Personal Update & Various Reviews #1

I have to say, something does really tickle me about the idea of having a separate category of journal-y posts on a website already dedicated to me and my thoughts. What shameless micro-divisions of narcissism.

But on to the matter at hand.

How have I been feeling?


Or rather, depressed AF, as the kids would say. Wait, do they actually say that? Shit, in all honesty I didn’t even really know ‘what the kids are saying’ when I was a fucking kid. So I definitely shouldn’t count on doing any better now that I’m peering in from the outside.

The cool new slang — even saying that makes me sound like your mom ineptly trying to work the words ‘tight’ or ‘sick’ into a conversation all faux easy-breezy like — is, uh, not really my thing. Not least because by the time it reaches someone like me, it’s probably already at the very end of its coolness life-cycle. I’m talking withered body, audible death-throes here. (At which point, fast-food brands, via the millennial interns who work for their PR departments, will just be starting to use it in their adverts. To superficially seem edgy and relevant. E.g. ‘Burger King™ wants to slide into the DMs of your hungry tummy with these thicc Whoppers™!’)

Allow me to sketch for you that life-cycle. First of all, the jargon takes a while to emerge out of the formative womb of the internet. By which I of course mean the insular, arcane, utmost molten core of Twitter. This is a realm of frenetic hyper-activity and kinetic urgency. I couldn’t tell you exactly why, but I envision it as being like a gargantuan spherical fish-tank filled with liquid fire. Wherein swim and skitter about absurdly agile, absurdly fast metallic spider-bots, which occasionally bump into each other and emit a screechy, distorted facsimile-recording of laughter.

You know, on second thought, maybe I should talk to my doctor about lowering the dose of this new medication…

Anyway, I’m sure you know the well-revered young, cool layer of Twitter I’m referring to. I’m more or less as ignorant an outsider as could be, but here are my general impressions of it nonetheless. (Look, this is my site. And I’m not here to not talk to you, you know?) It’s a place where capitalizing the start of sentences or using even semi-adequate punctuation is seen as a heinous faux pas which reveals that at birth you must have somehow ended up with an old-fogey soul trapped inside you, like coming across a fancy new laptop inexplicably running Windows 95. It’s a place where strategically left-in typos are seen as a marker of ultimate carefree authenticity. (The amount of time and effort one can sometimes sense has been put into finessing the off-the-cuffness of a purportedly hastily written off-the-cuff tweet is insane. Doing that must require having a very low opinion of the reader’s basic perceptiveness.) It’s a place largely peopled by those who strangely, unabashedly treat Twitter like a full-time job, and one they’re desperately, desperately trying to seem ‘good’ at. Who they’re hoping to win some kind of attaboy from I do not know; I wonder whether they do either. It’s a place where you can simultaneously bemoan the dumbing down of mainstream entertainment whilst happily bandying around an endless stream of low-effort memes which just recycle the same three or four kinds of tired, excruciatingly unfunny jokes.

The hip (or lit? fire? chill? boss? dope?) new words and sayings coined in this place eventually start to filter up through the various planetary strata of popular culture. You know the type of thing I mean. They’ll appear as some throwaway look-how-cutting-edge-streaming-shows-are joke in whatever Netflix’s next big show is or in the please-believe-I-still-understand-teenagers lyrics ghostwritten for whatever Katy Perry’s next hit song is. And only after all that probationary rigmarole does it finally breach the surface. Where it’s greeted with a shrug from us slow-moving out-of-touch folk who contently graze across the land and low skywardly at the pleasant novelty of each new full moon. A sort of cultural Eloi, if you will.

Now, don’t get it twisted. I’m not one of those people who’s obnoxiously proud of being a curmudgeonly coolness-luddite (and who lets you know that at every opportunity — bleh!), any more so than I am of having an ear on the left side of my head and an ear on the right side of my head. It’s just who I am. And I’m not gonna pretend otherwise.

Besides, how could I? If you’re not keyed into a specific piece of knowledge, it’s not like there’s some way to fake it.

Case in point: when I heard the term ‘thirst trap’ without any context, I dare say my first thought was that, hey, it’s been a while since I read ‘Dune’, so maybe I’m just forgetting that that’s one of the contraptions used by the moisture-coveting desert dwellers.

Alas, no. And when I found out that it actually refers to the practice of posting selfies to Instagram in which you think you look particularly attractive or sexy in order to entice an influx of compliments from lonely, overeager commenters, I was… confused. There seemed to be an unexplainable redundancy involved. My understanding is that that’s always been one of the most widespread and conspicuous pastimes on the platform. Like, it’s one of the primary ways in which people Instagram (v.), if you’ll forgive me the use of that janky neologism. So giving it its own name, therefore, seems somehow slightly superfluous. It would be like coming up with a term for people folding their pizza slice in half to eat it. We don’t need that. In my judgment, ‘eating pizza’ is already a perfectly sufficient catch-all. There’s only a couple ways it’s done, and they don’t all need their own specific shorthand to refer to them. At the end of the day, you’re just picking up the pizza (or ‘za, if you insist on being insufferable) and inserting it into your mouth somehow. Similarly, you’re taking photos and uploading them to Instagram (or the ‘gram, if… well, see above) to garner attention of some variety from online strangers. It’s all good. We can easily mentally encompass all the forms either one may take. No glossary needed, I promise.

I… concede that I’ve ventured very far from my original point. I think I’m perhaps just unconsciously stalling because talking about your depression seems to have become so blasé nowadays.

Although I suppose it depends on the particular mould of the listener to some extent. For example, I don’t mind telling you that I’ve dealt with depression, to starkly varying degrees, since I was a kid. But then again you’re also just a faceless, nondescript projection of my ego. Accordingly, you are infinitely sympathetic and enthralled by the horseshit minutiae of my life and opinions. Which, I feel I should add, is very good of you. What a truly fine fellow or lady or non-binary/genderqueer cutie-pie you are.

However, when talking to, say, other creative types/introverts, stating that you have depression has a very different feel to it. It’s a disclosure which has all the arresting pointlessness of announcing that “actually, if you care to know, my body has been turning oxygen into carbon dioxide for quite some time now…” The rest of the clearly-respiring people around you are unsure how to respond. The first traces of a moue are beginning to coalesce on their faces. Their taken-aback blinks might as well be morse-code transmitting the retort ‘gosh, what a special snowflake you are…’ And now you suddenly kind of feel like an unpardonable ass for even saying it.

Ah, whatever, maybe I’m just grousing about nonsense. (Which, blow me down, could easily have been the alternate name for this blog. In fact… the merch t-shirts haven’t been printed — return my calls, Joe at Print4Less, you motherfuck — so I guess nothing is set in stone, or a mid-priced poly-cotton blend, just yet. Listen, I changed the name of my podcast two years in; this site better hold onto its pretentious subtitle for dear life. I might well change it on a whim. Try me, blog. Just try me. I’m as fickle and mercurial as can be.)

Alright, let’s move on. I should probably stop giving all these silly reasons why I don’t want to talk about myself — because I know you’re smart enough to not believe a word of it — and just goddamn start talking about myself.

So… where to start? Basically, I was in a really good place. An oddity that, but there you go. There was a period immediately after I finished my novel where I really felt like I had my shit together. Or at least I was definitely heading in that direction. Jogging down the road whose signposts successively inform you that ‘In 50km you’ll be a productive, self-actualized human being’, ‘In 40km…’, ‘In 25km…’, etc. I was writing regularly, reading regularly, exercising regularly, all that good stuff. I was optimistic and motivated.

But the invisible flux of brain chemistry is, as always, the great humbler, the permanent reminder that we are only ever in partial control of ourselves and our destiny. Well, until neurology becomes a completed science and nanotechnology is as cheap as french fries, I suppose.

It’s so amazing/upsetting how the depression can seem to just come out of nowhere sometimes. No particular event or change in circumstances seems to instigate it, it just arrives. As it did here. And then for the last couple months, I’ve just been chronically pretty-down. Listless and melancholic and whatnot. I’ve been dealing with some kind of morose ennui, a sense of just aimlessly drifting along. The days come and the days go and they barely make an impression. Let alone furnish any opportunity for escape.

Y’know, in some kind of quantum time-warp thingamajig wormhole, fourteen year old me is reading that and laughing maliciously. I can’t really blame him, in a sense. He has every right to say to me “you’re seriously whining about this mild 5/10 shit?”

I dealt with the most severe depression I’ve ever experienced for most of my teen years. When I look back, it’s flabbergasting just how unremittingly and profoundly unhappy I often was. It was dark, it was bleak, it was awash with shades of joyless grey. For real. And, to a certain degree, in hindsight I’m inclined to think that one of the things which enabled me to even survive it at all was being so unaware of just how fucking bad it really was. I had no frame of reference, no means of comparison. I had no way of knowing whether it was barely worse than the garden-variety blues or whether I was the single most miserable creature on the planet Earth. It was impossible to say. I had to just withstand it and tell myself that the fast accumulating emotional scar tissue was probably no more than any other adolescent could expect in the normal course of their awkward years.

That’s why I almost feel bad for complaining about instances of depression like what I’m going through now. There’s an internalized sense of guilt at struggling with something which is, in truth, a much lesser form of what the younger version of myself (who didn’t even understand his tribulation, who endured far more exacerbating factors, and who had a much sparser support system than I have) somehow made it through by dumb luck and sheer resilience.

My depression has fluctuated greatly since I was a teenager. And nothing, pharmacological or otherwise, has ever really worked long-term as a preventative. After a while, I kind of just gave up on outside help and devised my own coping techniques. They work remarkably well, I have to say. Especially because they’ve been combined with the incidental changes in my life which removed certain sources of stress and confinement. So that, in recent years, my depression has generally been relegated to a fairly minor problem. Even so, it is still very much a protean enemy. As in, it has more or less disappeared at times. Other times it has crept in gradually and harangued me in a meagre, slow-acting form for a long period. Other times it has popped up all of a sudden to utterly devour a stretch of several weeks in a deafening, blinding, suffocating maelstrom of extreme sadness, and then vanished. Overall, I’ve come to think of it like those fanatical pockets of soldiers who don’t realize the war is over and their side has signed an armistice, who instead retreat into the jungle and conduct a nuisance-level guerrilla warfare campaign against their former adversary now that they’re trying to enjoy the dividends of peacetime.

This current bout of depression has also reminded me that something I really, really hate about being depressed is how it makes you feel like you’re not yourself. Like you’re just a detached shadow, trapped in a limbo of existential lethargy where nothing seems worth doing, waiting to resume your real form. (A cliché, yes. But sometimes clichés come alive and seem indispensable.) It makes you act unlike you normally would: I tend to eat my bodyweight in brownies and sleep way, way too much. It makes you think unlike you normally would: I get all gloomy and self-pitying. Essentially, you’re operating at half-capacity, just trying to while away the time and get through the day over and over until someday soon, hopefully, maybe, you’ll start feeling like your usual self again. But boy can it be a galling, exasperating wait…

As an endnote, I think it definitely doesn’t help that I’m also just bummed out that summer is here. Boo! Bad timing! Begone impetuous sun! This poor pasty subastral-being rejects your deadly/essential rays! I hate the crippling heat. I hate the ultra-bright sunshine. Always have, always will. Really, the only thing which ameliorates this annual negative reaction now is that we finally bought an AC unit last year. It’s fucking awesome. It has truly been a game-changer. I liken it to having grown up with scrubbing dishes by hand as a perennial, mind-numbing chore and then finally getting a dishwasher. (Which, as a matter of fact, also happened to me in the last few years.) It’s like you can never even imagine going back.

What have I been playing/watching/reading?

I started playing Rage 2 recently. And yes, sadly it’s just as bland and lacking as those cacophonous ‘mehs’ from the chorus of consensus had assured me beforehand. It’s kind of a weird duck though. In a bunch of intangible, hard-to-articulate ways, it feels like a well-made AAA game, or has the patina of one at least. But then you scrape away a little of that patina with your fingernails and you realize it has just been artificially spackled all over a transparent balloon. There’s just a hollowness at its core which makes the whole experience feel kinda soulless and pointless. This is made even worse by the fact that the game is going for a (now inescapably Borderlands-esque) quirky, irreverent, super-stylized thing centered around the worship of gleeful hyper-violence. Because it just very palpably doesn’t… work. Much of it seems so forced and so lame.

I’m truly not trying to be mean here, but I also can’t deny that the game has a generic, born-in-a-marketing-meeting quality to it. It just feels a bit like if a group of stuffy country-club old men were tasked with putting out an authentic seeming anarchist-punk zine. Now, if they’re smart and perceptive, they might even get kind of close with their counterfeit. There’s always somewhat of a formula one can reverse-engineer and follow, of course. So they might well discern all the things it needs to say, the visual it needs to nail, the emotional resonances it needs to hit, and take a stab at replicating them all. But even a 99% accurate forgery won’t pass muster with anyone who intuitively, even subconsciously, grasps what makes the real version so compelling, so affecting. Everything resides in that final, decisive 1%. I’m not positive why. It just does.

As opposed to its insipid emulation of both the MadMaxian look and its vibe of fun, outrageous chaos, I actually don’t have any strong feelings about the gameplay itself either way (though indifference is perhaps even more damning than ‘faint praise’ is notoriously claimed to be.) There’s nothing wrong with the shooting or driving mechanics. They’re just… fine. Adequate. Competently playable. But there’s nothing very satisfying or engaging about them. I mean, I’ll put it like this: Rage 2 is the type of game I would (and do) happily play in a semi-distracted state while I’m puffing and pedalling away on my stationary bike for exercise. And that’s the kind of anti-accolade a game should never want to win.

At any rate, I freely admit that I’m not super far into the game, so I don’t want to sound like I’m being conclusive. All this is just my quote-unquote early impressions I guess. Hard to see how everything is going to dramatically improve once I hit, like, hour twenty though…

(Also, as a random aside, what the hell is up with several recent games not including a flashlight, despite having very dark areas to explore? First it was ‘The Division 2’, now ‘Rage 2’. That crap is mucho irritating. There’s no way it can be an accidental omission either; QA testers would no doubt have voiced their chagrin with it at some point. It must be some kind of weird intentional choice to heighten tension when battling foes who lurk in the shadows or something. And, alright, I get that. But, listen, in my opinion you have to earn the right to employ that sort of aggravating creative indulgence. You need to be offering up a rich-storytelling, atmospheric game like ‘The Last of Us’ where hostile encounters actually feel real and grounded and inherently tense. Not a looter-shooter where the undisguised hedonic treadmill features you repetitively mowing down hordes of cookie-cutter enemies and searching each of their corpses for enough currency to buy some garish new gold or neon-red or kitten-pawprints weapon skin.

Moreover, in any game where there is a copious sprinkling of containers to open or items to collect in pretty much every room you visit, it’s just immersion-breaking and stupid that I have to crank up the brightness setting in the menu to maximum so that I can even vaguely make out what’s nestled in dimly-lit corners and crevices. So any way you cut it, it sucks. Please go ahead and consign it to the good-in-theory wastebasket forever, developers. These aren’t choose-your-own-adventure audiobooks we’re paying for. These are video-games. The clue is in the name. We want to be able to see what the fuck is happening.)

I’ve noticed that when I’m depressed, I instinctively revert back to the old familiar pleasures of nostalgia for some guaranteed, undemanding comfort. Beloved video-games, especially. And so I was trying to think of one I haven’t replayed in a while. I wanted something I could really get lost in.

Nothing on consoles sprang to mind (given the spate of ‘remastered editions’ in the last five years, I’ve just replayed a lot of stuff too recently) or was readily available. And, unfortunately, my actual PC is borked right now — I think that’s the technical term, no? — and I just don’t have the energy or patience required to endure the tedium and frustrations of step-by-step hardware troubleshooting. (It gives me flopsweat-inducing flashbacks just thinking about it. The only thing I hate more than life itself is fixing inexplicably-broken computers.) Eventually I’ll get around to it, I’m sure, but not now.

Still, I realized that my girlfriend’s laptop — it’s fairly powerful, she uses it for video-editing — might be a workable option here. I figured I should surely be able to plug my monitor and keyboard/mouse into it and play old games with silky-smooth performance no problem. And the ‘old game’ of choice was obvious…

I’m currently progressing through my umpteenth replay of Deus Ex, one of my favorite games of all time. And, my god, I can’t help but conclude yet again: what a masterpiece that game is, truly. I just have such overflowing affection for it. It unfailingly gives me that glorious nostalgia-bomb of ultra-potent warm fuzzies. I’m not kidding when I say that I could easily write fifty pages about why it’s so awesome, why it was such a spectacular achievement for its time, and so on. But I’ll spare you all that for now. I’ll just say that I admire so much how fucking out-of-its-mind ambitious the game is when it comes to its philosophical underpinnings, how unapologetically self-serious the plot is, how unbelievably good the music is (one of the very best video-game OSTs ever, for my money), the intricate world-building, the classic cyberpunk aesthetic, the moody atmosphere, how tight the RPG/FPS gameplay is… /gushing

I’ve been playing it with the much-lauded GMDX (v 9.0.3) mod, which makes relatively subtle but comprehensive tweaks and improvements. It’s a real love letter to Deus Ex. That’s as unmistakable as can be. It sets about painstakingly buffing out the few blemishes and polishing the rest whilst faithfully keeping every facet of the game’s essence intact. Seriously, it warms the cockles of my little fanboy heart to see. I’m about halfway through this current replay and it’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve liked every single change I’ve noticed. Especially how much prettier the game is and all the quality-of-life refinements. And, overall, I just appreciate that you can really sense the restraint being exercised as to what even ought to be altered at all. That right there is the sign of an excellent enhancement-mod.

It’s strange, I’ve been playing PC games for a long time (sometimes dabbling in using mods, sometimes not) but you know what I now realize I’ve never really stopped to contemplate? When it comes to the culture of modding, there’s something fascinatingly unique about how the relationship of fans to their favorite video-games evolves in the years and decades after its release. If a game is particularly adored, die-hard devotees of it can dedicate themselves to continually improving it for a very long time. To the point where… okay, let’s take Deus Ex as an example. Although this will strike any purists as nettlesome heresy (and, on some level, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to that view), if you’ve never played the game, I would personally recommend you use a mod such as the above-named even for your very first playthrough. Best I can tell, that’s all upside. You’re adding something which helps it look and play better, whilst preserving everything which makes Deus Ex… Deus Ex.

That’s why certain modded versions of a game, when they’re carefully considered and well executed, earn a special status. They rightly become regarded in the respective community as the definitive way to experience or re-experience it. Because they prune the ugly parts and missteps and limitations and simply help the game in question shine the way it was originally intended to.

As far as I know, there’s not really any analogue to that in other artforms. At first blush, the restoration of an old painting seems like it might be an equivalent. But look closer. In that case you’re simply performing a sort of maintenance, reversing decay and hopefully preventing further damage. It’s really just a struggle to replicate and preserve a perceived status quo, rather than to add a scaffolding of improvements on top of the work itself.

And elsewhere I can’t think of even a faulty comparison. Are cinephiles making and distributing their own cuts of Citizen Kane? And if so, have these unofficial edited versions become the widely-recognized best way to watch the film? Perhaps it’s because I’m not immersed in that world at all, but I haven’t heard of any such examples.

I suspect it all comes down to the fact that you can put your hands into the actual guts of a video-game. You have full control. You can view and modify the all-important underlying source code itself, and make big, fundamental changes to it. And what’s also really intriguing to me is that you can even discover unused, half-finished levels that the developers ran out of time to bring to fruition, but left in there behind the curtain nonetheless. How fucking rad is that? In some instances, modders even take it upon themselves to finish and release these hidden-away parts. And if they’re trying to follow what they deduce to be the original intention, it’s arguable that then re-integrating these lost pieces back into the game is an act of belated completion. So that, in a sense, those modders become the phantom nth team members of the original development studio.

Whereas in the world of… let’s say…. filmmaking, things are very different. Sure, as the viewer, you might be granted a few deleted scenes on the DVD or Blu-ray release. If you’re lucky. Yet there’s no way to access the original unedited shooting footage (a.k.a the ‘dailies’, I believe) — it’s not like that’s secretly spliced into the finished film itself — and rejig it all from the ground-up. Exact same thing for literature, in point of fact. You get the finished book and only the finished book. It’s immutable and final. There aren’t an assortment of excised pages stapled in there on the flyleaf for perusal and creative reintegration by the most dedicated fans.

I suppose what I’m ultimately saying is that I imagine each creative medium has its own unique benefits, and this is a somewhat underdiscussed, underappreciated one for video-games. Because it’s goddamn amazing. We’re talking about art which is, long-term, inadvertently collaborative. I think the implications of that are deeply, deeply fascinating.

Furthermore, I guess I also just find it stirringly romantic that a game can strike a chord so profoundly with its fans that almost twenty years later they’re still lovingly up-resing the graphics and fine-tuning the gameplay systems and fixing the technical flaws (especially the unexpected bugs which arise from playing on modern hardware). They’re helping the next generation of gamers to enjoy it as much as they did and to see why it’s so special. For the game’s creators, it must be so gratifying to know that your work affected players so strongly. Witnessing how decades later there’s still such a rarefied sense of connection must help retroactively make all those long nights during crunch-mode seem so very worth it…

I’ve finally gotten around to reading ‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson — one of the crown jewels in the cyberpunk canon — and I’m really digging it. I will say that the very beginning was perhaps a bit too wacky and over-the-top and comic for my liking, but I’ve enjoyed some of Stephenson’s other work so I was happy to trust him. I stuck with it until the story really kicks in and then it definitely grabbed me. 

Additionally, I feel I ought to admit that Stephenson’s writing is so pitch-perfect and cleverly inventive that it’s both pleasurable and painful to read. It’s a pleasure because it’s so good. It’s a pain because it’s so good, and I can’t help but compare myself very unfavorably to it. He has this way with imagery and metaphors where you’re just constantly in awe of how creative/well-phrased/poetic/eclectic his mental store of references is. A small example may help to illustrate my point. Early on, he describes an all-black stealth helicopter flying away and disappearing into a starless night as being “like a hockey puck sliding into a bowl of India ink” and I… like… truly didn’t even know what to do with myself. I pretty much had to just focus exclusively on the biomechanics of my breathing and blinking for a little bit. Up-down-up-down goes the chest. Up-down-up-down go the eyelids.

And, yeah, he kinda pistol-whips you with something like that — something effortlessly brilliant, something you could ruminate for a week and fail to improve on — about a half dozen times on each page. Like I said, how densely packed the impressiveness is is really something to behold. Gulp.

I’ve also been reading David Foster Wallace’s essay collection entitled ‘Consider The Lobster’. In terms of its effect, it’s a similar story really. Bittersweet. It’s so good it hurts. He’s absolutely as-billed: masterful prose, exquisitely witty, startlingly insightful, unflinchingly frank. All the dust-jacket review clichés really. I mean, fuck. It’s the type of thing which grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you and screams in your face that you really have no right not to be writing all the time. Until you get even a quarter as good as something like this, forsake all distracting luxuries like sleeping or eating or even your morning ablutions. Just get to fucking work. Hone your craft, become obsessed with your art. Tirelessly, single-mindedly make getting-better your raison d’etre. And when it comes to the reading of authors whose wet ink you are not even fit to blow on to help it dry faster? Happily permit that to be the hair-shirt which constantly pesters and discomforts, rousing you and reminding you to stay the course.

What have I been writing, elsewhere?

I wrote a three-thousand word poem on another writing blog I have. I’m extremely ambivalent about how well it turned out. It’s not only the first poem I’ve worked on in two years, given my myopic dedication to finishing my novel. It’s also the first time I’ve ever really written a full-length piece of poetry in free verse, and I struggled greatly with that.

T. S. Eliot is, for several reasons, not someone whose remarks I instinctively reach for when it comes to spouting received wisdom, but his famous quote that “no verse is free for the man who wishes to do a good job” is as piercingly astute and valuable an aphorism as you will ever, ever find. It was replaying in my head on a ceaseless, mocking loop as I scribbled down my own paltry efforts.

Alack. But it is done now. And, if nothing else, it’s good practice.

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