Average Maria Individual: the game (mostly) about treating everyone like a human being

Although I play many games, never before have I devoted an entire blog entry to reviewing one. It’s not that I haven’t played good games.  I’ve played some very fun games, some of which I’ve even been tempted to write a blog entry about. It always felt hollow, though. does my experience with this game have any value outside the game itself? Average Maria Individual is different. Average Maria Individual, I say without irony or reservation, is a work of art.

Readers who like to play video games, take note: Most of my audience will not ever play this game, so it is my intention to convey the most important bits of wisdom within it. What follows is rife with spoilers. If you have any intention of doing so, I strongly recommend you download the game now and play it before reading on. You have been warned.

On its surface, Average Maria Individual is a Super Mario Brothers clone. The look and feel is clearly based on Super Mario Brothers except the colors and the music are dark and gloomy, the foes look a bit less cute and a bit more creepy, and the main character is not Mario, but Maria.

Maria’s girlfriend happens to be princess peach who, it turns out, is missing. As you walk forward (to the right, just like a proper 2D side-scroller platforming game) hoping to find out where she’s gone, something that looks vaguely like a goomba, but with a gaping maw full of sharp teeth comes towards you.

At this point if you have been playing Mario games all your life like me, you hit the “jump” button. Unfortunately, as the title suggests, Maria is not a super brother, but an average individual. As such, she can only jump a paltry foot or so off the ground, which is not high enough to stomp or avoid anything in the game. So, with the distinct impression you’re going to die, you just walk right into the goomba.mariaInstead of eating you, the goomba, whose name is MX. Gloom, asks you what you’re doing here. The game gives you two options: you can say you’re looking for your girlfriend or you can say you want to kill your enemy. The goomba is more helpful depending on how kind you are and how much you respect your girlfriend’s wishes. If you tell her you are worried about your girlfriend and that you are not trying to “save” her, Gloom applauds your respect and points you in the right direction, which is in fact left, not right. Otherwise, she advises you to consider your girlfriend’s feelings and ask rather than assume what it is she needs.

If you continue going to the right, you will run into a short pipe, something a Super Mario Brother could easily overcome, but you are not a Super Mario Brother. After a few seconds, the pipe begins to laugh at you and gives one of the best lines in the game:

So, you turn back and go to the left. After a few strange scenes of glitchy, broken backgrounds, a “?” block that’s tired of catering to people’s endless obsession with acquiring new items, and a deadly plant that will kill you if you are not respectful, you fall down a pipe and reach the famous plumber himself.

This part is a little odd. After a short conversation where Mario clearly and explicitly states what must be the attitude of every violent video game protagonist, that the universe is made for him and that everyone else in it is monsters, he rushes at you. Now contrary to your non-violent life-respecting options earlier in the game, now you have no choice but to quit, jump into the lava, or goad Mario into killing himself by making him bounce off of you into the lava.

After that, though, you come to the great demon king, who tells you the sad story of how constant attack by Mario and his ilk forced him to become a monster to protect himself. Now he’s wracked with self-loathing and tells you to go ahead and kill him by cutting the bridge and letting him fall into the lava. Of course, you get an opportunity to choose whether or not to cut the bridge. If you do cut the bridge, the demon king falls into the lava and dies.

The next scene is Princess Peach, hanging out in the room behind the demon king. If you spared the demon king, she apologizes for not telling anyone where she was going, but if you killed the demon king, she’s so horrified by what you’ve become that she stabs you to death. If you didn’t kill the demon king, you can still call her friends (the scary goomba and plant from before) “monsters” and she’ll break up with you and ask you to leave. The best ending is achieved when you agree to start visiting the great demon king’s castle with Peach in the future.

The articles I’ve read on it suggest that Average Maria Individual was constructed specifically to infuriate gamers who want the games of their childhood to remain pure and unquestioned. As someone who revels in shattering fantasies and illusions, I think that’s terrific. Beyond that, aside from goading Mario to kill himself, Average Maria Individual seems to teach remarkably good values about simple human decency. It is for this reason that this is now one of my favorite games and deserves a blog entry all to itself.

Oh, and the pipe. “I am insurmountable. You cannot conquer me.” Heh heh, you gotta love that pipe.

If you’re interested in another more in-depth analysis of Average Maria Individual, you can find it here.

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Sheepdogs and Mac OSX Yosemite

Let me tell a story based on one my friend, who wishes to be known only as “Greg,” told me. This friend of mine and I were discussing some rather high-profile recent events. The story is this: Imagine a herd of sheep and two groups of sheepdog. Each group of sheepdog is trying to herd the sheep into a different pen. The first group of sheepdogs herds the sheep into their pen, then the second group of sheepdogs, reasoning that they won’t be able to herd the sheep at all if they lose track of them, enters the pen with the sheep. Then the farmer closes the pens, one completely empty and one full of sheep and some confused sheepdogs that no one is sure what they are doing there or what they were trying to accomplish in the first place.

Also recently, I successfully installed the latest version of Mac, called “Yosemite,” on my laptop computer. Then I tried to install it on the desktop computer and that computer stopped booting. I needed to get a wire from my old team leader to transfer some of the files I otherwise would lose and he said this fiasco fit neatly into the “Sam’s rush to upgrade” narrative that he had been building where I repeatedly insist on upgrading to the latest version of a software against his advice, and hilarity ensues. Needless to say, he found this narrative rather entertaining and spent the next few minutes remembering it for everyone’s benefit. Eventually I walked away from his pontificating and returned to my seat when one of the art team, who sits on the other side of the aisle from us, said, “you installed Yosemite?”

I had had quite enough, and said, “I really don’t get why everybody thinks that upgrading to Yosemite is such a terrible idea!”

The art team member shrunk a little bit and said, “I uh, just thought that that since you installed Yosemite, that makes you Yosemite Sam.”

I found a list of Yosemite Sam quotes, but it’s difficult to find one that would be appropriate in this situation. Most of them are either thickly-accented nonsense or threats against an unnamed rabbit. http://yosemitesamquotes.com/yosemite-sam-sayings/.

The Penniless Researcher

An old creative writing teacher of mine recently posted on Facebook that Iggy Pop, a famous musician, could no longer support himself on his work. He blamed this on consumers, referring to a “give-me-stuff-but-I-won’t-pay-for-it culture.” This struck me as an unfair analysis, so, along with some other readers of this fellow’s Facebook posts, I looked more deeply into the issue.

The first thing that we found was that Iggy Pop has a net worth of $12 million. The issue here might be more along the lines of managing one’s money rather than not actually having enough money. The general point remained, though. Even if Iggy Pop is not actually as poor as he makes himself out to be, many artists are. Next, I tried to think of a solution that would offer artists a living wage while not taking art away from those who could not afford the prices it used to fetch before digital distribution.

The first answer was obvious: the radical divide between the rich and the poor is to blame. The middle class is the greatest consumer of affordably-priced art. If each member of the six billionaire Waltons – heirs to the Wal-Mart empire, buys a book, that’s six books sold for the price of a book. If the Waltons’ wealth-equivalent of middle class people each buy a book, the exercise is left to the reader, save to say that that’s a lot more books sold.

On another thought path, what if we could encourage art by subsidizing it? It turns out we do with the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), but it gets so little funding ordinary folks like me don’t even know it exists.  This led me to think: what would science be if the National Science Foundation (NSF) were gutted like the NEA?

There would still be lucrative industry jobs, just like artists can get good careers as commercial artists, and there would be a few scientists who manage to develop something amazing, patent it, and become vastly wealthy, just like Iggy Pop, but then there would be the rest of the scientists, studying things with no direct benefit to any corporation. These scientists would likely be much like the struggling artists of today, barely making ends meet, telling themselves again and again that it’s all about “loving your work” while the roof of their cardboard box house/personal lab caves in on them from the rain. Then the public would benefit from their work. Maybe they’d get a private donation or two – enough that they could afford a new box. A big refrigerator box where they can lay down at night, and some plastic wrap to keep it from getting soggy and falling apart. Newly dry, and safe inside strong, reinforced cardboard, they think what a gift it is to be spending every day doing what they love.

But I digress. My old creative writing teacher and I agreed that more money to the NEA could help get new artists off the ground and encourage our nation’s creativity without shutting out the less wealthy consumers. I suggested that he write a letter to his representative to make this happen, and he said that although he lived in DC and didn’t have a national representative, he had already written several to various local representatives, crediting his letters and those of others with keeping the arts program open at one of his local schools. “Oh,” I said with a start, “you’re way ahead of me.”

 

26 is the new 80

Yesterday I dramatically underestimated how old some folks I knew as children had grown. I figured middle school, but they’re both in 11th grade. Outrageously underestimating the ages of children is what elderly people do. Now in my second quarter-century of existence, I am having a quarter-life crisis.

Now, I’ve heard that as you begin to get older time starts to move more quickly. Given that it seems like a week ago I was just starting at NC State and just yesterday I first met my now girlfriend of almost a year, I imagine that if this process continues consistently, by the time I’m fifty I’ll be seconds away from ninety-nine and then dead. On my deathbed I’ll be telling the nurse “I feel like I was being born just five minutes ago.”

I also am beginning to get ailments that doctors just say I’ll have to put up with for the rest of my life. Well, one. I got my first “floater”  a little while back. It’s just a little dot that hangs around on my eye and gets in the way, especially when I’m working on my computer. Apparently they’re normal at only 26, but it took me a while not to feel existential dread about my inevitable demise every time it appeared in my vision. I suppose a crucial part of aging gracefully is coming to accept each new manifestation of my physical form’s slow, inexorable decay as it comes.

So, now it’s time for me to get serious about my life goals. Clearly I don’t have much time left, so I’ve got to start achieving them, pronto! That means I have to define these goals. Here they are roughly in no particular order:

  • Satisfaction and security in my career
  • Love and mutual support in my relationship
  • Being the change I want to see in the world
  • Some form of self-expression through my writing
  • A community that will not be mostly dead when I’m even older than I am now

The key of the last one is to avoid being alone in old age without having to have children, which are a drag on at least four of my five life goals as presented here. I suspect this can be accomplished with the proper intergenerational community involvement. In any case, I’ve got to get to work on it! Who knows how fast the years will start flying by?

Who Loves Jerry?

Jerry had had his hair done like Jamie Jackson, but he wasn’t Jamie Jackson. Jerry’s hair was not like Jamie Jackson’s anymore. It was spread with the rest of him out across the rocks beneath the aptly named Suicide Ridge. Looking down there now, you couldn’t be blamed for having no idea Jerry had ever existed. “C’mon, Mike,” said Kenneth, “are you scared?”

Mike’s hair was plastered to his face underneath a knit cap. He shuddered under his thick jacket. “I don’t know, man, this seems like a bad idea.”

“Well, Mike,” Ken frowned “it’s dangerous, yeah, that’s kinda the point. How are ya gonna know if you’re like Jackson if you don’t find out?”

Mike crossed his arms against the cold, “but if I’m not like Jackson, I’ll be like Jerry.”

Ken rolled his eyes, “yeah, but it won’t matter then, will it? I mean, if God, er, or whoever he is, if he just lets you die, clearly you don’t matter.” Mike didn’t know what he was doing here. He’d been standing right here a week ago when Ken was convincing Jerry to jump. He asked the obvious question anyway, “Why don’t I matter?”

Ken kicked a rock off the off the edge of the cliff, as if just to see something fall off while he waited for Mike to jump. “Nobody cares about you, man! This guy, he controls everything! He won’t let Jamie Jackson die, and everybody knows it. If Jackson jumped off this cliff right now, a plane would come swooping down to catch him, or a wind would blow him so he falls in the ocean instead of on the rocks.”

“Or maybe he’d wake up in traction with a feeding tube down his neck.” Mike put his hands in his coat pockets.

“Naw, man. That’s boring. Jackson is clearly a main character. Who wants to watch a movie about some jerk who jumped off a cliff and ended up in traction?”

“You want to watch the movie about some jerk who jumped off a cliff and magically flew out to fall in the ocean.”

“Damn right. That’s what everybody in America tunes in to see every night when Jackson does his next death cheat.”

“People care about me.”

“What?”

“People care about me. You said nobody cares about me.”

“Who? Who cares about you?”

“My parents do, idiot. They love me.” Mike realized his parents would be devastated if he ended up like Jerry.

“Oh yeah?” a smile wormed its way across Ken’s face, like he’d just figured out how he was going to win this argument, “tell me more about these parents of yours.”

“What?” Ken knew Mike’s parents, “you know my parents.”

“I do,” agreed Ken, “What do they look like?”

“Uhh,” Mike was baffled at this line of questioning, but he tried to conjure an image of his parents in his mind. He pulled the cap further down over his head. It seemed to be getting colder by the minute.

Ken tapped his wrist, “Well?”

Both of Mike’s parents were redheads like him. “They’re both redheads, like me.”

Ken nodded, “Oh, is that right? Tell me more.”

This was infuriating, “What do you want to know, Ken!? What’s the point of this stupid quiz?”

Ken’s smile opened into a full malignant grin, “what are their names?”

Michael’s parents names were Linea and Hurton. “Linea and Hurton, is that what this is all about? You just want to stop calling them Mike’s mom and Mike’s dad?”

It was a lame insult, and Ken ignored it. “Your redheaded parents Linea and Hurton didn’t have names until just now. They didn’t have red hair, or even exist until I brought them up. They won’t exist if you jump off and don’t survive. Don’t worry about what they think. All that matters is the creator and what he has planned.”

Michael was genuinely fearful now. He had to admit it was frighteningly difficult to remember any more details about his parents. They just looked like floating red wigs in the air with little labels “Linea” and “Hurton.” “I-” he stuttered, “Who are you?”

“I’m Ken, you’ve known me since Kindergarten.” Michael had known Ken since Kindergarten. “How many people have you led to this cliff?” Michael asked.

“Hundreds. Or maybe you’re the first. Does it matter?”

It didn’t matter. “It doesn’t matt-” Michael started to say, but caught himself. He had to leave. He had to go back to his parents, his real, whole parents who existed in flesh and blood.

But what if they didn’t? His zero-degree rated coat was not warm enough for the weather now. The wind whipped at his face, his nose stung and burned with each breath of icy air he sucked in. A fog obscured everything more than a hundred yards away. There was nothing besides Ken, Mike, and this cliff.

Mike was right next to the cliff. He could have sworn he was not that close before. Just one step and he could know if he was real. If there was anyone out there who was real and really cared about him. If he wasn’t…

Ken was right behind him. He seemed to hear his thoughts, and Michael felt his hot breath on his ear, “it’ll all be over anyway.” Michael reached a foot out over the precipice.

“Don’t do it!” came a voice from the fog. Michael looked back and saw a light. Ken frowned, “You’ll never know!” he snarled. Michael looked at Ken. He took his foot back onto solid ground. “Maybe I do know,” he said suddenly as the light grew brighter and a bright blue uniformed police officer came out of the mist. The sudden squall had died down and Mike was comfortable in his heavy coat. He walked toward the police officer, keeping his eyes on Ken, “Maybe God, or whoever he is, just showed me he does care.”

Ken stood stock still on the precipice, glaring ominously at the police officer, who eventually gave up trying to convince him to get in the car to be taken home. The officer turned away and said “you should know the window on your side doesn’t close all the way, kid,” before leading him to the passenger seat. As Mike and the officer drove away, Ken disappeared into the fog.

In a sudden fit of terror, Mike realized he thought of the officer as just a bright blue uniform. He looked over and saw him completely. He had dark skin and a long, narrow face with a square jaw. His nose was prominent and looked like it had been broken in the past. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and his bright blue uniform was worn and had a mustard stain next to the right pocket. He saw Mike staring at him, and he smiled. “Hey, kid, you know that God loves you, right?” Mike knew now that God loved him and wouldn’t let him come to harm. On the long trip home, though, a chill wind blew through the window of the cop car. The question remained in Mike’s mind.

Who loved Jerry?

Gluten-Free Birthday

The morning of my October 11th 2014 was not terribly pleasant for me. On top of poor sleep and surprise assignments with unreasonable deadlines, The senseless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Monaco, Spain was weighing on my conscience due to my strategic mistake not upgrading my airforce soon enough to be able to catch the new, faster alien spaceships. All this extra work and violent horror was a bit of a drag. Then Alice presented lunch to me.

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My theme this birthday has been the gluten-free reimaginings of glutinous classics. For lunch Alice made me reimagined sloppy joes.  That is, sloppy joe filling on a cornmeal pancake. I called the new concoction “Pancake Joe,” making the whole thing sound vaguely military and saturday-morning-cartoonish. The roasted sweet potatoes are for the purpose of using up extra vegetables in the house, a secondary theme of my birthday. We received these sweet potatoes from one of Alice’s lab mates, who had removed a small core from each to study and had no use for the rest. Occasionally I had a potato with a small cylinder removed, but that made things even more fun. All lunch items were delicious, and they were delivered with such charm and care that I couldn’t possibly remain grumpy. And I hadn’t even had dinner yet.

Before dinner, my sister called me. Despite my attempts to monopolize the conversation and prevent her, she eventually managed to wish me a happy birthday. Then I told her I hoped to live to eighty-eight years old to see the United States’ 300th anniversary. I can decide then if the US ended up the land of the free and the home of justice that it always aspired to be, or if the great experiment ended up yielding just another big, corrupt country like China and Russia. Rachel said when she was 86 she would talk with me about whether we thought America turned out all right, and she also wanted to discuss whether Harry Potter was still beloved in 2076. I told her I’d write down that I was going to do this in my blog, because if anything is still around in 2076 it will be my blog. Always updating once a week, as long as I have a brain to think and fingers to type.

Greg called as well. First he called when I was grumpy, and I told him how grumpy I was and the conversation just ended there. Then I called him back when I was feeling better, and he asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I told him that he should make me something creative as always. Jimmy texted me with a generic happy birthday message, and I said “oh no you don’t, you have to say more than that.” He was all like, “I don’t have time.” Then later in the day he managed to find a small window and called me, but after one ring the phone stopped ringing. It turned out that just at the brief moment when he was able to speak to me his phone was failing him.

Dinnertime.

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Barbecue chicken, baked sweet potatoes, and fresh beans and broccoli. No gluten-free reimaginings here, but that’s because it is all gluten free in its original imagining, and all delicious.

After dinner, Alice presented me a little notebook. I asked what it was, and she said she’d been keeping notes on all the ways I’d made her happy since late July. “Oh, wow, what a great gift! How’d you think of it?” I asked, to which she smiled and said, “It was your suggestion. I figured you’d have forgotten by your birthday.” “Oh,” I nodded, “Well, that explains it.”

Finally, shortly before the evening’s close, who managed to get his phone to work but Jimmy? I told him about how I was planning to visit with Rachel at age 88 and evaluate how Harry Potter had aged, and he said it would be funny if by that time neither of us had any memory of what Harry Potter was. That would certainly be an indication of how well it had aged.

The next day my mother took a shot at the Gluten-Free Challenge. She cooked some fettucini alfredo with gluten-free spaghetti, making it really “spaghetti alfredo,” but I wasn’t going to split hairs. It was so good I had already eaten seconds before I realized I’d forgotten to take a picture.

Between lunch and dinner Greg sent me an email top 20 list of the favorite things he remembered me doing, written like a historical timeline complete with years and “circa” years for when he didn’t remember exactly when they happened. I’ll just share one of these.

The Death of Greg. Sam completes the ultimate Barrett Hall comic, entitled ‘The Death of Greg.’ Modeled on comics like ‘The Death and Return of Superman,’ Sam built on the success of the earlier Earlham comics by creating an actual story rather than a series of highly self-referential jokes. (c. 2009)

I particularly like this one because it makes me seem like some kind of comics visionary, and I like being represented in such a way.

When dinner did come, I did not forget to capture it.

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Mom constructed orange chicken from scratch. It was a bit of a cheat because I hadn’t realized orange chicken called for corn starch instead of breading and was therefore already gluten free, but that was no problem, as it was the best orange chicken I’d ever tasted. Really, the orange chicken at Chinese 35 buffet was just fat and salt that pleased me as a ten-year-old, but this orange chicken was tangy and sweet and had just exactly the right texture. The vegetables were also delicious.

Finally, my mother brought out the cheesecake. She dumped canned cherries on top and then felt sad that they didn’t have sickly sweet syrup all over them. I assured her that I didn’t want sickly sweet syrup, but she continued to loudly plan for how she would make sure to cover everything with sickly sweet syrup next time until I firmly reiterated that I would prefer fresh fruit rather than sickly sweet syrup. “Fine,” she said, “no sickly sweet syrup.”

I forgot to take a picture again, and the leftovers are not terribly photogenic, but the cheesecake was also delicious. I would like to personally thank my father for doing all the dishes, even though he insists on saying “you’re welcome” when the proper response to “thank you” on one’s birthday is “happy birthday!” The implication of “you’re welcome” is that the recipient is “welcome” to ask for what has been given any time. “Happy birthday” makes clear that this is a birthday gift, not just a general kindness. Now that I think of it, perhaps since Dad always does the dishes, “you’re welcome” was appropriate in this case.

It's about whatever I say it's about