Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Long March


I know we all like to idolize teachers, but in my experience the truly good teachers were few and far between in the government-run school system. In fact, out of my 12 year experience, I can only claim to actually having four good teachers (the rest were little different than the surly bureaucrats you meet at the DMV). Not surprisingly, two of the four had doctorates, with a third working on his doctorate at the time I was in his class. The fourth...well, I don't know much about him because he was my sixth grade(?) music teacher and I didn't take note of such things. Nonetheless, this man makes my list because he, too, managed to impart some wisdom that has stayed with me throughout the years.


One day, this guy comes in and plays a record (remember those? Lord, I feel old writing that!) of some Led Zeppelin hit that was all the rage at the time (Stairway to Heaven, maybe?). When the song was over, he asked us how we liked it. Naturally, we all said we enjoyed it and listened to it on the radio ourselves. He shook his head in understanding and loaded up a second record...this time of a Frank Sinatra tune. When it was over, the same question: what did we think of it? Well, being kids, we all squirmed during the song and said we hated it. Again, he shook it head in understanding. And then he said something that has stuck with me my whole life. He said:

"You can't listen to Frank Sinatra with Led Zeppelin ears."

Simple, but profound.

His point was that different types of music have different rules; that is what makes them stylistically different. To listen to Frank Sinatra and expect his music to follow the same rules as those of Led Zeppelin is folly. To do so perpetrates an injustice against the music and the listener: the music, because it isn't given a fair hearing on its own terms, and the listener because he will forever be trapped in one style of music due to his narrow rulebook.

I have never forgotten this lesson. Not only has it guided me through my own musical odyssey - one that started with pop music and has traveled a winding path through rock, hard rock, classical, jazz, alternative and, most recently, downtempo electronica (and who knows where next!) - but it has also guided me through literature, cinema and, yes, gaming (you knew I was going there sooner or later).

This recently came to me when reading a friend's comment on my recent excursion into the weird gaming world of The Saints: The Third.   He said:

"Your journey to the dark side is now complete."

This is something of a running joke between him and I. You see, years ago I was something of a hardcore wargamer - you know, those crusty old grognards who would only touch realistic games based on actual wars.  I was into all of them:  titles like TOAW, Harpoon (1 & 2), Combat Missionx1, East Front, West Front, TACOPS, Dangerous Waters...you get the idea. That was all I played; I knew little else.

Now, of course, it is quite a different story. If you take a look through my many blog posts, not to mention the many reviews, previews, and interviews I have done over the years, you will discover a...what do the politicians call it? Oh yeah: an "evolving position" on gaming. Now, if it is pixelated, I will give it a try.

What changed? Well, following the advice of my music teacher of so long ago, I learned how to play Starcraft 2 without using a Combat Mission mentality. In other words, I learned that each genre of gaming, like music, has its own rulebook. Once that clicked in my mind, a vast new world of gaming opened up. Titles that I never, ever would have tried just six or so years ago are now on my hard drive, sitting comfortably next to titles my older self would have been more comfortable with, such as Panzer Korps. I like to think I am a better gamer for it. I know I certainly have had more fun because of this expanded rulebook.

Take, for example, my most recent passionate love affair: Team Fortress 2. This is a most instructive case of EGS: Evolving Gamer Syndrome. While I played the original so long ago - and loved it - I had no interest in TF2 when it was released back in 2009. Why? Because at the time I was reacquainting myself with the world of shooters - a genre I had lost contact with for a good many years. So I was playing Battlefield 2, Arma 2, and then Bad Company 2...you know, shooters that had more of a realistic approach to them. So when TF2 arrived with its Looney Tunes art direction, I was not interested in the least. I eventually did download the Free-2-Play version in 2010 - entirely due to the incredible hype surrounding it - but I didn't have a favorable reaction to it (according to Steam, it lasted a bare 45 minutes on my drive!). I mean, between the cartoony graphics, the weird weaponry, and the simplistic shooting mechanics, it never stood a chance. Gone in a matter of minutes!

Now, though...I love it! In fact, I am starting to fear a serious addiction. The very things I hated about it in 2010 - the cartoony graphics, the weird weaponry, and the simplistic shooting mechanics - are precisely what I have come to embrace.

Again, what has changed?

Me. Or, rather, my gaming rulebook. In 2010, I was guilty of playing Team Fortress 2 with Battlefield expectations.

Since 2010, however, I have continued to evolve as a gamer. So while around 2009 - 2010 I was still wedded to strategy games and shooters on the more realistic end of the spectrum, I have since moved on to much more imaginative, free-form gaming: artistically wild shooters like Borderlands, crazy third person action games like Prototype, and outright comedic titles like Saints Row: The Third. In other words, my rulebook has grown considerably. What was once rejected as undesirable is now embraced as a welcome friend. Imagine that.

I guess you can say that I have learned to apply the lesson of my music teacher to gaming. That is, I no longer expect every game to operate on the same level, according to the same rules. In fact, I would even go so far as stating that I am finding it increasingly difficult to embrace the very titles I once loved. While there will always be room in my rulebook for well-done titles that never deviate from the straight and narrow, I am finding that I am increasingly drawn to those games that break all the rules, that leave the strictures of reality behind. Perhaps my rulebook has burst its binding?

I hope so. I shudder to think how limited my gaming would have been but for my exposure to the wider, wackier world of mainstream gaming. While I guess I could have contentedly played the same types of games I had been playing circa 2006, I know that it would not have been anywhere as rewarding, enjoyable and, most importantly, as mind-expanding an experience as what this long march to the "darkside" has shown me over the years.

And it was all due to some words of wisdom from a music teacher so many years ago....


Speaking of TF2, here is my first shot with the movie editor:




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