Sex, Drugs and Lego Star Wars

Like a lot of geeks, I have a touch of the OCD. You wouldn’t know it from my workstation, my apartment, the clothes I wear or my general demeanor, but it’s there. Look under the carefully disheveled surface and you’ll see it festering like a bad case of herpes, just waiting to break out.

My kitchen sparkles like a newly-cut diamond, every utensil in exactly the right place, organized, hung and stored for maximum efficiency of operation. Underneath the mountains of unsorted paperwork adorning both of my desks lays an intricate and detailed tracking system for both my own personal work and the production of the magazine. My bookshelf, which was once organized alphabetically (I weaned myself intentionally) contains every single book written by certain authors up until the point I stopped collecting them. I wasn’t content to read them as I went, or pick and choose – I had to own them all, so I bought them all; whether I intended to read them or not. It’s a control thing, see, and this, in a nutshell, is the root of my OCD.

I like to control things. I am, as a number of observant and forthright people have told me over the years, a control freak; exerting my personal will on the world around me, in the vain assumption that the world around me gives a damn. I even like to control my compulsion for control, randomly weaning myself off of controlling things in an attempt to remain balanced; like organizing my bookshelf (I used to work at a book store) or regulating various necessary life functions according to a strict timetable (I used to produce live television – now I don’t own a single watch). Like I said, a control freak, although I like to use the term “disciplined.” My therapist, had I one, would probably call me “a wreck.”

One of the things I’ve tried to let go of is my utter and complete devotion to videogames. I’ve done this a number of times, once selling off my entire collection (hundreds of dollars worth) and every system in my possession. I was in my 20s and assumed my love of games had been holding me back from having “a normal life.” Thus, gameless, I set out to do what “normal” people did: spent most weekend nights (and a fair number of weekday ones) in various bars, met a number of new and interesting people, and had a series of adventures, large and small. I even met a girl. Then, after about a year, I started playing games again. At first when I was alone and had nothing better to do, then while my girlfriend slept (and I should have been sleeping), and later, at the expense of the other activities that had become the focal points of my life (like going to bars).

I hesitate to suggest that I was addicted, since, during this time, I maintained a steady job and completed a number of personal projects (I even started a successful theater company), but I was playing games like a fiend. Civilization II, for example, essentially lived on my machine. While I was writing my company’s debut play my routine was to spend several hours writing, several hours playing, a few hours sleeping – rinse, repeat. I maintained that the game’s demand for organization and the ability to multi-task kept my brain sharp while it was idling, kept the juices flowing even while I was “at rest.” (Whether or not this was true, I did finish that play in record time, and I still consider it my best.)

Half-Life, Fallout 1 & 2, Outlaws and Interstate ’76 all claimed various weeks and months of my life in this time period. I was cramming the games in wherever they’d fit, but there was one genre I refused to play, one dark corner, as the Bene Gesserits would say, where I dared not go for fear of madness: MMOGs.

I, like a number of people, discovered the joys of multiplayer gaming through Quake, losing entire chapters of my life history in that unholy fire, jumping fro server to server, axing random people to death and grappling hooking my way to victory, flag in hand. It generally took me a few matches to get ramped up, but within an hour of signing on I usually owned the server, finishing in the top three every round until, eight or so hours later, I’d feel the need for sleep. After a few months of this I was, so I believed, a Quake god.

I was also becoming a pale, friendless ghost of my former self. I hadn’t even left the house to purchase the game – it had been mailed to me – kick-starting an alluring transfixion with remotely purchasing questionably valuable household items. By the end of that year I owned an air purifier, a collection of books I’d never read (see above) and variously useless kitchen implements, all purchased online or on TV (or on the TV shows’ online outlets). I’d become, as near as I was able, a recluse; leaving my apartment only to go to work and buy food (thank Vishnu Peapod was still a year away). I still saw friends at or around work, but my closest associates were anonymous deathmatchers, my best companions, bloodied avatars. Then I tried Ultima Online.

I was talking to a friend the other day about how many of us who grew up in the 80s watching or reading (or both) science fiction often dreamed of being able to do practically anything we’d ever wanted to do in videogame form. From building things out of wood, to running through the forest hunting dear with a bow and arrow; there was any number of things that we felt we’d have an affinity for if only we could do them without actually doing them. We’d dream, in other words, of being omnipotent, able to leap tall buildings, amass great piles of lot and build houses made of sand. Yet unlike those who flip the switch in their heads and actually go out and try to do those things, we’d have been content with being able to pretend. But it wasn’t possible then, so we didn’t dwell on it much. Until it was. Enter: Ultima Online

We hadn’t been alone in our dreaming, and someone, somewhere had dreamed hard enough to make their fantasy (and ours) a reality. Playing Ultima Online was like waking up from a dream into another dream. About three weeks in – after I’d learned the fine arts of barrel making, hunted scores of wild animals and contemplated buying a house – something clicked, my inner screen tilted to that perfect 45 degree angle and I saw my life, as it would be for the next several years, flash before me. I did not like what I saw. Or, rather, I liked it far, far too much.

Ultima Online and every MMOG to follow offered, in essence, the OCD control freak’s wet dream become (virtually) real. The amount of hours one could spend collecting, assembling, practicing, exploring and just plain doing was simply staggering – and a bit intimidating. As I thought about it, a safety valve went off in my brain, and I realized I was staring in the face of the digital equivalent of heroin. It would be great to lose myself in that world, but I’m not entirely sure I would have been able to find my way back out again.

I imagined myself going in and out of rehab, staying clean just long enough to write an album full of “MMOGs are awesome but they ruined my life” stories, which would sell millions of copies and put me back in the green long enough to score another year’s worth of memberships. Ultimately (pardon the pun) it wasn’t the life I wanted to lead, so I pulled the plug, sold all of my games, and in spite of suffering a slight relapse with “gateway” games like first-person shooters, real-time strategies and the like, have spent the last 10 years trying to stay clean of the “hard” stuff, in the midst of a sea of temptation. I’m like the alcoholic bartender who only drinks beer, and I’m quite happy with that arrangement. Which is why it’s all the more saddening that I’ve discovered Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy.

I somehow missed the first installment of this franchise (perhaps for the better), but one look at the Lego Princess Leia in a Gold Bikini convinced me to shell out the bucks for this one, and, in spite of the fact that I’ll never again see the light of day, I’m glad I did. The game takes a lighthearted and freehanded approach to the movies, offering glimpses of the original Star Wars trilogy in Lego format. Yes, you can play all of the pivotal scenes from the movies, but not in next-gen photorealistic, near-perfect splendor. The games sets up each scene as you might, had you a full set of Legos, and its humorous take on the most storied sci-fi franchise in film history is often hilarious, and intensely refreshing.

Stromtroopers lounge about behind locked doors in hot tubs, C-3PO is constantly falling apart and Luke Skywalker can’t hit a damn thing with his lightsaber. Whether or not this last is a feature or a bug, it fits. Like Lego pieces. As you discover the joy of blasting everything in sight to bits for more “points,” running about the same level you’ve already run about in for hours as a new character (with different abilities) allowing you to access new areas and score new loot, you suddenly realize you’ve been fooled into grinding, tricked in to trying the hard stuff – and you don’t care. Yes, those are Stromtroopers washing that window, and yes, they do make a funny noise. Now if only there were a way to interact with them …

Collect every mini-kit in each level and you get a replica of a Star Wars ship in Lego form. Collect enough points to achieve “True Jedi” status and you get a gold block, which you can use to build something else. Collect the red blocks and you get super powers (like invincibility), which you can use to go back and collect more stuff. Lego Star Wars is a candy-coated party drug, a goofy, child-like shooter with all of the OCD-pleasing “collect them all” accoutrement of an MMOG, and the multiplayer co-op means that even if you’ve got the wherewithal to recognize your limits and just say no, chances are you’ll be peer-pressured into collecting Lego bits, red blocks and Star Wars characters until the wee hours of the morning – every single day. Which is where I’m at right now. I used to get up at 7:00, in other words, now I get up around 9:00. Again.

The horse has his hooves back in me, friends, and heaven only knows where it will lead me. I may even fire up Oblivion again this week. Fear for me. My name is Russ, and I have a problem.

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