Eat a Videogame Olive
I didn’t used to like olives. When I was a kid I’d pick them out of my arroz con pollo and grimace when they found their way onto a pizza. Who would befoul such culinary delights with those salty, bitter, texturally suspect slices of evil?
Since then I kept a short list of stuff I didn’t like: green peppers, mint and olives. Otherwise, I gobbled down pretty much everything that people set in front of me and, as the sun started to set on my thirties, I started to question my prejudices. I remember reading somewhere that taste preferences were behavioral and that all you had to do was eat a food four or five times and you’d develop a taste for it. It was then that I decided that I was no longer a child. I should learn to like these funky foods. I started with green peppers, which was easier than I thought – they’re awesome in curries and do some interesting work atop a pizza. Olives were a little bit harder to swallow until I went to a Spanish joint and tasted some high-quality specimens. The difference between these lovely, savory delights and the shabby stuff they throw on a Domino’s is like night and day. And so it came to pass that there are next to no foods I will wrinkle my nose at. I am, through force of will and now, via the motivation of newfound pleasures, a true omnivore.
If you’re a foodie it gets harder and harder to show your face if you haven’t enjoyed a dirt-cheap cabeza taco at 3 a.m. The same goes for Spelunky.
I speak of olives and taste this week because, with the release of the excellent game Spelunky, I find myself trying to convince the wary and weary to give the roguelike platformer a chance. Yeah, the game is hard. And, yeah, you lose your progress when you die. But, I think, if you choke down this dish three or four times you’ll develop a taste for, and maybe come to love, this particular kind of videogame punishment.
For the uninitiated, a roguelike is a role-playing game that emulates the game Rogue, a game that had randomized dungeons, perma-death and turn-based movement. But to me, boiling down this micro-genre to such a degree tears away some of the meaning. Roguelike is not a genre, it is a philosophy. Games like this aren’t about “getting through” the levels. They’re about learning not to succumb to them. When you play a game like Spelunky, or Nethack or The Binding of Isaac, your progress isn’t saved to a file, it is saved to your brain and to your muscle memory. You learn to prevail rather than persevere
until you do.
If you consider yourself a follower of games, you can only turn your nose up at roguelikes for so long. In case you haven’t noticed, more and more game makers are taking inspiration from them. To further mix the food and games metaphor, roguelikes are the street food of videogames. If you’re a foodie it gets harder and harder to show your face if you haven’t enjoyed a dirt-cheap cabeza taco at 3 a.m. The same goes for Spelunky.
It sounds a little bit like I’m telling you to take your medicine, but that’s not it at all. Spelunky is good for you and it tastes good. I’m just trying to encourage you to recalibrate your taste.
So here’s the part where I tell you about videogame genres I don’t like and my efforts to appreciate them. I don’t dig sports games because sports suck (we can argue on this later). I’m also really not fond of real-time strategy games and fighting games. I hate fighting games mostly because I suck at them. I’m pretty terrible at Starcraft as well. There’s something about the kind of play in those games that I hate. You’re always micromanaging these little dudes, putting one fire out here while another one flares up on the other side of the planet. When I played Halo Wars I felt like a horse listlessly swishing my tail in an attempt to swat a fly that was about to take a bite out of my ass. For every pest I hit, another three landed and bared their shitty little fangs.
So, for a month, I played StarCraft II, working my way through the campaign and trying my hand at public multiplayer matches. At first the game made my face pucker and eyes water. The Zerg dismantled my defenses like they were built of butter. I spent too much time preparing and not enough time acting. After a week or two of choking down my lessons, though, I started to excel. Not long after, I started having fun. I can’t say the same approach will work for Street Fighter, but I’ll be damned if I’m not going to give it a try.
We change too much throughout our short lives to trust the judgments we made in the past and the world is too full of crazy, unique experiences to allow that first, knee-jerk reaction to take hold.
This week go live a little. Eat an olive. Play a roguelike. Open your mind, take charge of your palate and acquire a new taste.
Pretension +1 is a weekly column about the intersections of life, culture and videogames. Follow Gus Mastrapa on Twitter: @Triphibian.