It's here: video game season. That magical time of the year right after the veritable desert wasteland of summer, when game developers the world over suddenly remember that they have jobs to do and go about trying to drown their customers in a glut of quality entertainment. I know you're going to feel unproductive, sitting there on the couch while the world enjoys itself outside -- children leaping and skipping through the fallen leaves, women laughing gaily on their bicycle rides, men, like ... tossing a medicine ball, I guess? I don't know a lot about outside. But the point is this: You need to stay on that couch. Because gaming isn't a waste of time. If you pay close attention, it can teach you volumes of hard lessons about yourself.
For example, I just picked up Dishonored, the new stealth game from the people who brought us Skyrim, and already I'm learning things about myself. Awful, terrible, disappointing things that I wish I could forget but will probably haunt me forever. Like ...
#5. I'm Way Nicer Than I Thought, and It's Going to Get Me Killed Someday
I love stealth games. Developers, if you let me convincingly pretend to be a ninja, a spy or a laughably inadequate Batman, I'm going to wad $60 up and throw it in your face. Then, while you're distracted, I will steal your game and run away (it's the perfect crime -- nobody ever comes after me, for some reason). So it's too bad that, without exception, I am universally terrible at them. I finally figured out why: To nobody's surprise more than my own and that of the child I am currently kicking, I think I'm terrible at stealth games because I'm simply too good of a person.
Yep. Paragon of virtue over here.
If you're not familiar with the genre, the core of any stealth game is staying unnoticed. Rather than resorting to something as vulgar as slapping helmets on the players and asking them to sprint through a beige war zone full of cinder blocks and exploding minorities, stealth games set players loose in a semi-open environment and let them plan their murders discreetly, like gentlemen. Sometimes one of the murder-dolls will turn out to be an important character, however, or at least be programmed to do something mildly interesting if you let them live, thus giving players some sort of incentive not to kill them (just yet).
And that ruins everything. Because, if you're anything like me, instead of flapping out of the darkness, a flailing half-seen shadow of death whose name, as far as the enemies are concerned, is "OH SHI-," you are now cautiously approaching every guard like a timid squirrel taking breadcrumbs from a pensioner in the park. I am of course aware that they're probably going to kill me even as I approach, but the doubt is always there: Maybe not this time! Maybe this guard is different. Maybe he's just a friend I haven't met yet. Sure, he has the exact same character model as all those other guys who have, historically, done nothing but try to kill me, but you know what? Somebody once told me that you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover. I think it was Jesus. Or maybe Reading Rainbow.
And so, with love in my heart and a friendly word on my lips, I will cautiously sneak up on some jackbooted sentry and optimistically press the button that breaks stealth. At which point he'll holler, "Ha! GOT YOU." And then spit fire into my face.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Fuck you, LeVar Burton; you have ruined me.
#4. I'm Not as Smart as I Think I Am
When I was in grade school, an assessor came through and gave all of the children IQ tests. From my class, myself and another boy scored in the "genius level" and were considered "gifted students." This meant that we could be transferred to a special school for the remainder of the year. I was proud, surprised and a little humbled. Although I was worried about leaving all my old friends behind, I put on a brave face and agreed to the transfer, because I knew. I knew this was it: This was the day I discovered my mutant powers and joined the X-Men.
"You know what this group is missing? A bunch of chubby 10-year-old boys!"
That special school very quickly realized their mistake.
That's when I learned that intelligence is only one part of the equation that makes up genius: The other part is patience. A smart and patient child will read an interesting fact in his science book and then devote himself to the study of chemistry. A smart but impatient child will read that same science book, learn that acids and bases "react violently" and drop everything to sprint out of the classroom. Two hours later, he'll be in the principal's office for throwing water balloons full of baking soda and vinegar at the local bully under the mistaken assumption that he would explode.
You can see the same thing when you watch somebody play a game like Dishonored: The truly intelligent player stalks his prey cautiously; he memorizes the patterns and refines the angle of attack. He waits for his moment, and then strikes, merging back into the shadows before the scream can even leave his victim's lips. The impatient player will watch those same guards, slooowly walking their routes, muttering the same three lines of dialogue to each other, and he'll snap and toss a vat of exploding whale oil at them, because explosions are awesome and watching dudes mosey about unimpeded is not.
#3. My Immaturity Will Be the Death of Me
Early on in Dishonored, you're informed that empty bottles, dishes and various other items can be tossed to distract enemies. Players could grab a teacup and gently toss it into an unused alleyway to distract the cyber-ruffian below, and then, when the ruffian goes to investigate, they could drop from the sky and stick their telescoping sword right through his bowler.
They could do that.
Or they could grab a fifth of whiskey, carefully plot out the arc and velocity and then whip it right into an old-timey riot cop's face and laugh as he swears profusely and staggers about. I mean, sure, that cop's next action is to discover and immediately shoot the dude who just whipped a bottle at his head -- but just imagine the conversation they'll have when they fish your corpse down and discover that the uppity 12-year-old they thought was tossing garbage at them was instead a super-assassin with a biomechanical face, loaded up with razor-wire mines and explosive crossbow bolts, who inexplicably decided that his best method of attack was bourbon to the face.
Now, to apply it directly to the forehead ...
That's just one example of the many, many stupid practices that get me killed in Dishonored. Here's another: Like most other stealth games, Dishonored also gives the player a nonlethal option. You have choke-out holds and sleeping darts if you're not comfortable butchering old-timey policemen just trying to do their jobs. But while the developers no doubt envisioned a noble antihero stalking the shadows -- a Batmanesque figure of stern, uncompromising morality who strikes fear, even as he shows mercy -- what they got instead was me: An alternate universe 19th century pervert who sleep-darts all the guards and carefully positions their bodies so that, when they wake up -- just before they pull out their pistols and mow me down -- they find that they've been touching each other's junk.