Thursday, March 18, 2010

Confession Time

The Devil's Own Box of Colors

Several weeks ago I was on an online gaming forum and confessed a secret shame.

I play Bejeweled 2. On my Xbox 360. And not just a little bit.

If you are not in the video game know, this is shameful because I will now have to go before the Grand Vidyageam Tribyoonal and tender my Hardcore Card.

Normally, I don’t put much stock in labels in general… casual/newb versus hardcore/true doesn’t mean much to me in ANY of the fangeek shit I’m involved in. This includes video games. BUT. In gaming at least most of my tastes tend to fall naturally into the various hardcore-centric genres, with the occasional foray into mainstream games and then, once in a blue moon, a so-called casual game. It is just how my tastes run, being as old as I am, and given the fact that oldschool game genres have acquired the patina of hardcoreness over time… as in, you’d HAVE to be hardcore to still be playing that old/simplistic/difficult shit.

But Bejeweled 2, as a game, dips into a rarely experienced level of casual-ness for me. Let’s put it this way; It is always on those bargain spin racks of jewel-cased PC software that are omnipresent at every electronics store or electronics departments in catch-alls like Target or Walmart. This game is displayed there like gum or mints would be racked up in the checkout aisle at the grocery store. So this thing is an ‘ooh puzzle game, pretty colors’ impulse buy for any grannie or schlub that might have a PC.

I bought it from the Xbox Live Arcade service because I just wanted something to fall back on that wasn’t too difficult, had simple controls, and wouldn’t mean much to me. Sort of video game meditation, in a way. For those times I wanted brightly-colored entertainment that didn’t require any sort of exertion or investment on my part.

The simple and meditative part was (somewhat) correct. Otherwise, my assumptions about the game were a huge error in judgment. Because you see, the other part of the Bejeweled problem is:

I totally suck at it.

There it is. An uber-casual game (but that shouldn’t matter I tell myself) kicking my ass. As an added affront to all things that make me ME, this game is subverting my indifference to the achievements that are part of the current game generation.

Normally I think achievements (or trophies on the PS3) are okay, not something I’d go out of my way to obtain unless they were adjacent to my own personal goals in a game, ie in Bayonetta I really want to explore the game world, so the achievement for finding all the Alfheim Portals lines up with that. I’ll make the effort to backtrack and do what is necessary to get that achievement. It isn’t much extra effort. Many achievements are tied to finishing the game or beating a boss or whatever. That’s all good, but really no big deal since that stuff is usually part of successfully playing most games.

Bejeweled is giving me such a hard time that the basic achievements for each game mode (but particularly the standard Classic mode) are now looking like badges of honor that I really need to claim to justify the time I’ve spent. And I have been blown away by how utterly I fail to even get close.

This has made me re-assess a few things about myself, puzzles, and puzzle games in general. Trying to discover what made this game so difficult for me is leading, inexorably it seems, to the conclusion:

I may be shitty at all sorts of strategic/thinking person’s pursuits.

Now this particular revelation may not seem like much of a big deal. So what, yeah?

The big deal is that I always kind of assumed… for all of my not-inconsiderable years… that I was smart enough or clever enough to just be ‘naturally good’ at puzzle games or strategic thinking stuff all around. The full assumption is like this; puzzles and strategic pursuits (chess, RTS video games, etc) are in the ‘realm of the intelligent’ and that one’s ability to ‘solve’ these sorts of things is directly proportionate to one’s intelligence. The smarter you are, the easier puzzles and brainy pursuits as a whole should be.

Now objectively that may not actually be true. I’m sure there are plenty of intelligent people who are shite at puzzles or certain strategy/cerebral pastimes. But for me, and the type of intelligence I’ve prided myself on having, this correlation has always been assumed… even if mostly subconsciously.

While I don’t think I lord it over people and I do TRY to be well-rounded and well-grounded enough not to come off as some elite intellectual tit, I still take a certain pride in my education, my desire to continue to learn, my ability rapidly assimilate and retain information and my logical approach to problem solving. It is what has allowed me to do well most any place I’ve been employed of course, and it is what allows me to traverse a lot of different fanboy arenas, material from which frequently surfaces here on this ‘blog.

So it might not be accurate, but it has always SEEMED, that with that sort of brain thinky type games should be (generally) a snap, or at least a modicum of ability would be natural. Now that I’ve discovered I may be crap at this sort of pursuit, it is making me call into question just how smart I am REALLY.

Have I overestimated myself? Am I guilty of pride and arrogance over my own smarts? For years and years?

There wouldn’t be quite this deep a personal examination over just the one casual puzzle game, Bejeweled 2. But in asking myself the question ‘why is this so hard?’ after a particularly grueling session of having my ass handed to me, I was trying to think up similar instances where I DID perform to expectations, I started to realize there may not be any. Or very few.

Through my kid and teen years I tried my hand at go, shogi, chess, on-paper puzzle games (crosswords, word searches, etc). Remembering back, I think I’m realizing I was never good at any of it. I have always played, losing or failing to finish most of the time, but always moving on with the dismissive thought ‘well, I could win if I really put my mind to it’. I have since that time just assumed I didn’t make time to practice that stuff because there were so many things to be interested, but that if I HAD practiced, it would’ve been almost record time that I would’ve gotten proficient or competitive. Shit, I LEARN everything else in short order, why would this brainy game stuff be any different?

I don’t think I believe this anymore. I think that on some level, I realized that it was going to be a lot of work to get good at ANY of it, and I justified not putting the effort in by labeling it ‘easily do-able for my big brain’ and moving on. It may not be important in a real sense, but it is rather disturbing to find something you’ve taken for granted about yourself to be fundamentally untrue. Cripes, its taken this long to figure this out? Or rather be honest about it?

In my early adult years, I had a friend who really liked chess. I thought I did too. But looking back on all the times I played and lost (usually badly), and all the many more times I put off having a game with him, I think I liked the IDEA of chess… what it is, a strategy game about a stylized battle with medieval trappings… but I was not keen on how I sucked at it (understandable) but was in denial about how much work I’d have to do to overcome the suckage because obviously if you’re smart there shouldn’t be that much work.

Maybe I’m being silly. Maybe I’m sort of stuck recalling only the incidents in which I failed or ducked, and not remembering times when I did fine. Maybe even performed as expected. I CAN come up with a few successes.

For every success however, it appears there are two or more failures. I got through World of Goo in record time. Portal, no problem either. No hints, no guides, no walkthroughs. But let me boot up Braid, and I’m totally lost. I can’t believe how incredibly obscure this game is to me. And looking about on the internet it seems I’m just about the only one! I’m also working on a color matching puzzle mode on the DS game Magnetica. I’m appalling at it. This game should’ve clued me in that I’d suck at Bejeweled, but I just didn’t ‘get it’ back when I started it. I’ve tried a few Sudoku puzzles. I can do the easy ones no problem, but once I start getting into middle difficulty (of course what constitutes what difficulty is probably widely variable) I get stuck like a dingleberry on a sheepdog.

And I can literally remember thinking ‘enh, I don’t have time for this kid stuff, but I could totally dominate if’n I wanted to.’.

I’ve always wanted to learn shogi. I’ve owned a set for years. But it is so much like chess that deep down I’ve probably avoided it like I have chess. When an XBLA version came up, here was a chance to play this game and learn it without embarrassing myself with real players. Not that there is a surfeit of shogi players where I live. There’s even awesome, detailed tutorials, and CPU players to practice with.

I can’t even get close to beating the level one rube CPU guy.

This discovery about myself isn’t life-changing. Really, it isn’t even as big an event as the existence of this ‘blog entry is making it out to be. Mostly it’s humorous to me. But there is still a mild level of shock, bewilderment, and disappointment at this. There shouldn’t be a lot of stock put in ‘puzzle skills’… but to find out you’ve got nothing where you always assumed there was something… man. Especially if, like me, you were so sure… you had so totally assumed. Its like finding out a bank account doesn’t really have any money in it, and what’s more the firm you assumed was paying a dividend into it really wasn’t!

I think it fair in the cosmic sense that I have to work to be good at these things. There isn’t truly some law or logic to thinking that because one is reasonably intelligent, or educated, or intuitive that you should just naturally be good at anything. I’m certainly not entitled to a natural skill. If asked directly I wouldn’t have said a smart person ‘HAS to’ be good at puzzles. At most I’d say ‘it wouldn’t surprise me’ if a smart person tended to be good at puzzles. But at heart, I’d say I believed the first quote. It isn’t so easy to shake that conviction, if you’ve held it all your life, no matter how untrue.

Failure to stop believing it also leads me to believe maybe I ain’t so damn smart. I don’t think I ever was. Huh.

After my forum confession I was pointed to a site dedicated to acquiring achievements. The site tells you how to win by any means necessary including various forms of cheating or subverting the designers’ intentions.

Now some achievements and the methods expected to get them are stupid. Stupider than stupid. So some fiddling with fairness might be justified. But for someone like me… who cares? I don’t care about right and wrong in getting achievements because I’m not in it to collect the damn things anyway! I think my online buddy’s point was to just let me acquire the damned thing and put Bejeweled 2 behind me, but doing that just isn’t my way. Using underhanded means would just rankle and eat at me. Like I hadn't really gotten the better of the game, and that is the whole point of frustration in the first place. I’d be far more likely to get satisfaction out of taking a game disc outside, breaking it, then setting it on fire. I may not be smarter than the game, but I can still kill it. Who has the power now you little plastic fuck?

I looked at the site anyway. I’m not averse to getting strategy tips and advice on how to be a better player and I knew that for some achievements you just need to be good. Lo and behold, the achievements I wanted were exactly like that. You can’t really fake your way to them.

There was a perversely comforting aspect to the site's comments about the game. They rated the game 9 out of 10 for difficulty in acquiring the achievements in Bejeweled 2. Not only can you not cheat, but the goals set by the designers require a ton of practice, time, and luck to get! Quote: ‘If you are looking for a quick set of points to boost your Gamerscore, look elsewhere.’.

Now I don’t feel quite so much like the grannies and schlubs can do it but I can’t.


  1. This has nothing at all to do w/ this post, but why do you have an adult warning for this site?! Is blogger doing that or are you doing that?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Its because of the language and imagery I use. By putting that warning up there I don't have to censor myself in any way. I don't plan on putting any dirty pics up or anything, but I can do whatever I want with the knowledge I gave fair warning to all. Blogger has NOT imposed this on me.

    Personally I'm not a fan of warning labels really, but since I've become a parent I'm now kinda down with some signposts to content. People can't just be expected to be on guard for adult content with every single little thing.

    As a dyed-in-the-wool metalhead I'm supposed to be opposed to Parental Advisory stickers. But as it turns out I'm opposed to censorship, not a bit of warning. WalMart censors all the music. Fuck 'em. Don't shop there.