2208: Am I Better Than This?

I’ve been wracked with anxiety recently, as the more astute among you may have been able to tell. Partly this has been to do with my work situation — i.e. the fact that currently I don’t have a regular job. Thankfully, I don’t have zero income thanks to some regular freelance work I’ve been doing, but that is a little too erratic to be able to rely on completely.

As such, I’ve been looking for regular positions elsewhere. Having genuinely enjoyed my stint with Game over the Black Friday-Christmas period, I was looking into other retail positions around the place. I’ve actually had a couple of interviews in the past couple of days, but today in particular I was hit with a crisis of confidence. This is nothing unusual for me, but what was a little more unusual was the circumstances surrounding it.

Basically, what happened was this: I was speaking with the company’s area manager about my application and my background. The way the retailer in question does things is a bit different from the retailers I’ve previously worked for (Apple and Game) and he pointed this out. He then said something that gave me pause.

“Your previous job,” he said. “That sounds like it was the ideal job for you. Just speaking to you now, I can say that I’d be happy taking your advice and buying from you; you seem authoritative, knowledgeable and trustworthy.”

He wasn’t wrong; were it not for the low wages — the curse of retail in most instances — then I’d absolutely agree; my stints with both Apple and Game have been the jobs I’ve enjoyed most and derived the most satisfaction from in my “career”, such as it is. And that’s because I felt like I knew what I was doing: I understood the job, I felt comfortable with my responsibilities and as a result, I exuded confidence and passion when speaking with customers.

And that’s where the problem comes in. While interviewing for the positions in the last couple of days, I just felt… uncomfortable. And it was more than the usual sort of discomfort anyone feels when faced with unfamiliar circumstances: I got a very strong gut feeling that I’m Not Doing The Right Thing. And, for the first time in quite some time I felt inspired to look for something more: to look for something that I know I’ll be able to do well at, and preferably be paid appropriately for. I will, however, settle for something I’ll be happy and comfortable doing at this point, because that can always develop into something with better hours and/or pay.

I have the weekend to mull things over a bit but I think I’ll be taking a new approach from the start of next week. Rather than casting a wide net and hoping something sticks, I’ll be pursuing things I know I’ll be good at more aggressively. At the same time, I’ll be upping the tempo on some projects I’ve had on the go for a while: the magazine I shared with you all yesterday, some ideas for non-fiction games books, and many, many ideas for fiction books. I may even look into editing and self-publishing some of the fiction I’ve previously written on this blog as an experiment, and perhaps into using a service like Patreon to allow people who enjoy my work to show their appreciation.

This route will doubtless be harder and take longer to get going, but I want to be happy and satisfied in what I do. I’m tired of constantly falling off the “ladder” and having to start climbing all over again. There has to be a better way. I have to be better than this. I know I am better than this.

Big words, I know. Whether I’ll be able to follow through on them remains to be seen, but I feel that anything is better than settling for something that is convenient but miserable rather than rewarding and fulfilling.

2207: Proudly Flying the Flag for the Magazine Format

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Ladies and gents, I’m pleased to announce the very first issue of Digitally Downloaded: The Magazine, put together as a collaborative effort between me and Matt Sainsbury, head honcho of the site of the same name.

You can read the issue here for free, or hopefully it will embed below if the magic of the Internet does its thing properly:

The magazine is something Matt and I have been kicking around for a while now. We both have a background in print publications, and both have a strong preference towards the sort of long-form pieces you get in magazines. This kind of format is something which clickbait sites tend to discourage these days unless they’re being particularly provocative with the things they’re saying at length, so really starting this magazine was an opportunity for us to create something that we would want to read.

The broad intention behind the magazine is to “theme” each issue around a particular subject, then focus in on that subject with a main feature and a series of articles about games that typify the subject. In the inaugural issue, we went for the concept of the unreliable narrator: an established trope in literature, but one that games are just starting to get to grips with. Our investigations took us across the world, from Japanese visual novel Steins;Gate to “walking simulator” Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture via the chaotic genius of Deadly Premonition.

There are doubtless some kinks to work out (most notably the fact that the web-based reader appears to inexplicably cut some of the letters off on some of the page footers, seemingly at random, despite the source PDF looking just fine) but we’re planning on making this a regular — hopefully monthly — thing going forward, and we hope you’ll support and enjoy it.

A pre-emptive thank you for taking the time to read through our hard work, then, and we look forward to having more to share with you in the near future!

2206: Accentuate the Positive

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I’m feeling utterly shitty at the moment, but it doesn’t do to keep dwelling on things that, at this specific moment in time, I can do nothing about. Best to try and focus on some more positive aspects of life — which I can at least be thankful there are a couple of, albeit not that many right now.

It was Slimming World this evening, and not only did I drop 4.5lb this week — successfully shifting the bit I gained last week and then some — but Andie and I were voted “Couple of the Year” by the group for being an inspiration to others. (Andie wasn’t actually present at the meeting as she’s not well and currently asleep at the time of writing, but the thought was there.)

My weight loss efforts with Slimming World have continued to surprise and, dare I say it, delight me. While the instances of me really, really craving something like a cinnamon bun seem to have increased a little recently — I blame the stress, since I always turned to food as a means of making myself feel better — on the whole I still don’t really feel like I’m particularly missing out on anything. I’ve learned to like sugar-free/diet drinks (although Diet Coke is still shit; Diet Pepsi for life) and not to drink milk by the gallon; I’ve learned to control my bread intake; I’ve learned ways it’s possible to enjoy favourite foods without making them enormously calorific and fatty.

And, over the course of the last year — almost to the day — I’ve lost over 6 stone in weight, which is like, a whole kid’s worth of weight. A stone is actually pretty heavy; our previous group consultant used to bring in various sandbags weighing a pound, half a stone, a stone and so forth so we could physically feel how much weight we were carrying around or losing, and lifting up the “stone” one was rather enlightening; when I think that I’ve lost six of those, I think several things: firstly, I’m not surprised I was feeling exhausted when doing something as simple as walking up stairs, and secondly, wow, that is a lot of weight.

I’m still not quite where I want to be — and I suspect I’m going to have to do some sort of “toning” work when I am at the weight I want to reach to prevent having too many unsightly flappy bits — but I can, at least, point to my weight loss efforts as one single thing in my life that is actually going in the direction I want it to go in. I can only hope that more positivity will eventually radiate out from there. Eventually. Maybe.

2205: No End in Sight

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Regular readers will know that I’m going through a bit of a Rough Patch at the minute, to say the least. Tonight it’s hitting me particularly hard, for various reasons that I shan’t go into in detail. I wanted to talk a little more generally, as I find this often helps me sort things out in my mind a bit.

The thing that’s making me feel particularly bleak right now is that it feels like there’s no end in sight for this Rough Patch. I don’t know how to resolve it; I don’t know how to “fix” it. I feel like I’ve messed up — not once, not twice, but repeatedly, and I’m now reaping the anti-rewards that are the consequence of all the things I’ve done wrong in my life, all the poor choices I’ve made.

For sure, I know that I have made plenty of poor choices along the way, but many of them didn’t seem like it at the time — and rationally speaking, I also know that I’m not the only one to blame for my current situation. The blame for that can be laid at the feet of a wide variety of people, including me, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with — particularly as many of the non-me people that I blame for this situation are essentially “untouchable” despite me wanting nothing more than to at the very least yell at them and, were I feeling particularly feisty that day, slug them one right in the face.

Mostly I’m just frustrated because I’m not sure I deserve this. I feel like I have plenty to offer the world, and no way of making it clear to everyone that I matter, that I have value. I have friends and family, sure — both local and far-away — and that knowledge, to an extent, takes care of part of my emotional well-being, but it doesn’t pay the bills, and it doesn’t give me a sense of satisfaction that I am, in any way, making the most of my existence. Were I to drop dead tomorrow, 1) would anyone notice? and 2) would I be remembered for anything particularly worthwhile? Again, rationally speaking, I know the answer to both of those questions is probably “yes” — and I’m not planning on dropping dead tomorrow — but it’s difficult to remember that sometimes when you find yourself struggling to stay afloat.

I really don’t know what to do any more. For every bit of progress I feel like I make, I suffer some sort of setback. I end up not going anywhere — and, in the worst case, going backwards. When I left university, I was a teacher earning over £25k a year. Later, I had my dream job of writing about games for slightly less than that. Now I’m looking at retail jobs with wages of a relative pittance in comparison, on the grounds that 1) I feel like I can do them and 2) that’s all I feel like I can convince prospective employers I’m good for. (Not that there’s anything wrong with retail, obviously; it just feels like all that education was a bit of a waste, is all.)

I’ll figure something out. Bad things have happened to me before and I made it through. And on those past occasions, it felt like I was drowning in black tar, with no means of escape visible in any direction — and yet I still did. I have no reason to believe this time will be any different; it’s just a matter of when I can see the shoreline at the edge of this inky sea. At the moment it’s somewhere beyond the horizon.

2204: Elite

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I spent a chunk of today trying out Elite Dangerous: Horizons. This was actually pretty much my first experience with Elite: Dangerous generally, aside from giving the tutorials a go yesterday, but I felt I was long overdue to try it out, particularly as I had bemoaned the lack of a good Star Trek game the other day. Elite is not a good Star Trek game, but it is one hell of a space sim. And, for once, that “sim” part seems apt; this certainly isn’t an arcade-style dogfighting game, as evidenced by the fact that in several hours of play today, I didn’t fire a single shot.

I used to really enjoy space games back in the 16-bit era — particularly those of a more free-form nature such as Paul Woakes’ Mercenary series, Rainbird’s Starglider series (particularly the enormously ambitious second installment) and, indeed, the original Elite. I say that — Elite is actually one that I never quite managed to get my head around when I was young, because there was a lot of things to think about while you were playing, and pages full of numbers that confused and bewildered me. Also docking with those spinning space stations was fucking impossible, so every time I tried I usually ended up quitting in disgust after smashing my ship to smithereens on the space station you start near.

I made the mistake of reading a few Steam reviews of Elite: Dangerous before giving it a go; while there are a few fair criticisms there, there’s also a whole lot of whining about 1) not knowing what to do and 2) Frontier’s business model for the game which, if you’re unfamiliar, sees them essentially re-releasing the game at full price each year with the promise of a year’s worth of major updates to the game systems. It’s perhaps better to think of it as a yearly subscription fee, particularly as the game has a significant massively multiplayer element for those who care to engage with it.

Anyway. Discarding the Steam reviews and jumping in to try things out for myself, I was quickly enraptured by the feeling of flying my Sidewinder. I even unplugged the 360 controller and plugged in my 11-button joystick; it’s no full HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) setup, admittedly, but it feels great when used in a game like this, particularly with the lovely visual feedback the game gives you with regard to movement: unlike the original Elite, whose cockpit was a static bitmap with a viewport into the flat-shaded 3D polygonal universe outside (I was playing the Atari ST version, so it had colours!), Elite: Dangerous’ cockpit is set up to feel like you’re actually sitting in it. Handling the controls causes your viewpoint to shift slightly according to how you’re moving; it tilts when you roll, pulls forward and back when you speed up and slow down, and pulls up and down when you pitch. Given the game has been designed for virtual reality headsets from the get-go, it’s understandable that the game would model head movement pretty well, but I’m glad to see that even when playing on a flat (admittedly large) TV screen it still looks very convincing.

What I’ve found most satisfying about the game so far is the moment-to-moment simulation of flying your ship. Everything you do is just satisfying to pull off, just for the sake of doing it. Especially fun is taking off and landing from various structures and space stations — and, in Horizons, you can now land on planets, too, either at settlements with dedicated landing facilities or just on the ground if you find a suitably smooth patch of terrain to set down. The handling of the ship is beautiful; pulling the stick around feels like you’re wrenching a big, slightly unwieldy lump of metal around in zero- or low-gravity, and the sound design, where you hear your thrusters firing and your engines throbbing according to whatever you’re doing, is absolutely impeccable. There’s even a wonderful crescendo of your engines reverberating off the ground and surroundings as you set down for landing; it is, I think, the most convincing depiction of plausible pure sci-fi space travel I’ve seen for a very long time, perhaps ever.

The most common criticism of Elite: Dangerous is that it’s “a mile wide and an inch deep”, and I can kind of see where that’s coming from: interactions with NPCs are rather sterile and menu driven, though later updates look set to put “faces” to significant characters in the universe. There’s no prescribed narrative, either; you can get involved in the PowerPlay mechanic to swear allegiance to one of the various factions attempting to control the universe, which actually has a significant effect of the game for all players, but there’s no “story” to follow as such besides that which you make for yourself.

In many ways, I think I sort of prefer that for Elite, though; while I do love a bit of story in my space games a la Wing Commander and the like, when playing something as freeform as Elite a story can kind of get in the way a bit, making you feel obliged to go and do certain things rather than exploring the galaxy at your own pace, making a name for yourself however you see fit.

I’ll be interested to see if Elite holds my attention, but for now, it certainly feels like the space game I’ve wanted to play since I was a kid.

2203: Pete Reacts to Growing Older

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A significant proportion of the Internet has been up in arms over a recent copyright kerfuffle on YouTube recently, where a collective I’ve never heard of called the Fine Bros had apparently attempted to trademark the word “react”. Digging deeper, it seems that the Fine Bros had done this ostensibly as a means of trademarking the concept of “reaction videos” and allowing others to make videos in the same format — one which the group have had plenty of success with in the past — while allowing themselves an opportunity to profit from licensing fees.

Leaving aside the whole ethical implications of attempting to trademark a common word such as “react” — one of several different “brands” that Fine Bros had attempted to trademark, theoretically as a catch-all term to encompass any specific series they might concoct in the near future — this whole debacle brought one thing into sharp focus for me, and that is that there are certain aspects of modern popular culture that I simply don’t understand the appeal of whatsoever.

The concept of a reaction video is simple. You show some people — preferably from a specific demographic such as “teenagers” or “the elderly” — a thing that is Shocking in some way, then you film what they do while they’re watching or looking at the thing that is Shocking. Early examples of reaction videos included various instances of people seeing the notorious “2 Girls 1 Cup” video (for heaven’s sake, don’t Google that if you’ve never heard of it) as well as well-known shocking scenes from TV or online videos such as Game of Thrones’ “Red Wedding” scene.

Trouble is, in the few reaction videos I’ve managed to stomach, it all feels so painfully forced as to not be entertaining. No-one I know whoops and hollers at the television, bellowing “OH MY GOD!” as something shocking happens. The most do when seeing something shocking is flinch and wince at something gory, particularly if it involves eyes, but I don’t shout and scream or anything. (That said, given the general difficulty I have with expressing emotions clearly when I’m “in person”, I may not be the most representative example, but none of the people I know are like this either.) In other words, it doesn’t seem believable, with the whole situation being so contrived as to seem utterly pointless.

And aside from the implausibility of some reactions, I simply don’t see the appeal whatsoever. Why on Earth would I want to watch a group of people gathered around a TV that I can’t see all screeching and gesturing at something I may or may not already be familiar with? And, by extension, why on Earth would anyone want to trademark such an utterly inane concept on the arrogant assumption that other people would want to pay them for the dubious privilege of churning out more culturally bankrupt tat like this?

I guess you can just add reaction videos to the ever-lengthening list of things that I just don’t “get” in modern online life. It joins the illustrious ranks of Twitch chat, Twitch in general (unless you’re hanging out with an actual friend), MOBAs, unboxing videos and doubtless a whole bunch of other things I’m not even familiar with yet.

I’m 34 years of age. Some days I feel like I’m still 16. Today, however, I’m feeling every one of those years. Now get off my fucking lawn.

2202: Three Games I’d Like to See Made

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Posting my piece about Neptunia games I’d like to see the other day got me thinking more broadly about other interactive experiences I’d like to indulge in, should they ever be made. (Or perhaps they already exist, in which case please do let me know in the comments and I will investigate!)

The following games either don’t exist at all, or the last time they were properly explored in gaming — in my opinion, anyway — was far too long ago for my liking. So here we go, then:

A proper spy game

I downloaded Sid Meier’s Covert Action from GOG.com a while back when it was on sale for some ludicrously low price, and discovered that it was an immensely satisfying, fascinating game with a number of distinct facets. I wrote in detail about the game a while back, but for those of you too lazy to click through, the elevator pitch is thus:

You are Max (or Maxine) Remington, an agent. A Dastardly Plot is about to unfold in the world, and it’s up to you to stop it. Ideally, you will find out what is going on before it happens, arrest everyone involved and follow the trail of clues to find the Mastermind behind it all. You will then repeat the process until all the Masterminds there are in the world are behind bars — or until you give up at the ludicrous level of difficulty the game escalates to on its higher settings.

Covert Action incorporates a variety of game styles ranging from puzzle (phone tapping) to code-breaking, car chases and top-down action-stealth-adventuring. While clunky by modern standards, it’s an extremely clever game that, in true Sid Meier tradition, is busily simulating a whole bunch of things happening in the background while you appear to be doing something relatively simple. None of it is pre-scripted, either; each case you get is randomly generated, so there’s no easy way to find the solution other than putting in the hard graft yourself.

To cut a long story short, we need a new Covert Action. There have been spy-themed games, sure — the most memorable of which for me is, without a doubt, Alpha Protocol — but these tend to be more scripted and action movie-like, rather than focusing on the interesting but perhaps less glamorous aspects of the job. I want a spy game where it’s rare you’ll pull your gun on anyone; I want a spy game that’s more about setting up surveillance and investigating than shooting terrorists; I want a spy game where it feels like I’m a spy, not an action movie hero. (To put it another way: I want a spy game where it feels like I’m old-school James Bond, rather than new-school James Bond.)

A good Star Trek game

There’s plenty of space games around, since they’ve been making a bit of a resurgence over the last few years. With the success of Elite: Dangerous and the anticipation for No Man’s Sky, the time is surely ripe for a new Star Trek game to hit the market.

Oh, there are a couple of relatively recent Star Trek games around, of course, but neither of these quite scratch the itch I have. Star Trek Online is a massively multiplayer online RPG, with everything that entails — including lots of grinding and free-to-play monetisation that requires you to pay up for the coolest ships rather than earning them — while Star Trek Timelines is a mobile game with everything that entails — including lots of grinding and free-to-pla… you get the idea.

Neither of these games are particularly bad as such — though Star Trek Timelines’ use of the obnoxious playtime-limiting “Energy” system that I really wish would die a horrible death is something I find hard to forgive — but neither of them are quite right. Both have good aspects: Star Trek Online has a great feeling of taking your ship around the galaxy, exploring uncharted areas and engaging in battle, while Star Trek Timelines presents you with some interesting non-combat scenarios to deal with, albeit only in text form. The trouble is, neither of them go far enough in simulating what it’s like to be a crewman on a Starfleet vessel.

There are a few approaches I’d like to see a new Star Trek game take. Firstly and perhaps most obviously is a starship bridge simulator. I know these exist and are available on GOG.com, but with modern technology it would be possible to do something far more impressive — and perhaps even multiplayer, a la Artemis Starship Bridge Simulator.

Another possible approach is something along the lines of Spectrum Holobyte’s elderly Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity, which combined starship operations (including combat and power management) with point-and-click adventuring down on planet surfaces. While the combat and engineering sections on the ship ended up feeling a little superfluous when compared to the game’s narrative aspects — particularly as you could put them both on automatic without penalty — the whole thing felt suitably authentic as an interactive episode of The Next Generation, and ripe for updating.

I guess one of the main issues with the Star Trek license is that there’s not a current TV series running to tie it in with, so it would probably have to be an original work, perhaps with guest appearances from established characters. That’s not an issue for me, so long as it feels like Star Trek, but for some fans it may not be acceptable.

I believe there is talk of a new Star Trek series of some description coming soon, though, so it will be interesting to see if anything interactive comes of it. Anything’s better than that dreadful third-person shooter that came out for consoles a year or two back and was promptly completely forgotten about…

A game about running a school

There are tons of management games out there, but outside of an extremely peculiar mobile game by Kairosoft called Pocket Academy, I don’t recall all that many that focus on educational institutions, and I think this is something that would be ripe for the interactive treatment.

SimSchool, as we’ll call it, has a considerable degree of scope to be a much more “personal” strategy game than many other management sims, since although running a school does include the standard stuff like budgeting, staffing and training, a key part of what keeps a school running effectively is interpersonal communications, rapports and morale.

In SimSchool, you’d play the new, young headmaster of a school that was struggling, and you’d have a certain amount of time to set things right. In true strategy game tradition, you’d be able to set up various conditions at the beginning of the game such as the affluence of the area the school is in, the size of the school, when it was built, its condition and suchlike, and have the game create a challenge for you accordingly.

As you worked your way through a campaign, you’d not only have to perform managerial duties to keep the establishment in the black and keep an eye on the day-to-day operations of the school, but you’d also have to interact with students, staff and parents in order to keep them happy. There’d be dialogue sequences in which you’d have to negotiate things and determine the best way to handle problem children — sometimes you’d even have to convince the local authority that the decision you’d made was the right one for the greater good. And, on the harder difficulty levels, you’d also have to contend with various “disasters” that make your life more difficult — this is a Sim game, after all!

My time working in schools was hellish, and I have no desire to return — but that doesn’t mean I don’t still find them interesting places. A game like this has a lot of scope to be an interesting twist on the strategy-management genre, and I’d certainly love to play it.