Notes on Productivity & Procrastination

Today’s post is one that I have wanted to write for a long time. I would like to think that my experiences and methods for battling procrastination (not just writer’s block), detailed herein, will be relevant to everyone- and hopefully useful too. But it is needless to say that this post will be especially relevant to those of you trying to get some writing done. Now, I am sure those who know me will laugh at the very premise of me authoring a post about productivity, much as they would a lecture by Charles Bukowski on the merits of abstinence. But I have been on my grind for a few months now with my writing and reading targets. Seriously- just call me Waka Flocka Flame, because at the moment I’m going Hard in the Motherfucking Paint.

Anyways, any kind of discussion of my productivity begins with my early school years. I was always a hyperactive kid, and never too interested in what school had to offer. I got bored easily and caused trouble. This was especially true in those younger years, and it didn’t take long for me to be placed, without much exactness, on the Austistic Spectrum. Long story short, by the time I was 10 I was seeing a child psychologist, and when I got to Secondary School by the age of 11, the new regime was fully prepared for my arrival and assigned me a series of teaching assistants to sit with me in science classes (where I struggled most), who helped me concentrate. Now, all that is a blog post for a later time, and without being too much of a tease, there’s a lot more of that story to tell. But the point is, I was faced with the same conclusion: that I just couldn’t concentrate. That was the message delivered to me by my teachers throughout my academic career. I wasn’t the worst student ever- perhaps average- but my problem lay in my short attention-span and my discipline. I just couldn’t get passionate about any of the work, no matter how important the exam or the essay might have been to both my immediate and long term future.

So I grew up with the sense that laziness was something innate to my character, as permanent a fixture of my identity as my eyes are brown. Throughout school and university I always got away with the absolute bare minimum of effort. I’ve lost count of the number of literature exams I have entered into without ever having read the book. I could not will myself to care. But I have, over the years, employed various techniques to give myself that get-up-and-go, that thirst for the day ahead, that everyone else seemed to have. For periods of time, they all worked. But sure enough, be it circumstance or a lack of the necessary willpower, I would return to lethargy and I told myself that laziness was here to stay and the plans were not. However, in recent months I have found a growing strength within myself that is threatening to cast those long-standing doubts aside.

I was given a piece of advice last summer, during my stay in Houston, TX, that has completely changed my outlook. My hope is that fellow people- both writers and non-writers- who are reading this, will be given some modicum of belief that procrastination isn’t here to stay- not if we don’t want it to. It was at a very vulnerable moment in my life- a moment of intense doubt- that my close friend told me, with as much conviction as if she were explaining that day goes into night, that laziness is not a trait, but rather, a temporary condition- one which can be borne of several factors. It must be stated at this point that this lady is something of a genius in the field of behavior analysis. She knows the human mind about as intimately as a seasoned thespian knows the works of William Shakespeare, and much like the veteran stage actor can quote at will with perfect memory a line from Hamlet, so too can she draw upon the teachings of Skinner and the other great behaviorists.

I was reminded of her words months later, when I was writing and reading every day with a fresh and boundless enthusiasm morning after morning. I thought to myself, well if I- of all people- can get out of the rut of procrastination, and even change my sense of self, then there is hope for just about anyone. So rejoice, lazy folks- you’re not a lost cause. You’re probably wondering at this point what my secret is- why have I suddenly started living my life differently? Well the truth is there is no life-altering switch, no single reason, and I more or less surprised myself with the abandonment of years’ worth of behavior. It was the removal of several habits, and the addition of new ones, which with continued incorporation into my daily routine, became less of a conscious effort, and more a natural and automatic component of my day as showering and eating. Now, I ain’t a behavioral therapist, so I won’t presume to tell you readers anything about the complexities of human thought and action, but I am fairly confident now that who we are is not set in stone, that we can through practice and a healthy environment, mold our behavior to become the person we want to be.

I will now go through the habits I find conducive to productivity, and those that I believe are detrimental. I should state right now that whilst I am confident I’m on to something (given this year’s unprecedented progress), I am merely detailing what works for me. I’m sharing with you my writing environment, and the methods I use for success, and I am not so ignorant as to suggest that this is some kind of golden and universal path to becoming the next Wallace Stevens. Right off the top of my head I can think of techniques that don’t work for me, but which propelled other writers to becoming absolute ballers- namely, Hemingway’s having to stand up as he typed his manuscripts, and Marcel “The Michael Jordan of Modern Literature” Proust’s finding that he worked better living a nocturnal lifestyle.

  • A Healthy Sleep Cycle. This, I think, is absolutely crucial. I have a tendency to be a bit of a night owl. My bad habits include going on Youtube on my phone whilst in bed, and doing things like watching NBA highlights, gaming videos, or listening to those creepy real-life horror stories from Reddit and such. This would result in me being unable to get to sleep until the early hours of the morning, sleeping in until noon, and being stuck with that awful feeling of being tired but unable to sleep. I was told by my best mate that the reason for this was that the artificial light produced by my phone was essentially tricking my body into stopping its production of melatonin. So now I read before bed, which helps tucker me out. And the earlier I can get to sleep the better- since I find that I am most prolific in the morning. The hours of 9am-12pm are basically my golden period for writing efficiency. Not only do I tend to work well then, but having gotten stuff done early I find that I am much more upbeat and happy throughout the rest of the day, even if my energy levels wane later on.
  • The Use of Music. This is perhaps a matter of personal preference, but I have found that I can only get some writing done with a limited use of music. For me, writing is very much a testosterone-fueled endeavor; it’s what gets me pumped. My feeling at having completed a short story or a blog post is akin to that of a ball player dunking over someone, or an MMA fighter producing a knockout blow. I get seriously jacked. So I often prepare for a period of writing much in the way an athlete might try to psych him or herself up before a game. So my choice in music has to reflect that. Last summer during my stay in Texas I would work on my travel blog every morning, and often ask my friend what song I should choose to get started. It would often be something like “Bleed it Out” or “Run This Town”. I’d pick the baddest rap song I could find, play it once, and often begin writing during the song. Once the song was over I would write in silence. I generally find music with lyrics in it to be quite distracting whilst trying to get some writing done, so I will employ it only in the form of these pump-up songs, which I will listen to once and only once, at the very beginning of the work. If I am looking for some ambience whilst writing, it will either be something instrumental and relaxing, like the soundtrack to The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, or more often than not, it will be one of those videos you can find on Youtube of rain falling on a tin roof or the sounds of a summer night from the deep south, alive with the soothing clicks of bush crickets. My favorite recently has been listening to the songs of whales, which I find so majestic.
  • Kinetic energy. Writers are by and large a sedentary bunch. But if you are struggling for ideas, or just can’t get into the right frame of mind, then get your ass moving. To quote from fitness guru Lauren Gleisburg, “physical strength translates to inner strength”. To be a writer you have to be strong. You have to be a bull moose. I have no illusions about half-assing it the way I did my schoolwork. Great mental fortitude is needed, and I have found that regular exercise is extremely helpful in getting my mind sharp and creative. It gets the blood pumping and helps generate ideas. Most mornings in the last two summers I spent in the US (in Wisconsin and Texas respectively) my roommate and I would hit up the basketball courts and enter into intense, hard-fought and competitive games of one-on-one, before returning to the apartment and trying to get some work done. But even if you can’t exercise in the morning, or you don’t have a basketball court, I have found that simply moving is enough. For a while I based my whole productivity scheme around movement and kinetic energy. Just taking our border collie for walks in the Texas sun last year, and breathing in the fresh air, was a great way to feel consistently active, alert, and would be a nice opportunity to clear my head. In the mornings, either as a cool-down after exercise or as its own thing, I like to go for a walk before getting back and opening up the ol’ laptop.
  • Eating heartily. Now this ain’t a fitness blog, so I won’t tell you what to eat. Go see Lauren’s blog for that. But simply eating a lot and being well fed will make a difference. Writers need fuel. I have seen a massive improvement in my energy levels over the past year by the rapid expansion of my appetite. I’ve gained 3 stone (approx. 45 pounds) in that short period, and I guess it is just common knowledge at this point that yeah, if you are going to be on that writing grind, you need to have an aggressive attitude towards the fridge and the pantry.
  • Know what you are going to do the night before. This is the piece of advice I feel most strongly about. For me it works every time. Whenever I am implementing a new productivity schedule or am deciding on new writing targets, I always do it before bed. It is imperative that I don’t leave it to the next day. For me it makes a world of difference waking up and knowing straight away what I have got to do. When I think back to my most lethargic and lazy stretches, I remember waking up without much purpose or idea of what to do with myself in a given day. I would either stay in bed or start playing something like Fallout 4 or Bioshock Infinite. And once I start that, it becomes so much harder to get something done that day and the hours start slipping like sand through my fingers. Like I said in my first point, whether I have a successful day or not is largely contingent on me having a good start.
  • Create a list. I think lists are good for writers, I really do. When trying to force myself out of a rut, the best strategy I have is designing a list of targets to be met the night before. There is nothing like the satisfaction of crossing them off. I haven’t had to use one for a while now, because my productivity has become second nature and I have some large ongoing projects that will be around for a while- but I often draw up plans for blog posts and stories in preparation for the next day. And I know that, should I slip back into a particularly bad rut, all I have to do to get out of it is create a list of targets before bed, and keep doing that until meeting those targets seems effortless.
  • Get off social media. In my earliest productivity schedules I put a total ban on certain things. In this point I will address what- for me- have been habits detrimental to my efficiency. Social media- checking Facebook and Instagram- is the obvious one, and probably not one you really need me to tell you is a waste of your valuable writing time. Youtube is something I completely prohibit throughout a working day, and I use it only for the sole purpose of putting on a two-hour video of whale songs, like I stated above. When I was in my first year of university, and I committed to spending my spring semester writing one short story a day, I was able to do so by taking certain things away. I would not allow myself to play video games or watch Youtube videos until after dinner. I guess you could say it was like a reward system, and I would spend my evenings quite satisfied that I had earned my indulgences.
  • Alcohol. Personally I have not had any success whatsoever in writing whilst drunk. I think people like the idea of being a “literary badass” that never sits at his or her typewriter without a fifth of whiskey at hand. They point to the great drunks of the literary scene, like William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and Jack Kerouac and perhaps mistakenly attribute their genius to their love of alcohol. But, as a complete Faulkner fanboy, I can tell you that he didn’t drink whilst he was writing, but rather, he would go on a massive bender upon completing a project. As for McCarthy, he has been on record as saying that he can’t imagine anything worse for a writer’s productivity than being a lush, and that the likes of Faulkner and Hemingway most likely succeeded despite their drinking, and not because of it. As for Kerouac, he was dead at the age of 47 due to a massive abdominal hemorrhage, so yeah.
  • Create a Literary Scoreboard. This is something I used to great effectiveness in my third year of university, when writing my dissertation. I had to write the first 10,000 words or so of a short novel. For some reason I was set on writing this creepy story about a priest in Panama who goes insane and wanders off into the jungle, returning years later to bloodily murder the children at the Catholic mission/orphanage he used to run. Anyway, in order to keep myself productive, I grabbed a sheet of lined paper, filled in the dates in the margin, then created columns that read “Fiction”, “Poetry”, “Dissertation” and “Other”. In each one I would record how many words I wrote in a given day. This helped keep me from messing around binge watching The Walking Dead or wasting hours upon hours of my life playing Star Wars (*sigh*) The Old Republic. My motivation quickly became getting as high a number as possible and avoiding getting the dreaded blank spaces. It was a scoreboard, plain and simple. I hung it on the wall above my bed, and after showing my roommate (a fellow writer) one time, I swear he said “You know, that ain’t a bad idea”.
  • The Pomodoro Method. This is something I have used since studying for exams as far back as my school days. It’s an excellent technique for someone like me who has struggled concentrating and being attentive. If you haven’t used this before, it’s basically a system whereby you pick a task, go at it for 25 minutes or so, then take a short break. I often set a timer on my phone. It basically makes work (be it a single endeavor or multiple projects) seem a lot less daunting, by breaking it up into little bite-sized episodes divided by short breaks. This is something I still use, to help me manage getting work done on my blog, with my short stories, with my poems, and with my reading.

To conclude, I would say that my main piece of advice for creating a schedule that works for you, and trying to adjust your behavior to being more productive, is to understand your own pitfalls, to identify and isolate those ways in which you have gone wrong in the past. You have to regulate your own energy levels, and understand your fatigue, to essentially comprehend how best you respond to something and try and design your life accordingly, to find a lifestyle that suits you.


10 Reasons Why I Won’t Be Getting A Mass Effect: Andromeda Sequel

I feel like a little preface is needed here before I get into the juicy meat of what readers will know from the outset to be a very negative blog post. I want to say first and foremost that it saddens me that I have to write an article like this; the fanboy inside of me feels a touch of guilt at criticizing a game developer that has brought me such joy down the years. In fact, Bioware has been my go-to developer for games since I was about 12, and has served as a guarantee of excellent storytelling and engaging dialogue. Those nearest and dearest to me know that my favorite all time video game is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I have also enjoyed Jade Empire, SWTOR (even though I dislike MMO’s as a general rule) and of course, the Mass Effect trilogy. I got Mass Effect for Christmas 2007 after following its development online for about a year before it came out (so I guess I can claim to like it before it was cool?). I enjoyed all three games, and even though the ending of Mass Effect 3 was underwhelming, it didn’t ruin the experience for me. I’m also a Mako apologist. So I was shocked at how much I disliked the latest edition of the franchise. I figured it would at least be fun, if not transcendental. But the game was often painful for me to play, and I eventually found I could only tolerate the game in little increments, playing for about half an hour before retreating to my couch to read some Gabriel Garcia Marquez and remind myself what an engrossing narrative felt like. Which couldn’t be a starker contrast to my experience of the original trilogy. I remember when I got the Mass Effect 2 collector’s edition- it was a rainy day in 2010, and college was broken up for Easter break. I had overslept and missed the mailman, but once I saw his note to collect it before the post office shut at lunchtime, I grabbed this relic of the 1970s- a vintage raincoat I had bought on eBay- and ran outside without so much as a glass of water to wake myself up. I played that game all day without break. Anyway, the purpose of this far-too-long introduction is to convince you that I am not just some cynical hater. I also want to completely disassociate myself from those shit-lickers of the internet that blame the game’s failure on a feminist conspiracy to make the female characters ugly, and take it upon themselves to harass Bioware employees on Twitter with sexist abuse. Firstly- all the characters in this game are ugly, and none of them deliberately so- and secondly, as iconic as bending one’s crewmates over a Dejarik table and going at them with all the grace of a randy street dog in heat is to the series, it hardly constitutes the crux of the experience. This is really just the routine foaming-at-the-mouth of the kind of Alt-Right nerds that, if they ever left their sun-starved grottos and interacted with a real woman, would just as likely spontaneously combust as they would be able to formulate a coherent sentence. Right? Okay. Let’s get started.


#1 Bland Characters

I can’t remember being so disinterested in getting to know my NPC’s as in Mass Effect: Andromeda. In previous Bioware installments- be it Dragon Age Origins or SWTOR– I remember being excited at the prospect of chewing the fat with my party members at the end of each mission. Every squad member seemed original, unique and nuanced. In Mass Effect 2 and 3 I loved the loyalty missions for Miranda, who had this intriguing backstory with a well-crafted inner conflict (dealing with her nature as a person that was genetically designed to be perfect, and yet being as flawed, vulnerable and human as anyone else) and outer conflict (her crazy, megalomaniac father). And the ability to romance her was intertwined with this narrative in a very organic way, as opposed to the romancing of Cora in Andromeda, where the characters will say something sexually suggestive out of nowhere, in a sad and sinister reflection of how most RPG nerds assume courting works. The bad dialogue in this game is perhaps its own point, but is reflective of the bad characterization. Every time Drack or Peebee opened their mouths I groaned. Peebee in particular I found to be mind-numbingly irksome, and every time I passed by the escape pods and a voice would call out demanding that we talk, I kept right on walking. Maybe that invalidates my opinion on her character if I never pursued her loyalty mission, but I think it’s a point against the game if the motivation isn’t even there for me to get to know her. As for Drack, I found that everything he said just devolved to this generic grizzled old-timer cliché. He didn’t advance the Krogan species beyond the stereotype of being plainspoken and addicted to acts of unspeakable violence. The series’ inability to qualify this in any way is a waste of potential, and Drack by extension felt boring. He seems like a hollow shell compared to Grunt- the Krogan warrior from Mass Effect 2. Grunt had an interesting and poignant life story- grown in a test tube by a mad scientist, whom he feels a complex father-son relationship with, and subsequently shunned as an “abomination” by his people- and so it felt like his rage was all his own, it felt real, rather than just the typical Krogan “badass” whose rage comes included with his shotgun.

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#2 Technical Issues

This game was glitchy as hell at launch. I know they have released a patch since then that has smoothed out some of these bugs, but it is still flummoxing how a game 5 years or so in the making can be cleared for release with so many problems. Mass Effect Andromeda is by no means unique in this regard, and it is representative of a wider problem in AAA gaming of big titles being released fraught with issues. But Andromeda really does test one’s patience for these hiccups. The bugs were far too regular throughout the game; it seemed like every firefight I was in something would happen. Most common to my experience was having enemies float fifty feet in the air and remain there whilst we gunned them down. I also saw enemies glitch into walls and solid objects, leading me to be curious as to why the combat music was still going on whilst there were no enemies in sight. They would remain there protected from our attacks and presumably suffocating. The most aggravating of these issues (and I am referring here only to ones that would regularly occur; these are by no means anomalies) was the tendency of button prompts to vanish into thin air. More than once I could see the game would be directing me toward a computer terminal or an elevator switch, but there would be no means of accessing it. In order to progress through the game I had to reload my save, do the necessary gunfights again, and sure enough the means to interact with these objects would appear as if they had been there all along. Not cool.

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#3 The Fucking Scanning

Seriously, fuck this. I hated it in Mass Effect 2 and I hate it even more now. Not only have Bioware imported perhaps the worst aspect of the original trilogy, they have actually one-upped themselves by making it even more annoying with the addition of completely arbitrary space flight cinematics. This is the kind of nauseating vexation I expect from Hello Games, not the creator of role-playing nirvana (KOTOR). There is no sense of exploration and adventure to be had here, only an opportunity for players to put down their controllers during the loading screens and check up on their more worthwhile exploits, namely Tinder and Clash of Clans. That was my experience anyway- a total break in immersion. It was like the game was asking me to stop playing it.

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#4 The One-Dimensional Enemies

Although I applaud Bioware’s attempts to change the combat from cover-based monotony to something more tactical- particularly with the addition of the vertically brought about by the jetpack- they have fallen short in providing any memorable encounters in a setup that could have offered a plethora of possibilities. I’m gonna have to refer to Horizon: Zero Dawn here for an example of how to do in-game enemy design right. Each encounter in that game gave a sense immersive, swashbuckling excitement to it. Each enemy had a different set of behavior and required a different set of tactics. The range of weapons on hand and techniques available to take down these enemies was excellent. The encounters themselves were varied- one could find herds of giant robots grazing on a dusty mesa and go about taking them down with the feeling of a trained huntress, one could infiltrate a compound of bandits and take them out with the stealth and skill of the assassins of games such as Dishonored and Assassin’s Creed, one could stalk a massive animatronic stegosaurus through a dense jungle and feel the satisfaction of taking it down, or one could ambush a convoy of armored bots passing through a narrow canyon in the night and steal their cargo. All of these were challenging and above all rewarding. I remember being excited in Mass Effect: Andromeda seeing an enormous sperm-shaped robot in the distance flying above a crystal lake, only to find that taking it down was less a test of our wits and more of our endurance. The Remnant Architects are nothing more than bullet-sponges that you have to wear down in tiny increments in between dashing behind futuristic grain elevators. The enemies felt dated and uninteresting. Encounters such as those Kett lieutenants with the circling orb things were annoying not because they were especially challenging and nuanced (See Bloodborne etc.), but because there was no sense of chandelier-swinging heroism in simply wearing down that stupid bot and hoping I had timed the reloading of my ammo so as to get enough shots in before the bastard raised his shields again. Like I said, the encounters felt dated and simplistic.

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#5 Choices

Something that I think is absolutely iconic to the identity of the Mass Effect franchise is decision making. It’s what made the original trilogy so immersive. You could really feel the weight of every decision on your conscience; I was an emotional wreck leaving Kaidan Alenko (voiced by the inimitable Raphael Sbarge aka Carth Onasi) behind to die on Virmire. It seemed like every mission- even side quests- would present us with a complex and interesting choice that would occupy our minds long after we finished playing. There are simply too many to list. However Andromeda offered none of this. The only decision I can even remember making was that bit on the Kett starship where you have to choose between saving the Krogan prisoners or the Salarian swat team. After realizing I didn’t honestly care, I chose to save the Salarians. And the payoff I got was a grateful pat on the bum from the Salarian Pathfinder and my Krogan teammate Drack getting passive aggressive and snarky with me for about 15 minutes. This obviously pales in comparison to the confrontation with Wrex in Mass Effect and the whole Genophage situation in Mass Effect 3. He just seemed mildly irritated with me, like I had gone and eaten the pasta salad he’d made for work the next day. There was no decision in this game even remotely heart-wrenching.

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#6  Game Design

This is perhaps the most famous criticism of the game, that the facial animations are, shall we say, substandard. In an age where we are gifted works of art like The Witcher 3 and Horizon: Zero Dawn, interacting with the NPC’s of the Andromeda galaxy feels like we have gone back in time 10 years. A decade has passed since the original Mass Effect came out and I’m not sure the faces have gotten even a little bit better. But these criticisms have been so well documented by now that it feels like beating off a dead horse (or however that phrase goes). Anyway, there are other aspects of the game design, both technical and aesthetic, that I take issue with. Firstly, what the hell is up with those doors? The doors in this game take way too long to open. It’s laughable. The doors in Kadara Port and on the god-awful Tempest stand out the most to me, and I have observed other players complain about them as well. Overall, I just was not awed or enchanted by the level design or the character design. This was meant to be a new, exotic galaxy. One would hope to be sufficiently wowed by what they see. I remember watching Angry Joe’s review of the game, and something he said stuck out in particular to me. It was something along the lines of “why aren’t we fighting crystal-based lifeforms and cyborgs with the lower bodies of spiders?”. I realized then that other people were having the same reaction to the Andromeda galaxy as I was having. I couldn’t help but be bored with the alien species we met- of which there are only two I may add. The sense of wonder is completely broken by the Angara, who look like Twi-leks, walk like they have rickets, and talk with these ridiculous working-class British accents. Then there are the Kett, who I personally found to be both very dull and clichéd in both their appearance and their culture. The non-sentient beasts in this game are even worse, and look like they would be better suited to a light-hearted fantasy MMORPG. I don’t know if this bothered anyone else, but I got especially exasperated at seeing the same fauna on different planets with different ecosystems. The animals themselves didn’t seem to reflect their environment, or what may make their particular planet unique. For instance, on the ice planet, which your party members will remind you how cold it is every 10 seconds, there are these colorful lizards playing in the snow- something which to me seemed completely at odds with their habitat.

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#7 Fetch Quests

This is an issue I have been wrestling with for a while now- and not just in relation to Mass Effect: Andromeda. I took issue with it in Fallout 4, when every adventure boiled down to bloody Preston Garvey telling me (the supposed General) to go to the next burnt-out burger joint and horrifically murder the poor bastards squatting there so we can survive the apocalypse there instead. Andromeda echoes this trend of open world games turning into single player MMO’s. Are developers running out of ideas? Or are they just lazy- producing what we might call “game filler” to insist there will be over 200 hours of adventure ahead, and therefore plenty of justification for the 60 dollar price tag? Well, for an example on how to do rewarding side quests that give players content with some actual emotional resonance and gameplay variety- see The Witcher 3. Once I realized I was getting a paltry return for my time invested in the game’s side quests, I stopped giving a damn and ploughed through the main story. The mission log in Andromeda felt like a to-do list of inane chores. The quest that sticks out to me as the best example of this is in fact one of the first the game gives you. When you are on the Nexus, you are tasked with solving the galaxy’s first murder. However all this boils down to is talking to some guy in a holding cell, going to the nearest desert planet and scanning some evidence on the ground. It was like the game was afraid of trying to produce something really creative. This is in stark contrast to the legendary side quests of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which had faith that gamers could be entertained without shooting waves of Furbies or looting chests full of ankle bracelets. For instance, in that game, on the planet Dantooine, one is treated to a mission to solve a complex murder by interrogating several suspects and cross-examining their stories. Later in the game, there is another awesome side quest where you have to solve a well-written murder involving political intrigue and a clandestine romance on the water world of Manaan. Seriously, walking around the crime scene, interrogating the employees at the futuristic motel, and getting genuinely creeped out that forces beyond my power to see were about to stove in my head with a two-by-four made me feel like Karl Malden circa The Streets of San Francisco.

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#8 Dialogue

This kind of relates to point #5 a little bit. At first I was optimistic about Bioware’s removal of the Paragon-Renegade system. I recognized that players of the previous games would decide beforehand that they would embark on a “Renegade playthrough”, and that in essence, all the choices would be made for them right then and there during character creation, as they would spend the rest of the game being as much of a bell-end as possible in order to get the best bonuses. I was ready to welcome in a dialogue system more akin to Tell-Tale’s The Walking Dead, which would place players in the heat of the moment and give them more morally-complex decisions to make. How naïve I was! As we have already covered, there are little to no meaningful choices in the game. The dialogue system as a whole feels messy and actually kind of unnecessary. There is little variation in response or consequence depending on what you say, and there is little if any variety in interesting conversational options to choose from. It reminded me of Fallout 4 insofar as the conversations felt bland, with our protagonist unable to say anything truly malevolent or shocking. The most we were offered with Ryder was to make some painful attempt at lightening the mood. I have observed other gamers quite rightly taking issue with the contrived humor of the protagonist and his mates, who waste no time in completely detracting from any sense of a tense and thrilling atmosphere by spouting off asinine, non sequitur remarks and quips. Nothing that anyone says in the game seems to reflect what might be called believable human behavior, not in the way they romance each other or criticize each other. Also SAM. SAM needs to shut the hell up. I almost felt like the developers were trolling me as Ryder’s AI companion would narrate the rise and fall in the environment’s temperature every ten yards (no exaggeration) on that blasted ice planet.

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#9 Unoriginality

We’ve gone all the way to Andromeda…but it feels like we haven’t moved an inch. The game has the feel of being written by someone who has maybe played a Mass Effect game before and has subsequently found him or herself in the role of head writer, but would perhaps be better suited to something else, like sound editing…or possibly meatpacking. The possibilities for this game were endless. We could have been a space gangster, a scientist, a missionary for a bizarre futuristic religion, or perhaps a Drell assassin. Why can’t we be a Drell? Why are there no Drell in the game for that matter? We could have been a different species, following the suit of the character design of games like The Elder Scrolls or SWTOR. We could have been a part of a different strata of the galactic society, instead of a paramilitary super soldier again. It seems like the writers were given a template of how a Mass Effect game should be; the Asari biotic, the no-nonsense Krogan, the quirky pilot, the spunky female in her skin-tight jumpsuit. Then there’s the Ebon Hawk- I mean…Normandy- clone, the Tempest, which looks awful by the way. All this game did was remind me of what the previous games did better, the only saving grace of its utterly contrived, inorganic and poorly-edited scenes being that it prompted me to go on Youtube and revisit some of the classic moments of the original trilogy.

Mass Effect™: Andromeda_20170508181523

#10 The Sequel Tease

The original Mass Effect was a well-paced, expertly crafted story that was tight and self-contained. It left room for a sequel, but it also had its own beginning, middle and end. It worked because it pulled out all the stops and tried to tell the best story it could, without assuming it would be a hit and spawn more sequels, comics, novelizations etc. down the line. Whereas this game, based solely on its aesthetic continuity of the old series, assumes we will be invested in a sequel. The story feels incomplete, existing merely as just a sequence of events, none of them adding up to a greater arc. I won’t spoil too much, but anyone that has played the game can see that there is very clearly a sequel in mind, and that brings me to the whole point of this article- I’m not sure it deserves one. Right now, as I’m typing in the bar code of my copy of the game into MusicMagpie to try and get some cash back for it, I can’t help but think that Bioware should draw a line under it. It might be harsh to say, and those of you who bothered to read my little introductory paragraph will remember that I don’t say it lightly, but I think the game should exist as the equivalent of the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special– a failed experiment.

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: Sexual Jealousy & the Tonal Shift to End All Tonal Shifts

Last Thursday I was lucky enough to see a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Old Vic Theatre in Bristol. I’ve been going to the theatre pretty regularly since 2009, and so far I’ve gone to every Shakespeare play I can when I have been home. My dream is that one day I will have seen them all, and much like my dream to one day travel all 50 U.S states, I can’t wait to discover the unique beauty of each one. I would say Shakespeare is probably my favorite playwright, alongside my man Tennessee Williams. My favorite Shakespeare story is probably Hamlet; I feel like I could watch that play again and again and it wouldn’t get old. I tend to favor the tragedies and histories over the comedies, but that’s just my personal taste, and is reflective of my wider genre choices. When it comes to movies I tend toward dark, character-driven narratives like Killer Joe (2011) and Bone Tomahawk (2015) that explore the disturbing parts of the human psyche that most people would rather leave unexamined. And The Winter’s Tale definitely starts in this vein.

There was something very straightforward about the opening of the play. A couple of months ago I went to see Othello at the Tobacco Factory Theatres, which- like The Winter’s Tale– deals with the theme of sexual jealousy. However, in Othello, there is a careful build up to the manifestation of the titular character’s suspicions; it isn’t until Act Three that the Moorish prince even begins to consider that his lady love Desdemona might be cuckolding him. For the first two acts or so we have seen the couple’s romantic equilibrium. Conversely, The Winter’s Tale begins in disequilibrium; no time is wasted in establishing Leontes’ obsession with his queen’s fidelity. It is presented as an ongoing jealousy, and we as the audience are thrown into the middle of it, watching it fester, and wondering at its conception. In Othello, we see how and where his jealousy is created; everything that happens in the play is a result of Iago’s machinations, the lies he feeds Othello and the other characters. It is Iago that has the most agency in the narrative, and that agency is powered by Iago’s own jealousy towards Cassio for having gained the promotion he believed was rightfully his own.

Having watched the two plays in a relatively close time period, I have to say I find The Winter’s Tale’s treatment of sexual jealousy to be much more compelling. During the intermission of Othello, as I cradled my tub of strawberry ice cream in the warmth of my palms, I remember remarking what a numpty Othello was for having zero faith in his wife and damning her as a slut on the basis of mere rumor. Whereas in The Winter’s Tale, no explanation is given as to how Leontes became so jealous, and that provides a wonderful opportunity for us to examine the subtext and speculate on its origins. It suggests an insecurity of Leontes that is so exemplary of the machismo identity. There was something relatable about that uniquely male brand of jealousy- the fear of sexual inadequacy. Who among us- that is to say, males- has not felt something akin to this at least once or twice in our lives? It is an imperfect quality innate to our experience that can be traced back thousands upon thousands of years down the evolutionary timeline to our primal, animal selves. Perhaps one day a salesman at a convention feels a sudden rush of anxiety at the way his wife touches the bicep of his colleague as they chat away, out of reach. Perhaps a high school sophomore exits gym class to the mess of recess, and through that thicket of his peers, spies his crush laughing emphatically at the jokes of one of the other males. He resents the guy’s ability to make her laugh like that. This kind of jealousy occurs every day in a billion other scenarios- be it over a girl we don’t even know, or a wife we have loved for years. It speaks to our insecurities and our fears, and some of us may be more susceptible to such anxiety. This, in my opinion, is what makes Leontes a fascinating character. He may be a misogynist and a fool, but there is something so compelling, so human, about his raw and unbridled jealousy. Modern readers, I am sure, will agree that what is revealed about Leontes, King of Sicilia, is not so much his innate hatred of women as it is own symptoms of anxiety. For him, he can’t ignore what his mind chooses to see. For him, her fidelity is an obsession. The whole thing reminded me of a poem written by Hugo Williams called “Blindfold Games”, in which the narrator imagines his former lover and her new boyfriend making love. He is so obsessed with it- the idea of her own, independent, and self-serving sexuality- that he almost craves it, and describes in a very voyeuristic way how “I only have to close my eyes/and he is taking her by the arm/pushing her towards the bedroom”. The director of this particular production of The Winter’s Tale seems to be channeling Williams here. One technique I loved was that, as Leontes was giving his soliloquies about his suspicions, the director had the actors of Hermione and Polixenes remain on stage. He had them remain completely still, and the lighting dimmed over them, and then at certain points in Leontes’ paranoid ramblings, Leontes would go over to them and position them like statues, showing that the positions they took reflected what he imagined them to be doing. At one point during a soliloquy, Leontes positions his wife Hermione on all fours on a bench, and then has Polixenes grab her by the hips and start simulating the doggy style sex position, the faces of the actors remaining completely blank, the back and forth thrusting mechanics of their copulation seeming robotic. This helped establish that it was all in Leontes’ crazy imagination, that we the audience, had no evidence that the characters were actually fucking like rabbits somewhere out of view. In this way, Leontes is choreographing their lovemaking, reinforcing the idea that this may all be his paranoia. I thought this was a really creative technique on the part of the director, and right off the bat the play is established as an intense, psychological drama.

The first half continues much in this fashion. The intensity doesn’t let up for one minute- in fact it might be the single most entertaining first half of a Shakespeare play I have yet witnessed. I swear it had everything. There was the bit where the pregnant lady gets beaten into a premature birth, and the bit right before the intermission where the old dude gets hilariously mauled by a bear in the forests of Bohemia. Although I knew going in that scholars regarded The Winter’s Tale as one of The Bard’s “problem plays”, I didn’t know what exactly that meant, and I went into the play not knowing anything of the plot. I always like to go into a play fresh, and I only read about plays after I have seen them. And so halftime came and it felt like we had to catch our breath. Where the bollocks are they gonna go from here? I thought. I got a lemon sorbet and said to my dad “This is definitely a tragedy”. I actually said that. My prediction for the second half was that years would pass and the exiled daughter of Leontes would return to Sicilia only for the two of them to have filthy baboon sex without realizing they are related, whereupon they’d find out and the play would conclude with Leontes gauging his eyes out and Perdita jumping into a frozen lake with a bowling ball chained to her ankle. How wrong I was!

The tonal shift that occurs in this play has troubled viewers for centuries it seems. The second act is complete, light-hearted and bawdy comedy. It’s actually quite a shocking and sudden transformation from a first half that is nothing short of harrowing. It’s like someone taped over the final hour of Schindler’s List with the last hour of The Hangover. Of course Shakespeare is Shakespeare so the play was still entertaining and the jokes were reliably funny, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed the first half much more than the first. We were all in this super-serious mood at that point, and it’s kinda uncomfortable when that is subverted and suddenly you find yourself watching a bunch of merry farmers molesting large-breasted tavern wenches and lighting their own farts. I’m exaggerating of course, and the plot is very much continued and concluded, albeit in a much lighter way. The play cannot be considered a tragedy, as I had initially thought it to be, because its ending is straight out of the Much Ado About Nothing school of rom-coms- where everything gets wrapped up neatly, everyone is married off to the person they are meant to fall in love with, and everyone is reconciled. I don’t mean to make it sound corny- it is still extremely well done, and the director did a superb job of making the final scene actually quite moving. I thought the actors of Leontes and Hermione in particular did wonderful jobs- they must have been absolutely exhausted after the performance. Ultimately, I really enjoyed this experimental Shakespeare story, and found it to be full of interesting talking points.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

Like the novel with which it will be discussing, this review-come-journal entry will be apportioned into three distinct parts. In the first, I shall discuss how Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus ended up on my reading river, in the second I’ll give a spoiler-free profile of the book and what to expect, and in the third I will be offering some analysis and interpretation of the content therein. That way, I feel like I can write something that is inclusive to both those who have read the book and those I hope to tempt to pick it up on their next bookstore and fro-yo run.

Why Wolfe?

I got my copy of the book in a little store called Fopp in Bristol, England- which is near to where I currently live. It was December of 2016 and I had just that afternoon gone to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story at the local movie theater with my kid brother. We had a few minutes before our ride home would be ready to meet us, and so we decided to hit up this small indie store that sells DVDs, CDs and such for a discounted price. There is a small section of books and I went over to check them out as we enjoyed the warmth the store offered us from the frigid outdoors. By the time our ride had come I was leaving Fopp with three books under my arm. They each cost five pounds- which is pretty damn good for a book these days. My purchases were as follows: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Martian Time Slip by Philip K. Dick, and The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe. Back in the day I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I considered it my primary genre and would now and then dip into the classics of literary fiction for the purposes of gaining some knowledge of what I then considered to be the “essence” of something timeless; the craft and structural engineering of writing about the human condition. I read books like Dune by Frank Herbert and I wrote what my grandma called “space stories”. But then around the age of 18 or so, I abandoned science fiction altogether. I shed myself of it like a rotting carapace and never looked back. I focused exclusively on non-genre fiction and developed a particular worship for the works of Literary Realism. Why this sudden metamorphosis occurred I don’t really know, but perhaps no book was more influential on me- and more indicative of my new literary appetite- than Henry Miller’s outrageously debauched (and horrifically mistitled) novella Quiet Days in Clichy. It’s a fictionalized memoir of the author’s days as a struggling writer in Paris- and I won’t go too much into it here- but my days spent reading it on the bus I took to college marked the event horizon so to speak, of my abandonment of science fiction. Several years later and it is Christmastime 2017. There is a change in the winds. In recent months I have been craving some science fiction. I bought this book and Martian Time Slip in December but I didn’t start reading them right away. No, my return to reading science fiction actually came in the audio book version of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starman Jones– which I decided was a better use of my insomnia than watching endless videos of Shaqtin’ a Fool and Zero Punctuation on Youtube. I have taken a much more disciplined approach to reading recently (a subject that, perhaps, deserves its own blog post). In short, I found that being in a constant and continuous state of reading helps to keep me fulfilled and to keep the gnawing mongrels of anxiety at bay. The most effective and enjoyable way of achieving this, I discovered, was to share my reading adventures and keep myself accountable to an online blog. And that is the long version of how I ended up reading Gene Wolfe last week!

Six-limbed lobotomites, cannibalistic aborigines, & those robobrain things from Fallout. What’s not to like?

I took the time, before reading, to look over the introduction and the little bio they have for the author. What struck me straight away was that Gene Wolfe was an industrial engineer by trade. In fact, during the 1960s he developed the machine that cooks Pringles and ensures their hyperbolic paraboloid curvature. So I wondered for a minute if I might be in for one of those heavily scientific, hardboiled science fiction novels. But this was not so. I encountered much more scientific theory in Heinlein’s Starman Jones– in which every action was preceded by a paragraph of explanation. The descriptions of space travel- however dated they may seem to modern readers- I remember were very intricate. The Fifth Head of Cerberus felt like the opposite approach. Robot prison guards passed by without any exposition- and I liked it. There was something fleeting about Wolfe’s insights into the world he created, and there was no assumption on the part of the text that we wanted even the slightest clue into the more superficial details of its inner workings. Starcrossers are repeatedly referred to as being the primary mode of interplanetary transport, but since the specifics of their engines are a vestigial element to the story, Wolfe doesn’t waste our time going on about them. This brings me to what, in a nutshell, The Fifth Head of Cerberus is about. Well for starters, it’s actually three stories that coalesce thematically. When I first got it, I expected it to be a singular plot with three overlapping perspectives. I then learned, after finishing the first novella, from which the book derives its title, that it had been published a year or so earlier in Orbit 10, an anthology edited by one of SF’s legendary grandfathers- Damon Knight. After being advised to expand upon this novella, Wolfe then added the two other stories that make up the book. It is true that each story is a tight, self-contained narrative and that each stands up on its own. However, having now finished the book, it is clear that it can be read very much as a cohesive whole. While there may not be any long passages pertaining to quantum physics and futuristic mechanics, this is not by any means a casual or an easy read. It’s a book of absolutely exorbitant depth and boundless complexity. Many people who enjoy Wolfe confess to having read the book several times. Online there exist forums in which readers debate the subtext and the mysteries within. I think the best adjective to describe the book is “layered” . There’s a plethora of subtle repetitions and motifs that contribute to the creation of mysteries that will occupy the reader’s thoughts long after he or she has put the book down. And that’s what made reading this novel such a rewarding experience for me. Although it may be slow in some parts- and for sure it is not a “page turner”- the payoff at the end is very fulfilling. I could spend hours going over the little details hidden away in this book, or reading through the analyses of others in internet forums. I enjoyed this book. It was a sinister, disturbing narrative of two French-inflected human colony planets that orbit each other. It’s crazy imaginative and just plain crazy.

The Fifth Head of Bookworm

I will assume at this point that those reading this section are Wolfe fans and those who, like me, are interested in getting the interpretations of other readers upon completing the book. It’s definitely one of those layered stories- like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury– that the instant you finish it you start mashing your thumbs into the Google search bar of your phone just to see if you “read it right”. I wanted to know what I was missing- since there is no way, as a first time reader of Wolfe, having read the book only the once, and having to power through some of the less thrilling sections, that I was going to pick up every little nuance of this absolute behemoth of creativity. And of course, there’s the fact that the mystery of the fate of the aboriginal Annese and the true identity of the John Marsch character are never explicitly revealed at the end. This is a novel in which the answers are given to you piecemeal throughout in little clues and hints. It is a novel which punishes the lazy reader. The completion of the novel requires a very active role on the part of the reader, insofar that the inferences made by the reader are a crucial element of the story. Therein lies the genius of Wolfe, and this, I think, is why I have seen his fans refer to him with such adoration as to liken him to the Michael Jordan of his field. To Wolfe fans, he is the GOAT, and I have seen no shortage of superlatives attached to his name. I’m not gonna go that far, but I will agree that you’d be hard pressed to find a science fiction novel that outmatches it in literary ambition. We marvel at the artful structure of the book and rightly so. The piece of evidence I have seen most fans draw attention to as proof of Marsch’s being an “abo” is the wound he sustains in “V.R.T” by the feral cat, which every time the narrator brings it up seems more and more like an excuse for his shabby handwriting- a trait firmly established earlier in the story being the natives’ poor grasp of hand tools. Of course there’s a mountain of other clues that reinforce this, such as the long gap in the Doctor’s journal after the boy supposedly dies. However this whole discussion is rendered somewhat obsolete by Gene Wolfe’s confirmation in an interview that a “Shadowchild” had replaced John Marsch. I think- at least based on my own reading of the text- that the version wherein the Annese are NOT extinct and where the real John Marsch died in that gorge in the outback is the only real conclusion we are encouraged to reach, as opposed to the more psychological interpretation that examines the events as a kind of hallucinatory parable. The doubt, I believe, is meant to reflect the uncertainty of the characters within the book. In my opinion (let me know if you agree!) the narrator in the closing stages of the book is not certain himself that he is either John Marsch or the beggar’s son.  I have seen other readers mention the way several passages at the end seem to mesh together, dreamlike, and it becomes hard to determine whose head we are in. Although I believe that the beggar’s boy has replaced John Marsch, I don’t think he is knowingly deceiving those around him. I think he believes that he is Marsch, and that we see him struggle with his sense of identity during the latter stages of his solitary confinement in the Citadel. The novel had likened the Annese to being kind of half-animal in the second novella, and later in “V.R.T” the narrator even describes himself as such when he pens his legal defense. Therefore, my interpretation of the boy’s shapeshifting process is that it is an instinctive, natural one, rather than some cunning scheme. Maybe I’m wrong. The real mystery that persists, I believe, is whether the beggar’s son murdered John Marsch in that gorge or whether the death was an accident. I have to admit that the boy’s earlier declaration that he would love to be an anthropologist (and the Doctor’s informing him of the many years of work it would take) does offer some hint of premeditation. What do you think?



I don’t know if it is so easy to give a numerical score to something as nuanced as a novel, but just for fun I’ll go ahead and give it a rating. On a scale of one to ten, one being 50 Shades of Puke and ten being Faulknerian perfection, I’d give it an 8.7! Definitely worth your time if you like unconventional science fiction mysteries!