A general update

This is the third or fourth time in the last month that I’ve found myself here — staring at a blank screen, unsure what to say, but convinced I’ve got to find a way to start writing again.

I’m not sure it’s even correct to say that a writer can “start” or “stop” writing. A driver is still a driver, regardless of whether their car’s been stuck in the shop waiting on a new part for a couple weeks. Maybe professional drivers feel the same sort of insecurity creep up on them after a few weeks, or even days, away from their cars. What do I know? Just my own self.

Yesterday I finished reading On Writing, a book by Stephen King about the way he approaches his work. It’s also partially a memoir, and some of it gets pretty far into the realm of unsolicited opinion, but I think that only made the book that much more valuable. Look at how I write — how many of my blog posts veer into the territory of conjecture and inward meditation? I guess that’s why anyone does anything — because they love it, on the surface, but to also nurture that fledgling hope that someone else will connect with it.

That’s why I’m sitting here, I think: to write again, because writing is fulfilling, but also because it’s a means through which I can reconnect to the world. That, I think, is what I’ve missed the most.

I’ve been on something of a crazy-ass journey the last couple years. I left security and friends behind to move across the country in pursuit of something I couldn’t fully articulate, and still can’t. I was chasing a feeling of home, maybe, or a vague notion of the kind of work I wanted to spend my life on. It was a risky move. It wasn’t the pragmatic option. That’s why I’m glad I did it.

I’m now pretty firmly rooted back in Portland, a city I’ve always liked but didn’t start to love until I left it behind. It was a good decision to come back here, and I think it’s a city that I can do well in for myself. But I’m struggling to check my baggage at the door.

In hindsight, as crazy and unpredictable as the last two years have been, it all worked out better than I could’ve hoped for. My girlfriend and I survived job and moving-related anxiety several times over, and now we’re in a pretty good spot — stable jobs, room to develop as people, and a home to call our own. It’s still hard to wrap my head around how we managed to put it all together.

It’s a good place to be, because it gives me the room I need to focus on something I’ve neglected for a long time: reconnecting. To myself, to my body and health, to the things that inspire me, and to the people around me.

I haven’t asked anyone outright, but I’m pretty sure I’m seen as something of a recluse. I don’t go out a lot anymore, and I spend most of my nights and weekends at home hanging out with my girlfriend and our dog and enjoying the life we’ve put together for ourselves. But I miss the camaraderie of seeing familiar faces who I’m not obligated to see, and of being around people who inspire me with the things they’re doing or challenge my long-held views on important matters.

And so: writing. I don’t even see the direct connection, but it feels like a vital first step back toward engaging with the world. It’s a way to see myself again from a third-person perspective — to break free of the tunnel-vision that follows any long stretch of uncertainty and stress.

So here we go.

On Bloodborne and the difference between frustration and disappointment

I wrote some early thoughts about Bloodborne’s spotty matchmaking and its impact on my experience with the game:

There’s a key distinction I want to make clear: while the Souls games have always been challenging and frustrating at times, I’ve never found them disappointing. But when multiplayer — a key lifeline throughout the entire series — is deliberately obfuscated, comes at a high price, and then provides no clear indication of whether or not it’s working, that’s a failing on the game’s part. And those failings are so rare in this series that it’s especially jarring and disappointing.

I’m sure this sort of thing is being worked on, especially with the problems being fairly widespread and Sony having a stake in this game’s success. But still, it’s an unexpected sour note in an otherwise rewarding experience.

2015 Goals

I’m not a big goals person. I especially don’t like bringing rigid, metrics-based goals into my life. Numbers tend to make me feel trapped, like I’ve got some arbitrary pass/fail condition built into an existence that’s very malleable. So I picked five things that I want to keep in mind throughout the next year to help make it a little better than the year-that-was.

  1. Read more. I’ve got stacks of books on my shelf that I’ve stared at for far too long—suggestions from friends, half-finished masterpieces, oddball comics and just-for-fun light novels. I spent too much of 2014 prioritizing empty projects and imagined responsibilities to other media. Enough of that. Books are fulfilling in a way nothing else is.
  2. Keep running. I’m not as fast as I used to be, and my strength still needs some real work, but I’m back in a routine and getting better, not worse. That’s enough. I just need to keep that up.
  3. Learn to cook well. I’m not especially clumsy or bad at learning new things, but I’m an expert at shooting myself down over minor mistakes. I didn’t grow up around people who cook, and thanks to a sedentary college lifestyle and a three-year stint at a company that literally fed me day and night, I was able to conjure up enough excuses to put off getting my hands dirty. But I care more and more about the stuff I put into my body, and I’m slowly discovering the deep sense of fulfillment that comes from learning a set of skills and applying them to a creative outlet. I’m looking forward to this one the most.
  4. Cut out the bullshit. Most of it comes from me. I’ll subconsciously construct a set of expectations for myself, and rather than question anything I’ll obsess over checking off a daily list before collapsing and calling it a day. Being busy and being productive are very different things. Time to start solving for the latter.
  5. Focus on making. I have lots of ideas. They’re mostly all lumped together in a stack of notebooks filled with chicken-scratch descriptions and rough illustrations. I love the ideation process because it’s a period of pure creation and design, but real creative gratification comes from making something, warts and all, and sharing it with other people.

2014 was the craziest and least-predictable year in my life. I have a feeling plans are gonna start to congeal in 2015, and with any luck that’ll mean a return to routine and structure. But if 2014 was a year spent learning at any cost, 2015 is going to be about doing.

The best and worst games I played in 2014

2014 was one of the most uneven, unpredictable and kinda-just-weird years I’ve ever experienced as a player, maker and critic of video games. But it’s not all bad news – 2014 was also a year with an impressively diverse range of games from all corners of the earth tackling design challenges and complex themes in new and exciting ways.

For the last six years, I’ve been part of a five-person team at Silicon Sasquatch that collaborates on a top-ten best games list for each year. This year is no exception, but I still felt like there just wasn’t enough room (or consensus) to share all of the games that I thought were noteworthy – both for being exceptional and for being terribly disappointing.

So here’s my master list of pretty much every game I played this year that made an impression on me. My goals with this list are:

  1. To highlight what I perceive as the best and most important games released all year
  2. To call out the worst and most-disappointing games that ought to be avoided
  3. To differentiate between games that require a lot of technical expertise versus those that can be enjoyed by anyone, “gamer” or otherwise
  4. To kill time before I have to write up my annual list of my top ten favorite albums of 2014, which is gonna be way harder

You can jump to a specific section, or just keep scrolling if you’re in the mood for some information overload:

• Top Ten Most Disappointing Games of 2014

• Top Ten Best Games of 2014

• Other Good Games You Should Check Out

• Games I Didn’t Play but They Sound Really Good

Continue reading The best and worst games I played in 2014

Failure to launch

I figure it’s probably about time I come clean about NaNoWriMo: I’m gonna fail this year. This marks my sixth unsuccessful attempt at hammering out a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. On the one hand, I suppose I ought to celebrate consistency wherever I can find it in myself; on the other, well, shit.

Why even try to write a novel? I don’t know. I’m the kind of person who loves creating checklists, I guess, and those vary in scope from day-to-day systems for validating my self-worth to overarching, lifelong pursuits. Writing a novel is on that list. (The objective originally said I needed to “publish a book,” but since I did that a few years back I’ve since revised it to “no, c’mon, I mean like a real book.”)

I thought I had a decent-enough concept this time around, but as usual, I just didn’t have my shit organized in time for the actual kickoff. 50,000 words over 30 days averages out to around 1,667 words per day, or approximately seven double-spaced pages of a term paper – and in my experience, they’re about as much fun to write. I figured I’d just write whatever came to mind on any day so long as it was within the loose boundaries of the story I’d concocted in my head—and seriously, it sounded kinda good! Like, there were parallel stories with complementary themes that intertwined in an interesting way and culminated in hopefully something somewhat resonant with an average audience and—and yeah, shit, that wasn’t nearly good enough.

To be honest, I’m more frustrated at my poor planning than the lack of execution. I should’ve been thinking about this story for a year. I should’ve been battling through its key points in my mind for months, questioning the relationship between its core elements and the way that they’re revealed to the reader. I should’ve been reading more goddamn novels, because—because come on. I should’ve gone into this thing excited to finally have a chance to plow through the grunt work of bringing something I cared about to life through the singular and unsettling practice of churning out a gross, bloated, shitty rough draft, because that’s where anything great comes from.

Instead, I have less than 4,000 words of a couple of opening chapters. I think a few hundred of those words are me just talking down to myself and questioning why I bothered in the first place.

I don’t think I’ll be trying NaNoWriMo again. Maybe it’s just not the right setting for me. Maybe I’ll never understand the basics of creative writing – it’s a long story, but childhood anxiety plus fear of criticism means I made a conscious shift to nonfiction and journalistic writing well over a decade ago.

Or maybe I’ll just never accomplish anything daunting and impressive and deeply gratifying as long as I keep hounding myself for not being good enough.

If you’re in the middle of finishing a book (for NaNo or anything else,) do yourself a favor: don’t be a sore loser like me. You sit down and you write and you finish that goddamn thing. The world may not need your novel, as they like to say, but trust me: you do.

What I whine about when I whine about running

Like many other humans who find themselves trapped in this bizarro-world timeline, I’m prone to some nasty and extended bouts of depression. I’ll think I’m doing fine for a while until one day I realize that, over the last few weeks, I’ve barely bothered to change my clothes or reply to people’s texts. I know I’m really in the thick of it when my sense of time starts to lose definition: I see a drab gray fuzziness on either end of my timeline and fall into what’s known among psychologists as a “major bummer situation.”

What’s it like to be depressed? Everything I usually enjoy—bagels, photos from space, alive puppies, tasteful potpourri, room-temperature beer, etc.—loses its luster. Like a poacher watching The Lion King, I feel nothing. And obviously, feeling nothing is a pretty un-ideal way to go through life.

Motivation? Kinship? Opportunity? Those things just aren’t really on your radar when you’re overwhelmed by the fact that all your socks are shitty and boring but why does that even matter because who really cares about socks anyway because they’re just socks and also you haven’t seen another human being in four days so wait why are you yelling.

Of course, everyone’s responsible for finding their own coping mechanisms to keep their mental health in check. For me, sometimes talking it out over a pot of chamomile tea just can’t cut it. That’s when I need to do something so jarring and filthy and thoroughly unpleasant that it snaps me back to reality. So I go for a run.

On the surface, running seems like the worst thing a human can do to itself. That’s because it is. You take a relatively sanitary (possibly even clean, by some standards) body and subject it to arduous, repetitive torment, and the end result is a layer of sweat masking aching muscles and a crippling new self-awareness of how dumb you probably look to other runners.

But surprisingly enough, there’s a real benefit to putting yourself in a position that, by all estimates, totally sucks. It begins as a sort of physical self-admonishment: “Ha ha! You stupid body! Look at your wobbly legs trying to keep up with those athletes over there!” I don’t know if other people get like this when they’re going through a bad spell, but I like to envision that depression-inducing part of my conscience as a thin man with a five o’clock shadow standing half-hidden under a dim lightbulb, sporting a pinstripe jacket over pressed (but frayed) brown slacks. He chain-smokes Parliaments and slings verbal barbs my way, all the while talking like an off-Broadway character actor doing his best mobster impression. He doesn’t make a good first impression.

So I endure the slings and arrows of my not-very-helpful inner monologue while I wait for the initial discomfort of running to pass. And sure enough, the litany of self-deprecating snark gives way after a few minutes to a sort of calm, meditative state—“well, as long as we’re stuck here doing this dumb thing, why don’t I just call up the Pituitary Gland and see if it can’t hook us up with some tasty endorphins.”

It’s not a permanent fix. But I’ve never had a day get worse after going for a run, and I’m rarely happier than during those times when I’m forcing myself out the door for some exercise a few times a week.

I decided to first take up running four years ago on the tail end of a particularly crappy series of events. I’d never been an athletic or even particularly fit person, and I was always one of the slowest to finish the mile-run test in high school P.E. class, but I needed some sort of goal to latch on to that helped me forget about the heavier stuff in my life. After a dozen false starts, I managed to settle into a consistent routine and, like, half a year later, finally achieved my goal of being able to run a 5k without stopping at the drop of a hat.

It was a rare sort of accomplishment for me. I’m the kind of person who was lucky enough to be predisposed for success academically, but I’ve always left a lot to be desired in sports and fitness. I felt like maybe the person I thought I was and would always be might actually have been an incomplete picture. Maybe I could even change the fundamentals of who I am.

Of course, I quickly fell back out of shape once I took a job across the country, and life moved on. But every time I’m feeling particularly miserable about myself, I remember when I used to be a not-terrible runner, and I remind myself that I can become that person again if I set my mind to it.

And if it shuts my smug, pinstripe-wearing mental roommate the hell up? All the more reason to get back on my feet.

Welcome to the Neighborhood: Five tips for getting to know your new local community

Photo (modified) by Keith Tyler

One of the best things about being an indie developer is the freedom to tailor your lifestyle just the way you want: what schedule you keep, how you shape your business, and even where you decide to live. But as exciting (and, I’d argue, important) as moving can be, making friends in a new city is never easy—and that’s doubly true if you work independently. Fortunately, it’s easier than ever for indie game devs to connect in meaningful ways.

Here are five tips I’ve picked up from my last few moves around the United States that should help you get started.

1. Find a Meetup Group

If you’re not familiar, Meetup is a platform where like-minded individuals can create groups that get together in the real world to talk about shared interests or participate in events. I’d argue this is the best place to start, especially if you’re a total stranger to your new home city, because Meetup is accessible to anyone and most groups make an effort to facilitate introductions.

There are plenty of great groups in major cities for indie game developers. For example, I was a member of the Seattle Unity3D User Group and the Seattle Games Cooperative, both of which met regularly and offered a wide variety of workshops, presentations and social events.

2. Join the Discussion on Facebook

Most cities I’ve lived in have had a number of active Facebook groups dedicated to indie development discussion, support and event organization. Seattle Indies is an excellent and very active resource for finding work, learning about what people are working on and making new connections, and the Portland Indie Game Squad (or PIGSquad) is filled with great ideas and enthusiastic people.

Or if you can’t find any relevant groups, it’s also worth searching for Pages on Facebook. For example, Austin has a very active and welcoming group called Juegos Rancheros that’s organized by indie luminaries like Adam Saltsman, Jo Lammert and Brandon Boyer. They post details and invitations to their monthly meetups on their Page, so it couldn’t hurt to like or subscribe to it.

3. Enter the Indie Circuit

While it’s still a brand-new thing, Indie Circuit is trying to bring the world’s local-multiplayer aficionados together, wherever they may live. Fill out an anonymous questionnaire with your interests and Zip code and get a sense for who else is interested in playing those games in the same area. If you’re feeling particularly social, you can also sign up to be a host for a future game night.

4. Attend a Game Jam

The previous few suggestions are good for getting to know others, but there’s no better way to learn more about yourself than to take the plunge on a marathon game jam. Whether they run for a few hours or several weeks, jams are a great way to get to know other developers and identify your individual strengths and collaboration habits. Bonus: you also get to walk away with a new game with your name on it.

CompoHub is an indispensable resource for learning about current and upcoming game jams. Even if the jams you’re interested in aren’t location-based, it’s never a bad idea to create a local meetup for other participants in your area to get together, give feedback and crank out some work.

5. If All Else Fails, Help Start a New Community

Every city is different, and that’s going to have a big impact on your search. If nobody in your town is meeting regularly to work together, it’s easy to kickstart a community yourself! Start your own Meetup group, create a Twitter handle or Facebook group to promote ongoing conversations, or consider hosting a game night or jam session.

There are way more aspiring or isolated developers out there than you might think, and you might be just the community leader they’ve been waiting for.