Angel‘s “The House Always Wins” and Pissing It All Away

Angel, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as so many other good shows throughout television history, still occasionally suffered from the odd episode that was clearly filler and failed to really connect with fans.  “The House Always Wins,” the third episode of season 4, was one such installment, but it has one particular plot device that still speaks to me today, which I feel somewhat redeems what is generally regarded as an uneven, bland episode.

The Spin-and-Win, a gambling wheel rigged by the episode’s villain, the casino owner Lee DeMarco, is only accessible by guests chosen by the casino.  DeMarco uses Lorne’s ability to read people’s auras and see their futures, and with this information, chooses the ones with the most profitable destinies.  They are given a special gambling chip to play the Spin-and-Win, with a million-dollar prize as the lure.  When his mark takes the chip, it is imprinted with that person’s future destiny, and when they inevitably lose, they are left virtually mindless, their destiny taken away along with their ambition, and they spend the rest of their lives in a dull haze, listlessly spinning away quarters in the casino’s slot machine.

Most fans feel this is a pretty heavy handed attempt to equate gambling with throwing away one’s future, and while that’s not a completely off-kilter supposition, it’s one I never really connected with gambling in spite of the context.  The Spin-and-Win, along with its devious ‘destiny chip’ component, may have existed in a casino, and been in the purview of gamblers and those who loved games of chance, but to me the symbolism went a lot deeper.  The trap that the Spin-and-Win represented could take any form, and entrap just about anyone, as long as they obsessed enough about it.

Yesterday I wrote about creation vs. consumption, and how Stephen King’s It both represented that struggle and how it’s helped inspire me to throw off (at least for now) the trappings of consumption so I can create.  The image of this thing, the Spin-and-Win, from this episode of Angel, was another of the primary motivators that came to my mind’s eye as I came to this realization.  The Spin-and-Win, in my estimation, could be anything to anyone, much like It could take on the form of anything that its victims feared.  It wasn’t just about gambling, although I suppose my vice of gaming could easily be argued to have many parallels to that pastime.

For me, the Spin-and-Win represents video games. For someone who loves food too much, the Spin-and-Win represents food.  For others, it could be sex, alcohol, television, movies, music.  More broadly, the Spin-and-Win represent excess, the overindulgence of an otherwise harmless vice that creeps into your life and steals from you.  Time, energy, devotion to otherwise creative or self-improving pursuits.  It’s an easy retreat into something that’s comforting, but otherwise and ultimately, pointless.

I admit, “The House Always Wins” is not a great episode of Angel, though I still enjoyed it just fine.  But the idea of someone throwing away their destiny because they see an easy (but rigged and unattainable) win in front of them is a powerful one that has stuck with me through the years.  It’s always been there, in the back of my thoughts, and I’ve at times wondered why that particular form of that vice stuck when there have certainly been others that may have been more apt.

Now I know why, and I’m sending up that image to pull free of my own tendency to put of creating–writing–with something easy to consume–in this case, video games.

It may not be the prettiest or most eloquent way to break free, but so far it seems to be working out well for me.


Maker Monday: EmulationStation and RetroArch on Windows

I love my video games.  I can waste all kinds of time playing them, from old Atari to the (semi-) latest and greatest on the PS4 or Steam.  But lately, I’ve been trending towards the older stuff, and it’s actually led to some productive projects on my part.

I suppose it’s the truth about science and technology (and motivation): the enterprising slob will work hard now in order than he can be lazy later.

mqdefaultOne such project, which I just finished a few hours ago, involved running EmulationStation, a slick front-end navigation software that lets you glide between emulators you can run on your computer, on Windows.  Of course, emulation aggregators still being fairly new to me, I didn’t realize that was all it did until shortly before getting everything to work.  Fortunately, the searching I did led me to a YouTuber’s wonderful instruction video, which also showed me how to get RetroArch, which is what runs and manages the various emulators one may try to use while trying to play all those games of old.

In the past, running emulators was fairly easy, as you were often doing it one emulator at a time.  You could find an emulator for, say, the Atari 2600, download it, then download the ROMs (aka game files) for that system.  Once all that was done, you would run the Atari emulator, then use it to open the ROMs and play the games.  It was simple enough that I could do it with little effort.

And you can still do it that way if you want.  But as the number of legacy gaming systems grows larger and larger as the years wear on, having an all-in-one approach can be nice if you want to play on more than one system.  RetroPie, for example basically runs EmulationStation and RetroArch together, specifically for Linux and Raspberry Pi users, and it’s great.

6mlcyt1I wanted a similar experience, but for Windows instead.  That way I could put the full power of my PC behind the gaming, and run some of the more robust systems.  In this day and age, I knew it would be more than capable of running any of the systems RetroArch supports.

Now, in order to get this newer experience, some of the same old basics still apply.  You’re finding the software, downloading it, and getting the ROMs and loading them when needed.  But you’re going to end up doing some configuring on your own, and that can get a little scary at first.  As best I can remember, the list of tasks went something like this:

  1. Download the EmulationStation installer, and run it.
  2. Open the software, then close it out.  This generates the .emulationstation folder in Windows Explorer you’ll need to work in.  (ES itself doesn’t work yet, because you need to have a multi-system emulator to work with it. Like RetroArch.)
  3. In the .emulationstation folder, find the es_systems.cfg file.  Open it in Notepad.  This is where you’ll configure the display notes and data of the gaming systems you want to play.  (The YouTuber whose video I followed had a file I could simply copy and paste so I didn’t have to think too much about this, but you’ll need to configure it if you’re going to use different game systems than what he had on his file.  It’s actually not difficult to copy the structure and specify which systems you want to use.)
  4. Download a build of RetroArch from that’s compatible with your version of Windows (32-bit or 64-bit).  Also download the cores.
  5. Go to the .emulationstation folder on your user directory in Windows, and create a new folder, named systems.  Inside the systems folder, create another new folder, retroarch.
  6. Extract the contents of the RetroArch build (it should be a zip file) to the retroarch folder you’ve created.
  7. Extract the cores to the cores folder that should now be in the retroarch folder.
  8. Add your ROMs.  You’ll have to go and find them online, and I’d recommend filing them into folders categorized by system.  Put your ROMs in a new folder (roms) in the .emulationstation folder.

It’s not an impossible series of steps by any means, but perhaps a touch more intimidating than it used to be.  My advice: take your time, pay close attention to the video or tutorial web page you’re using, and do your best.  I’ve been pretty successful at these projects so far, and it’s mostly been by being careful and thorough as I go.  For the most part, however, I’m finding these experiences great, as I both learn how these things work and feel satisfied that I’ve conquered another skill to add to my meager technological repertoire.

And of course remember, piracy is bad.  I know these games are old, and haven’t been sold in years, but video game companies still don’t want you playing them unless you own a copy of the games you download–and for some, even that isn’t good enough.  Just remember to game responsibly.

At this point, you should be good to go.  I’d recommend doing some play testing, and seeing how functions like saving and game navigation work, but based on the little gaming I was able to do, I’m for the most part pleased with how this project turned out.  It’ll be fun to recreate some of the gaming memories I experienced during my misspent youth.

Happy gaming!

Why Horror Games Fascinate Me, Yet I Won’t Play Them… Much

October has been an extremely enjoyable month for me so far, and not just because I’ve gotten such good responses to my daily two-sentence horror stories.  With the weather changing, the temperatures dropping, and the sights of Halloween costumes just on the horizon, this month has felt like a month of transition, relaxation, and rejuvenation.  And while I’ve had a lot of fun getting these two-sentence horror stories out in front of people, it would be easy to forget that this blog is not just for short, terror-inducing content.  So I figured I’d talk about another topic I like, while still keeping to the horror theme: video games.

I do enjoy my video games, and while I don’t consider myself a power gamer by any stretch of the imagination–I simply can’t devote the time and energy needed to any one game like that anymore, much less several of them–I do consider video games an integral part of my regular relaxation.  They are to me an excellent way to unwind, forget about the trials and tribulations of the regular grind of the workday, and immerse yourself in a virtual world.  They can also be a time sink and occasional money sink, but I like to think I’ve become a little more savvy about navigating those particular minefields, at least most of the time.

thewalkingdead_seasontwo_episode4_2There also exists a cute little fascination I have with horror stories and the creepy and macabre.  I love reading creepypastas and listening to YouTube videos about them, and I have my own copy of the Scary Stories Treasury, the collection of all three volumes of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark books (the Gammell illustrated ones, thank you very much).  I even enjoy and revere the old slasher horror films that got started in the 70s and 80s–you know, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Leatherface; those types of movies.  You’d think this particular obsession would dovetail nicely with my love of video games and send me clamoring to get my hands on some interactive scares, thrills, and chills.

But the thing is, I really don’t play horror video games.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy them.  I actually do have a couple of horror games on my Steam account that I have played, and still do (though instances of doing so are few and far between), and I’m happy to watch particular Twitch streamers and YouTube stars do playthroughs of the latest squick-filled story.  But personally, there’s a marked difference between reading a scary story and experiencing one in real-time through a video game.  You get drawn in and manipulated in a way that, for better or worse, can’t often be matched by the mediums of film or prose.

I’ll give you a couple of situations as an example.  

mollydollyI listened to/watched a YouTube video that contained, among other creepypasta stories, the story of Molly the Dolly.  It was extremely well narrated, and the jumpy, jagged animation, though fairly simple, was very effective in making the story stick to my memory.  After I was done with that list, and ready to go to bed, I remember being a little creeped out by the memory of that story, and had some trouble sleeping, but overall was able to get a full night’s rest.  An effectively told story, that I thought would have worked in Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark if it were still going, kept me up a little, but didn’t scare me awake.

Now for the video games.

fnafslenderhorrorA couple years ago, on Halloween, I decided to try my hand at a couple of horror games–Slender: the Arrival, and Five Nights at Freddy’s, for the record.  I handed out candy that night, and then turned out the lights, fired up my computer, and downloaded and played them.  I gave each several hours worth of attention, enduring both the uncertainty of where Slenderman would appear and short out my camera view, and the firsthand apprehension (and explosion of terror) of when and where one of those damn animatronic things would pop out and get me–yay, jump scares.  By the time I was done playing, I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping that night.  Thank goodness I didn’t have to work the next morning.

So, simply put, I like sleeping, and the horror games I have played have made that difficult.  True, I may become desensitized to them with more exposure.  But in the meantime, I just want to sleep.

nt-whf-hnThat’s not to say I patently avoid horror games.  I’ve been intrigued by games like Night Terrors, a “Pokemon GO for horror fans,” as touted by some; We Happy Few, which looks like it’s a psychedelic balance of managing your meds enough to blend into the horrific, mask-wearing community without getting consumed by them; and Hello Neighbor, a game that apparently tracks your habits so the AI can design traps for the way you think.  All look like they’re worth a play, and I may even do so if I’m feeling particularly brave.

But for the most part, I’m content to keep the horror gaming genre at arms length.  I like my scares, and I like my video games, but I think combining the two would not work for me on a firsthand basis, at least not for a while.  I’ll be happy to watch them as let’s plays, and even occasionally dabble in one once in a while, but for now at least, I believe I’ll be happiest just watching or hearing about them.  

At least then I can laugh at the scare the damn things give me.

Gameless on My Smartphone: the Follow-up

No games here.  Not one.

Well, today’s the day.


It’s been a full month since I’ve had my smartphone replaced after it mysteriously bricked on me, at which time I decided not to load any of the mobile game apps I’d been pretty religiously playing until that time.  And I’ve been strong the entire month: not a single gaming app was loaded onto my phone.  Not a single mobile game was played on it.  Now, I can go back to playing Pokemon GO, Marvel Avengers Academy and other such time (and money) sinks on to my phone after proving to myself that I don’t really need them in order to go about my life, relieve stress, or keep me occupied in my down time.

And the thing is, I actually may not do that.

I’m simply not inclined to go back to gaming on my phone, or at least nowhere near to the degree that I was previously into it.  In the last month, I’ve changed jobs; worked more on being productive–creatively, domestically, and personally; read more, in various formats; and enjoyed a lot less need to recharge my phone’s batteries or eyeball my data usage.  It’s been nice, and I think the past few weeks have made me a little bit better for it.

Now, anyone who knows me and how much I love video games may find this to be a little bit of a shock, but I should probably point out that there are a number of factors that helped me reach this decision.

First and foremost, don’t think I’ve given up gaming completely.  I’ve played plenty of video games over Steam and on my PS4 over the last month, and that’s probably not going to change.  But not having the games immediately accessible in the palm of my hand has probably led to me making better decisions about how to spend my free time, such as deciding to listen to a podcast or undertake a Spanish lesson while I’m on the go.  Audiobooks have also been great–I listen to them a lot while I’m either walking or driving.  Restricting where I can access video games hasn’t cut down on my love for them; it’s just made me smarter about when and where I play them.

Heck, I technically haven’t even given up mobile games completely.  Marvel Puzzle Quest is available on Steam–though I think most people play it on their phones or tablets–and that’s exactly where I’ve been playing it for the last month.  I may also reinstall Pokemon GO, since that’s a unique and fun experience, but even there I’m only somewhat inclined to do so.  But there are other games that have probably lost me for good as a result of this exercise, and for good reason.

  • Marvel Avengers Academy: resource management with college-age iterations of the Avengers?  Great concept!  Initially, this game was a lot of fun, but it quickly became weighed down by the endless string of events that quickly became obvious money grabs.  Now it’s ever more clear that the purpose of this game is to put out new characters to charge you big bucks to acquire, and on top of that demand the lion’s share of your time to farm the others.  This one was on the way out before I left, and now I’m just done.
  • Marvel Future Fight: yes, I love my Marvel games.  For a while, this one was perfect.  An action game with RPG elements and a beat-em-up style featuring Marvel characters was about as close as we’d get to a sequel to the Marvel: Ultimate Alliance series of games for some time.  And it held up for a while–it certainly gave its players more bang for their investment buck than Avengers Academy–but eventually got to feeling repetitive and pointless.  Then they started sticking characters behind pay walls, and… that was that.  Being away from it hasn’t made me miss it any more at this point.
  • cards-and-castles-3Cards and Castles: oh, wow, a NON-MARVEL game?!  Yes, I actually can play those–just watch me play the Batman Arkham series.  This looked amusing, and tugged at my love for old trading card games, so I gave it a shot.  It wasn’t bad, and the game play was fun, so it was in my rotation when I lost my phone.  But like the Marvel games listed here, time has just shown that there’s not quite enough here to make me want to come back to it.  Maybe I’ll give it a shot on Steam.

I could list any other number of games on here, but I think the common thread between why I’m not continuing with them, beneath all the other very good reasons, is time.  I just don’t have the time to continue playing these games in a way that makes it worthwhile to me, especially when there’s other activities I could be filling that time with: exercise, creative pursuits, being with loved ones.  Since where we place our money and our time says where we place our priorities, the last month has shown me that this change is one that will only benefit me going forward.

I want my priorities to be my writing and my loved ones.  And so, there it is.  No more games on my phone.

Except maybe Pokemon GO.  Occasionally.

Impromptu Resolution: No Mobile Games on My Phone for a Month

A little over a week ago, something fortuitous happened to me.  While I was out with my family, playing Pokemon GO at one of the public parks, my phone ran out of power.  When I tried to restart it later that night, I found that it was effectively bricked.  The thing wouldn’t progress past the initial startup screen, no matter what I tried.  I couldn’t even get it to do a factory reset (one of my housemates was able to get it to that point where it at least asked to do one, but it still wouldn’t do anything other than go to the startup screen).

We ordered a replacement, and I’m happy to say that my new phone works at least as well as its predecessor before it bricked.  The bad news was that I lost most of my apps, and some of my contact information data (note to self: go through and make ALL contacts Google contacts).  So, I’ve been reloading apps and re-customizing my phone back to the way I had it, more or less.

One thing that I noticed was that I had lost all of the games I tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time on–Pokemon GO, of course, being one of them.  But I also spend or have spent a lot of time (and money) and other mobile games, mostly from the Marvel side of the universe.  Marvel Contest of Champions, Marvel Future Fight, Avengers Academy, Marvel Avengers Alliance (1 and 2), and Marvel Puzzle Quest.  You might say I like my Marvel fix.

Since I’d already gone several days without playing these time (and money) sinks without the world imploding in on me, I figured this was an opportunity to see how things would play out if I simply didn’t load any games onto my phone.  My phone is with me all the time, in my pocket, unlike my other mobile devices and computers,  so I figured I could load the games on to those other devices if I really wanted to play them.  So far, I’m proud to say that I haven’t.  And for the moment, I’ve resolved that I will go one full month–30 whole days–without putting any games on this new phone.

It’s been said that where we tend to put our time, money, and energy says a lot about how committed we are to other aspects of our lives.  I know that, over the years, I’ve put a lot of time, a great deal of energy, and more money than I’d like to admit into these mobile distractions that are so slickly marketed to the public.  And don’t get me wrong: I love games, and I’m pretty sure I always will.  But I’m also a fan of trying to improve my life, be it in the realm of physical health, career, or creativity, and it’s impossible to deny that time put into gaming will, at some point, necessarily detract from my time in these other areas.

Maybe by keeping them off my phone for a few weeks, I can blunt my addiction to them and give myself an opportunity to level up in other aspects of my life.

In any case, we’ll see!