The Walking Dead

Greetings dear, neglected blog!

Today, I want to talk about – yes I know you already know, it’s in the title – The Walking Dead. I don’t mean the comics (I haven’t read them) and I don’t mean AMC’s TV series. I mean the game series by Telltale Games. The precis: it’s intense, emotional and surprising in its innovation.

I may be gushing somewhat, but I assure you that it is entirely justified. Having just completed the final episode, I can say that I have rarely been so affected by any form of fiction. It fills me with hope to be able to say that about a computer game.

What stands out, above even the excellent script and voice acting (those alone are enough to make this game stand out above most others), is how masterful the story is at using the fact that it is a game. This is that innovation I mentioned. The majority of the game is about making decisions: who do you save, who do you feed, who do you agree with? All of these matter.

It feels ridiculous for that to be novel – it has always been possible for games to do this. Telltale are just one of the few to have bothered to do it. CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher games deserve praise for this too. Everyone else is too scared to have content that people won’t see. Of course the story is better when actions have consequences.

There’s also some brilliant direction and design going on in The Walking Dead. Scenes combine with thoughtful use of different camera angles and motion to great effect, even out of cutscenes. This is a far cry from the usual rigid views of other games.

Finally, there are some fantastic scenes where the game uses its interactivity to heighten the emotion or tension in the story. I don’t mean the infrequent QTEs*. At times, you are forced into a try/fail cycle under pressure. The game makes you physically take part in more or less of the action, depending on the feeling required by that point in the story. I keep fighting the urge to describe individual instances in tedious detail. I finally succeeded.

Before playing it, I had some worries that The Walking Dead would be a matter of clicking to initiate the next cutscene. There’s an element of truth to that: there aren’t any real puzzles of the usual Telltale style, there’s no way of getting stuck. You are on a constant, unrelenting path to the end of the story. But you’re almost always taking part, steering conversations and having arguments as things get worse and worse. I would recommend this to anyone who has the stomach for such a gruelling tale.

* ‘Quick Time Events’ for those not down with gaming lingo: bash a button or series of buttons (often repeatedly) very quickly, in order to do a thing.

An explanation of my illness

People who know me know that I am ill, but I don’t tend to talk about it. The reason for this is that it is really quite difficult to explain. It’s particularly tiresome to explain to everyone you know. It actually makes me feel worse. The result is that I get a sense of disbelief from most people.

The trouble is that I suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). To anyone who isn’t me, it just looks like malingering. That’s fine. I understand: the symptoms are all internal. When you feel normal it is quite difficult to understand how someone else doesn’t. That doesn’t change the fact that I am profoundly unwell.

The main symptom of CFS is fatigue; persistent, disproportionate fatigue, both mental and physical. Allow me to describe my plight with an analogy. For me, effort of any kind is like alcohol. Walking for 5 minutes is like half a pint of beer. Running is more like vodka. During and after I feel quite alright, good even, though a light fog might descend on my brain. As with alcohol, in moderation a small amount is harmless and pleasant. But if I stack it on, if I walk for 50 minutes, or write for 3 hours, or try to do some sport I will feel it the next day.

The fatigue is almost exactly like a hangover. It’s the kind of hangover that lives in your whole body, where your muscles ache and your stomach wants to purge. Bright lights, loud noises and strong odours all make things worse. It’s a kind of hangover that can last for days.

Thankfully, I don’t tend to experience that much anymore. But that’s because I avoid doing things that make me feel that way. I don’t exercise. I barely write. I barely even leave the house. Clearly, this isn’t healthy and probably makes me even worse.

There’s a whole host of other symptoms, here’s a list from that Wikipedia article (I’ve crossed out symptoms I don’t have):

The most commonly used diagnostic criteria and definition of CFS for research and clinical purposes were published by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC).[5] The CDC definition of CFS requires the following two criteria be fulfilled:[3]

  1. A new onset (not lifelong) of unexplained, persistent fatigue unrelated to exertion and not substantially relieved by rest, that causes a significant reduction in previous activity levels.
  2. Four or more of the following symptoms that last six months or longer:
    • Impaired memory or concentration
    • Post-exertional malaise, where physical or mental exertions bring on “extreme, prolonged exhaustion and sickness”
    • Unrefreshing sleep
    • Muscle pain (myalgia)
    • Pain in multiple joints (arthralgia)
    • Headaches of a new kind or greater severity
    • Sore throat, frequent or recurring
    • Tender lymph nodes (cervical or axillary)

Other common symptoms include:

  • Irritable bowel, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea or bloating
  • Chills and night sweats
  • Brain fog
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chronic cough
  • Visual disturbances (blurring, sensitivity to light, eye pain or dry eyes)
  • Allergies or sensitivities to foods, alcohol, odors, chemicals, medications or noise
  • Difficulty maintaining upright position (orthostatic instability, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, balance problems or fainting)
  • Psychological problems (depression, irritability, mood swings, anxiety, panic attacks)[37]

The CDC recommends that persons with symptoms resembling those of CFS consult a physician to rule out several treatable illnesses: Lyme disease,[3] “sleep disordersdepression,alcohol/substance abuse, diabeteshypothyroidismmononucleosis (mono), lupusmultiple sclerosis (MS), chronic hepatitis and various malignancies.”[38] Medications can also cause side effects that mimic symptoms of CFS.[3]

That list of similar illnesses is quite telling, I think. I’ve had numerous blood tests and such to rule them all out but every so often, I think maybe I have one of those instead. When I started this blog, there were indications I might suffer hypothyroidism, but it seems to have been a false positive.

The fatigue/”post-exertional malaise” is the main thing, though. It’s what so drastically diminishes my quality of life. It’s what makes me less pleasant to be around. It’s why, no, I still do not have a job.

Friends who read this may be surprised to learn the extent of my illness. Usually, when they see me I seem to be fine. I talk, I drink, I laugh and all seems well. I must just be lazy. I see them thinking it when they ask me how I am. Well, dear friends, I make a special effort, just for you, and I pay for it once you’re gone.

Post, in which I admit my obvious lack of productivity and what I’ve done instead

Hello once more, dear blog, dear masses of faithful readers. I have, I know, been terribly neglectful. How have the spam-bots been coping without my prattle to try to post ads under?

Times have been busy and I haven’t really felt up to posting. My wife and I are buying a house, which is quite stressful, which drains me of the energy to do other things. So, I’ve been less productive than I was during my initial wave of optimism.

I have done a few useful things. I’ve made some glacial progress on a longer, original story which I hope to polish and sell when it’s done. I’ve developed ideas for several other stories of varying length, including a potential submission for the next Machine of Death. Right now, I’m suffering from too much thinking and not enough writing. I’m hoping that writing this post will get me into gear so I can finish off that story.

I’ve also done some entertaining, but less useful things. I read two great books: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear. Both have received plenty of gushing elsewhere, so I’ll just say that they are worthy of it. I read another book, Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, which was less great and took me ages to read because I kept being more interested by the stories in my head. Sorry, Malazan fans, it just didn’t work for me.

I also learned to stop worrying and love Doctor Who. I blitzed through 2005 to the present, mainly on the promise of Neil Gaiman’s episode. Honestly, I found the first year a bit rubbish, although it picked up near the end. Then the David Tennant years were pretty good and got even better at the end. But so far, Matt Smith’s run has been excellent. I like the enlarged recurring cast and the step away from the monster-of-the-week format. They’ve kept the fun, but the episodes are now less camp and throwaway.

So, maybe now I’m ready to write some fiction. At the very least this is 360 words towards my daily word count. Let’s see if I can hit 1000.

An encounter with English food

One of the natives I have been in contact with has been offering to show me “some proper English grub” for several days. I was given to understand that this meant he intended to feed me. Yesterday, the rations I brought with me ran out, so I finally gave in.

The scientists have told me that, by happy coincidence, the majority of the natives’ food is perfectly safe for our kind. I simply needed to inform my host that I was allergic to nuts, tomatoes, pulses, mushrooms, gluten, lactose and dogs. His response was: “Don’t worry, none of that crap in my kitchen! Proper English food, remember?”

The plate held a steaming mountain of yellowy white with flecks of brown and a big dollop of green on the side. Nestled on top lay three fleshy cylinders, browned on top and grey on the sides. I poked one of these with my fork (a skewering utensil with several – usually 4 – prongs in a straight line.) and a greasy liquid trickled out from the puncture.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s bloody delicious, is what it is,” said my host, around a mouthful of brown and yellow. “Tuck in!”

His mountain was already down to a modest hill by then. Determined not to be rude and not to begin starving, I cut the end off a cylinder and put it in my mouth. Based on the shape and texture, I was expecting a vegetable, so I was pleased to encounter a savoury-sweet meatiness upon chewing. Encouraged, I devoured the rest of the cylinder in one mouthful. I thought perhaps this was an insect of some sort; the aforementioned ‘grub’.

“Good sausages, aren’t they? I got some of those fancy ones with 95% pork.”

This only made me wonder: if only 95% is pig, what is the other 5%?

Put off my sausages, I considered my other options. The green area gave off an unappealing odour and looked equally unappetizing. So I set to excavating the white mound. An initial sample proved it bland and starchy but quite inoffensive. Larger portions came with tiny, yellow-brown seeds, which sent a pleasant heat up my nose, and burnt-brown squares, which sweetened the white paste. These embellishments altered my opinion considerably and I said so to my host.

“Yeah, mash is a bit boring. I always mix in a little something with the spuds to spice it up… usually wholegrain mustard and caramelized onions, like today. Sometimes cheese, but I guess that wouldn’t work for you!”

Bolstered by these encounters, I finally braved the green mush. There are, after all, many foods that look and smell disgusting and yet taste wonderful. At least, that was my reasoning, but I still cannot think of any. It had the taste and texture of wet and mouldy tissue. While I was trying to wash down the layer left in my mouth, I had the discomforting feeling that the whole meal had been chewed for me.

“Not a fan of mushy peas, then? Oh well, they’re not for everyone…” said my host, scraping my green onto his plate.

“Peas… are a pulse,” I choked, just before my food splashed back onto the plate. It looked rather like it had before I ate it, only wetter and mixed around a little.

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Writing Excuses gives listeners a writing prompt each week. This week’s was: “Describe a food that is familiar to you from the point of view of a character who has never encountered it, nor anything like it.”

Greetings, the internet!

A blog, a blog, another blog.

The internet has more of these than you can shake a cliché at. Of course, clichés are an abstract concept, so you can’t really shake one at anything…

At the moment, this is mostly a way for me to be marginally productive as I, hopefully, recover from my illness. More on that in a later post, maybe. I just want to get into the practice of thinking and writing again. If other people are interested, great! It will feel less like I’m talking to myself.

I’ll probably begin by making short posts about books, games, TV, films and storytelling in general. I also hope to post a few stories of my own, which are cooking slowly at the moment. I tend to gravitate towards the speculative fiction genres. If you’re the sort to dismiss those blindly, this is no place for you!

The quantity and quality of posts should improve with time, as my brain limps out from its long convalescence.