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Consoles I Have Known

ILLUSTRATIONS BY JENNIFER DANIEL

Second Place Is First to Lose

The current war between console makers is bloody, and sides must be chosen. A look toward the next generation.

In the ancient past, the years before 1998, ideas and innovations wasted all kinds of time “gestating” and “developing” and “perfecting themselves” before they came into contact with the general public. There they were embraced slowly and tentatively, often thriving or perishing based on nothing more than their own merits.

Lucky for us, those lazy days have gone the way of flooz.com. Thanks to the Internet, opinions abound, and are no longer impeded by wasteful pre-requisites like “experience,” “research,” or “truth.” Our friends, once trusted confidants, are now collectible personas to whom our only intimate connection may be a mutual love of online Scrabble or a shared hatred of Jared Leto and private self-reflection. Word-of-mouthnow moves faster than cognitive processes, screaming toward our consciousness like a bullet train with its brakes cut and the word “FAIL” painted across the grill. Most ideas and innovations have already been rumored, leaked, debated, hyped, worried, doubted, and either rejected or declared the best thing ever before they’re even made available for pre-order. It’s why consumer product launches have become major media events. And I’m pretty sure it’s why I found myself sitting at my desk the evening of December 9th, 2006, staring at the computer screen in shock as I read a message from eBay informing me—no, congratulating me—that I’d just won the right to pay $800 for a PlayStation 3.

The events of that evening were the product of my entanglement with Kotaku.com, a popular video-game blog. Over the course of a few months, I’d graduated from a casual reader to a compulsive one, checking it constantly, like a ship captain’s worried bride returning to her lighthouse window. The blog’s pre-launch coverage of the PlayStation 3 was remarkably thorough, especially considering few of its editors (or readers) had actually laid more than eyes on the thing. It didn’t matter. They continuously published rumors and sketchy information as if they were genuine news until proven otherwise, later amending posts with “updates” like some retroactive form of fact-checking. Unofficial 3D renderings of the video game system and its controllers were analyzed to the point of exhaustion. White papers were scanned and uploaded, so users could debate the ways a Blu-Ray drive and floating point processors might translate to better games. Well before the PlayStation 3’s launch it had already polarized the online gaming community—either it was the true next-generation of video games, or the death knell of Sony. And there I was at the altar, at the lighthouse window, full of hope and fear. Never mind that most of this prognostication was put forth in the comments section by guys whose professional credentials rarely extended beyond a part-time gig in the video games department of Best Buy—I trusted them. I mean, they wouldn’t spend so much time arguing about something unless it was important, right?

With all of the media coverage and opinion swirling about, mild curiosity gave way to crazy obsession and even factors that should have cooled me on the idea of purchasing the console—its $600 price tag; nerds being robbed at gunpoint while camped out in front of Wal-Mart the eve before launch; that I have grey in my beard and might like to own a home some day—were easy to ignore from the depths of my blog-hole. After it was reported that initial PlayStation 3 supplies were depleted hours after its release, I found myself following the grey market PS3 economy on eBay, like some kind of depraved tramp scouring the pavement for partially-smoked cigarette butts.

What followed is still a mystery to me, but I do recall the release I experienced after “winning” my auction. It was a familiar sensation, eerily like one I’d experienced years earlier when, in full sprint, less than one hundred feet from my apartment, I finally succumbed in my struggle against a sudden, crippling, clammy intestinal illness and defecated in my khakis right in the middle of the sidewalk. A warm euphoric feeling, quickly cooled by a sad, fetid reality that seemed to linger forever, as it settled in my shoes. The main difference between that, and spending almost $1,000 on a video game console, was I didn’t have to tell my girlfriend I shat my pants.

While I was cashing in my Treasury Bonds, all my friends had invested in the main competitor for the affections of man-children everywhere, Microsoft’s Xbox 360.The other difference was now, instead of just some very pressing laundry needs, I was going to enjoy the very latest in home gaming technology. Unfortunately, I would be enjoying it alone: while I was cashing in my Treasury Bonds, all my friends had invested in the main competitor for the affections of man-children everywhere, Microsoft’s Xbox 360. (An equal number of friends had purchased the cute, motion-sensitive, attention-hogging Nintendo Wii, but that system wasn’t even on my radar for one simple reason: I am not an eight-year-old Japanese girl.) All the Xbox love felt like betrayal. I mean, what kind of gaming legacy did Microsoft have? Their only previous console, the original Xbox, was an embarrassment of form and function: an unwieldy PC tower set on its side, spray-painted “cool dude” black with a slime-green “X” logo. (The preferred prefix of all gigantic corporations making a floundering attempt at youth marketing—“X-Treem Cola Taste!”) Like many things Microsoft did, the original Xbox lacked subtlety and polish, and was quickly abandoned by its parent company when it stopped performing well.

Therefore, it was easy to accuse its successor of being an obvious exercise in What Have We Learned Here marketing. After all, it was iPod white, compact and needlessly contoured, all conveying a concession to, rather than a grasp of, industrial design. It looked plastic and shaky, cobbled together in a hurry, and was also garnering a reputation for being unreliable—its “Red Ring of Death” (or “RRoD,” according to my video game blog confidants), the console’s telltale sign of a complete meltdown, eventually became so commonplace Microsoft offered to extend the product warranty to an unprecedented three years. Kind of like botching plastic surgery but offering to glue your patient’s new nose back on each time it falls off.

But the Xbox 360 had two clear advantages over the PlayStation 3: cheaper price and better timing. By entering the market a full year earlier, Microsoft finally had a respectable library of games to play. My Xbox 360 friends raved about their multiplayer online death-matches in Gears of War and Rainbow Six, where they shouted orders and insults to each other over built-in headsets. Meanwhile, my sole PS3-owning pal and I struggled to establish an online match of Resistance: Fall of Man by communicating over cell phones. (“Do I join your party, or do you join my game? Should we meet in the lobby? Where is the lobby?”) Then, once we were able to start a game, it was usually just the two of us hunting each other from opposite ends of a vast and desolate landscape, devoid of any other players. Almost 30 years and millions of polygons since I’d started gaming, I was reduced to playing nothing more than a flashier, sped-up version of Combat, the original Atari two-player cartridge.

My PlayStation 3 lay fallow for months. Occasionally, I dusted it with a microfiber cloth, or warmed it up to watch one of the few available titles in the Blu-Ray video library. (I can attest, with firsthand knowledge, the Blu-Ray version of Rocky Balboa has so much crisp detail you can really see, with perfect clarity, why you’d never want to watch this movie in any format.) And each day my precious video game blog continued to bring more bad news: Games made for both systems actually looked worse on the allegedly more powerful PlayStation 3; the PS3 was losing exclusive rights to some of its most important titles, thanks to Sony’s arrogance and Microsoft’s Scientology-like policy of throwing around enough money to turn any “no” into a “yes, sir;” and the games that remained exclusive to the PlayStation 3 were receiving horrible reviews. (In particular, Lair, an ambitious-looking combination of riding around on dragons and burning things to death, was reviewed so poorly it may be the video game industry’s Heaven’s Gate.)

The blog’s comments section was on the verge of all-out console war. It was like the Jets and the Sharks, if the Jets and Sharks were ineloquent and fought anonymously from windowless offices. Any post about either video game console resulted in a message board exchange like this:

MasterbaitingChief04: PS3 = no gamez!! PWND!!
FinalFantasyFanXIII: 360 = RRoD!! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!
Burninator86: first!
Burninator86: er…third. ; )
Burninator86: and fifth! Also, PS3 suxxx.

And so on, ad infinitum. I couldn’t take it anymore. What with the blog, the circular logic of its comments, my bitter loneliness, and a frustrating obsession with all three, I did the only thing that made sense to someone with my limited powers of reason: I started taking medication for ADHD. And I purchased an Xbox 360.

 

* * *


Gaming, like life, is supposed to be fun and that experience is measured in two ways: the fun you’re having and the fun you could be having. When I was introduced to gaming, the fun I was having playing my Radio Shack version of Pong was considerably lower than the fun I could have been having with an Atari 2600. I had a lot of fun going to parties in high school, but those kids drinking wine coolers seemed to be taking fun a whole new level. The Xbox 360 was like that wine cooler party and, at least according to everyone else, the PlayStation 3 was more like a small gathering of friends quietly watching PBS in the dark. That’s just how it works sometimes.

My first few weeks with the Xbox 360 were like a glorious honeymoon. The entertainment was plentiful and diverse. Between games like Gears of War, Bioshock, and Crackdown, it seemed like there was no end to the myriad ways one could unflinchingly slaughter endless waves of humanoid foes. Halo 3 was surprisingly fun as long as my girlfriend didn’t walk in the room and witness me wearing a toy headset and pleading with my more experienced teammates to remind me again: “Are we the blue guys or the red—ohfuckimdeadagain.”
 

I even sold my PlayStation 3—for almost half what I paid for it. Why would I want that old thing again when I had this not-as-old thing? When I read my video game blog and saw a snide comment about the PlayStation 3’s lack of quality games, I nodded slowly and thought, “ain’t that the truth, brother.”

Unfortunately, honeymoons don’t last forever. Pretty soon you awake to the realization that you married a cheap, stupid, ugly monster with a gigantic and ungainly power adapter. Unlike my friends, I wasn’t always available to meet up online for hours-long gaming sessions. As a result, I fell dangerously behind the learning curve. On the rare occasion I had time to play, it was often at three in the morning and I was alone, trolling the online game lobbies where I’d hook up with anonymous predators who were happy to exploit my lack of experience and shoot me in the face over and over again before moving on to the next sweet young thing. For all the upbeat chatter about “online gaming communities,” it should be noted that these communities are more like housing projects, filled with screaming foul-mouthed teenagers. I hadn’t been called “faggot” so many times since junior high. This was fitting because most of the gamers calling me a faggot (usually right after braining me with a rifle butt) couldn’t have been more than 14 years old—I know this because their invectives were usually delivered with a cracked voice and the wet slur of orthodontia. I’m sure I was not without blame, either. Besides being unskilled, I had chosen a screen name—or, in the parlance of Xbox Live, a gamer tag—that was surely chum for any aggressive creeps circling the game lobbies. In a match filled with gamer tags like “Wolfbane,” “KingSuperNutz,” and “LordBloodMoore,” I guess you’re kind of asking for it when the onscreen graphic announces, “Glenn Close has joined the deathmatch.”

If online gaming taught me anything it was how much I prefer my own company. It wasn’t exactly fun getting my ass handed to me repeatedly by total strangers, most of whom would probably describe themselves as “hardcore” gamers without any hint of self-consciousness. (Maybe it’s generational, but I always assumed being hardcore is something you earn only after bloodying one’s own face with a microphone, jumping Snake River Canyon in a rocket car, or going “ass to ass.”) I was back to the arcade when I was a teenager, around the time when two-player arcade games started emphasizing versus-style play. Suddenly, some guy who’d been hovering over my shoulderwould ask, “can I jump in?” And then, a few seconds of Mortal Kombat later, I’d be wiped off the screen. Gone was more genteel turn-based gaming—I eat some dots, while you watch; then you eat some dots while I watch. With versus-style play, the winner earned a higher score and possession of the machine. It’s what led me to stay out of arcades for good. I was a gentleman, after all. And there was certainly no place for gentlemen in the Xbox world, either.

Other factors mitigated in my growing indifference to the Xbox 360—the uniformly violent nature of the games; the disturbing amount of torture porn available for download from Microsoft’s online video marketplace—but none as much as this: less than six months into my relationship with the Xbox 360, it gave me the red eye. Or, more accurately, the Red Ring of Death.

Maybe it’s generational, but I always assumed being hardcore is something you earn only after bloodying your own face with a microphone, jumping Snake River Canyon in a rocket car, or going “ass to ass.”Having it break down so quickly seemed like an obvious sign that my suspicions were confirmed. I needed to get my life right again. I had become disoriented by the spin and counter-spin, whether from the executives, the bloggers, or the gamers who stalked them. So I did what I knew in my heart was the most sensible thing in this situation: I purchased another pre-owned PlayStation 3 on eBay, and treated my repaired and besmirched Xbox 360 with icy indifference. I know. To the average person (or board certified behaviorist) it would appear as if I’d learned nothing. That once again I just applied my formula of Fun Actual/Fun Potential which was inherently rigged against me. But no, quite the opposite. I finally realized that I never liked the Xbox 360, even from the beginning. I was just too caught up with public opinion. I forgot where my heart was, and turned my back on the underdog—the incredibly overpriced underdog. The PlayStation 3 was probably going to finish second place (or even third) in this utterly fabricated console war, but that didn’t mean it was going to lose. The games will surely come. One advantage I have as an adult gamer is that I actually know myself and, as such, I agreed to trust my own opinion—my completely subjective, and largely inexpert opinion.

Honestly, I’m very happy with my decision. I read my video game blog now with a new sense of calm, and regard the commenters with a mixture of perspective and compassion. I don’t expect I’ll need to purchase a video game console again until I have children. God, I can’t wait to have children.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer¬†Todd Levin was a writer for The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien. He has also written for GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Salon. He lives in Los Angeles, where he comforts himself in knowing at least the sun is bright. More by Todd Levin