It’s no “Questionable Content” or “Penny Arcade”, but…

Breon W. Guarino

(Wolfgang is not my middle name at all.)

 

“I’ve enjoyed this greatly. In all seriousness, I am thrilled with the prospect of continuing the process of pulling out the awkward (to my untrained mind), deeply-embedded, and persistent allegories of Spenser’s work. It is deep reading, almost as though one was slogging through a marsh made of candy and deliciousness that one must work for. It is like reading Shakespeare while under the influence of morphine, so utterly beautiful in its Middle English verbosity that it presents a massive buffet of purely enjoyable poetry, the likes of which that has not been seen in centuries, at the least.”

I wish I could say that with a straight face, but it should not be assumed that the accompanying grin is one of mischief. I’m not sure why, but I find a great joy in reading The Faerie Queene. It would not be dishonest to say that I aspire to find a copy and set about reading it myself. It may be some sort of academic masochism that causes this, or perhaps I simply want to be able to hold that accomplishment over the heads of any other English majors that I meet. In any case, I view it in the same way I viewed leveling in LotRO or writing stories.

It is a challenge. After all, it’s pretty rough getting through the convoluted Middle English terminology. There are letter sequences that I do not recognize, but the work of others before me has paved the way towards a slightly more accessible understanding of the material. In a sense, working on The Faerie Queene is like using open-source software, in that the efforts of several people (at least hundreds if not thousands, in the case of The Faerie Queene) have come together to make the original basis more useful to an everyday user that happens across it. It would be a serious personal accomplishment to read through the entirety of it, and there is a certain pleasure to noticing the way that the spoken English language has changed in five hundred years. It’s akin to pillaging the archive of a long-running webcomic and watching as the author develops his or her skills, except that it is AN ENTIRE LANGUAGE that is being developed over the course of CENTURIES. Besides that, a reader can see the perspective of an entirely alien society within the pages. Things have changed since the time period in which the work was made, but the blunt allegory of the poetry was effective in its purposes during its original time, and it makes one wonder about situations and events that could have changed the perspectives of that day to become those of ours.

I would wager that, in the end, I’d say to an IT professional the same thing that I would say to anyone else interesting about reading this work (because I doubt strongly that we would be discussing it otherwise). It’s an interesting piece of work with its own rewards for reading it, it’s proving to be as challenging (or perhaps even more challenging) than I anticipated, and I heartily enjoy that fact to the point that I look forward to continuing it. It is a matter of perspective, and it requires a rather specialized mindset, but it has proven to be highly interesting for me, if nothing else.

The Way of the (virtual) Warrior

~ Breon Guarino

It’s been a long hard path. It really has. For some reason, I find myself hearing from students around me that my struggles for mastery are misguided and unnecessary. There are those that would argue that I am “wasting my time” or “not setting up my priorities properly.” There are those that might assume that I am not performing my duties as a student in the proper manner.

Bah! Fie on them! What is Calculus to me, a minor deity in my own right? What hold could the pitiful mental thrusts of General Chemistry hope to have? My mind has been strengthened in close combat with the Mind Flayers of the Illithids! I have stared into the maw of Elder Beholders and survived! I have championed causes and fought at the forefront of dozens of campaigns across a dozen more planes than this one! Surely such paltry foes are no match for my might!

Is it so wrong to find the dulcet tones or gunfire soothing? Is it so terribly strange to savor the sound of close combat through the medium provided by my computer? In so many ways, gaming actively has boosted certain aspects of my personality, but I willingly grant that my education may have suffered in others. I find the level of focus attained when striving to target a distant opponent thrilling.  It’s such a lovely combination of skill and luck, demanding no personal character development. The objective, for once, is simple and easy to grasp; I possess a weapon, and my opponent possesses a weapon, and I must damage my opponent until they are no longer able to wield that weapon effectively in an offensive manner.

In short, I must kill them. Simple, isn’t it? It just warms my heart, how simple it is.

This simplicity contrasts quite sharply with the ever-daunting task of optimization problems in calculus. I don’t want to be bothered with it, in all seriousness. If it was a piece of nigh-indecipherable literature that had to be read completely by the end of the week, that would be one thing. I would have fun with that, honestly. That is an objective that I can throw myself at willingly. Calculus…simply is not. It gets more difficult to focus on the calculus work when I think about how I could be easily focusing on anything more enjoyable. I can empty a figurative magazine of bullets into calculus and see it rise up again like the Flood, and when I’ve expended all of my mental ammunition it seems to laugh for a moment before gathering all of my hopes and eating them. It EATS them. It slaughters them like animals and DEVOURS them.

With that said, I’ve learned several things during my time as an actively gaming student, and all this experience is moving towards leveling up and upgrading my stats. I’m done letting myself shift the focus away from my work so easily; after all, it’s better to work towards goals that I enjoy achieving that will aid me in return. Oh, and forget calculus. Seriously, truly, deeply, forget calculus.  I’m SO done with calculus. Calculus is a Mind Flayer in its own right, and it is only proper that one would withdraw in the face of an opponent that one has no reason to face. Courage and temperance must be taken in equal measures, after all.

Did we forget a gameplay vector?

@====={{\\\Breon Guarino\\\\\\

That’s right, you heard me. I’m a TABLETOP GAMER. You might ask what that entails; you might be utterly confused by the miniatures and dice scattered amongst the half-consumed soda cans and dog-eared manuals. I would answer you, but I am elsewhere.

Where I am, I am the tactical commander of a Blood Angels battle-group. I am watching the auspex readings of a dozen squads of elite Space Marines. I am sending troops loyal to the God-Emperor of Mankind to their deaths in battle; I send them to glory. I speak three words, and thirty jump-packs spin up their turbines, thirty power-armored knights fall from the sky into the main gun-line of the menacing xenos. The foul Eldar have made their last incursion on the surface of this planet, and it will be by my hand and my faith in the God-Emperor that they are driven back. The air is thick with ionized air from the pitifully deficient las-weapons carried by the doomed Planetary Defense Force that held the surface long enough for me and my battle-brothers to arrive by drop pod assault.  We were fired from orbit to bypass the danger of anti-aircraft fire; the blessed sons of the Emperor have arrived to purge the xeno filth from a loyal planet of the Imperium. I hear the bark of my brethren firing .75 caliber shells from their holy bolters, and within short moments I hear the secondary explosions as the bolts penetrate and explode a few inches past the first layer of armor, terrain, or flesh that they encounter. I hear cries of “For the Emperor!” and “Death before dishonor!” I see my brother Chaplains reciting the Litanies of Hate among their squads, fearless in their sable armor, masters of the trade of bringing death and destruction. Streams of plasma and melta-weapons bring down the agile but poorly-armored vehicles of the Eldar, and my Assault Marines have torn through the enemy gun-line in a spray of tainted blood and torn flesh.

Shortly thereafter, my turn has ended, and I pass the dice off to my esteemed opponent with a few comments about the wonderful painting work on his miniatures. I am only human, and I watch my opponent’s vehicles prove their offensive worth against two of my support squads. My opponent doesn’t fully grasp that I’ve allowed myself to be flanked for a reason, though, because I still have some  reserves left, and he’ll be singing a different tune once I melta-bomb his sorry little grav-tanks with my fresh Assault Marines on the next turn.

Sure, I’ll grant that I’m sitting at a table covered in painted plastic terrain pieces. I’ll allow the assumption that all I’m doing is playing a luck-based version of chess. A person who sees only these things does not see the story I am creating with every die roll and with the help of my opponent. My miniatures were painted not too long ago, but the Blood Angels are a venerated Chapter that has been in existence since the 31st millennium. I wage war not upon tabletops with good friends but on distant scattered hell-worlds against horrors that would break the minds of less well-versed humans. The Great Age of Humanity has come and gone three times before the battle on my dining-room table, and I fight in the name of the mighty God-Emperor that only just succeeded in uniting humanity once more before his betrayal by his favorite son among the Primarchs, the Warmaster Horus. I insert myself and allow myself to fall into the grand universe of Warhammer 40,000 like a quarter into a gumball machine. Through my battles and campaigns, I forge new legends and lore against the backdrop provided the backdrop of a cold and uncaring universe in which the only hope for humanity is to abandon the compassion and mercy that makes it humane.

Am I playing 40K (as it is often affectionately known by the fan base) for the tactical struggle? Oh, most certainly. It is engaging to work within the rules that are constructed. At the end of the day, it is an honor to test myself and my good fortune against that of a worthy opponent. I love the feel of a good roll in combat, knowing that my squads’ bolter fire has struck true. I love the suspense of an assault phase during my turn and the triumph of pinning down an enemy squad with well-directed sniper fire. There is a thrill to the process, almost as though my war-spirit was being tested in the same fiery baptism that my miniature battle-brothers go through.

However…I could just be playing chess, or the Star Wars miniature battle game.

I play 40K because the story really hits me. The grim darkness of the 41st millennium is a setting in which humans cannot afford to give or take any respite. Travel through the Warp from planet to planet runs the risk of being devoured in transit by otherworldly daemons too powerful for the human mind to comprehend. It is a unique tactical experience, but it is a purely unique experience in storytelling. It is a meeting and melding of LotR, Star Wars, and the compiled world of Lovecraft, with the finest aspects of each. Each victory comes through a moral fog, because the morality isn’t white/black, gray/black, or even simply gray. Each race is unabashedly disturbing in some aspects, from the dogmatic zealotry of the Space Marines and Ordos Hereticus to the frenzied debauchery of the Dark Eldar and Chaos to the planet-rapes of the Tyranid hive-mind. The depth there to be probed is staggering, and one can only truly appreciate the game through the story. This is why I play 40K instead of chess, when given a choice.

Why do I play 40K instead of the Star Wars miniature tabletop battle game?

I play 40K because a .75-caliber explosive shell punching into your chest and detonating within you will clear up that nasty little case of Midi-Chlorians in a hurry. The Force is a sign of the Taint of Chaos, after all.

By the book, by the numbers.

by Breon Guarino

I’ve spent a lot of time walking through the Barrow-Downs recently in Lord of the Rings Online, slowly but surely working through the quests related to that area. Naturally, I don’t feel as though I’ve done anything to provoke such hostile responses from the taint and denizens native to the region, but without any sort of provocation besides their mechanical nature, they assail me to no avail. Lo, I have journeyed from afar, that with my strong heart and my fell blade, I might be considered more than a match for such paltry foes, that I might scalp them and claim their long-hidden treasures for my own! Surely these are no match for me, surely!

I know they aren’t a match for me; minutes, if not hours, of click-based combat have proven this to me. I’ve come to find myself not disillusioned, but removed from the comfort of immersion in the game environment. The same thrill of risk isn’t there anymore. I’ve started to fall into the trap of checking how many inventory slots I have open at any given moment, started knowing what loot I can drop without regard in favor of minerals, items, or simply more valuable loot. The rewards have started to become numbers in a shopkeeper’s ledger and silver pieces in my pocket. There is repetition now as I fall into the process of grinding out more experience.

In reading Snow Crash, however, I’ve been spared this. In a sense, as the seemingly more thorough immersion of the game decreases slowly due to lack of challenge, the book remains at the same enjoyable level of performance. It is engaging to me on a different level, a level that may need a workout after an hour of grinding through Barrow-wights like I was part of the Gutbuster Brigade. As I’m watching Hiro duel with the “Nipponese” businessman in The Black Sun, as I watch him running through evaluations of tactics in his mind,  I empathize with the violence of his bloodless dismemberment of his opponent. He is victorious; he has competed with passion in his competition. In my mind, I can see the action, and though I am removed to the position of spectator, I am somehow engaged by it. After all, there is safety in the crowd of observers, because an observer has no need to react beyond their own enjoyment of a quality piece of street theater. There exists some massive difference on a level I can only begin to grasp; as I read, I am rewarded with rewarding work, but in the game, I’ve become a worker towards a reward.

My feet hurt. (and I’m late.)

I started walking from Thorin’s Hall a long time ago. I ended up in this valley, where I failed a quest for the first time. Even then, I couldn’t feel any serious consequences coming from my failure. I let poor Nos Grimsong die, and all I could think was that it was going to be a bloody long walk to get back to town to sell the loot in my inventory. I remain unashamed by this fact. I walked back to town and scalped some…well, scalps, or the ursine equivalent…for some funding.  After that, I walked back into the woods and vivisected several score woodland creatures, each time returning to town, each time ridding myself of a load of skins/wings/chompy-bits and earning some minor funding.

It has been two weeks. My footsore dwarf has slogged over mountains and through marshes. He strode tall (read: relatively tall) through deep valleys (read: gently sloped ditches) and across wide rivers (read: over bridges that spanned wide rivers). He has done battle against pestilence and pigs, including the variety that causes pestilence after a sort.  Only after many long walks did I find myself in Bree, and only after several long outings around the area did I find myself in The Prancing Pony discussing a matter involving some bandits with a mysterious stranger named Strider.

The first time I went out, I got the idiot NPC I was attached to killed. As he perished, run through upon the wicked blades of the Blackwold bandits, I could feel no sorrow at his death. I felt no sadness, watching his animated corpse fade into nothingness as with the strongest of the Jedi. Instead, I found my mind transported far away across diverse planes of light and shadow. I found myself warped away to replay the failing of my first escort mission and every mission since then. I watched Air Ixiom 701 and 702 burning in the sky as enemy fighters failed to falter in the face of my poorly aimed gun bursts as I played Ace Combat 04. I watched Nos Grimsong ambushed by wildcats once more two weeks ago. I found myself with a single thought in my mind as I watched my Ranger companion dying…

I hate escort missions. Never, EVER, have I enjoyed an escort mission.

I cannot relate with a game in the same way I relate to a story. I cannot access LotRO in the same way that I can associate with the written stories by Tolkien. As I play, some part of me is forced to access my memories of other games, recalling tactics for engaging multiple opponents, remembering maps, recollecting materials required for crafts. In giving me a purpose for journeying into the world, I lose part of the world. We may play the game at work, but working in the game is serious business. We quest and there are connections made, but are we playing for the story? Is the story playing us? Could it be that we do not play each other, but rather we, the story and the player, are dancing around each other and throwing punches in hopes of a solid connection, one strike to win the match? In a book, I don’t have to worry about this issue. I am a silent observer, safe in anonymity, and I can watch Strider decapitating orcs and goblins to my heart’s content. I don’t get my hands dirty, my soul is clean of the killing, but I am free to watch. The Fellowship’s failing is mine only in thought, and I am free to savor the scenery as they are ambushed yet again. They fight the good fight for my enjoyment. “It isn’t my war, man.”

~Breon Guarino

Welcome to the Colosseum. Again.

Ah, the arcade, and the games in the arcade. I walked for twenty minutes, but it is now worth it. The lights, the sounds, the intensity of individuals hunched to their ta-

SHOOT THE ZOMBIE!

-sks. All of the gamers present test their individual strength and ability against the machines, waging their bat-

OH, GOD, HOLY CRAP, MY LAST HEALTH POINT!

-tles against innumerable virtual foes, pushing for that last thou-

POWER-UP!

-sand points to take the high score, cementing their place in the rec-

HE GOT ME?! THE BUGGER GOT ME?!

-ords…until a superior gamer comes along.

For me, more than any other type of game, an arcade game emphasizes the competition between gamers within the games. Each battle against the machine earns a score; each score is compared to other scores. We are locked into the competition as soon as we play, and we compete because we choose to complete. We long to prove ourselves to the world, or at least to our region, or even simply to a few friends. People long for recognition and the arcade games provide that.

I play Halo 3 with friends from time to time. We run the campaign together on occasion, and sometimes we run the multiplayer modes. We can obliterate each other for hours, but there isn’t much of a lasting record besides easily-forgotten taunts, and they are ALWAYS forgotten by the time everyone gets home.

I play Ranger Mission in an arcade twenty minutes from my house from time to time. I teamed up in the co-op mode with a friend, Chris Myers, and with our combined virtual marksmanship talents, we earned the third-highest posted score. Two other groups have reclaimed slots above us, so we’re holding the fifth slot now. I think the only way to adequately state the way arcade games affect me in comparison to console games is to say that, while I will play Halo 3 for enjoyment with friends, I plan to hop back to that arcade with Chris and see about taking that score back. There is enjoyment, there is competition, and they aren’t necessarily exclusive concepts, but we’re going to take that score back, even if we have to walk through a river of spilled quarters and slain gamers to do it.

 

– Breon Guarino

So I watched LotR yesterday…again…

And I’m supposed to compare it to another fantasy movie I’ve seen. I haven’t seen many. This may be a problem. However, I will not be stopped by a meager unfamiliarity with other media in a genre! The synopsis begins!

Alright, so ((Luke)) Frodo lives with his uncle, ((Owen Lars)) Bilbo in an isolated sort of town, kept secret from ((the galaxy)) the rest of Middle-Earth, almost left behind in time. This place is called ((Tatooine)) the Shire. There is a wandering hermit named ((Obi-Wan)) Gandalf who shows up. He is a ((Jedi)) wizard with far more to him than meets the eye, except on special occasions. He loves the ((isolation and safety of anonymity in the desert wastes of Tatooine)) simple and peaceful ways of the ((Jawas)) Hobbits, and hangs out with them whenever possible.

Meanwhile, certain events take place that force young ((Luke))  Frodo, his new mentor ((Obi-Wan)) Gandalf, and his faithful ((droids, R2D2 and C3PO)) Hobbit friend, Sam to have to leave the Shire. ((Luke)), among others, enters a bar and meets ((Han  Solo)), a Ranger that will transport them to ((Alderaan)) Rivendell, home of ((Princess Leia)) Princess Arwen.

See where I’m going with this?

Later on, Obi-Wan sacrifices himself heroically to buy time for Han to lead the others out of the Death Star.

NOW you see what I mean.

There are wild magics, glowing swords, and epic quests. Our heroes must cross the world/galaxy in order to take the Ring/proton torpedo and deliver it into the fires of Mount Doom/two-meter wide exhaust port. Our hero, who is young and innocent but tenacious and determined, will encouter things that will force  him to grow and test his purity with the temptation of corruption. Our tragic hero is probably going to die. Our Han is going to become a General (or the King) and marry our Leia. There is a formula to these things, one might notice.  And yet, we can always appreciate them, even if only giggling at Luke screaming “NOOOOOO!!!”

— Breon