated terrain, usually consisting of rough and jagged mountains and valleys. All around the landscape are other turrets. You're going to spend the entire round trying to kill all of the other guys before they can kill you. When it's your turn, you use the arrow keys to aim your cannon left or right. Then you fire an artillery shell into the air. You have to be very careful how much power you put behind the shot. And never fire straight up. Your shells sail into the air, and then downward in a beautiful arc. If it lands on an enemy turret, he's dead. If it lands on terrain, it leaves a crater. You die if an enemy scores a direct hit on your turret, or if various enemies score enough direct hits on the terrain surrounding your turret to send it tumbling down a height significant enough to destroy it.
When we started playing it, we didn't know the game had sound effects. We didn't even realize how old the game was. We'd played dozens of thoughtful, weird, delightful Japanese games on both Nintendo and Super Nintendo, at that point. We'd been all the way through Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II. And Scorched Earth still managed to amaze us. Maybe it was because we'd gotten the game literally for free. We honed our technique. We would sit in that little room for hours. Sometimes, my brother would be in there alone; sometimes, I'd be in there alone, devising strategies. After a while, that dingy little room full of manila envelopes, three-ring binders, and certificates congratulating my dad for quitting smoking came to feel about as cool for a couple of kids as that lead-lined ex-X-ray-room-office must have felt for a full-grown lieutenant colonel with a maybe-mundane job in the US Army.
In Wichita, Kansas, our Nintendo Entertainment System had shared a corner of the basement with our dad's duct-taped-up weight bench and most-often-sheathed power tools. In Indianapolis, Indiana, which is where we were when the Internet came to life, the computer monitor directly faced the little windowpane of the door leading into the garage. It shared this corner of the house with the washer, dryer, and cat litter box. I always thought it seemed weird to have your cat litter so close to your washer and dryer. Fabric softener and cat feces is an unforgettable blend of odors.
My brother wasn't into games anymore, at this point. He was more into martial arts. He was becoming a real hardass. Now he's a jeet kune do master. Man, what is up with that? In addition to Scorched Earth, Streets of Rage, Ninja Gaiden, and Secret of Mana, my brother had also grown up developing a fine taste in kung-fu films. Like me, he followed his childish obsessive dreams straight into the only logical — if unthinkable for most mortals — conclusion: he became a kung-fu master, and I became a video game designer. He's married, and has three children, and I guess he's happy with that, though I reckon he could have a lot more luck getting girls using his profession as a pick-up line than I could.
My other obsessions at the time the Internet (then still capitalized) arrived in our house included Doctor Who, James Bond — any long-running British middle-class pop-culture hero played by different actors over many decades, really — and golf. I loved to watch golf, and read about golf in my dad's magazines. Around the time the Internet arrived, in the form of some BBS, our computer was just barely powerful enough to run Wolfenstein 3D, so DooM and its sequel were out of the question. I rented lots of Super Nintendo and Genesis games, though my taste had mostly solidified. I was a person who played Solar Jetman, Landstalker, Scorched Earth, and Choplifter. I liked games about vehicles, or games where the main character moved in an obtuse manner that frustrated a great percentage of players. Games like Rock and Roll Racing almost gave me a happy heart attack. I must have poured two hundred hours into Lost Vikings and Blackthorne (aside: did you notice I just named three Blizzard games?)
When the first Resident Evil game arrived, I almost died of joy: someone had made a game where the main character controlled like a vehicle. Maybe this says something about my personality: I like to see a vehicle on the screen, and imagine that I'm in the vehicle. I especially like it when a game genre exists for a long time with a person traditionally in the lead role, and then someone goes and makes a game where it's a vehicle who controls just like a person ought to. Blaster Master, for example: you've got a tank which jumps, like a person would jump, if a person was the main character of the game. Eventually, I'd have Cybernator and Metal Warriors for the Super Nintendo. I knew what I liked.
I almost always fell back on Solar Jetman and Scorched Earth. The Internet had come into our home, sat down, and made loud sighing sounds for maybe three whole months before my dad showed me how to connect to the BBS and start reading whatever inane things people talk about on there. He told me to be careful, because he was pretty sure that some sick people would be out there asking for credit card numbers. I wasn't a kid, at this point. God, I don't think I've been a kid since, like, age eight. Thinking back on it, it's kind of funny. Long before the stereotype of sex offenders trolling the internet for fresh victims, long before you could even download a single photograph of anything in less than maybe sixty tries (you had to want it so bad), people only needed to hear the basic idea of the internet, and think, "I bet someone could use this for something terrible, though I am just not sure what". I think about these people, and then I think about the people who started immediately buying up dot-coms. Walmart dot com, Target dot com, CNN dot com, whatever. Those people are pretty rich by now. How did they see that coming? I was a terrifyingly intelligent enough kid at age fifteen to be considered borderline retarded by health care professionals. Why didn't I see the fortune to be made in buying up domains? For that matter, why didn't I predict Farmville? Well. I did, actually, though I'm through telling people about that, and about how the company I pitched a similar idea to politely told me to go noodle myself. I'm through saying that — and through saying that I invented Digg.com way before the guy who invented Digg.com invented Digg.com, because you can only say things like that so many times before people start thinking you're full of shit, even if you're not. Saying things like that is, after all, just talk. Why didn't I ever act on these ideas which then saw people who are possibly bigger jerks than me making literally billions of dollars?
Shortly after accessing the internet, I invented World of Warcraft. I had it all laid out in my head. It was this perfect thing. It would be a huge world you could wander. You could talk to people. You could form alliances. You could be a shopkeeper or an innkeeper. You could be an elf or a dwarf or a human. You could have a sword or an axe or a spear. You could ride horses, or unicorns, if you're feeling juicy (as I always am). Maybe you could ride a dragon. Man, who the hell cares! You could ride whatever you want. You could go out killing monsters, or you could just chill in town. This game would have really awesome graphics — about as awesome as Faxanadu and Battle of Olympus for the NES — and you'd be playing it probably for the rest of your life.
Basically, I invented World of Warcraft by imagining how much money Legend of the Red Dragon (LORD, for short) would make if it had some graphics.
I loved LORD. Did anybody out there ever play it? It was a text-based BBS game. You were a warrior. You wandered around killing monsters. If you died, you'd have to wait until the next day to play again. You could talk to other players. You could give them gifts. You could have sex with them! Oh god. This is embarrassing — there was this female player. I still remember her handle. It was "Ozzlyn." She and I traded gifts every day. I always thought, "Maybe I should send her a request to have sex." She would have done it, I bet. When you have sex with another player, it gets posted on the local message board. "[Dude's name] had sex with [girl's name]." Well, you could be gay or lesbian, if you wanted. It was a pretty progressive game. It was pretty stupid, and light-hearted, and with a wacky sense of humor. You could also have sex with NPCs. The female bartender's name was Violet. I tried to have sex with her about ten times, and she kept turning me down. One day, she stopped turning me down. Every day after that, the public heard tell of me and Violet having sex. Ozzlyn then stopped sending me gifts. I thought that was funny. Maybe she was jealous that I had pretended to have computer sex with a computer person controlled by a computer instead of pretending to have computer sex with a computer person controlled by a real person.
So, here I was, an early teenager, thinking Very Seriously about videogames. Up until then, my main experience with games had been very intimate and maybe weird; I had played games that "required" me to lock myself into an unpleasant room and play them, and learn everything about them, until they made me feel cold in the pit of my stomach, and goosepimply. Uncovering all of the psychotically hidden secrets in Landstalker had just about torn me in half. It felt weird and wrong to obsess over games the way I did. At times, it felt like my only hobby. During many of those times when it felt like my only hobby, it felt about as claustrophobic as jerking off.
My older brother had a golf-obsessed friend around the time I started fooling around with an imaginary bartender on the internet. This guy was also a baseball fan, and also had devoted a large portion of his brain to remembering the weekly status of the Billboard top forty charts from their inception to just this last week. I wonder if he ever defragmented that part of his brain. I wonder if the government sent him a tax return for that. He's apparently a lawyer now. He was a big fan of EA's PGA Tour Golf games, back when being a fan of a golf video game was a lot easier if you weren't a fan of video games at all. It was a lot of work to like a game like that. 3D wasn't really happening back then, and it was obvious even to the non-technophile that the screen was just completely redrawing itself every time you pressed a direction key either left or right to line up your shot. I tried hard to like those games. I enjoyed them partially because of how much fun we had making fun of them. We made custom golfers with stupid names. My guy's name was "B. Cheeser." Every time I nailed a great drive and watched it charge toward the green, I thought to myself: I'm old enough to drive a car, now. I should be driving real golf balls in my spare time, all the time. Me and my brother's friend kind of became friends ourselves, and we started playing real life golf. We were just a couple of kids — him a year older than me — and neither of us really knew what we were doing. Eventually, though, we did. I kind of gave up on the golf games after I started to play golf for real.
My game taste then was cyclical. I would have a phase of something like PGA Tour Golf, and then I would go back to Scorched Earth, Choplifter, and Solar Jetman. This might have had something to do with the frictions of the games. They had physics; they felt great. They felt like really something. LORD was something I looked at every now and again for a chuckle. My character charged forward in the name of getting more experience, as real-world me charged forward in the name of being able to hit a golf ball in a straight line. This is around when — in 1996 — I invented Farmville.
I played Super Mario 64, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider. I went back to Scorched Earth and Solar Jetman. A new PGA Tour Golf came out, for the PlayStation. I gave it a shot. My brother's friend Zach — now mostly my friend, since my brother was away at college — and I were playing a game of Scorched Earth shortly after losing interest in PGA Tour and popping in MLB Triple Play and losing interest in that, too. Halfway through our game, I thought of checking my LORD character, and that's the moment when, nonchalantly, I became a genuine game designer.
I wasn't able to pinpoint this moment until just five days ago, at the Apple Store near Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Wow, now I've gotten ahead of myself on, like, six different anecdotes. Well, maybe more than six. I started counting, ran out of fingers, and didn't want to take the other hand off the keyboard. There's actually a specific statistics term for the kind of estimate I made. I don't remember what it is, because I decided to not go for that statistics PhD, or any of those other PhDs, after all.
Here's how I designed a game: We were playing Scorched Earth, a game about lobbing mortar shells into the air from static locations following careful consideration of the shells' speed and trajectory with an intent on colliding the shells with enemy emplacements or terrain which would either disadvantage or kill enemies if destroyed or altered. It was a game in which calculus was arranged in a manner anyone could enjoy. While playing this game for the five quillionth time, I was thinking about LORD, where you have to hit on a fictional girl — via a menu command — a great number of times before she decides to sleep with you. I was thinking about golf games, which provide an experience inferior to actually hitting a real golf ball, at a higher price tag. I thought about NBA Jam, which is a basketball game that plays like a fighting game — neck and neck, blow by blow. NBA Jam and Scorched Earth are, to this day, probably the only two games I have ever truly mastered — when I tell the story of having once beaten a friend 273 to 9 to win a neighborhood NBA Jam: Tournament Edition tournament, that's Zach, my first ever golf buddy, that I'm talking about. I realized that NBA Jam was more fun than just any old basketball game because, rather than lamely try to recreate the sport as a player-controlled experience, as a board game with a pulse, it defamiliarized the sport by employing presentation gimmicks that had previously worked in million-selling action games about saving princesses or what have you.
The game I designed in my head was like this: It was like Super Mario. It had platforms. It was like Scorched Earth, because it was about altering a trajectory. It was like LORD, because its most fulfilling achievements didn't involve the on-screen death of bad guys. It was like NBA Jam because it was a sports game that played like an action game.
It was a side-view 2D golf game with platforms floating in the sky. The pin and the hole were on one of the platforms. What you'd do is aim the trajectory of the ball and then hold down a button to begin the swing meter. This would determine the power of the shot. Let go of the button to stop the swing meter bar. Maybe sometimes there would be walls or ceilings. You could bounce the ball off of those walls or ceilings. Maybe there'd be hazards. It wasn't like Scorched Earth, because you didn't scorch the earth. The terrain wouldn't change. When the ball landed, it would roll. It would eventually stop. Then you'd hit it again. This would probably be amazing fun. The courses would be huge and long and loopy, the length of Super Mario stages. They'd be inventive and fantastic, or maybe procedurally generated. Maybe there'd be moving platforms. It'd be like psychotic mini-golf. I told Zach about my idea, and he was stoked as hell. We talked about it while hitting a couple of buckets of balls.
"We should make this game."
"Yeah, we should."
We never made the game. We probably should have — somehow.
So I was in the Waikiki Apple Store last week, with a ladies PGA Tour golfer I'd met somehow. She'd greeted me in the hotel hallway. She was a sunny person, wearing a polo shirt — well, I guess it might have been a golf shirt — and a pair of pants that looked like golf pants for teenagers. Golf Casual, I guess is what they could call her style of dress. "If you like doing something," someone might have said, "do it all the time, or at least dress like you're doing it all the time." It could have been a lot worse — in the street were hundreds of navy men on shore leave. Their uniforms look so fake, like Halloween costumes. This golf lady was traveling alone. She was in Hawaii to play golf, for recreation, though she could probably write it off as research and not feel too much like a liar. I'd had a weird couple of days, so when she'd been friendly to me in the hotel hallway, telling me that she loved my glasses and then asking me my name and how long I've been in town and was going to be in town, I decided on the spot to use a phrase that I'd literally never spoken once in my entire life, just to see how it sounded coming out of my mouth: "Hey, maybe if you're free, we can go get a drink later?" She'd startled me by saying yes. When it came time to get the drink, I admitted to being allergic to alcohol; she was relieved, and said she didn't drink, either. So: the Apple Store. I swear, there is an unwritten law that says if you're a male and female of similar age and dressed in sports brands and there's an Apple Store within a hundred feet, you have to go in or you're Never Seeing Heaven.
"What's the deal with the iPad? Isn't it just, like, a big iPhone?"
"Well, the new iPhone is smaller than the old one, so the size difference is an even better selling point than before."
"Did they do that on purpose?"
"Who wouldn't want a bigger iPhone, anyway?"
"It's heavy," she said, picking one up. She scrolled through the pre-loaded apps. "Hey, a golf game." She fired it up. "This is weird." I was reading the New York Times on the iPad next to hers. I quit out of it and fired up "Get Bonus: The Movie" on YouTube, just to leave it there for the next customer. You never know: That next customer might have been the one person out of ten thousand to think "Get Bonus: The Movie" is something worth watching for more than thirty seconds.
"Hey, this is actually pretty neat."
"This golf thing. Oh, wow, this one's a par seven."
I looked at the iPad in the Lady Golfer's hands. Oh my word ("OMW"): it was the game I'd designed in my head, half my life ago. I didn't know whether to pump my fist (like Tiger Woods) or purse my lips and exhale dejectedly out my nose (like Tiger Woods). I didn't know if I'd just missed a hole in one, or whether I'd just made an eagle putt. It was a confusing couple of seconds.
The game is called Stick Golf HD, published by Noodlecake games.
Later, at Starbucks — our "drink" ended up being chai lattes — the woman asked me what I did for a living.
"I'm a game designer."
I realized, at this point, that I wasn't Just Some Jerk. (Okay, maybe I am Just Some Jerk. Let me have my fantasy for a couple of minutes.) I've seen guys apply for game designer positions in companies with "designing independent games" on their resume. It's always so sketchy. Ask them to show you the games they designed, and they clam up. Maybe their resume says they've been designing games "since 1986," and they were born in 1982. I once had to sit in on some guy's job interview, and this guy was sweating bullets when the bosses asked him about his "thirteen years' experience designing independent games." I wanted to ask him outright: "Be honest: this means you've been making 'Dungeons and Dragons' modules, doesn't it?" I fantasized about asking him that question, and about him subsequently breaking down and blubbering for a second. "Y-yeah," he'd said, in my fantasy. In my fantasy, I was an open-minded person (albeit one possessed by great cynicism) immediately after being snippy with someone: "It's okay, man: don't cry. We don't hate you. Hey, why don't you bring some of your modules to the second interview, if you have one? We'll let you DM. If that happens, you should also bring, like, dice and rulebooks and chicken bones or whatever it is you need to play that stuff, because we're all cool people here and we don't have any of that stuff on hand."
Anyway, here was me, with a head full of ideas — some more fleshy and meaty than others — and these bold, ridiculous claims that I'd invented Digg.com, World of Warcraft, and Farmville, and shrink-wrapped little hundred-word stories about them that I'm pretty sure I'm capable of telling in a manner that makes me out to be a lovable kook and not a future serial-killer. And now, here was evidence that something I thought of, point for point, was something someone else had also thought of, and believed in with such conviction that they went ahead and actually made it. In a way, it felt more creative and liberating, to know that these guys had come up with this idea entirely on their own, than it had ever felt to contribute ideas to the game design of a game made by a company who was quietly inserting money into my bank account every four weeks. I felt so flattered. I felt validated. I also hadn't slept in a couple of days — and I still haven't slept (I have much work to be done re: everything, and Hawaii is hell of distracting because they got, like, beaches and surfing and ocean canoeing up in here).
I'd spent the greater part of that afternoon sitting in Denny's with an AT&T prepaid phone, calling people, yelling at them, gulping coffee, calling more people, and then navigating the maddening phone labyrinth required of people wishing to add credit to their AT&T prepaid account. How the hell can the menu be that bad? The first menu choice requires you to speak your answer: "ADD MONEY"; the second one requires you to press a number. The third one, you're back to talking to the machine again. It tells you "Let me transfer you", and you hear a fake sound of something pressing some computer keys. I possess really scary powers of hearing — my ears are about as good at listening to fingers on a keyboard as, say, Ricky Jay's fingers might be on a deck of cards. I can tell you what the prerecorded sample is typing: "jskdf jskdfff". Then it asks you to talk to it again. It asks if you want a feature package. When it comes time to ask you if you how much money you want to add to your prepaid phone, it goes like this, talking real slowly: "To add One Hundred Dollars, press one, now. To add seven. Tee. Five. Dollars, press two. Now. To add . . . fifty. Dollars. Press three. Now. To add forty. Five. Dollars. Press . . . four. Now. To add twenty-five. Dollars. Press five . . . now. To add fifteen. Dollars. Press six . . . now." The idea is, maybe you hear "One hundred dollars" and then you hear "Seventy five", and you think, "I just want to add twenty-five", and you think, if it goes from a hundred to seventy-five, it probably then goes to fifty and then twenty five. However, it goes to forty-five. God, the world is so dirty. The world is a pretty sick place! Denny's coffee heightens this experience, and makes it feel all the sicker.
And here's Hawaii. The hotels on the front of the beach are taller than the hotels further from the beach. This is to block the beach from the view of the less expensive hotels. All of the hotels are sold out all the time, anyway. Literally every piece of beachfront property is a hotel. This is because this is the most lucrative thing to do: people want to live in view of a beach, or at least they want to pretend to, for a couple of days. A vacation is an opportunity to pretend to be someone else for a little while, and possibly to pay out the nose for the opportunity to pretend to be someone else for a little while.
The people in Denny's early in the morning are just so darn friendly. The golf lady went to bed at nine PM and I never saw her again, so I was in Denny's alone, and for several hours, working on some things. They were kind enough to loan me a power outlet, and I was able to skeeve wi-fi off the hotel next door right through the damn wall. An older couple — guy with Steve Jobs facial hair and woman with a glass-cutter of a perm — sat at the adjacent booth and chatted me up. The guy's opener was something like, "You're too young to be working in a Denny's in Hawaii at six in the morning on a beautiful Saturday," and I told him he was certainly right. He asked me what I did for a living, and I told him that I founded a company recently, that we don't have a product yet, that the co-founder thinks I'm in Hawaii because I'm a jerk, and not for any other reason. He asked me what I do at the company, and I said I'm a game designer.
"So you do computer programming?"
An older Jewish woman, in that same Denny's an hour later, would ask the other question:
"So you draw, you make the graphics?"
These are the two big assumptions The General Public makes about game designers. Scott Rogers does a pretty good job explaining these questions in the foreword of his book Level Up! A Guide to Great Game Design. I'd just read that book, on an airplane, even, so it was fresh on my mind. How neat that I was having these conversations myself. For months I'd been surrounded by people who knew everything about games and called me a jerk whenever I presumed to try to explain myself in . . . enough detail to help them finish what they were supposed to be doing in a manner that would have allowed me approve it without asking them to fix one or two things. Here I was, talking to Normal People, about video games. Maybe this would lead to a breakthrough.
Here's my terse description of what a game designer does:
A game designer decides what happens in the world of the game, and how the player experiences and interacts with the world of the game and the things that happen in it.
(Join me next month, when I explain what (I think) a "Director" does.)
On the beach, later, four children who might have literally had rabies were arguing over the possession of a delicious iPad. One other child, who shared their hair color (platinum), though was taller, had an iPad all to himself. Their dad came by, in little tortoiseshell sunspectacles, brassy gut electric with patchy white fuzz. "Paula, you let Jim Junior have a term."
I remember this sentence because:
2. He'd actually said "term" and not "turn", which was a weird slip.
3. I mean, like, "Jim Junior".
4. Really, his oldest child wasn't "Jim Junior" — his youngest was. Maybe this says something about successful people: they save the vanity for last, for after they're already named boys after their fathers and uncles.
I looked over; the kids were fighting over who got to play the next round of Plants Vs. Zombies. I was a little shocked: "Kids like Plants Vs. Zombies? I thought that was just a game for grown-ups who want to remember what things were like when they were kids." Well, none of the conclusions of those two sentences were necessarily true. Maybe the kids were just playing it because their dad had bought it, so it was essentially free. For example, I had only played Scorched Earth, at first, because it was free. However, I ended up loving the game like a mute sibling. However however, a nearly prevailing chance exists that I wouldn't have liked the game. At all. Maybe, in six days, these kids will be back to playing "Bop It!" whilst screaming bloody murder and pushing each other off the sofa in the direction of the coffee table.
Here's what I took away from this:
1. Some people are rich enough to have two iPads they are willing to let children under the age of 10 (four under the age of seven) handle on a beach.
2. Beaches are probably the dirtiest places on earth, when you get right down to it (sand goes everywhere).
3. These people who have iPads on the beach probably think no more of buying a game for the iPad than they think of buying a box of paperclips.
4. I need to get some of that money.
5. I want to make a game that kids will enjoy forever, and still remember when they're adults. Who cares about the money? Do you think the guys who made Scorched Earth are living in their own private islands, or even their own private Idahos?
Whoa! Where the hell did that last one come from?
THE GAME DESIGNER'S MIND
Shigeru Miyamoto is apparently barred from discussing his hobbies in interviews. What's the deal with that? I feel like I can't possibly have not talked about this before. I'd look at the Google Documents for my other columns, though, hilariously, the internet isn't working in my hotel, so I can't do that. Let me just summarize how I feel: it's ludicrous to think that someone other than Shigeru Miyamoto could hear someone say "I've been enjoying gardening lately" and then, pressured by board members to second-guess this revelation, design Pikmin.
As a "game designer," I'm going to try to talk about what I'm doing as much as possible.
Well. Let's see. Lately, I'm in Hawaii.
I'm getting a tan. It's going pretty well. My genetic preclusion from growing huge, rippling muscle ain't got shit on my genetic tendency to get hella tan hella fast.
I've been surfing a bit. Standing up on the board is really hard. It's a fantastic kind of friction. It's like trying to do pushups on top of a bottomless stack of Jell-O. It's all well and good when you've got the board on the beach, and you're jumping on it, and flexing your knees and going, "Okay, this is how I'm going to stand, when I get in the position where standing is a thing I could possibly do." Then you actually get it in the water, and you paddle out beyond all the casual swimmers, and it's like, okay, it's go time, and you stand up, and a wave gingerly pushes up behind you — well, thinking about keeping those knees at that angle feels like being asked, at gunpoint, to "sneeze right now — or die". It's fascinating: you have to consciously take reflexive action. I'm pretty sure that's the biggest, pearliest accident-seed any circumstance could ask for. When you finally do it right the first time, nothing has ever been more genuinely correct in your life. You want to lean back and flip off the sun, like, "Fuck you, sun! Let's see you do that!"
I've been talking to a lot of people, lately. The people I'm talking to aren't famous people. I talk sometimes about the famous people I've talked to. Lots of people don't believe those stories, especially the true ones. You might not believe the story about the time Tomonobu Itagaki touched my hair and asked me what kind of shampoo I was using, for example. And you don't have to! I'm more than comfortable clutching this precious trueness over here and keeping it all to myself.
One thing you can't accuse me of lying about is the fact that, recently, I've conversed with a rather nice homeless man. You know this isn't a lie, because some homeless people love to talk. Usually it's about how your shoes are super-fly, like, can I get like a quarter from you? Sometimes they're funny enough to tell you right then and there that you're never going to get it back.
The homeless man I met in Hawaii was a little different. He knew what was up. I'd seen him around the town, and he was attracted to me magnetically, the way lady PGA golfers or people wanting drugs or girls who swear I'm not like other guys. He asked me for some change, and I gave him some. I looked at his feet: They were bare, blackened, toenails long as pinky fingers. His beard was a ratty twist, his clothes a deep green and surprisingly not tattered. He seemed lucid and not murderous, so I asked him, in all politeness:
"Hey, why don't you, like, take a bath in the ocean?"
He laughed. He had the gruff voice of a Hell's Angel — or maybe a Heaven's Demon (I think that's what you call the Hell's Angels' rivals).
"I was doing that for a while," he said. He didn't go on. Of course, the end of that story is, "And then I stopped doing it." He didn't need to say that. Maybe this guy was a Romantic Homeless — a RoHo (or I guess you could call him a "hobo"). Maybe he was doing this by choice. What better place to be homeless? You can sleep on the beach every night. It's 72 degrees at night, maybe 80 during the day, all year round. That's fantastic. During the day, you could work on a tan — okay, well, this guy was a tan as a catcher's mitt, so maybe the tanning thing didn't really thrill him anymore.
It turned out he was born on the island. His parents had moved to Florida. I found that fundamentally hilarious for too microscopic a length of time to actually end up laughing. He never went to college. His parents weren't dead; they were somewhere in Florida; he was an only child, he got fired from his job, he didn't have any friends. He wasn't crazy; he'd just been off the map and out of the system for probably most of his life. I wanted to ask him if he'd ever been a surfer, though I didn't want to pry. Why he didn't wear nice clothes, I don't know. At one of the little gift shops in the area, you can purchase $4 swim trunks and $3 rubber sandals. Put on a $1 tank top and you're good to go: You look just like any other vacationing jerk. Well, he'd need a haircut. Has Oprah ever done a show on hobo makeovers? I'd love to film a documentary about the guy who gets the job of interviewing hobos, you know, to weed out all the potentially sociopathic ones.
I hadn't done laundry in two weeks, and talking with the hobo made me realize I'd been wearing the same gray Hanes tank top for three days, because I had nothing else, and I was stinking of seawater and cologne every day, anyway. I went back to the hotel and did laundry post-haste. While waiting for the laundry to finish, I realized I had a T-shirt that I hadn't worn since the last time I did laundry. When my laundry was done drying, I invisibly made the decision to put on that same gray tank top again. This is going to be very important at a later point in this story, though I'll be careful not to point out when that point is.
Later that night, I was people-watching on Kuhio. Men screaming at women, women telling me to fuck off. It was survival of the fittest and angriest. People are here, renting the experience of being different people. Hawaii is virtual reality for the soul. I wonder how many guys get laid? Probably a lot. I probably could have gotten laid. I'm not like other guys, you see.
In Hawaii, the rules are different than they are on, say, your local neighborhood street where people live, retrieve their newspaper, and go down to the corner store to buy a carton of milk. These people, in this place, would prefer it if you keep your bullshit to yourself when they're just minding their own business and going down to the corner store to get a fucking carton of milk.
The next day, by the beach, I saw some of the other guys. They were carrying surfboards and walking in the opposite direction I was walking. I was wearing my gray tank top and a beach towel like a poncho. I was walking beside two sixteen-or-so-ish girls. I was definitely not looking at them, because I know that there's a 90% chance any girl I look at will immediately field-goal me in the crotch and blow a dog whistle. Definitely wasn't looking at them! They were talking about a friend from school, who had fallen asleep on the beach with her sunglasses on and now looked like an inverse raccoon. These two guys with surfboards walked by, shirtless and barefoot, swarthy and tattooed, dripping and towelless. The girls' conversation went from full-on chatter to dead silence. The guys looked dead on right at the girls. Ten seconds later one of the girls said, maybe with her hands to her lower face, her braces evident in her voice, "Oh my goddd."
I thought about a video game, right there. I can't help doing this. This is what I do, after all. Fuck you, Bob! I am working, over here!
Recently, an independent game developer made a game to vent her frustration with being relentlessly hit on by psychopathic male individuals with entitlement complexes. It must be terrifying to be a woman, sometimes. The game is called Hey Baby, and you can play it at HeyBabyGame.com. As a game, it's not very good. It doesn't have enough friction. There's no snap, or crunch. It's not sticky. Et cetera. As a thing, it's a real thought-that-counts situation. It's a different kind of power fantasy than Grand Theft Auto. Who legitimately has a power fantasy that Grand Theft Auto can cure? Probably the kinds of guys who would inspire someone to make Hey Baby. My foremost criticism of the Grand Theft Auto games, which are otherwise pretty good as video games (lots of snap, some good crunch, occasionally pretty sticky), is that they'd be pretty terrifyingly boring if you removed the violence and the killing and the murder. The Grand Theft Auto game designers set themselves up for this weakness, however, because most of the buttons on the controller are either devoted to violence (shoot your gun, swing your weapon) or threatening violence (aim your gun, draw your gun). None of the Action Buttons is a "Hug Button." Well, Hey Baby addresses this complaint, allowing you to say "Thank you! Have a great day!" to a man who tells you, in so many words, that he's going to "fucking rape you". The other option is to draw a machinegun and kill the jackass. You do this for a few minutes, and your neighborhood is a desolate haven of tombstones.
The game doesn't let you kill females.
In Hawaii, maybe the rules are different. Girls tell guys to fuck off, and it's almost scarier than hearing a guy tell a girl she's obviously a lesbian, or deaf, because his "Sup" or his "Hey baby sup" or his "Sup baby" or his "Hey baby" is more than enough for any straight female with the ability to hear. Or maybe a girl is more open to the idea of boys being boys. I mean, it's two in the morning and this is a street lined with terrible bars and clubs, and they're literally playing a new remix of "And I Miss You (Like the Deserts Miss the Rain)" so loud you can hear it from my eighteenth-floor window.
These young surfers might just be able to score a different lady every night. I spoke with a woman in Honolulu last week who told me that she met a surfer guy from OKCupid.com and he claimed to be in love with her at the end of their first dinner date. Now, putting aside the possibility that this girl is lovely and perfect (she just might be), why was this super-hot surfer guy, the "local cuisine," as it were, using OKCupid to score girls? The answer is, plainly — and I know this because I just put myself in their . . . bare feet, just now — because it's not a "better" way to meet girls. It's just "another" one. It's not the element of "challenge" (you know, in that they have to, like, use words and stuff). It's the element of it ("the option") being "there".
Hey Baby is actually a deeper game than Bandai-Namco's Portable Island: Resort in the Palm of Your Hand, which wasn't released outside of Japan. Portable Island is actually pretty awful. It's a game about nothing. The advertisements and magazine previews touted it as a relaxing experience. I was all for the idea of a relaxing game. I couldn't get behind the execution. You walk up to a hammock and press the Action Button, and now your guy's sleeping in the hammock. Uhm, okay. You can move the analog stick to swing the hammock. You can't even customize what your guy — or girl — looks like. You're stuck with the character designer's canned haircut, which he probably stole from a guy on the cover of a magazine. When you go to the beach in Portable Island, you're all alone. You approach objects, you press the Action Button to pick them up. A menu displays, telling you what you just got: "It's a shell. It's very pretty. It is all mother-of-pearly inside." The game files it away in a spreadsheet accessible from the pause menu — from which you an also access the fast-travel options to get back to your room as soon as possible. Your room never changes. It's like your guy showed up at the hotel, received the order to leave his room in the same condition he found it, crunched the numbers against his length of stay — indefinite — and came away with a discombobulated robot's opinion that "leave the room how you found it + you're staying here forever = don't you fucking dare touch anything."
The game is a steaming crater in the middle of a rainforest of creativity. It's Monster Hunter without monster hunting. Even the robots in "The Matrix" realized that humans will either wake up from a dream or at least groan a lot and really hate it if it's too perfect — that's why their virtual world had all the hardships and job responsibilities of the late nineteen-nineties. Mundanity keeps us complaining and yearning, and it keeps us alive. When I first heard about Portable Island, I anticipated it, as a person who believes there is a Problem With The World — that we can't all be happy, loving, peaceful people one hundred percent of the time. Like many zen gurus and prophets before me, at a young age I thought with a sneer that the world would be perfect if just everyone would shut the fuck up and devote the rest of their life to meditating on the idea of peace. Of course, this can't happen — and this is why Animal Crossing is a much better game. You have a shovel and a fishing rod. The game has a little economy.
The same goes for Harvest Moon, only it wears its politics on its sleeve. You might first get into Animal Crossing thinking that it's just a cute little diorama of a fantasy town. Then, the capitalism leaks in: you see something you want, you realize you need money to get it. Harvest Moon starts right out being a story about you being a farmer. You're going to tend your crops, marry a girl, and make a decent life.
Yoshiro Kimura, designer of Chulip and Little King's Story, two games I adore beyond immensely, once told me that he would like to make a Harvest Moon game that, instead of being about tending crops on a farm, was about surviving a sinking cruise ship, or living homeless in a sprawling urban environment.
So we've got this list of games here:
Grand Theft Auto IV
Legend Of the Red Dragon
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater
Little King's Story
Maybe we can make these into something. Imagine a game where you are a young surfer, island born and raised. Your parents are dead. You have an inheritance and are renting an apartment. A lawyer informs you that your dad owed money to someone, and you end up broke. Well, whatever, you're a young surfer. You drop out of school in favor of hanging out on the beach all day with your friends.
Here's what you can do in this game:
You can wander the Waikiki area, walking in and out of shops, buying Dr. Pepper or dried mangoes and eating them while standing on the beach.
You can surf. The surfing game is fully featured. You earn no money from surfing — no, wait. You can enter surfing contests. There you go. That's how you get your money. I just made that up off the top of my head.
As the girl of the day becomes a lady, you can wander the shopping district, gently hitting on girls. Okay, how about this — it's FPS controls. You have to "shoot" the girl in the head with, uhh, finger pistols. If you score a direct headshot, maybe she will stop and talk to you. Now we have a conversation mini-game. This would have to be the best conversation mini-game that's ever existed in a game. It'd have to be a damn sight better than the Mass Effect system. What we'd be doing, then, is making a game about hitting on girls and successfully getting them to have sex with you.
I hope the creator of Hey Baby doesn't find my idea repulsive. I sincerely don't. She apparently finds unsolicited, violent, angry flirtation repulsive. This is why my game would have the "headshot" — you aim the reticule and hit the girl in the head (maybe they have unpredictable patterns (they sure do in real life!)), and rather than shooting her with a gun, you're maybe making eye contact. Then it would be her who talks to you. That's fair, isn't it? That's not sick, or weird, or anything.
Until now, the "male" stereotype in games is some guy like Kratos. He grunts a lot, is bald, has a goatee and tattoos on his damn face, engages in orgies with chained maidens, screams a lot, and tears things limb from limb with swords he literally is physically incapable of putting down. Why can't we have a game about a hot surfer dude with a semi-tragic situation and dwindling financial resources?
You play the ensuing conversation mini-game. You play it like a piano. Okay, maybe it's not even a mini-game. Maybe it's this huge, bombastic thing. Maybe it's the "battle system" of this game, maybe it's the "other thing," with surfing being the "other" "other thing." Talking to girls, in this game, has to be more fun than shooting or slashing a sword. How do we do this? I just thought of a pretty good way. Maybe it's not that great. I'm not going to bring it up.
Succeed, and you get the girls into the elevator of their hotel. Then we cut away. Who cares what happens. We'd cut to a view of a cellular phone screen, and a randomly generated text message. We'd have an algorithm with thousands of female names and stock phrases. "I'm at the airport now, getting on the plane back to Massachusetts. I hope you win your little surfing thing! Keep in touch!"
So far, this game isn't very exciting. How about you can get a tan? That's got to be worth something. There's some kind of game in tanning. I've earned about six shades of darkness in the last week. I look like I'm made of a whole different kind of polystyrene than I usually look like I'm made of. Ask Toshihiro Nagoshi — that guy apparently ended up liking tanning so much more than Super Monkey Ball that he started making games about gangsters. You have to be careful not to roast yourself too long. That could be a mini-game. Maybe it'd be a Farmville kind of thing — you know, how your crops wither and die. You'd set your guy on tanning and then make sure to come back twenty minutes later to flip him over. Maybe, while he's tanning, you could do something else. How about this — while tanning, you see inside his mind. He's surfing, in his mind. In his mind, the waves are perfect and the sky is a Sega shade of blue. You just surf forever, while tanning. While surfing in the game's version of The Real World, maybe you can do things like "impress girls" or "earn experience points." No — no experience points. Anyway, you're surfing in your brain. You have to remember that you're not just surfing for real — you have to remember that you're actually on the beach right now. You have to press the select button, cut back to reality, and flip that dude over. That's not too bad.
I'm not really too sure about the surfing thing, though. I'm not sure how to make surfing fun. I guess, having tried surfing myself and actually succeeded in catching a wave or two, I intimately understand the ideal friction of it. Maybe we shouldn't make this game 3D. Maybe it should have cutesy Mother 3 graphics, and be 2D. Maybe surfing should be something rhythm-based. It'd give us a great excuse to make a game with a surf rock soundtrack.
I got into this exercise first and foremost because I wanted to spring this Big Twist: This game is a Tetris-like life sim. Your main character is destined to become homeless in Hawaii. All of the universe is conspiring to make you homeless. Maybe you don't even have a home at all, when the game starts. You have to sleep in a tourist girl's hotel room every night, or no dice. You need to win money from surfing competitions — oh, wait. How about this.
In the name of research for this part of the article, I was browsing Craiglist for jobs in the Honolulu Waikiki. Some website is offering five damn dollars per photo of surfers. I am not even making this up. How about, this is how your guy makes money? You surf; if you catch a wave, your friend on the beach photographs you, and you get five dollars. Catch enough waves during the day, and you can stay in a terrible hostel — $25 a night — or a terrible hotel — $40 a night — or maybe even a fantastic hotel — $50 a night. The better your hotel, the more of your (invisible, non-player-reported) "hotness" statistic you retain.
If you wipe out once while surfing, your surfing for the day is finished — just like death in Legend Of the Red Dragon. This is why you get the chance to practice, with unlimited wipe-outs, while sleeping on the beach while tanning. Tanning improperly makes you red, which makes girls chuckle at you. Sleeping with girls is a way to ensure yourself a place to stay, if you don't have enough money for a hotel. Maybe you need to eat meals every day, too. The sun rises, the sun sets.
As time gets on past midnight, the city is a cesspool. You'd better be in a hotel by now. There are dudes all over the street, man. I've always wanted to make a game where the only obstacles were crowds in city streets. Dodging dudes and navigating crowds would have to be at least as fun as jumping platforms in Super Mario. You have to dodge them while hurrying from one place to another. Maybe, if you don't have a hotel room, you just have to wander the streets all night. There are angry bros everywhere, pissed because they couldn't get laid and now have the bluest of balls. They move really fast. You have to dodge them swiftly. If they collide with you, they will threaten to fuck you up, and then they will dig right into the up-fucking. The cops appear before the game asks you to press a button to punch anybody, and your dude spends the night in jail. He loses hotness. Maybe he grows a proto-hobo-beard. This is all very tragic.
What's more tragic is that your guy is only getting older. Time gets on; he knows that, at age twenty-five, he's going to be bald as Patrick Stewart.
Eventually, your man is homeless and alone and untouchable and filthy. The camera zooms out far; the player is now god. This is a new kind of The Sims, a new kind of Populous. You watch your former avatar move through the world, rounding up garbage. You are allowed to click on one object per day. Maybe you click on a palm tree, and a coconut falls. Maybe it hits the guy on the head. Maybe it hits a rock and breaks in half, offering him delicious food which is good for the complexion. Can we push our hero back to the brink of civilized living?
Who really knows? Maybe you could click the ocean, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it'd result in him taking a bath. One out of a hundred times, a shark would show up, and eat him, and we'd find it was all a dream, and he's just tanning on the beach again.
ROMANTIC COMEDY IS THE NEW ACTION
What if there's a female lead, like in Harvest Moon or in Chulip? What if she's frigid and asexual and for some reason in love with your hero? She's rich and has a condo in a building way to the north, way far away from the beach. To get there you have to navigate busy traffic, on foot. Touch a car, and you die. This girl loves you, and you don't love her — you never even get to see her (she calls you and texts you constantly). She demands that you come to her house and live and everything will be taken care of for the rest of your life. If you can dodge all the cars, you arrive in the lobby, and get in the elevator on the ground floor, and the doors close, and we fade sharply to black.
Why do games all have to be action games? Why do "love simulations" have to be so damn creepy? Why can't we have a balance?
Would my game be any fun? What the hell do I know? I'm just talking out of my hat, here — and I'm not even wearing a hat! I only started this huge ramble because I thought that, while writing it, I would arrive at a perfect treatment of surfing as a video game, one as simple and deep as Scorched Earth is a representation of golf. And wow, did I ever come up with one. It's fantastic.
. . . Oh! I forgot to finish the story with the blonde girl who worked at the Target store with me. Wow, I should have done that earlier. It might have given you some psychological insight that would have helped you understand my off-the-cuff game design treatment. (Aside: it's technically not cheating, right now, to tell you that I told you I wasn't going to remind you about a particular anecdote, earlier, and that maybe this is where that anecdote would be relevant.)
One day, I was buying Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire for the Nintendo 64. The game was damn hell $79.99, which is insane even by today's standards. I had a Best Buy circular that had it at $59.99. I got my ten percent discount off that, and it wasn't a bad deal. Well, I mean, it wasn't a bad deal until I actually played through the game, if you know what I mean (I liked the level design, all things considered). I was buying the game a week after its release because I was both waiting for the lower price and because I wanted to buy it on a day when the hot girl wasn't working. Well, I done bought the game. Would you believe I didn't have a car, at this point in time? I didn't. I was walking through the parking lot and toward my parents' house, and hey! The girl was behind me. It was payday. She was just coming in to get her check. She asked where I was going. She called me "Timmy." Oh, god. For the record, before I finish this story, I have to tell you that I looked nothing like a sex offender back then. I looked, more or less, like this:
(Reader poll: You know, if I were to go to SuperCuts and have this postmodern Depression-Era-clown-wig removed from my skull, then change out these cartoon character glasses for the glasses I wear when running (see photo), I'd look just like this photo again. It'd take about five minutes. Should I do it?)
I was, uhm, twenty-eight in that photo, though that's more or less what I looked like at seventeen. Only maybe with slightly more radiant skin. I did my fair share of lady-attracting, back then, despite being weird about stuff like hiding my video game habit because I'd spent so many hours being so obsessive about things like Scorched Earth and thought of games as some shameful fetish activity.
So when this girl who called me "Timmy" caught me magenta-handed with Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire in a plastic bag, I naturally got a little weird. I'd been so cool with her up until then. She had been at the point where she was trying to set me up with another girl who worked at the same store, who was just about as hot as she was. Maybe that meant she liked me. Man, I would have married her. She was so great.
She asked me where I was going and what I was doing today, and I was like, "Oh, I was just . . . getting my paycheck and was about to go home." I didn't have a man-purse back then — just cargo shorts. "Do you, uhh. Hey, you don't have a car, right?" she said to me. "No. No, I, uhh, I usually bike everywhere." "Did you bike here today?" "No, I walked." "Hey, do you want a ride?" "Oh. Yeah. Sure."
We got into her little Honda. Post-predictably, it smelled like fabric softener. That's what she smelled like, sometimes. That and pretty things. "Hey, I see you've already gotten started giving your paycheck back." She always talked like a character in a scene cut out of "Pulp Fiction." I bet, if we'd started dating, she would have probably changed. I bet she's a lot different right now. I guess I am, kind of, though I'm also not, kind of. "What did you buy?" she asked. I handed her the bag. There it was — video games and "Star Wars" and on a console that used blocky, toy-like cartridges instead of CDs. Guh.
"Oh, hey. My little brother has this game. Man, isn't this game like, like . . . 80 dollars? My mom complained. Of course she still bought it for him — he's spoiled." He's got to be old enough to drive now, for my self-esteem's sake. The parents probably gave him one of the Benzes.
So there I was. Did I tell this girl that I spent 80 dollars for this "Star Wars" video game, or did I confess that the purchase had actually been lovingly premeditated in a way that would save me $26, because I buy so many games all the time that I have to be careful? That's the closest real life has ever come to that nightmare where I'm crouched in front of a CRT in a dimly lit room, furiously masturbating to the Super Mario 64 title screen, when a door opens behind me, and the camera angle reveals my mother's silhouette sliding in: She pauses for a moment, her facial expression contorts into one of horror and disgust, her mouth opens, and rather than degrading words of condemnation, she proclaims, "Hey, it'sa me!" and I wake up sweating bullet-bills and bob-ombs.
I'M ALMOST FINISHED
I took one creative writing class in college. It was enough to teach me to not take any more creative writing classes. I only took it because I knew that it was an "A for effort" kind of thing, creativity being subjective and all, and I already had a huge course load, so I wanted something easy.
The teacher hated me. He was a baby-faced kind of guy who had managed to increase his age statistic to above 40 without moving too many of the other statistics — perceived age, income, perceived income, fame — in either direction. Her wore bowties and tried sincerely to make a mullet look sophisticated. He might have been what they in the 1970s called a "hipster." I don't like that word. It sounds oddly racist — and, worse than that, silly. Please don't use it around me.
I googled this guy recently, and it turns out he's published his first book — and it's a how-to guide for playing the Jew's harp. Well.
If I were a creative writing professor in the twenty-first century, I would require all of my students to amass a thousand Twitter followers. I would tell all the boys to make female OKCupid.com profiles using photos of girls from the class; I would tell all of the girls to make male OKCupid.com profiles using photos of boys from the class. I would tell the boys to reply to every one of the hundreds of messages they would get, and to keep the conversations going as long as possible, neither refusing to meet or asking to meet. Their final project would be to take the correspondence and turn it into a novella of sorts. The girls would have to message as many girls as they can, aiming to get at least fifty replies. They would then reply to each of the replies until the girl asked to meet; they would then have to write letters of apology to all of the girls who agreed to meet, claiming that something came up and that they would probably never be able to meet. At the end of the semester, students whose work was spectacular would earn A-plusses in creative writing, and then I would recommend them all careers in game design.