Breaking The Loop

Dark Souls III made me want to stop playing computer games.

This was not in the predictable, ‘It was too difficult’ sense. The Dark Souls games (and their ‘sister’ game Bloodborne) are ferociously exacting in terms of gameplay and difficulty, but I didn’t give up part way through Dark Souls III. I ‘summoned in’ help frequently, using the online cooperative play that makes Souls games a weirdly honourable and fun place to be (especially for such bleak, punishing environments), and I didn’t actually make it through a single boss on my own, but I still battled my way through the entirety of the base game of Dark Souls III, and had an excellent, thrilling time.

And then I stopped. And I haven’t really started again. It was while I was playing Dark Souls III that it really hit me how addicted I sometimes get to computer games. It’s understandable why they can offer such an escape from the real world when life is full of stress and long-term complications that aren’t easily solved. Games can give you easily quantifiable goals, with concrete rewards – gameplay loops that reinforce your urge to keep going, to solve problems, to get past that puzzle or to defeat that boss. Games have helped me a lot at times – my girlfriend’s two-week hospital stay in October 2016 (thanks to a nasty bout of appendicitis) was made more bearable by spending much of my free time burying myself in the game Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, running around leaping off high buildings and killing Orcs by the barrel-load. But suddenly, I could feel how much I needed that regular sense of reinforcement, that sense of achievement, especially in a game like Dark Souls, where exploration, puzzle-solving and combat are all mixed together into a heady stew.

So I stopped. And despite a number of times when I’ve been tempted, I still haven’t properly picked up another game, after almost three months. I’ve been recently much more aware of my use of time, and I’ve been trying to organise myself better, to use the time that I have available in a better way. I want to get more done, I want to achieve things in life – and buying another massive computer game like, say, Horizon: Zero Dawn feels like too much of a time sink in terms of commitment. I’ve regularly gone through phases and obsessions before, but never one that’s ended quite so abruptly, and never one that I’ve felt so reticent and tentative about starting again. I’m not saying that I’m turning my back on games, or selling my PS4 – I still like knowing that I have the opportunity to play if I want to. And I may play some gentle, casual stuff that doesn’t eat massive chunks of my life. But for now, I think I’m going to be keeping my distance from games, at the least until my life is a little less crazy.

My Legendary Girlfriend


Five years ago, my marriage ended.

As a result, at the start of 2010, I wasn’t in the best emotional state. I was coping to a degree, I’d rebuilt my life in Manchester, I’d acquired a new and wonderful bunch of friends, and was doing my best to pick myself up after my first novel had gone through a very long process of consideration by a publisher, only to finally be turned down. Trouble was, I was only just really starting to deal with what my marriage ending had done to me, I was confused and lost about a lot of things in my life at that stage, but ultimately, I knew I had to get used to being on my own. This was how life was, and I needed to be happy with that before I stood a chance of anything else happening (however unlikely that appeared to the darker sides of my consciousness).

I had things to look forward to, though, and one of them was Eastercon 2010, which this time was taking place at the Raddison Edwardian in Heathrow – the same location the con had been in 2008, at my first Eastercon, when my life had been completely different. This time, however, I had the advantage that there were quite a few people I knew at the Con, thanks to the interesting strategy I’d utilised at Eastercon 2009 of getting up in front of a crowd of people and singing “Hungry Like the Wolf” by Duran Duran as part of a Rock Band competition. It had netted me some friends and acquaintances, and made the whole thing seem a little less scary.

Fairly soon after arrival, I met a bunch of these new acquiantances – Kim and Del Lakin-Smith, Sam Moffat and Paul Skevington – and with them was someone I hadn’t met before, an interesting-looking and attractive girl with pink hair and one of the most aggressively sequinned hats I’d ever encountered. Her name was Emma Jane, we introduced each other, and she seemed like a nice person who’d be worth getting to know better.


We ended up talking a few times, and were fairly quickly having the kind of fun, rambling conversations that cons are designed for, and which tell you that yes, you’re very probably destined to get on with this person. I did find out fairly soon that she had a boyfriend, who she’d been with for ten years, which caused me to internally shake a brief fist at the sky, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me being friends with her. We were both writers as well, so there was no shortage of stuff for us to talk about.

Friday night, there was a disco. I went wearing the loudest, most ridiculous shirt I own – it can only be described like an explosion in a playing card factory – and Emma was there was well, looking ridiculously sexy while wearing the kind of corset that can be filed under the heading “Immensely distracting”. I ended up dancing with her in that manner that one dances with girls who’ve got boyfriends, and enjoyed the experience immensely while also constantly thinking “She’s got a boyfriend, she’s got a boyfriend…”

We kept bumping into each other. At the big showing of Doctor Who on Saturday night, which was Matt Smith’s first episode, ‘The Eleventh Hour’, I ended up a fair distance back from the screen with a spare seat next to me. And then I saw Emma up ahead looking for a seat, and thought “There’s no way this can possibly work out, someone else will get to this seat first…” but I waved, and got her attention, and she sat next to me for what turned out to be a hugely enjoyable hour that, at least for a while, reignited my fervent love of Who.

There were plenty of other encounters over the remaining two days of the con – including a point where I drunkenly ended an evening by hugging her and telling her “Your boyfriend is a very lucky man,”, as well as on Monday morning, where she helped me out at a point when I’d managed to leave my bag (and my wallet) in Sam and Paul’s room but didn’t have a room number for them, and therefore couldn’t sort out the bill for my room which I was sharing with someone else, resulting in me rushing around in a total panic like a headless chicken. It all got sorted, and I got the chance to say goodbye to Emma, and was pretty sure this was going to be another case of a wonderfully attractive girl with a boyfriend who’d be forever leading me to wistful thoughts of “Ah, if only…”

She immediately friended me on Facebook and Twitter, and there then followed a lot of friendly messaging, as well as plenty of comments on my many blog posts (most of which were Doctor Who-related). We saw each other again fairly soon – at the end of April, we were both at the awards ceremony for the Arthur C. Clarke Awards in London, and got to once again hang out, have fun, and dance together in a way that was definitely appropriate in every single way. Honest. Yes, I may have had plenty of points where I’d call up the pictures I’d taken of Emma at Eastercon, look at them and generally go “Goddammit, why do girls like this *always* have boyfriends?” but I was okay with things. Frankly, I needed all the friends I could get, and if I had a friend who was a deeply attractive girl, well, that was just a bonus, as well as being good practice for the time when I finally did meet an attractive girl who was also, quite definitely, single.


All was good and fine, and we already knew we’d be seeing each other at Alt Fiction, a literature event that was happening in Derby at the beginning of June. It was a few days before then – probably around a Tuesday or Wednesday – that I was undergoing one of my occasional bouts of melancholy sadness, which I of course dealt with in the most mature way possible by writing a whole load of self-pitying tweets along the lines of “WHY AM I SO ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE WAAAAHH!!” It was daft and silly, and things were nowhere near as bad as I thought they were, and I was in the process of just knuckling down and getting the hell on with it when I got a reply from Emma on Twitter, basically saying something along the lines of “You’re not alone in feeling like this. Details later…” I was wondering exactly what this was all about, when I got a couple of Direct Messages from her on Twitter, which told me that the reason she could sympathise with me was that her boyfriend of ten years – with whom she was living, and who she depended on due to health issues relating to the fact that she had a thyroid condition – had just decided that now was the right time to dump her.

It’s understandable that not everyone reading this might believe me, but my reaction to this was in no way whatsoever one of “NOW IS MY CHANCE!” My reaction was actually one of instant sympathy and concern – I’d only known Emma a couple of months, but we were getting on, she seemed really nice, and also I’d been through a version of the emotional minefield she was about to end up going through herself. I knew something of how rough this was going to get, and I didn’t want her to have to go through it, but if she was going to go through it, I figured I could be the best help I could possibly be.

I emailed her right away, saying how sorry I was, and I made a commitment that on Saturday, at Alt Fiction, my mission would be to look after her and make sure she had as good a time as possible. I’d also be the friend who she didn’t have to talk about stuff with – I remembered how exhausting it was, back when I was splitting up with my ex, having to go through the same rather emotionally gruelling conversation over and over again. So, I told her – she could talk to me about anything, but she didn’t *have* to talk to me about stuff. And that she was more than welcome to just hop on a train anytime to Manchester, and I would make sure she had a fun day out that’d take her mind off things. She was in a really vulnerable place, and I wasn’t going to do anything to take advantage of that – I was going to be a friend, and do my best to help her through this.

When I saw first saw her that Saturday, at the Quad arts centre in Derby, she looked extremely shaky and delicate, like she might shatter if someone breathed on her too hard. I looked after her as best I could – I stuck with her, got her talking, at one point zoomed out to get her water, and did my best to be the ultimate back-up guy. By early afternoon, I could see she was doing better, and starting to have genuine fun, and I also remember accompanying her to the Tesco Metro, and then watching her down a small carton of cream that she’d bought on the way back. It was one of the ways at that point that she’d get energy into her system (before she realised that anything cows-milk related wasn’t good for her), and I just couldn’t believe that she’d actually done it. But we continued having fun, and at the end of the evening before I had to head off to the train, she gave me a hug, said thanks, and I really felt like I’d done a good job.

We e-mailed and Skyped each other lots over the next couple of weeks. I shared details about the various trials and tribulations I’d gone through during my break-up, while she started to open up about how things hadn’t been going well with her ex for a long time, and how she was just going to have to sort out a plan for the future. We were helping each other out, and sharing lots, and going through this kind of common ground deepened the friendship that had already been going well, and we started messaging more frequently. I did kind of notice that I was replying to her e-mails really fast – often staying up late to write them, and then waiting with slightly baited breath for the reply, but I really wasn’t being anything other than a friend. Honestly, I knew it was going to be a long hard road for her, and I wasn’t going to think about anything other than helping her get through the next few months. She was going to need to get herself sorted out and on her feet, and frankly by then, she’d probably either not be wanting a relationship, or we’d be such good friends that actually doing anything to ‘further’ the friendship would just feel weird.

And then, the flirting started.


It was really quiet at first, and sort of ended up like a War of Attrition – I saw something in one of her e-mails, and thought… well, that does seem like it’s a little bit of a flirt. But it probably isn’t. Getting carried away by that kind of thing wouldn’t be appropriate. But then, I’ve never been one to *not* respond to a flirt – so, in my next e-mail, I very carefully flirted back, in the manner of someone very gingerly dipping a toe in a hot pool of water, ready to yank it back the moment the temperature gets too much.

The temperature didn’t get too much. The flirting continued.

And then, one thing led to another, and about three weeks later, Emma was coming over to Manchester for a visit. Result? I was nervous as hell. This all felt like it was going very fast, and seemed utterly unbelievable, for the simple reason that this had never happened to me before. The one long term relationship I’d had before had started in a very, very different manner (I fell into bed with a girl I barely knew at a party, while dressed as a member of Kraftwerk). The whole “meet a girl you find attractive, get to know her, and then go on a date” thing had never, ever worked out for me – I’d seemingly specialised in finding attractive girls who were often good friends, but were never attracted back. It was just the way the world worked, and being in a situation where a girl I’d been genuinely attracted to for months and had been *certain* nothing would ever happen with was suddenly coming to Manchester for a visit… well, it was more than my brain could cope with.

I can still remember waiting for her on the train platform, that slight nervousness, that sense that we were about to go from ‘Friends’ to ‘A definite step beyond Friends’, along with a fear that maybe we wouldn’t be able to carry on the relationship we’d formed mainly over e-mail, Twitter and Skype. Maybe it wouldn’t be the same in person. I didn’t want anything to go wrong, or to feel the wrong things when I saw her – after all, I’d only actually seen her in person twice since meeting her in Eastercon. And then, among all the crowd disembarking from the Sheffield train, I saw her, walking carefully along wearing a gorgeous black tea-dress, looking nervous as hell but smiling that wonderful smile she had, and I felt like it was going to be alright. We hugged, and her first words after hello were “I need a coffee”, so I took her along to the nearest Cafe Nero, got her a coffee, and then hit the interesting problem that Emma was so nervous that she was barely talking. I coped with this my usual way, by talking nine-to-the-dozen, filling the silence and hoping to God that she wasn’t regretting coming all this way to listen to me blithering like a lunatic. Directly afterwards, I had the sensible idea of taking her to Afflecks, a crazy independant store in Manchester’s Northern Quarter that’s basically as if someone took the entirety of Camden Market in London and squashed it into one building. It’s packed full of crazy fashions, and it proved to be an effective icebreaker, giving Emma a chance to enjoy herself without having to talk too much, and things were a lot easier for the rest of the day.

That was also the day of our first kiss. All I knew was that I really needed to kiss her, and no matter how nervous I was about the idea of doing it, if the chance arose, I was going to take it. I was finding out that while I can be a bag of neuroses and jittery terror, there are also points where I’m prepared to be surprisingly daring. Anyway, we kissed, and it didn’t go hideously wrong. We ended the day back at the train station, and while we didn’t know exactly where this was going, I think we both knew that this hadn’t been a mistake, and that we wanted this to carry on. It was difficult for Emma, because it was so quick – she was still living in the same house as her ex, and would be for the next couple of months, and there was a brief point that evening, when we talked via e-mail, and I realised I might have come on a bit too strong, and I basically made it clear that I hadn’t meant to, and whichever speed she wanted to go at was fine by me. I liked this, I didn’t want it to go anywhere, but I was prepared to wait. What mattered was that she was comfortable with the situation – any raging hormones inside my own brain could damn well wait for a while.


This is also the point where this telling is going to get less detailed, because one thing I have learned is that relationships gain their own momentum, and that things are sometimes going to happen whether it’s completely appropriate or what everybody thinks of as the ‘right time’. Emma still had plenty of emotional baggage and problems to get through, and I was still nervous about doing the right thing, but we were also pretty much head over heels for each other by that time, and there’s only so long that kind of thing can be held in check. It was around the middle of August when we ‘came out’ officially as a couple, and by then Emma had made plenty of trips over to Manchester, and things were suddenly getting serious and wonderful, and in September I abruptly found myself accompanying Emma to a wedding where I met her family, and one of my overriding memories of that time is simply not being able to believe that this was happening.

I’d gone through eighteen months of being alone, trying to cope with everything my marriage break-up had done to me – and it’s a special kind of emotional pain when you get up in front of the world to say “This is the person I want to spend the rest of my life”, and then four years later have to get up again and say “Sorry, looks like it isn’t going to work out after all.” It leaves you broken in a whole lot of ways, and considering my confidence in myself had never exactly been huge before I’d undergone a marriage break-up, things were not exactly healthy in my head, and the idea of getting to a point where anything could happen with someone new seemed so… unlikely. Going from that to a situation where I was suddenly in a relationship with a smart, sexy, incredibly cute girl with multi-coloured hair and a liking for vintage fashions and Cath Kidston gear, and who seemed to pretty much think I was fantastic – well, it felt like I’d toppled into an alternate universe, as if the laws of nature itself had gone IN-SANE.

I still had plenty of fragile areas in my brain. I was permanently ready for this all to fall apart – I knew I had to be careful, simply because I hadn’t been ready last time, and that had been one of the scariest aspects of the break-up, that I simply hadn’t known what to do for a while. I had insecurities, and Em had plenty of emotional problems of her own, but we stuck together. She moved into her own flat at the end of September, and soon I was visiting her in Sheffield as much as she’d been visiting me in Manchester, and we started talking about the idea of maybe finding somewhere to live together in Manchester once her first six months in the flat were up and she was onto a rolling contract, and while part of me was scared by the idea – my previous experience of living with only one other person hadn’t exactly ended well – the other part of me couldn’t help but think “Well, there doesn’t exactly seem to be a reason *not* to, does there?”


Winding forward into 2011, and finding a place wasn’t easy. Once we found a flat, in Whalley Range, just a short distance from where I’d been living, every stage of the process seemed to be fraught with difficulty. On the day we moved in, an altercation with a neighbour due to parking our van in the wrong place ended up with me having to call the police, although it thankfully settled down before anything else dreadful happened, and we just had to settle for being jangling bags of nervous tension for the next few weeks. And then, later in 2011, just as Emma was finally in a position to start working on her freelance programming projects and get her income up, she started having a very bad reaction to her thyroid medication which set off a sequence of symptoms and problems that went on for almost an entire year, and incapacitated her for a very long time.

There were some tough times. 2012 wasn’t an easy year for either of us. Things went wrong, life was hard, and there were a handful of points where I started getting scared that maybe fate was trying to send me a message that this wasn’t supposed to work out. I didn’t want history to start repeating itself, and I didn’t want to end up feeling like “This shouldn’t be *quite* this much work,” the way I had done back during much of my marriage. There were plenty of happy times as well, but it’s easy sometimes to convinces yourself that things aren’t going to get better.

And then, much to my surprise, things got better.

Emma’s health mostly cleared up. Her earnings picked up. I helped out by assisting with the writing of an especially bonkers Superhero Name Generator. She helped me out by nudging me towards looking into the possibility of doing an MA in Creative Writing, and I then stunned the hell out of myself by actually getting a place on the course. We’ve had a 2013 that may not have been a spectacular improvement, but where things definitely got better, and we both set ourselves targets for the future. Despite any ups and downs during late 2011 and early 2012, I simply can’t imagine my life without her. The fact that I found her, that everything happened the way it did, that I was lucky enough to find someone who’d put up with me, support me and tell me when I’m being hopeless – it’s something I regularly find amazing beyond words.

There were points where I didn’t understand why the bad stuff had to happen to me – why I had to end up in a situation where I had to reboot my life, why I had to go through a lengthy relationship and struggle beyond all limits to make it work, only to discover that if a relationship is that much of a struggle maybe it isn’t really working. But if that’s what I had to go through to get here, then suddenly it makes sense. It was a learning curve. Because no matter how much things went wrong in my last relationship, part of it was simply because I wasn’t ready to be married, I wasn’t mature enough to be able to handle it right. I had to go through all that, and make mistakes, so that when I got this particular chance, I’d be able to get it right. I’d be able to fall head over heels for someone, and know that they love me as much as I love them, and that we function as a team, and support each other, and help each other through the bad times.

There will be ups and downs. There will be good times, and bad. I’m okay with that. But the last three years has changed me in countless ways, and there isn’t a day goes by that I’m not thankful beyond words that my path crossed with that pink-haired girl in the sequinned hat, and that I said hello to her, and got to know her, and tried my best to be a good friend.

It’s been easy at times to think that I’m the kind of person who doesn’t deserve good things to happen to them. It’s been easy to think that fate has it in for me, and that I’m not destined to be happy.

But I met Emma Jane, and I fell in love with her, and as long as I’m with her, my life feels like it makes sense. I may not be a published novelist, I may not be where I want to be professionally, but I’m with her, and I’m happy, and we’re already building a life together, and I want to carry on doing that for as long as we can, and have as much fun as we can, and make Emma as happy as I can manage.

Sometimes, good things really do happen.

em and sax

Super Hexagon (or, Curse You, Kieron Gillen)

Curse you, Kieron Gillen.

It’s not enough for you to be a brilliant comics writer and games journalist. It wasn’t enough for you to pull off one of the most impressive final issues of a mainstream superhero comics run that I’ve ever read – the wonderful, meta-textual Journey Into Mystery, starring a teenage reincarnation of Thor villain and trickster god Loki. It wasn’t enough for you to instill in me an intense desire to play the boardgame Risk Legacy, despite the fact that I’m very good at buying boardgames and then never playing them.

Oh, no. You also had to get me addicted to Super Hexagon.

There I was, casually reading through your excellent review of the gaming year over on Rock Paper Shotgun, and I read about the game Super Hexagon. It was probably the retro-looking graphics that appealed, and I was looking for something new and exciting to play on my iPad (having found that while indulging in my nostalgia for GTA: Vice City on the iPad was kinda fun, the iPad control system turns any car chase into virtual suicide). I looked on the App Store, and lo and behold – it was even on special offer. Only 69p. So I clicked ‘Buy’.

And that was pretty much it.

Super Hexagon is INSANE. It’s an incredibly simple game, and the look of it brings back memories of vector-graphic classic Tempest, except that your task as player is to steer a tiny triangle past the various obstacles that are speeding towards the centre of the screen. Hit one of them, and you’re dead. Simple, eh?

Er, no.

You see, Super Hexagon is fast. Seriously, headspinningly fast, and scored with a pulsing electro-dance beat just so you’re in no doubt exactly how fast it is. And it’s absurdly tricky. I’ve been playing it every day for a week, and I’ve finally got to a point where I can pretty regularly last for over 30 seconds per game – and this is on the easiest possible setting. The game begins with a notice saying ‘Headphones Recommended’, and I’m pretty sure this is so that if you’re playing it within earshot of anyone, they don’t end up driven mad by the cool female American voice intoning “Game Over” every five seconds. Because trust me – when you start playing, that’ll be about as long as you last.

It’s dizzying and thrilling in equal measure, relying on pattern recognition and very fast reflexes – you have to watch the entire screen as you play, and there are certain structures which still send me into a fatal tailspin the moment they appear. It’s the kind of game where even the slightest error will instantly kill you, but the sheer challenge of weaving through this adrenalised, perspective-shifting hailstorm of geometric shapes will keep you going. I’ve managed to last up to 45 seconds (on the very easiest setting), and I’m counting that as a major acheivement. There are other, harder levels – ‘Hexagoner’ and ‘Hexagonest’ – as well ones that you have to unlock which, frankly, I don’t even want to *think* about right now.

I’m sure I’ll recover from my addiction from this supercharged sugar rush at some point. I may even get to conquer one (or more) of the jaw-droppingly tricky levels of the game. But for now, the Super Hexagon icon sitting there on my iPad, daring me to ignore it, knowing that I’m going to fail.

Curse you, Kieron Gillen!

(I’m still gettting Young Avengers, though…)