KevinB.me

Category: Games

Pokemon Go and Walkable Urbanism

(Note: this piece was originally published in the Fort Worth Weekly in July 2016. I’ve tweaked and nipped and tucked it and put it up here on my personal site, too, as it’s something that might actually be interesting to people outside Fort Worth.)

By now, you’ve no doubt heard about the insane phenomenon that is Pokemon Go, the first time the beloved gaming/anime/disturbing fan art property has been brought to smartphones. Pokemon Go is no mere free-to-play licensed revenue stream, though –– it’s an augmented reality free-to-play licensed revenue stream.

“Augmented reality” is the process by which virtual information and objects are overlaid on the real world via a live camera view seen through a smartphone display. Pokemon Go uses this technology to let players chase the various wild denizens of the Pokemon universe around the real world, allowing you to visit, say, the local coffee shop, a famous art museum, or the United States Strategic Helium Reserve to snag the Charmander you’ve always wanted, so that you may then force it to compete in captive animal combat.

To see for myself, I downloaded Pokemon Go and headed to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. It was full of my fellow Fort Worthians, virtually every one of which had their eyes locked to a smartphone running Pokemon Go.

Walking through the garden, I passed a family – a couple of adult women, an adult man, a couple of young kids, all Pokemon Go-ing. One woman remarked to the family, “I ain’t found shit,” to which the other woman replied “It’s OK that you suck. Your family still loves you.” Minutes later, a young couple ran past me at top speed along the Texas Native Plants boardwalk. The young woman yelled to her young male friend, “Have we found your stupid Pokemon yet?” Unperturbed, the guy shouted back “We’re getting closer,” to which she shout-replied “Well, you’re stupid!” The guy seemed not to notice.

On my way out of the garden, I passed the ain’t-found-shit family again, but they were pulled out of the game by a passing twentysomething guy and his friend who were offering advice on where to search the grounds for desirable Pokemon.

The sights were the same when I visited Sundance Square, and downtown Dallas, and the courthouse square in Denton. People immersed in this virtual fantasy world of cute fighting creatures, exploring our walkable urban spaces together, offering help to each other where they could.

It’s often at this point in the narrative that writers & ranters deride Pokemon Go players for having their faces buried in their glowing rectangles, being Kids Today with their Pokeymans and hula hoops and fax machines, only taking the time to visit these wonderful places when they have the excuse of hunting Pokemon but otherwise not engaging with the REAL WORLD. (There’s been no shortage of such reactions expressed on social media.) But…I’m not so sure I can get behind that viewpoint. What makes “hunting Pokemon” any less valid a reason to visit the Botanic Garden or Sundance Square or Magnolia Avenue than “taking photos of flowers” or “grabbing a bite to eat” or even just “taking a walk because you feel like it?”

If anything, I feel like Pokemon Go reveals how important building great, human-oriented places is – and how few of them we truly have in cities like Fort Worth. From my exposure to the game, I can’t see how it would work nearly as effectively in a far-flung exurban setting where the use of a car is a requirement for mobility. It’s a game that cries out for easily-navigable grids of streets, wide sidewalks, pedestrian-oriented buildings, and parks and plazas woven into their fabric. It’s a game that thrives on density and engagement with the city.

There are approximately 63 trillion people playing Pokemon Go in urban Fort Worth at this very moment. Sure, some of them may solely be going out to hunt for Pokemon – but plenty of them are likely discovering new places, new landmarks, and new views of their city in their explorations. If capturing adorable cartoon animals to make them do your bidding gets even a small number of players to gain a new appreciation for how great human-oriented cities can be – and support further efforts to make the city into a more human-oriented place – then that’s not a bad outcome at all.

In Praise of the Gleefully Ridiculous: Sunset Overdrive

I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to pick up Sunset Overdrive on my Xbox One, but I suspect there was a sale going on. I’d heard of the game before – likely the glowing review on Polygon by Arthur Gies – but as I didn’t get an X1 until three years after the game’s release, by the time I came to the console Sunset Overdrive was out of most peoples’ minds and available at a discount.

The game sat on my Xbox’s drive for a while before I fired it up; this week, needing a break from the various serious open-world RPGs and action titles I’d been working through, I launched Sunset Overdrive and was immediately metaphorically punched in the face by a game that’s crazy, ridiculous, and not ashamed of either of those descriptors.

I’ve only been playing a short while, but thus far Sunset Overdrive is a garage punk-scored candy-coated rush of day-glo imagery, outrageous fashion, and aerial acrobatics, and it’s one of the biggest pleasant surprises I’ve had on the Xbox One so far.

As I’m not attempting to do a “review” here on my blog – this is more just a place for me to collect some thoughts in a longer form than my Twitter account allows – I’m not going to be comprehensive in my post here about the game. The controls are fun and fluid, yes; the soundtrack is glorious for those of us who like garage & female-fronted punk, true. Weaponry is completely mad – from the massive hand-cannon that is the Dirty Harry to the LP-slinging High Fidelity and even the decidedly unsubtle, err, Flaming Compensator.

The game’s total lack of seriousness and its full-throttle embrace of crazy I find to be truly endearing – this is a game where the premise “corporation creates soft drink that turns people into mutant monsters and you have to slide around wires and railings while shooting them with a gun that fires vinyl records” is both totally embraced & run with and called out for being absolutely nuts – and I think I could tell I was on this game’s wavelength the second it deposited me into its character creator.

I admit to having a sickness: I love a good character creator. I never really thought about it until I played (and became obsessed with) the original Mass Effect, and ever since I became wrapped up in the story of my Meredith Shepard I’ve appreciated a game that lets me make a unique avatar for the game world. I also doubly appreciate a game with a character creator that lets me make the star a woman. There are countless games (not to mention movies and TV) that lock you into Stubbly Generic White Dude #3726, and even as a stubbly generic white dude myself I find games far more interesting when they’ve got a woman in the lead role.

Sunset Overdrive‘s character creator fully commits to its vividly colorful style. You can be a woman or a man (and in fact, you can change your character’s gender pretty much whenever you customize them). Clothing ranges from the relatively subdued to neon pink tops & short shorts – and as far as I can tell, none of it is gender-locked. Hairstyles are many and varied, with multicolor options for every style (even facial hair isn’t gender-locked). There are plentiful makeup and body art options. You even get to chose two body types for both women and men – so if you want to save the city as a slender build or, as in my case, a fuller-figured sort, the game treats everybody as equals.

Sunset Overdrive encourages you to just dive in and embrace its craziness, and the character creator reflects that freewheeling, however-you-wanna-be-is-ok-with-us attitude. Be as punk rock as you want – you’re not going to feel out of place for showing up in something bright, colorful, and bold when the game around you is telling you it’s OK to be that way. (This is in contrast to another game I’ve been playing lately, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands, which I enjoy in its own way and where you’re similarly given a range of character customization from the serious to the whimsical – though not nearly to the extent you are in Sunset Overdrive –  but I tend to keep things grounded, as I feel a tonal disconnect executing special ops raids in a skull mask and graphic tee when the rest of the game is a gritty drug war scenario set against an incredibly realistic recreation of an entire real-world country.)

I’ve got no shortage of games that are straight-laced and serious, games that depict their world in subdued grays and browns, games that put so much weight and import on your shoulders that they can feel like a bit of a downer at times. After hours fighting grim scenarios to save the universe, it can be truly refreshing to dive into the sugar rush of Sunset Overdrive and watch the neon pinks and greens and blues whiz past as my character slides down a wire in her disco boots, firing multicolored rockets at soft drink monsters. This kind of madness is probably not for everybody, but if you’re tuned to this game’s wavelength, it’s a ton of fun.

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