Tag Archives: guns

FGC #568 Wild Guns (Reloaded)

Now reloadingLet’s talk about cowboys, challenges, and save states.

Today’s game is Wild Guns, which has been on the ol’ ROB list for a while. Why? Wild Guns Reloaded, the remake of Wild Guns, was released a few years back, so I have a physical copy of that floating around the collection. And then, just about a year ago, Wild Guns, the original SNES version, was added to the Nintendo Switch’s online library. This is a rare opportunity for the FGC! This is a game that I did not play during its heyday, but now I can play its original and upgraded versions side by side on legitimate hardware! I can compare and contrast versions! I love comparing and contrasting! I’ve been doing it since grade school!

Unfortunately, I hit a pretty familiar wall in Wild Guns almost immediately: this game is hard as (Cement Man’s) balls.

Wild Guns is, at its core, a graduated shooting gallery. On a basic level, there is very little difference between the gameplay of Wild Guns and your average shooting gallery you might find at an amusement park (that’s where all the arcades went, right? They’re still safe and happy at Six Flags?). You play as one of two (or four) cowboys/cowgirls/cowdogs who stand in the “foreground”, a series of targets pop up on another plane, and they require a whole lotta shootin’. Unlike in your traditional shooting gallery, though, these targets shoot back, so you have to not only manually aim, but also shuffle, jump, and roll around the screen to avoid a hail of bullets. And, just for the fun of it, this ain’t just a Western, it’s a Western in Space (or, at least, some nebulous future), so half of your opponents are tanks, giant brain pods, and a whole murder of Terminators. And if you are at all on the fence about shooting robots with shotguns, let me assure you that the inclusion of all sorts of Contra-esque opponents is unequivocally a good thing, as they allow for a lot more varied attacks than your traditional six-shooter. It is simply more fun to dodge the claws of a giant, mechanical crab than your 700th stampeding horse.

Blow it up goodAnd, while this is a fun game, I am inclined to blame the abuser (the game) and not the victim (my poor gaming skills). Despite being remarkably straightforward, the controls and “details” of Wild Guns can often be confusing to a neophyte. I have an attack button, but what am I supposed to do when one random bad hombre wanders into the foreground? Use my special attack? That works, but apparently Up+Attack whips out a hitherto unmentioned melee weapon. Would have been good to know that three deaths ago! Oh, and everything is a one-hit kill. Probably should have mentioned that immediately, as one stray (yellow, tennis ball-sized) bullet is just as deadly as having a car thrown in your face. Granted, this kind of weakness-to-firearms is true to mundane existence, too, but I think we are all used to heroes that are slightly more resistant. And, give or take the occasional laser lasso, absolutely everything in Wild Guns is instantly deadly, which pairs poorly with depth perception involving a little more wiggle room than should be allowed. With the faux 3-D layout of these stages, it can be difficult in the heat of battle to determine whether a bullet is going to safely sail to the side, or straight into poor Annie’s heart. It takes some significant practice to survive Wild Guns, and it feels like not every death is actually the fault of the player.

Though one could argue that this is the entire point of Wild Guns. I played “upgraded version” Wild Guns Reloaded initially, and foolishly assumed it had modern trappings and an appropriate “easy mode”. I was wrong. While Wild Gun Reloaded contains an easy mode, that easy mode did not transform WGR into a cakewalk where I could just soak in some giant robot fights. When I lost my last life on easy mode, I chose “Continue”… and then had to start at the beginning of the game all over again. Wild Guns Reloaded is just like the original Wild Guns: you are expected to clear three entire stages on your limited count of lives, and if you do not survive, it is right back to start for you. Despite the fact that you could lose nearly all of your life within the first seconds of the first stage, you have to survive straight through two stages, two minibosses, and the final big boss capper for the level to see the next continue point. And, yes, in all stages, if you whiff it during the final boss, you are returned back to the start of that level, and have to survive every other onslaught all over again just for a chance to maybe learn the pattern that led to your death the first time. Wild Guns demands a lot of practice to reach the final battle, and, while the challenges are not insurmountable, they will lead to a player being much more conservative with their playstyle. You can pick up that lit stick of dynamite and toss it back at an opponent, but do you want to? Do you really want to take the chance that that explosion will be fatal, and then you won’t have enough stamina to outlast the monster at the end of the level? CRAB!Can you afford to stop dodging for even a second, lest you have to repeat everything ad nauseum? No one likes losing progress, so are you willing to risk your valuable time on a jump that may or may not land you right on top of a knife’s edge? You are constantly stuck making life or death decisions in Wild Guns Reloaded, and you know the punishment for a wrong decision is having to do it all over again.

And then I played Wild Guns on the Nintendo Switch Online “Snesflix” service. That emulator contains a rewind feature. And, shock of shocks, I completed Wild Guns inside of an hour without a single (logged) death.

Gee, wonder what changed?

Look, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I support cheating in videogames. What’s more, I’m one of those nerds that can and will wax philosophic on the nature of if you even can cheat in a videogame. Is a “game” defined as a competition between two entities? Is it man versus (the people who programmed the) machine? In that case, is it cheating that I have way more experience with videogames than should be expected of a player? Or, put another way, do you figure the AI in Wily’s latest Robot Master is capable of understanding that it is fighting a Mega Man that has obliterated thirty years’ worth of its robotic brethren? I hack in huge experience gains in JRPGs because I don’t want to waste my time grinding. I hack in gigantic funbucks accounts in fighting games because I don’t want to spend the rest of the day beating Very Hard with Worst Character™ just to see a gallery image. And, yes, I use save states and rewind features in action games, because my time is valuable, and I don’t need to repeat an entire level (or, in some NES examples, an entire game) because the boss scored a lucky hit. Mistakes happen, and you should not have to waste your time because you hit the jump button without the all-important directional pad input that would transform that deadly hop into an invincible roll.

But, yes, it would be foolish to claim that using save states does not drastically change the game being played. Wild Guns is not a game that involves much resource management or having to think “three steps ahead”. Wild Guns is a pure action game, so if you have the ability to “rewind” as little as two seconds, you can dodge that bullet. You can throw that dynamite faster. You can duck left, when you now know dodging right would have been fatal. And thus do all those “life or death” decisions fall by the wayside. What’s left? A competent shooting game with some whacky enemies that are color swapped repeatedly, a handful of memorable bosses, and that one guy who does a hula dance on the side of a train. Wild Guns transforms from a white-knuckle ride to a pleasant-but-forgettable game with the addition of one minor gameplay option. And it is not just about save states! If Wild Guns included an “instant continue” feature or infinite lives, it would similarly become easy to live sloppily in this New Old West, and we would be talking about a different experience. Wild Guns is, for better or worse, defined by the existence of its omnipresent challenge, and changing that changes everything.

GET IT!?So what’s the moral here? Well, it seems that even if you have the ability and will to cheat, maybe hold off on cheating for a solid half hour before diving into the cheaters’ pool. Even if a videogame was made by three people, it was made to be played a certain way, and denying yourself that experience is denying everyone that made that game. Save states, rewind, or even your traditional Game Genie will change that base experience, and you are missing out on what might be the entire point of any given game. Don’t cheat, kids, because you’re only cheating yourself.

And next week, Random ROB has chosen… Battletoads? Goddammit! Forget I said anything. Cheat to your heart’s content, everyone!

FGC #568 Wild Guns (Reloaded)

  • System: Super Nintendo, then “Reloaded” on Playstation 4, Windows, and Switch, and then the SNES version popped up again on the Switch. It was also on the Wii and WiiU, but those systems feel like some kind of fleeting dream now.
  • Number of players: 2 player simultaneous! And 4 in Reloaded! That looks like fun, and I will give it a shot the absolute minute I find someone that can play this game and doesn’t die in seven seconds!
  • Go doggy goWhy Reloaded: I apologize if I made Wild Guns Reloaded sound impossible with its lack of contemporary conveniences. The widescreen format of this modern version really does feel like how the game is meant to be played, even if such a thing were not possible back in 1994. And the new characters (and possibility of four players!) are just aces. … And I’ll never beat it, because who has the time?
  • Favorite Character: Every character except Clint. Annie is the original cowgirl that can conquer an army of robots while wearing a frilly dress. Doris is the rarely seen videogame “big girl” with even bigger grenades (not a euphemism). Bullet is a Dachshund. This leaves us with Clint, who is only a generic Western protagonist. See you never, Space Cowboy.
  • Favorite Gun: Just to piss you off, sometimes a gun powerup will transform your deadly weaponry into something more appropriate to Splatoon, and you won’t be able to do a lick of damage for fifty bullets or so. This is evil, and I hate it. Or, when I’m playing with save states, I am capable of finding it funny. Weird how that works out.
  • Did you know? I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned “a videogame (that) was made by three people”, Wild Guns was put together over the course of five months with three core designers and two support staff members. In that context, Wild Guns is an accomplishment on par with the Parthenon.
  • Would I play again: This is a great “arcade style” game that could be fun to play for a half hour some random afternoon. Of course, if I don’t want that to be a frustrating time, I’m going to have to remember how to actually survive the game. Hm. That might make this a “no”…

What’s next? Random ROB actually has chosen Battletoads, but it’s not regular ol’ Battletoads, it’s Battletoads 2020! The future is now! Or at least Monday! Please look forward to it!

BIG OL BRAIN
So is it biting Metroid or Contra?

FGC #502 Day Dreamin’ Davey

Behold the game that accidentally enshrines a sacred trifecta of gaming.

Day Dreamin’ Davey is clearly an odd duck. For one thing, for reasons no one seems to understand, DDD is widely believed to have been a cancelled NES game. Maybe this was the result of some confusing Nintendo Power coverage? Or perhaps one random nerd on the internet claimed it only existed in ROM form, and that was how a myth was born? No matter. What’s important is that Day Dreamin’ Davey is a real game that is available in real cartridge form, and you could hop over to eBay and pick up a copy if you’d like. Buy it now for a Jackson! Or don’t! Because the game sucks out loud. Despite the pedigree of the incomparable HAL Laboratory publishing this happy little adventure, this is actually a Sculptured Software joint. Don’t remember Sculptured Software? Well please remind yourself of this poor Gorilla or the even more maligned Robin of Locksley. Day Dreamin’ Davey is very similar to those adventures, as it is another game that features strangely incongruent graphics, unresponsive controls, unpredictable death traps, and a propensity toward delving into different genres and playstyles without actually excelling in a single one. If you are looking for what could be defined as a good videogame on even the most basic level, skip DDD, as you’d be better served playing something at least passable, like a LJN title (wait a minute…).

I hate this placeBut, while Day Dreamin’ Davey might assault your eyes and fingers like some manner of freshly sentient paper shredder that has returned to visit revenge upon the user that has forced it to dismember so many documents, it does at least contain an interesting concept. Day Dreamin’ Davey was released in 1992, a time when videogames as a cultural concept were still fairly new, but had already established a firm grip on the hearts and minds of a generation of kids. And, as such, there were likely a number of children out there day dreamin’ about life being a videogame while participating in mundane chores like sitting through lectures or eating lunch (?). Day Dreamin’ Davey is meant to portray the experience of your average “Davey” during this time, when every errant comment or confrontation culminated with imagining the world as a fetch quest or boss battle. As someone that may or may not have been a child with ADD and a propensity to shout “Get equipped with… Socks!” every morning while getting dressed, I can safely say that many kids related to Davey’s continual attempts to turn rulers into swords. And, while it may have taken decades for the term to be defined so succinctly, the very concept of DDD did make a wee Goggle Bob “feel seen”. The only difference between my younger self and Davey was that Davey had a complete lack of an imagination! He never fantasized about fighting a giant robot even once!

Okay, yes, that might be a little unfair to poor Davey. Davey is limited by the fact that he exists within a NES game, and, if we’re being honest, you could only do so much with basic Nintendo Entertainment System hardware. The average juvenile could imagine a thousand fantasy scenarios to justify punching a bully in a face, but Davey is limited by the number of pixel costumes that can be glued to his bulbous head. Day Dreamin’ Davey screams “we had a budget” from top to bottom, and the fact that it was a NES title released the same year we were seeing the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or Super Contra didn’t inspire much confidence. This was a game rushed out the door so it would beat the inevitable collapse of its chosen system, and not a “culmination of a generation of hardware” title like Kirby’s Adventure. So, while Davey has ten day dream levels to fight through, they’re limited to three distinct “settings”, and each progressive stage in the same setting is just the further exploration of the same map/ideas as last time. It’s a pretty traditional setup for a NES game, and not terribly dissimilar from Super Mario’s original adventure only really featuring overworld, underground, and castle settings (“what about underwater?” “shut-up.”). No need to disparage Davey’s imagination for not fighting against the constraints of the console.

And what Davey did imagine? Well that’s how gaming was defined in the 80s.

STABSDavey’s first world is the typical medieval fantasy setting. We’ve got knights, dragons, and I’m pretty sure those are supposed to be hobbits continually biting at Davey’s ankles. Everything here is vaguely King Arthur themed (there’s a literal Excalibur lying around), but make it a little more generic, and it could be practically any fantasy videogame from the 80’s. A lot of early videogames were simply Dungeons and Dragons campaigns with one new thing. Final Fantasy was D&D with a floating techno castle or two. Dragon Quest was D&D with a unique bestiary. The Legend of Zelda was D&D with…. Okay, it’s just D&D. The first level is literally a dungeon with a dragon! So many videogames descended from table top gaming that was itself a direct descendent of Tolkien that borrowed from the likes of the King Arthur myths, and it all boiled down to one simple truth: man really wants to slay a giant, fire-breathing lizard. … Wait… is Super Mario Bros. a D&D campaign? No matter! Davey day dreams about dragon-slaying, so we’ve got that apparently base element of human desire covered.

And then we move on to the second setting for Davey: The Old West. In this case, Davey is deputized, and it’s his job to take out a few bad hombres terrorizing a tiny hamlet. Now, it may be your immediate thought that there were Western games, but they were by no means a dominant genre on the NES. And you’d be right! But the genre Davey is experiencing here isn’t just “Western”, it is the genre that Western belongs to: Gun. Davey is participating in a gun story. The parameters here? Davey is the law, and he alone can solve problems with his trusty firearm. Does that sound like something that is more prevalent on the NES (and all of gaming)? Have gun, it’s you against the aliens. Have gun, it’s you against a city full of drug dealers. Have gun for a hand, it’s you against robot masters. The Western trappings are just an excuse to draw Davey in a cool hat, everything else about this section is the same old story of one guy with a gun against the world. And that’s perfect for a videogame setting, so it was seen over and over again.

Hey cowboyAnd Davey’s third option for day dreamin’ is Ancient Greece. Give or take a kid that icarused around, this setting seems like the most unique for the time. Even if an ersatz Link was once forced to battle in Olympus, the era of philosophers and Spartans is not exactly overrepresented in gray, plastic cartridges. But then Davey reminds you that he is fighting a cyclops. And satyrs. And by about the time that Davey fights past an army of skeletons lurking in Hades, it becomes obvious: “mythology” as a genre is what keeps the gears of games going. If a title isn’t sampling an age of dragons and knights or modernity (gun!), its opponents likely have Greek origins. Medusa has turned many a would-be hero to stone, and Charon has ferried more than a few protagonists for a coin or two. It doesn’t matter if this is a temple or a haunted mansion, there’s a minotaur. Davey might go the extra kilometer by including Plato, but his visit with Athena has been seen in more than a few games.

So congratulations to Davey’s limited imagination. In a game that can barely clear the bar of “decent hit detection” or “providing a marginal amount of fun”, Davey managed to feature the three most prominent genres in 20th Century gaming. Hell, if Day Dreamin’ Davey included a level where he’s a sad dad trying to guide his helpless child through a level or two, it would have included future gaming genres, too.

Way to go, game everyone thought was cancelled, your limitations are iconic.

FGC #502 Day Dreamin’ Davey

  • System: Nintendo Entertainment System. Just because HAL is involved here, I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about Davey for Smash.
  • Number of players: Day dreamin’, like Davey, is a singular activity.
  • BANG BANGController Options: You can use the NES Zapper for the “shoot out” boss stages of the Old West areas. And, considering these events comprise maybe 0.03% of the game’s total play time, it’s uncertain why anyone would ever do such a thing. But keep that Zapper handy! Maybe trying to shoot a ten pixel-wide area is fun in some parallel universe where people played this on their CRTVs!
  • How the times have changed: Go ahead and show me a game made today where a child accidentally shoots his teacher with a (water) gun. Or nearly blinds a random classmate. Or beats a level by giving a bully a black eye. … Okay, that last one might have happened in Bully.
  • An end: This game is the definition of a story that “just ends”. I don’t think Davey even makes it through a full day of school-based day dreamin’. At a certain point (sometime roughly after lunch), the whole adventure just calls it quits, and Davey is declared a winner for not being sent to juvenile detention this week.
  • Favorite Level: Each of the three “worlds” seems to put an emphasis on a different aspect of the game. Medieval Times is more about the action and combat. Ancient Greece has more of an emphasis on finding particular items and using your inventory to overcome obstacles. And The Old West is more about resource management and rationing your money and bullets to properly police the town. Of the three, I’d rather the Old West section be the dominant playstyle, as I really like Davey’s hat it seems the most interesting and nuanced.
  • ALSO BANGSSay something nice: There is exactly one surprising moment in Day Dreamin’ Davey, and that’s when, as part of the final Old West stage, Davey has to duck down a tunnel, and finds himself in the Underworld of Ancient Greece. It looks and feels like the game has glitched out and dropped Davey in the wrong level, but then Hades himself appears and says “Deputy, what are you doing here?” before teleporting Davey back to the familiar western town. It is the exact kind of “kiddy crossover” that any child with a decent imagination would create with the “toys” available in this game, and the fact that it can surprise an adult gamer is just icing on the cake.
  • Did you know? According to studies promoted by Google, people spend about 47% of their waking hours daydreaming. You would think there would be more videogames about something we collectively do for about half our days…
  • Would I play again: Absolutely not. This game feels like it was stitched together over the course of a long weekend. Everything about it is janky beyond any reasonable level, and it’s a lot more fun to play literally any other NES game. This is a confusing relic only to be played once every 500 or so games.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Final Fantasy 5! A game that, in its native Japan, was released the same year as Day Dreamin’ Davey, a game we shall never mention again! Now it’s time to get a job! Please look forward to it!

THE RIVER STYX
“Welcome to Hell, Davey.”

Goggle Smart Kid

Photo credit: guessThe most dangerous thing I ever read in middle school was Harrison Bergeron.

For anyone that hasn’t read the story and doesn’t have time for a short story that you can google in six seconds and would probably be a better use of your time than this essay, Harrison Bergeron is a 1961 short story by Kurt Vonnegut. It tells the story of a dystopian future where every American has been “averaged”. If someone is beautiful, they are forced to wear an ugly mask. If someone is athletic, they are tied to heavy weights. And if someone is smart, they are equipped with a helmet that randomly dispenses blaring, concentration-destroying sounds. This “averagefication” of America is legally mandated, and this short story tells the tale of one intelligent, athletic Harrison Bergeron, and his short, easily stymied revolution to bring extraordinary back to America. Spoilers, Harrison is shot and killed almost instantly, and his parents, an idiot mother and an intelligent father forced into a thought disruptor, barely register the tragedy thanks to their handicaps. Looks like the Bergeroniverse is going to stick to its “average” existence.

And that scared the hell out of me.

Identity is always important. I’m not certain at what age such thinking starts, but I know nine-year-olds and fifty somethings that both seem to be in the same boat: they want to know who they are. But it seems like the nine-year-olds have an easier time of it, as they more readily accept the descriptors assigned by their peers and/or adults. Tell me, were you ever described as the fast kid? The fat kid? The smelly kid? The cute kid? The kid that can eat eleven tacos in one sitting? The sports kid? The smart kid? Who assigned you that moniker? Was it a parent? Grandparent? Teacher? Sibling? Friend? Bully? And, regardless of source, when did you start to internalize that description of yourself? You are the fat kid, and no matter how much weight you lose, you still see that pudgy face in the mirror. You are the fast kid, even though you haven’t run more than three feet in the last decade. Maybe you’re still convinced you have a skin condition you got over in college, or maybe you’ve been happily married for ten years, but still think no one on Earth would ever date you. These descriptions we internalize, they can last whole lifetimes, and sometimes they just originate with a random, careless comment that was forgotten by the commenter as quickly as it was said.

Photo credit: guess

Me? I was the smart kid, and it wasn’t hard to understand why. I don’t have any siblings, and I was raised by a very attentive pair of parents, and 3 out of 4 grandparents (my paternal grandfather died the year before I was born). And everyone in my family, one way or another, was very educated. Since I didn’t have much of a peer group 90% of my time (no siblings or cousins around to play Ninja Turtles with), I mostly conversed with my parents. I want to say they dumbed down the conversation a bit for my young ears, but they never lowered their vocabularies or talked down to me (my father actually has a distinct loathing for “baby talk”, which likely explains why he couldn’t stand it when I flipped on Rugrats). This is why, when I was a wee lad of about eleven years old, my friend’s mother asked me, “Why do you talk like a forty year old?” I took it as a compliment. Regardless, whether or not I have ever been smart, I have always sounded smart, and so I happily adopted the “smart kid” identity. I liked school! I did my homework! I could always spout “fun facts” and lecture my friends on the application of metaphors! I used phrases like “the application of metaphors”! And, looking back, I have no idea if it was because I enjoyed doing such a thing, or if the act of committing to the “smart kid” persona just properly tickled the pleasure centers of my brain. See! I’m the smart kid! And I’m doing smart stuff! Me so smart!

So I wound up in the Gifted & Talented Program, and, one day in sixth grade (or thereabouts), we read Harrison Bergeron. And I liked the story, naturally, because it was funny, quick, and absurd. If that wasn’t already the entire base of what I look for in entertainment, it would become such in the coming years. And we discussed the story in class (Gifted & Talented was a forty minute “elective” class containing like ten students. While we were discussing Vonnegut, the kids in “normal” class were, I don’t know, learning how to entice termites onto sticks or something). I seem to recall the girls found the story sad, while the boys were busy chuckling about some dumbass getting his brains blown out. We talked about the ludicrousness of an entirely “averaged” society, and then we moved on to the next topic at hand (which if memory serves, was Flatland, for some reason). In a way, that should have been it. I can’t distinctly recall the thoughts “around” most anything else we read in Gifted and Talented, and Harrison Bergeron should have been no different.

Photo credit: guess

But some time not much later, a thought started to creep into my head, and I’d argue that it never left. That thought was rather simple, and it irrevocably changed my life:

They want to make you stupid. They want to make you stupid, just like them.

Before we go any further: I want to plainly state that, as an adult, I see Harrison Bergeron as nothing more than some light satire about what would eventually be identified as “politically correct” culture. It’s a silly story that is meant to highlight the ridiculous potential endpoint of homogenizing the human race. It’s not a manifesto, it’s a farce. As an adult, I understand that.

But as a kid? At the age of twelve? I want to say it was the hormones. I want to say that, at that age, with my kind of mentality, practically anything could have set me off. It’s like having your sexual awakening while watching Rescue Rangers, right? You were going to be get turned on by something, it could have been MTV’s The Grind, or it could have been Gadget Hackwrench. Best not to think too hard about such a thing. But, source or no, somehow Harrison Bergeron radicalized my own thinking. It was no longer enough to be “the smart kid”, now I had to defend that position, and keep my precious brain safe from all those that would attempt to bring me down to their level. I’m the smart kid, dammit, and you damn normies aren’t going to catch me unaware! Going to a hockey game this Wednesday? Ha! That’s clearly a trick! I’m going to stay home, and read books! That’ll show ya! My galactic brain will stomp out your brain, which is clearly as dull and lifeless as your hair. Ain’t nothing gonna bring me down!

And I thank God every day that I had great friends, activities, and teachers during that time, because if I didn’t? I’m pretty sure I would have been a danger to the world.

I’m a white male living in The United States of America. Statistically, that means there is likely something wrong with me. According to all available data, there are good odds that, more than the women and “minorities” in my school, I could have been a danger to myself and others. This isn’t some self-depreciating statement, this is a simple fact proven over the last few decades since Columbine (which, incidentally, occurred while I was in high school). I am well aware of this fact, and, every time there’s a shooting (which is depressingly often), I think about how such a thing could happen, and if such a thing could have ever happened to me. And, no, I don’t think about if I could have been shot while in high school, I think about whether I could have been the shooter.

Photo credit: guess

And, deep in my heart, I hope that I could never have been that person. I’m not violent by nature, and I think I’ve been in exactly two fights my entire life. I traditionally see violence as an absolute last resort, and it’s a rarity that I even consider hitting someone, left alone jumping down the long series of philosophical hoops that would lead to me wanting to see someone dead. I can barely bring myself to stomp out a spider! They serve a valuable purpose! But I also think about being a teenager, and how every little kiss and breakup and math quiz was the most important thing that had ever happened in the history of mankind. I think about how quickly those emotions could be amplified into something terrible. And I think about what I was thinking about at that time, and who I was.

And I was the smart kid.

When I was twelve, I determined that the world would try to drag me down to average. It never did. I kept my ears open, I kept my nose to the grindstone (book stone?), and I scoffed at obvious attempts to lower my IQ (a fear that alcohol is the “new” opiate of the masses may explain why I have a distaste for beer to this day. Ditto on drugs in general… which may literally be opiates…), and, thankfully, I made it out of my teenage years with my brain intact. My identity, who I considered myself as a person, was never truly threatened. The Harrison Bergeron World was not one that ever intersected with our dimension, and I was safe in my little smart kid bubble. I am the smart kid, and I would continue to be the smart kid.

But I feel that only proves that I’m lucky.

I never really chose to be the smart kid. At some point, I made it an integral part of my identity, but the things that made people identify me as such, the things that made me “the smart kid” were all just random bits of fate predominantly inspired by parents. I understand it’s like a kōan to ask something like “who would you be if you were born an entirely different person”, but the point is that the identity I clung to like a security blanket for so long was less my own doing, and more of an identity thrust upon me. I wasn’t “smart” because I was the most studious second grader in South Jersey, I was smart because I sounded smart next to my friends that were still aping Ren & Stimpy. Adults told me I was smart, I told myself I was smart, I studied to prove I was smart, and then I defended my smartness through smart activities. Would you like to see my high school yearbook again? I think that would prove my nerdity once and for all.

So, in a way, I can’t imagine being a different random white boy with a different defining personality trait. And, more importantly than that, I can’t imagine having a different “Harrison Bergeron”. It’s only through deep meditation and reflection (re: got bored while watching Jessica Jones) that I came to the realization that one simple story impacted my life in significant and subtle ways. So if I barely know myself, I can’t imagine we are even capable of discovering the “trigger” for the white boys that actually decide to kill others. And, in a way, that’s to be expected. We are, by nature, selfish creatures that look out for our own interests. We are capable of empathy, but considering we barely admit our own motives to ourselves, it really is nearly impossible to truly know and understand what someone else is thinking.

Photo credit: guess

And why do I bring this up at all? Because it doesn’t matter.

I was never violent, but my own thinking was radicalized by a humorous short story. Similar things may have happened to other children. It may not have been Vonnegut, but it could certainly have been a television show, movie, or videogame. It could have been a random comment by a commentator on Westminster Dog Show. It could be anything. And that’s important, because we could outlaw all media except for Sesame Street, and someone could still get the idea for a murder spree by misunderstanding Grover. And that’s just addressing “media” as a radicalizing agent, let’s not even considering what kids say to each other. Kids are mean, and someone just trying to be funny could leave permanent scars on a psyche. And some scars never go away, and simply fester and ooze until they control a life, steering it directly into something that is going to require “thoughts and prayers”.

And how do you deal with that? You don’t.

I’m not saying that people cannot be healed. I’m certainly not saying that someone cannot be convinced to, ya know, not be a mass murdering terrorist. There are good, wonderful people out there that help people with these scars, and there are people that have been pulled back from the brink by even the tiniest glimmer of kindness. But can we rely on that happening? Can we say we can eliminate every radical stimulus, and thus live in a perfect, terrorism free world? Hell no. The idea that we could “nice” away violent behavior is absurd, and, frankly, right up there with “your spouse won’t hit you if you are just nicer” or “stop wearing that dress, you’re asking to be raped.” It doesn’t truly address the problem, and it hoists the blame onto the victim, not the perpetrator. The thought of being pleasant all the time is insane to begin with (you are allowed to be sad, irritated, or angry, boys and girls), but the idea that you must be a smiler, else it “set somebody off”, is downright dangerous. Someone hurting people is not your fault any more than it is Vonnegut’s fault that I was a dick to anyone I deemed unworthy of my intelligence.

So if someone tells you the solution so school shootings is to be nice to the goth kid, go ahead and tell ‘em they’re on the wrong track. White males are allowed to have their ridiculous identity issues, but, as long as we present the solution to those issues as violence, we’re going to keep seeing violence. “Proving yourself as a man” is horribly ingrained in our society, and how many deaths can we attribute to the boys that internalize that message? How many times are we going to see someone “solve a problem” with an assault rifle? How many people have to die before we change not how we interact with each other, but what we allow to define our society every minute of every day? “Being nice” was never going to be the answer, and we need to change so much more than our social circles to stop this problem once and for all.

Anyone can be radicalized by anything, but the overarching “morals” of our society too often present violence as the answer to solving problems. People are going to keep identifying themselves with simple characteristics, and when those assumptions are threatened, they will lash out. It’s up to us to limit the methods by which someone may lash out. It’s up to us to save lives.

Getting rid of guns would be a good start.

Hey, it would have saved Harrison Bergeron.

Photo credit: guess

Goggle Zombie

NERDS!Let’s talk about being a stupid teenager, and how that almost got me killed.

My freshman year of college, I fell in with the wrong crowd. While other students were joining fraternities and making lifelong friends/drinking buddies, I joined a different kind of club. I joined the Medieval Society. In case that name isn’t descriptive enough for you, I joined a club that was theoretically supposed to study/celebrate medieval society… but mostly just played Dungeons and Dragons. That’s… like the same thing, right? Look, we were supposed to have a “living” chess game in the quad one time, but organizing things is hard, and… We tried, okay!? But, yes, the point is that we were a big group of nerds, so I fit in almost immediately. I was welcomed with open arms! And I had a Dreamcast!

And, if I’m being completely honest, there were a number of “adventures” with that gang that could have led to… grievous bodily harm. Don’t tell my mom, but I’m pretty sure I was sealed in a cardboard box, and then rode around campus on the roof of a car. That… somehow seemed like a good idea at the time. “Bopper Weapons” were constructed crudely, and tetanus shots may have been required. We weren’t allowed on the roof for a very good reason, but windows were fair game, and… Oh man, the more I think about it, the more I’m surprised I lived to see 20.

And then there was the time I really almost died.

It was a crisp December morning. Actually, scratch that, I just remember it as “morning” because it was my freshman year of college, and “morning” was defined as “any time before 3 PM”. Regardless, it was a nice enough day, and I was filming a zombie movie with my friends. Jim (real names used because I don’t have enough foresight or consistency to use the pseudonym “Tim”) was part of the film program at our school, and he wanted to create a sort of Romero-pastiche. Please note that this was a million years ago, and well before zombies were trendy. Just want to be clear on the simple fact that we were never cool. Anyway, because of my movie star good looks (Alan Alda is a movie star), I was chosen as the star of the piece, or at least the one remaining human. The rest of my fellow cast members were zombies, and I was the lone survivor who would, in the end, blow his brains out rather than join the hordes of the undead. This act of final defiance would, of course, require a prop gun.

And that simple prop gun nearly sealed my fate.

Unrelated EventLet’s set the scene a little further, as I don’t want there to be any questions about what was happening here. First of all, we were filming this movie on campus, and we had done so the week before without incident. Jim, our director and filmmaker, had a permit, and permission to film his school project on school grounds. It was a Saturday, and this was predominantly a commuter college, so campus was fairly deserted. And, again, I can’t stress this enough: with the exception of myself and a few camera caddies (including the aforementioned Jim), everyone was in tattered clothes and zombie makeup. Granted, the tattered clothing could have been typical college chic, but it was rare a group of people could coordinate such a look on a Saturday afternoon. Oh, and, yes, as mentioned, there were people with video cameras, which, given the epoch/school funding, were not the tiny, “cute” cameras of today, but something more akin to one of April O’Neil’s gigantic accessories.

Point is that, even from a distance, a layman should have been able to identify that something “fantasy” was happening here, and not, say, a mysteriously very quiet shooting.

But one campus security guard apparently did not get the memo, and drew a gun on me while demanding that I freeze.

And I’d be lying if I said I never think about that very specific moment. I was filming a movie with my friends. These friends, it should be noted, were not the most serious people in the world. After all, after we were done with this bit of “business”, we were probably going to hit the school cafeteria and see how many dessert toppings we could pile on a waffle (scientific answer: ∞). We were a generally optimistic, lighthearted group of people, and took very little seriously. This was bound to change over the years, but we were all fresh-faced, and practically teenagers. Actually, scratch that, the majority of us were teenagers. I think only one of us was old enough to (legally) drink. We were stupid teenagers, and, while we might have also claimed to understand all of the secrets of the universe… we were also pretty likely to puke week old sushi and tequila because we somehow thought eating week old sushi and tequila would end in anything other than tears. So with these (soon to be) life-long friends by my side, I felt pretty safe and… Funny? That was the general mood, ultimately, things were fun.

So you’ll forgive me if I reveal that my first impulse was to use my fake gun to challenge campus security to an Old West-style duel.

To be clear, I did not do that! But it was my first impulse. My absolute first thought was that this was a “fake” situation, and this could not possibly be a real life person training a real life weapon on my fragile, fleshy body. My brain could literally not comprehend that I had just gone from “a fun afternoon with friends” to “literal mortal danger”. That’s the thing about guns: they kill. They are designed to kill. Once a gun is introduced to a situation, someone could plainly die. In this case, had I made the wrong move, I would have died, right there, a corpse bleeding out on campus grass.

And I want to say that this security guard was a kind, level-headed fellow who immediately realized his error. But the reality is that I dropped the gun and held up my hands (still not really believing this was happening), and the guard, who could not have been any older than 25, proceeded to call us “retards” for brandishing a fake gun. Again, we had a permit, it was already a secluded section of campus, and, unless a zombie cult had started up in the last few months, it was pretty clear these cameras weren’t here to film a documentary. But, regardless of all obvious evidence, Big Hero Security Guard was going to save the day from 100 lb. kid with a fake gun, because think of the carnage that could be caused with that apparently very, very quiet gun. That’s certainly worth someone losing their life!

So, if you’re curious about the zombie shoot, we were “politely asked” to leave campus for further filming adventures, and we wound up relocating to a friend’s surprisingly post-apocalyptic backyard for further video hijinks. I mimed blowing my brains out, and my friends dined on raw liver that you were meant to believe dribbled out of my skull. It took all freaking day, and was a comedy of errors our director still recounts to this day, but it did wind up actually, ya know, ending.

But one thing hasn’t ended, and that’s the gun control debate. I like to think my feelings on the subject are pretty clear, but I hope this story makes one thing obvious: kids are stupid. In a life or death situation, there are roughly 50/50 odds that someone will make the right decision on a good day. In what was once a safe, peaceful environment, it is very easy to misread the situation, make the wrong call, and be killed for your mistake. I absolutely know this from experience, and it is nothing short of a miracle that I survived being a dumb teenager with a fake gun. But there would never have been the threat of death without a real gun in the mix.

Keep guns out of our schools.

Period.

Post script: And the other obvious statement is that I survived because I was/am white. We’ll talk about that more on Friday…