Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Cat in the Duffel Bag: How I Learned to Never Change My Seat at the Airport

The following is a true story, partially written one year ago. Every conversation and action actually occurred in this story, which has been fragmented to encompass the most noteworthy of incidents aboard Flight 914, Phoenix to Saint Louis, on U.S. Airways. The date was March 12, 2011. I still have the boarding pass.

Flying is one of our greatest achievements. We defy logic with every time a gigantic metal bus leaves the surface of our planet, performing what could only be considered a miracle in the time of the Renaissance. I often think back to points in the human race’s past, where the technologies we have today were impossible by and large, and think of how fortunate I am to live in the era that I do, where musical recordings can be captured and their brilliance cherished forever, or where the Internet allows us to talk to would-be friends on continents we may never grace with our presence.

We are a lucky species living in the best time period the world has ever witnessed, laughing in the face of logic with every time those back tires leave the ground, soaring through and above the clouds until they resemble breaking waves skimming the top of the ocean, a sight so beautiful that our ancestors would have shed tears of joy to behold. Now, don’t you feel like an asshole for bitching about paying $2.50 for a bag of pretzels?

I love flying, and I fly frequently. The spontaneous nature of my occupation as a freelance journalist sends me across the country on a regular basis, but I never dread flying. Sure, the airports themselves are a pain in the ass, but isn’t it worth it for the act of flight? It’s sort of like an amusement park: nobody likes waiting in line, but by the time you’re flying around at breakneck speeds on the roller coasters, you’ve forgotten all about it.
In March of 2011, I was invited to visit San Francisco, California on business with Facebook gaming mega-giant, Zynga. It was but for a brief 36-hour period, but memorable times were had. After my business meeting, I decided to pack it in and arrive at the airport around 4pm; I slept grimly on the eve of the Japanese tsunamis, knowing several acquaintances in the country with whom I had yet to hear from, and looked forward to resting at the airport prior to my departure several hours later. Upon arriving and checking in, I decided to move my seat down from the middle of the plane to the very last row, swapping my aisle seat to a cozy window view during a very long red eye flight; after all, I rarely have the chance to see multiple cities’ skylines during the early AM hours, as I would be in the air from 9pm until 6am with a minor stop-gap in-between.

Up until this point in my life, the mistakes I have made have been miniscule. With three taps of my index finger against the touch screen, I ruined every positive experience I have undergone and will undergo in the future while defying logic 35,000 feet in the air.

The flight to Phoenix, Arizona was peaceful. The darkened cabin of the aircraft provided the comfort needed after a long day of boardroom meetings on little sleep. The city skyline of San Francisco lit up the blackened ground like fireworks in the night’s sky, and in-between lay millions of street lights, porch lights, and headlights, resembling the stars of the sky that gravity kept to itself. Once the clouds lay at our feet, the moon greeted us in all of its remarkable, natural beauty, casting light upon the clouds as it does against beds of water. The dreams of our ancestors, so far from their realities, yet so similar to the visions they had from the outside. This is why I enjoyed flying.

We landed in Phoenix on time. All around me was the chatter of newfound acquaintances – if only for the night – taking in the tranquil flight and properly-conceived small talk. A nearby pair of strangers playfully flirted, bonding but for a brief moment before never seeing one another again. Me? I sat alone in my row, stretching my legs across the center and aisle seats while taking in my view. As we docked, I took in the final moments of what could only be described as one of the best flying experiences I have ever experienced.
Yin, meet Yang.

The Phoenix terminal is my least favorite in the country. The bland brown and silver color scheme and sharp design resembles a 1960s decorating disaster that has been renovated to accommodate the fashion of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – possibly the worst of both areas. It is one of the few terminals where I know something will go wrong, even at midnight.

Everything went according to plan: I deboarded from my plane slightly before schedule, a bathroom was located immediately across from where we docked, and connecting gate was not too far from where we arrived. Unlike an O’Hare jog from one side of the airport to the other in fifteen minutes (I do not recommend it), I was surrounded by fellow sleep-deprived zombies who shuffled their feet to their respective gates, the slow rotating clicks of wheeled suitcases being pulled at a walking pace, and the occasional nighttime cleaning crew’s vacuum, all passive in nature and the exact opposite atmosphere you would typically associate with airports.

The calm before the storm.

I did not notice them when I arrived at my gate thirty minutes before our departure time. Reading “The Stranger” by Albert Camus while also warding off sleep, I blocked off everything and everyone around me without the God-like credentials of a public announcement speaker. I would not realize why I had not come across the perpetrators who killed my love of flying until wedged against the window, hoping for an asteroid to somehow collide with the plane, approximately ninety-two minutes later. The gate was crowded, but not impossible to find some time to relax; everyone around me was equally exhausted as I, and it seemed as though we came to a mutual understanding that we would all keep our voices low, and drift about the next five hours as passively as humanly possible.

“We would now like to greet those customers flying with us to Saint Louis, Missouri sectioned in Boarding Class Three,” said the deity over the intercom. This is code for “You’re at the lowest tier of how much we give a shit about you,” as the First Class passengers and frequent fliers with American Airlines received the initial treatment of fake hospitality and painted-on grins. Me? I was in no rush; sitting at the very back of a red eye flight will leave you without worry on exactly how soon you board. The sooner you’re on, the longer you have to sit and wait. Being the (seemingly) last person aboard the plane, I noticed my row was empty once again. With a smile, I pulled out my secondary novel, World War Z by Max Brooks -- a lengthier read for a longer flight back home -- and sighed with relief at the prospect of having another row to myself. “Good choice,” I thought to myself in reflection of swapping seats at the airport.

It was then that I heard a scuffle. I raised my head from my book to find a woman taking up the light of the aisle, like a drug-drenched lunatic in Charles Manson’s family blocking the sun from the desert. At forty-two years of age, the woman stood around five-ten and was several hundred pounds overweight. She was with her acne-laced teenage son, whom looked as solemn as a scorned puppy that has been bruised at the hand of his master for no apparent reason. Many people remark on love at first sight, how they knew that their beloved was the one person they would love for the rest of their lives the second they laid eyes on them. Likewise, they claim that when they first laid eyes on the man who robbed them at gunpoint, they knew he was trouble; they talk about how he had a bad vibe about him, or how he acted odd. I am an optimist, one who attempts to find the good in all and gives everyone their fair shake. I am not one of those people. I made no such connection. I never saw it coming.

The pair sat down across the aisle from me on the left side of the plane. I attempt to continue reading, but found it hard to concentrate over the undecipherable babble hitting my left ear like an infection. It was whiny and high-pitched with a southern twang in a woman’s voice, while the young man spoke in hushed tones, almost parent-like in attempting to contain the squeals. My curiosity, at this point, had peaked; exactly what was going on over there, anyway? Why did it sound so risqué? Was the young man embarrassed by his mother? Was she saying something embarrassing about him?

“Excuse me, sir, but you have my seat.” My train of thought was cut off abruptly. I looked up to find a man in uniform, presumably going to war, as I saw his wife and child saying their teary goodbyes prior to boarding and made a mental note of it; it is quite hard to enter a terminal without a boarding pass. The Marine was not speaking to me, however, but to the embarrassed young man to my left. “Oh, I’m sorry, we’ll move,” said the teenager.

“Just who the fuck do you think you are?” bemoaned the mother. “We got here first, so these are our seats.” My pupils had to have dilated when the terror of the situation dawned on me. They had two seats, but were misplaced. The plane was near capacity, and as I began counting heads in the twenty-one rows ahead of me, I slowly came to the realization that there were but two empty seats together on the plane, and they were beside me. “Ma’am, I do apologize, but my ticket says that your son is in my seat,” said the Marine. Right as I began to invite the military man to sit in one of the two empty seats beside me, the woman obliged. “I’m sorry son, you’re fighting for our country, I shouldn’t-a snapped at you,” she mumbled in accordance with fulfilling his request.

The young man, who I would come to know as Moochy, sat beside me in the middle seat. His nameless mother, who has been burned into my memory as “Momma,” hung out over the aisle seat. Moochy was pressed firmly against my left hip, removing the option of accessing my iPhone beyond the basics of turning it off prior to the flight.

“I’m sorry, mister,” Moochy said with slight enthusiasm, “Momma is taking up a lot of room. “ I explained that my best friend, who I had flown with in the past, was also heavyset, and I did not mind his intrusion of typical airplane space etiquette; in fact, I sympathized. He smiled out of what I would soon learn to be relief as Momma reached into her carry-on bag.

“Those no good fuckers STOLE my other bag, so I had to keep this one with the sandwich in it,” she explained to no one in particular. “Momma, please keep your voice down, there’s a baby up there,” Moochy begged of his mother. “You can’t be swearin’ like that with li’l ones around, they’ll pick up on it.”
“Can you believe him!?” Hell hath no fury like a Momma scorned. “My own son, my Moochy, telling me to shut up!” She nudged the seat in front of her, occupied by a sleeping middle-aged woman. “Hey lady, I’m sorry to wake you up, but can you believe this?” My pupils focused on the carnage at hand. “I’m sorry, I was asleep… What did you need, ma’am?” This woman was more polite than she had any right to be, given the situation. Momma asked again, “Have you ever in your life seen a boy so disrespectful to his own mother?” Moochy sulked in his seat, cheeks blazing with embarrassment. “Oh... Well, I really don’t know. I’m sorry,” the bewildered woman replied.

“Momma, you got to stop this, you’re embarrassing me,” Moochy once again begged. “You had too many drinks, why did you do this again to me?”

“Don’t you tell me what I can or can’t drink,” Momma snapped back. “I only had seven martinis, it’s not like I’m drunk!” If this is her sober, Heaven forbid. “Besides, when did you get the balls to speak to a lady like that? You ain’t never had a girlfriend! You hear that, everybody? My son thinks he’s got the balls to speak to me and he’s never stuck his willy in nothin’!”

“Momma!” Moochy was livid at this point, and rightfully so. “Why don’t you try to go to sleep?”
“I ain’t tired! Boy—I mean, sir,” she was addressing the Marine from the former incident. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, I love America,” she confessed through crocodile tears, “but I got a question for you.” The Marine nodded and smiled, likely reconsidering his commitment to the military, given the specimen he now knows he is protecting. “Have you ever seen such a pathetic panty-waste of a boy than my son? I bet you get a piece of ass a lot ‘cause you’re good lookin’ and all, but my boy has never been with a woman.”
“No ma’am, I am happily married and have a son,” the Marine replied. “Your son looks like a fine young man.”

Blowing spit in the wind through an exaggerated brush off to what the Marine said, Momma instead began crying real tears after a small, precious moment of silence. “Why did Robbie have to move to this Godforsaken city we’re going to?” Momma addressed the question to Moochy, who had been playing his Nintendo DS. He ignored her question as he directed his attention into disappearing into his outdated Pokemon game, being the iteration of 2003’s Pokemon Ruby.

Moochy leaned in to me with a question. “Have you ever played Pokemon?” I nodded, explaining what I do for a living as a freelance gaming and movie journalist. “Oh wow, so have you caught them all?” I began to take a liking to Moochy, a fifteen-year-old-ish outcast who life had spit at, given his living environment. He was polite, albeit simple, but anything beyond his mother was a success in my eyes.

“Moochy! Stop ignoring me!” She threw a light punch, connecting to his stomach. “Momma! Stop it, that hurt!” Moochy dropped his portable gaming device onto the duffel bag lying at his feet in reaction to the punch, clutching his stomach. Momma gasped in fear. “How could you do such a thing!?” Her face contorted in horror, as mine would soon after. “Kitty’s in that bag!”

“Kitty?” I butt into the conversation. I should have kept my mouth closed.

“Yes sir,” Momma replied, her eyes rolling from the alcohol like a seasick, brandy-infused pirate. “Our baby kitten, Kitty, he’s in our bag. Moochy had to keep him instead of the one with our snacks because he just had to have a goddamn kitten,” she said through a half-lit scowl.

“Prepare for take-off,” said the pilot. Our journey was beginning. “Please stow all of your personal electronics away until we are well in the air,” continued the flight attendant.

Moochy reached for his Nintendo DS, which Momma quickly snatched from his hands. “Did you not just hear what the lady said!?” Her eyes were more demented than before. “You have to turn this off!” Moochy looked terrified. “Momma, that’s why I grabbed it, I just wanted to turn it off.” Momma held the long, slender portable device sideways like that of a quarterback holding a football and threw it with her left hand into the floor of the plane, the Pokemon Ruby game cartridge jostling loose from the system and scattering underneath the second row to the left of ours – or so I assume from her pointing when Moochy asked what happened to his game. His Nintendo DS’s casing cracked on the lower right-hand corner.

“I shut it off for you,” Momma said as Moochy’s eyes filled with tears. “You’re too unresponsible [sic] to do anything by yourself.”

Moochy began to silently cry to himself. Pokemon clearly meant a lot to him in a life riddled with pain and the death of aspirations. I felt awful for him. In retrospect, I should have stood up for him then and there; hindsight is a wonderful thing, however.

As the plane hit high speeds and shook near the back—a common occurrence when sitting in the rear of an airplane—Momma began to panic. “Oh my God! Oh my God! We’re going to crash!” Momma began screaming aloud, attracting the attention (mostly annoyance) of those in the nearby three to four rows. Moochy was too destroyed to lift his head from his lap.

After thirty minutes of silence from Moochy, who continued to look sullen from the possible destruction of his beloved video game, I decided to take initiative in cheering him up. “Hey, do you like zombies?” I presented Moochy with the book I was failing to read over his mother’s inane mutterings to herself, or anyone she pretended was listening to her. She began inquiring as to how much longer the flight would be fifteen minutes after take-off. “Yeah, I sure do!” Moochy perked up in a jiffy at the subject. “I’m a bit of a zombie buff, myself,” I explained, “I know all the ins and outs in case of a zombie invasion.” He took a liking to the jovial conversation, a far cry from what he had grown accustomed to. “Yeah, I love zombies,” he beamed, “I often daydream about what it’d be like to be in a zombie apocalypse.” Oh, Moochy. I don’t blame you.

“Just what the Sam Hell do you think you’re doin’, Moochy!?” Momma was roaring. “Quit pestering that man, he can’t read his book with you interrupting him.” I take the blame, citing that I asked him if he had read it. “Oh Lord naw, Moochy can’t read,” she revealed. Moochy looked stunned. “Yes I can,” Moochy refuted the claim. “You just never pay attention to me enough to know it.” I handed Moochy my book, mentally noting the page I was on and giving him free range to escape the Hell of his mother’s scorn.
“Moochy, why don’t you love me? You know how nervous I get when I fly and I didn’t want to move to this awful place and your brother made me,” Momma whined. “You shouldn’t have let me drink so much, you’re letting your poor mother become an alcoholic.”

“But I tried to tell you to stop, you just don’t listen,” Moochy explained to his understanding and kind parent. “You told me I can’t tell you what to drink since I’m not old enough to drink myself.”
Momma let out a loud scoff to declare her victory by seniority over her offspring. “That’s right,” she said. “You ain’t no man yet, boy, so don’t you tell me how to live.” Was this really happening? “Now I want another drink, where’s that waitress at?”

I was fully expecting—and hoping for—the pilot to announce that this whole flight had been an elaborate prank on me. It certainly did not seem plausible; everybody became more cartoonish and preposterous by the literal minute. How would I honestly tell everyone about this with a straight face? Who in their right mind would take this as truth? Could you even begin to make up something so terrifyingly bipolar? This flight had become a stream of consciousness similar to that of a life-altering drop of hallucinogenic substances. My third eye was open, thanks to a couple of rednecks relocating from Bumfuck, Washington to my hometown.
“Hey lady,” Momma knocked on the seat in front of her. The woman had been rattled by her last interaction with Momma to the point that sleep was no longer an option, especially over the incessant whining of the beleaguered whale behind her. “Do you know why I call my son ‘Moochy’?” The woman thoroughly ignored her question, but Momma carried on as if she needn’t a person to direct her inquiry to. “It’s because he ain’t done a goddamn thing—I’m sorry, Jesus, I love you, I did not mean that—but he ain’t done a gosh darn thing except use me for my money since he popped out of me.”

“Well, I believe that’s the purpose of having children,” the woman finally responded. “You have them and raise them right, and hopefully they will be able to take care of themselves once they grow up.”
“Yeah but ol’ Mooch is a pain in my fat ass, I tell ya that,” Momma retorted. “He won’t ever turn out to be nothin’.”

“Momma, shut your mouth!” Oh Moochy, don’t. Just stay quiet and take the punishment. “All you’ve been doing all night to these people is spouting your loud ass mouth and they’re all sick of hearing it!”
Hooray, he said what we were all thinking.

The thud could be heard over the engine, though my hearing in my left ear has always been sharper than that of my right. Her knuckles connected with Moochy’s left arm. I was shocked, though I could not figure out exactly why; was I shocked that she just legit punched her son, or that she could contort her overly large body to the point of actually making it happen? Mooch let out a shriek of pain as the skin broke on his arm, bleeding slightly. His mother held out his arm as a trophy. “See what I did? Hah, that was good,” she said while holding up the ring on her finger, now engraved across the flesh of her child.

A flight attendant was called to the back after the incident. The demands for her to control her voice—not anger—were directed at her teenage son rather than her. Clearly, the flight attendants wanted nothing to do with Momma, nor did they feel like addressing the public display of affection that we all just witnessed. Judging from the bleeding arm of her spawn, I’m fairly certain he could not control her actions or verbal communications to no one in particular.

Momma interacted with said flight attendant, asking her how much longer the flight would be. “Forty-five minutes to an hour,” she said. We had barely been in the air that long. As someone who travels to and from the Phoenix airport frequently, I knew that was a blatant lie. Roughly three hours remained in the flight.
“I wish you didn’t hate me, Moochy,” Momma began crying—sobbing—aloud. “I’ve tried so hard to raise you into a good, caring man.” Moochy followed her lead with the tears this time instead of brushing her off. “Momma, I love you. I don’t know why you think I don’t.” Momma slapped him, albeit lightly by comparison to her precious blood-bringer. “Don’t you lie to me, I can tell by the way you talk to me that you’re embarrassed by me.” Who wouldn’t be?

“I just think it will be different once Robbie’s around,” Moochy said of his presumed-elder sibling. “Once we get to Robbie’s and get used to everything, it’ll all be good again,” he explained through the tears. I envisioned Robbie in my head and shrugged off the vision steadfast. This family need not expand in my mind. Momma finally settled down for a while.

Thirty minutes or so had passed since the last audible conversation between the now-sleeping Mooch and his pouting mother. All was finally quiet in the bubble of the plane we had been exiled to. I catch a fleeting glance of the woman in front of Momma, comfortable with her head drawn to her husband’s shoulder. The Marine sat erect with tremendous posture, something miniscule that I admire and envy in military personnel. All seemed fine, at last.

“Moochy! How dare you!”

Some things are too good to be true.

The once-asleep teenage boy sprung up from his nap in a daze, seemingly forgetting where he had been. Back to Hell, son. With a swing of her fist, Moochy laid back to slumber. What was intended as abuse for Moochy instead connected with my left shoulder, absorbing the blow for the sleeping beauty. I’ve been punched by stronger beasts than the Mommasaurous. I’m just happy that she was, in fact, not attempting to tenderize me for a later serving.

“Look what you made me do! I just hit that poor gentleman over there because you ducked out of the way like the coward you are,” Momma laid into Moochy, who was beginning to come to realize the situation’s gravity.

“Momma, I swear I was just sleepy,” pleaded the Mooch. He turned to me. “I’m really sorry,” he said.
“It’s fine,” I replied, “just stop punching your kid, please.”

If glares could kill, I’d be put out of my misery at the pupils of Momma. She obliged and did not strike Moochy again throughout the flight. Between her cries of how long the flight was, it became apparent that what she was infuriated by was Moochy’s ability to sleep on the plane. She could not get comfortable with her large frame on an aircraft, and thus could not fall asleep. If she couldn’t sleep, then poor Moochy sure as hellfire would not catch a wink for the remainder of the flight.

“I need a piller, [sic]” she said in reference to a pillow. Moochy obliged in forking over his own for her comfort. “No, you dumb fuck, I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout this. You know the drill.”

“Aw Momma, I don’t want to, you’re too heavy,” he replied.

Her forceful stares eventually made Moochy cave in to her demands, as possibly the strangest thing of the evening unfolded before my very eyes. Moochy unbuckled his safety belt and curled up across her protruding belly, his upper body working as a cushion for her mound of flesh from the waist up. She dug her elbows into his sides strenuously, as if to watch him writhe in discomfort.

“You’re an awful piller, [sic]” she laughed. “Be still, asshole.”

Fed up with his squirming from her jagged bones carving into him, she requested his hand. Upon receiving it, she put his middle finger to her lips and bit into it. Yelping in pain, Moochy jerked back into his seat as her laughs awoke the poor woman in front of her. “You fuckin’ crybaby,” she exclaimed as Moochy used his napkin to wrap the finger, which was likely bleeding.

“Why did you do that for!?” Moochy was once again angered. His mother laughed harder at his reaction to her act of cruelty, stirring even more nearby passengers from their slumber.

“I did it because you never listen when I tell you to do things,” she calmly explained for the first time of the night, as if she were teaching her child a fundamental lesson. “I told you to sit still and be comfy and you just couldn’t do that, you kept wigglin’ back and forth.”

All remained quiet over the next fifteen to twenty minutes, with Momma eventually bothering her northern neighbor once again. “Hey ma’am, I’m real sorry to keep bothering you,” she said through a false smile, “but what’s Saint Louis about?”

The woman seemed as puzzled as I was. “About? As in the history of Saint Louis?”

“I guess so,” Momma said. “Have any historical figgers [sic] been through there, like Christopher Columbus or John Wayne?”

A yelp of laughter escaped my mouth as the woman replied through what I could see was a smile between the head rests, “I don’t believe John Wayne was a historical figure, dear. He was an actor in western films.”
“Oh,” Momma said before laughing at herself. “I don’t see a lot of movies.” Or pay attention in a lot of classes.

Soon after this conservation, Momma began to squirm like that of her son’s pillow adventure. “I’m going to shit all over myself,” she expressed exuberantly. “These bathrooms are too little for me, Moochy.” Moochy sighed again in disbelief, as though even he could not believe the size of the tumor Momma was causing in my brain.

When she arose to attempt to squeeze into the bathroom once more, I made my break for it. I smiled at Moochy and told him I’d be right back. I hoped to be wrong in that assessment, more than anything in my life before it. My eyes frantically searched the aisle, counting heads among the seats, hoping for an empty spot anywhere but the Hell I left behind. Twice my hopes were high only to find slouching passengers, sleeping uncomfortably with their necks against the shoulder rest. The third time was a charm.

I feverishly asked the man in the center seat if the unoccupied space beside him was taken. He answered honestly by saying that it was not. I plopped down beside him and shook the hand of both him and the lady to his right. They were the exact opposite of Momma and Moochy, a young twenty-something couple comprised of good looks, culture, and rational thought. A foreign blonde bombshell and a scruffy, snarky smart-aleck; these were my kind of people.

I explained exactly why I had to move up to their row. Their eyes lit up in the fashion of meeting someone who—somehow—is in on the same inside joke that you thought to have created. “You had to sit next to her?” They saw her exploits prior to boarding, all the while this unsuspecting victim of his own circumstance was zoning out. “Did you see her carry-on?” The man asked with his eyes still wide with excitement of the stories I had to tell. “Be sure to check out her carry-on when she comes back through, it’s see-through luggage loaded with boxes of tampons.” I cringed.

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to be quiet,” the flight attendant said to me after a tap on the shoulder. I suppose I am an easier target than that of an angry, hungry four-hundred-pound gorilla who tries to literally eat her offspring several rows back. I was so bewildered by the order for obedience that I could not reply. I sat mouth agape at the logic in asking me—who was speaking in a hushed tone—to calm down, all while a woman abused her child and assaulted a passenger for three hours without a care.

After an hour or so of talking with probably the best flight companions I’ve ever had in my journeys on a myriad of topics from politics to religion to child-abusing she-beasts, the plane had docked. My lifelong travel angels and I held back and waited for the stars of our discussions to deboard the aircraft. Moochy quickly piled out at the craft, leaving his mother to shamble amongst herself.

“Praise the Good Lord, Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior,” Momma shouted in happiness.

“Hallelujah,” said my newfound friend to my right.

I walked with the better pairing of the two I had sat beside on Flight 914 out of Phoenix to the luggage claim and said our goodbyes, parting them with souvenirs I had picked up on the promotional wing of my business trip. They earned them for offering me asylum from the wicked. As I obtained my luggage, which was lucky enough to have been spared such a terrible adventure, I walked to the exit only to find Moochy, Momma, and Robbie, who looked exactly as I imagined him: tall, big, nasty. Ten or so boxes of Playtex were pressed up against the clear luggage atop Robbie’s gargantuan shoulders.

I still have the boarding pass for Flight 914. I am planning on framing it as a testament to my ability to survive. I only wish I would have helped Moochy more than I tried to.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #1: Dark Souls

I’m not a fan of difficult games. This may come as a shocking revelation to some of you, given my absolute love of games like Super Meat Boy and the indie PC romp, I Wanna Be The Guy, but the thought of marinating hours of my life in something that will eventually best me is not necessarily what I would describe as an enjoyable experience; I much prefer being entertained within those hours rather than belittled. I was hesitant to pick up Dark Souls at the retail price, but decided to roll the dice on a game that looked to be nothing I find profoundly moving about the action/adventure genre. The looks certainly are not deceiving in this instance, but opposites surely attract.

As the game begins, you are thrust into a treacherous world where everything feels like that of an illusion, as if you’re being perpetually picked on by a higher power – something that fits well into the lore where mankind has been seemingly doomed by a vague plague. Stepping on certain blocks in close corridors can send a ball of fire tumbling down the staircase you’re approaching, or shove arrows into your chest if you left your shield aside (or if your reaction time is too slow).

Dark Souls is, in a word, seductive. The idea of danger waiting around the corner practically picks you up and throws you in that general direction, like a cartoonish aroma delivering an animated dog to a pie’s windowsill. The thrill of the hunt is in full effect with Dark Souls, which often flashes a little thigh in the form of towering giants looming in the background, a glimpse into the impending area’s climax.

That seduction does not cease with the intrigue of difficulty and visuals, either. Perhaps the most intriguing part of Dark Souls is the fact that it is, at its heart, a minimalist effort. The designers focused strongly on the engine, which is solid and rarely feels inconsistent with hit detection (which is key in a game this difficult – if you die, it’s your fault) and the level design, which is among the best I have ever seen in the genre. By the wayside is a text-driven adventure the likes of an Elder Scrolls title, leaving the story solely in the hands of a prologue that speaks in riddles and the brief descriptions of equipment strewn about the map. I find most adventure games off-putting due to their wordy nature and lofty lore; in Dark Souls, the story is but an afterthought, and one that leaves you just as engaged as 1,200 pages of text. Curiosity casts a new light on what little there is to know about your surroundings, the once-humans you slaughter, and the boss confrontations that the entire game slowly builds up to - from introduction to the depressingly-short conclusions, which is the game’s biggest weakness. For more on how the story unfolds within the imagination, I wholly recommend the year's best piece of gaming journalism, Chris Dahlen’s essay on Dark Souls.

Very rarely has an adventure game penetrated the survival horror genre, but lo and behold, Dark Souls is the scariest game of the year. This is not necessarily due to the wraith knights that charge you from the darkness in the New Londo Ruins, or the boulder-chucking strongmen who startle you in the swamps, but a legitimate fear rumbling in your belly, one of making a single wrong turn and losing all you’ve worked for.

With no pause button in sight and bonfire checkpoints few and far between, there is a sinking feeling once you realize the path you’ve been going along is so far removed from the outside world. The world is brilliantly designed with many shortcuts accessible upon completion of a specific area, all of which conveniently lead back to the main hub of the world, the Firelink Shrine - but later in the game these shortcuts become a thing of the past. Approaching the entrance to Lost Izalith, one of the final areas in one of the boss arcs, I realized just how far below the surface I truly was; in order to reach Lost Izalith, I had to pass through the sunny outdoors of the Undead Burg; the creepy labyrinth of the Depths into the poison swamps of Blighttown; traverse the Domain of the spider-woman hybrid, Quelaag; and finally succumb to the flames of hell in Demon Ruins, all just to arrive at the doorstep of a devilishly difficult (and insanely climactic, from a minimalist’s storyline perspective) lair of sorrow to hopefully put a good witch out of her misery. To think of the hours put into the game just to reach this point – not even to count the other branches on the map’s tree that sprout off into other directions, but to solely think of this arc alone – and to realize just how far you have come geographically make you realize that you are on an actual adventure. From my own experience, this is simply unprecedented in video games; it is the type of lore typically reserved for literature alone.

Ultimately, that is a huge reason to love Dark Souls: the exploration. The majority of the world is open right from the start, with paths branching to the underground, the graveyard, and up above. The game never sways you in one direction; I first tried the graveyard only to stumble into the Catacombs, the eeriest area of the entire world map, where enemies resurrect after defeat unless you slay them with a particular weapon. I soon realized that I was perhaps 55 levels too low to be sniffing around in such a terrifying den of burden and smite.

Perhaps Dark Souls is at its best whenever we come to the “It’s too late to turn back now” moments, which the game has dozens of. The game certainly has the reputation to turn a liberal gamer into a staunch conservative when it comes to adventure. You may desire the thrill of finding a rare piece of equipment or exploring a new area, but how much does it mean to you? Is losing hours of progress really worth the risk? How close was the last bonfire? These are the options you must weigh continually, possibly several times per hour, while playing Dark Souls. Those who are brave (and good) enough to explore are more often than not rewarded handsomely.

Of course, the literal “It’s too late to turn back now” moments come in the form of white fog doors, which more often than not represent an impending boss or mini-boss fight. Once you cross through the fog, it does not dissolve until the boss has been eradicated. I found myself scrolling through the menu to find how far I was from accumulating enough souls from enemies in order to bank them by leveling up, or visiting a nearby blacksmith to upgrade a weapon, since souls are used as either experience or currency in Dark Souls. “Oh, I’m only 30 minutes away from leveling up? Let’s hold off, then.”

Playing online is essential to the experience, which provides something entirely new and unique to the art of video games in the form of notes left by other players. At one point in the game you must cross a series of invisible bridges, where only a crystal abyss of inevitable death awaits upon fall. In order to figure out where the bridges begin, turn, ascend, or abruptly end, it can take a lot of patience and photographic memory, or by hopping online, markers left by helpful (or deceitful) players just like yourself. Do you trust the marker that states the path is up ahead? Putting this much faith in a total stranger can be a godsend or a costly, naïve mistake; in order to even reach this point, you must traverse a courtyard filled with golems that can annihilate you in two swings.

At the end of the day, 2011 was littered with a Game of the Year for everyone. I figured to have discovered my own way back in January with Dead Space 2, but found myself coming back to my memories of Dark Souls more often than Isaac Clarke’s second adventure in losing his mind. The trial and error learning curve, “pick your poison” exploration, and overall feeling of satisfaction upon completing what once felt like an insurmountable boss battle is enough to stick with a gamer for a lifetime. Try Dark Souls, because you’ve never had a complete experience this rewarding in gaming.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #2: Dead Space 2

Are we enamored with beauty? Studies say that small children are more likely to be attracted to beautiful people than those of us who resemble the likes of me, so certainly this is not an issue created by social means despite being fueled by such. Similarly, we like pretty games. We like seeing what technology is capable of. The message board elite have downplayed the thought that graphics are important similar to that of a flustered parent hushing the notion that their child is not adequately cute. We can sit here all day and state that graphics are of little importance, but just as we play the part of the fool with our mouths agape at the sign of an attractive person walking into the room, we’ll sit in front of the television with stars in our eyes when something wows us.

My jaw’s agape on this one: Dead Space 2 is utterly gorgeous.

The second outing in the franchise from Visceral Games (Dead Space, Dante’s Inferno), Dead Space 2 is the complete package: It has the brains to understand how to properly terrify those who are brave enough to grasp the controller, it has the charm to provide enough cinematic moments to compete with the likes of the Uncharted franchise, it has the imagination to soar to limitless heights, and above all else, it has the looks. It very well could be the Felicia Day of videogames.

On more than one occasion, I would find myself staring out from the starboard, taking in the beauty of a perilous galaxy gone mad. It’s often hard to envision such tragic horrors taking place literally right beside Isaac Clarke with the imaginative artwork that is the natural order of things, from nearby superstations to orbiting stars. Even if the view outside is obscured, taking in the design of The Sprawl, a mini-mall in space with adjacent daycare for the kids (who in turn become infected and ripped limb from limb), is surreal enough to keep you interested in seeing the sights. When you’re counting the dust particles illuminated from within a church’s sanctity -- as the blood dries from your latest conquer, of course -- you know the designers must have done something right.

Right from the opening cut-scene and the sequence that follows, the game hits the ground running. This is the first time I have died in an opening sequence in years, simply because it is so fast paced. Confined to a straight jacket and wandering the halls in a gut-wrenching blaze of glory, you must narrowly avoid the necromorphs that are busting out of their hospital quarters. Are you to be the lone survivor, as fellow patients and doctors alike are being consumed by the monsters surrounding you? And why are you even in this facility? Where are you? The opening five minutes set up a series of questions that keeps the game thriving and well-paced throughout, all while expanding on the lore that the franchise revels in, what with its animated movies and whatnot.

What is it about Dead Space 2 that makes it so special? One of the things it instantly gains is its expansion of the science-fiction medium as a whole. In Hollywood, filmmakers are restricted to the bounds of Earth to depict their creative journeys, where they can only do as much as their locations and set creativity will allow them to do. On the flip-side, videogames such as Dead Space 2 have no limitations; they are bound only by the designers’ imagination. The folks at Visceral Games understand this more than any other developer in the history of the gaming industry, unchaining our customs and expanding our minds with uncanny sequences that are, at their very core, the definition of inspiring. From enemy design the likes of which we have not seen since the Silent Hill series was at its boom period to mapping out the bird-infested living quarters of a caretaker gone mad, the mood is set throughout the game thanks to the imagination of those who have put everything in place.

Dead Space 2 works best when it is pulling from all directions of inspiration, taking things such as a classroom we might find here on Earth and distorting its edges to give it the feel of something familiar but entirely different all the same. Not dissimilar to mistaking a stranger for a friend from behind, Dead Space 2 pulls back the curtain abruptly in most cases, turning something joyous into a relatively shocking experience. Seeing daycares, churches, living quarters, and even retail corridors molded into something heinous and strange with a dark tint over it is a strength for Dead Space 2, even if it’s a new feeling to the series. It is -- and I mean this as the highest form of a compliment -- like playing through one of your nightmares.

While nothing may ever top Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception in terms of cinematic value for gaming, Dead Space 2 is no lightweight; consider it the Adam Wainwright to Uncharted’s Roy Halladay, providing monumental moments when they are needed most, such as rocketing through space and dodging asteroids ala God of War or being dragged through an abandoned hull by a creature you can’t quite see until it is nose-to-nose with you. Uncharted’s amazing cut-scenes and edge-of-your-seat gameplay sequences will be tops for many years, but Dead Space 2’s flirtations with the cinematic feel more realistic. After all, just how many times can Nathan Drake be thrown from skyscrapers or escape sinking labyrinths before he croaks?

All great things have a tragic end, and that may very well be in place for the Dead Space IP. EA has been dissatisfied with the end results on Dead Space 2’s sales, and look to take the franchise in a different direction by turning the ingenious third-person survival horror title, complete with its fantastic HUD that depicts Isaac’s iconic life bar along his spinal column, into a first-person shooter. What a pity to see corporation step in and throw a winning formula under the bus for the sake of an experiment that will crush originality in favor of placing another great circular franchise into a square box, no matter how much they must mash it and break it in order to make it fit. Let’s hope they have a change of heart. Dead Space 2 is deadlocked with the original in terms of quality, and I consider both to be among the best games of this generation. Do not miss them.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #3: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

The Uncharted series is amongst the very best in new IPs to come out of the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360-era. It does a lot of things right, but the two things it does absolutely better than literally any other IP on the market is character interaction and cinematic sequences. Both of those areas have hit their pinnacle with the third opus, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.

Beginning with a bang that leaves both Drake and his cohort Sully injured by a gunshot wound in a London alleyway atop a heap of garbage, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception does everything that made the Indiana Jones series it often imitates so much fun. Taking the time in its third round to flesh out the back-story between Nathan Drake and Victor Sullivan, including an in-depth focus on Drake’s childhood and ancestry, the game openly displays the heart of its character (and therefore its characters), allowing you to peer into the emotional attachment between the two best friends of different ages. It's a roller coaster of emotion that plays with your heart strings on more than one occasion due to the impeccable direction of the game, trumping even the best of action films that Hollywood has to offer. Simply put, the game coaxes you into thinking that Nate and Sully are your friends, too.

One of the most impressive things about the Uncharted franchise – one thing that particular shines in this third installment – is the game always gives you a peek into what is going to happen in the game. Box art spoilers ahoy, but when you see Drake board an airplane, you know it’s going to crash. As they say, the fun is not the destination but the journey itself, and Naughty Dog always knows how to keep us on our toes. In all of the game’s big sequences, we knew what direction the game was taking us, yet we’re all so stunned by the way it gets us there. If for nothing else, Naughty Dog should be commended for its imagination.

That is one of my personal favorite things about the Uncharted series as a whole, but in particular this release: each adventure is like a big “connect the dots” portrait, with a series of smaller dots leading to four to six big dots. The game will occasionally slow down with ho-hum corridors filled with generic gun-toting bad guys, but the thrill of seeing what these smaller dots eventually connect to is more than enough to keep shoving you in that direction – and it never, ever disappoints once you get there.

In terms of gameplay, Uncharted continues to do some things right and some things wrong. I find it increasingly difficult to play an Assassin’s Creed game after an Uncharted adventure, as I did this year, as Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception raises the bar for how acrobatics should be handled in gaming. True, it looks quite ridiculous to see Drake flailing about along the protruding ridges of a building’s landscape, but it certainly feels more fluid than the clunky, "realistic" approach that Assassin’s Creed adapts. Sometimes it is wise to remember that videogames, above seeming realistic, should be fun. Uncharted does the best job of making it abundantly clear which areas are accessible via scaling, rarely forcing you to take a leap of faith in order to find out.

This brings us to the black sheep of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception’s skill set in the gunplay. In a game that focusing so much on action sequences where Drake can be utterly surrounded by shotgun-wielding, armor-wearing, shield-toting vigilantes, you should have the absolute best in gunplay in order to effectively defend yourself. The only thing worse in a shooter than an incredibly sensitive aiming reticle is one that is so numb to movement that it takes a jerking motion to set it in the general vicinity of your target, which is exactly what we have with the third Uncharted installment – and a step backwards for the series.

In a normal year of gaming, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception could win Game of the Year without a problem. It has the looks, it has the brains, it has the muscle, and it definitely, above all other contenders this year, has the heart. Unfortunately for Naughty Dog, something as small as sluggish aiming controls during gunplay is enough to hold this one back from winning such honors in a tightly contested year such as 2011.

Do not let a flaw or two persuade you away from one of the best experiences in gaming of the year, as Drake's Deception's story will deceive you enough times along the way to a terrific conclusion to leave you smiling. I'm not sure why Nate continually gets himself crossed up in these outlandish adventures (and lives to tell the tale, no less), but I could go for a few dozen more.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #4: L.A. Noire

There is something peculiar about a new type of genre in the gaming industry, or one that significantly tweaks an existing category to its liking, that piques our interest as gamers. We like being on the up and up with technology and advances over what we currently have, be it from the Nintendo 3DS and the AR Games advancement (which, admittedly, still blows my feeble mind) or the leaps and bounds that the motion capturing industry has made, albeit in an unorthodox fashion, with the arrival of L.A. Noire.

The intrigue sets in thanks to a beautifully crafted story, where war hero Cole Phelps is coming home from World War II only to battle his personal demons in the face of the physical ones on the streets of 1940s Los Angeles, California. Becoming a beat cop and graduating to detective, you play as Phelps as he moves up (and down) the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department, deciphering the identity of petty thieves to serial killers in the bowels of L.A. during its Golden Era.

From the outset, you’re thrust into a murder case where the answers should be blatantly obvious… unless you’re me, as I quickly discovered that I am a dreadful judge of character. I’m fairly certain that you could be holding a bloody knife next to a corpse with stab wounds and I’d be on the fence as to whether or not something fishy was up, at least judging by my initial results in L.A. Noire. Unlike any game before it, L.A. Noire forces you to ditch your good guy (or in this instance, good cop) intentions; it forces you out of your comfort zone. In L.A. Noire, no longer can you merely play through a BioWare-esque experience taking the “good” path carelessly. If you try to be the Rebel Jedi in this one, more often than not you will fail at being a good detective, as you can grill the presumably innocent to unlock new clues to further your investigation. By finding additional leads through these interrogations or grilling, you can access possible correct paths to take when coming to a conclusion in your case. This makes it necessary to be an intuitive enforcer if you are aiming for the proper ending to that particular case, as you will be stuck with your decisions made throughout the process. Indeed, you reap what you sow.

The innovative motion capturing technology allows you to see truly lifelike facial movements from those in question, a real breakthrough for gaming as a whole. There are arguments lingering as to whether or not this route of mocap is the future of the industry, with Heavy Rain’s David Cage calling it a “dead-end” for advancement. Likewise, Naughty Dog’s Richard Lemarchand has stated that due to the sophisticated technology’s restrictions, actors cannot riff off of one another to create better chemistry. In hindsight, the jagged and disconnected fragments seldom stand out in a negative fashion due to the serious light that the game is portrayed in. This tech certainly wouldn’t work for the likes of the character-heavy, banter-laden Uncharted series, but it serves a wonderful purpose in L.A. Noire. As for Cage, let’s color him jealous for no apparent reason; both Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire execute what they set course to accomplish, and both are worthy recommendations.

While the look of the game and its innovative technologies that influence the gameplay will be the thing to suck you in and primarily work as its sticking point, one cannot overlook the world that Team Bondi has successfully brought back to life. A sandbox title is only as good as the world map you’re given to explore in. Everything appears clear and crisp, a movie-esque Los Angeles where it seems impossible for depravity to dwell, turning the landscape into an underground den of criminality beneath its rosy surface.

Much like the world around you in L.A. Noire, the characters appear cut and dry on the exterior until you really dig into their trials and tribulations endured over the course of the war. I struggle with the likelihood that these heroes could come back home to find themselves all intertwined in the same schemes – on both sides of the game, no less – in the same city and all, but I’m willing to suspend my belief based on the fact that the performances and writing are titillating enough to tickle the curiosity of most gamers. There comes a time when we can finally expect stellar storytelling in gaming as a platform, and it’s ushered in by the likes of L.A. Noire and the previously-mentioned Heavy Rain.

L.A. Noire may look as though it panders to the Grand Theft Auto crowd on the surface, but those presumptions are washed away as soon as you begin playing as the opposite side of the seedy underground that GTA marinades in. Slow-paced clue-hunting at crime scenes will lead to non-violent searches at establishments within the game’s beautifully-rendered Los Angeles setting, looking for murder weapons or drug stashes. This is more CSI than GTA for the betterment of the game; after all, if we wanted to play GTA, wouldn’t we simply pop that in? L.A. Noire creates its own identity, one that could be picked out of any line-up.

As we all know, Team Bondi has gone by the wayside as a result of their hard work and craftsmanship on L.A. Noire, which is a huge loss to budding development studios everywhere. The long hours they put into perfecting L.A. Noire were one of the reasons for their downfall. The creative folks who concocted the title will go on to do other projects that will entice the masses, but the studio itself looks as though it will not rise from the ashes. It is a shame that a swansong has to be played this early in the life of a studio, but oh, what a melody it is.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #5: Portal 2

I’ve been dreading smacking my hands against the keyboard to explain why this is not my Game of the Year for 2011. It’s an obvious choice for so many out there that anything short of a Top 3 placement could tick a few of you off, as it probably should; Portal 2 is, from front to back, one of the most memorable games of the year. It is a game that anyone who loves the industry would wholly recommend to everyone in earshot and beyond, because it does everything right.

So, why isn’t Portal 2 in my Top 3? That’s probably why I have saved this write-up for last among my ten selections – I do not have a concrete answer, other than my selections are based upon personal preference (obviously). It is a game that begins with something familiar and steadily gets better as it goes along, properly introducing new gameplay elements at exactly the right moments to where you never feel overwhelmed with new knowledge on how to solve the puzzles you’re on. In terms of construction, Portal 2 is matched and surpassed only by my #1 selection of the year, which is hard to do in a day and age where pacing has all but gone the way of the dodo.

The game begins as Chell once again finds herself in the loving grasp of GLaDOS, the evil computer who has dedicated her existence to expanding scientific research against human subjects. With your new dimwitted robotic pal Wheatley, you must attempt to brave through the revenge that GLaDOS sets in place for your destruction of her components in the first game’s conclusion. All is well, all is familiar, all is fun... but when you meet up with GLaDOS, things take a tumble for the strange as you’re displaced outside of the laboratories.

Portal is at its best when it makes you laugh - which says a lot, given the amount of things it is great at doing. The first game was littered with uncanny, hilarious dialogue coming from the “mouth” of GLaDOS, often making the entire experience feel like a huge inside joke that you are a part of. That’s ultimately where Portal succeeds more so than any other game series in the history of our industry: the people who “get” Portal are welcomed with open arms by other fans of the franchise, as we become a fraternity in homage to the boundless wit and heart of the folks who make it.

What Portal 2 does to expand on the universe the game is set in is astounding, and the truest example of evolution of a franchise beyond gameplay. Taking the portal gun’s concepts and dropping them outside of the testing chambers is a huge leap forward for the engine, as it literally forces you to think just as differently with using portals as the first game’s introduction to the device did. Likewise, the game takes a gigantic leap toward progress by moving beyond just the wonderful writing and delivery to invoke a still sadness over the entire situation. Playing with your heart strings, you are introduced to Cave Johnson, the facility’s overseer during its boom period across the ‘60s and ‘70s, and witness his effortless intellect at work throughout his best years as a scientist, all the way until his health begins to fail (see: Lemon Rant). The situation stinks for everyone involved underneath all of the funny one-liners and phenomenal acting from the likes of J.K. Simmons and Stephen Merchant, but the writers never truly throw the despair in your face; you must discover the subtlety of how depressing the situation is on your own through the scenery of the rummaged-by-nature Aperture HQ and the timely delivery of the actors’ lines.

For those of you who are constantly in need of something new and fresh, you can attempt to properly coordinate puzzle solving with a friend (or even worse, a stranger) via the brand new multiplayer mode – or as I call it, the “Learn to Hate Your Friends in Two Hours” seminar. Many feel that this is the true strength of Portal 2, though the flavors are truly different enough to distinguish themselves as sweet and salty. The story sequence provides moderate puzzles with heavy mythology sprinkled throughout for the game’s betterment, while the multiplayer experience relies on strict cooperation between two people with impeccable timing. Note to self: do not play with friends who have slow motor skills.

Amidst all of the things Portal 2 does right, my favorite thing is its ability to switch-up its core setting midway through the game, making the second act feel so incredibly, strangely different from everything that comes before or after it; it is the Bohemian Rhapsody of video games. Oddly enough, I also love that song but it is nowhere near the top of my favorites. This sequence also gives us an inside-look at what other madness Cave Johnson dreamt up during his years at Aperture, from the likes of turning participants into mantis men to his endearing globs of paint that actively manipulate physics throughout the lab. The introduction to paint that makes you bounce or sprint adds another realm of options to dive into while making your way through the facility, adding even more depth to the array of puzzles that comprise the title.

Perhaps Portal 2 is destined to be the one game that everybody can find something to love about in varying degrees. I concede that Portal 2 does literally everything right, from the artistic design to the puzzle implementation to the pacing to the writing. If it is in Portal 2, it is done to perfection. My apathy toward the puzzle genre may hinder the undying affection for the title that millions of others feel, but I can honestly say that this is not in my Top 3 solely out of personal opinion, as the game flawlessly executes everything it sets out to do.