Wheels Are Turnin’

Being a goal-oriented person reminds me of those bottomless fries at Red Robin: great, until it isn’t. Even at my most long-winded and tangential, I’m someone who is striving towards a point. Those who’ve attempted to spend time with me know how wont I am to ask What’s the plan? Where are we going? What time? I can be pretty laissez-faire about the journey, but only once I’m positive of its destination.

An orientation towards goals is awesome for the first twenty or so years of your life, because here in America we’ve done a good job of telling people during those years where they should be going. The days are structured around assignments and schedules, syllabi and rubrics. You’ve been told where you should be one, two, four years from now, and often you’ve also been given a roadmap to getting there. I loved that, because I never needed to participate in the decision process. Not really. I just asked What’s the plan? and then shrugged and smiled stupidly out the passenger side window as life carried me there, while I fell asleep to the comforting bumpy rhythm of that road.

I woke up from that nap alone in an abandoned parking lot in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, twenty-one years old and for the first time completely clueless as to what the plan was or where I was going. I’d cruised through the overlong tutorial section on the game of life and realized I had no idea how to play the real thing. That day, a panic set in that would stay with me for the better part of the next year as I bounced from state to state and futon to futon. Internally, I screamed out the usual clarifying questions, but no one could answer them for me and I’d never learned to answer them for myself.

I still never have. The end of that episode in my life ended when a friend’s charity landed me a job at an Internet startup company where I was paid well and got along with all of my coworkers. This coincided with the Olympic games, which lit a fire under my lethargic and oversized tuchus and saw me turning down extra helpings of glorious food from my friend’s mother and heading out for “runs” while blasting the likes of Gym Class Heroes’ “The Fighter.” Overcome with the hospitality and hope of the moment, I did something I had never before done: I established a vision for my future. I set goals for myself.

One of those goals was to become a professor. And I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I had to leave the new job instead of accepting their generous full-time offer. I had to learn and take the GRE in two months and hope the scores were high enough to get my applications through the door of worthwhile institutions. I had to figure out what those institutions were. And then I had to hope and pray that I hadn’t just made the single greatest mistake of my life. Well… maybe second greatest, after majoring in English on the cusp of the worst recession since the 1930s.

A couple months later I was able to breathe a deep sigh of relief, upon my acceptance to my top choice school, an offer wrapped in the kind of money that will make any neophyte temporarily abandon critical thinking in favor of inflated self-worth. But it wasn’t just acceptance or financial stability that made my acceptance so relieving; it was the fact that, for the foreseeable future, I was once again not responsible for driving. My school would tell me where I needed to be in one, two, four years. I’d curl up in the passenger seat and once again nod off to sleep.

And then last year I was jolted awake as the car crashed (I was, in reality, responsible for this crash, but pardon it for the metaphor) and I flew headlong through the windshield. I spent the better part of the summer in recuperation, wincing at the bandaged cuts and internal hemorrhaging, consulting with doctors and nurses to get a sense for how bad it was, how much worse it could have been, and whether I’d ever walk again. Autumn was physical therapy, and the knowledge that I needed to get back on track was hindered by the impossibility of me doing so. I wanted to accomplish too much too quickly, but life very sternly reminded me that this was going to take time.

Blame it on watching international soccer or the unseasonably warm temperatures, but December found me feeling like I was back in summer 2012. A long stretch of directionless drifting, dreams deferred and then abandoned. I was back to having no destination, and back as well to failing to choose one for myself. In a bitterly twisted way, I resented my parents for supporting me, not because I hated comfort but because I wanted to hold them responsible for not telling me where to go and what to do.

The push this time came, as in 2012, from a friend, who in this case spent a few hours with me and proceeded to tell me, lovingly if firmly, that as far as he was concerned my senses of self and purpose were nonexistent and I needed desperately to stop making excuses for my inaction and find something to live for again. He gave me a lead on a job. I followed it, swallowed my reservations, and waited to see if it would pan out.

It did. And then a second job did as well. That familiar euphoria washed over me as it had with my acceptance letter in 2013, the sense that people actually valued me and had use for my talents. They wanted me. Heck, they even wanted that English degree. And now, as if to accentuate the point, the commercials are starting to run for this summer’s Olympic games and I’ve found myself listening to “The Fighter” again.

But I haven’t won yet; I’m not yet yelling “kiss my ass.” I’m closer to Eminem’s “back to the lab again” stage than I am to tearing down “haters’” balconies. The fact that other people praising me and my resumé so impacted my self-esteem suggests I don’t honestly have much self esteem at all. And if I treat this new stage of life as yet another excuse to relinquish autonomy and leave the keys to my life in someone else’s hands, then I’m an exceptionally poor learner and we may as well skip ahead to the next time that cycle works out poorly for me.

I’m thrilled because last time I was in a place like this — reconnecting with friends, newly employed, enkindled by Olympic spirit — I used it as an opportunity to develop a vision for my future and the landmarks I wanted to hit along the road trip. I decided where I wanted to be going and then I actually took the steps necessary to get there. That side of me has been dormant for three years, but lately it has been awoken.

I know many friends and family members have been concerned (and increasingly) over these last months as I sank further and further into sullen decay. Hopefully you are relaxed and relieved to hear that that long and ugly slumber is over. Hopefully you’re excited to see where this train goes in 2016, now that the wheels are turnin’ again .

I know I am.

When you’re cut down to the bone, you bleed, but it heals. You hurt, but still you must carry on. Cuz the wheels are turnin’, the feeling’s burnin’, the thrill’s returnin’, my soul is yearning, my heart is churning, the wheels are turnin’ again.
– REO Speedwagon

That Game With the Crazy Guns…

A decade ago a company I loved released the first in a series I would come to adore. A sprawling universe filled with exotic locales, a few zany heroes, and an absurd arsenal, baptized in hilarity with a fart joke or two on the side, Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank games became synonymous for me with the PlayStation — indeed, the gaming — experience. They were about exploration and discovery, about friendship and betrayal, and about destroying a lot of stuff to collect a lot of stuff so you could afford to destroy more stuff more efficiently. I spent a great deal of effort in each entry striving to unlock the promise to “rip you a new one” with a weapon more ludicrous than most other guns in the game combined, and the aim was always one of two extremes: awe or amusement. Rain fire from heaven or turn enemies into chickens, and let the 1812 Overture play on.

It’s been ten years since I first strapped a robot on my back and used his propellers to glide safely from one hilarious encounter to the next, and my memories of the franchise will always be golden as the hidden bolts I slaved away to acquire. But I’ve gotten older, I’ve matured (though some may beg to differ), and while the franchise survives it has done so as a perennial family affair — perfect for the twelve and thirteen-year-olds of today, but not so much for young adults like me. Sadly, for quite some time that “maturity” translated to the mundane, and years ago I traded the R.Y.N.O. for an M4A1 Carbine, the colorful worlds for gritty deserts, the boisterous protagonists for silent, faceless soldiers.

To clarify: I don’t consider the Ratchet & Clank series “kiddie games.” I played three of the PS3 entries last year and enjoyed them well enough. But when it comes to Insomniac, there’s a very clear divide between family-oriented material and adult-oriented material. And sadly, that sterile divide I alluded to earlier is most clearly seen within Insomniac’s own games: in its attempt to provide a “serious” experience in the first Resistance, Insomniac stripped almost all of its signature personality out of the game. Weapons felt uninteresting, and no one was cracking jokes. For the first time in my life, I felt compelled to call one of their games generic. I didn’t even have the heart to push through the whole campaign.

Insomniac’s heart is in making entertainment that everyone can enjoy, and while they excel at this goal, they do so at the cost that comes with eschewing specialization in any field: by being good at everything, they fail to be great at some things. As the most recent entries in the series demonstrate, Insomniac has decided to stop trying to please everyone and instead focus its future R&C games on younger players and their parents, on cooperative groups instead of “hardcore” soloists. And good for them: may they continue to thrive.

As for me, I’ve moved on. I’ve wanted a game that has inventive weapons that made each new acquisition feel exciting and new. I’ve missed in-game challenges, the signature Insomniac “skill point” checklist that functioned on a deeper and more engaging level than any achievement or trophy could hope to. I’ve longed to laugh out loud at character quips, to just listen to radio chatter or the recorded voice on a loudspeaker because everything is too brilliantly-scripted to ignore. I’ve wanted all of these things, but without the chains of childhood reigning them in. I’ve wanted a game that knows exactly what it is and has a blast being just that, and nothing else.

In short, I’ve wanted Borderlands 2.

Now, a “review” proper of this game will have to wait until I’ve finished the main storyline, but suffice to say the similarities between BL2 and the Insomniac games I once loved are uncanny:

  • To begin, the challenges list is the first time I have seen anything like the skill point system implemented in a mainstream shooter, and it is (dare I say) better-implemented than the skill points ever were, contributing directly to player strength and ability through the “Badass Points” system rather than merely unlocking easter eggs.
  • Vault symbols hidden in hard-to reach places are the golden bolts of Pandora, often requiring a great deal of time off the beaten path to locate and affording a similar sense of accomplishment when all in an area have been found.
  • While the weapons themselves never quite accomplish the cartoonish extremes of R&C, their names and effects are more creative than any I’ve seen elsewhere, to say nothing of the oddball unique weapons that some lucky players have been known to encounter. Grenade mods prove particularly compelling, between singularity bombs that create temporary miniature black holes to suck enemies towards them and the many varieties of child-bomb spawning ordinance.
  • Of course, no discussion of Borderlands 2 would be complete without mention of the humor, a point so ubiquitous that it notoriously ruined one prominent reviewer’s experience with its omnipresence. That’s not to say the game plays like a gag reel, of course. A few surprisingly poignant moments pepper the landscape, but the general feel is extremely laissez-faire, with supporting characters I’ve come to love as deeply as ever I loved Captain Quark and an antagonist as dreadfully endearing as any that ever threatened a lombax. Hyperion’s propaganda (especially at the Eridium mining facility), spouting with great pleasantness the expendability and worthlessness of its employees and citizens, brings me right back to the malls, factories, and cityscapes of years past, albeit with a more malicious edge surpassed only by that of a certain Aperture AI.

New, modern, and mature as it is, Borderlands 2 has been for me a game ripe with nostalgia, reminder of why I first loved games and why, despite years of ennui, I never truly lost that love. It proves that even if there is truly “nothing new under the sun,” there are endless, exciting ways to reconfigure the past.

Chronos & Kairos

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. Saint Augustine, Confessions, XI.14

This time travel crap just…fries your brain like an egg. Looper


The trouble with time travel is, it doesn’t work. It never has. It never will. And so long as you accept that, there’s great fun to be had with the concept.

Or perhaps I should say that messing with the timeline doesn’t work. Because a timeline implies a single, fixed path. And whenever some story comes along in which someone has to fix history, the same problem impedes it: if the fix is successful, there will never have been a problem to go back and fix, and thus the fix would never have happened.

A man goes back in time to prevent another man from rising to power. If he succeeds, then he never had a reason to come back — in fact, success of his mission should preclude his existence in the past entirely. But that, of course, precludes the prevention of the rise to power, and necessitates his presence in the past. And so on, ad infinitum.

The best a time travel story can hope for is to provide a look at an eternal present, the place in between actual time where the things causing time to run as it does are happening, perdurably. Anything else is destined to fail, for we have the paradox of two concurrent, impossible, yet inevitable realities: the one in which the problem is eternal, and the one in which the fix is eternal. And so like a hair the timeline splits, and this for every possible variation in what we call history.

It’s fun, if not taken to unhealthy extreme, to consider how our lives would be different had we done certain things differently. But for even basic changes, the potential consequences are staggering. Pluck the wings from a butterfly and chaos ensues.

I recently saw Looper, and (as with Rian Johnson’s previous films) I quite enjoyed it. Looper provides a great deal of entertainment, a refreshingly cool scenario, and stellar acting performances all around. Moreover, Looper happily avoids most of the pitfalls of the time travel genre. Like the concept of loops on which it’s based, the movie nicely wraps things up in a mostly satisfying way. It fails to close the ultimate paradoxical loop, but then I suppose it couldn’t have been expected to.

Movies are pretty brief in the grand scheme of the entertainment spectrum. Even were Looper more ambitious in scope, to the point of pursuing the alternate reality side of the time travel equation, it would likely have lacked the time or the resources to do that pursuit justice. To truly achieve a satisfying grapple with time travel, I think other media are required. Something long-form, like a novel, a television mini-series. Perhaps a game.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time playing Final Fantasy XIII-2 (henceforth 13-2) over the past month. As a sequel, it shines, correcting (if occasionally overcompensating) for every complaint the first game generated. The battle system is more compelling (put another way, it’s a lot easier to die when just relying on auto-battle), the dialogue less stilted, the music more memorable.

More germanely, the story is no longer linear. At all.

Final Fantasy XIII was an ultra-linear experience, one to which the subtitle “The Longest Hallway” would have been aptly applied. It is a perfect illustration of the way we tend to look at time: one line, stretching from start to finish (let’s leave eternity out of this for the moment), unwavering and unchangeable. Aside from the form-enforced exception whereby saved files can be overwritten and failures replaced with victories, there is no alternative to the one path.

One might even argue that the save/load feature enforces the concept of inevitability, for death in battle precludes continuation of the story, a story in which the characters did not die in that battle, and thus you must repeat that piece of history indefinitely until victory — the “true past” — has been achieved.

The sequel, which plays as an apology for its predecessor, obsesses over the consequences and implications of choice and change. Its inciting incident transpires at the end of the world: a protagonist hurled back through time to prevent this reality from happening. And so the red flag is raised: if I prevent the disaster, I’ll never have been sent back to prevent it.

But perhaps not. For it doesn’t take very long for you to realize that in 13-2 the resolution of temporal irregularity results in the generation of a new timeline; or, more accurately, a new branch of the time web.

Early on, you meet a group of people at whose behest you enter a paradox to destroy a time-straddling threat from the space-time out of which it is operating. You then “return” to the time period whence you came, but no one recognizes you; the threat you saved them from never existed. Elsewhere — or, really, elsewhen — the original versions of these people are still waiting for you to destroy that monster. And they always will be — until, perhaps, it destroys them — because for you to destroy it would, in that timeline, preclude your impetus for doing so.

The ramifications of this discovery for the protagonists are staggering. They have undergone a sort of apotheosis, alone (or, at least, quite rare) in their capacity to see and (for lack of a better word) remember every version of history they encounter, and alone in their capacity to change time without obviating themselves.

Or so it seems. I am not terribly far into the game, and already I get a sense that my actions could lead to terrible paradox. I may at some point act in such a way as to generate the aforementioned impossible loop, solving not the problem of others but my own, thereby liberating myself of temporal agency and creating an impossibility  both conceptual and, more importantly, playable.

Meanwhile, changes to the past and future are irrevocably tied to one another. There is a very real possibility that successfully eradicating the apocalyptic future from which Noel was sent will also eradicate Noel. And while that would be extremely problematic for a film (for how, absent Noel, would Serah have embarked on her journey?), it may work in the game, for he would still have existed in the other branches of the timeline wherein his presence was necessary.

The ultimate goal is simply to unlock a good future for Serah and Lightning, in which their past never went so wrong, away from which Lightning was never whisked. Even if memory of the journey taken to achieving such a timeline is lost to its participants, the journey itself is for the player that eternal present to which I earlier alluded. As such, while it’s too soon to guarantee, I think 13-2 is the most successful experiment in time travel as a plot device I’ve ever encountered.

Successful or not, experiences like 13-2 and Looper have had me thinking quite a bit about time lately, and particularly about an encounter, an epiphany of sorts, I had a couple weeks ago while praying rather more urgently than usual.


I’d been pressing in for a while, disheartened by a feeling of disconnect, that I was engaged in mere parody of prayer, speaking aloud to an empty room because that was the role I should be playing, not because there was an eternal deity with which I was presently conversing. I wanted to understand God as He really was, not as some character or distant “thing.”

And then a moment of true revelation, the vastness of God, transcending space and time. I don’t know how else to put it. I saw, for a moment, the implications of true omnipresence, of a being unbound by time or space. I could only think of it in terms of the very time that reality defied. At that moment, God is.

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”

God’s presence. His state of being present. Not just in what we understand to be the present, but also in our past and our future. Wherever He is, He is present, and He is everywhere.

I have never felt as small as I did just then, or as empowered. For I realized that at that moment, the only moment, God was in that room, with me, speaking to me. He was also parting the Red Sea as Israel crossed. He was causing Jericho’s walls to fall. He was guiding the stone from David’s sling. He was freeing Paul from prison. He was watching Augustine steal a piece of fruit. He was witnessing my birth. He was witnessing my death. He was riding triumphantly on a white horse. He was reigning forever.

He was bleeding on a cross.
He is bleeding on a cross.

“Crucifixion,” 1954. Salvador Dali.

Everything that God was doing in that room He is doing right now, and always will be. That is what it is to say that God is unchanging. It is to say that all things are happening at once, which is to say nothing “happens,” for everything simply is. To happen implies a past and future which are merely experienced by us, limited and temporal beings. The concept of changing past or future is therefore preposterous, because while the repercussions are unknown to us they have been, will be, are known to God.

The Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. Chronos is the timeline, the past, present, and future as we tend to think of it. Chronos does not allow for interference. It is inevitable and sequential. Things which do not align with chronos are antithetical to time — anachronisms.

Looper, despite the good it may offer, is bound by chronos and its laws, and judged thereby. It seeks but ultimately fails to introduce kairos into the picture. Kairos is the moment of importance, the thing that matters, perhaps the thing that intrudes on or supersedes chronos. Kairos doesn’t so much change the timeline as define it.

A story in which a person goes into the past to change time but, by her actions, causes the very thing she sought to change — that moment would be kairos. Yet though it cannot be predicted or pinpointed with the exactness of chronoskairos still occurs within chronos‘ confines — and so there is no kairos that does not already have its fixed place along the path of chronos; we cannot expunge these moments from the record or add new ones to it. What changes is simply our awareness of the moments that truly mattered. We see kairos only after it happens, never during or prior, but for one unbound by time, the kairos is there all along, speaking for itself.

In that moment, the absurdity of speaking of God’s fore-anything had me dumbstruck. All the arguments against His “doing things knowing x would happen” felt silly. And of course that’s the point, the reason for his response to Job. His prerogative, yes, but more than that: Job’s questions were framed from a position of temporality and were therefore fundamentally flawed.

I recently discussed Job with an atheist (perhaps agnostic?) who condemned God on the basis of his treatment of Job, acerbically saying “because of course children are fungible” in his denouncement of the supposed consolation for Job’s faithfulness. And admittedly, the whole ordeal still troubles me, for reasons just such as this.

But after that night, it troubled me less. Because I realized that any explanation for the existence of such terrible things in our world as the death and sickness and misery and poverty of people would be beyond my comprehension, and the futility of my understanding might well preclude any attempts at explaining. It is frightening to encounter the reality of one’s limitations, but comforting as well. Boundaries are not inherently bad; they can guide us towards more worthwhile pursuits.

I’m not a universalist. Maybe someday I will be. But playing through 13-2 and watching Looper and having this breakthrough in prayer have all made me think more about alternates, about the very fabric of reality. In 13-2 there is a “true” timeline, the one in which all things end well, in which the bad is not merely corrected but made never to have happened at all.

There are some Christians whose greatest objection to such thinking is that without eternal consequences for sin, the whole exercise was meaningless. But I’d disagree, just as I’d disagree with those who, if 13-2 concludes with Noel never existing and the journey — in the true timeline — never having taken place, would argue that with such ends the means lacked all meaning.

No, so long as we are aware that things could have been different, and are able to appreciate why they aren’t; so long as we can know the extent of evil, and relish in its full and lasting extirpation, then I don’t think an end in which everyone “lives happily ever after” is pointless. I don’t think it’s antithetical to God’s nature either. Paul says that as sin entered all humanity through one man, so shall salvation. The only way that metaphor works is if the salvation is as irresistible and ubiquitous and indifferent to individual volition as was the sin nature it replaces.

But like I said, I’m not a universalist.

What I am is a person bound by chronos, seeking a serendipitous glance at kairos as it unfolds, appreciating the power of a story in which an outside force enters the flow of time and, dying, brings life.

A life in games. In music. Part Two.

I’ve played many games over the last eighteen years. Some were evanescent, forgotten even as I met them. Others, like childhood friends, are fondly remembered but vaguely; time has dissolved their features, erased the details. Ask about them and I’ll say “ah, yes,” and smile, but my brow will furrow if you press for much more than a name.

But another group remains: the indelible. The ones that have, for decades, stayed with me on my journey. The ones that changed that journey’s course. These are the games I seek to share with you, but sharing is impossible. Games are special because they’re interactive, and that means our fondness for them cannot be taught or shared. To love a game is to catch a fever and burn with it, perhaps for a season or perhaps forever, but always alone. Two discussing their love for one game may be at accord on many of its traits but never all of them; in a way, no two people ever play the same game.

Still, we try. You know the games I never played; here, then, are the ones I have. My words are mere formalities, meant to amuse but then, who knows, right? My hope is that by the time you reach the end of this you’ll understand me better, and where my words fail perhaps the music I’ve chosen will speak more clearly. So take a walk with me through my life. Remember these games if they’re part of you, and explore them if they’re not. These are the games that shaped my life; perhaps you’ll meet one here that changes yours.

This is a continuation of my musical journey, begun here.