April 30, 2013

At War with the Vikings

There’s something to be said for running away from one’s problems. Specifically, the following text.

In times of personal crisis, the prospect of getting away from absolutely everything is highly attractive. I like to believe there’s something positive to be gained from packing up and absconding to some far away place, not permanently, but for what you’d call a lost weekend or similar expression of self-indulgence. At minimum, this is the act of clearing one’s head, but ideally it’d also bring some clarity of purpose or contentment. By escaping all the factors and circumstances that define a life and diving into total randomness, one might discover meaning, even wisdom, in the chaos.

My lost weekend was just a Thursday. Immediately following a break-up and a number of work opportunities all simultaneously and meaningfully cratering, I decided to get away from London for a while. The next day, before dawn, I boarded a train for the city of York, some 200 miles north.

All I really knew about York is that it was ruled by Vikings in the Middle Ages. During this period, the city we now know was called the Kingdom of Jorvik. As you’d expect, a big part of the city’s tourism is Viking stuff. Vikings! What could be better? The uncomplicated psyche and fundamental home truths of primal Viking life might be the perfect thing to cut through my specifically modern problems.

For tourists, one of York’s biggest draws is the Jorvik Viking Centre, which boasts a thorough and vivid recreation of a village straight out of Viking times. “Come face to face with a Viking,” it is promised. Visitors access this medieval village via time car, named of course for its time-travelling properties.

I head for the Jorvik Viking Centre in the late morning. It’s when I, as a lone adult male, get in line behind an entire classroom of French schoolchildren, that I start to think this might be weird.

Once the thirty children have all been processed, I buy a ticket in the lobby. “Just one?” asks the woman behind the counter. I confirm this is the case.

Before we arrive at the Viking village itself, there’s a room downstairs that serves as a waystation between the timelines. In this dimly lit chamber, there are a lot of placards and LCD displays detailing the history of the Viking presence in York. Under our feet, a glass floor reveals human bones and Viking trinkets, all discovered by an archaeological dig in the last century, strewn through the dirt. The French children and their chaperones meander around the room in small groups, cross-checking the information on the walls with worksheets of Viking-related homework.

There’s some Viking Centre staff down here too, all clothed in period Viking garb. I assume that this is the official staff uniform but perhaps it’s an amazing coincidence. In the stairwell, two Vikings flirt lightly. Another Viking wanders the floor. “Oh, feel free to ask me any questions,” he announces vaguely to his dispersed audience. Ask a Viking – what an opportunity! I note that nobody seems interested in taking him up on his offer. In fairness, the only questions I can think to ask him – “Do you ever feel like you’re just drifting?” “Have you ever been in love?” “Viking, are you ever lonely?” – would not be appropriate in this academic setting.

A few words about the time car. It’s less of a car, I can see now, than a big motorised seat attached to a ceiling track. Not exactly the DeLorean. The time car is parked in a corner, where it departs this waystation and enters a time tunnel. Admittance to the time car is governed by another Viking. I make my way over to him, accidentally cutting in line before two small French girls. (“Cut in front of me in the time car queue like one of your French girls,” it is often remarked.)

“Just you, sir?” asks the Viking – like a viking would ever call somebody sir.


“Enter the time car.” He doesn’t say this.

To my disappointment, the time car will be ferrying me through the entirety of the village, rather than just dropping me off discreetly from a block or two away. It runs on a rail on a programmed course at a leisurely pace. My first Viking sighting on this tour through time is two Viking kids playing in the mud, and at first I’m shocked that this operation has roped in child actors. But as I draw closer I realise that they aren’t real people in Viking suits, but automatons.

From there, I proceed down a receiving line of animatronic Viking characters, each introduced in the very proper English tones of my time car audio guide. I meet Sigurd the antler worker, Unni the woodworker, a couple of fishermen, a blacksmith and some assholes arguing about what to have for dinner (Some things never change, notes my narrator wryly). As I ride past, they speak a sentence in Old Norse and jerk around a little bit, affecting the motions of their purported trades. This goes on for about ten minutes. The whole experience, I am told, is supposedly enhanced through the addition of realistic and unsanitary Viking odours, but actually the gift shop I visit afterwards smelled worse by a significant and nauseating margin.

Before the ride ends, there’s a hell of a denouement in store. We come to one last Viking, squatting in an open-air medieval toilet and straining audibly to take a dump. Unsuccessfully, I might add. Rounding him in the time car, I hear him groan and grunt and fart a little bit. Then the ride is over, and an elderly woman in the middle of her knitting helps me to disembark the time car. I leave the Viking Centre quickly.

That’s pretty much the whole story. Having left home despondent and in search of some kind of personal illumination or epiphany, what I get – sometimes, all you ever get – is a robot Viking taking a shit. And I never quite stop thinking about this toilet-bound Viking, this poor guy. Consider what defines his existence. He was built to try and do one thing – one very particular, disgusting thing – yet no matter how hard he tries, he is, by cruel design, incapable of ever achieving that goal. His life is Lucy Van Pelt pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. He is trapped forever on the cusp of almost there. So he squats in the corner, in an Ouroboros prison of unfulfillment, a textbook failure for generations of children to laugh about when they pass by, and whenever they might think of him.

April 23, 2013

Adventures in Freelancing

In December of last year, before Christmas, I quit my job, left my home town of Wellington, New Zealand and moved to London. My plan was to begin a new, full-time career in freelance writing. This seemed like an obvious match: in the late 2000s, writing was pretty much the only thing I did. Although fully aware that I'd never written in a commercial or professional environment, I still went for it. I moved to a new country with no source of income, armed with only one thing: a writing portfolio filled with short stories about video games, fake pinball trivia and ironic H.P. Lovecraft homages. This is what is known in sarcastic circles as an excellent idea. Or, in medical terms, a classic case of Fyfe Syndrome.

A brief aside: most people were encouraging or excited when I said I was going to do this. But when I was boarding the plane to London and waving goodbye to my family, someone grabbed my arm. It was an old woman, no more than five feet, who told me in a hoarse, urgent voice that I was going to be eaten alive - not by the big city, but by a wolf. I told her to get lost and she disappeared into the crowd.

In all seriousness, five months have now gone by and I can report that my experience of breaking into freelance writing has been what you'd diplomatically refer to as "educational", "challenging, but in, like, a good way, you know?" or just simply as "an experience." Despite proving myself something less than successful at the job, I have, as you'd hope, learned a lot about what it means to be a freelance writer. Knowing how valuable such advice is from someone who's been trying something new for five months, please find four important lessons about freelance writing below.



In many ways it doesn't matter how good of a writer you are. Even if you are demonstrably great, generally people do not simply come to you with work. If you want something, you have to ask for it. Eloquence might make the job of pitching easier, but fundamentally writing is a different skill than being able to market and promote your services.

Not only do you need to be good at selling your ideas, but you need to be doing it all the time. Pitches, even those from great, commercially successful writers, are rejected constantly for reasons both fair and unfair. Don't rely on just one good idea: have dozens. Have infinite ideas. Breed an infinite number of idea-babies and send them to their death.


Writing is not a 9 to 5 job, it is a 24/7 job. Writing is as much about thinking and being alive as it is typing words. And because creativity seems to rely in large part on the right neurons firing in your brain, you feel inspired and write well at weird times, and feel like shit and write as shittily as a shit in a shit at other weird times. To be productive, you'll have to make sacrifices: telling your friends that you're too busy to talk or hang out, not being fully present at a party or dinner or date, and admitting that what you really want in that moment is some paper and a pencil and some alone time. Romantically speaking, such a sacrifice is a noble one, made as it is for the sake of creative expression.

When things are going well, you're lonely because you want to be. Not so in the Bad Times, during which you cannot write well, cannot sell well, have no ideas, no contact with editors, leaving you with just a blank document and a keyboard, and every key you press only manages to make an ugly thing uglier.

This is when you're desperate to be around other people, whether for inspiration or companionship or distraction or whatever. But your friends probably don't schedule their availability around your creative mood swings, and so when you do decide to have a social life, sometimes you can't. It is in the Bad Times, when you are a writer who cannot write, that you will feel the loneliest.


Have a creative outlet that belongs exclusively to you, which is a conduit for all your weirdness that is not commercially viable. This is especially important if your sensibility is naturally inclined towards the strange, the personal or otherwise inaccessible. Very likely, there won't be any money in doing so: it'll be a blog or a Twitter account. You might say that this is wasting your time and energy on a thing that pays you zero dollars, which is fully true.

The benefits, though, are not financial. As a freelance writer, the things that you say are delayed for weeks or months at a time and subject to an edit process you're not privy to. I really believe it's healthy to have some outlet through which you can say exactly what you want to say and at any time. Otherwise, you are writing for a living without ever being able to express what you honestly want to express.


This advice is best illustrated with a real life example. Earlier this year, I pitched a feature idea to a London-based magazine that should go unnamed. The pitch was rejected, but luck turned out to be on my side and very much not on some other people's side: the magazine's editor contacted me to say that another writer had initiated an article for the publication, but had been called away on account of a sudden family emergency. In his absence, I was asked to complete the article, either because the editor took pity me or because, as he'd originally said, he genuinely liked my writing.

The assignment was a feature profile of a "creative collective" which had offices in London's uber-hip Shoreditch. This collective, which consisted of notable London artists, filmmakers and graphic designers, had technically been a going concern for a year but had flown under the radar until now. I organised an interview with some of the key personnel as soon as was convenient, which turned out to be a Tuesday night.

I arrived at their offices around eight p.m., and was greeted by one of the collective's co-founders, Katy. (Not her real name.) What I didn't know at the time was that over the last year, many of her co-founding members had dropped out, without publicly stating the reason why. Had I known that in advance, I'd have been able to approach the subject with some diplomacy. Instead, one of my first questions to Katy was about a co-founder named Shaun (not his real name either), a well-known theatre and film producer in London. Katy informed me tersely that Shaun was no longer part of the collective. I stumbled a bit and offered up a question about the collective's philosophy that even I knew at the time wasn't very good. "Well," said Katy with disdain, "you're confusing two very important concepts there." I nodded and listened to her lecture while she looked disappointed with me.

A little later, Katy gave me a tour around the collective's creative space. I half-heartedly examined the workspace, idly playing around with objects on the tables and so forth, and peeked inside a shut closet. As I opened the door, I heard Katy scream "No!" A giant black wolf burst out from behind the door and I was thrown to the ground. The wolf looked me over and issued a howl. "No," Katy pleaded, "don't hurt him, Shaun, don't hurt him." Immediately, I got to my feet and booked it towards the stairwell. The offices were on the sixth floor of the building, and I'd made it down to the fifth before the wolf somehow pounced onto the landing before me, turned, and growled. I threw my laptop bag at the wolf and sprinted back up the stairs.

It's a cliche, but the best way to kill a werewolf is indeed the fabled silver bullet: it's the fastest way to introduce silver into the bloodstream. I hadn't even considered this eventuality at the time, though, and had no silver with me. If I'd been better prepared, I would have: I would have noticed that it was a full moon the night of my interview and taken precautions. But I was sloppy, I didn't prepare, and that's how I found myself being chased up a stairwell by a werewolf.

I felt the wolf's hot breath on my back all the way up the stairs. I made it to the roof and tried to shut the stairwell door behind me, but the wolf jutted out its paw and stopped me. I struggled for a moment but he flung the door back and me with it. I quickly picked myself up and ran to the edge of the roof, hoping, but without any sure reason to hope, that I was heading towards a fire escape. As I neared the ledge, the werewolf circled around and stopped me in my tracks. I froze, and in that moment the werewolf pounced and pushed me to the floor. I tried to hold back the beast's salivating jaw, knowing that if he got me between its teeth it didn't matter what happened next. The wolf raised its right claw and slashed me across the face. I lost my grip and fell back hard. The werewolf strutted atop me, eyeing me carefully, and then raised itself on its hind legs in the light of the full moon and howled. In that moment I saw my opportunity. I pulled back my right leg and kicked the creature square in its stomach. The wolf stumbled and tipped over the edge of the roof. Its howl, moments earlier the bragging of a vicious predator, turned immediately to terror, and then, with a dull thump as the body hit the pavement, to silence.

I made my way down to the street. Shaun lay on the street in his human form, with a crowd gathering around his naked and bloodied body. "Let me through," I said. I knelt down beside Shaun and, weakly, he reached out to me. I took his hand in both of mine.

"I didn't mean to hurt anyone," Shaun whispered to me.

"I know," I told him. "I know."

"I'm sorry," he said, and his head rolled back until his cheek braced the asphalt.

"It's okay," I said. "Let go. You can let go."

Shaun nodded, almost imperceptibly, and expired on the sidewalk. Once I knew he was really gone, I released his hands. I took a bus home.

April 15, 2013

One for the Rats

To begin with, you're always the underdog.

You are betrayed, set up, cast out, left for dead. You are called a thief, an assassin, a false prophet. All thanks to the forces of Evil, or, in more mundane cases, Some Dick. The only thing you can do - the only reason you even exist - is to put right what has gone wrong, save the world, and kill a million people who want to murder you. And you will succeed every time, because you are That Guy.

You are the best person. Relative to the rest of your world, you are stronger, faster, smarter, more independent and certainly more important. The world constantly rests on your shoulders and you never let it down. You are naturally proficient in hacking, lock picking, athletics, acrobatics and all forms of weaponry and combat. You can regenerate from any injury. You have supermodel good looks. You never need to worry about eating or sleeping or exercising or going to the bathroom. You are never sad. You can teleport, leap into the minds of others, bend time, see through walls and shoot rats from your fingers. And hell hath no fury like a man who shoots rats from his fingers scorned.

And yet...

And yet when I'm playing the role of Dishonored hero Corvo Attano, for instance, a guy who can do all of the above, I do none of it. Superhuman Corvo Attano, framed for the murder of his cool Empress girlfriend and thrown to the rats (literally, there's a Rat Plague), is going to clear his name and avenge her death, for sure, but he does not unleash hell with his time-bending powers and kill everyone standing in his way. My Corvo Attano lurks in dumpsters and hides from maids under dining room tables. He enters buildings by crawling in the window and waits in sewers while guard dogs sniff by. He eats things that he finds in abandoned, plague-ridden homes. He may even spy on a woman bathing through the keyhole of a door. He'll steal from people, read their diaries and eavesdrop on their conversations but won't kill them and in fact tries to avoid them entirely. He covers his face with a mask and if he is ever spotted, people jump and scream. This is my Corvo Attano: more rat than rat lord.

I have been this guy before. In Deus Ex, J.C. Denton can explode rockets with his mind but he lives in air vents, steals from ATMs and hacks into office workers' email while hiding under their desk. In Bioshock Infinite, Booker DeWitt commands the elements and can also shoot animals from his fingers, but his diet consists exclusively of hot dogs he finds in the trash. The nameless hero of System Shock 2 has psychic powers but most of the time, basically, he beats monkeys with a wrench. Garrett, the eponymous master Thief, can steal anything from anywhere, but if some medieval rent-a-cop spots him, he'll run away and hide in a closet. He also gets his clock cleaned by someone called the "Woodsy Lord" - which, come on.

In the vocabulary of Bioshock Infinite: constants and variables. All these guys are the same person, though the circumstances are always different: a man (and it pretty much is always a man) possessed of terrific, otherworldly powers, but who foregoes those powers to go through life in the slowest, least confrontational, least dignified way imaginable.

Corvo Attano, J.C. Denton, Adam Jensen, Booker and Jack from Bioshock - all these guys are Fox Mulder. Mulder, at once, has everything and nothing - and doesn't appreciate the things he has. He's got a cool job, a cool apartment, looks like David Duchovny circa 1995 and has Dana Scully as a friend, yet he has no social life, no love life, a porn addiction and an obsession with a ludicrous quest for the paranormal that will leave him unsatisfied and unfulfilled, much like The X-Files' audience.

I just think it's funny. I was born a loser, but you're one by choice.

On what do you base that astute assessment?

Experience. You should live a little. Treat yourself. God knows I would. If I were you.

Of course it doesn't have to be that way. All the games I've mentioned, and many, many others, present a clear and significant choice between an action and a stealth path. Corvo Attano can throw rats and hurricanes at people while he leaps over a brothel on a motorcycle, sure. All of these guys can, to varying degrees. The option to lose patience, let loose and become the kid from Looper is always there.

Yet I never do that. I'm the guy who will check every room, sneak past every guard, use the tranquilizer darts and pepper spray and find every audio diary and password. I'll go through every dumpster, attic and sewer to do it. I'll never touch a rocket launcher and if the alarm goes off once, I'll reload. In many ways, the game approves.

The characters of Deus Ex and Dishonored - the righteous, moral ones - will admonish their protagonist for killing any more than is necessary. The path of caution, investigation and exploration inevitably yields the greatest rewards: the cache of ammo and supplies tucked away in a corner, a hidden audio diary, some piece of lore - and, on a meta level, extra achievements and experience points. Face-to-face combat, too, can quickly spiral out of control - J.C. Denton is more or less a god, but two or three guys rushing him at once qualifies as an emergency. The grotesque menageries encountered in System Shock and Thief make any contact with enemies unappealing.

All these games have some mechanical incentive to play it slow and non-violent. Even beyond that, though, the quixotic, self-destructive path of Booker DeWitt, Garrett, Fox Mulder and These Guys feels thematically appropriate to the stories being told. What these games all have in common is that you are exploring a world in decline - and you are alone. Bioshock's underwater Rapture, when you get there, is already a world destroyed, and you are literally picking up the pieces, listening to the voices of people long since dead dictating autobiographies that they don't yet realise will turn out to be tragedies. Likewise, on the spaceships of System Shock, so bleak and so empty, the prospect of talking to even one person, to even one human soul, is hugely significant - and your enemies know this, and use it against you. In Bioshock Infinite, you witness, and cause, the death of an impossibly idealistic city in the sky. The cities of Deus Ex are gross, grimy and unhappy and every villainous motivation ever ascribed to the government is true. The homeless of Dishonored are eaten alive by rats.

The worlds are depressing. And so, ultimately, are these guys: the big heroes, the J.C. Dentons and Corvo Attanos. They save the world, every time, but their stories always seem to end in tragedy, or at least a bittersweet victory at a deeply personal cost. J.C. Denton, Adam Jensen and Bioshock's Jack are scientific creations, built for a specific, violent function, who manage to subvert their destiny but only into a kind of nihilist unmaking. Garrett's moment of triumph is saving a world that doesn't give a shit about him, and thus he is left huddling outside in the snow, his eye freshly ripped from its socket. Let's not even start with Booker DeWitt, arguably the worst human ever to star in a video game, if you exclude from the conversation the fact that all video game stars are mass murderers. And Corvo Attano, like a lot of these guys, has no voice, and cannot respond to overtures of romance and friendship. He can only communicate through violence. Being a rat is all he knows.

Objectively, they have it all, they have absolutely everything, and yet they end up with nothing. There's no final reward waiting for these guys. Even the player, who arguably cares about them more than anyone else, will promptly ditch them for somebody else. They are lonely.

Well, this sounds lame, but they have each other. These guys belong to a select fraternity. When I play Dishonored and Bioshock Infinite and I'm told for the first time that I need to find and enter a passcode, I think give me a break. The code - I never need to even check - is 0451, a Fahrenheit 451 reference included in System Shock in 1994 and which since found its way into almost every game made by the same group of people, or into the sequels to the games they created. 0451 has transcended its origin as a literary reference and become a kind of DNA marker; a signifier that all of the games which bear that mark belong to the same family: the stealth/action-but-really-stealth game about a ruined world and a lonely hero. In five years since I first wrote about 0451, the code's turned up in Bioshock 2, Bioshock Infinite, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored. Its presence, at this point, is predictable but not unwelcome. It says that even though you're in a new place - Rapture, Columbia, whatever the city in Dishonored was called - and in a new body - Jack, Booker DeWitt, Adam Jensen, Corvo Attano - you have been here before. You have been this guy before. And you know how to do this.