It is minus many degrees outside, the temperature of another planet. Or of Canada, the realm to which I now inexplicably owe allegiance. It exists as a vortex of concrete and ice crystals, a climate which drives a man to pull on long johns in the morning, snapping his whole body with the brutality of whiplash into middle age. This is what I have done, it is where I have gone. The hot days of youth, sitting under volcanoes and collecting street cats from jungle climes, are long gone. My right knee makes a creaking sound every time it bends, like the wooden beams of a listed building late at night. I find this sound, to my surprise, more pleasant every day. I refuse to examine why.
Here are some things I did in 2021.
Got my first game credit
De Tres Al Cuarto is a pixel art deckbuildish game about two struggling comedians working the holiday crowd on Menorca. It’s part of the Essays On Empathy collection. I worked with Deconstructeam as an editor to look over the script. The writer, Jordi de Paco, walked me through what he’d written and explained with rare and merciful clarity what kind of editing he wanted. They needed it done quick, which is where being a dirtbag journalist comes in handy.
There had already been passes and reworks, so my job was somewhere between sub-editing and proof-reading. Since the story is set in Menorca, parts of the dialogue needed to remain flavoured in Spanish. I’d been living in Basque Country almost three years by this time, and could subject many victims to ropey Castellano, so I understood the motive. It was a great gig. I was able to set aside whole days with a kettle on repeat and simply do what I do best. That is, the bloodthirsty butchery of words.
Designed a few levels
I got into level design as a hobby. A hobby because I feel too deep in the word swamp to pursue an actual career in it. Even so, I have a recurring fantasy of interviewing for a level designer job. Not a fantasy about having the job, or performing the job. Not a fantasy about walking nonchalantly through a brightly coloured office, where the art team throws scrunched-up concepts of doorways at me in frustration, as I sit down to create another nine-lane mash-up of de_dust and that one level from Disney’s A Bug’s Life for the PS1 where you have to climb the huge beanstalk, with zero checkpoints between the bottom and the top. No, it is just a fantasy of answering questions about how qualified I am to do such a job. In this fantasy, I receive neither acceptance nor rejection. It just kind of evaporates when I spill tea over my thighs.
Anyway, I built a multiplayer mansion arena in Halo 5’s map-builder, Forge. It is trash, terrible, right-angled to death, an incoherent farce of shapes. No one is allowed to play it. It ought to burn.
I made a single player castle level for Quake using the Trenchbroom level editor. It’s about a monster having a birthday party. It is fine, a decent first effort. Too big, too open, underpopulated, ugly as a sack of pugs. But you can actually play this one. Others have, and they rated it “OK”.
I made a sci-fi corridor sketch, also in Trenchbroom, using some better textures by noted Quake mapper Makkon. It is both the most generic and the prettiest of all the things I have made in Trenchbroom. You cannot explore it, there is nothing to kill here.
Most of my mapping time has been spent on the level below, however, a brutalist sci-fi recreation of an old hard drive I removed from my computer in July. It is stupid, it makes no sense, I’m sick of looking at it. It has interesting geometry that might make a nice museum, monument or art gallery, but it is also hilariously unsuited to a single-player Quake level, and I had to create whole subterranean passages and chasms just to make it vaguely playable.
In the end, I chalk this one up as a failure. But I toyed with Makkon’s textures, practiced the level editor, and made fun video flythroughs, which is what matters. You can’t play it yet, but it’s more or less complete.
Wrote some games
The mental schism which cleaved the brains of humanity during the pandemic has dealt its blow to me many times over. The spectre of productive hobbyism cursed me with many small projects designed to numb the fear of ongoing societal collapse. Thus I suddenly decided I needed to learn Ink, the quasi-coding language of narrative design, and underwent a burst of writing interactive fiction. Ink is amazing. I still can’t harness even a snifter of its potential but what I’ve been able to make was fine and a whole lot of fun.
One night, for example, I made a tiny, prototypical horror game set in a dank cave. In the blackness lurks an nonlookuponable beast, the description of which is partially randomised. What one player might guess is a dog-like fiend, another will imagine as a tentacled terror, depending on the imagery and descriptive snippets that appear in the gloom, all according to mysterious rituals you follow. In short, you click on words to see more words. It’s a piece of junk, as interactive fiction goes. But when I was done making it, I looked at the rando-gen creature and thought: “I made a monster”. It was a darkly pleasing sensation.
Mostly though, I wrote sci-fi shorts, all set in a solar system banjaxed by humanity, in the year 2999. They are called Scalene, Daylight Savings Crime, and The Last Anarchist. There’s not much crossover between these stories but they all exist in our borked future. They’re narrated from the point of view of The Gleam, an ancient being or quantum mega-computer (who knows?) that lies undiscovered in our solar system. It observes people or robots from afar, and you get to decide how those people or robots behave, such as when furious lawyer Jyoti Lungshanks spits in the courtroom of a hundred-headed machine judge. You should play.
For one story The Gleam is absent. In Shovel Mech, you play Jaqui, a 50-year-old hacker who’s been sentenced to shovel snow on Mars alongside a decommissioned war Mech. For that, I messed with fonts and figured out how to display a big red button (you should totally press it). It’s my only interactive fiction piece worth expanding, I think. Whether I do that or not depends on how much of my brain leaks out of my ear from Omicron and other horrors awaiting me in the impending annual gauntlet of folly. I haven’t revisited Ink in a while, aside from building a joke game a few weeks ago. So I’d need to refresh my memory to do my Martian prisoners justice.
Hey Lesson, the silly but educational podcast I started last year, continues. There is no stopping it. I’ve spoken to a mythbuster who performs sting operations on mediums. Then there was a NASA astrobiologist who explained what alien life would look like. Or the wildlife photographer who told us what trying to survive in the arctic is like. Most recently, I interviewed Scott Manley, YouTube rocket man, about artificial gravity. There were lots more, and I have the next few episodes already planned.
The episodes had to become monthly due to how much time they were taking to organise, record and edit. I learned the hard way that if you want to do a weekly (or even fortnightly) podcast, you typically fall into two categories:
- a big, high production, radio-style show, with a large team of researchers, editors, and presenters, funded by advertising
- 2-3 friends who are able to meet and talk about something in a casual and non-scripted way, planned, recorded and uploaded with minimal editing and fuss, sometimes completely unfunded
Unfortunately, Hey Lesson falls in the goblin zone betwixt these two. I often have a friend join me to chat in a casual way, but it also has an interview component that requires research, organising calls with busy experts, and editing it all into a tight episode with sound effects and music, while eliminating as many “ums” and “ahs” as possible. I do all this myself. It’s doable! Just not every week.
Even with the slowdown, there have been some cracker episodes. Here’s one where I showed an interior designer a house I made in The Sims 4. She was not impressed.
Started drawing again
One day in January, I took a loose page from among the detritus of my flat and drew a cartoonish picture of my wife. She was sitting on the sofa, playing the Nintendo Switch, against a backdrop of dusty bricks that made up our apartment’s wall. Somewhere around the 75th individual brick I realised how focused and content I was. I had not drawn anything for 15 years.
In the hormonal murk of my school years, my best subject wasn’t English, it was art. I liked to draw eyes. One day in art class, I drew a close-up of a skeleton’s hand that was, like, totally sweet dude. My teacher saw it and convinced me to surround it in scrunched-up crepe paper as a “mixed media” project. From the moment I placed the first few scrunchballs onto the page, I knew it was a mistake. And yet I kept gluing them down, excreting bright papery warts onto what was, as far as I was concerned, a gothic masterpiece. I did this because I was instructed to do it. I ignored my gut. I looked at the piece one day and saw only skeletal knuckles buried in a mess of shitty toilet paper, the gluey smell of countless hours wasted. I never finished that piece. One year deep into my GCSE, I dropped my favourite and strongest subject. I don’t regret it, most of the time.
In January this year, after I drew my wife as she gleefully terrorised Ganon’s minions for the nine millionth time in her life, a familiar skeleton-rendering urge crept into me. I’m pretty sure it had been bubbling for years, gurgling up every time I saw one friend posting her art on Twitter, her birds and blowfish making leap after leap of progress as the months passed. The colours bolder, the lines neater, the creatures happier, little smiles to match my own every time I saw these illustrations and thought: “Look! Someone’s doing it! Someone is getting good at something!”
Finally, I bought a sketchpad, expecting it to sit under a pile of magazines and never get used. Until one night I typed into YouTube: “how to draw head”, and the algorithm unto which we all pay tithes of attention took me on a crash course of drawing for the next 11 months. I drew every few days (except for one month in which I inexplicably did nothing and don’t remember why). I’m still going, haven’t given up (yet). Progress is slow. I have trouble with proportions because I get impatient. I elongate legs, I make blimps of shoulders. But I’m getting better, brick by brick, eye by eye.
Wrote about video games
As is my grim wont. As is my punishment. I wrote more than the dustbunny of articles which follows, but please treat this selection of reviews as my list of favourite games of 2021, in no particular order.
I didn’t write about it, but City of Muse is a free game. It is a short, beautiful, understated call to action, and a little unsettling. It goes in the list as well.
Lots of things did not go well. The above highlights are a proud glaze on an otherwise bland and anxious life. Not pictured: the slumps, the torn paper, the implosive depressions, the squares of red warning on budget spreadsheets, the abandoned projects, the discarded obsessions, the moving countries, the periodic desire to get shatterblasted, stotious, numbnered, the need to sleep all day, the failure to sleep at night, the to-do lists, the 1am emergency vet visits, the visa applications, the fevers, the washing up, the dead relatives, the coughing world.
The snow refuses to disperse. The country into which I have descended, like a too-curious ferret down a hole, has as its principle the following characteristic: resistance. Everything is slightly reluctant. The drawers in my kitchen open with the frictionful scrape of wood on wood. Static shocks are routine. The smirking men who run the corner shops will not lower themselves to suffer English consonants. The roads are perpetually closed for a kind of construction or deconstruction which only appears to be performed at 4am in the morning by fluorescent ghosts rumoured by all to be members of the mafia. No, the snow will not melt today, nor tomorrow. Why should it? At some soon-occuring midnight the world will tremble gently, on Tom and Jerry tiptoes, into an increasingly cybernetic flu-future, the dreadyear 2022. I will be among the last to follow, sighing as I clomp over the threshold in loud, frosted boots.