Midsummer, 2013. I’m playing “The Last of Us”

I wrote this article about what it’s like to play “The Last of Us” the other day. It got me reminiscing.

In the article, I make a passing reference to Russia in the 1990s, and how my friend said the same thing that I had been thinking for a while: some aspects of this most cerebral and literary post-Apocalyptic fungal zombie extravaganza are exactly like living through that period (the 1990s happened to me in Kiev, Ukraine – but it wasn’t all that different).

And by “aspects” I mean “emotional aspects.” It was like going through a horrible, irreversible betrayal by a loved one, and beginning to grow suspicious of the world and what it contained – the streets, the sky, the sounds.

You stared down an alley and wondered what was going to come out of that alley. You listened for shrieks in the night. You made sure the flashlight always had batteries.

For survivors of the post-Soviet Apocalypse, “The Last of Us” is a chance to safely go back – to die and re-spawn as needed.

Of course, I don’t want to be too dramatic about it. Fungal zombies weren’t exactly chasing us through the street. No one was making shivs in the dark, to stab monsters in the neck with (no one I knew personally, anyway – your mileage may vary).

But there was that sense of the landscape gone hostile. That notion of the darkened windows across the street watching you. Sizing you up. Etc.

When people ask me to explain what’s happening in Russia right now, I usually tell them that, “Most people don’t think a society is possible unless there is a strong leader to follow. And this has lead to the development of a quasi-society. An undead society, if you will. Neither here nor there.”

And people will say, “And by strong leader, you mean Putin.”

But I mean just about anyone, really. I mean people on both sides of the ideological divide. Some city mayor who may be corrupt (“they’re all corrupt,” Russians sigh with resignation. “So it’s impossible to care.”) – but will give land and funding for a children’s hospice, when the same impulse to help out should be coming from everyone. The Duma deputy who voted in favor of a horrific law (“Because that’s party discipline!”) but is actually a very intelligent and sensitive guy we all like to joke with on Twitter. The demagogue from daytime TV who has fought tooth and nail to get victims of dodgy investment projects back in his hometown to finally receive compensation. The actress with the eyes of a poet who agitates for the regime and saves the lives of severely ill children – every day. An anti-corruption blogger whose own corruption trial proved him right. A former it-girl who blogs about hating children and fat people – and who, like Cassandra, predicts every twist and turn of Russia’s modern political narrative.

All of such people are like islands, or the staring eyes of hurricanes. They’re both the illness and the cure. They’re the reason why Russia has only a quasi-society – and said quasi-society’s best hope, just because they can make things happen. Because they believe that they can make things happen – things both good and bad.

They’re heroes – and a heroic age is always a bitch to live in.

Still, Moscow in particular has already changed quite a bit. We have “wine and zombies” parties with my friends, because we know that it has changed. We feel it in the air. Great pillars of light burst from the skies in July and stand firm on the ground. Lovers sit in the shade of towering chestnut trees. A drunken hipster is much more likely to stumble out of that dark alley. A burly security guard will help you race across the supermarket to ring up your alcohol before the magic our of 11 p.m., wherein Bentleys turn into pumpkins and getting drunk is suddenly only legal in bars. A city-wide decree resulted in new playgrounds and exercise equipment for the elderly, who are confounded by the fact that they are expected to stay in shape. The Moscow metro has not degenerated into the London Underground. The nights are full of music – some of it actually good.

I wonder if the lavish spending on Sochi 2014 will ruin all of that – this impression of the possibility of society. I wonder if the 2018 World Cup will do it instead. I wonder if nothing much will happen, and we will simply grandly waste our youth on making up extravagant stories and telling them in print and digital.

Well, we will do that either way.

look at the fun we're having

Also, something tells me I may have written my last play in a while. I don’t know if I want to write for theater crowds anymore. I want to write for mouthy boys and mouthy girls like me. I want to write for the people in their parents’ basements. The dispossessed, the perfectly cool. The gamers, in other words. And possibly the TV audiences.

There is no map I’m following as a writer. I’m following a bunch of vague notions. It’s frickin terrifying – but when it comes down to it, my theory is that people do most things for the thrill. We rarely smile when we play video games, for example. Doesn’t mean we do not love them.

Yes, a fighter and NOT a mage

I have walked into D&D games and had some snarky asshole male gamer ask me where my chainmail bikini was, or give me shit for wanting to play a fighter rather than a cleric or a mage…

Ren, Sexism in Gaming series

I like drawn out, single-player RPGs with a bunch of side quests – games I come back to for months on end, which are an entirely private experience (private, in the sense that I’ll have an amused member of my household stand over my shoulder and say things like, “Just give up on the Deathclaws* already”). I don’t really want to interact with other gamers most of the time; hell, I don’t even connect much to the “Little Big Planet” network. I’m a lone wolf, goddamit, and I just don’t want to deal with douchebags. And even if you don’t have voice chat, the douchebags will pick you out if you happen to have a female-sounding nickname in particular.

Still, because I invest so much time and energy in my characters, I do, occasionally, want to share them in some way or another. When I was playing “Elder Scrolls”, I was particularly proud of my character – a female Dark Elf I named Mido (I named her after my then-boyfriend’s brother, because I bought the game around the time of his high school graduation, as corny as it sounds). Mido was a warrior character, specializing in swords and heavy armour. Some of that heavy armour made her look a little bit ridiculous, but I still give props to the game designers  – no stupid chainmail bikinis for my Dark Elf.

Now, there are plenty of cool spells and the like in “Elder Scrolls,” but I always felt more confident with a sword. And what I found is that many people viewed the mage-type characters as having been designed exclusively “for girls.” Why? A whack of the sword indulges my inner bloodthirsty savage, dammit. In “New Vegas,” I similarly enjoy blowing the heads off various people and creatures. I can’t wait for the inevitable bloodshed and doom of “Skyrim.”

I don’t think there’s anything inherently “girly” about a mage character either. In “Elder Scrolls,” I found magic trickier to pull off, truth be told. I could never aim my spells right, for example – and I was often pretty lax about acquiring the more complicated ones (until I got to the Mages Guild storyline, I suppose). I always felt that battle magic in “Elder Scrolls” required more work, and as such, was more challenging.

Same goes for sneaking and archery skills in “Elder Scrolls” in particular. The former I eventually mastered, the latter I pretty much consistently sucked at. In analyzing why, I’ve come to the conclusion that these activities weren’t nearly as useful to me in channeling my own aggression. Like Ren points out in her series – gaming is often about being able to be someone you’re not, someone you want to be. I’m not good when it comes to anger issues – wiping out a nest of vampires in a cave somewhere does actually help, even if all of the action occurs on a television screen.

Snobs dismiss gaming as mindless escapism, but the act of escaping is never particularly mindless. It tells you a lot about yourself – as you get busy lovingly putting down a bunch of frag mines in order to appropriately welcome an approaching Deathclaw or get ready to finally say goodbye to Umaril the Unfeathered, the Liberace to Dagon’s Rob Zombie. I have found the escapism especially useful while pregnant, because it’s not as if I can run a few kilometers right now in order to deal with rage. Angry pregnant ladies, take note: gaming can be good for you.

hey bitch

As a writer, I pay special attention to plot arcs in RPGs, and I find the whole structure of games to be very useful when it comes to writing fiction, though that’s a whole other story. For now, I’m just grateful that the medium exists in one way or another – and I’m glad that it’s evolving. And being an asshole to women because more and more of them are also claiming it as their own will, hopefully, get old eventually. I mean, look at it that way – my husband likes me way more after I’ve just killed a bunch of zombies. I become a more pleasant person. Everyone wins.

* – For those who aren’t familiar with the Fallout series, Deathclaws are bad motherfuckers, and not in an endearing, Samuel L. Jackson way either. They look like Satan on dinosaur legs, and repeatedly hand your ass to you. 

Can I just say that “Little Big Planet’s” Russian section is pretty awesome?

Haven’t had much time to blog in the last couple of days (not because I’m, um, gaming – but because I am working, of course), but just wanted to take a moment to point out that I’m really enjoying the Tundra part of “Little Big Planet’s” storyline, so far. OK, it’s ridiculously difficult (this game is marketed to anyone over 7? This alone makes me feel like an idiot each time Boyfriend and I repeat a level), but it’s so wonderfully done.

The snowflakes, the missiles, the sled-dogs, the cute bear, the red stars among the green war-time decor,  and, above all else, the MUSIC – are sweet. I get easily cranky when playing a game and a Russian theme comes up, because it’s usually so tacky and ridiculous, but not here. I think my grandfather would have enjoyed this one tremendously and that’s a huge compliment.

Having finally gotten around to playing the new Prince of Persia

I am…er…transfixed.

Wait, did I say “playing Prince of Persia”?

I meant reading Jameson on Jameson: Conversations  on Cultural Marxism. What did you think I meant? What, you people like me participate in mass entertainment culture? A mass entertainment culture with Orientalist elements? And write about it? Using our own names? While struggling to maintain the veneer of genuine intellectual engagement with the, uh… the… uh…

What do the kids intellectually engage with nowadays? Genuinely, I mean.

Anyway, I’m just seeing if you’re paying attention.

This game is so sweet – I can taste it in the back of my throat. And, you know, a lot still needs to be said about the exaggerated portrayals of women in the video game ‘verse – but it’s good to remember that fellas like my Prince here are pretty exaggerated as well, and that is sort of endearing to me at the moment. I’ll admit it, I’m not above ogling game characters. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a work of art. It be pweety.

Perhaps there is a lesson in the fact that Boyfriend doesn’t immediately drop and do a hundred push-ups upon watching me spend my entire day with the Prince. Perhaps it is a grim one.

Yeah. So. Be back. Er. Whenever.