#Mv27: The Lights in Skyrim are Stars

When Skyrim came out in late 2011, I wanted it but I was forced to wait until school let out. At the time I was finishing my second-to-last semester of college. With projects, papers, and finals to attend to, I knew adding a game on top of that all would do me no good. More troublesome, I was not long away from answering the question of where I’d when school ended for good, whether I’d move to Illinois with my girlfriend or end up back home with my parents. That December was the calm before a storm of decisions and Skyrim was the refuge I chose to take.

In my time with Morrowind, I was young and innocent. I had no real worries or serious responsibilities. School was a joke to me and my parents weren’t very strict – I could spend every day playing video games like Morrowind without consequences.

With Skyrim, my life was completely different; I was less innocent. I had all sorts of responsibilities to take care of: work, college, relationships. My girlfriend and I were doing well enough, but she left at the end of the semester to visit her family in Illinois and I stayed behind before I planned to return home to my own family. She was gone, schoolwork was done, and my job was on hold for the holiday. I was left completely alone.

Perhaps I should have gone home immediately when my semester was over, but I stayed in the apartment for a solid week. During that week, I did nothing play Skyrim, drink rum and Coke, and order take-out. This was effectively my final holiday break as a human being. The days of getting out for the summer or for Christmas only to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted were at an end. Once summer hits, I would be a graduated adult beginning the long, arduous journey of making myself into someone.

For that week, I was only interested in being Mage, Thief, and Warrior. My only concern was getting enough loot to kit myself out with powerful weapons. The only thing I wanted to progress toward was kicking some dragon asses and finding some daedric artifacts.

The friends who were there to trade secrets with about Morrowind had all gone. They were in business or graduate school. Some were on their way to being married, some were on their way to great careers. Some were still at home or nearby. It was hard to keep up: I had fallen out of touch with most of them already.

But I was on my way to assassinate the Emperor. I was drunk and full of bad Chinese food.

I had so many decisions to make. Where will I go? What companion will I choose? What will be my profession? I answered those questions only within Skyrim. Real life could wait while I saved the world – a fictional one but seemingly just as important.

I sunk a hundred hours into Skyrim over the break, most of them coming in that first week. It was absolutely fantastic. More than the game itself, it was everything my brain needed at the time to step away from my troubles, step into the troubles of some other place, and escape. Some of us cry for more objective reviews of games; we want the subject removed from the subject-object relationship in some useless quest for fairness or objectivity. Nothing we experience can ever be broken clean away from the entanglement of our emotions and perceptions. Regardless of Skyrim’s absolute merit as an incredible game, in that moment, it was my safe harbor from a life of fraught with choices far more permanent than those within the game.

It was my refuge and in it, I stared at the lights in the night sky above Skyrim’s frozen wasteland and pondered, wondered, and wished.

This month, I’m doing a retrospective series about my life as a gamer to celebrate my 27th birthday. Each post will be written and published in a loosely chronological order. I am calling this series Murf Versus 27.

#Mv27: Let’s Kick It! (Seriously, we need your money.)

When I found Kickstarter, I was immediately hooked. It seemed like the best solution to one of the worst problems facing gaming. For my entire life, big publishers had sucked the life out of games and their developers. Once a wild west of creativity and passion, new releases with a similar level of risk-taking had become fewer and fewer by 2011. Indie games were starting to kick into gear and Steam was really becoming a giant phenomena, but the days of shovelware, freeware, and homebrews seemed further away. In their place, we had sequel after sequel of something of the biggest and most expensive games ever created. Beyond them, almost nothing.

I was not some raging anti-corporation crusader at the time, but I knew that if I wanted games that didn’t feel like clones of Halo or World of Warcraft, then I would need to look toward smaller productions. For a long while, I thought that meant downloadable titles – Xbox Live Arcade, Steam, Apple’s App Store. Kickstarter began changing things overnight because it challenged some of gaming’s biggest fans to put their money to work and fund the titles that publishers were no longer interested in funding.


Gaming is a business first. I came to understand that in time, but until Kickstarter, I had no real hope to see certain genres again. Some of my favorite games were old PC RPGs, but that genre had dried up almost completely. Bioware’s success boomed after Baldur’s Gate 2, producing two equally good games for the Xbox, before transitioning into the House of Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Neither series is necessarily bad, but both lack many of the charm’s of Bioware’s first major successes. With Black Isle gone and its successor studios of Troika and Obsidian a bit scattered, the money was no longer flowing in the direction of these epic, party-based adventures. I have since backed Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, and Torment: Tides of Numenera.

I think it is also extremely telling that the best Mega Man game in the last decade was Shovel Knight, a title that owes its existence to Kickstarter, or that the only real sequel the series may get will be Might No. 9, another successful Kickstarter. As you may recall, I loved Mega Man, and I still do. The formula has gotten a bit stale but it is ripe for innovation. I happily backed both Shovel Knight and Mighty No. 9.

Kickstarter represents a maturing both of the industry and of myself. Backing a project does not come without certain pitfalls and there are dangerously few guarantees. Still, Kickstarter and other crowdfunding projects are gamers taking control of the medium they love. It offers a bit of democracy in a realm that has long known only tyranny. Far from perfect, Kickstarter has helped re-shape gaming for the better.

For me, Kickstarter helped me realize that a system where people can literally vote with their dollars might actually work. That’s a huge reversal for many of my anti-capitalism opinions, and it would not have happened if I didn’t have the intense need to pay money for games that build upon some of my fondest memories and experiences.

I don’t know if Kickstarter will last forever, but I think the idea behind it will. Great games can be made on budgets that are heavily augmented by fan support. That’s much better than taking a $60 chance on a derivative piece of software designed first and foremost to elicit you to spend more on DLC, while huge chunks of the game’s budget go to waste in mass marketing campaigns.


This month, I’m doing a retrospective series about my life as a gamer to celebrate my 27th birthday. Each post will be written and published in a loosely chronological order. I am calling this series Murf Versus 27.

#Mv27: Lightning won’t strike thirteen times // Goodbye Final Fantasy.

In the 32-bit era, no game series held as much sway over my gaming life like Final Fantasy did. I already had a chance to discuss Final Fantasy VII, my entry point into the series, and I briefly mentioned my love for other entries in the series like my equally-beloved Final Fantasy Tactics. Alas, no empire is eternal, no man immortal, and no video game series can last forever.

While the Anthology and Chronicles re-releases of Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI, reinforced my love of Final Fantasy, newer entries in the series began pushing me away. Neither Final Fantasy VIII or Final Fantasy IX managed to accomplish what Final Fantasy VII or Final Fantasy Tactics had done.

Final Fantasy VIII had a stellar soundtrack and a more compelling romance, but its secondary plot with Laguna failed to intrigue me. Furthermore, it’s non-death of Squall at the end of disc one with his impaling via Edea’s spell bothered me a lot considering its similarities to Aeris and Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII. The game was solid enough, but it was the first Final Fantasy I did not love.

Final Fantasy IX had great character design and some of the best FMVs in the series (especially if you like Summon Fight Porn), but the plot and characters didn’t impress me. While the brooding pair of Cloud and Squall were sometimes a distraction, Zidane and the line of perky thieves that would follow his lead as leads for the series were all horrible. If Dagger or Vivi had been the two main characters with no Zidane at all, the game would be much better for it. Necron came out of nowhere, just like this sentence, and I hated him for it.

Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X was the reason I bought a Playstation 2 in the first place. Like Halo with the 360, Sony was guaranteed a sale of their hardware to me on the existence of Final Fantasy alone.

In hindsight, Final Fantasy X remains an enigma. I absolutely loved the story, though Tidus was a terrible character (especially when compared to Yuna, who is one of my favorite Final Fantasy women). The lack of an overworld hurt, but level design remained consistent with previous entries in the series. Gameplay wasn’t especially interesting, but the Sphere Grid made leveling up fun.

At the time, I absolutely hated it though. It was a simplified version of Final Fantasy with a whiny character, a throwaway final boss fight, and a far more intimate story despite still being world threatening. It stuck with me after, but while playing, I only had negative things to say. Even attempting to replay it to once and for all determine its place in the Final Fantasy pantheon proved to be a fruitless waste of my time.

Perhaps I will try again when it hits Playstation 4 next month.

Final Fantasy XII

I almost never played Final Fantasy XII. My Playstation 2 was tragically destroyed in a freak accident after a game of Blitz: the League. One of my close friends did it and though he eventually loaned me his to play Final Fantasy XII, named me Best Man at his wedding, and made me the godfather of his child, I am still considering his request for forgiveness.

Final Fantasy XII’s only legacy with me is this: it is the only game I have ever deliberately purchased for a platform I no longer owned. Otherwise, it is a terrible, forgettable entry in the series and a major reason why I stopped paying as much attention to Final Fantasy games.

Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII has some of the best gameplay the series has ever seen. Combat is fun, engaging, and thrilling. The compliments start and end there.

Final Fantasy XIII is my least favorite Final Fantasy game. That’s a fairly common opinion, likely because it is easy to bandwagon against a game that represents the absolute modernization of a classic, venerated series. FFXIII gets almost everything wrong about Final Fantasy games, and, in doing so, still managed to be a big hit and mainstream success.

The closest comparison to it is Skyrim. While Morrowind and Oblivion were hits, Skyrim made the Elder Scrolls series a household name across nearly every major platform. It infiltrated gaming culture in ways that once belonged to big names like Mario, Zelda, and Final Fantasy. Skyrim also represented a modernization of the series with a renewed focus on marginally improved combat, a simpler approach to character building, and an overall streamlined appeal that made Oblivion and Morrowind harder games to grok for the masses. But Skyrim did all of this while still respecting the series.

Final Fantasy XIII took the linearity of Final Fantasy X and quadrupled-down on it. Not only was the Overworld gone, but even the map design was little more than long hallways. No, it wasn’t as radical a departure as many fanboys of the series want you to think, but the game felt more cramped than any previous entry in the series. Exploration of its maps was a complete drag and generally a waste of time.

I loved the combat, but forcing you to be one character at a time went against what I feel is an integral part of the Final Fantasy experience. The game made up for it with increased party customization since getting everyone’s roles in combat right was very important, but it wasn’t enough for me. I missed playing as everyone at once. I missed having control over who I took with me, rather than the game force my hand with who I was using 90% of the time.

Worse, I hated the characters, the setting, and the story. Everything about the writing for that game made my stomach turn. While the Final Fantasy series as always had a bit of hit-or-miss with some of its finer plot points, never before had I seen an attempt at story in the series be so uniformly shit. They even managed to amp up the melodrama, which for Final Fantasy games is a feat unto itself.

If Final Fantasy XII turned me away from the series, then Final Fantasy XIII is the game that turned me off from the series. If it has died a thousand deaths, let my murder of the game be its thousandth-and-one. Get away Final Fantasy XIII. Get away and never return!

This month, I’m doing a retrospective series about my life as a gamer to celebrate my 27th birthday. Each post will be written and published in a loosely chronological order. I am calling this series Murf Versus 27.

#Mv27: Indiependence Decade

The one saving grace for the Xbox 360 were the indie games that debuted on Xbox Live Arcade. For me, they were both a revelation and revolution. Games like Limbo, Braid, and Trials HD seemed fresh and creative, where bigger games had become stale retreads. They were released as digital-only and were more affordable than most other games. With these games and others before or after them, games regained their independence from the biggest publishers and ushered in a new era of passionate game design.

I wasn’t immediately convinced. These were solid games, no doubt, they felt very small. Often, they thrived not on the merit of their gameplay, but through kitsch and quirk. They were a lo-fi uprising in an age of high fidelity audio; they were the cassettes vying for relevance in a land of CDs. My opinion flipped with one game: Terraria.

By the summer of 2011, I had played several indie games, but they were still a passing fancy. When Terraria released on Steam, I bought it because it played on my childhood love of games like Metroid, Castlevania, or anything else with a Super Nintendo aesthetic. Like so many indies before or after it, its nostalgic appeals were the lure and I an unwitting fish.

Terraria was so much more than a throwback or a clone. It was fresh and new. Too often compared with Minecraft, Terraria plays like an actual game, but with all the fixin’s that had made indie gaming such a darling. It had procedural generation. It had a simple but surprisingly deep sense of progression. For the entire first week it launched, it had the undivided attention of myself and several of my closest online friends.

Terraria wasn’t a complicated game, but it was a perfect blend of ingredients which resulted in something new yet familiar. While many of you might have fallen in love with indie gaming via other games (Minecraft being a major example), Terraria was the one-in-a-lifetime true love that would convince me that games could be created with less resources but more passion. Terraria proved that indie games were not imitations or clones, but a distinct evolution in game design and marketing.

Since Terraria, I have been regularly blown away by the variety of games individuals and small teams have been able to produce. Each new title brings its own set of experiences and goals, and they often seem diametrically opposed to the bloated budgets and overproduced games that Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, and Activision release year after year. Some tell great stories, like To the Moon. Others, such as Papers, Please, finally give games a way to talk about social issues without trivializing them.

In a sense, indie gaming has brought back the mystery of new games from the bygone eras before the Internet ruled. I remember rummaging through local shops and stores for new games, never sure what I’d get or if it would be good, because the volume of games being produced was high and my knowledge of them via magazines or other sources was low. Indie games often come out of nowhere, rarely with much aplomb or even previews. They don’t have the million dollar marketing campaigns, the over-hyped teasing roll-outs, or the sheer coverage of bigger games. Indie games surprise you and, more often than not, they surprise your expectations too.

They aren’t perfect or completely independent of the big publishers, but indie games are the biggest exception to undeniably destructive trend of ‘bigger is better’. Many gamers feel compelled to go where the graphics are, but indie games manage to be fantastic experiences despite lacking the most revolutionary physics simulators or light source renderers. Instead of agreeing that bigger is better, indie games have proven time and time again that better is better. It’s been a great time to be a gamer ever since they came along.

This month, I’m doing a retrospective series about my life as a gamer to celebrate my 27th birthday. Each post will be written and published in a loosely chronological order. I am calling this series Murf Versus 27.

#Mv27: Consolation Prize

After the Xbox, I also flirted with the Playstation 2 and Gamecube, though neither stuck long enough to make a real impression on me. By the end of that generation of console gaming, PC had stolen my heart. My college dorm didn’t have enough space for a television, so I stuck to laptop gaming, and that was okay. I was too addicted to World of Warcraft of Civilization to really play anything else anyway.

The Xbox 360 era of my life wasn’t a dark period, but all the reasons I had once been an ardent fan of consoles were gone. I didn’t have friends to co-op or LAN with. I had a few friends that played games on Xbox Live but most of them were far more comfortable playing on a PC. If it hadn’t been for the Halo series, I doubt I would have purchased an Xbox 360 or any other console at all.

I enjoyed Halo 3, Reach, and Halo 4, but they no longer could justify owning a console on their own. The Xbox 360 was a solid system with a long career, but it felt more and more like a PC for your television than its own platform with unique exclusives. It was a depressing time to be a console fan for me, especially when I had a good computer to play games on.

There was a silver lining though. I began embracing Xbox Live Arcade as a storefront. Like Steam before it, I realized that the digital frontier could just as easily extend to consoles. With it, the Xbox 360 also received many more non-AAA games. Here, gaming started to feel alive and creative again. The biggest titles had all the attention, but they lacked the passion of their smaller cousins. Xbox Live and the Xbox Live Indie Game service gave those titles a direct line to my home television.

That wasn’t enough to keep me invested in my Xbox 360. In time, I sold it off and moved on. As we age, it becomes harder to find the time and people that came so freely when we were younger. The thought of hanging out at a friend’s place to marathon a legendary co-op run of Halo seems far removed from the adult life I was beginning to embrace at the time. Even if it could still be done, everyone I knew had moved to using the Internet exclusively for multiplayer.

I did try the Wii, but other than the joy of hacking it, the console didn’t do it for me. I beat the first Mario Galaxy on it, which was solid, and I finally got around to finishing a Metroid Prime. It had other good games, but I hated the control schemes for almost everything I played. I never tried the Playstation 3, though I missed out on some real gems because of it. At the time, I was Xbox first and there was no way I was going to spend money on something as expensive as a Playstation 3 when I hardly played my Xbox 360 already.

It wasn’t a bad time to retire to PC gaming, but it was certainly a transition. The days of talking games with close friends, playing them at birthday parties or ‘just because’, were gone. The technology of playing video games had advanced to making the shared physical space requirement obsolete, but my relationships didn’t evolve in equal step. With the great changes in our lives and in our games, all of the friendships I had made as a kid splintered; our lives scattering on the wind and our avatars never reunited.

This month, I’m doing a retrospective series about my life as a gamer to celebrate my 27th birthday. Each post will be written and published in a loosely chronological order. I am calling this series Murf Versus 27.