It Ended Everything.

It's been a long time since I spoke of this.

Maybe I figured that now since everything's in the past that one of these days I'd be out of its shadow.

This sadly, is not the case.

In 2007, I was an Electronic Warfare technician in service with the United States Navy. I'd been stationed on an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer for the previous five years, and was just about done with my hitch. I'd been weighing options for shore duty, and since EW's had been combined with Cryptologic Technician (Technical), all kinds of exciting three-letter-agency shore duty billets had opened up - I was qualified since all of us had to be read in to TS/SCI.

I had a CI poly in 2005, and it went about as textbook as you can imagine. I stared straight ahead, did everything I was told, walked out as TS/SCI with a CI poly on my record.

When the time came to fight for orders, I managed to secure a billet in Aurora, Colorado working for a satellite branch of the NSA at Buckley AFB. The one hitch was that they liked to have a polygraph within 6 months of the servicemember reporting. Everything was set up for me to take the CI poly the day before I was to start my transfer - I even got schooling in Pensacola en-route, with a nice re-enlistment bonus. I was very much looking forward to the day that I'd leave the grey waters and dreary sea rotation of Norfolk behind me, and continue serving my country in a choice location.

That day would never come.

I wasn't the slightest bit worried about the second CI polygraph. I certainly wasn't a model sailor, but I was very good at my job. I made E-6 in less than six years, and you don't do that with charm. I knew my rating inside and out, and was very proud of my knowledge level. I was a recognized SIGINT and countermeasures expert on board, and that felt good. So when I walked into the NCIS polygraph facility for the second time, I expected to be in and out quicker than you know what.

Nothing felt odd during the tests. I answered all of the questions truthfully. (I have a very active brain, jumping from point to point to point constantly. Hard to focus sometimes, but when you're asked a question like this one, you answer directly. No confusion whatsoever.)

After the usual bank of control questions, they started with the CI material, which pretty much boiled down to one question, and it was one I'd answered before.

"Have you ever been involved in espionage or terrorism against the United States Government?"


I remember thinking about certain things after the examiner left. What my wife and I were going to have for dinner. Maybe I should take the dog for a walk tonight, I haven't done that in a while. Should I take my guitar down to Florida with me for school? I get lonesome without it.

The man returned.

"You've failed a portion of your polygraph exam."

Bewilderment. Denial. Confusion. There must be some kind of mistake.

"I don't understand. What do you mean?"

"Your readings showed that when you were asked if you were involved in espionage or terrorism against the U.S. Government, your answer showed deception."

What the hell do you say to something like that?

Do you stand up out of your chair in a huff, and angrily berate the questioner for daring to question your devotion to your country?

I didn't. I meekly sat there, and my technician's nature took over in my mind. There's got to be some physiological reason why this happened. Something's wrong with me, because I KNOW the answer to that question is NO. What could it be?

He tested me again a few minutes later. I failed again. There was no calming me down after that. I was thinking of extraordinary renditions, being arrested on the spot, disappearing and never being able to speak to my wife again. You could ask me what color the sky is at that point and I'd been so shaken up by this experience I'd question my own answer.

The first polygraph examiner left, and about thirty minutes later another NCIS officer came in, this one an agent.

He held in his hands a paper for me to sign. It was the Miranda warning, with my name right at the top just above "SUSPICION OF ESPIONAGE/TERRORISM."

I wanted to scream, but didn't. I wanted to throw up, but couldn't. What the hell was wrong with me? I'd passed this goddamned test before.

Next came a long talk with this agent, and I did everything I could to explain who I was, and why I had never done this sort of thing. I still had faith in the system, and was worried about my career. I knew I had nothing to hide, so I went along with everything.

He decided it was best that they send a team of agents to search my house. That very evening. I wasn't allowed to call my wife, and I was at this point about ten hours late coming home. It was damn near midnight.

I showed up with three NCIS agents in tow. They tossed my car, rifled through my belongings in my apartment, took every single unlabeled notebook, every blank diskette, every CD-R, every data-storage capable piece of equipment I owned. My computer was taken, as were my wife's iPod. Mine too.

I came back the next day at their insistence and took a grueling battery of several successive tests administered by a somewhat friendlier polygraph adminstrator. He told me right off the bat that he didn't think I was a spy, he just needed to clear some things up. So, he asked me a long series of questions relating to personal honesty...everything was leading up to this question:

"Do you think you're better than other people?"

After the polygraph was done (how long had it been? Six hours? I really don't remember) I remember the test administrator looking really pleased with himself, saying that this was 'good work.' I didn't know what that meant at the time, and still don't.

At this point, I was still naively thinking that this was all a huge misunderstanding, and it would be cleared up in a matter of days. This is NCIS, right? How long does it take to scan a computer for classified information?

I'd given a statement earlier. In my shaken state, I wrote down an approximation of everything I'd said and felt...but the damage was done. The leading questions, the repeating back of my statements out of context - I had been shaken down prior, and boy did it ever work. I was beginning to think of myself as the kind of person who would sell out his country, or inevitably do so eventually. I couldn't think of a reason why I would do it, it was just in my nature. After all, an honest person wouldn't have failed such an easy question.

I lost the orders. My clearance was suspended.

For months on end, I mustered every day with the temporary holding personnel unit. I was a First Class Petty Officer, Surface-Warfare qualified, knew the electronic order of battle of any part of the world you care to name, and I was pushing brooms around a p-way, or volunteering at a USO kitchen a few days a week.

Every few weeks for the first two months, I'd get called into NCIS' Norfolk activity for long interview sessions. They were interrogations. My own statements were read back to me, asking me to explain each successive thing in more forceful detail every time. I didn't know what to say after a while. I didn't know if I needed to get angry, maybe cry a little - I was running out of ways to say "I have never attempted to steal or sell classified information, and I have no idea how to tell you that any clearer than I am now."

Yeah, I talked to a JAG representative. He told me I was on my own. I wasn't sure if I could afford a lawyer, so I just waited for the system to do its thing.

That takes a while sometimes.

I knew that they didn't have any conclusive physical evidence that any theft ever took place, or I would have been formally charged much sooner. What the hell did they have on me? Statements taken under psychological and emotional distress? My polygraph exams? I had an old hard metal camera case that I'd taken from the ship just prior to INSURV one year. INSURV is the mother of all inspections, and a lot of unneccessary stuff gets jettisoned. It was a nice one, for the old bridge camera which had since gone missing. My wife is a shutterbug, and I figured better for her to use it than it wind up on the bottom of the Atlantic.

Still, they never asked me about that case, or any other physical evidence.

Months went by with no word whatsoever. My end-of-obligated service term was fast approaching, and I had a decision to make. Re-enlist in this holding pattern? For what? No guarantees on anything - I still wasn't out of the woods yet. Clearance suspended - what would I do? I'd have to cross-rate to an uncleared job and probably go back to sea. I wasn't going to do that again. Not after I spent far too long waving goodbye to my wife the first time around.

It became about cost-benefit analysis. My school and enlistment bonuses were gone. There was no career security. There was no reason for me to stay, aside from the pride of wearing the uniform. I busted my ass and did the best I could for my country for six years, and this is what happens?

I made the decision to leave the service at the end of my enlistment in January 2008.

The guys at NCIS were flabbergasted. They said it looked like I was 'running.' Maybe they were right. I didn't care anymore. I was sick and tired of sitting across from two people who were doing their damndest to convince me that I planned to sell out my country at some point, or laid the groundwork for such a plan. I told them one point about counter-intelligence and 'thinking like the wolf.' That was repeated back to me as 'my plan.' I stopped short of admitting to just 'planning to steal stuff' so the interrogations would stop and I would have some kind of resolution. I couldn't do it.

At the end of the day, and after everything they put me through, I still knew what side of the line I was on. I'd rather leave the service with my honor intact than cop to something I didn't do in a moment of weakness, just so the unpleasantness would cease.

In the end, I was allowed to leave. The good thing about being on legal hold for months on end is that you accrue an awful lot of unused leave days. My CO approved 60 days terminal. By the way, my command naturally revoked my access to everything right after the poly fail - I was treated like a pariah for the first month...but then my XO started having as much trouble as I was getting information out of them. That pissed her off. By the end of the ordeal, they were in my corner as much as could be expected, and I'm thankful for that.

So, I packed up, signed out, and headed for home. I got a job as a broadcast engineer, which isn't too bad. It's not tracking suspect merchant shipping, but it'll do. My sixty days of terminal leave made for two months of double-dipping which helped offset getting set up back home.

I didn't receive my seized property until several months after I was out of the service.

The only information I was ever able to get about what was going on all that time was this: The agent assigned to me was recalled to the Coast Guard for a few months, and my file sat in his desk gathering dust until he got back.

In the end, I received an honorable discharge, which is the closest thing to vindication I will ever receive.

So there it is.

Funny...I expected more catharsis.

Why Can't We Play?

This is a good time for videogames. You could even argue it's pretty much the best ever. Visuals run with crispness and clarity and at resolutions we couldn't even fathom when we were scooting the Atari 2600's large colored boxes around the screen of our wood-grain Magnavox televisions. Sound isn't any longer an ear-piercing series of blips and squeaks. Writing and design have taken us to the point where many games are indisputably works of art in the incredibly rewarding way that is becoming the norm in game development. I remember fondly the sense of accomplishment and exhilaration as I scrambled out of High Charity or saved the Citadel from annihilation. I saw first-hand the awesome power of nuclear weaponry, unraveled mysteries reaching back to the dawn of recorded time itself, and recharted the course of evolution for an entire star system.

Yet, for all of these 'water cooler' events in my gaming history, few of them have the allure of sitting on the couch with my wife and plunging headlong into bloodthirsty throngs of fodder, looking to crack them open like loot pinatas for a tastier enchanted mace for her, maybe a beefier shield for me.

Sure, the Diablo formula of whack-smash-upgrade-rinse-repeat is dated. So is the idea of manipulating a digital football team. In Diablo's case, it has an allure that lasts and keeps gamers coming back for the next adventure, the next powerful magic spell, the next awesome suit of armor.

Current-generation videogame consoles have hundreds and hundreds of titles to choose from, and yet not a single one of the current iteration can match the fun of the loot-n-hacks of years past. I speak of course, of Baldur's Gate, Champions of Norrath, and Return to Arms.

I've heard 'co-op gaming' as being the latest buzzword in game design. Ask your friendly neighborhood videogame retailer for a good co-op game and you'll get directed to Gears of War 1/2, Left for Dead 1/2, the Halo series, and others similar to it. Every single one of these are quality, immersive games - with one problem.

Not everybody likes first-or even third-person shooters.

Yeah. I said it. It's true. A lot of people find dual-stick running and gunning to be disorienting and downright sickness-inducing. When my wife wasn't the slightest bit interested in playing Halo 3 with me, I didn't get it at all. Nothing could be simpler to me - I've been crawling down digital hallways and splattering them with my enemies since before Wolfenstein 3D. But my wife cannot stand it. And you know what? She's not alone.

The kind of games I mentioned before - Two-player offline loot-n-hacks for 'couch co-op' are what got her interested in videogames again. (Well, that and Spyro the Dragon.) We'd squabble over items, discuss strategy, tackle the toughest of enemies and dungeons, and have an awesome time just being with each other and doing something that we enjoy.

So why, five years after the release of Champions: Return to Arms for the Playstation 2, can this experience not be found on current-generation systems?

Sure, there's Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 - which is an awesome game. However, you're essentially locked into playing one of a team of superheroes, you're not creating a character and affecting his appearance through the armor/weapons you find.

And oh yes, there's Fable II. My wife and I both enjoyed creating characters and playing through its rich and expansive world. We didn't enjoy that to experience it together required the use of a ham-fisted two-player system that wouldn't even let you import your own character model into the game.

It's like a cohesive and enjoyable two-player couch coop system for these types of games died with the exit of Snowblind Studios from the genre. They're making dinky tank artillery games now. Sad, really.

So when I heard about Sacred 2: Fallen Angel, I was excited. Could this be the return of the gameplay experience I'd been missing? Would the processing power of the Xbox 360 deliver fantastic high-res character models and particle-laden spell effects? Can it take that tried-and-true pastime that my wife and I both shared once and take it to the next level with HD visuals, thousands of items, and an engrossing story?


Ascaron's game didn't survive five minutes in my XBOX. My wife and I groaned simultaneously at the clunky non-intuitive menu and upgrade system, the horribly glitchy visuals, the atrocious voice acting, and the overall unplayableness of the whole damned thing.

It looks like exactly what it is: an unbelievably shoddy port of a one-player MMORPG front-end title that probably works passably on a PC, but fails miserably on a console system. The 'couch-coop' mode was most likely slapped on as a damned afterthought, and it shows. There's no simultaneous inventory management for starters, and it just goes downhill from there.

There are some games that make me think, 'this seems intimidating right now but I'll get the hang of it.' Not this one. It feels like a literal slap in the face to those of us who enjoy sitting on the couch and tackling dungeons with a friend.

So, in summary, if you want a good local multiplayer experience with good gameplay, pick up any of the LEGO series of games, or Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 1 or 2.

If you want this experience in a well-designed fantasy setting that builds on the gameplay greatness of titles past, you are shit out of luck.

I'm only left with one question, which I direct as a challenge to videogame developers everywhere: If I want a quality Diablo-style game designed with two-player action as its focal point, why in the hell do I have to look backwards? Certainly system limitations aren't the issue here - it's outright laziness and ignoring gamers like my wife and I. We're out here, and we've got money to spend. Build on the success of the classic dungeon crawls of the past instead of giving us a half-assed barely functioning PC port and I will give you money.

Even though the Everquest universe has essentially been murdered outright by World of Warcraft, it shouldn't be too hard to find a fantasy universe to draw inspiration from.

I can't be in the minority here. Has 'couch co-op' gaming become the sole purview of the Wii? Oh well. At least with the Wii and a few Gamecube controllers, I can play Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, which is still light years beyond Sacred 2.