Archive for January, 2012

My Approach to Writer’s Burnout: A Tale of Blood and Fire

January 26, 2012 4 comments

I am a man of conflicted passions. On the one hand, I absolutely love doing nothing. On the other, I have a strangely powerful work ethic, most likely inherited and imparted from my father. I don’t like having many commitments, but I feel an overwhelming need to follow through with those few I do make. It’s a horrible disconnect, one that spoils my enjoyment of both leisure activities and work I actually enjoy doing.

Stop! I have a book to write! And sleep to do!

In keeping with my interest of being lazy, I rarely let any aspect of my day job interfere with my life when I’m not being paid to let one do so. However, as some of my loyal followers will have realized, this time of year is a full-scale invasion of stupid that boils out of the ground like multi-phasic South American army ants. They come with fire, they come with axes, gnawing biting breaking hacking burning until my parasympathetic nervous system is finally decimated by evil Olympic torch runners.

"I just have a couple of questions about the program."

Given the above (plus some other extracurricular stressors filling in the role of the wild men of the hills), I made a decision earlier this month that, quite honestly, frightened me. Not enough to make me decide against it, but it still flew in the face of my own work ethic as well as one of the widely-adopted cardinal rules of writing.

I stopped working on my book.

Sadly, Tori is not bald enough to be my second.

Now, the only reason I feel even remotely comfortable with this decision (and yes, the feeling is remote) is because I’m over 80,000 words into it. My primary justification for it is three-fold: protect myself, protect my characters, and protect my prose. For myself, I feared the far-reaching effects of too much stress on my emotional stability and hence my job stability. Now is not the time of year for me to be edgy.

Pictured: a warranted but culturally unacceptable approach to customer service.

For my characters, I feared an emotional decision born of stress and work-related anger that would either kill someone off or make them suffer unnecessarily. Besides, it would be decidedly out of character for Cora to start shooting her saloon’s patrons without provocation. I can’t let my feelings cloud hers, so I needed a break. For my prose, I simply feared a breakdown of flow and mechanics, increasing my stress levels later when I enter the revision stage. The fewer stupid errors I make now, the less I feel like an idiot later.

My point in all this? Not much of one, I suppose. I’m far too new to the writer blogosphere to feel comfortable dispensing any kind of commandments or platitudes. If anything, I suppose I’m questioning my own post-NaNo admonition to write every day until the draft is finished. Given the time I have until the deadline for this manuscript, I think it’s okay to take a short break (especially since I have another, more immediate deadline looming). Bad advice, maybe, but I’m still learning what does and doesn’t work for me as a writer. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Fortunately, high school physics prepared me to conduct just this sort of experiment.

Categories: Writing

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning – First Impressions

January 19, 2012 3 comments

I’ve spent the past two nights playing around with the Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning demo available on Steam. It’s one of the more interesting-looking new IPs scheduled for release in 2012, so I was rather eager to try a nibble or two. I may have also been looking for an excuse to prove to myself that I am capable of playing anything other than Skyrim.

Results of experiment: unclear

After a brief introductory cutscene in which two gnomes discuss your cadaver, you get to select how that cadaver should look. Character creation is fairly limited, which expedites the process for those who aren’t all that concerned with character appearance, but obsessive nose depth tweakers will find the experience lackluster. The gnomes toss your pretty corpse into a chute, and there your adventure begins.

After climbing down from atop a pile of corpses, you pad your way through a cave until you meet up with one of the gnomes from earlier. He whispers and shouts you through the tutorial as you battle rats, spiders, and Tuatha soldiers. Despite sounding like reject soldiers from Star Wars, the Tuatha are war-crazed Fae bent on destroying humanity. While nobody explicitly states it (at least as far as I went), it comes across fairly clearly that you are the Chosen One, the only one that can put an end to this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

The first DLC pack is rumored to be code-named "Betty"

Upon escaping the doomed laboratory, you find yourself in a lovely spring glade, the sort where gnomish centurions stand guard or writhe in agony here and there. Running along down the path, you soon encounter the game’s first human, a drunken Tarot card readerfateweaver who tells you that he can’t see your fate at all. Unsure of whether this is because you are the only person in the history of forever to be revived via the late great Well of Souls or if he’s simply had too much to drink, he tells you to make for the isolated shack of another fateweaver for a second opinion.

He may or may not also boast about his recent sexual exploits

At this point, I chose to pick up some side quests, and they consumed the remainder of my 45 minutes of play time. I only finished one–rescuing some poor sot from falling in with thieves–because the next quest made me angry. It was easy enough to steal a book of scriptures from a monastery. However, when I returned it to the questgiver, she only cowered before my now-terrifying visage and would not accept the book or give me my payment. Other villagers treated me with similar fear and trembling, and the guards suddenly found great sport in trying to arrest me. Figuring that stealing the book was not how I was supposed to go about it, I attempted to make what peace I could with the injured villagers before leaving town.

My nickname "Lightbringer" is often misinterpreted

Having concluded my adventures thus, my time ran out and I slept.

Things I enjoyed

-Combat is fluid, responsive, and fun. Mixing magic with melee is simple (on standard PC bindings) and helps mix up the standard stab-me-rip-stab-stab MO of the rogue archetype. I haven’t yet played as a warrior or mage archetype, but I imagine their play styles offer similar fluidity and variety. The ability to combine classes as you see fit should also add some dynamic.

-The art direction feels like a stepped-up version of Torchlight. After spending over a hundred hours in the hyper-realism of Skyrim, running through a colorful, stylized world was refreshing. One can hope that the whimsical appearance belies a main story that doesn’t take itself way too seriously (see: Fable). The all-caps EPIC nature of the trailers may indicate that it will fall into Molyneux’s  folly before the end, however.

Hopefully, they can at least avoid blowing giant, smoking holes in their own plot

Things I Didn’t Enjoy

-The combat tutorial happens after you select a race, meaning that you may be locked out of (admittedly trivial) racial bonuses if you end up favoring a style different from the one you expected to play. This can be easily remedied by rerolling your toon, but wading through the opening sequence again could get tiresome.

-Dialogue with NPCs features the all-too-ubiquitous dialogue wheel. Personal opinion, but I fucking hate dialogue wheels.

-Gameplay would sometimes freeze mid-combat for a few seconds, and animations would occasionally blur way out of proportion. I haven’t verified that this is a problem with the game and not my computer, so this may be a moot point. Actually, given the number of bugs still present in Skyrim nearly two months post-launch, I doubt very much that these will be addressed prior to Amalur’s ship date. We have grown accustomed to imperfect games, it seems.

I'm sure there's a frustrated coder or two that would tell me exactly where to shove such minor complaints

Verdict: this won’t be a day-one purchase for me (given my budget, very few games are), but I do plan on picking it up at some point. The synthesis of Fable-style combat and Torchlight-inspired visuals fleshing out a skeleton of Elder Scrolls design is very promising, and I’m hungry for a new take on fantasy WRPG games.

Categories: Game Reviews, Games

In Which I Express Unabashed Envy

January 12, 2012 Leave a comment

I like to believe I am not an overly envious person. Yes, I do have my green-tinted moments when I consider the runaway success of famous authors, actors, musicians, and other creative sorts, and the shade does tend to darken when one such person appears to have achieved their success with marginal or indiscernible talent. Examples gross as Earth exhort me in this latter category, so I don’t think going into a list of who and why would be fruitful. Just use your imagination. Failing at that, pull up Google news.

Is she really a Kardashian? The 2011 Pulitzer prize winner Chicago Sun-Times investigates!

Lately, however, I’ve found myself in the grip of an envy much more powerful, something that can’t be dismissed with a wink, a shit-eating grin, and a public display of my sternum. It doesn’t stem from reading about Adam Christopher’s wildly successful launch of Empire State (congratulations on that, by the way), seeing the pictures my former boss sends me of her retirement in Belize, or even contemplating Mojang’s extraordinary combination of talent and timing. This envy is far older and deeper than any passing thought or errant news article. It even moves me to sadness and frustration if I think too precisely on the event, a reaction I’ve not had much experience combating.

What is it, you ask? Simply put, I envy the culture that today’s youth have.

Who, in all honesty, wouldn't?

Psychology Today published an article this week explaining the benefits that playing video games can have for children. While some of them are self-evident to any long-time devotee of the medium (hand-eye coordination, problem-solving skills, etc), the ones that slapped me in the face were the social benefits. The article quotes several studies that found “that video games, far from being socially isolating, serve to connect young people with their peers and to society at large.[3] Other research has documented, qualitatively, the many ways that video games promote social interactions and friendships.[4] Kids make friends with other gamers, both in person and online. They talk about their games with one another, teach one another strategies, and often play together, either in the same room or online.”

That kind of culture, one that accepts gaming as a valid hobby, would have improved my life in many ways while I was a kid. Youth today have books of video game music that they can buy and learn to play on the piano. If somebody had told six-year-old me that I could play Zelda and Metroid themes on the piano, I might very well be an accomplished pianist today. It never occurred to me that the music my brother and I loved recording on cassette tapes was something I could reproduce on our tiny Casio keyboard. My parents, informed by the parenting wisdom of the nineties, limited our gaming time as much as they reasonably could. This fostered a strange guilty-pleasure mentality regarding the games we played; while fun, they were inferior to other hobbies like reading, playing soccer, or building forts. You know, real kid stuff.

My attempts at compromise were not well received.

My high school served to reinforce, upgrade, and expand this mentality like a dedicated Minecraft construction project. At the time, I was just discovering and becoming quite enamored with Command & Conquer and Pokemon. My best friend and only fellow Pokemon trainer made it absolutely clear that we were not to discuss any aspect of our experiences at school. Girls, you see, would not approve, and the approval of the fairer sex was the Holy Grail to my 14-year-old mind. Thus, I was encouraged to hide one of my greatest passions from the public eye so I could increase my chances of getting that cute girl two seats over to say she’d go out with me. This association of video games with shame lead to the final and greatest regret of my teenage years: I didn’t realize I could make video games for a living. Had I seriously considered the possibility, had I been told just once that video games were as valid an interest and passion as my love for writing or theater was, I might have majored in computer science and game design rather than English. The rest, as they say, would be history.

Over Christmas break, Tori and I played classic N64 games with her younger sister and her boyfriend. As the younger couple succinctly KO’d all three of my chosen fighters in Pokemon Stadium, I realized how much I wished that such a scenario would have been possible when I was seventeen. The chance to freely express my love for video games around girls and have them acknowledge and share it would have blown my adolescent mind, possibly to a life-changing degree.

I could be in ur codez, killing ur doodz.

Categories: Games

A Few Tips for the Aspiring Graduate Student

January 5, 2012 Leave a comment

As loath as I am to incorporate any aspects of my day job into this blog, the past few weeks have made it clear once again that people do not have a working knowledge of basic etiquette and proper protocol when applying to graduate school. Yes, I am including everyone in that statement. Even if you believe you may have it down pat (as surely some, given the number of times they apply, must), I can assure you that the following advice will pertain to you if you have any serious post-graduation ambitions. Some skinny guy once said that being change is important, so here is my contribution to the sweeping graduate school admissions dialogues of our times.

1. Read

Basic, right? You know, the thing you’re doing right now? That essential life skill, so versatile, so useful, completely fucking vanishes from a shocking number of people when they begin the application process.  Whether it is during the initial exploration process or three days before a deadline, the meager amount of reading required seems to completely overwhelm them. To demonstrate your superior viability as a candidate for whatever program you happen to fancy, a wise first step is to show that you can do basic research on something that will have dramatic and lasting impact on your educational, occupational, and financial future. Do not call the department to ask questions that are most likely answered by a FAQ page on the department’s website. Not only are you demonstrating a very unattractive lazy streak, you are also proving that you rely on others for your answers. This does not appeal to people who have dedicated their entire lives to the pursuit and proliferation of knowledge.

It's your big chance to prove your cognitive superiority over creatures with a thickened nerve for a brain.

2. Plan Ahead

Once you’ve done your research (to reiterate: not at the expense of the lone department representative who may or may not have time to answer your inane questions), it is best to come up with a strategy for conquering the complex and shifting world of application requirements. Most graduate programs require the submission–electronically or no–of official transcripts and letters of reference. These things take time to collect. Many universities can take anywhere between two days and two months to process a transcript request order and actually put the goddamn things in the mail. References, likewise, can be a solid piece of granite that gives your application weight and support, or they can be an inflatable dock that tosses your ambitious ass into a freezing lake when you try to put weight on it. Approach every reference as though they are the latter until they prove themselves to be the former. Remember: unless the guidelines (which you read, of course  you read them) specifically say otherwise, it is not the university’s responsibility to follow up on your references, your transcripts, or the fact that you are applying from a third-world country 12,000 miles away. Your future, your legwork.

3.Remember the “Dead” in “Deadline”

Deadlines are published, often early on, for a very good fucking reason. Their purpose is to establish a cutoff date for applications so the people behind the scenes can conduct their unpleasant, scatological rituals to determine who will be accepted into the cabal. If this graduate program is THE ONE for you, make note of this deadline and plan to submit everything at least two weeks prior to it. Why, you ask? To allow time to correct for mistakes. As mentioned earlier, references are unreliable. If you wait until the last minute to submit your materials, you won’t know if they actually came through for you until after the deadline has passed. Think of the deadline the way a skydiver thinks of the ground. If you don’t get everything in order before it hits (and you aren’t Peggy Hill), your graduate school plans will end their existence as a gooey, stinking crater.

Above: industry-standard response to all applicants inquiring post-deadline if all of their materials arrived.

4. You Do Not Deserve an Exception

I don’t give a shit if your host family’s only donkey broke all four legs while carrying your pompous Peace Corps carcass to the only mail depot in the entire country. Your reference swore you a blood oath over the corpse of their firstborn that they would have the letter in on time and still failed. You only took one class at that university back in 1764, and it was just some introduction to literature class, so you didn’t figure that the instructions (remember, the ones you read thoroughly because your ENTIRE FUCKING FUTURE might depend on following them correctly?) meant that one when they said to send in transcripts from every school you attended. All of these excuses, no matter how close to the truth they might be, do not fucking matter. If something cataclysmic happened that prevented you from getting your shit in, perhaps a stage 4 meltdown two blocks over, it might not be the best idea to careen headlong into a full-time, grueling graduate education before you get your life back in order. If you were just a short-sighted dipshit who just heard of the program two days ago and it’s only one day before the deadline, learn to plan ahead. Even if you are granted an exception to the deadline (which is just a hair shy of betting on the Infinite Improbability Drive to rescue you from the vacuum of space), you don’t fucking deserve it. Nobody does.

When you ask for one, I fantasize about appropriately-labeled physical violence.

Graduate school is a serious decision, one that can change your life forever (whether for better or for worse is a topic for another discussion). Plan out your application process like you would plan out your wedding, the purchase of your first house, or the acquisition of your first pet aquatic turtle. If you don’t, you will have nobody but yourself to blame (though, based on past experience, you will do your absolute fucking best to blame everyone else). If you still manage to get in despite your disgusting lack of regard for the ulcers you gave the university support staff as they coddled your ass, know that you have earned their unmitigated, undying enmity.

Categories: General