30 October 2012

Letter No. 6

The last time I travelled abroad, I fell in love with a country. I hadn’t expected to; I’d only expected to have some fun with my family and explore a new place. But Singapore floored me, and it became the backdrop to my daydreams, a vision of the kind of life I wanted for myself.

This time, I went to China, and the love I felt was for another person, and the dream was for a life that could be lived and shared anywhere, hesitant though I am about such dreams.

Sometime ago, Cris told me that he’d follow me anywhere. Instead of feeling happy about this, I wanted to run away. Someone had made me that promise before, but when I’d finally found a place I actually wanted to go, I learned that “anywhere” really just meant “anywhere around here, because he never, ever wants to leave.” It was just one of several fundamental differences that, when I think about it, led to our breakup. But I don’t want to think about that; that’s in the past.

Today, looking back on the near-week I just spent with Cris in Beijing, I’m starting to entertain the idea of grand declarations and impassioned promises again. Maybe we really can go anywhere now, together.

I had a fantastic time. We saw the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Bird’s Nest, a handful of manmade lakes, the schools Cris attended, the 798 art district, and a load of intimidating architecture and impressive infrastructure. I had dumplings and lamb chuànr almost every day, and the autumn cold was as thrilling as it was, well, chilling.

Yet to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I would have liked it as much if Cris hadn’t been with me. Don’t get me wrong; all the things I’ve mentioned are well worth the RMB. I’d highly recommend Beijing to anyone looking for a great culture and history trip.

It’s just that whatever enjoyment I got out of poking around the palaces and climbing up and down Badaling was heightened by the underlying idea that they were parts of a place that Cris loved, and he was sharing them now with me. Even simple bus rides, brief campus walks, stomping through bustling shopping streets, and ducking into dumpling shops not wide enough to spread your arms felt like secret privileges, little peeks into the life he had as a student there, little chances to try and understand him better. I don’t know if I succeeded, only that the need to feel close(r) to him feels stronger now than ever.

Beijing itself, of course, was a great place for this to happen. All over the city, there are banners and posters for a campaign called “Beijing Spirit”, which the posters say is composed of patriotism, innovation, inclusiveness, and virtue. To one longtime expat, the campaign smells of subtle propaganda. But to this tourist, it underscores the awe one feels from that first ride from the airport through modern Beijing, jaw-dropping even in the dead of night after a budget flight, to the end of an eight-hour walk through Qianmen and the Forbidden City with all its bronze dragons, marble staircases, and tantalizing echoes of the emperors’ lives. Beijing smells both of historical greatness and of the promise of great change, and it can get hard to figure out where wanting your life to be part of that promise ends, and where wanting that promise in your life begins.

It’s been a little jarring, maybe sobering, to be back and to go about life as before, to remember to tell the cashier “Thank you,” and not, “Xièxiè,” to swap my thick RFID-equipped yīkǎtōng for the bendy, magnetic LRT cards, and to look out at a skyline not dotted with hipped palace roofs as well as high-rises. I say sobering because, now that the vacation and the subsequent long weekend are over, I’ve had to think hard about what I’m doing and what I need to do next to stay happy where I am. Then, I think of Cris, and I feel worry fade away, and see promise within my reach.

18 October 2012

Letter No. 5

This time tomorrow, I'll be in Beijing. I'll probably be having breakfast in the hostel cafe, listening to Cris plan our day aloud, and trying to get my head around the vastness of the things he's about to show me (“Tiananmen Square is how many hundred Bellarmine Fields?!”). I'll probably be a little groggy and achy already, considering how late our flight will have arrived. And I'll definitely know whether I brought enough clothes for the single-digit dark-hour temperatures.

This will be my second trip abroad since my family returned to the Philippines 15 or so years ago, and my first trip abroad without them. It's also my first trip anywhere with Cris. It seems like a major milestone, a big deal, another important experience on the way to getting older. But I'd rather not overthink things more than I may have already.

I'm just looking forward to the break from regularly scheduled life. I'm going to put it out there: I've been feeling burned out for the past couple of months. My head's been in a fog, and I haven't been doing so well at work; I've been underperforming and letting people down. Our tickets to Beijing were booked months ago, when I hadn't expected or realized that this was where my head would be, but I'm glad now that we'd planned this far ahead, and doubly glad that we're actually going now. Shambling from task to task and trying to pinch and press myself into renewed productivity hasn't been working, so maybe I just need to go away for a while.

I've really gotten into Glitch, but I won't deny that a lot of it has been escapism. There's always something new to do in the world of Ur: a new region to explore, another interesting character to meet, another quest to fulfill, another skill to learn and test, a weird new thing to eat or drink, and even a tiny moment of beauty and enlightenment every day – and every day lasts just four hours, so there's always a new day around on the horizon.

It's time now, though, to really wake up in another place, for real-life exploring, real-life people-watching, real-life new-thing-tasting, and maybe some real-life learning and inspiration.

I'm really grateful that I'm about to take this trip. I know that not everyone can be so lucky or blessed, whichever way you want to look at it, so I really want to make the most of the time. I'm looking forward to seeing the sights – the Forbidden City, the drum tower, the Great Wall – but I'm also looking forward to just chilling out at Houhai, maybe riding a bike, and getting to know a place that Cris loves and sometimes loves to hate.

They say that travelling together is a great test of any relationship, and some might say Cris and I shouldn't be taking this trip so early; we haven't been together a year yet. But I don't want to overthink that, either. For one thing, we didn't plan to take this trip alone; we planned it with friends who, sadly, had to back out at the last minute. I'm not about to back out myself just to satisfy some vague convention. If this trip is a test, then I'm glad it's come sooner rather than later. But, I'm sure we'll be fine.

I guess that's it for now; I still have to finish packing. 再见!

04 October 2012

Letter No. 4

I’ve just found a big bowl of salad at the top of a tree.

I don’t know who put it there. It might have been a bug. It might have been a fellow player. It might have been a gamemaker. It might have been a gift from any of the 11 Giants who are said to have imagined this world. (It’s probably Pot, Giant of Cheffery).

But whoever or wherever it came from, this random-seeming meal from the sky has enlightened me on my new purpose in life. Becoming a master furniture craftsman can wait. I’m going to dedicate myself to cooking and leaving food in weird places, too.

Maybe I’ll start calling myself a food fairy. A food-lanthropist. No, a benefooder! Yes, that’s it.

And I’ll follow in the footsteps of my own benefooder, leaving delicious meals for tired, hungry travellers in my wake. And maybe that will inspire others to do the same, who will fill other bellies and inspire those bellies’ owners to do the same.

And maybe at some point in my journey across the magnificent world of Ur, I will cross paths with the first great being who left me this salad, and he/she/it will tell me that I have been a good follower, spreading the joy of excellent cooking throughout the land, from the snow-capped mountains of Andra to the darkest corners of Illmenskie Deeps.

And maybe he/she/it will finally tell me what makes secret sauce so secret, even if its ingredients make it sound a lot like regular mayonnaise.

Or maybe he/she/it will reply to this post, “You idiot. I dropped the salad there because my pack was full.”

And why not? I’ve only been playing Glitch for about a week, but this kind of far-fetched fantasy seems to be just what this game encourages.

[You can skip this part and scroll down to the next heading. The following is just rambling geekery.]

Let me backtrack a bit, before you think I’ve been munching on mushrooms. (I’ve yet to eat a mushroom in the game, so I don’t know what that does. I’ve eaten a purple flower, though, and the experience was very, very interesting.)

I don’t consider myself a hardcore gamer, mostly because our only console growing up was Family Computer, and my personal computer has been a Linux netbook since 2008. If I really wanted the MMOG experience or even just local network games like DoTA, I’d have to make the commitment of going to an Internet cafe, paying for access, training, paying, and training some more, for days or weeks  before I’d reach a certain satisfying level of progress. It just seems too expensive and time-consuming for something I’ll probably get bored with a month or so down the line, anyway.

Because somehow, I’ve always missed the thing in these games that draws players in for really serious, notebook-filled-with-formulas, level-99999-with-all-the-upgrades play. I do love computer games, and I love playing with friends, but none of the MMOGs I’ve tried so far have been able to hold my interest.

I think it’s because most of these games are essentially war games, and being a warrior of some sort is all you really get to be. Even if some games let you choose a non-martial class, like a healer or a wizard, you’re mostly other players’ sidekick; you don’t really get to fulfill your purpose if you aren’t there at the battleground for the warriors’ benefit.

And no matter how beautiful the graphics, how masterful the world-building, or how rich the story, in the end, you’re still in that story to fight. You never really get to be the bartender, the city tour guide, the blacksmith, the chef, the storekeeper, the farmer, the brewer, the scientist, the local doctor, the monk — all these roles and more are filled by game robots, when I’m sure there are lots of human players like me who would love to take over, instead of heading out into the dessert to kill 200 squishy pink things for a handful of coins.

On the other hand, non-war MMO games these days are mostly designed for the gamemakers’ benefit. They let you level up fast, and then they ask for your wallet and your phone book. Facebook-based games in particular tend to tie your progress to the amount of real money you’re willing to pay and to the number of other people you can coerce into playing with you. After a while, these games become a drag, and you become a drag on your friends, who would like you to stop asking them for imaginary nails.

So, when I read this boingboing post a few days ago, I was intrigued. The computer requirements were netbook-friendly, and Glitch’s about page, quoted below, sounded like everything I hadn’t realized I wanted in online gaming, plus a touch of weirdness:

Glitch is a web-based massively-multiplayer game which takes place inside the minds of eleven peculiarly imaginative Giants. You choose how to grow and shape the world: building and developing, learning new skills, collaborating or competing with everyone else in one enormous, ever-changing, persistent world.
What's different? For starters, it's all one big world. Which means everyone is playing the same game and anyone's actions have the ability to affect every other player in the game. It also involves very little war, moats, spaceships, wizards, mafiosos, or people with implausibly large muscles. Also: we have egg plants. Egg plants make it very different.

I had to see it for myself. I requested an invite to the recently relaunched game, and as soon as it let me in, I was hooked.

[If you skipped all that stuff, you can start reading again.]

As much as I’d like to describe Glitch by comparing it with other games (I sucked my own brother in by telling him it was an MMO version of one of his favorites), I’m afraid this might just make people dismiss it without giving it a try — and I really, really, really want other people to give it a try.

It’s kind of like having read the most amazing book and wanting to shove said book in all your friends’ faces, so you don’t have to feel the way you feel about it alone. Your friends ask you, “Well, what’s it about, what’s it like?”, and all you can do is grunt exasperatedly and say, “Just read it! Read it already! And then tell me what you thought about it!”

That’s kind of the way I’d like to go about sharing Glitch. Forget everything I just said about the MMO gaming experience. Just think of the way you felt when you read or listened to a favorite story as a child.

Think of the thrill you felt, imagining yourself exploring the world of those stories — how spooked you got as you followed some mysterious instinct deeper into the forest, swamp, or abandoned house, and how wonderful it was when you saw the reward at the end.

Think of your old make-believe games where jumping over a hole in the ground was really jumping across a canyon, and how seriously you took your play.

Think of your half-remembered dreams, of conversations where you can’t remember the participants’ faces or what they actually said, yet you find yourself puzzling over what they meant when you wake.

Think of the wittiest, gentlest, wisest characters who’ve made you laugh, made you think, and made you want to improve yourself a little bit — or a lot.

Then tell yourself that Glitch is that kind of story or dream. It’s still in progress, and you get to be one of its people. And if you want, you can be a guru, builder, gardener, wanderer,  healer, businessman, bureaucrat, or benefooder — and no one’s going to force you to be or do anything you don’t want, because the only character class is “character.”

The only way I can conclude now is to say, play. Just play it, play it already, and then tell me what you thought about it.

If all that’s way too vague for you, I suggest you just visit this page. And if you want a more traditional what-this-game-can-do review, this is a pretty good one.