Playing with Anxiety

alienisolationSo many things that I enjoy cause me anxiety. I want to read more of Simon Ings’ Wolves, but I’m anxious about what’s going to happen. I want to play more of Alien: Isolation, but I’m terrified about playing a game where all my expected game agency is stripped away and I’m left mostly helpless inside an industrial hell. Last year, I was anxious about reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, with it’s harrowing final act. But for these things, that’s the point. They are meant to provoke discomfort, as without that feeling they’d toothless. The question that I face as I look at the closed paperback or hover the cursor over Steam’s ‘play game’ icon is, why should I feel like shit when reading a novel or playing a game?

With Wolves, as with Perdido Street Station, it’s the writing that makes me want to feel that way. With Alien: Isolation, it’s not the game play, or even a very strong attachment to the source material, but the quality of visual design that triumphs over ill-feeling. Do you know what I want in Alien: Isolation? A tourist mode. A way of turning off the demonic xenomorph and the pesky humanoids. I want to walk and crawl around the Sevastopol and soak in the atmosphere without distraction.

This can’t be done with prose or films. You can’t just remove arbitrary elements from a book and expect to still have something that’s mostly the same. Everything there is too tightly coupled. It’s not something that I can easily do with a game that I’ve bought off the internet and don’t have access to the source code for it. But more than just not being able to do it for technical reasons. The anxiety effect is cumulative in every sentence, paragraph, texture and sound effect that the thing has. If, somehow, the distressing elements were removed then the thing itself would be pointless. The writing wouldn’t be as interesting and the visual design would become sterile.

It’s a problem because I’m terrible at overcoming the initial starting discomfort and that stops me from getting into the things that I enjoy. I need to be braver.

Failure

Since I last wrote anything for this site I’ve started a new job with a longer title than my last and with an incredibly diverse job description, gotten further involved in Leicester’s Hackspace (and now mostly wish I’d not), and failed to write a short story for an anthology with an extended deadline of today. I’ve spent a lot of time concentrating on work rather than writing. There have been a lot of long, stressful weeks where my lack of knowledge has been made apparent. And as a consequence, I’ve spent a large amount of my free-time diving hard and deep into the world of DevOps and managing baroque LAMP stacks.

It feels to me that since January a feeling of almost constant failure or near failure has bitten at my heels. The Hackspace isn’t the space I’d like it to be (Metalab) even though I’ve tried steering it that way. I found the sixty-five hour Hell Week was both a valuable & knackering learning experience. Of course that’s contributed to a general mood.

But being overloaded with work sometimes is vital and important for my future career. It is also a position I enjoy. Where else would I get to learn about NoSQL database administration and teach Python programming in the same week? But of course I’ve spent time at home studying to catch-up and my working week still isn’t easy. At the end of the week I’m usually exhausted and all that I feel about to do is sit in front my computer shooting Nazis.

And then there’s the failed story. It was intended to be submitted to an anthology of what I’d describe loosely as Venus-themed science fiction. I had a concept: Document the lives of people slightly off-camera in a Venus fly-by mission that could have happened in 1974. Look at their wives and families and how the mission would have affected them. I had a plan of execution. And even though I also had the two things mentioned above to juggle, I had enough time. However, my inclination towards procrastination and the troll sitting at the back of my brain shouting that, ‘You can’t write for shit,’ caught me out.

It really annoys me that I’ve failed to submit a story to this anthology. It’s a great idea for a collection and the brief was sufficiently wide enough that I hoped there was a chance of sneaking some quirky kitchen-sink stuff past the editor. There’s most of a story written in first draft, but it isn’t yet good enough, and it’s already gone through three iterations. Oh well. We learn from our failures, don’t we?

I hope so.

Tomorrow I’m at a comic creator’s meet-up. I intend to go to bed tonight thinking of ideas and throw them at other creators there. Hopefully something will stick and someone will throw an idea back to mutate my concept in an interesting way.

Peace & Love & Coffee,

Will

Brutal Legend

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My current no thinking game1 is the PC version of Brutal Legend. I played most of the X-Box 360 version when it was released and mostly enjoyed it. It’s a Tim Schafer not-adventure game so I expected terrible controls, but the odd thing is that in Brutal Legend they do become more tolerable the longer I’ve played. For instance, the guitar solo magic tricks felt laggy at first, even on a joypad, but after a couple of hours play today I can perform most of them without too many missed notes. Am I getting used to how bad the controls are or do the controls, somehow, get better the further I play into the game?

I don’t know. The buggy you get given to drive around in still handles about as well as the very similar looking buggy you get given in Grim Fandango, which given this game is ten years younger is offensively stupid. Also the camera controls still remain in the way of uncritical enjoyment. Bah.

Is this replay changing my opinion of Brutal Legend? Not really. The idea of Brutal Legend is better than the execution. Now Brutal Legend does have some of my favourite visual design I’ve seen in a game, and I really love the soundtrack, etc. But the controls are still crap.

If only they’d fixed them.

1 Some games I want to think about, others I don’t. I’m also playing Fez and Dark Souls (which has its own issues on the PC) when I want to engage my grey matter. Brutal Legend is just stupid fun.

A Confession

Please sit on the other side of the confessional screen and listen to my sin: I’ve only finished reading five novels this year. I’m sorry, but I just haven’t had the time naturally occur. And because of this it feels that for most of the year something important has been absent from my life.

I have however not finished a bad novel this year. All of the books that I’ve forced myself through have been in their own way examples of excellence. I started the year with The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson and then moved onto the first Martin Beck novel Roseanna, by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, for something easier to digest. It was after this I started reading Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. I only finished the crawl through it’s ~800 pages the other week, but it probably isn’t to blame for the limited number of novels, since I rattled through the last twenty-five percent in the space of a week. While reading Perdido I took a day trip to read Joanna Russ’s short novel We Who Are About To after hearing it being evangelised at Eastercon in Bradford. The most recent and last novel I’ve finished was The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, the second Martin Beck novel by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö. Again, something easier to digest after the heavy meal of Perdido.

The reason I’m sharing this dismal fact is not because I’m proud of it. And although I’m not sure if I’m utterly ashamed of this poor record, as it just happened, I don’t remember what I spent the time not spent reading doing. Yes, I’ve spent hours trying to write short fiction. And I’ve played video games and watched films and TV series, but not all the time. I don’t know where this year has gone. It has evaporated over the course of five novels.

Now I suppose that this is the point where I’m meant to share a solution to the current situation or raise a question from the audience/priest to find help, but that’s not what I’m interested in doing here. No, all I want to do is record my sin against literature that in the eleven months that have passed this year I have only read five novels.

It isn’t the worst crime, but I wish to remember it so that I will perform my penance of reading more next year.

The Voices of Leicester Forest East

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Magnus, a friend of mine from back in the day, runs a weekly audiobook podcast called Telling of Tales. This week he’s recorded a version of one of my stories, Leicester Forest East. It was written at the start of this year after reflecting on Paul Kincaid’s review “The Widening Gyre: 2012 Best of the Year Anthologies” for several months. Leicester Forest East , then, is one of my attempts to write a science fiction that’s more quotidian than what’s generally out there and explores our shared common failures.

Please do tell us what you think of the story and podcast by leaving us a comment. I have also been told to share the fact that Telling of Tales is starting a short break so do send your stories to him if you enjoyed his efforts here.

Anna & Isaac

Anna & Isaac dress up as Vikings. Anna & Isaac go on a quest. Anna & Isaac do the washing up. Anna & Isaac have an argument. Anna & Isaac goto outer space. Anna & Isaac take drugs. Anna & Isaac go to inner space.
Anna & Isaac kerb stomp Karl Jung. Anna & Isaac have sex. Anna & Isaac become Maoist revolutionaries. Anna & Isaac get married. Anna & Isaac form a suicide pact. Anna & Isaac trip the light fantastic. Anna & Isaac
get a kitten. Anna & Isaac start a family. Anna & Isaac get divorced. Anna & Isaac grow old together. Isaac dies of cancer. Anna goes to a home.

A Field in England

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I visited my local independent (and favourite) cinema, Phoenix Square, yesterday to see the recent Ben Wheatley film ‘A Field in England’. It is superb. The film critic Danny Leigh praised the film concisely by describing it as, “A head-spinning trip into the far corners of the English psyche.” As you can see from the poster above it also receives publicity worthy quotes from the director Nicolas Roeg (‘Walkabout‘, ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth‘). Which is appropriate as one of the films A Field in England reminded me of in its style and attitude was Roeg’s ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’.

‘A Field in England’ is as funny as it is weird and as horrific as it is beautiful. In the UK — and I suspect elsewhere — the film is available via all legitimate distribution channels, and almost certainly the less legitimate ones too. There are no excuses to miss seeing ‘A Field in England’ apart from your own apathy.

Scars

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Script by Will Ellwood (www.will-ellwood.com). Art, layout, hard work by Calliope den Ouden (http://www.inktspatten.nl/).

Time & Space in a Cake

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Last Wednesday, my partner, Jenny, had her graduation ceremony to formally receive her PhD. There was a party held at her parent’s house at the weekend to celebrate her frankly astonishing achievement with her parents and family friends. This was the cake commissioned for Jenny by her parent’s, Bob and Fran, to mark the occasion. It’s vegan. Also, the TARDIS is made from marzipan and the blue food colouring dyes tongues blue.

Yesterday, we both recovered from our hangovers by sitting in her father’s beautiful garden, reading, and drinking soft drinks until the sun set and the fire pit came out. I have had a lovely and restive weekend. Tomorrow I’m back at work.

It won’t be anywhere near as pleasant.

Valle Crucis

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