Archive for the ‘ A Quiet Normal Life ’ Category

Recent Work – 29 November 2015

When I went to Blizzcon this year, I had an odd and fun assignment: I wasn’t supposed to do any game previews or news posts. Instead, my job was to focus both on what it was like to be there, and what it represented as a cultural event.

It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Greater freedom is actually harder to deal with as a writer, especially now that I’ve written up so many short interview features in which a developer explains a new feature for an upcoming game. Being given a free hand to do something else can induce a bit of paralysis… especially when every Blizzard person I met was there to talk about a new feature for an upcoming game.

Still, I tried to capture two important moments from the event: the first was the opening keynote and the crowd gathered for it, which marked a stark departure from other Blizzcons I’ve attended. Blizzard always seemed to be speaking to me and gamers of my generation, reminding us of the glory days of Warcraft and Diablo while promising more of “the same but better” in the future. This year, I realized that Blizzard were aiming their pitch at fans of a decidedly more recent vintage, and those fans have different reference points than I have.

The other moment, and this was probably the highlight of my Blizzcon, was the StarCraft final between Life and sOs. I tried to break down both their games, and also why the meeting of these two players in particular was an important and redeeming moment for StarCraft and the flawed Heart of the Swarm expansion.

Overall, however, this has been a quiet week due to the holiday. The most momentous thing to happen was that Three Moves Ahead broke $1000-per-month on Patreon, which is a huge source of pride and relief this time of year.

I’ve been on break since Wednesday morning and this is the first day where I’m really trying to get back in the swing of things. I did have one bit of good news this week: despite a slip and fall last week, my leg is healing quite well and I may be off crutches a couple weeks earlier than I thought. I can’t wait: while I’ve been slightly pampered lately, and a friend dropped by with a small feast to take some cooking pressure of MK, I’m officially getting a bit stir-crazy. So even if it means a return to housekeeping, I can’t wait to get back on both feet.

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Recent Work – 22 November 2015

It’s funny to see how my feelings have evolved toward StarCraft 2 over the years. When it came out, I was almost obnoxiously contrarian in my skepticism. I thought it was old-fashioned and frustrating, ignoring pretty much every innovation in RTS games that had occurred since Brood War. We were sharply critical of it on Three Moves Ahead at the time.

Cut to this week, in which I reviewed Legacy of the Void for IGN and absolutely loved it. Part of me is troubled by the inconsistency. It’s still the same game at heart, right, so have I just stopped questioning it on anything other than its own terms? Or does Legacy of the Void represent a successful evolution and expansion into something greater than existed before? I think it’s the latter, but part of me still worries that this review is as much about Stockholm Syndrome as it is about Legacy of the Void.

Outside of StarCraft, it’s been a busy time of late. We launched a Three Moves Ahead Patreon to help support the show and give us a little more time to work on it. Plus, I just had surgery on my left ankle to take care of a bone spur that was cutting into my Achilles tendon, so I’m back on crutches for the first time since I played high school football. I did a lot of work in the weeks leading up to it, knowing I’d be off the board for a while, so let’s take a look at the best stuff I’ve done lately.

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Flickering Lights

Last week my back gave out. In the space of a few minutes I went from a minor twinge in my lower back to significant pain. A few hours later I was in absolute agony, trapped in bed and unable to so much as lift my head or shift my legs.

At its worst, I wasn’t thinking about much of anything at all. I debated waiting and seeing how things unfolded, versus calling for an ambulance to take me to the emergency room. I contemplated the jar next to the bed, and whether I’d have to use it or whether I might manage to escape the bed long enough to make it to the bathroom. I looked at my ceiling and counted the screws in the old, sealed and painted-over light fixture. Two of them. Flatheads. I counted them again. They were still a pair of flathead screws. I started to fantasize about having a screwdriver and making them turn. About what a fixture would look like up there, and what I’d want it to be.

I turned the pages on my Nook, dimly aware of what I was reading. A Warhammer 40K novel about the crippled Inquisitor Gideon Ravenor. I thought about his character trapped in a chair, a mind roaming free but pinned to a ruined body. Then I’d think about how tired my arms were, holding the reader over my head. I’d plan my next move. Maybe I’d try and wriggle a few inches toward the wall, so I could get my head propped a bit. Not yet, it still hurt too much, but maybe in an hour.

Eventually things started to get better. A friend called, a physical therapist, and she told me what was probably going on and how to start fixing it. Some videos followed a few minutes later, showing me how to do things like get out of bed without screaming. She said I had to get out of bed: standing and moving was the only thing that was going to help. I mentioned that was going to be tough and got a glimpse of her professional side: understanding but also uninterested.

“Yeah, it’s going to suck. Get out of bed.”

She was right, of course. With MK’s help I was able to stand and start shuffling around the apartment. It hurt. A lot, and then a bit less. And then less after that. Enough that I could even start to joke about it.

I guess I’d say I was startled. Not by the injury, really. The truth is I probably should have seen this coming. I have lived in my office chair since September, pulling ever-longer days on oh-so-urgent work and professional play. I kept waking up with a stiff lower back, a pain that was in no way normal but became normal through habituation. My weight was slowly but steadily increasing, well beyond any numbers I was comfortable with.

But all of this was trouble for later. I needed to work, needed to make money. After that, I could address all the other things I was letting go to hell in my life. I never noticed that there was no “after”. That I was saving health, fitness, and rest for a time that would never arrive, because work never ends. So when my body finally shut me down, I wasn’t surprised. It was almost part of the plan.

But what did surprise me was how quickly my life reoriented itself around my health. How everything that had been important on Monday was irrelevant and forgotten by Wednesday night. Unlike anything else, it revealed how distorted my perspective has become over the last year. Work that I thought was urgent, too important to be delayed even an hour, was set aside indefinitely without a second thought. Editors that, in my head, I imagined as waiting impatiently for my next draft were the first people to tell me to forget about work and not to worry. In the space of 48 hours my overbooked and stressful life became simple and uncluttered.

Nobody wanted me to hurt myself. Nobody needed anything so badly that I should put it ahead of my well-being. All of that worry and stress that contributed to this injury proved to be my own creation. Everyone seemed to have a better sense of what my priorities should be than I did.

And as the agony of Tuesday and Wednesday fade into memory, I begin to worry I’ll forget the clarity brought on by a few days of near-paralysis and over a week of pain and discomfort. I worry I’ll forget what healing felt like, what it felt like to put my well-being first. I worry I’ll once again start telling myself that I can’t take a walk or a trip to the gym because it’s more important to publish a preview two hours earlier.

I guess I never really did take my health that seriously, in part because my chosen pursuits and occupation are all mental, not physical. Aches and pains would be nice to live without, but it’s not like I needed to be all that fit to do what I do. My always-limited time seemed like it was better invested in more work, play, and reading. Things that could translate to me being better and more effective at my job.

But having briefly lost my health, I finally see how everything hinges on the physical soundness that I took for granted and abused. There’s no life of the mind when you’re pissing into a jar and thinking, for the first and only time in your life, how nice a catheter would be. There’s no play when you can’t sit down and, even standing, your thoughts keep getting yanked toward the lances of pain shooting through your back and down into your hips.

It all just went away, briefly, like a brownout on an over-capacity powergrid. And as I lay there in the darkness, I realized I would have done anything to have the lights come back on, to have my life once again be about the things I can do, instead of the things I could not.

Go Bid the Soldiers Shoot

We finally retired my Falcon Northwest 2008 Fragbox due to a slowly failing motherboard. My pal Drew drew up some new specs that could recycled the parts that still worked, and I am now once again on a high-end gaming rig. But it was still a bittersweet moment as we retired the old machine, and I was moved to say a few words.

Moments later I sang “Danny Boy” and read some Yeats over the Jameson-soaked case. In memoriam:

The Fragbox FalconWumpus was activated on October 31st after its predecessor Broken Piece of Shit Fragbox failed after two weeks. The first game I played on it was SWAT 4. It was paid for with money from The Escapist and my blind faith that I could get enough work as a freelancer to justify the expense. Through its efforts and stability, running for almost four years with only two or three isolated blue-screens, I was able to focus on writing and gaming. Though gaming slowly left it behind, it never delivered less than adequate performance. It enjoyed a brief renaissance this last year after PC Gamer Editor-in-Chief Logan Decker helped with a major upgrade. Our love was renewed over maxed-out Crysis, but it was not to last. It spent its final days playing Max Payne 3 and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, and watching StarCraft 2 streams with its family.

It is survived by a GeForce 560 card, a 750W power supply, two hard drives, a Falcon Northwest coffee mug and its freelance writer. It will be a missed.

Rediscovering Reading

I used to read almost a hundred books a year. Sometimes more, but the 80-100 range is where I usually stayed. Funny the things you take for granted. My experience as a child and young adult reader (with sincere but nevertheless slightly affected precocious tastes) was of weekends lost to the pages of books, and of weeknights disappearing into an unexpected dawn as I finally finished the books I could not put down. Then I would creep out of bed and pull away the towel I always stuffed beneath the door in order to keep my parents from spotting the light.

In college, I felt like I read less, but I probably ended up reading even more. I would lock up a booth or a table in my favorite coffee shop for hours on end and retreat to what Prof. Kern called the “historian’s research lab”: stacks of primary and secondary sources, surrounded on all sides by notes. I still miss that active sort of reading, the purposefulness of my college studies. Maybe that is why I almost stopped reading entirely. Once college was over, there was no further need to spend eight hours a day reading and memorizing, and I had almost forgotten other reasons for doing it.

Or maybe I simply got tired of getting bad book suggestions from NY Times reviewers and NPR, two sources that can always be counted on to recommend topical new history that is irrelevant almost as soon as it is published, who seem to love plodding literary fiction, and who seem never to have encountered genre at all. I tried to reserve my time for only the best books, but all I ended up with was a stack of obligations that I didn’t really enjoy.

All that, and then I’ve been busy. I put off reading until I could get some free time for it, except the nature of nearly full-employment is that there are no more long stretches of free time. I can’t cruise by on five hours of sleep a night anymore, and I can’t blow off work to crank through a paperback. So I basically stopped reading.

Not all reading. But books and magazines dropped out of the rotation, and about the only thing I could find time for was articles on the web. A few good blogs, and whatever Twitter said was good. But that’s the kind of reading that doesn’t quite count. The nature of the web itself doesn’t help, of course. Crowded with links and ads, a hundred things on each page clamoring for attention, and that’s before you even look up at the browser tabs and their illusory promise that you really can keep from missing a thing, and that you wouldn’t want to. I was a consumer of content, a voracious one, but not a reader.

Oddly enough, it was my friend J.P. Grant who snapped me out of it, although he didn’t mean to. He simply gifted me with several volumes of Warhammer 40K fiction as a Nook-warming present, a gift that was as much a joke as anything. We love the unrestrained, arch-Gothic gravitas of the Warhammer universe, but I never imagined I would actually want to read more than a few pages set there. But maybe it was the knowledge that I was reading the literary equivalent of junk-food (and we are talking Bugles-and-fried-Twinkies levels of junk-food here) that let me drop all my pretensions, including respect for the written word as something to be consumed in life’s quieter, more thoughtful moments. When you’re reading about Space Marines blowing each others’ heads apart with bolters, or Imperial Commissars enjoying romantic dinner dates with Inquisitors after a hard day of destroying Necron tomb-worlds, you might as well just read the damn thing in whatever fragmented fashion you can manage. It’s not like you’ll want a silent room in which you can enjoy the sound of the prose.

But those books served their purpose: they reminded me how much fun it can be to tear through a novel just to find out what happens next, and how relaxing it is to become absorbed in a story. They also showed me that I do have time to read, just maybe not the way I used to. Most importantly, however, is that they reminded me how nice it is to read without too many expectations, to encounter a book on your own terms without an idea of idea of how you “should” react.

So when I was on vacation this last week, I managed to finish Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy of fantasy novels, and on the flight home I grabbed Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile and renewed my acquaintance with Patrick Kenzie and his partner Angie. I’ve got A Dance with Dragons on the table next to me, and after I finish that, I might catch up with Michael Connelly or maybe get started on Terry Pratchett. Hell, there are even some comics I’ve been meaning to get caught up on. I won’t completely abandon my reading list, with its tomes on Russian political philosophers and Irish recession fiction, but I’ll remember that it’s what I get out of reading that matters, not whether I could hold my own at an author’s reading in Manhattan. If it’s a choice between barely reading Important Books or reading lots of enjoyable genre stories, I’ll take my dog-eared paperbacks and impulse Nook purchases. It’s more fun to have stories back in my life.

Break Time

I’m coming up on four years as a freelancer, and in all that time I’m not sure I’ve ever had a proper vacation. Under-employment, which was my status the first two years, is not the same thing as having time off. You have the luxury of taking the day to play games or go hang out in a coffee shop nursing a single latte (they love it when you do that, by the way), but that free time carries feelings of guilt. “Why aren’t you pitching?” is a constant refrain. And if you ever hope to be more than under-employed, chances are you work harder at getting work than you would if you had a steady job.

Anyway, I’m on break now. I didn’t go home for the holidays this year, the first time I’ve not spent Christmas with my family, but it has been the right move.  No travel, no dividing time among families, no coming home in early January more tired than when I left.

So what have I been doing with all this leisure? Well, trying to remember how to enjoy it. The thing about a long-overdue vacation is that you realize all the ways you have let yourself get a little crazy. It’s not just a matter of stopping work and picking up a book. The day after Christmas, I noticed I was tempted to start writing up pitches and get started on some deadlines due in mid-January. Watching people returning to work on Twitter, and half the editors I’ve ever known suddenly getting new gigs, I start to feel like I’m already back at work and I need to start surveying the freelance landscape. It’s even more complicated for me because my home is my office, which is awesome until you realize all your work habits persist right into a break.

So oddly enough, I’m working really hard at not working. I was flat-out exhausted by the end of 2011, and I still need some time before I can get back to fulfilling assignments. My last few months, I felt like the creative part of my work was completely overtaken by the dictates of deadlines and professionalism. If I’m to have a productive and happy year, I need to adjust that balance.

I have plenty of help right now. I’ve spent a lot of this break with friends old and new, and this weekend I’m heading out of town for a weekend of experimental cooking. You can usually find me curled up with a good book and a glass of whiskey, or perhaps I’m under a blanket watching a movie. I just finished Arkham City and will have a lot to say about that soon. Bioshock 2 “Minerva’s Den” and The Witcher both beckon. And I’m even getting a nice walk in just about every day. Who knows, I might even make it to a gym before I head back to work!

But seriously, if it ever looks like I might be working too hard, or I go silent for too long, feel free to drop me a line and let me know I might be overdoing it. Because I find the times I most need a detached perspective are the times when I absolutely lose mine.