How I Spent My Winter Vacation, A 90-Day Retrospective

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I originally wrote this in January and only decided to bring it out of the archives late last week. The Escapist: 1 – Joe’s Memoir: 0.

Of all the things game journalism is, vacation-friendly it’s not. Barring the special case and the odd mental health day, I typically manage the week between Christmas and New Year’s. The majority of the industry goes dark then, so it makes sense for me to drop off the grid, too. And it’s during that week that I get to be a gamer.

Yeah, I know, I live and breathe games 51 weeks a year. Given my profession, I don’t think I’m getting away from the “gamer” classification in Western culture’s giant social lattice, but there’s a very distinct line of demarcation between “games as fun” and “games as work.” Even when you’re doing something as everyday as reviewing a game, even one you enjoy, in the back of your head is a little voice reminding you you’re getting paid for what you’re doing, and you’d better start writing down some negatives for the all-important “on the other hand” paragraph. At no point in the process is your critical eye shut; you don’t overlook minor stuff because it’s your job to sweat, or at least mention, the small stuff. Now expand this to interviewing a guy working on technology you can barely wrap your head around or figuring out the intricacies of a lawsuit, and you begin venturing into the territory of hard work.

Contrast this to vacation me, at home in my PJs chain-smoking cigars faster than your grandpa and cackling as I pilot my sloop around the Caribbean in Sid Meier’s Pirates! It’s probably 2:00 a.m., I’m probably unshaven, and if you’ve navigated the wall of empty soda cans and caught me in my feral state, you’ve got a 50 percent shot at seeing me deliberating whether I really need to shower once a day if I’m just going to smell like smoke anyway. (This year, the answer was yes!) There’s no notepad full of scribbles anywhere. I’m playing a game even less thoroughly than I normally do, doing only what I absolutely need to advance the goddamn story. I’m not looking at the graphics or evaluating design mechanics or noting gameplay flaws; I’m just playing games.

For instance, this year I jumped about as far as you can get into four things: EverQuest 2, Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, pecan pie and HBO’s The Wire. And in the effort of making even my time off about work, it’s time for the winter vacation report from a guy who gets a week a year to just turn off his brain and play.

EverQuest 2

It’d been about a year since I last played EQ2, and after a couple gigs of patching I had about 30 rewards to sort through. SOE likes to give away pets people can place in their instanced houses, and my one-room studio looks like a zoo. As of last count, I have: a monkey named Mojo, a giant bird named Ricard(o), a sentient plant named Sparky, a panda-looking thing with a random name because it was so alien-looking and one other animal I can’t quite remember. All in a room about 400 square feet. The people in my guild say that’s cool, despite the fact an ex-girlfriend has my pet dragon, which I probably named something else not very roleplay-ish.

I’ve missed out on two expansions, and my guild members were helpful enough, but given the amount that changed, the only thing I was good at was combat, and that was more muscle memory than actually knowing what each of my abilities did. But hey, I like killing stuff, and the game started coming back to me as I beat up skeletons in the Thundering Steppes. As it turns out, there’s teleporters between the good and evil sides of the map, as well as a teleporter to a new area peopled with an avian species. I didn’t spend much time up there and instead opted for splitting my time between Nektulos Forest and the Steppes, then learning how to craft again.

A week in, I really started to get my bearings and re-focus on what I’d been doing a year ago, which was hilariously outdated but still fun. I’ve always maintained that EQ2 was miles ahead of World of Warcraft once you got past the funny pop culture reference factor, and it still holds true, even if you play a week a year.

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Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines

Oh, V:TM:B (colon colon), how soon before someone else gets it and makes another game like you? (Full disclosure: I am to Bloodlines as NMA is to Fallout, but I’m nicer about it.) Though it’s usually credited with being buggy, once you find the community-made patches, the game runs as smooth as silk and plays even deeper than before.

Based on a modified version of Vampire: The Masquerade‘s Revised rules, Bloodlines drops you into a perversion of Santa Monica, dirtied by used needles, a thriving homeless population and a supernatural community all atwitter over a sarcophagus rumored to hold the body of an ancient vampire, who may or may not be planning to wake up and consume everything in a 100-mile radius. You assume the role of a newly created vampire, dropped off in the city without a clue and a life debt to the guy who runs town. You eventually run across the head honcho’s rivals, a vampire mafia, a werewolf and more zombies than anyone could ask for, meeting a host of great characters with better dialogue than the original Knights of the Old Republic along the way. Bloodlines beautifully mixes action-adventure gameplay with RPG elements and wraps it up in a game world that needs to be experienced to believe. I hopped in this time to try unlife as an insane vampire from clan Malkavian, and other than the main quest line, it’s been different the whole way through, down to the lengthy argument with a stop sign I had and the TV talking to me.

This is my second play-through, and I assume by next year there’ll be another patch and more content to get into, given the unofficial patch schedule. Not bad for a low-priced Steam game.

Pecan Pie

The South doesn’t do much right, but dear God do they have a handle on pecan pie. The trick is in the molasses – you can’t use too much, or it’s all a wash.

The Wire

I came into The Wire over the break, and about three seasons in, I’m already an evangelist. HBO’s take on Baltimore’s organized crime circuit is the best drama on TV, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the company’s track record. The show tells two stories each, one about a BPD narcotics unit, the other about the criminals they’re chasing. The coverage is pretty even; there’s likable characters on either side, as well as total bastards. The character interaction is believable, and the writing team manages to tell old stories in a new enough way to keep you guessing. But where the show really stands out is in the sheer brilliance of its scenes. Every episode, there’s at least one scene that breaks your immersion because you’re so blown away by how perfectly crafted it is. (Like this one, which isn’t work safe if you have loud speakers.) At any given time, about three things are going on, so it’s not great for lazy Sundays, but if you enjoy TV that gets into your head, The Wire is like brain worms.

Until Next Year

It’ll be another 50 weeks or so until my next serious vacation, and I realize I’m suffering from a particularly high-class problem: I live games and therefore can’t enjoy them like a gamer. But my lone week off is a great reminder of why I got into this business in the first place: They’re a great way to spend time away from work.

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