11.30.2013

Turkey Day Shenanigans: Part Two

View part one here.


From here, I can see everything.

A lidless container of cutlery hovers near the edge of the table, the surface of which is peppered by twist-off beer caps, like so many discarded coins. There is a bag of hardened bread looming on the eastern chair, still untouched. The cord of my laptop threads across the tabletop, vaulting over smears of food, only to cross a dirty rag before sliding over the edge of the table and into the wall behind me. A pair of forks, listless and encrusted in frosting, cross to form an "x" on the rag, as if to mark some salvation yet hidden by the wooden surface.

The kitchen has obviously taken the worst of it. Even now, its unlit interior still hangs heavy with the memory of a dozen bodies crowding over every inch of the imitation marble tiles. Casualties of every shape and size cover the island - empty water bottles, gravy-stained plates, neglected vegan dishes, and cold coffee mugs - all pile over each other, forming a queue to the maw of the trashcan, waiting patiently below. 

There is no hope for the sink. A large cooking pot, rewashed and used half a dozen times for as many dishes, stands abandoned in the left sink. Smaller dishes float lifelessly on the tepid water within. Silverware is strewn across the counter top, signifying a trail of dead. Twin bottles of Apothic Red stand guard over a box of cookies destined to go stale. The tool to open them is nowhere in sight.

People no longer crowd the room. Conversation no longer lilts down the hall. The fire has not been stoked for a day, the furniture refusing to return to its original place. Only the hum of the heater speaks at all, and it too falls silent after its piece. 

In the corner of the room, I sit at the dirty table. The aftermath is no longer my concern. I've become numb to it. The only worry that pulls at my mind is that of the task of cleaning it up. I can live with disorder, but only for so long. 

My back arches in weariness. I resign myself to these words. For now, the mess will have to wait a little longer.

*     *     *

As you can probably guess, this year's Thanksgiving was a grand success. Yes, I'm putting off the cleaning of the event for now. Last year, there was more food, more people, and longer hours of fellowship. Despite this, I enjoyed this year's festivities much more - except the cleaning part. Last year I rose with the dawn following the holiday and set to work on the kitchen right away. This year, not so much.

Both years have been my first and second up here in Seattle. Last November found me barely five months into my transition here, one that had already been marred by moving four times. Even that could not pull down my spirits, as the day was one of joy. For a bunch of college kids, the dishes and planning had been impressive. I remember standing before the table of food (minutes before it was to be destroyed) as we all looked on, wondering how we had accomplished such a big thing. After the meal, we went around the table to mention what we were thankful about. For some reason, as least two people said they were thankful for my being there. I still don't know if these words were uttered in jest or sincerity, but either way I was flattered by them.

This year was more of the same, but better. Instead of making 40 deviled eggs like I did last year, I upped my game and made 60 plus this year. Don't be impressed; it's literally the only thing I know how to make. Last year, they were consumed before half the guests even arrived. This year, a plate yet lingers in the fridge. I'd call that a success.

While there wasn't as much food or company as there was last year, there was a feeling of overall contentment, at least on my part. A year had seen four engagements in our group of friends: at this time last year, one couple had just started dating, another couple had been dating for years, one couple barely knew each other, and another couple hadn't even met. Many things can change in a year. Two of our friends have since left Seattle and one more will in less than a month. Many things.

None of these things crossed my mind during the day's celebration, and they barely register on the outskirts of my thoughts now. It may be a cliche, but my mind doesn't surrender to melancholy during the holidays. Sure, financial concerns are always there. I'm the worst gift-giver ever. But those things barely matter when pitted against the knowledge that the people closest to you are there for the time being. They come and go, they get married and break up. For that day at least, we were all together.

I couldn't have imagined things going so well following my move to Seattle. I've said it again and again, but the way in which things fell neatly into place amaze me. Despite having only been here for less than six months, last year brought me enough good fortune to feel at home and loved on this holiday. This year the feeling only multiplied. The move from Texas to the northwest had not changed anything; there were friends in each place.

Other than the fact that the Cowboys won, this year could not have gone any better. Yeah, there's still tons of cleaning to do, but I'd rather clean up after a dozen people than not clean up after having no company. I think. Ask me when I'm done. 

Thanksgiving is the first in a trifecta of holidays this season. My start to this season has been wonderful. I can only hope that Christmas and New Year's are equally as inviting. It is my further hope that yours is just as grand. I'm thankful for and to my friends for making it such an amazing time. 

Stay alive until Christmas. We'll talk then.

Cheers,

JDS


PS - I'll start cleaning up if you do. Ask me later how my progress is going.


11.26.2013

Turkey Day Shenanigans: Part One

If someone asked me to describe what I would consider to be a perfect day, my answer would most likely consist of the following: reckless consumption of inordinate amounts of food, a television schedule that includes an expertly timed string of football games, and falling victim to the only type of coma that should be warmly welcomed by humans - all while surrounded by friends and family. To some of us, that's every Sunday (double the amount of football and comas and you're getting there). But for many of us, it's part of a weird holiday we celebrate here in the states: THANKSGIVING.

A long time ago on some rock in the northeastern part of the US of A, some people on a boat ran out of beer, resulting in a panic that led to the immediate necessity to find land, with the hope that their empty tankards would soon be replenished. However, instead of the beer gardens that all people should expect to see when landing on unclaimed land, they instead found natives, who were willing to share provisions with the beer-thirsty newcomers. Perhaps fearing that the natives had pilfered all the local stores of alcohol, the pilgrims gifted the the natives with smallpox, an even trade for those days. This would later result in wars between the two sides, all stemming from the simple needs of a thirsty people. 

Today, we celebrate that exchange of disease and food as Thanksgiving, a federal holiday consisting of the arbitrary ingestion of what may possibly be the dumbest creature on the planet. You might be wondering how I've come to know all of this. "But Jordan," you'd whine, "how can you know these things? You weren't there!" This is true. I know of this because I was a history major, once upon a time, which automatically makes any of your arguments invalid. Your whining has now been reduced to the drivels of a petulant child's discourse on what is and isn't fair in this world. 

I know you didn't come here for a history lesson, and that's not what I care to talk about. Maybe you came here to talk about the levels of L-tryptophan in turkey, which would explain why we get so sleepy on Thanksgiving. In that case, I'd tell you you're wrong - it's a myth, and you literally need all of 46 seconds and access to Google to figure that out. Or perhaps you are wondering why the Dallas Cowboys always get to play on Thanksgiving. I'm with you on that one. After all, it wasn't the cowboys who invented Thanksgiving, it was the Vikings. A Bachelor's Degree does not lie.

In all seriousness, for a holiday with so much emphasis on family, I can safely say that the last time I spent Thanksgiving with all of the members of my immediate family was in 2007. For reference, that's when Eli Manning beat Tom Brady in the Super Bowl...the first time. Even then, I can only vaguely recall the celebration. What I do remember is that during those days, a pair of young and enterprising Jehovah's Witnesses would come to our door fairly often in the course of the several months prior to Thanksgiving. Though normally most of us would pretend to not be home, their repeat visits were encouraged by my dad. My dad was a minister for eleven years, so a healthy discussion was always had whenever the two young men would stop by. Whether or not they were trying to win us over, Thanksgiving found these two missionaries in our home, sharing the food with us as if they were members of the Smith clan. 

To me, that's what Thanksgiving is all about. It's easy to associate the holiday with football and turkey and whatnot. There's a big parade in the morning and a glimpse into the failures of the human race immediately following the holiday on the infamously named Black Friday. Like anything, it's easy to commercialize and taint. But it's also not that hard to find joy and fellowship with others, by taking part in something as simple as a turkey dinner. 

I spent four years going to college in the city of Abilene, which lies in the epicenter of God-forsaken west Texas. From 2008 to 2011, it was never difficult to find someone to share the holiday with, even though I was living 1200 miles from home. It was my first extended time away from home, away from the comforts of familiarity. I was never the best at making friends, having to combat both my introverted nature and social ineptitude. Even so, my first Thanksgiving away from home in the fall of 2008 would not be spent alone. My sister, my roommate (who was no better at life than I was), and I were invited over by a friend who was from our hometown who also attended the school. Few people spent the week on campus, and it was a depressing affair for those of us who did - but that Thursday was no exception to what I believe the holiday is all about. For that one day at least, we wouldn't be wasting away in our cold and gloomy dorm room. Cinder blocks and fluorescent lights are the coldest of company.

And so it was. Each following year in Texas would be more and more reminiscent of spending the holidays with my family:

In 2009, I traveled to Frisco (Dallas area) and spent a few days with a friend I had met while working at a summer camp. She had allowed me to stay at her house on the weekends during the breaks between camp weeks. She also happened to be the mother of my church's high school minister back in California. Along with him and a few other guests (one of which was a girl who was in the middle of a cross country journey to "find herself"), we ate food, threw the football around in the front yard, and took turns playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which had just come out that month. 

In the fall of 2010 and 2011, I was also in the Dallas area. My brother in law's grandparents lived near there, so I tagged along with him and my sister to spend two consecutive Thanksgivings with them. Other members of his family came, and my mom even flew out in 2011. We assembled jigsaw puzzles (I don't even like puzzles) and played card games. Let me tell you this: there's nothing more warm and inviting than spending Thanksgiving with grandparents, whether they are related to you or not.

I was also able to take part in some special service trips in 2009 and 2010. My school had an organization called Weekend Campaigns, and we'd  travel to different parts of Texas for a weekend to engage in some community service of some sort. The Thanksgiving trip was always the most popular one. We'd all crowd into several of those massive white vans and drive to a little town just outside of Edmond, Oklahoma. Together, we'd spend the entire day handing out turkeys and various other food items to low-income families. It was a drive through of sorts; cars would be lined up for blocks and they'd open up their trunks and doors to us while driving through, and we'd stockpile tons of food for them so that they could enjoy the blessing of a Thanksgiving meal. Looking back on that, it felt like nothing more than a fun weekend trip, but I imagine it meant much more for those families.

My main point is this: I've been incredibly blessed by others this time of year. While living thousands of miles away from home since 2007, I have never been without good food and company come the holiday season. There always happens to be at least one person nearby who doesn't think I'm such a bad guy. Good on them, because we all know otherwise. In all seriousness, it doesn't take much to please me on Thanksgiving. Just give me ham, a decent slate of NFL, and a fire - and I'll be a happy panda.

I'll regroup after the holiday to share the second part of this blog entry, which will transition from my Thanksgivings in Texas to my Thanksgivings in Seattle. I'm further away from home and family than I've ever been, but there's been no lack of friends to spend it with. I don't know what I've done to deserve that, but I'm thankful for it.

To close, here's a video of some guy trolling a bunch of turkeys:



Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

JDS


11.07.2013

Concert Review: The Chariot Farewell Tour

Greetings to you, lovers of all things music, and welcome to the retelling of my sixth musical adventure in the lovely city of Seattle. Last time I wrote about my fifth viewing of the glorious Between The Buried & Me. 

I decided to put my life at risk by going to see The Chariot this weekend. For those of you who aren't aware of who they are, think feedback-laden breakdowns, frantic vocals, and absolutely zero rules as far as the live performance is concerned. Constant stage dives (by spectators and band members alike), aggressive spinning/tossing of instruments, and climbing/hanging/jumping from anything more than three feet off of the ground.

So yeah, it was pretty fun.

THE CHARIOT - 11/1/2013 @ Studio Seven
w/ Rebuker, To The Wind, and Birds In Row



As stated in several prior posts, I was all about the metalcore scene in the early to middle 2000's. I enjoyed practically every band on Solid State records, home to bands such as August Burns Red, Zao, and Becoming the Archetype. One band in particular - Norma Jean - struck me as much different than the others because of their brand of chaotic and dissonant music, blended with odd time signatures and unique breakdowns. They were described as "mathcore" which is a genre I was wholly unfamiliar with (think The Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge). No, they don't sing about quantitative reasoning and rise over run - which would be lost on my math-challenged mind. Despite how awesome that may sound to you nerds, there is no method to Norma Jean's madness.

I present to you the video for the single "Memphis Will be Laid to Waste", from Norma Jean's 2002 debut Bless The Martyr and Kiss The Child. My friends and I spent many long and loud hours in a garage creating our own sloppy renditions of this hardcore anthem, even going so far as to cover it at events where we were recruited to strictly play worship music. We were such rebels.


Vocalist Josh Scogin surprised both fans and band mates in 2002 when he abruptly decided to leave the band. Returning home to Georgia, Scogin almost immediately formed Christian hardcore band The Chariot, taking its name from Elijah's vision of the chariot of fire.

I had a friend in high school who wrote a paper about the difference between Scogin's first band and his new project. He held that Norma Jean's music was more of an organized chaos, whereas The Chariot produced a much more intense sound that followed no rules or conventional forms. If Norma Jean is chaos, then The Chariot is pure upheaval and destruction. Piercing feedback shrills, muddy bass rumbles, and vocals like sledgehammers came together to form The Chariot's 2003 debut Everything is Alive, Everything is Breathing, Nothing is Dead, Nothing is Bleeding. With the mouthful of a title, The Chariot quickly grabbed people's attention, and they stayed for their legendary live shows.

The band recorded their debut live in one take as an entire band, hoping to emulate the raw power of a performance, emphasizing the fact that playing shows was what they solely made music for. From the opening shrieks of feedback and punishing drums comes Scogin's gritty vocals, loudly declaring "This ain't my first rodeo!", I knew that I had to see this band live.

A stream of the band's 28-minute debut.

I received my chance to do so in 2004, when they toured with Showbread, He Is Legend, and As Cities Burns. That was nearly ten years ago, but I'll never forget Josh climbing on amps and hanging upside down from the rafters, all while screaming into the mic. I had never seen anything quite like it. The band came to be known for this type of live show. Here are some fun pictures from some of their shows over the years:






Sadly, my music interests began to shift. I enjoyed much more methodical and technically skilled bands as opposed to the blistering soundscapes that bands like The Chariot and Norma Jean offered. Because of this, The Chariot's second, third, and fourth albums all passed me by with little interest on my part. I had stopped listening to them altogether. In fact, it wasn't until the reviews of last year's critically acclaimed One Wing - the band's fifth full-length - that I thought to listen to them again, seeing as how the album had been receiving high praise.

I wasn't disappointed, as One Wing made the list of  my favorite  metal albums of all of 2012

So after hearing that the band was calling it quits and would be embarking on a final US tour, I knew that I would have one more chance to see them before the end. Nine years had gone by after my first and only The Chariot show, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

The day of the show, my roommates and I arrived in time to catch the band right before the headliner. I surveyed the crowd, trying to pick out which meatheads would be the safest to avoid, and which ones were most likely to break my face unprovoked. I had been to Studio Seven three times, and it had never been as full as it was that night.

There wasn't much fanfare as Scogin and his band mates took the stage. There was no massive fifteen foot banner hanging behind the drum kit, nor was there an intricate light show. Crunchy guitars went through their sound checks, Scogin screamed a line of dialogue from the movie Hot Rod for his mic check, an unusual sample droned from the speakers, and then we were all blasted in the face by the opening assault of "Evan Perks".

The band ripped through 20 songs in a blur. Drums were stacked on top of each other, trumpets were blared (literally), a guitarist found himself in the crowd on several occasions, faces were stepped on, etc. I had spent the entire week listening to the set list in a playlist so as to reacquaint myself with the songs I hadn't listened to in years, as well as to prepare myself for everything I had missed. Oddly enough, I was able to keep track of what songs were being played, despite the fact that if you skipped to the middle of almost any The Chariot song, you would be hard pressed to name the track. Every song was a punch in the face.

Packed shoulder to shoulder in that blazing little room, I found myself lifting up the flailing limbs of strangers onto the sweat-stained shoulders of still other strangers, shielding myself from the whirlwinds of fist-swinging brutes in the churning pit. The place smelled of morning breath and coppery guitar strings. Scogin never let up, absolutely torturing his vocal cords throughout the night, occasionally flinging the mic haphazardly into the crowd so as to get his share of surfing in.

I'll be honest, it was the most crazy show I've ever been to. I've been to super fun shows (New Found Glory), visually mind-blowing shows (Tool), and stripped-down intimate shows (William Fitzsimmons), but never anything like that. Add in the fact that I don't listen to hardcore bands or frequent their shows, and you have a wide-eyed 25 year old and his achy bones enjoying a wonderful and bloody night.

Here are your standouts and burnouts.

Highlights: There was a guy wearing a full-on hot dog suit. That was pretty cool. I've only stage dived once in my life (Nodes of Ranvier), and crowd surfed once as well (Circa Survive). But when The Chariot came back on stage for an encore - and they never do encores - I knew I had to do something stupid to make the night even more memorable. So I looked to the two huge bros in the pit who had been taking volunteers to launch onto the heads of the crowd, and I let them throw me headlong towards the front. My pants were almost pulled off (thanks Dom) and I narrowly avoided getting jumped on by Josh. If you click on this link to the video, you'll see that I'm the moron at 40 or so seconds who absolutely didn't know what to do. My roommates can also be seen if you know where to look.

Lowlights: I mean, you're gonna get silly people at silly shows. Metal kids don't know how to act at hardcore shows, and bald-headed dads are going to defend their kids with as many fists as they can summon. Girls are going to get hit by dudes, and someone is going to serve the toe of their Vans to your forehead. You'll taste their sweat and feel their elbows in every part of your abdomen. And you'll like it, or you'll go home. It's that simple.

The Chariot was a show I'll never forget. I'm thankful that I got the chance to see them before they called it quits, because there's nothing quite like it. If they're coming to your city on this tour, I urge you to catch them, even if you're a fan of heavy music in general. It will be a spectacle, I promise you that.

Alright, I need to quit the metal stuff for awhile and go listen to something quiet.

Until the next show,

JDS


Words: Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson
Lights: Battletoads & Double Dragon
Sounds: Lights & Motion, The Chariot, Erra, Impending Doom





10.08.2013

Concert Review: Between The Buried & Me

Fellow music lovers, welcome to the fifth edition of my concert-going stories here in the lovely city of Seattle. I was left with a mighty bruise after getting kicked in the forehead at the last concert I went to (Misery Signals), which you can read about here.

This time, I focus on one of the biggest - if not the biggest - names in the world of progressive metal - Between The Buried & Me, or BTBAM for short. It was a pretty good bill, as I was also a fan of two of the openers.

BETWEEN THE BURIED AND ME - 10/4/2013 @ El Corazon
w/ The Safety Fire, The Contortionist, and The Faceless


The year was 2006 (or 2005 maybe, I'm getting senile). I was not a cool guy. As a junior in high school, I often sported a black combat cap, Dickies shorts, and those black socks that came up to your knees. I was the definition of a toolshed. And being that Tool has been my favorite band for over ten years, this made perfect sense. I was, like many other kids my age, completely caught up in the massive popularity and rise of metalcore bands that were dominant in the latter half of the decade. Bands like Still Remains, Killswitch Engage, and As I Lay Dying were a dime a dozen. I still listen to many of these bands, because you can't kill the high school kid in me.

Living in San Diego, most of the shows I went to were at a venue known as Soma, a dingy old theater-type building with a main stage and a side stage. A tour with Bleeding Through as the headliner was coming to San Diego soon, with Haste The Day, Between The Buried & Me, and Everytime I Die as support. I loved Haste The Day and enjoyed Everytime I Die, while knowing nothing about these other two bands. I checked out their myspaces (that should give you a frame of reference). I remember thinking "Man, these guy's songs are super long" about BTBAM when I listened to one of their songs. This, from a Tool fan. I didn't even finish the song.

Anyways, the night of the show. Haste The Day was great. Then BTBAM got up. Everything I knew about this band was encapsulated by the three minutes of attention I gave them prior to the show. They blew me away. I don't even remember the songs or the set. All I know is that I came very close to quitting guitar - and music in general - forever after that night.


Every musician in this band is a master of their craft. Their influences are listed as being Queen, Metallica, Pantera, Aerosmith, etc. They incorporate jazz, polka, bluegrass, grindcore, southern metal, industrial metal, technical death metal, and weird circus music all into one pristine package. 

Since that fateful night, I've had the fortune of seeing this band four times, with all manner of other acts, ranging from Coheed & Cambria and Norma Jean to Russian Circles and Misery Signals. I've seen them perform their magnum opus Colors live. I've seen their cover of "Bicycle Race." I've witnessed "Selkies: The Endless Obsession" as an encore at least three times. So when I heard that they were performing their latest album Parallax II: Future Sequence in its entirety, I geeked out.

Everything about this band is a music nerd's dream. Their album is the second half of a story that explains a relationship between two separate entities who are also the same person living in different galaxies, or something. I still don't fully understand the story, but if you're curious you can read about it in this concise read-up. I'm a sucker for concept albums, and this CD came with sci-fi art in the form of a storybook. Yes, it's awesome. You could even buy a freaking BTBAM spacesuit to celebrate the spirit of this album:


So yes, everything about this show was nerdy. Before you ask, I did see at least three people wearing these at the show. They all had neckbeards.

As for the show itself, the openers were pretty good. I'm only briefly mentioning them because I actually listen to a couple of them. The Safety Fire came all the way from London to play and they killed it. I saw The Contortionist for the second time this year, though they only played songs from their new album. Fun fact, all three of these bands put out albums that were on my top ten list last year. The Faceless was silly.

Taking pointers from the sci-fi masters Coheed & Cambria and aesthetics from prog giants Tool, BTBAM took the stage amidst samples of swirling static and a robotic voice counting down to zero. Twin circular projectors flanked Blake Richardson's drum set, detailing montages of spaceships, asteroid belts, and ship logs. Multicolored lights scanned the audience at intervals synced with the music. The images changed depending on the song  and the lights died down during buildups, only to explode in brilliant swirls of colors following each crescendo. It was a little overwhelming.

Even though half of the songs on the album clock in at well over nine minutes, the set went by too fast. Much like their previous albums, each song seamlessly transitions into the next, leaving the listener unable to tell the difference unless they knew what to look for. I heard a dude behind me ask another guy what song they were playing because he was so lost. Amateurs.

Here are the highlights and lowlights.

Highlights: Um, seeing BTBAM for the fifth time? Seriously - I know the lyrical content of the past few albums have been nothing more than nonsensical sci-fi narratives, but that stuff is right up my alley. The lights, the images - everything was perfect. Thomas Giles Rogers is the Freddie Mercury of our generation. I got to buy two sweet shirts and was this close to buying a BTBAM hat, but I'm not that big of a tool. 

Oh yeah, and they performed "White Walls" for an encore. It was the first time I've seen them play anything other than "Selkies" for the encore. The crowd seemed to agree with the decision.

Lowlights: Everyone there to see The Faceless. Oh, and The Faceless. Also, the token drunk girls. One in particular was so drunk she was bulling guys and girls aside to get in the pit. I followed her with my eyes to see what would happen, only to see her get completely taken out - as in, her feet left the floor. It was sweet justice.

Now that I think about it, I think I've seen BTBAM more than any other band. I'd see them twice a year every year for the rest of my life if I could, until I get the chance to be that drunk old guy in the bar wearing a space suit. Because that's what I aspire to be.

Do what you have to do to listen to them.

I leave you with their video for "Astral Body:"



Until the next show!

JDS



9.26.2013

Thoughts on Suicide: Part Two - Celebrating Life

Precisely a year ago, I was sitting in a Starbucks a block away from my dingy one-bedroom apartment. We had no WiFi in our cramped residence and I "needed" to do my daily routine of checking trivial news sites and social networks. I wanted an analysis of Sunday's NFL games. What Magic the Gathering cards were going up in price? Which one of my favorite bands would be releasing new music soon?

Somewhere between all that nonsense, I decided to lazily kill a few minutes browsing the world's most polarizing social network monstrosity - Facebook. Before I mention what happened, I've a few questions for you.

How many of you have had a significant other? Good, that's easy. How many of you have broken up with that significant other? It's rough, but probably many of us have. How many of you have gone through the process of blocking them/un-friending them on Facebook? Silly, but we need to protect ourselves.

Now, the embarrassing question: after the breakup, how many of you are guilty of checking/creeping/stalking that former significant other on Facebook? You wonder if they are having a good time. You flip through their pictures to see all of the exciting things they are doing without you. You may resent them for seeming happy while you pine away in misery. Of course, you check every status update and every photo for an unfamiliar face or name, one whose smiles and hands encroach upon the person you so dearly held once. Maybe you're happy for them, but I'd wager that many of you weren't.

I wasn't.

Why we do things like this to ourselves is beyond me. We all want to be cherished by someone else, but it seems we are addicted to our own destruction when it comes to certain relationships. We stand at the door, the keys in our sweaty hands, knowing that what lies on the other side will hurt us more than standing on the outside. Despite that, we turn the keys. Of course, they are a perfect fit, but it takes us several attempts to unlock the door. Perhaps we drop them or put them in upside down. In the end, we'll finally hear the clicking of the lock, followed by our frantic entrance.

I've been at this crossroads many times, and I can't remember a time where I chose to hold back, take a deep breath, and walk away from discovering something that I have no business knowing about because it would hurt more to know than to not know.

I made this mistake on this day a year ago, and being the fragile human that I am, I decided to go through all the stages of an inappropriate emotional response. I couldn't stop looking at the pictures and stories of someone I once loved as they featured new characters that were unknown to me and ignorant of my role in the story they were now taking over. This led to frustration, grief, and eventually a manic mindset. It took me less than five minutes to make the decision to click open a new tab in my browser and immediately buy plane tickets to go and see this person. I'd confront them and they'd see that I still meant something to them. They'd see that these new characters in their life were characters that could only play minor roles. No one could intrude upon our story. No one.

I'm the king of making knee-jerk decisions in the heat of being emotionally overwhelmed, and this was no exception. However, it only took me a matter of hours to realize what I had done. It was wrong, and it would never amount to anything. A frantic gesture like that would not explain anything to anybody. If anything, it'd further cement the fact that my role in another's life was over because of these very same things. I decided I wouldn't go through with it. I'd forgo the trip and embarrassment of making yet another impulsive decision. I was down several hundred dollars, but that was a welcome price to pay as opposed to what would await me on the tail end of that long plane ride.

So I thought, Instead of going through with this, I'll just kill myself.

Being no stranger to suicide attempts, I felt that this time would be different. My previous foray into this field of surrender was much a product of the same circumstances, but was more a result of despair, lack of motivation, and the crushing weight of inadequacy. This, coupled with the combustible condition of my emotionally exhausted heart, helped spur the decision to want to die. Two Wolfgang Puck knives resulted in the longest night of my life, followed by a week-long stay in the scariest place I've ever been in, and a diagnosis that made far too much sense, with the pills to prove it.

I didn't want to mess this one up. I wanted to go out as calmly as possible. I wouldn't surrender to the weakness of my heart. No, I'd resign myself to my fate, as a general surveying his army in the face of insurmountable odds would. A silly metaphor, but an accurate description of my mental state. Much like a prisoner enjoying his last meal, I bought an unhealthy brand of cereal, eating a huge bowl of it alone in my apartment while watching The Men Who Stare At Goats. I'd enjoy this last little bit as much as I could, so I figured some good food and a comedy would do the trick. Of course, I grew impatient. I left the film unfinished and packed up my belongings - a box of Teddy Grams for snacking through the final moments, a ripped out page from David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, and a bottle of antidepressants that would hopefully see me through to the other side - and set off for the hospital.

Why would a person ready to end their life go to the hospital to do it? I had the perfect setting for it - a lonely apartment devoid of any emotional attachment. I knew the answer then and I know the answer now. As much as I wanted to be done with my shortcomings, I wanted someone to save me. I wanted someone to talk me out of it. Even with the resolve I had, hidden deep within me was that fierce and natural instinct to want to survive.

I didn't think much of it as I swallowed twenty five pills and wandered the parking lot of the ER. Once I started to lose control of my legs, I went into the waiting room, attempting to hide in a corridor between the check-in desk and the seating area. I kept walking to the bathroom to see if my face looked any worse than it did five minutes ago. It always did.

Eventually, it was all I could do to lean against the wall and fight through the convulsions that were racking through my body, dulling out my motor skills and piercing through every fevered breath. It won't be much longer now, I had hoped.

Still, the desire to want to live kept fighting against the will to die. My thoughts had taken on a split narrative; I had done everything necessary to achieve my goal, but I had gone to a place where I was the least likely to succeed.

Nurses and other people were starting to notice me. I averted my heavily dilated eyes.

The survival instinct eventually won out, sealing my fate as a coward again. For the second time in as many years, I couldn't end it.

What followed was another long night. The tears I hadn't shed a year ago came out in a hospital room, but a different one. The nurses gave me a substance called charcoal - which is the most vile thing I've ever ingested - to counteract the pills and get them out of my system. My body hated me, but my mind hated me more.

I wasn't able to call my mom until much later that night from the overnight ward where I'd be staying. She had no clue as to the events that had transpired. That was one of the hardest phone calls I've ever had to make. Can you imagine answering the phone call of a loved one to hear them tell you this: Yeah, I tried to kill myself again. No, it didn't work...again. I'm in a safe place but I have to put my phone away. I'm ok now. I'll call you when they give me my phone back - and then hang up?

Kids, don't ever do that to your parents.

Upon my release, it obviously took a while to stabilize. Friends who were mostly unaware of my mental state had to endure long explanations. Employers who had called as to my whereabouts were filled in. I had to file a claim with the airline company, having my PCP sign documents stating that I wasn't "mentally fit" for flight so I could be compensated. My family braced for the all-too-familiar speeches of shame I had given them a year ago.

You know what is lost in the majority of this narrative? Hope. There's not much good about what happened, but what little good there was I remember well. For example, referencing my previous paragraph, I was reminded again and again of the good that can come from people. Two of my good friends who were largely unaware of my condition answered my phone call upon my release. I was stranded in a city twenty minutes north of my home and I needed someone to pick me up. They came, no questions asked. They stayed with me the rest of the day. The family I worked for (I worked as a nanny and still do) were completely understanding. They cared nothing of the days I missed and repeatedly asked if I was ok. They gave me all the time I needed to gather myself before coming back to work, inviting me over to dinner to talk more at length about the events. My dad paid for my mom to fly up here for a week and help me gain some solid footing. She drove all over the county with me that week to help me find counselors and solutions that would benefit my health.

I know that several of my posts may come across as melodramatic and/or preachy. The redundant themes of depression and suicide are heavily prevalent in this blog. I know that this might seem like an artificial entry because I spent 95% of it detailing gloomy and morose topics followed by a weak deus ex machina ending. That could probably be a blurb written about the story of my life, resulting in negative reviews by the critics for being too predictable. For those of you who have lived through similar events, it's anything but predictable.

Today, I'm going to get in a car with my girlfriend and some other friends to travel 12 hours to northern California. We are going to witness two of our friends get married this weekend. It's going to be a long ride, but well worth it. A year ago, I wouldn't have possibly imagined that I'd be able to do something like this. I didn't think I'd have the type of friends who'd invite me to their wedding. Fun fact, the groom is one of the two people who picked me up from the ward I stayed in after calling for a ride last year. I didn't think that a shipwreck like me would find myself cared for to the point where a significant other would want to spend 12 hours with me anywhere. But those things happened, predictable or not.

Hey, people love you. It may not seem like it, but if one or two people can put up with me after all the absolute insanity I've put them through over the years, then I'll be damned if there isn't a person that doesn't wake up thinking about you everyday. I don't know you, but I know that that's true.

I apologize for the seemingly anticlimactic ending to this post, but as the person living the story behind these words, I've come to accept any ending that brings the least amount of surprise. Surprises should be good, right? It's a surprise that I'm still alive, but I'll no longer be caught off guard by living.

Celebrate life, friends.

JDS



Words: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Lights: Kirby's Nightmare in Dreamland, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Breath of Fire II
Sounds: Moving Mountains, Balance & Composure, Night Verses, On and On

9.13.2013

Playing The Final Fantasies: Episode VII

Cast of Final Fantasy VII


SPOILERS: If you haven't played it (you should have by now), turn back now!

Welcome to the third installment of my journey into the realm of unplayed Final Fantasies. For no good reason, I've been trying to play every numbered game in Square's flagship series, as well as revisiting the old favorites. I try to follow them up with these entries. Bear in mind that they aren't reviews - as I'm not qualified to write them - they are merely my thoughts from my experience with each game. Last time I focused on Final Fantasy VI, which I consider to be the best in the series - at least out of the ones I've played. This time around, I'll be discussing the third title I managed to complete - Final Fantasy VII - a name that should be familiar to anyone who has ever played a single RPG in their lives.

Let's face it, FF VII has had a rough go of it. When it came out in 1997, it was kind of a big deal. It was the first game in the series to go full 3D and feature cutscenes. To date, it has sold copies than any other title in the series. People who may have never even played a Final Fantasy game can probably recognize Cloud Strife (the game's protagonist) by his trademark spiky hair and massive sword:

Defying conventional hairstyles since 1997.


FF VII proved that RPGs weren't just a niche genre of games - it made them a real contender in the world of consoles. It's had more spin-off games than any other of the Final Fantasies. No one can deny the legacy that VII has had in the world of gaming. But as with anything massively popular, criticism seems to arise from every corner - some warranted and unwarranted. However, I feel that a bit of revisionist history has been written about the game. Because of its intense popularity and constant mentioning in any discussion of the greatest RPGs, many present-day gamers have gone back to play this game only to be turned off by its blocky graphics and confusing story. 

I mean, I don't mind them.


Let's be honest, even upon its release, VII wasn't without its flaws. But this isn't a history lesson - it's merely a bit of background so as to provide you with a frame of reference as far as what I was taking on in my first playthrough of this behemoth of a game.

Much like the previous two titles I had played through (VI and IX), VII opened a memorable picture. There was no title screen or epic opening cutscene. There was nothing but a picture of Cloud's Buster sword and a simple choice:

My body is ready.


I knew then that this would be quite a journey.

I enjoyed the fact that the game started off fast, putting you right in the middle of action. You are Cloud Strife, an ex-member of an elite military group known as SOLDIER, who is now a mercenary working on a job for the terrorist group known as Avalanche. I must admit, all that sounded pretty awesome. I was immediately thrown into a series of battles with dudes wielding machine guns and automatons armed with lasers. All this was a lot to take in, as I had mentioned in my previous entries that I chose to shy away from the newer FF titles because I was turned off by all things non-medieval and "fantasy." Much to my surprise, I had no trouble becoming immersed in the world of VII. Instead of magical crystals and wizards, there were nuclear reactors and greedy corporations. It was admittedly all a new experience, but it didn't bother me one bit.

Quite a bit different atmosphere.


Upon leaving the game's opening location and being released into a wide-open world, I found myself falling more and more in love with the game. The story seemed to become a little convoluted later on as I tried my best to follow the events surrounding Cloud's origin. I admit I got a little lost but not so much that I was turned off to playing.

As far as the characters go, they were a very solid group in terms of personality. As a testament to the game's legacy (or perhaps a product of my extensive nerdiness), I could have named every playable character in the game prior to ever having played it. It was sort of a step down from the huge cast of characters from FF VI, as there were only recruit eight - and two of them are entirely optional. Despite the small cast, there was some good variety. One of the characters is a cat riding around on a toy Mog wielding a megaphone. Another is a vampire-like dude sporting a revolver. The games's relatively simple Materia system was a welcome addition, even if it took away from the individualism of your characters, as far as their role in battle is concerned.

Points for originality.


There were a couple of things I was prepared for, having read and heard so much about the game over the years. In the same way that Cloud Strife serves as a sort of icon in the RPG world, so too does his eternal nemesis Sephiroth. The silver haired, black-garbed, Masamune-wielding villain suffered from the unfair task of having to follow the game that featured Kefka as the antagonist, who I believe is the best villain that the series has to offer. I was ready to meet this Sephiroth. He did not disappoint, but as mentioned he was nowhere near as cool/crazy as Kefka. 

The rules for this game: have obscenely large swords.


And then we come to what is one of the most intense scenes in all of gaming, let alone the FF series. You know what I'm talking about. Unfortunately, I knew way beforehand what the scene was, but not when it would occur. Still, I found myself on the edge of my seat in anticipation. The abruptness of it surprised me, and Cloud's lines as held the dying Aeris shook me. While it didn't grip me quite as much as Celes' suicide attempt from FF VI, it still deserves all of the infamy it has gained over the years.


She was just a flower merchant!


I obviously enjoyed the game, because I clocked more hours into it than either of the previous two. My file came in at around 45 hours, compared to the 33 hours of IX and 26 or so of VI. I know that my file stills pales to what a hardcore gamer could accomplish with this game. The main reason that I spent so much time on this game as opposed to the previous titles is again, because of its legacy. I wanted to know all about the Golden Chocobo and Omnislash. So I found myself doing absurd things. I traveled the world to breed the perfect Chocobo so I could attain the Knights of the Round summon. I battled my way to 32,000 points in the Golden Saucer arena to win Omnislash. I got the ultimate weapons and final Limit Breaks for my endgame party. I killed scores of Magic Pots in the last dungeon to max out my Materia. And yes, I defeated both the Ruby and Emeralds Weapons.

Optional super-bosses.


While none of these things might seem crazy to a diehard FF fan, I felt proud of myself. At least I could hold a decent conversation about the game as to what my accomplishments were. Because you know, beating the optional bosses in FF VII is a topic that regularly comes up in conversations today..

In conclusion, I obviously had a lot of fun with the game. I get its flaws, but they weren't enough to detract from the game's magical world. It didn't become my new favorite (IX), nor do I think it dethrones VI as the best in the series. However, the things this game did for the world of gaming cannot be denied. I'm happy to have finally played it, even sixteen years after its release.

Next time, I'll be writing about a FF that has some of the best gameplay in any of the games I've played by virtue of its perfect job system. But of course that's merely my unqualified opinion. Be sure to check it out!

Until then,

-JDS

9.11.2013

Poem: To Val & Jim

For two weeks in July and August of 2012,
you were happier than you had been in a long time.
In fact, it had been eight years since you were happy.
That's when you last visited these mountains.
Not to be put in the soil by the drought in Indiana,
you came here and found yourself instead buried in summer snow.

I suppose you weren't the only ones to make this place holy.
Two years before your latest visit,
a pair of newlyweds visited here for their honeymoon.
Not two months after that, a man proposed to his girlfriend in this very room.
Children's scribbles, imaginary paw prints, and exclamation marks
carve paths across this aqua-bordered spiral notebook.
Thank-yous from Sydney, New York, London, San Francisco.
Every page brims with gratitude and suggestions,
but no note is so poignant as yours, dated hardly a year ago.

I think it's because I am sitting in your chair,
drinking lemon ginger tea and dabbling in your sacred memories.
I imagine you flicking on the gas stove before turning on the radio,
fiddling with the antennae to find your favorite song, 
the one they only seem to play on these mountain stations.
Drunk with content, you'd fit a few more jigsaw pieces into the puzzle
that spills across the coffee table where I found this book,
before you retreat to the loft for the night.

I don't want to go home reads the first line of your entry.
I pause there, afraid to go on and ruin the picture of you I have in my head.
What was home, that you are homesick for a place you haven't seen in eight years?

I hope that when I come back next year,
I'll intrude upon your letters again,
finding that you have further distanced yourself from the eastern states.
By that time we'll be aware of each other, 
as I'll remember to mention you in my thank-you note,
and I'm sure that you would do the same for a perfect stranger.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I wrote this poem during my two-day stay at a cabin near Maple Falls last week. There was a small notebook on the table filled with entries from previous tenants, some of which dated back to 2009. There were many repeat visitors, but never an entry from someone who was there alone. Perhaps they just didn't write.

This entry stuck out to me because of the very first line, mentioned above - "I don't want to go home." It made me think of why exactly home wasn't something worth going back to. I'm not sure which of the two wrote this, but the handwriting very much resembled my late great-grandmother's writing, which always looked as if it were written with a hand that could not stop shaking. It made me sad, even though it was overall a pleasant note.

Hopefully the words I left behind will resonate with someone just as much as Val and Jim's did with me, wherever they may be now.

9.06.2013

A Poor Man's Walden & A Lack of Revelation

I absolutely cherish solitude. I will go to great lengths to make sure I can afford the occasional distancing from people and any noise that I do not wish to hear. I've talked about being a loner before, and I'm not going to use the term 'introvert' as that word is so watered down and is often used as a misnomer; rather, I'd just say I enjoy getting away from things to get my wits about me and take the proverbial breath I need to keep going. Sometimes I end up losing my wits instead, but it's all academic.

When I was eighteen, I locked myself in a room for a week following a bad breakup. I turned off my phone, cancelled all my appointments, and refused to go anywhere unless it was deemed absolutely necessary. I spent the week journaling and reading Rick Warren's 40 Days of Purpose. Of course, shoving over a month's worth of knowledge into my head in the course of a few days left me forgetting what I had read a week later. I prematurely ended my banishment because I recall beginning to go mad. Even hermits have their limits.

There were other times when my need to escape swayed me from the events of everyday life. I remember skipping a class in junior college to go and sit in the woods near my house to ponder. I literally sat there. And pondered. 

I once looked at a mountain from Interstate 5 while driving around my hometown and thought I want to climb that. By virtue of the most roundabout route possible, I was able to park my car on the edge of an orange grove, where I could see the bottom of the hill. I fought and clawed my way through unkempt brush, eventually reaching the top. From there I could see five different cities and the Pacific ocean. Breathing a wondrous sigh, I sat down to write in the small notebook I had brought, only to find that my pen was out of ink. Cursing, I hurled it off the mountain in anger.

I disappeared for half a day while at school in Abilene immediately following a falling out with a close friend. I drove my car to the lake about ten minutes outside of the town. That night found my feet dangling twenty feet over the moonlit water as I sat on the edge of an abandoned water by the shore. Just as I couldn't take staying in my room for a week, I gave up on the idea of sleeping in my car. Filled with humiliation at my own lack of fortitude, I returned to my dorm as if nothing had happened.

Looking back on these impulsive excursions, I notice a pattern. Usually when I go somewhere to seek peace, I do so because I'm ignoring something that needs tending to. With my first example, I experienced heartbreak at a young age so I locked myself in my room instead of taking the necessary steps to deal with the reality of the consequences. It seems like it should be common sense, but for those of you who are driven to do silly things when you experience turmoil, let me tell you: being by yourself isn't always the best thing. Being by yourself and being confined to one location is even worse.

I skipped that class and sat in the woods in my second example. Unsurprisingly, I don't remember a single thing about whatever it was that was weighing down on me, but I do remember that it was apparently enough to skip class to do so. Lesson learned?

I talk about solitude because I am currently typing this post out while reclining on a chair in a two story cabin, hidden in the shadow of Mt. Baker, nine miles from Maple Falls, Washington. It's the kind of town that is so small that there is no number for a population count on the green sign that welcomes you to its city limits. There is one store and one gas station. The cabin I rented for two days is nestled in a small community of similar rentals, where the only tenants seem to be senior citizens. It's not the type of rustic cabin you may have envisioned, built completely out of logs, where the walls are covered with bear pelts and you have to chop your own firewood. It's much more modern and inviting.

While this post will be published at a later date (as there is no internet service here - which I am thankful for), it is my last night in the cabin as I type this. I'm listening to Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn by Do Make Say Think, sipping on blueberry superfruit tea - whatever that is. As to the occasion for this sabbatical, there's not really much to say other than the fact that it doesn't fall in line with the usual behavior that precedes my running away from civilization. This is the first time I've ever done anything like this. I'm two hours away from my home in Brier, Washington - with no cell service or internet. I've never taken time to go somewhere to relax by myself for a few days. It's always because I'm about to lose my mind due to the pressure of life's continuous onslaught, or because I've hurt someone or been hurt and I don't know to react, so I hide.

I know there are those of you reading who do the exact same thing.

As evidenced by the contents of the spiral notebook I found on the table when I first opened the door, I don't appear to be the typical visitor that these cabin walls usually house. The book is full of all kinds of notes from previous vacationers, going on about their time here and expressing gratitude to the owners. They fish, they ski, they visit town, they hike, they walk their dogs, etc. Several of them come here year after year or several times a year. What have I done since being here? I've read. I've composed blog entries and poetry. I've written songs on both the acoustic and electric guitar. I went on a walk while reflecting on new music I've recently acquired. I've relaxed in the hot tub. These mundane things have been almost spiritual for my constitution. 

You know what I haven't done? Beat myself up over the stupid decisions I've made over the past few months. I've written poetry and music, but none of them are bitter confessions of unrequited love or resentment. My phone is off because I have no service, not because I want to ignore those inquiring after me. I also haven't hurt myself. 

As of the typing of this sentence, it is the 4th of September. Three weeks from now, it will be the one year anniversary of my second suicide attempt. In the past two years, I've been diagnosed with a slew of mental disorders, prescribed a number of antidepressants/convulsants/whatever, and experienced a couple of breakdowns that have led to an annual desire to want to end my life. Many people would say that being alone in a cabin in a place with no way to contact loved ones isn't particularly the best place for someone of my mental makeup to be. I would tell them that while this would often be an accurate statement, they couldn't be more wrong on that position, at least this time.

Since my diagnosis and subsequent conception of this blog as a sort of outlet for coping with my disorders, I've been baffled time and time again by what it is that actually plagues my mind. At first I was merely depressed, prone to crippling bouts of lethargy and lack of motivation. Then came the new doctor and the  new pills and the new disorder - that of the bipolar type. I've admitted in earlier posts that I don't exactly have a handle on what it is that makes my mind behave the way it does. Despite the amount of things surrounding my condition that I do not know, I at least seem to possess the clarity to know when it's bad and when it's not. For example, right now it's fine. Last month when I almost broke my hand after punching a friend's car during the onset of a panic attack that I was somehow able to quell, I was not fine.

The truth is, I couldn't tell you how I am able to keep from breaking something in a fit of bipolar mania any more than I could explain the reasons why I'm sitting in this warm room with depression and suicide being the furthest things from my mind, apart from this post. I know what enables me to perpetuate the racing thoughts I have. I've identified my triggers. I know when anxiety strikes - real anxiety, the kind that makes it seem as if every step you take is upon quickly cracking ice - not the "anxiety" that any kid who knows how to complain throws around in a conversation about their math test. And yet none of this owns me. None of this has mastered me. Sure, it has driven me to go to places I never thought I'd visit, say terrible things to people I would never want to hurt, and fill my head with thoughts that make it seem like death really isn't that hard to accept. It has taken me to the edge and held me by the throat, teetering on the precipice of a fall that would surely kill me. And while that's a tough place to be, I always seem to be able to muster enough strength to take the hand off of my windpipe and stumble to stable ground. 

You can't have me. You won't have me. I belong to another, and I'm not going until He says I can.

It's why I'm sitting here shirtless in this warm room, scowling at the shape my belly has taken on while a fusion of folk and jazz pours out of the speakers next to me, instead of withering away in a ward somewhere where the walls never change color and the pillows are made of plastic. In both, I'm alone in a quiet place, but one is the result of not being able to cope with the challenges that life has presented me with, while the other is a necessary breather to gain my composure between those very challenges. I've learned what the difference between running and moving on is, why relentlessly parading the same thoughts around your head isn't the same as appropriately analyzing something. I'm here in Seattle as a result of these distinctions. I just needed solitude, but in a much bigger degree than any occasion before.

Friends, being alone is a good thing for most of us. For some of us it isn't. And yet we are all too familiar with the allure of it; the view from the top of your downtown apartment, the sound of the waves at the beach, the feel of the pine needles beneath your feet as you wander the woods. Why are you there? Did you say something to a loved one that came out the wrong way? Go tell them you're sorry, you love them, you'll do anything for them. No one person should be alone by their own choosing. It may be hard considering people are generally stupid, but in the words of Calvin (the six year-old cartoon character, not the lawyer), if you can find just one person that you can stand being around, you're doing something right.

I'm in this cabin because I need a break, but that's the simple answer. I'm here because it's 2013, and in 2011 and 2012 I convinced myself that it would be better to be the worst kind of alone than cope with my problems. It's September and I've yet to try my hand at that game again, let alone dwell on the thought of it. Because of this, I can take these kinds of breaks and have no one worry about me hurting myself. For those of you suffering from your own demons, I hope the same can be said about you.

I hope you learn to take those foreign hands from your throat and push back, even though the wind wants to take you over the edge.

You're not going anywhere yet, and neither am I.

JDS



Words - Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Sounds - Balance & Composure, Search The City, The Safety Fire, Born of Osiris
Lights - Breath of Fire II, Breath of Fire III, Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, Final Fantasy VIII

8.28.2013

Playing The Final Fantasies: Episode VI

Cast of Final Fantasy VI

Usual spoiler warnings, for those of you who have yet to play this. Also, don't be like me and wait 20 years to play it. Play it now. Play it YESTERDAY.

In my last post I detailed how I've been going through as many of the Final Fantasy games that I can this summer, many of which I have never played before. Last time I covered my first foray into the 3D world of Final Fantasy with my post on Final Fantasy IX, which was the first PS1 entry into the series I had played as well as the first game on my list for the summer. In short, it ended up being my favorite, even after playing several others.

However, do not let that deter you from playing Square's sixth title in the numbered series. To clear some confusion up, VI was actually released as the 3rd Final Fantasy here in the US for the Super Nintendo. The "true" 3rd game never saw American shores until it was released for the Nintendo DS in 2006. Since VI's original SNES release, it has been ported to the PlayStation and the Gameboy Advance. I wanted to play the original, so I fired up the emulator and played the SNES version on my Nexus 7.

Let me just say this - Final Fantasy VII might be the most iconic and recognizable game in the series (and for good reason), but it is its predecessor is the game that is often cited as being the best in the series, as stated here and here and also here. I'm no stranger to it, as I owned the GBA port but for some dumb reason never finished the game. I also attempted to play it on an emulator on my laptop, which also ended up going nowhere. 

After playing it, I have to agree. It's the best in the series (that I've played). 

There's something magical about the opening scene. A mysterious woman, apparently hypnotized, accompanies two soldiers to a snowy village to obtain a powerful creature called an esper. I will never forget the picture of those armored soldiers trudging through the snow. Those who have played the game know what I'm talking about:

Magic, I tell you.

I know that these are SNES graphics. Heck, the game was released twenty years ago. I played the original version, and unlike its predecessor Final Fantasy II (IV in the US), the translation is amazing. I found myself thinking countless times throughout the game that upon its original release in 1994, this game was way ahead of its time. Like, unfairly ahead.

So what makes this particular game so amazing? In my highly unqualified opinion, it succeeds in the story, character, and gameplay departments to the highest degree. I mentioned in my post about Final Fantasy IX that playing that game was the first time a game made me actually feel something. Usually I just breeze through games without really paying much attention to the struggles of the characters. Following in the same vein as IX, VI moved me even more. Strange to think that sprites and pixels could do this, but it's true. 

First of all, the story is just flat out awesome. Serving as a transition between the pure fantasy of the first five games and the use of more modern technology in the seventh game, VI utilizes a steam-punk atmosphere, while retaining a good amount of the "fantasy" in the series' name. There were so many epic sequences that I find myself struggling to pick a favorite. The game had me rushing down a dangerous river on a raft, fending off monsters to protect the leader of the Returners, the rebel faction opposed to the Gestahlian Empire. One of my characters had to pose as a famous opera singer to prevent another character from kidnapping the real actress during the show. You got to fight a freaking phantom train that shuttled souls to the underworld. A PHANTOM TRAIN.

You know you've all tried to suplex this beast with Sabin.

You can't mention how great this game is without discussing the awesome characters. Seriously, this game has the best cast in any of the FF games I've played (not to mention the largest amount of playable characters - 14). You have everything from a feral beast child that imitates the actions of enemies, to a king with a mind for technology and a knack for the ladies. You also get to recruit a yeti. A YETI. He's not very good, but how many games let you use the abominable snowman as a playable character?

Not only are the characters awesome, but they have equally amazing backstories. Terra (who is arguably the main protagonist) starts the game off not knowing who she truly is, due to her having her mind controlled by the Empire to find espers. She eventually amazes the others with her inherent skills in magic, which haven't been seen in a thousand years - and goes on to figure out she is actually half-esper herself. My personal favorite character (and a fan favorite) Sabin is a martial arts expert who abdicated his right to the throne after his parents died, leaving his older brother Edward to assume the position of monarch. 

The developers stated that their intention was to attempt to make every character the main character. Because of this, you are often bounced around from one character to the next, switching perspectives many times - as you sneak around an Empire-occupied city as Locke or feed a dying old man as Celes after the world goes through a near-apocalypse. This worked for some characters but not all of them. It didn't bother me much because I never used Gau. Or Relm, Umaro, and Cyan, for that matter.

No protagonist can exist without a villain, right? Well Final Fantasy VI introduced us to not only the best villain in the franchise, but arguably the best villain in any RPG period. You know who I'm talking about. Kefka Palazzo:

Clowns will always be scary.

Take a look at that picture. He's a freaking clown. Kefka looks ridiculous, but his appearance matches his animated personality, which is one of outright insanity. Final Fantasy V's Exdeath wanted to destroy the world for being imprisoned by the Dawn Warriors and taking him away from his planet. The ever-famous Sephiroth went berserk when he found out his true origin and summoned a giant meteor to destroy the planet so he could merge with its source of power - the Lifestream. Kefka is just an insane sadist who wants to destroy the world just because. He goes against orders and poisons the water supply of a city, killing all of its inhabitants and effectively causing a genocide. He murders one of the Empire's foremost generals after the general challenges Kefka's methods, finally realizing his insanity. He then kills the Emperor himself. Finally, he nonchalantly breaks the balance of magic by shifting the three statues that hold the world in place, unleashing espers into the world of humans and scarring the planet until it resembles a post-apocalyptic landscape.

He doesn't care.

Truth.

I also enjoyed the gameplay, as it employed the tried ad true battle system of the previous games while including a slew of new features. I liked that you could "equip" espers to characters and have them learn magic as they fought battles. I also found it cool that each character has their own special techniques. You could input button combinations to have Sabin unleash a powerful Blitz skill. Cyan had his Sword Techs, Gau had his Rages, and Setzer had his Slots. Some of them were admittedly worse than others (*cough* Sketch *cough*) but it made for a fresh experience as no two characters felt the same.

There was a scene in the second half of the game that made me question my life. Literally. It's after the balance has been shifted between worlds and you assume the role of Celes, who believes that all of her friends are dead, due to Kefka's breaking of the balance of magic. She is alone on an island, trying to take care of a dying man. After he ultimately passes away, leading her to believe she is the only one left in the world, she laments the outcome of her life and tosses herself from a cliff into the sea.

What the heck, Square? 

While there is always a happy ending, powerful scenes such as this and the many I've mentioned have persuaded me that this is indeed the best of the Final Fantasy games. It's not my favorite - that title belongs to IX - but I can see that changing. Many of the things I mentioned may not seem very revolutionary in terms of gaming, but as mentioned this game came out twenty years ago. It has aged exceedingly well, and you would be remiss to pass up this title. 

On a random note, I liked how you could make any one of your characters a god by equipping them with the Genji Gloves and Offering relics. It's incredibly overpowered. 

And lastly, let me mention the final boss. Good heavens, that fight. Easily, easily the most epic boss fight/boss music EVER. Maybe that's because I haven't finished Jet Force Gemini yet...

Exhibit A:


Skip to 4:10 for the fight. The last form is around 13:30.

Anyways, I believe I've said enough about this game. I recommend it to EVERYONE EVERYWHERE EVER. Seriously.

Thanks for reading! Next time I'll be talking about my playthrough of the best-selling Final Fantasy game in the history of the series' existence. 

Oh yeah. You know.

Prepare yourselves,

JDS