Recently I have been thinking about the kinds of games I enjoy playing. It is fashionable among my circles to enjoy grand strategy games which pit you as the mind behind a civilization. These games have my attention because they’re so intricate and clever, but they do not have my playtime. My ability to focus on them and understand their systems is too short.
It was through the Idle Thumbs podcast that I found my comfort zone.
The podcast has been going for a number of years now, although I only started to listen to it about nine months ago. In that time the panel have made numerous references to Far Cry 2’s shared experience of the live grenade rolling back down the hill towards you. Interested I took the opportunity one Steam sale and bought a copy. I’m seventeen hours into my first play though and thoroughly enjoying myself. My standard mode of play is to take a rifle and to calmly snipe my way through encounters. No check point of mercenaries is safe from me if they are in my line of sight.
This style of play: a deliberate and thoughtful adventure but without all of the mechanical trappings or heavy narrative of role-playing games. It works for me. And now that I have gotten my head around how the game works, I’m starting to find that experience in survival simulator The Long Dark.
The comparison which I’d make to this experience is from one of the opening scenes of No Country for Old Men. I attempted to find a suitable clip on YouTube and found that someone has made the comparison between it and Far Cry 2 for me already.
The prose from Cormac McCarthy’s novel better captures the stillness I’m searching for.
MOSS SAT WITH THE HEELS of his boots dug into the volcanic gravel of the ridge and glassed the desert below him with a pair of twelve power German binoculars. His hat pushed back on his head. Elbows propped on his knees. The rifle strapped over his shoulder with a harness-leather sling was a heavy barrelled .270 on a ’98 Mauser action with a laminated stock of maple and walnut. It carried a Unertl telescopic sight of the same power as the binoculars. The antelope were a little under a mile away. The sun was up less than an hour and the shadow of the ridge and the datilla and the rocks fell far out across the floodplain below him. Somewhere out there was the shadow of Moss himself. He lowered the binoculars and sat studying the land. Far to the south the raw mountains of Mexico. The breaks of the river. To the west the baked terracotta terrain of the running borderlands. He spat dryly and wiped his mouth on the shoulder of his cotton work shirt.
The rifle would shoot half minute of angle groups. Five inch groups at one thousand yards. The spot he’d picked to shoot from lay just below a long talus of lava scree and it would put him well within that distance. Except that it would take the better part of an hour to get there and the antelope were grazing away from him. The best he could say about any of it was that there was no wind. When he got to the foot of the talus he raised himself slowly and looked for the antelope. They’d not moved far from where he last saw them but the shot was still a good seven hundred yards. He studied the animals through the binoculars. In the compressed air motes and heat distortion. A low haze of shimmering dust and pollen. There was no other cover and there wasn’t going to be any other shot.
DRINKING: TITANIC BREWERY – PLUM PORTER
All the cool kids are doing link posts now and because I’ve had such weird days working for the past few weeks I’ve collected a bunch of things that I think are worth making some notes on.
First off there’s this talk by Harry Schwartz at the Boston Emacs Meetup called Getting Started with Org-mode. Fantastically nerdy stuff. In my experience there are several categories of tools for manipulating text. There is Microsoft’s Word, obviously, which is good enough for most people’s purposes. And then there are the more minimal text editors from the default notepad application which appears on every computer’s operating system and has a greater or lesser set of features depending on the system’s target audience. (Notepad on Windows is shit. Gedit provided with some Linux desktops is pretty good.) Then we have your integrated development environments. Scrivener, a tool for writers, is equivalent to the tools available from Jetbrains, who produce specialist IDEs for various programming languages. These provide tooling and automation for common tasks in the problem domain. They are often very good, but have a tendency to force you into a work flow.
Vim could be said to be a minimalist environment, but it’s customisable and has plug-ins available. I use it for work because it’s installed on pretty much every server in existence. It’s good, but not for me.
But I’m an Emacs user. And I’m an Emacs user for two reasons: firstly it’s inherently programmable and you can change it to adapt to your work flow. It is an old joke that Emacs is a fantastic operating system in need of a good text editor. And while that’s got a genuine core of truth in it that’s slightly unfair. Mostly though I use Emacs because of Org-mode. The talk linked to above is an hour long outline of some parts of Org-mode, but is in no way an extensive tour. Like Harry, I use Org for todo list management and also for writing technical documents. At various times I have tried to use it for writing prose in, but find my optimal process often involves paper & pen then typing up, so text generally goes straight into Scrivener.
Anyway, look at that talk. Emacs and Vim are fascinating as they will likely be around for as long as we have computers and have parallel solutions for many tasks.
My evangelism caught the better of me there.
The next thing which has caught my interest has been the ongoing discussion around the Clarke Awards. It started with Nina Allan and continued with Martin Petto and Jonathan McCalmont. I suspect that my contribution to the discussion has been minor and betraying how junior I am within those circles. Broadly I’m less interested in literary awards than having a robust & boisterous culture of debate around literature. I nominally write SF, but only one example of it has been published anywhere of note. I’ve ruled out submitting material anywhere this year, as I just want to get good enough to my own standards and I’m not quite comfortable with what I’m attempting to articulate yet. To have spaces for lively arguments which are conversational is something that would help me get there.
The genre (whatever that is) has gotten better over the last fifty years, but everyone seems happy for us to be in situation where writing at a Hard Difficult level is the accepted norm. Personally I want to see myself pushing into the high E numbers along with my friends. It’s the critics who’ll get us there.
Related to the above I’ve been reading Lavie Tidhar’s HebrewPunk. It’s good and definitely of a high standard than is usual. Will have thoughts later.
I start work in an hour and a half, so best make another coffee. Tonight is the night that I resort to chemistry to power me through to 6AM.
See below for a selfie.
Last day of the holiday.
I’ve been good by not checking my work email since Thursday 28th It’s been good to have the time off. I did no project work at the weekend as I was mostly reading and taking some time to play Far Cry 2. I’m still enjoying that. Still struggling with the politics and have just reached a difficulty spike, which isn’t that fun.
The big success of the weekend was finding an iced coffee recipe which used the Aeropress. I took the recipe from Serious Eats and added a dash of soy milk to it. I was using the Foxtrot blend from St. Martins and will have to try the recipe with their house blend, Intrepid, as that’s what I tend to buy for week-to-week drinking. The Intrepid blend or their single origin Old Brown Java taste good/the same after being left in a vacuum flask for ten hours. Some of their other delicate roasts change flavor in ways which aren’t necessarily unpleasant, but make the other coffees I drink during the day taste sour. (I make coffee the night before work and put it in a Zojirushi flask to keep it warm because what I value most when I get to my desk in the morning is a cup of really good coffee.)
As usual the scrum notes for today are below. These are the last I intend to do for the duration of this project. The retrospective should be up later this week.
MUSIC NOW: THE SOCIAL NETWORK ORIGINAL SCORE (Not seen the film)
My holiday is now in its final phrase. I’m back to the millstone on Tuesday and I already expect it will be a mildly unpleasant day. Part of doing these scrums has kept me honest although I’ve dropped the sprint planning and retrospective phases of the process, which has caused discipline to drop. The game will get a public alpha release on Sunday for people to take a look at. Once that’s done I’m going to look towards doing a full retrospective and post-mortem on this project.
Do I want to add to this work of IF? Yeah, I think I do. I’d like to keep it around as an experimental sandbox for ideas. Do I want to write other IF? Sort of. Yes. I’ve got a vague note scribbled on Wednesday to write a work based on my reading of The Buried Giant which uses gameplay mechanics to explore memory. Is this something that I have the time and expertise to do? Not really, but writing IF works is more enjoyable than writing short science fiction. Both are niches within niches. However IF is a niche which hasn’t yet been monetized by MFA programs.
I suspect also that my narrative tics fit better into contemporary IF than they do into short SF. As Jen frequently says, I’m aiming for most of my writing to have a quality similar to Scandinavian light — diffuse but just in the right, golden way. Also it’s hard to escape the process differences between prose and working in the Inform 7 language. Prose is not computer programming and while Inform 7 is roughly analogous to a natural language, it is still possible to write with agile, incremental, and rapid prototyping processes.
Oh that’s food for thought.
MUSIC NOW: Pig Destroyer’s Mass & Volume, a CD I bought years ago, ripped, and never listened to until now. Very nice.
I had too much fun yesterday evening reading The Buried Giant in a beautiful garden and then in a bar drinking beer & rum. Today I am paying for one of these things with a headache and lethargy.
The new J. Grimwood novel, Moskva, came out today. It was delivered to my Kindle at midnight in the moments before I slipped into strange anesthetized dreams. I’m two chapters in and it’s great.
Notes today will be kept short. I’m not sure if I’m due a sprint planning session or a retrospective. They’ve not been too important for this project as the momentum of writing the scrums has kept me on a pace.
HEADACHE STATUS: NURSE!
Yesterday was not the easiest day to motivate myself. A lot of it was spent either looking at the source code for The Market Underground feeling daunted at the amount of details which need adding or spent working out how the story SILVER CHORD is going to work. Today presents its own obstacles for my attention, but the worst of the time sinks, refactoring my Emacs configuration for this quarter, has been dispensed with after spending some hours hacking it into a better shape.
There are many features which I adore in Emacs and most of them are a consequence of its programmability, but the one which I keep coming back to is Org-Mode. It kicks the shit out of other time planning and document markup languages in terms of ease of use and the number of features it contains. The biggest stumbling block for me using it has always been that I work in an environment where sharing data by the cloud or any other means is at best frowned upon and actively discouraged by both policy and implementation. The logical consequence of this is that I can’t keep one unified organizer environment across my personal and current professional existence. In the past I’ve tried to reconcile the two in order to have a better todo system as per Getting Things Done or Tom Limoncelli’s Time Management for System Administrators, and I’ve always failed.
I’m not going to do that anymore. I want to use these tools to make me happier, so I’m going to have to accept that there is going to be a dividing line between the two spheres of my life.
The next exercise in distraction will be hooking Emacs up to my email. :)
THE SKY IS: BLUE
So it happened: Leicester won the league because Spurs bottled it. There’s not much else to add. I will be interested in seeing the mood in the city centre when I wander out for lunch.
Of interest to me this morning is Martin Petto’s piece “Two Proposals For The Structure And Administration Of The Arthur C Clarke Award” which is in dialogue with Nina Allan’s recent post on the Clarke Award, “The Last Hurrah?”. The section of Nina’s essay I’d like to draw attention to and would be interested in reading Martin’s views is quoted below:
At least a part of the problem resides in the fact that there is no recognised online ‘hub’ for British SF. For a number of years (from 2009 when the submissions list first started to be released), the submissions list was announced via the BSFA/Vector blog, Torque Control, where lively, informed discussions of many critical and ideological aspects of SF took place under the dedicated, engaged stewardship of Niall Harrison. In 2009, the post announcing the Clarke submissions list generated 112 comments, mainly debating the eventual shortlist and offering guesses. The following year saw an almost equal number of comments and shortlist guesses, surely a sign that interest surrounding the award was in rude health.
These critical and ideological debates have the capacity to be infinitely less stupid than Puppyshit, and instead of endlessly replaying the American culture wars over and over in commercial adventure fiction and actually converse with the rest of humanity and its crises. But having a critical conversation which is based around a yearly award ceremony strikes me as both an exercise in the short term, but also as fixed on something too real, and actually too commercial.
The best forum conversation I ever read was on the archives of the New Weird threads from the old TTA forum. The sub-genre at the time of the discussion existed as a few novels and short stories, but was, mostly, an abstract idea about to bifurcate into the VanderMeer’s commercial vision and whatever else was left. That movement fizzled and elements of it absorbed by those less committed. But still, it was not a conversation based on a general shortlist drawn up by an award process, but by a specific argument being made by a community. This is what made it interesting.
However, that discussion might only have been possible then. As the times have changed I struggle to see how a space can now exist, as we live in a time where people cannot make their arguments without being shouted down by individuals who possess both entrenched opinions on everything and a financial incentive to be on the winning team. We need to have a space to be wrong and to thrash out the assumptions behind our collective stupidity.
Also there are some scrum notes for today.
The last month of Spring has begun and the weather is still atrocious. Welcome to 21st Century Britain! A corrupt ruling party and shit weather. We have it all.
Yesterday was a write-off. Things broke and I cooked dinner for my family.
Today has promise. Also I went into the cupboard under the stairs and extracted some of my favourite books. Sitting in a neat pile next to me are my copies of Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Other Essay, Samuel Delany’s About Writing, and Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose. Initially I went looking for the Theory of Prose and emerged with a slightly damaged food and eight other texts.
I’m calling today the start of the sprint because yesterday as non-eventful. The objects are to polish The Market Underground and to start putting words down for SILVER CHORD.
In retrospect I’m glad that I decided to concentrate on the technical framework for the Old Man and Evil Waiter storylet, as it means I can copy-paste the guts into the next one. I’m sad that I abandoned the story I was writing for Jon, but that happens. There is nothing to be mad about. It would be foolish for me to get annoyed with life getting in the way of project work.
CURRENT CRISIS: ONE 20g DOSE OF COFFEE LEFT!
Saturday, a day when the Walklate-Ellwood household sits in their shared office ignoring the world. Except not today, because the Ellwood half is heading out to a workshop session of the writing circle they attend. I haven’t looked outside today and the curtains are still drawn, so the weather could be anything and not surprise me.
Tomorrow Leicester City Football Club have a chance of winning the Premier League. If someone had told me this twenty years ago when I attended my only football match, a miserable second team match between Leicester City and Norwich, then I would have refused to believe it. This long held mood of low-expectations has start to lift over the city and blue banners are draped everywhere. This is an upheaval of the natural order and one which is pleasant to watch.
As I’m on foot most of the day and locked into a room for four hours this afternoon, along with the social activities I wish to enjoy after, today will I not achieve much. Because I intend to only have one or two drinks later I might be able to get some stuff done later tonight, but wouldn’t plan on it.
Yesterday’s food experiment worked. Today’s lunch will be whatever I can buy on Queens Road in Leicester, probably something from a nice deli. No idea what curry I’ll eat tonight.
THIS MORNING: Jen’s cat attacked my feet in a berserker rage!
Having a slow day to get started. There was a lot of activity yesterday and this is the weird middle day of a sprint, where I can see what I’ve done and I also can see ahead of me what’s left. I’ve been rereading the Fail Better Games Storychoices wiki this morning to refresh myself on a lot of their theory. I’m also trying to avoid playing their games Fallen London and Sunless Sea.
Maybe I’ll treat myself later.
Anyway it’s getting late in the day and I need to make myself some lunch, so the scrum notes are below.
It occurred to me after publishing this post that I didn’t set the goals for the sprint that started yesterday. They are fairly simple:
Of those three goals attending the workshop session is a fixed event in my calender and the bid for time has already been placed, and the second task is well on the way at the start of the second day.
LUNCH TODAY WILL BE: ONE POT TOMATO AND BASIL PASTA!