1562: Soul-Searching

Unsurprisingly, yesterday’s bad news has prompted a certain degree of soul-searching. The reality of the situation still doesn’t quite feel like it has hit me yet. I’m depressed, yes, but it doesn’t quite feel “real”, if you know what I mean.

I’ve been taking advantage of this calm before the inevitable storm to do a bit of pondering about what I might want to do next, or how I might want to do it. And so far I’ve pondered the following options.

  • Teaching. No. Nope. No no no. Never. No. I may have all the relevant qualifications, but the last two times I tried teaching it had an enormously negative impact on my mental health. I enjoy teaching, but all the other stuff that goes with it — primarily to do with behaviour management — is just too stressful to even contemplate.
  • Private music teaching. Possible, but difficult to become established, plus the fact that I don’t have 1) my own transport (Andie and I currently share a car), 2) a real piano to teach at home or 3) a particularly suitable space to teach in. So I think that’s out, at least for now.
  • Attempting to return to a previous career in a certain tech-related retail chain. That door closed a long time ago, despite the fact that I’m clearly eminently qualified and good at it. This was evidenced by the fact that I made superb progress on a previous attempt to return, the management of the store I was applying to were enormously enthusiastic, then they abruptly and bluntly turned me down without giving a reason after contacting my previous management. (We parted on poor terms after I made an official complaint about certain managers’ workplace bullying.) That copy-book is forever blotted.
  • Freelancing. Not a terrible idea, but it brings with it a considerable degree of hassle, plus an unreliable paycheque each month. Successful freelancing involves endless pitching and hoping, writing content to tight deadlines if you do happen to be successful, having to do your own taxes (ugh) and occasional sleepless nights of despair as you note your bank balance is going steadily down and hasn’t gone up for a very long time indeed.
  • A permanent position on another site or magazine. Obviously this would be the ideal solution, since it would make for a relatively seamless transition from what I’m doing now. The trouble is, very few places are hiring right now; even new sites such as Kotaku UK already have a staff in place, while others have a well-established network of writers; others still prefer to recruit quietly from their extended network rather than prominently displaying their available positions. So while achieving this would be ideal, actually doing so may be challenging. Still, feelers are being put out.
  • Broadening my remit. I write about games. I haven’t written about anime, TV or tech professionally but I’ve had plenty of practice on this site and know I could do a good job. Question is, do I want to?
  • The shift that all games journalists seem to make at one point or another. A lot of games journalists end up in PR for some unknown reason — the better pay probably being a significant contributing factor. I know I could do a good job of PR with the skillset I have; the difficulty here is in convincing recruiters of that fact when I don’t have any practical experience.
  • Taking a risk, Part 1. I have a number of books in me, both fiction and non-fiction. I could try and write those, but actually “making it” — i.e. being able to make enough money to survive — with one will be a challenge, particularly in today’s crowded marketplace. It would have to be something great, unusual or both to stand out. Or perhaps I should write some vampire teen romance. Is that still fashionable?
  • Taking a risk, Part 2. One thing that came out of my announcing that I was leaving USgamer was that a lot of people reached out to me on Twitter and said that they were thankful for the unique perspective (among mainstream games journalism, anyway) that I provided on Japanese gaming. One went so far as to say that I understand the games they like and why they like them, which is exactly what I was hoping to achieve with my work. These people got me thinking: is there a market for specialist writing like this? Could I somehow do it full-time (or near-as-dammit) through something like Patreon? I don’t know how viable Patreon is as a platform — I’m yet to really see any successful projects from it — but it’s an interesting possibility at least. It’s also a big risk.

So that’s where I am now. There are also a number of options that have flowed through my mind but which are impractical at this particular juncture due to my lacking some relevant skills — things like working in localisation for Japanese games, for example. I don’t know where I’ll end up or what I’ll end up doing, but I sincerely hope it is sooner rather than later.

Wish me luck. Oh, and wish me happy birthday while you’re on.

1461: Day After Day

Jan 18 -- 1461Every so often when I sit down to write this blog thing every day, I look at the number before the post title and think “bloody hell, that’s a lot of posts.” Then I think “bloody hell, that’s quite a long time I’ve been doing this.”

Of course, given that my day job involves writing lots of things every day, it’s perhaps arguable whether or not having written a single post on here every day for the last 1,461 days is as impressive as it once was, but I like to think it still shows a certain degree of dedication and commitment on my part. And, given that I’m not the sort of person who spends a lot of time thinking particularly good things about themselves, that’s one thing with concrete evidence that I can specifically point to and say “yes, that’s good; that’s something I can be pleased with.”

I feel doubly pleased when I think back to how this all started. For those who have joined me recently, the basic gist was this: a few UK-based writers got together and decided to write something every day, initially for a year. I joined quite late in January in that first year, and haven’t stopped since. Interestingly, a significant number of the people who started that first year also gave up very quickly — the person I regard as the “founder” simply bowed out with a tweet that said “fuck #oneaday” one day and never picked it up again — but others stuck it out for most or even all of that first year.

Following that, I managed to organise a ragtag group of bloggers into a group who helped motivate each other somewhat, and in the process we raised a bit of money for charity. Again, though, relatively few people made it through the whole year, but I stood firm. Now, to my knowledge, I’m the only one of the original participants from either of those first couple of years to still be blogging on a daily basis and while I may not always have a lot of meaningful things to say, I still sit down and write every day, regardless.

Because it wasn’t necessarily about writing something meaningful or useful. It was just about writing. As with any creative endeavour, regardless of how ambitious it is, the only way to get better and refine your craft is to continue doing it as often as possible. You might just discover a few things about yourself in the process.

For my part, I’ve discovered — well, confirmed, really — that writing is a good outlet for me. If stress and anxiety is starting to build up in my head, as it often does, writing this post each day is a good means of venting some of that steam. I don’t even necessarily have to write specifically about what I’m stressed or anxious about; if you look back to the period on this blog where my marriage was falling apart and I was in a seriously bad place mental health-wise, you’ll notice that a lot of the posts are considerably more creative than they perhaps are now. I don’t think this is coincidental at all; misery appears to beget creativity, which may account for the whole “tortured artist” stereotype.

Note: I do not advocate the seeking out of misery purely to get your own creative juices flowing, but if, for whatever reason, you’re not in a good place, use that negative energy to make something. It doesn’t have to be good. But it can help.

Anyway. I think that’s enough blabbering on for now. Just another day in the increasingly long list.

1325: Focal Point

I’m sure any writer pals reading this can probably relate, judging from some things I’ve read recently: it is infinitely easier to focus on negative things than it is about positive ones. And those negative things absolutely dominate your thoughts, almost completely obliterating any good work the positive things might have done.

Let’s take an example. Recently, I wrote a lengthy article about “otaku games” — that particularly misunderstood aspect of Japanese gaming where people who don’t play them constantly judge them as being nothing more than pervy fanservice. To be fair to their opinion, there often is a fair amount of pervy fanservice in them, but it’s pretty rare that is the sole or even the most important part of them. Check out the piece here.

On the whole, response to the post has been very positive. I’ve been very happy to hear from a lot of fans of Japanese gaming who thanked me for giving a reasoned, rational take on the subject — with input from people who are actually involved in bringing these titles to the West — and for treating both the games and their fans with respect. I’ve had people tell me it’s a wonderful article, compliment me on covering something that other sites don’t bother with (or take the more common “This is Bad and Wrong, LOL JAPAN” stance on) and generally express a very genuine-feeling sense of appreciation for something I worked hard on.

So what do I find my brain focusing on? The guy who tweeted at me saying “TLDR” (seriously, that is pretty much one of the most disrespectful things you can say to a writer, especially when they’ve worked hard on something — try giving some constructive criticism or, even better, actually engaging with the points made in the piece), and the commenter who complained about me “not talking about the game” in my Tales of Xillia review and lambasting me for promoting an “incest simulator” in an article about visual novels. (Said “incest simulator” was Kana Little Sister, an incredibly moving work which I’ve written about at length in a number of places on the Internet; to refer to it as an “incest simulator” in a distinctly Daily Mail/Jack Thompson-esque way shows an astonishing lack of understanding, my keen awareness of which was what inspired me to write the “otaku games” piece in the first place.)

I wish I didn’t feel this way, but it made me feel somewhat better to read this piece over on Hookshot, Inc recently. Here’s what was, for me, the most pertinent part:

“Reader feedback is, in many ways, wonderful. It pulls writers down from pedestals and/or ivory towers, and it democratises a whole medium. Every voice is heard, and charlatans are uprooted. A culture of reader-fear has, arguably, been fostered – but ultimately people raise their game, and those much-suspected dirty deals are (by my reckoning) far less likely to occur today than they were five years ago.

“The problem is that all this is incredibly unhealthy for writers with… what you might call an ‘amiably complex psychological disposition’. I’m one of these people (it’s hugely common in my field – and indeed any creative arena) and I couldn’t even count how many of my working days have been ruined by an angry person venting steam beneath a piece I’ve written. The black dog starts barking, and your creative mojo runs away.

“Sure, the trolls are generally a minority – but when your mind has been built to concentrate on negativity rather than happy, happy, joy, joy (and you work at home, on your own) then comments threads are a mental plague pit.

“As a writer – what can you do about this? Well, you can start making your review scores more conservative for a start. Oh, and you can definitely avoid rocking boats that contain angry devotees of certain platforms, genres and franchises. Oh, and how about excising all humour for fear of miscomprehension from angry dullards you’ll never meet?


“So basically: say what you want to say, and suck it up. There’s no wrong opinions, only a lot of people who think you should be fired for having a right one.”

I was simultaneously surprised, delighted and slightly depressed to read that. I wish it didn’t have to be that way, and I wish it was possible to train oneself to be more like, say, Jim Sterling — someone whom I greatly admire for his no-nonsense attitude and at least outward appearance of having thick skin. (For all I know, Sterling might finish his day job and cry himself to sleep over the torrents of abuse he receives on a daily basis, and I wouldn’t blame him if that were so — but I somehow doubt that’s the case anyway.)

Ah well, as Will Porter writes in that excellent Hookshot piece — seriously, go read it if you have a few minutes — the only real thing we, as writers, can do is say what we want to say and suck it up somehow. If we start sanitising our own opinions, thoughts and even writing styles to appease the lowest common denominator in the comments threads, then the world of writing would be a boring one indeed.

1260: Which Way?

To be perfectly frank with you, dear reader, I sometimes feel like I’m running out of things to write about on this ‘ere blog.

It’s not true at all, of course — there’s always something to write about, however niche interest it might be. But on more than one occasion I’ve sat down to write and wondered if it was really worth talking about the thing I feel like talking about. My usual response to this particular mental block is just to say “fuck it” and write it anyway, with the usual disclaimer that anything I write here is my own personal opinion and does not reflect the opinions of etc. etc. you know the drill from a million and one Twitter bios.

I do sometimes question why I’m still writing this. This is the 1,260th day since I started writing something on this blog every single day, and my reasons for writing have changed considerably over that time.

Actually, I’m not sure that’s entirely true; my reasons for writing here have always been nothing more noble than “for personal satisfaction” and “to have something interesting to do”. My feelings towards the things I’m writing have obviously changed in parallel with my life situation at various times, however: when I first started blogging daily, I was still working in teaching and having a thoroughly miserable time; this then proceeded through my 2010 trip to PAX East, a mini-vacation that I maintain is one of the most carefree, happy times I’ve ever experienced; through the breakup of my marriage; the general collapse of my life as a whole and the subsequent rebuilding thereof.

I find it quite interesting to look back every so often and see the course my life has taken, whether that’s through manually navigating to fondly-remembered posts — yes, even with 1,260 daily posts, I still have specific favourites and can usually navigate to them fairly quickly — or clicking the “Random Post” button at the top of the screen.

One thing I have found is that I was at my most creative when I was at my most miserable. I won’t lie to you, dear reader, I most certainly haven’t shaken off the Black Dog of depression by any means, but I’m a lot better than the emotional wreck I was during the downfall of my marriage. But while I have absolutely no desire to return to those dark days, I do find it intriguing that I found it a lot easier to come up with creative, funny, off-the-wall posts when I was suffering. Perhaps it was a defence mechanism: putting up a barrier around the pain I was feeling in an attempt to not “bring down” everyone around me; perhaps it was just a way of attempting to make myself feel better. I don’t know. Whatever it was, I miss it in a perverse sort of way; the flashes of inspiration I had in those days don’t come quite as often as they once did.

Said flashes of inspiration were three years ago, though, so it’s entirely possible that I’m just older and wiser(?) or, at the very least, just older. I don’t really feel that different, though; perhaps it’s a subtle thing. The evidence is there, after all.

Anyway, I’ve pontificated for long enough about nothing at all, but at least it’s given me an entry for today. I am tired now. I think it is time to go to sleep. Good night!

1239: I Think I’m Actually Dying

Hello. It is 1:43 in the morning and I am still at work. I am actually in an office doing work, too — the nature of my new job means that I can actually pop in to the Eurogamer offices in Brighton on occasion and feel like I actually work with other people (when in fact my real colleagues are several thousand miles away, but eh.)

The reason it is 1:43 in the morning and I am still at work is because it is E3. I have been working since 11am yesterday, and I will likely continue working until approximately 4am, at which point I have to drive back to Southampton, which will take nearly two hours. Thankfully, this is the only day that this much crap is going on at E3, so I can live with it for now.

I can also live with it because I’m actually enjoying myself. I can tell I enjoy my job because I think about writing things for it when I’m not “on the clock,” as it were. I want to post things. I want to talk about games. It’s great fun. The other people who work with me on USgamer feel the same way, too, and we’re building a great site through our collective enthusiasm and knowledge.

Speaking of USgamer, the site’s now live after a somewhat hectic day. The sites have been up and down all day for various reasons, but they currently seem somewhat stable. Check it out here. Enjoy! And that’s all I’m going to write for now, because I need to conserve my energy somewhat!

1229: What’s Next

May 31 -- SqueeThose of you who have me on some form of social media will know this already, but I’ve started my new job. Excitingly, this is the first ever new job I’ve had that was accompanied by an official press release. Yes, really — check it out.

For those of you too lazy to check out that link I’ve so graciously provided for you, allow me to explain as much as I’m able to at present.

You may be familiar with the video games website Eurogamer, home of some fine commentary on games, the games industry and all manner of other things. Eurogamer is one of the few European (specifically, British) sites that has risen to prominence amid the dominance of primarily American publications such as Gamespot, IGN, Kotaku and Polygon. However, one thing Eurogamer lacked — as you might expect from the name — is a presence in the US.

Enter USgamer, a new site set to launch into beta next week, and a site on which I’m officially acting as News Editor, but in practice will be contributing a whole lot of lovely stuff to on a regular basis. USgamer will be more than just a reskin of Eurogamer — it’s going to be a great, very distinctive site, but you’ll have to wait until next week to see exactly how and why it’s great.

I’ve been preparing some content this week in preparation for the site’s launch, and I’ve been surprised how refreshing it’s been. After over a year of writing about mobile and social games — a good 80% of which were total bobbins — it’s an absolute pleasure to be able to get my teeth back into writing about the industry as a whole, and specifically to explore, criticise and wax lyrical on the parts I’m truly passionate about.

It pains me a little to admit, but there were times when I was ashamed to be associated with the mobile and social side of things. There are too many companies out there peddling products that are just flat-out sleazy in the ways they attempt to coerce their audience into paying exorbitant amounts of money for “consumable” digital goods; in the way they shamelessly clone other people’s work (or even, in some cases — *cough*Kabam*cough* — their own); or in their gross, misleading, often sexist or otherwise offensive advertising (Hai, Wartune!). I made a point of calling out these objectionable titles whenever possible, but I fear my criticisms may have fallen on deaf ears in most instances. So long as you keep pulling in the monthly and daily active users, it seems, it doesn’t matter if you steal a bit of artwork here, outright lie about your game there, charge £70 for in-app purchases everywhere.

The mainstream games industry isn’t free of sleaze and anti-consumer practices, of course, but at least it’s easier to avoid, whereas it’s fast becoming the norm in mobile and social, disappointingly. But I digress. My thoughts on social games and how they fail to cater to lifelong gamers have been well-documented.

No, the thing that is nicest about my new position at USgamer is the fact that I get to write about things I truly care about. I’m currently preparing a feature on the history of a particular game genre (find out what soon!), for example, and I’d forgotten quite how enjoyable it is to research and put together pieces like this. Gaming is a rich and diverse art form, and it’s exciting to look back on how far things have come since the inception of the medium. It’s also exciting to look forward to the future and imagine where we might be in a year or two — and it’s also exciting to explore the sheer breadth of content that’s available now. For every Call of Duty, there’s an Ar Tonelico, Fez, a Dungeons of Dredmor, a Long Live the Queen, a Deadly Premonition… there’s certainly more to talk about than one person could ever manage in a lifetime, and new things happening all the time.

As you can probably tell, I’m very excited about this new position and about the site as a whole. I’m aware of the irony of me — an Englishman in, well, England — writing for a site called “USgamer”, but I’m extremely happy to be working with the team that’s in place, which includes some industry veterans as well as some old colleagues from my days on GamePro. It’s going to be a fantastic site once it’s up and running and available to the public, and I can’t wait to show it to you when it goes live.

1187: Dev Diary 4

This is actually more of a “writing diary” rather than a dev diary, because I’d like to talk specifically about the way I write, and how this relates to the game I’ve been making.

I’ve never been the sort of writer who plans things out in exhaustive detail. I know, I know, this is probably woefully self-evident from the nonsensical ramblings I’ve been posting here for the last 1,187 days (and more occasionally beforehand, too) but it works for me. It got me through all of school, all of university and what has so far been a relatively lucrative career in writing professionally.

Note that I’m not saying I don’t plan things out at all. (Although some better planning would have probably avoided that awkward double negative right there.) No, instead what I tend to do is get things firmly in my mind in fairly broad terms, then “fill in the blanks” as I go along. It’s not quite writing by the seat of my pants, but it’s also not doing a detailed, bullet-pointed list of every single point I’m going to cover over the course of the complete piece. It gives me a sense of structure, but also allows me the flexibility to veer off in another direction if I want to. Those of you who have read my past month-long creative writing endeavours on this site will have likely spotted the points in the (largely improvised) narratives where I had what I thought was a great idea at the time and proceeded down that path with gay abandon, sometimes to discover I’d written myself into a corner and promptly had to dig my way out somehow. (Oh, God. I shouldn’t have said that. You’ll all be looking for those moments now.)

Anyway, how does this relate to One Year Later? Well, quite a lot, as it happens. Writing an interactive game isn’t quite the same as writing a novel. Even writing a visual novel isn’t quite the same as writing a regular novel, since you (usually) have to deal with branching plot paths and whatnot. In the case of One Year Later, there is a linear path of “story beats”, for want of a better word, but each of those has several different possible things that could happen, and within those several different possible happenings comes a series of optional things that people might not see at all. These optional things let me play with various aspects of the characters while still allowing the plot to continue moving forwards.

This is all very vague, as I’m trying not to spoil things, but let me give you a specific example to make things a bit clearer.

Who wouldn't want to go and have breakfast with Dax here?
Who wouldn’t want to go and have breakfast with Dax here?

Early in the game, the protagonist Amarysse wakes up bright and early in the morning and goes out into the city. As she’s leaving the inn where she’s staying, she’s accosted by Dax, one of the other main characters, who invites her to go for breakfast with him. If she accepts, they go for breakfast, they have a nice chat and various tidbits of information about both Ami and Dax are revealed, after which time passes and it becomes the afternoon. If she refuses (or, more accurately, defers his invitation until she has all the information available to make a decision) then she can go out into the city streets, where she comes across Feena, another one of the main characters, who invites her to go shopping. The player can only pick one or the other during this particular “time slot” of the game; both focus on Ami and a different main character, and both have the potential to reveal some new information, but they also exclude each other.

Someone who wants to go shopping with Feena, obviously.
Someone who wants to go shopping with Feena, obviously.

This, naturally, presents a challenge in later scenes, where I can’t really refer to information in scenes that the player might not have seen. However, what I can do is use the built-in game mechanics to determine whether or not Ami knows about a particular subject, and if she does, trigger some different (or additional) dialogue to if she was discovering this information for the first time. An example of this comes if Ami chose to speak to Feena earlier in the game and revealed the information that Feena is, for some reason, not as happy as she could be. In game terms, hearing this information for the first time rewards Ami with a “topic” item called “Feena’s Worries”; later, asking Feena specifically about it when given the opportunity upgrades the topic item with new information (she’s not happy with her work), allowing Ami to then automatically pick up on little things that Feena says about her work and put them in context — something that she doesn’t do if she doesn’t have any knowledge of the topic at all, or if she doesn’t know that the thing that’s making Feena antsy is her work.

It’s very interesting (and challenging!) to write this way, as it really forces me to think about the characters and how they might have interacted in the past, and how that might inform their future interactions. One Year Later is a game all about dialogue and interpersonal relationships, so it’s important to get this right. I hope I do!

This particular piece of dialogue only shows up if, indeed, Amarysse discovered Feena's real age the previous night -- an optional bit of dialogue that some players might miss.
This particular piece of dialogue only shows up if, indeed, Amarysse discovered Feena’s real age the previous night — an optional piece of information that some players might miss.

What this brings me on to is something I suddenly noticed very consciously earlier on while writing some optional, missable incidental dialogue between Ami and Feena: I very much get “into character” while writing.

I say I noticed this earlier; I’ve actually been conscious of it for quite some time when doing more traditional writing — it’s one reason why I enjoy writing stories from the perspective of a first-person participant narrator — but it seemed particularly pronounced earlier. I very much felt like I was “inside the heads” of both Ami and Feena as they talked to each other about, frankly, fairly mundane things — things that those racing through the game would miss, but which those who wanted a deeper understanding of these characters would appreciate as a reward for thorough exploration and investigation.

The thing to be careful of when feeling like this, of course, is getting that characterisation across to the player, who doesn’t “know” these characters in quite the same way as I do. Since while I’m writing the dialogue between these characters I’m effectively “role-playing” them, hopefully this will give the dialogue a reasonably natural-feeling flow. This is something that I won’t be able to tell for sure until someone else who doesn’t know these characters at all plays the game — which is a scary prospect, for sure!

Anyway. That’s it for today. I’ve been doing some good work on the game recently and making some good progress. There’s not enough there to proudly show off in playable form yet (though there is just under an hour of “Stuff to Do” implemented now, which feels a significant amount!) but there will be before long. In the meantime, I intend to post some occasional thoughts on the subject of its development on this ‘ere blog as I (hopefully) continue to make progress.

One day you might even be playing it. Who knows?