Gardstad

We have to get something out of the way before I tell this story: I’m not into fan-fiction. The way I see it, it’s a little redundant. Either a fanfic writer is cheating by using someone else’s characters (clumsily), or they’re using their own characters in someone else’s setting, which makes me wonder why they didn’t come up with their own setting in the first place. Now, I’m not as down on it as I used to be because a friend has shown me what they do with fan-fiction. I can see it’s not always about author insertion, or romantic fantasies about your two favourite characters, or just plain lack of imagination. It’s harmless fun and has worth purely as a writing exercise, but it’s still not something I’d really bother reading. Or writing.

Except for this one time.

banner1

One of the big Kickstarter success stories was that of ‘The Banner Saga’, a strategy game featuring vikings, horned giants and gorgeous Sleeping Beauty inspired artwork. It was fresh and different in a medium prone to stagnation, and the developers were obviously huge animation geeks. It was inevitable I would fall for it.

On the 25th of February last year, a teaser of the full game was released – a free multiplayer-only demonstration of the combat mechanics called The Banner Saga: Factions. Players could face off against each other with their own team of characters. There wasn’t any story to speak of, but man, it was great fun. It had a real chess-like quality to it. I was never any good at chess, but when I got my shit together long enough to actually engage with the game it became nail-biting stuff. The Banner Saga: Factions was much the same. It was beautiful in its simplicity and tactical depth. I’d tell you how many hours I spent playing it, but then I’d be revealing myself as a wastrel.

banner4

I dug the setting, too. It wasn’t sci-fi or high fantasy or modern military. It was kind of low fantasy, grungy medieval stuff with a touch of Norse mythology. Something a bit different. I wanted to know more. While I was looking through the developer’s website, I came across a story written by one of the writing staff which served as a taste of the setting. And I thought to myself hey, I could do that. That might be a fun way to pass a couple of hours that’s a little more productive than playing video games and drinking coffee. I haven’t written a story in years. It’s not like there’s any established story or characters to step on. Why not?

I started tapping away on the keyboard, enjoying the feeling of writing about an entirely fictional situation once again. I gave up writing terrible fiction around the age of 18, and it’s not something I’m in a rush to get back to. But it was nice to have that feeling again. For old time’s sake. I almost dug out my old stories. Almost.

After a couple of hours, my short story was done. It was set in a village called Gardstad, which is sort-of Norwegian for “farm town”. Not very exciting, but I wanted the setting to be suitably Scandinavian without making up nonsense words. I posted it to the forums and went on to other things.

Shortly afterward, I received these messages from the developers.

banner5

So that was cool. They actually read it and liked it. It really was a fun and productive way to waste a couple of hours.

Wait, did he just say he was going to try and put my fictional village in the game?

banner6

Earlier this week, The Banner Saga was finally released. As you might guess, the first thing I did was find a map. And there it was.

banner2

And it’s even described as I described it in the story.

banner3

Sadly, you can’t visit it, it’s just a spot on the map. Maybe in the sequels. Wouldn’t that be something? But I can’t exactly complain. The developers of The Banner Saga worked really hard on making a unique game that I absolutely love, and to have made even the tiniest, most irrelevant contribution to that is something that brings me a great deal of joy.

It almost makes me want to try writing again, but I fear I’ve peaked too early as far as fan-fiction goes. After the author incorporates your story into theirs, where else can you go? It’s all downhill from here.


New projects and old anxieties

I haven’t been updating as often as I’d like. This is because I’ve been losing faith in my ability to write. I’m not a writer; never have been, and I make no claims to be. Since any website/blog I’ve run in the past 15 or so years has been an entirely personal affair, that’s never bothered me before. But it’s starting to bother me now. I’ve written over 50,000 words since I started updating regularly in July last year, and being able to evaluate such a quantity of work all at once has allowed me to compare the good with the bad.

In other words, I’ve developed some standards. And for someone who has little faith in their ability to write well, that’s poison to productivity.

Sometimes I’d spend as little as 30 minutes writing something, anything to maintain the schedule. The Idiocracy rumination, which caused a minor furor on the Internet and garnered 350,000 hits last August, is one of these. Sometimes I’d simply copy and paste something suitably lengthy that I’d written elsewhere, like my defense of pretentious artists. Occasionally, though, I’d spend a couple of hours attempting to write something decent, and those are the ones I look back on most fondly. Like the one about old colour photographs, which for all of its rambling, stands as the piece of writing I’m most satisfied with. It had my favourite title, at least. ¬†Or the one about popular internet criticism. Or the story about the time I got my photo taken in the street. I especially liked describing myself as a “furious C3PO”.

I’m running into similar problems with my next ‘big project’, which is a home-recorded album of mostly-acoustic music that, if a personal success, should function as a summary of everything I’ve been trying to say and do over the past year or so – a focus on honesty, personal expression, attention to detail and a truthful attempt at creating something very real and genuine. A natural progression from How the Whole-Hearted Live. I certainly hope people like it, and that someone finds some value in listening to it, but that’s not really the point. I just want to be able to listen to it and think “yeah, that’s me, warts and all.”

The trouble is that those standards are tricky buggers. I’ve been working on this thing since November 2011, and I have one completed instrumental track to show for it. That instrumental track took 50 hours. It’s the best thing I’ve ever recorded by a long shot, but to my ears it still doesn’t sound anywhere near as good as it should. Every time I hear something by a friend or colleague, I want to bin the whole thing, because they sound effortlessly good and I sound like one more try-hard twat with a shitty acoustic guitar. But it means everything to me. I know I sound a little crazy when I say that, and I know I’d probably be a lot more successful if I wasn’t so devoted to my ideals and I treated my work as, well, work. That would probably be healthier… but I’m afraid it wouldn’t mean the same.

But what’s to be done? It’s not like I’m ever going to ditch the album, or the blog. This stuff’s too important to me. I just need to whine about it once in a while. So here’s some details about this album that means everything to me and precisely zilch to you. It means precisely zilch to you right now, but if you ever find yourself feeling lonely at night, and you feel like you stand out in a crowd, and you feel like you live far too much in your own head… it might mean a little more to you when you hear it. I’ve never been able to say that about my music before, and it’s exciting to be able to say it now.

  • It’s an 8 track album called “The Secret of the Way Things Are”.
  • This is a provisional track listing, subject to change:

    1. House of the Gathering
    2. Hiding in Plain Sight
    3. Duma and the Elephant
    4. Courtly Matters
    5. A Wastrel Errant
    6. Drawing Moths
    7. The Secret of the Way Things Are
    8. Little

  • It’s mostly acoustic, ie songs I can perform by myself with nothing more than a guitar.
  • It’s quiet and sparse, because I’m sick of hearing badly-arranged loud loud loud music that doesn’t really need to be so loud. It’s a headphone album.
  • I’ll be performing it live once I get some experience of getting up on stage again.
  • It is indebted to the work of Carl Jung, Bill Callahan and Mike Nisbet, who I’m certain is one gushing compliment away from filing a restraining order against me for excessive fanboyism.
  • It will be a digital release, for free, but it will have cover art. Really good cover art, too. I can say this because it won’t be me who produces it.
  • I really hope to be able to get it to you around March time, and then maybe I can play it for people live and hopefully they’ll dig it.

So I won’t be giving up on the album, and I won’t be giving up on the blog. It’s just that the realisation that I should’ve been doing better is the very thing that bums me out and keeps me from doing better.

I never even thought about it that way until I just wrote it out there. Funny business, this writing lark. Maybe I’ll record something tomorrow.


New Year’s Resolutions

When I was in Primary School, I dreaded the annual report card. A year in my life, reduced to a symbol, quantified and measured against previous years. I was convinced that this was the year I’d finally messed it all up. I used to be better, I’d tell myself. I used to put more effort into my homework, I used to be more well-behaved, I used to get higher marks in class. This year I’d been coasting, and this lack of motivation would be reflected in my grade.

I’m not sure this is an appropriate amount of pressure for a 7 year old to feel.

Every year I went through this, and every year I was proven wrong. The grades would always improve until they became straight As, even though I never studied. Why study if you’re already getting perfect marks? Why study when you can play Diablo and WWF Smackdown? This continued until my Highers, when I got AAABC. A B in Computing and a C in Chemistry, two of my strongest subjects. It had finally happened – I’d messed up, my doomsaying came true, and it didn’t help that my dad never told anyone about the C. As far as everyone else was concerned, I’d only taken 4 Highers. A pass at Higher level in a difficult subject would be a cause for celebration for many. For me, it was nothing less than an outright failure to be swept under the rug.

This occurs to me now because it’s time for New Year’s resolutions, which are kind of a reverse report card for adults. In the absence of annual state-mandated testing, we test ourselves. And, as the joke usually goes, we always fail.

I used to love making lists of things I was going to do. My old notebooks are filled with to-do lists, with countless more thrown away over the years. I couldn’t bear the thought of someone seeing them. At some point I stopped because I realised I’d been treating the list as an accomplishment in itself rather than, you know, actually doing anything. New Year’s resolutions were much the same. I’d start the year with hundreds of ideas of how I was going to improve myself, forget about them within a week, and go back to doing whatever it was I did to pass the time. Eventually I ceased to care, and the New Year’s resolutions disappeared.

A common story, I imagine. What’s curious, though, is how irrelevant my resolutions ended up being. One day in my early 20s I found a couple of New Year’s lists from the past, and I was struck by how many of those things I actually ended up accomplishing independently of any January optimism. I never became a cutting-edge web designer or virtuoso bassist, but I did code a website from scratch and my playing certainly improved. These were things I just did naturally because I enjoyed them, and to hell with measured progress. It was never really that I wanted to be better at them, but that I wanted to have completely mastered them by December. Because even though I do these things for my own satisfaction, I was convinced I’d been coasting, and that my report card had been suffering. And I’m not sure this is an appropriate amount of pressure for a 20-something to feel.

So this year I think I’m going to start making those lists again. But for now, I have only one true New Year’s resolution:

Stop being so hard on yourself.