Archive for the ‘ A Quiet Normal Life ’ Category

Happy? Hour – May 13

As if readying for the arrival of a vast and distant hurricane, I have been fortifying myself for the impending loss of my car and girlfriend. Yes, my life is one dead dog or jail bid away from being a bad country song as of tomorrow, when MK takes off for a summer internship. By midday Saturday, I expect I will be adjusting to a strange, old way of life.

The last time this happened I put on twenty or so pounds that I still, sadly, carry. With no one to cook for, and nobody to serve as a check on my limitless appetite for pizza and hard liquor (like a vagrant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, I am), it was not long before I found myself drinking a grenadine, orange juice, and vodka clusterfuck at six in the morning on the stoop of my apartment after playing Take Command: 2nd Manassass all night.

Hopefully this summer will not see similar dissolution. To keep myself in the proper frame of mind, I will watch costume dramas and begin every day with the question, “What would Mr. Darcy do?” Then I will remember that I’m a sodding freelancer, and that his excellent itinerary of riding, fencing, and managing his vast holdings does not give me much guidance as to how I should spend my day.

To start this summer with the right foot forward, I will hopefully be playing some multiplayer Portal 2 shortly after MK leaves. Then I will move on to Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword, and play around with some serious time-sinks in the Elemental, Civ V, and Victoria II vein.

For those of you who need something worthy to do with your weekend, may I direct your attention to this piece on strife and mutual distaste within nerd culture. Oh, and Quintin Smith and I deconstructed tower defense games over on Three Moves Ahead this week.

Now, to go make sure the bar is fully stocked and my “Christ, I’m So Alone” playlist is fully up to date.

Well, I’m Back

Weekend gaming was a huge success. It’s always good to come back from a game break knowing how to play four of five new games, all of them ranging from good to excellent. Oddly enough, this time it was the lighter games that really caught my attention. No Thanks!, a quick card-passing game, and Abandon Ship!, a Knizia joint where players try to guide a pack of multicolored rats off a sinking luxury liner without betraying which colors they are backing. We played some heartier fare that was quite good, but I think I was just in the mood to kick back with a beer and play a counting game.

Naturally, it wouldn’t be a trip to Rabbit’s warren without some reflection. I wrote about some of the things I’m working out over on Gamers With Jobs.

Reading that you might ask what I’ve got on my mind, what I intend to be pursuing next. I guess there are three things that have been bugging me on and off for the last few months. The first is whether my work adds up something to greater than individual reviews and features. Am I accomplishing something beyond meeting my deadlines?

The second is my general ignorance, particularly about matters spiritual and religious. My concern here is not that I am an agnostic and I view that is a problem. It is that I am an agnostic without having given the matter much thought. I think I would rather begin working out the puzzle of existence and the soul right now, when I am in good health and have the future before me, than later when those answers become of immediate existential import.

The third is my own health and physical well-being. A few days in the country and I am invigorated and in the throes of wanderlust. I come back to the city, and I’m back to my sluggish, sedentary self. Yet I’m discontent with that. I’m out of shape, yes, but not as much I as believe myself to be. Wandering the hills, I am surprised by how fast I get used to the steeper trails and the broken ground. I’m young enough that I could, if I made the effort, get in shape enough to enjoy the sports and activities I used to, or have always promised to try.

In a word, I know I will, one day soon, no longer be a young man. And shortly after that, I will be middle-aged. I would like to enter that phase of my life in good mental, emotional, and physical health. But I sense that the best way to guarantee that is to put these late 20′s turning early 30′s to good use.

Happy Hour – April 29

Following a busy week working on longer-term projects, I’m about to take the weekend to go recharge my batteries out at Julian Murdoch’s place. I’m not sure he’s prepared for the stack of board games I’m going to bring out. I’ve got the Panzer General card games, and the new BattleTech box set. I’m also debating bringing Tribune out with me, because that is long-overdue for a playthrough.

Also, I may require some Agricola during my visit. I know few people who are as devoted to that game as Julian, and MK and I are always happy to get a chance to play it. There are also rumors that he has converted his house to a pinball palace, which I’m eager to see.

With such good company, and a badly needed change of scene, I may not be doing much video gaming. That’ll just make it all the sweeter when I get back on Monday and get back to work.

In the meantime, check out this week’s 3MA, in which we have a legal expert on the show to talk about how far copyrighting can extend to elements of a game design.

Pneumonia

This is how a month flies by.

First you bust ass trying to clear your schedule for Rabbitcon. It’s not easy because of the podcast you’re now running, and the regular review and column work you’re doing. Still, you just barely succeed in giving yourself breathing room. You go and enjoy four days with the best people and best gaming. Unfortunately, your girlfriend catches a respiratory bug while she is there. She’s tough, so she works through it. Except she shouldn’t have, because rather than petering out after a few days, this infection becomes full-on pneumonia.

Then you’re in the ER at 3:30 in the morning when you were already exhausted three hours ago, and the words on the page no longer make sense. You’re reading about Stalingrad, which is already a dozen kinds of bizarre and obscene, so your exhaustion addled thoughts become even more hallucinogenic. You’re also starting to think morbid thoughts, because it’s the ER and your girlfriend gets nasty respiratory infections all the time. Right now she’s making the same sound your grandmother was the last time you ever saw her alive, when she patted your arm reassuringly with a feathery white hand.

But she was almost 90 and in bad health, and your girlfriend is young and will recover through medication. But it’s been a long night with some troubling thoughts, and so you’re quiet as you drive back home through a dawn snowstorm that will likely be the last gust of winter before a cold spring. Then you sleep before getting back to the work of playing nurse, a role you enjoy because it’s not often you get to feel like someone really needs you, that you’re really helping make life better.

Then you get sick, and a last walk into Boston pushes the matter beyond doubt. You’re shaking and wheezing by the time you get home, and you go straight to bed. Now, for the first time in a month, you have a minute to think. Because for once, you really can’t do much of anything else. You think about what you want to say once you’re finished explaining where you’ve been, and what you want to do once you’ve got a handle on the new life you’ve started living. The answer isn’t particularly interesting. The same, but better. And more.

Unlike most days, however, you know the first step you need to take, and you can take it right now. You start by putting a kettle on the stove, and putting some tea in a mug with a generous spoonful of honey. The rest will work itself out eventually.

Scorecard for 2010

At my family’s New Year’s Eve celebration, as everyone started talking about their resolutions over Irish coffee, I realized that I had left myself with few things to feel resolved about. As work wound down in early December, I had a chance to critique my habits and take steps to improve the flow of life and work. It’s life as a racing game: where am I losing time, and where can I gain an edge? What’s the best line through a workday?

This can be carried too far. One thing I realized is that I lose the most time when I start to fixate on productivity, and dwell on unmet goals. My entire life, I have told myself I need more mental discipline so I can stay on-task. Now I start to think it’s more important to have the discipline to avoid giving free rein to my doubts. Bailing on work to play a game or watch a movie only takes a couple hours out of the day. Panic or frustration can cause a complete unraveling. That accounts for a lot of my fits-and-starts pattern last year.

Even with some missteps, however, last year far exceeded the expectations I laid out at the beginning. I started working for a lot of new outlets, and I branched out into new kinds of work. Hopefully that trend will continue into this year. But if I enjoyed a more successful year in 2010, it was in large measure due to Three Moves Ahead and my friendship with Troy Goodfellow and Julian Murdoch. 3MA and PAX East turned a lot of casual internet acquaintances into dear friends, and neither my work life nor my personal life would be as half as satisfying without them.

I also made it into print last year with Kill Screen. It was a huge honor to contribute, and I’m sure it made my parents very happy to actually see my work on the printed page. Working with Chris Dahlen and Ryan Kuo was eye-opening: they put me through three or four rewrites (and I had more drafts in between) until they were finally satisfied, and that is just not something you find in most places. My father, reading my article in Issue 2, said that he was amazed at how precise my phrasing was, and how neatly the article flowed together, and complimented me on my writing. I had to admit that it was their editing that made me look that good.

It’s also nice to get recognition for your work, and there was a lot of that last year as well. My friends at Gamers With Jobs brought me aboard to do some writing for them, and I got some of the biggest responses of my career after I started writing there. GWJ is a blast: I get some good editing (particularly from Sean Sands and Shawn Andrich) and near-total freedom, and then I get to put my work before a big audience a great group of commenters. The guys at Critical Distance, especially Ben Abraham and Ian Miles Cheong, were also kind enough to spotlight a lot of the stuff here on the blog and over at GWJ, and that definitely helped some of my pieces reach a much bigger audience, as well as gave me confidence that I’m doing worthwhile writing.

So in some ways my goals are modest as I approach the end of my vacation. I have more work now than ever before, and my focus must necessarily shift to quality rather than quantity. This blog is likely to change as more of my games writing ends up elsewhere, but there’s still quite a lot that I’m more comfortably jotting down here than publishing for someone else. No matter what, though, I will probably update it a little less regularly now that I’ve got a lot of commitments elsewhere. But I’ll be more diligent about drawing attention to what I’m up to.

In fact, this would a be a great time to mention that I just published some more thoughts on Civilization V over at GamePro. Civ V has changed a lot with patching, and my views on it have evolved quite a bit from when it was released. But even as I grow to appreciate the design more, I am also realizing why I still prefer the type of Civilization game I grew up with: they had more faith in progress and the future. Civilization V is touched by the pessimism of the present.

Furthermore, if you’re looking for that special belated Christmas gift, you should grab Issue 2 of Kill Screen, where I contributed a story about attempts to use games to teach foreign languages. It’s on sale now, and it’s become much more affordable in the time since it launched. I highly recommend grabbing a subscription.

As much as I’ve enjoyed being back with my family this break, I’ve also never been happier to finish a vacation. I’m excited about what’s next. I’ve been given a great platform over at Gamers With Jobs to practice and hone my skills in front of a big audience and a great community. Look for me to be doing a lot more over there on Tuesdays, because I will be trying to stretch myself once I’m back in the Boston swing of things. There’s a lot of other irons in the fire, a lot of pieces I’m excited about writing and new directions to take my particular brand of criticism. I’ll probably over-reach at times, but that’s the kind of risk I’m looking forward to taking.

There and Back

I bailed.

Rabbit and his family were going to be out of town through Thanksgiving, and MK was going to be putting twelve and sixteen hour workdays together. So it seemed like a good time to leave Boston and all my habits behind. Before I knew it I was back at Rabbit’s burrow in the Mass countryside.

It was like I stepped out of my life. I was enjoying an unfamiliar, complete solitude in a familiar and comfortable setting. At first, I was trying so hard to unwind that I was actually stressing out. I would be furious at myself if I wasn’t walking in the forest before lunch, or reading a book in the last of the afternoon light. But by the end of my second day, I was off-schedule and not looking back. I was sitting down to dinner and a movie at 11:30 at night. At 1 in the morning I was enjoying the juiciest clementines with the coldest, driest martini I could make.

I took a long, long walk in the woods one afternoon, wearing my heavy boots and warmest flannel. I walked until I was exhausted. Then I descended the hill into town, where I saw the lights burning in the window of the game store. Inside it was warm and snug, and I spent an hour browsing the inventory and chatting with the owner about the glory days of PC gaming and the delights of board gaming. I ended up buying War of the Ring and Hold the Line, a wargame of the American Revolution.

Walking the woods with MK and the Murdochs

Somewhere in all of this I started realizing that hours and hours were going by without checking Twitter, or even opening a web browser. I scarcely used my laptop at all. I was focused on whatever I was doing. I had no responsibilities and no distractions. Was it time for a game? Then that’s all there was in the world until I was bored with it. Then maybe it was time for a movie, or another game, or a chat with a friend on Skype. Or both.

I wrote, of course. Not as much as I intended, but that was all to the good. The lesson of Julian’s house was that I intend too much and enjoy too little. Finally, when it was time to bring MK out for Thanksgiving, I felt as light as a feather. I enjoyed every minute of the long drive in and out of the city, and we quickly started preparing for our little Thanksgiving celebration.

On Twitter, I could watch my friends enjoying or enduring familial gatherings. But for us, Thanksgiving was just a chance to try some ambitious new things in a big kitchen. We played and cooked and walked all we wanted. Then Julian and Jessica came home with the kids, and we spent another day or so doing more of the same with them. I lost an excruciatingly close game of War of the Ring to Julian, went on a long walk with him and the kids, had a blast doing an epic-length GWJ podcast (edited to be listenable-length), and finally had to leave. I was ready, and even eager to start making some changes to how I do things here in the city.

The classiest bird ever: butterflied, rubbed for two days, red wine and tangerine glaze

I’m back now, and have been for about a week. In some ways, at least. In others, I have yet to return. I’m still keeping life a bit quiet. It seems a little pointless to get back to full speed when I’ll be taking a train to the Midwest in under two weeks. I’ve got a couple assignments left to clear off my plate, and a few pieces whose status is a complete mystery to me, but after that life will kind of come to a halt while I’m on my holiday travels.

I’m also trying to put some lessons I learned these last few weeks into practice. Small stuff, but important stuff. My goal is to find a new balance and a new rhythm. Something a little closer to the quiet, relaxed productivity of my time in the country than the insignificant sound and fury that sometimes characterized my workdays here in Cambridge.