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.

Alan Wake Reconsidered

I said that this year I would try and stretch myself a bit as a writer, and that’s always a fraught endeavor when you’re doing it on someone else’s dime in front off a big audience. Fortunately, The Escapist came through as it always has in my career and gave me space to do a close, critical reading of Alan Wake in order to provide a revisionist view of the game.

It’s the kind of thing that sounded awesome as I was pitching it and playing through the game for a second time, but was easy to start doubting once I began working on it. By the time I sent back my final draft, I was convinced that the response was going to be a collective eye-roll. I liked my analysis, and I thought it was pretty damned sound, but I know there are a lot of people who resist reading deeply into videogames, especially ones as flawed as Alan Wake.

Fortunately, the article got an incredibly warm reception both from the audience at The Escapist and my acquaintances on Twitter. No piece I’ve written this year has given me as much satisfaction, with several people writing to express how thoroughly my article changed their view of the game. There is not much more that I can ask of my work.

While I stuck pretty close to what is actually in the game, and I can readily defend just about every claim that I make in the article, I will admit that my interpretation still owes a great deal to my own experiences. I have written several times over the last year about the difficulty of balancing my emotional investment in my work with other aspects of my life, and how sometimes work seems to be crowding out the other things I love. Approaching Alan Wake with those fears weighing on my mind, it was not hard for me to make the connection between the game’s plot and the conflicts I face as someone doing what I love for a living, dependent on steady stream of decent ideas and good words, and the pain I feel when they seem to dry up.

A few people raised their eyebrows at the connection I drew between the savior figure in Alan Wake, Thomas Zane, and Bioshock. I think the use of an old, porthole-covered diving bell is too heavily associated with Bioshock to be accidental, but I will readily grant that once again my own experiences inform my analysis here.

2007 changed everything for me, and Bioshock was a major part of that. It was the first time I really heard the kind of serious, intelligent discussion of videogames that I had long wanted to have, and Bioshock was the topic of discussion that year (as it has remained, in many ways). Bioshock didn’t sequester itself from intellectual life the way so many games do. It was in dialogue with the books I read in college on history and political theory, and critics were receptive to that. There have been other games that could make you think, other games that didn’t flinch from asking harder questions or engaging with their historical moment, but Bioshock was the first time that the stars aligned and serious critical discussion of a videogame entered the mainstream.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Alan Wake started production in 2005, Bioshock came out in 2007, and the character in the game has not been able to accomplish anything in two years. The game itself did not come out until 2010, and it’s not hard to imagine that 2007 might have been the year when the Alan Wake project finally started to gather some momentum after lengthy delays and creative struggles. And from my own experience, I can see where Bioshock might have played a role in the story.

Anyway, I hope you go and read the piece. This kind of analysis isn’t something I’ve done much, but I had an absolute blast with it.

Quo Vadimus

A couple springs ago, I logged into Quarter to Three and saw that I had a private message from Troy Goodfellow. I’d run across his name when I was researching another piece I’d written for The Escapist, but I didn’t know much more about him. He liked an article I’d done for them, and wanted to tell me so.

I don’t know many writers who go out of their way to drop messages of appreciation to their juniors, but Troy does. He was willing to chat a bit with me over the next few months, and provide advice and counsel when I needed it. And then at some point he brought me in to help out with a feature series he was running, and shortly thereafter he brought me onto Three Moves Ahead to fill in for Julian and Bruce.

Freelancing often comes down to who you know, and whether or not they like you. Troy reached out to me and opened far more doors than I could have hoped for, starting with his invitation to become a regular 3MA panelist. He vouched for me to editors, and he helped me build an identity and reputation. He is generous with his assistance to those he believes in, and I am very lucky to have won his confidence. There are not many so generous with help in so competitive a field, and games writing is losing more than you might think as Troy transitions to a career in PR.

On his way out the door, he has given me some more amazing opportunities and responsibilities. The one I want to talk about right now is Three Moves Ahead.

Continuity and Change

When 3MA began, it had four incredibly qualified panelists on hand to discuss strategy games. Julian has a very deep well of experience from which he can draw when it comes board games. Troy and Tom Chick know the strategy genre better than any other writers in the US, and more importantly, they can communicate their understanding to readers and listeners. Bruce knows wargames inside and out, and has a logician’s approach to discussion.

Had that group continued to have the type of conversations it did in the first half of 3MA’s life, I would likely never have been a part of it, and the show would be none the worse. They were a great panel and I still consider many of their episodes to be the gold standard against which I judge those I’ve been a part of.

But other commitments made it hard for four or even three of the panelists to record together, and their busy work schedules made it very hard for them to coalesce around a topic on short-notice. Remember that I came aboard as a semi-regular fill-in, and one of the great advantages Troy had in working with me is that I was chronically under-employed and was willing to crash-research a game or a topic. Until joining 3MA, I had never considered myself a strategy gamer. It just happened to be a genre where I spent a third of my gaming time. But I liked 3MA, I was honored to be helping out, and I was learning a lot. I dug into the genre so that I could make more valuable contributions. But I don’t flatter myself in to thinking that I bring what Tom or Bruce does to an episode.

So as I take over the show, one of my goals is to get the mixture of panelists closer to how it was in earlier episodes. It’s a better show when we have a larger group of intelligent people examining the topic at hand. Hopefully Tom and Bruce can help out from time-to-time, but I’m also hoping to add enough depth to the bench that the show is less dependent on me and Julian. In this vein, I’m also hoping to have longer fuses on each 3MA, so that we can better prepare for a topic. If we can get these two things right, I am certain 3MA will be as good as it’s ever been.

All that said, I have different tastes and views than Troy. My definition of what constitutes a strategy game is probably closer to Tom Chick’s heretical “everything is a strategy game.” While I’d never do an episode on Bioshock 2 like he wanted, I might do an episode on the Brothers in Arms series. Not all my favorite games are strategy games, but almost all my favorite games have significant strategic or tactical elements. From time to time, I will beg your forgiveness as I try to catch glimpses of strategy existing outside its natural habitat.

Likewise, it is inevitable that my increasing interest in board games, and Julian’s knowledge of the format, will result in board games playing a larger role on the show. However, I will try and ensure that board games come up in the context of theme shows where  they might be relevant, or when we uncover a particularly interesting game.

Beyond that, you should also expect more classic game analysis. Frankly, we haven’t really scratched the surface of games that are worth revisiting. If we can get the planning right, there’s a wealth of rich topics waiting to receive attention. Episodes like this will also allow Troy to rejoin us on a regular basis.

These are small changes, but I think they could have a major impact on the show. I have other plans in the works: a site for the show, better production equipment and practices, and perhaps even taking the show twice  monthly if it means we can make better preparations and and deliver a better product. But some of these are minor changes, and others are just ideas, not plans. In the last analysis, 3MA answers to two groups: the panel, and the audience. I want those of us who record 3MA to be proud of our effort, and I want those of us who listen to it to come away feeling like it’s as interesting and thought-provoking as ever.

I don’t entirely know what that will entail, which is why I want your input and suggestions. In the meantime I am, as ever, honored by Troy’s trust, and the goodwill of the listeners who have been offering their congratulations and best-wishes since we made the announcement. I will do my best to live up to the standard he set.

I’m Big in Herring

What do you get when you put my busy schedule together with GameShark’s technological sophistication? Timeliness, my friends. Like this review of Patrician IV (NA release date: September 21).

GameShark assigned the game to me while I was digging myself out of a massive hole, and it went to the back of the line. Truth be told, it wasn’t something I was particularly excited to play, and so I installed it feeling nothing beyond professional obligation and unprofessional annoyance.

Naturally, it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.

Bioshock 2 Closing Thoughts

Over at Gamers With Jobs, I just posted a piece breaking down the story that unfolds in the last half of Bioshock 2. It’s called “We Are Utopia” and you should look it over. It does contain plentiful spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing, but personally I enjoy reading analysis more than I care about preserving the secrecy of the plot.

The only thing I had to leave out is how great the gameplay is during the finale of Bioshock 2. From the midway point onward, Subject Delta has an incredible array of tools to use against his enemies, and the level design and enemy design creates a lot of different ways for encounters to go. In Fontaine Futuristics, with my health and ammo levels rapidly running down, I had to face off a Big Sister and save two Little Sisters with a scant amount of resources to use.

So I turned a couple of the rogue Alpha-series protectors against a Big Daddy, killing the Daddy, and then rescued the Little Sister. This brought the deadly Big Sister out of hiding, and I spent a minute frantically laying traps. Once I was ready, I hovered close to the remaining Big Daddy and waited for the Big Sister. Sure enough, in the course of our brawl she angered the Big Daddy, and they started going after each other. As the Daddy was ground down, another Alpha happened on the scene, and I fed him into the fray. The Big Daddy went down, and the Big Sister charged at the Alpha. While they were slugging it out, I scooped up the Little Sister and saved her. Only now did I turn and face the Big Sister, who was badly weakened by her battles.

It was a great sequence, because it was all about using a combination of my powers and enemy behavior to arrange a really intricate series of encounters. It was so different from the running battles and slugging matches that marked much of the rest of the game. The end of the game was full of similar creative destruction.

The strength of the gameplay let me power through to the finale, but it was still the characters of Bioshock 2 who won me over. When the credits finally rolled, all I could do was marvel at how gracefully Bioshock 2 told its story, and made it matter. That’s its major achievement, and that’s what I’m writing about over at GWJ.

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.