Learning the hard-but-awesome way

I don’t think I’ve talked about my Fantasy Epic on this blog before, at least in any depth.

I have a Fantasy Epic.

Well, I had a Fantasy Epic.

See, after roughly 10 years of it just not coming together past chapter 3, after 10 years spent revising and adding and forgetting crucial details about plot and character and setting as they were submerged by my latest influx of useless junk acquired during my zeitgeist-chasing career, I realised that, if I ever wanted to work on anything creative and bring it to completion, I had to give up on it, because it had become an all-consuming distraction, and even a mild addiction. I was not short on influences; I had the opposite problem – I had no screening criteria, basically, no cut-off point, and that was because I actually just didn’t know what I wanted to do with this idea, when it got right down to it. I knew what I was doing, and I knew why, but I knew that if I looked any deeper than that, I would realise that, as far as trying to tell a story was concerned, I was simply participating in the grandest, most elaborate form of procrastination that I have ever committed as a writer, and as such these 10 years were spent in various stages of denial. It had massive sentimental value to me, but it wasn’t because it was any good as a story – it was because, after all the time and energy I’d put into it, I needed it to mean something. I needed it to validate me, and so I tied myself to it, and that is part of why I had such a horrible self-image as a teenager. I think this is a fairly common thing that writers do when they are both young and not actually remotely clear about what it is that they want to do – I’m picking on young writers here primarily because of my own experiences, seeing as my youth was spent attempting to make up for my perceived shortcomings by copying what other people were doing, and that went for writing as well, until I was about 19. And one of these spheres of influence was that of videogames.

I think any writers who are also gamers can tell you that the two practises do not exactly compliment one another; you can’t compare playing a videogame to reading a book, because with a book you aren’t controlling the action – a book isn’t about you. A videogame, on the other hand, is all about you, your decision-making, your focus, your attention, and it all has immediate feedback (if it’s a good game), so it’s easy to get wrapped up in that and lose energy for being generative when it comes to creative pursuits, because all of that creative energy goes into playing the game, at least if you’re enjoying it.

Videogames are traditionally like this because of two things. One: the developers want you to play the game, so they design the game to be as rewarding to invest in as possible. Two: games are kinda long. I mean books take a while to read as well, but you’re not getting the same level of stimulus in the same period of time; with a book you’re filling in blanks that words just can’t quite manage – sensations, emotions, aesthetics, geography, the passage of time – whereas a videogame not only fills in all of those blanks, but uses your input to help accomplish it; a videogame relies on you to make the action happen, to drive it forward, and as such it requires a far higher level of commitment and investment on your behalf as a player. You need to strategise, to innovate, to pace yourself, to look for clues, to acquire new tools and modify your existing ones to suit the challenges ahead, or the story won’t get told – you’ll get a Game Over screen and have to do it all over again. That doesn’t happen in a book; there is no consequence to stopping reading, no ‘failure state’ – you can’t really fail to read a book unless you decide you’ve had enough of reading it. A book will not visit failure upon you, has no mechanics that can possibly do that, while videogames are designed with expressly this kind of mechanic in mind, most of the time. Videogames drain you of your generative resources – and that’s fine if it’s a game you’re enjoying, but in the end it’s time and energy that you’re spending plugged into somebody else’s creativity rather than exercising your own. Creativity is like a muscle; it needs to be exercised, and in this analogy, playing videogames has the same kinds of health benefits as eating McDonald’s.

Now that’s not to say that us creative types can’t benefit from playing videogames at all; some videogames tell good stories and have good characters, and because videogames rely on functionality, us fantasy authors can see some examples of, for example, magic systems and, more than that, test them out for ourselves to see how they work.

I am a recovering magic-system-building addict. If there was a Magic-System-Builders Anonymous, I would probably have founded it. I love systems, and I love rules, and the act of constructing a magic system as a fantasy writer and gamer is a perfect fusion of two skillsets to meet two different needs in one activity. My rule-creating skills were particularly honed during the two years I was into Dungeons and Dragons, but videogames in general will foster the pursuit of system-building in anybody with a penchant for it, because interaction with functional, mechanical systems is at the core of all gaming experiences, computer/video-based or otherwise, and I transferred these skills onto both writing and system-building, and since I liked to write fantasy, and played mostly fantasy-genre videogames, creating magic systems for my own stories seemed like the perfect excuse to feed this particular habit of mine. But much like playing videogames, constantly creating systems and rules takes energy away from telling stories, from the interpretative side of narrative, and this system-building habit of mine has probably been the biggest obstacle to my progress as a writer, emphasising mechanics over narrative because that’s what I knew how to do – or at least it was, but I’ll get to that later.

The other thing about my magic systems is that, specifically with regards to my Fantasy Epic, I have this overwhelming urge to ‘correct’ every other magic system I’ve come across, the ones that tend to fall apart upon closer inspection, and rely utterly on willing suspension of disbelief to take seriously – at least if you’re a rule-nerd like I am. I have this need to know the inner workings of magic systems; I need to know that it’s reliable, and that it’s being used effectively, otherwise I will feel that the storyteller is not doing their job properly, because they’re leaving huge, obvious loose ends that can seriously challenge my willing suspension of disbelief. And this is something that translated pretty well into studying Arts and Majoring in English and Sociology; I am driven to examine and critique norms, rules and systems, to deconstruct them to see if they should work, given how they are used, and so often it’s the things that a system is not used for more than what it is used for that reveal its weaknesses – take The Force for instance, an instant I-Win button that none of the characters ever use, even the bad guys – and as a result of this need to deconstruct and justify, I wanted a system that was so thoroughly-designed that no amount of scrutiny could pick it apart, and my zeal distracted me from the task of telling stories – and in the end, magic in a story really is only as useful to the story as its contribution to that story. But as far as I’m concerned, this shouldn’t mean that mechanical soundness has to go out the window, and in fact, if we’re talking fantasy, and subsequently talking Monomyth, by and large, then symbolism is key, and the mechanics of magic can be even more powerfully symbolic if they’re also structurally sound.

In the end, though, and actually not very long at all after the beginning, this Fantasy Epic of mine ended up as dumping-ground for these kinds of desires – the desire to one-up the hard work and success of other fantasy authors whose ideas I felt fell flat on a mechanical level under scrutiny, and as such it was a project of copying and correcting other people’s work, rather than producing something that was truly my own. It overpowered what plot there was and turned the characters into postmodern pastiches with no grounding in the story, because there was no story, only critique and copy-pasting of ideas other people had come up with. And so I had to give up on it; and the great irony is that the magic system never worked the way I wanted it to.

What I didn’t realise was that in attempting to ‘fix’ all of these other systems, I had come up with what I wanted the system to do, but not how it did it, or what kind of limiting factor was in play to give it some kind of credibility – because the idea had never occurred to me. And it was just for this specific project, because I’ve got other magic systems that work fine within the stories that they’re in. I never considered that, for this story, I had to have a story-driven reason for having the magic system work a certain way, and since I was using this project to ‘fix’ literally every single mistake I’d ever seen in a magic system – in every magic system – that reason was not contained within the story itself (which, again, was a hodge-podge of collected and stolen ideas from unrelated media texts I’d come across, such sources ranging from Harry Potter to The Matrix to Dragonball Z to Tori Amos songs), but with my own agenda as an audience-member and critic. I learned the hard – and long – way that having a story that’s nothing but a disguised effort of trying to ‘fix’ every single other story out there is not a story worth reading, because it has nothing to offer on its own merit – you can just go to those other stories and draw your own conclusions.

And so the Fantasy Epic was cancelled, and what fell out of it gave me tons of inspiration for other, coherent and fulfilling story-seeds, and I finally got to let go of that horrible failure of a magic-system that, for ten years, I’d been insisting had to work. But coming up with this new magic system, while I’d promised myself that I could just ‘have this one’ and not try to attach it to anything, also triggered some old habits, and for better or worse I started experimenting with placing it in the setting of the defunct Fantasy Epic.

And it started to stick. And as a result, despite myself, I began to wonder if I might, maybe, have found a way into getting my Fantasy Epic going again.

All I needed was a plot.

Then other day, I watched one of my favourite YouTubers, Day9, playing a critically-acclaimed and pretty much universally-beloved indie videogame called Journey, which takes around two hours to complete if you’re not racing through it. It is a gorgeous game, both in technical terms – it looks and sounds wonderful – and in terms of the feelings that it evokes, the emotional connection that it elicits from the player – or, in my case, the viewer. I think that even if I had played Journey myself I would not have felt the same kind of creativity-drain that I feel with most games, for one because it’s so short, but for another because it’s so interpretative in its presentation – there is not a word of dialogue, nor a single written word outside of the title screen and end credits. All that there is is scenery and the action of the characters, and, of course, the journey that the game takes you on; it is a very new way of telling a story through the medium of videogames, and as such I don’t think that it can even be judged the same way as other videogames when it comes to looking at how it affects a person’s creative drive through playing it. This games seems genuinely generative, and that’s exciting to me, as somebody who was ready to swear off videogames altogether for the fact that, traditionally, they are so creatively vampiric.

Having said that, I do think that being one step removed from the action was helpful – I enjoyed watching the playthrough because the game tells a very emotive and interpretative story, and because I wasn’t playing the game myself, I had the opportunity to take the game’s story and use it as a wall to bounce ideas off of, and because Journey takes place mostly in a desert, I found myself thinking of the obligatory desert in my Fantasy Epic, and the visual and experiential design of the game’s world, the way the player interacts with the environment, gave me a whole ton of ideas for developing that concept and turning it into something new. I could actually tell a story with this idea – and of all things, I could tell part of a Monomyth with it, the quintessential Fantasy formula! I watched the game, soaked up the visuals and ran with my emotional and imaginative responses to what was happening on-screen, and the sands of my abandoned Fantasy Desert started shimmering with the promise of a story to be told.

But the proverbial oasis in this scenario was that I realised that the magic system I’d come up with actually helped to tell the story, and not only that, but was integral to telling the story, because of how it worked mechanically.

The rule-nerd in me squiggled with joy.

This is huge for me. The Fantasy Epic in question was a part of my life for almost half of it, a major part; it was my hobby, my career plan, my diary, my therapy, my coping mechanism, my escapist fantasy – it was everything except for a story, and perhaps it was never meant to be a story. Perhaps that’s the reason why it never worked as a story – it was never designed to be one. But whether or not the Fantasy Epic itself comes back to life through this latest development in my system-building legacy, this is still a huge stepping-stone for me as a writer, and as a fantasy writer in particular. I’ve found a way to combine my love of system-building in mechanical terms with my love of rule-following – and bending – in storytelling terms; I’ve found a synergy that I’ve been looking for almost for half of my life, and not only that, but it’s even a chance to possibly resurrect a story that I’d given up on, to find a use for all the time and effort I’d put into it other than just ‘learning the hard way’. And maybe it won’t work that way, and if not, that’s fine. But the fact that there’s even a chance is really validating. It tells me that all of that work wasn’t for nothing – it almost certainly won’t be what I originally wanted it to be. It’ll be better. It’ll be a story.

And it’s all thanks to two things that used to utterly drain my storytelling energies. This is like alchemy. These three things – storytelling, gaming and magic-system-building – seemed inimical to one another while I was growing up, and yet now they’ve somehow come together to help me create something I thought was impossible, because of how each of its components proved to repel one another in my previous experiences of trying to put them together. Part of why it’s worked now is undoubtedly because I’m more settled in myself as a person, so part of the recipe was simply time. But I also couldn’t have gotten this result without realising what was going wrong and working to address it – and in doing so, I had to give up devoting my attentions to things that I really enjoyed doing. Now I can do both, and for mutual benefit, and the result feels gestalt. Sometimes you just need a shift in focus for a while, and to commit to it – and when you come back, you may just find that you’ve stumbled upon a creative adhesive that literally did not exist before. You may happen upon the seed of your Magnum Opus.

As for videogames – well, I’m happy to just watch for now. Perhaps others will follow Journey’s lead and give us creative types something generative to play with, something that doesn’t make us feel guilty for not working on our own creative projects. But I’m glad that I ran across this game, because without it, I may never have gotten this … what, fourth chance? I think so. This fourth chance at making this Fantasy Epic into a ‘thing.’ And again, maybe it’s not meant to be a thing at all. But still, I’ve got something here, whatever form it ultimately takes, and I couldn’t have gotten there without being a rule-nerd and system-building addict, or a person who watched other people play videogames on YouTube, or somebody who spent 10 years of his life trying to force a story that wasn’t a story to work before finally giving up, or somebody who realised that they needed to focus more on storytelling.

Don’t go ‘all or nothing’ – just go ‘all’. It doesn’t have to be ‘all at once’ – and in fact, if you do that, you might miss out on learning a few things. Or, at least, you will learn different things.

But hey. So long as you’re learning.

And with that, at long last, it’s time to start thinking about reading through Tallulah, and seeing what I can make of that. Eep.

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