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What I Did In 2021

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.

Worked on a game released by Devolver Digital

April 19th - Deconstructeam's new game

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 by developers Deconstructeam and published by Devolver Digital. I worked 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

June 17th - before and after - finished today

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. But a good learning exercise.

Feb 28 - terrible lighting

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 thanks to Quake’s original “vanilla” textures. But you can play this one. Others have, and they rated it “OK”.

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I made a sci-fi corridor sketch, also in Trenchbroom, using some better textures by noted Quake mapper Ben “Makkon” Hale. It is both the most generic and the prettiest of all the things I ‘ve made in Trenchbroom. You cannot explore it, there is nothing to kill here.

june 19th - better sci-fi corridor

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 the openness of the drive’s topside was naturally unsuited to a single-player Quake level, so to make it playable I had to get creative with the encounters, while also creating interiors and deep subterranean chasms.

Quake - hard drive

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. You can play it now by downloading it from Quaddicted. After playtesting, some final tinkering, and a handful of positive responses, I’m now happy enough with this. (But also glad to be able to move on to the next project.)

Wrote some games

April 15 - shovel mech pixel art

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.

March 28th - I made a monster!

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.

Made podcasts

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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.

page 1 - february

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.

page 2 march

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!”

page 3 - november

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.

page 4 - december

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.

Deathloop
Halo Infinite
Splitgate
Death’s Door
Inscryption
Chivalry II
Subnautica Below Zero
Hitman 3

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.

Despaired

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.

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Good things I wrote in 2017

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I discovered the bookworms too late. They had eaten through a large cross-section of World War Z and several Spanish language text books, so I could at least tell their tastes were varied. Still, their appetite wasn’t sated, which is why my sole copy of the Costa Rican constitution was also found devoured, long streaks of absence interrupting the founding principles of José Figueres Ferrer’s fresh democracy. I frowned at the squirming yellow worms. I was sad to lose the fundamental legal keystone of the tropical country I’d been living in for a year and eight months, the country I would soon be leaving, but I got on with the job. I saved what books I could and packed them in a plastic wrapper. I managed to save 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. But perhaps there were eggs in the spine.

When our bags were packed, we were ready to leave Central America. My girlfriend picked up the cat, a runt she found roaming the streets of San José, begging in its own feline way to be adopted and brought to Ireland, and caged it in a tiny jail cell especially constructed for airborne cats. We threw the books and the bags and the clothes and the cat into the back of a taxi, and left.

“I have written some OK things this year,” I thought.

* * *

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A war in a Polish castle. The deputy editor of the website for which I write could not stop laughing as he proposed this idea to me. “Would you like, heh heh heh,” he said, like some rotten NPC. “How would you like to, haa haaa ha ha…” Eventually the proposal came: would I take a trip to Poland for four days and enclose myself in a 13th century castle with upwards of 40 men who all want to kill each other through their computers? I said yes, of course.

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A Ridealong. I’ve slacked off on this series of misadventures but managed to spit one out. I took a comedian called Glenn Moore into the hellish dimension of Comedy Night, an online game where players take turns to do stand-up comedy routines. I chose Glenn because I know him from university and once made him stand in front of a camera and say unfunny things. That is another story, nevertheless I felt the need to make amends. So I took him to a racist underworld and made him perform jokes.

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Sailing the Northwest Passage. Games let us live out our wildest dreams, like going insane from loneliness on a cold boat while sailing the frigid and treacherous route from Greenland to Alaska. My virtual ship, the Bluster & Guesswork, was a taciturn and apathetic vessel, but we eventually understood one another.

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A podcast. This is not writing and therefore unworthy of your attention. We revived the RPS Electronic Wireless Show. It’s still one of those “what have we played this week” podcasts but we try to keep to a theme. It takes a lot of work but I hope folks get some pleasure from zoning in and out to our chatter as they drive home from whatever clandestine task their handler has given them this week.

25preya

One-line summaries for a summer sale. I liked writing these. There’s an art to the TV guide blurb that I’ve long admired. Punchy entries that reduce an entire 30 minutes to a single sentence. A classic example being the entry for episode 1 of series 2 of the prison sitcom Porridge: “Fletcher and the gang are shocked to discover there is a thief among them.” I didn’t write anything as good as that, but I had my fun and that’s all that matters.

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Diaries are still fun. Not content with last year’s robotic daddying in Stellaris, I tried to coddle the galaxy once more as a race of sentient turtles who lusted for a multicultural paradise. I claim moderate success.

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I liked a lot of games. I liked the warring of Northgard and the double-jumping of Dead Cells. I lost clumps of my hair to Opus Magnum and grew them back in the restorative glow of Steamworld Dig 2. I punched up in Tekken 7, and was slapped down in Absolver. There are more but those are my favourites.

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Some games vexed me. Rokh was the worst game I played. But there were others that left my brain fizzing for mixed reasons. Rain World‘s malicious menagerie was equal parts fascinating and frustrating. Pyre’s netball didn’t win me over, even when its horned demons did. Basically, I admire these two as works of art but I wish I had enjoyed them more as games. Then again, games are dumb as shit. Maybe it’s enough to admire the way lizards move.

* * *

There is sleet falling outside, real sleet. I have 2666 by Bolaño quarantined in a plastic bag in the garage of my parents’ home, next to some suspicious claw hammers. For all I know, the bookworms have followed me back. If I open this bag of books and discover that they too have been ingested by the hungry larvae I had once believed to be entirely fictional, I will be sad. It has been a big, burning bookcase of a year, and it would be troubling to lose another tome.

But it wouldn’t be a disaster. In a cardboard box lined with a hooded sweatshirt lined with fleece, the runt cat my girlfriend stole from the hot streets of Costa Rica lies, I assume happily, in the aura of an Irish radiator. It is possible she has brought parasites of her own.

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Good things I wrote in 2016

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I spent Christmas amid the dog hairs and beer bottles of my ancestral home, a place and time which would have given a more pensive mind the chance to reflect on a dauntless year, but gave my mind the chance to swell on pints of Smithwicks and the odd blast of gift-triggered serotonin. I also got the chance to meet my three-month-old Nephew for the first time. He did not cry when I held him, which I found endearing and suspicious.

Last night, I arrived back in Central America, where I saw Orion had once again fallen on his side. At the top of my street, the porter welcomed me by picking up a clipboard and revealing a handgun beneath it. The magazine had been ejected and lay beside the gun, with a single golden bullet protruding at the top, like the glinting nib of a ballpoint pen. “What’s your name again?” he asked, smiling and squinting at the clipboard.

Outside my apartments, there was black dust everywhere, a messy film I have come to recognise as responsible for the fifty-five sneezes I endure daily. It comes from the volcano Turrialba, whose consistent eruptions 33 kilometres away cover everything for days in a pathetic ash. At this point, I discovered I had forgotten my keys and I sat down in the black dust, waiting for my girlfriend to rescue me. I took off my my hoody, undid two surplus buttons on my shirt, and rolled up each leg of my jeans.

“I have written some good things this year,” I thought.

* * *

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The Ridealongs. I went flying with a real pilot and stalled 2000 feet above the ground. I roamed through Minecraft’s most offensive server with an archeologist-of-sorts. There were many other ridealongs but my personal favourite was when I explored an abandoned MMO with a player who was once a King of the whole virtual land, but had become reduced to a tiny farm and a stolen horse.

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A War in EVE. Some days, as a games journo, you log in to your various dripfeeds of cyberknowledge and see a single article being passed around like a clandestine floppy disk, over and over again. Look, someone says, Andy Kelly has written about videogame toilets. Or Christian Donlan has wirtten about a 3000-year-old Egyptian board game. When you see this, you understand that this writer has won Twitter today. But some days, if you’re lucky and you work hard, you’re the one on the floppy disk. I felt like that when my story about EVE Online’s revolutionary casino-fuelled war went up. It might be the best bit of games journalism I’ve written, or maybe just the one I’m most proud of.

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Premature Evaluation. I took over this weekly column in the daily thunderstorms of July, and proceeded to fill it with stories of me being terrible at my one job: playing games. This one about management sim Software Inc was probably the most fun to write.

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Keeping a diary. Diaries are the thing I like to write the most. Take an appropriate game, explain the systems and features briefly, then set out to achieve something difficult or weird in-game. In Stellaris, I was a race of human-loving robot father figures. In Rimworld, the manager of an ill-fated desert hotel. But a lesser-known game gave me the most satisfaction to write about. Hackmud was an excellent, complicated multiplayer hacking sim that saw me become both the worst gambling kingpin and a sentient newspaper algorithm.

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Free Loaders. Every week I slap this up, a short list of free games. It’s something I look forward to, because writing it has become an weekly exercise in describing concise things concisely. It’s sad to see a lot of good stories and games still going unnoticed in the deluge of 2016 but also understandable. So I did a list of the best of this year’s freebies.

* * *

My girlfriend has rescued me. I’ve finally made it back into the house, where we will eat pizza and exchange presents while suffering guttural and dark laughter at Charlie Brooker’s annual news roundup. Outside, tiny motes of black dust are still falling, like invisible snow.

 

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