The Keepers of the FOB

Originally published in 2015.

The other day, as I exited my room, there was an older man in civilian clothes with a clipboard putting a fire extinguisher back into its wall-mounted cradle nearby. I nodded to the worker and he barely nodded back. A few days earlier, there was a small fire and all of the fire extinguishers were used and then seemed to dissapear.

And now, a few days later, they were recharged and back in their original place. No coordinations were made.

Something I’ve noticed more on this deployment than previous ones is the level of maintenance and upkeep that occurs on the FOB (Forward Operating Base). While some of it is done by military personnel, much of the day-to-day life functions are carried out by private contractors and local workers. It all kind of happens in the background, wrenches turning, equipment moving, fire extinguishers being replaced, all without anyone ever really noticing or even asking.

It reminded me of the Keepers on the Citadel (from Mass Effect). We’re warned early on not to mess with them; their origins are mysterious, but hey, they keep things running so why mess with a good thing?

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Cloud Strife: A Veteran Lost in the Twilight of Sentimentality and Nostalgia

Originally written in 2015, but still true.

Final Fantasy VII was the first game I ever pre-ordered. I went into a KB Toys (RIP) and saw a sign announcing that the game would be available for pre-order and that if you pre-ordered it, you would get a free Final Fantasy t-shirt.

When the game was finally released, I was happy to receive the promised shirt. It was white with a picture of the main character Cloud Strife on the back. Next to the avatar was some biographical data.

If you look closely, his job is listed as “former soldier.”

I remember thinking at the time – and I was just a 15 year old kid who had no idea I’d be writing about the oddities of veteran life in 2015 – “isn’t it kind of weird to list your job as something you were formerly?”

Cloud Strife is a veteran, lost in the twilight of sentimentality and nostalgia.

As fans of the game know, the word ‘soldier’ probably should have been written in all upper-case, since it was more akin to a unit than an individual job profession.

But fans of the game also know that the crux of the story revolves around Cloud’s latent PTSD and his self-delusions of grandeur and heroism. Before I even knew what PTSD was, I watched Cloud struggle with it. He also struggled with transitioning out of the military. With no skills, he joined a bunch of ‘freedom fighters’ for no reason other than to keep fighting, really. He broke down – over and over – clasping his head as memories of the past surged into his mind.

As you slowly tease out the story of what happened at the Nibelheim Reactor, the big reveal is that Cloud isn’t who he says he is. What’s particularly interesting to me, is it’s not exactly clear whether he deliberately misremembered the past of his own accord (to trump up his deeds) or if he just didn’t remember, because of the psychological trauma or injury. I always thought it was a combination of the two.

“Former soldiers” or veterans tend to embellish their war stories. While war can be exciting, it doesn’t always match the vivid imagination of the listener, whose frames of reference are action movies and video games. Each time the story is told, a gentle adjective sneaks its way in. The next time, you were a little closer to the explosion – “it was right in front of me!” Usually, these retellings are innocent enough – and they don’t involve the release of a murderous psychopath bent on destroying the world. But the idea of a former soldier mistelling his past for whatever reason – fame, power, gil – is common.

I’ve always wanted to dig into the Nibelheim Incident and Cloud Strife’s PTSD and memory as a larger piece for this blog. It’s a good way to tell the story of something important (veteran PTSD issues, moral injury, stolen valor) in a way that is interesting and might capture the attention of an audience that normally would be uninterested in veteran issues. It was only recently that I remembered the pre-order t-shirt and I wanted to get this idea out there. I doubt I’ll ever have the time to explore Cloud’s lore and background to give the idea the attention it would deserve to do it justice, so in the meantime, these half-baked ideas will just have to sit here, and wait.

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Metal Gear Deep Dive: COLD WAR, PROXIES, and PHANTOM PAIN

I’ve been on a Metal Gear kick for the past 6 months so when this video popped up in my feed I was excited to watch it. It’s a deep dive into the historical lore that courses through the Metal Gear series and does a good job of tying the game to history, and the genius of Hideo Kojima.

If you’re fan of Metal Gear, or think that video games can’t be intelligent and informative, the video is worth your time.

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Sniper-baiting: “The oldest trick in the book”

MGS1-Snake-Sin

This is essentially one of the nightmare scenarios that opponents of women in the infantry use to deflate the argument. In a mixed infantry, the argument goes, (some) men will be unable to control themselves when their female comrades are in harm’s way. Their masculine protective instincts will kick into gear, and they’ll be unable to perform their soldierly duties properly.

Somehow, Solid Snake manages.

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Metal Gear Solid and 1960s Green Berets

Big Boss Drinking canteen

I just started playing Metal Gear Solid V. I’ve always been really fascinated with the series. I was obsessed with it for Nintendo when it first came out. It was unique and interesting.

I played it again when it came out for Playstation. I really enjoyed reading through the military lore of that game, and uncovering the deep background of Solid Snake and unpacking what the hell was going on.

I kind of stopped playing after that one. I purchased the second MGS for Playstation 2 but never made it past the opening boat scene. A buddy bought me Snake Eater but that game remained in its wrapper. I was busy with work and just never had the time to get into it.

Despite not playing the past decade of Metal Gear, I’ve kept up with the trajectory of the game through the internet. I know the series has bounced around and has revealed a comically ridiculous plot line.

Still, if there is one thing I’ve enjoyed through the series, it’s Hideo Kojima’s reverance for special operations through the past century. Because the game bounces through time, and you always play some kind of elite soldier, operators from the 1960s are held up against operators in the 2000s. With the exception of some fantasy, a lot of the field gear is accurate. The picture of Big Boss drinking from a Vietnam era canteen (still used today, by the way) is what spurred me to write about this. In the same opening scene, Big Boss is wearing an old “butt pack” on his web gear, again, consistent with the timing of this game (mid-1980s).

With the game spreadout through time periods, and weaving in and out of different eras, it makes me wonder what the real differences are in special operators on one end, and typical soldiers on the other. Is a 1960s era Green Beret similar to Persian Gulf War era Solid Snake? What about the 1980s? My gut instinct says that special operators today are much more advanced in the realm of developing physical fitness with increased knowledge and availability of nutrition and training information, but I have no way of knowing if this is actually true.

And I never see old pictures of fat special operators.

What about field craft? My gut also tells me that old school operators probably practiced better field craft than modern operators, partly because they were not so beholden to technology, and partly because they came from a different generation.

The picture of Big Boss drinking out of a Vietnam era canteen spurred me to write this. Besides getting me thinking about comparisons between eras, Hideo Kojima has always been good at getting gear generally right. In this same scene, Big Boss is wearing an old school butt pack on his web gear. On the absurdity level, he had just finished escaping a hospital while being chased by a flame monster on a unicorn.

And since I’m on the topic of Metal Gear, there’s a part of me that thinks that the whole series is complete bullshit. That the original Metal Gear for Nintendo was a stand-alone military game that featured a prominent stealth option. When they made a second one, they bolted on more of a story and then again and again as each iteration came out. I just have a hard time believing that Kojima had this nearly century long timeline and idea thought out back in the late 1980s.

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The Existence of Evil; or, being an asshole as a choice

NOBODY MESSES WITH ME BITCH

Continuing the theme of posts inspired by Life Is Strange, I’ve been thinking about the concept of evil, as in, the propensity to do bad things.

In the game, every single character is explored in depth. While she might seem like a bitch and he might seem downright evil, over time, their personalities are revealed to be more complex, and they all seem to be suffering or struggling with some internal struggle. Or, they are the product of some outside influence that kind of makes you go “Hm, I guess I understand why he’s such a dick after all.”

By the end of episode four, I was left really disturbed by some of the things that were taking place in the game. The game gets really dark, and because it does such a good job of exploring people’s backgrounds and explaining or hinting why the “bad” characters do the things they do, I was left a little unsatisfied.

The bad characters can come off as victims of their own circumstances, and even though they are doing terrible things, you wind up showing them a little too much empathy.

For a few days after finishing Episode 4, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I felt frozen, unsure of what was right.

It relates to the way people often talk about ISIS. On the one hand, it is easy to look at them as a group and see the things they are doing and simply cast it as evil. They are evil and there is only one way to deal with them; elimination.

On the other hand, there are real circumstances that lead men and women to gravitate to a group like ISIS. They can be seen as victims of circumstance.

I am left very unsatisfied, though, at simply explaining every terrible thing that is done by people as a symptom of poverty, mental illness, social upbringing, peer pressure, or whatever. While these things all play into actions, by constantly searching for the “why” we are robbing people of the real agency they have over their own actions.

Ultimately, people make their own decisions, and what you are left with is the sum of those choices.

And while there are certainly exceptions – the truly mentally ill, for example – many people who choose to do wrong know exactly what they are doing. They know it is wrong and they do it because they choose to.

In this instance, empathy doesn’t really have a place. People need to be held accountable for their choices.

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Life Is Strange: Learning to make better decisions through gaming

Reflections

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, mostly on very early mornings on the weekends, you know that I’ve been playing Life Is Strange. I learned about the game back when I was in Afghanistan, a time when the prospect of being an 18 year old female hipster in the Pacific Northwest seemed very, very appealing. I caught up with the game and recently finished Episode 4 (The Dark Room) and one Episode remains. The game is beautiful and highly emotional, and I’ve been convincing as many of my friends as possible to play it, mostly to make them as miserable and depressed as me.

I’m currently working on a longer post about one of the game’s seconday characters, David Madsen, who’s a combat veteran. I actually have quite a few posts in the works that will be coming out related to the game, mostly because the game tackles a lot of important issues (suicide, youth, emotions).

In the mean time, I wanted to comment on one of the interesting features of the game, or rather, one of the interesting side effects that I think the game has. I recently wrote about how through playing narrative-based games, like Life Is Strange or even Mass Effect, the game forces the player to grapple with difficult dillemmas, and that these in-game interactions have actually made me think about the way that I engage with real people. Following up on that idea, what I’ve started to really think about is the way that the game allows you to sit back and really think about what decision you are going to make before actually making it, and the inherent training value this has.

I remember when I was playing Mass Effect, there were times that I would get to a critical decision point and actually get up, pour myself some more coffee, and then sit there, face twisted in thought as I contemplated how my decisions might affect the fate of the galaxy.

In Life Is Strange, the stakes are usually smaller, but often feel more personal (and seemingly real). I’ve been playing the game – as I do most non-linear games – the way that feels right for me. That is, I’m making the decisions as I think I would make them. There are times where I feel like the game is pushing me in one direction over another, like in the scene where I choose whether to make fun of Victoria or comfort her. Seeing those options, I knew that comforting her would be the right thing to do, but I also didn’t think I would actually do that in person. Victoria, to this point, has been a total pain and this was my opportunity to get revenge. I wasn’t going to pass it up.

Mass Effect was much more deliberate in this regard. Decisions colored red pushed you towards being a “renegage” whereas decisions colored “blue” pushed you towards being a “paragon.”

The point is, these in-game conversations, and more importantly, the agency the player has over choice, potentially has real value outside of the game.

Months ago I reviewed a game for iOS that works in this regard (Together Strong), using narrative-based interaction to help prepare veterans and their family members to recognize and effectively communicate with veterans or military members who may need help. Although I thought it was good as a training simulation, I wasn’t that interested in “playing” it again because it never really felt like a game. It felt like effective training. I really ought to revisit it.

I think there is real value in this kind of computer based interaction. Game design has advanced to a point where these types of games can be used to help better prepare people – especially veterans – for facing the tough conversations all of us will undoubteldy find ourselves in. Suicide, depression, alcoholism, anger, PTSD – if you’re in the military or around veterans, these are things you are going to see. And as much lip service as we give to making people “aware” of these issues, very little of substance is done in terms of actually arming ourselves with the tools to help someone.

We like to play games. Instead of another class on recognizing signs of suicide, maybe we simulate a conversation with someone who is really struggling in a context that is comfortable for us – games.

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The Effect of Narrative Based Games On Real Conversation

Life is Strange was one of the games on my list of games to play when I got back from Afghanistan. It’s a beautiful game, and it’s narrative-based, meaning the story is driven forward by conversation and decisions you make through the game.

Between Life is Strange and Mass Effect (and others), I’ve noticed that recently, when I’m talking with someone, and especially if we’re just standing there and the conversation is going back and forth, I’ve been hyper-aware of the things I was saying and understood that what I say and how I behave might significantly effect real outcomes.

Ok, I know there’s a “no shit” aspect to this, as in, of course this is the case – that’s called real life. But there is something strange about it when you are actually thinking while still in the conversation about how this or that response might affect the outcome.

While this is all anecdotal, I feel like being hyper-aware of the conversation is a good thing. Too often, it feels like we just breeze through conversations without really thinking about what we’re saying and what the outcome might be. “Game-ifying” conversations feels a little manipulative, but only in that you’re being mindful of what you’re saying. We’ve been taught to “think before you speak” but not really to think of the potential outcomes.

Anyway, I like being more aware of what I’m saying, and if it’s a result of games, awesome.

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The Beautiful Female Warriors of Troia

final_fantasy_iv_conceptart_qtfu9

The castle and town of Troia (or Toroia, for those who played it on SNES in the 1990s) has always fascinated me. The nation is governed by women. Its leaders and warriors are all female. Both the town and castle are marked by their greenery and water. It’s lush and peaceful. The music of each castle in Final Fantasy IV reflects the character of its nation; the imperious Baron, the warrior-minded Fabul, the sadness of destroyed Damcyan. Troia’s music reflects peace and contentment.

Playing it as a kid, I was always impressed and intimidated by the order and symmetry of the castle, especially compared to the mish-mash style of the other castles. Troia is swarming with female warriors, but it is also the only castle that has frogs in the water, a seemingly insignificant but nice touch that makes the castle appear friendlier. There is a soldier inside who confesses that Troia has never been in a war before, but the impression given through exploring the town and castle is that Troia is a powerful nation that jealously guards her power. I always imagined that their military might is such that they wish to avoid war for fear of unleashing it, in the same way martial artists swear that the best way to win a fight is to avoid getting in one in the first place – a line of thinking I never understood as a child.

In furiously Googling conducting research for this piece, I came across some familiar scenes from Troia. Considering Troia is female run, it surprised me as a kid (and more surprising now) that the town is also home to a pretty robust prostitution racket. I’m sure there is an argument in here somewhere about the politics of sex and who has the upper hand, but I would have expected that in a matriarchal nation like Troia, prostitution wouldn’t feature so prominently. In the North American version of Final Fantasy IV, a lot of the text in the Troia was modified to try to present something other than what was going on (click here for an in-depth look at what was changed). Instead of a “pub” for example, they changed one location to a “Cafe.” Some of the lines that the patrons speak are completely re-written, making the whole visit awkward at times. Still, it wasn’t too difficult to decode that something scandalous was going on – even as a 12 year old kid.

The video below is from the “pub” in Troia, in which you have to purchase a special – and expensive – pass to gain access. It’s a strange departure in the game. Once you talk to the guy at the desk you get sucked into a performance that looks like a kind of cabaret show. There’s a creepy feel of being at a night club in the middle of the afternoon, with only one other patron in the audience and the normal, calm village music softly playing in the background until the show begins. During the show, Cecil gets pulled into one of the chairs and is surrounded by the dancing girls. It’s an old game with basic graphics, so you have to use your imagination as to what’s going on. I’ve always been haunted by the way Cecil dips his head after he is pushed into the chair. He looks shamed, and he holds it until all the girls leave, one by one and the town music fades back in.

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Magic and Steel: The Predator Drone as Magitek Armor

Predator

Something fun for the weekend.

One of my favorite pieces of music from the Final Fantasy series is ‘Devil’s Lab,’ which is the mechanical theme played while exploring the Magitek factory in Final Fantasy VI. Magitek armor, for those not in the know, is the fusion of magic and technology to create a powerful weapon.

I don’t know what gave me the thought, but as we soar into the future, I can’t help but think that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or “drones” as we commonly know them, are our Magitek armor. It’s the fusion of all of our best technologies to create a beautiful and deadly machine, without too much thought given towards the ethics of the matter.

If I were to visit a drone factory, this is the music I’d expect to hear.

In drafting this post, I listened to a lot of different version of ‘Devil’s Lab.’ This one, done 8-Bit style, was the most interesting.

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