Writing, feeling, gaming

January 30, 2010

I’m quite keen on the idea that one should avoid aiming to be ‘a writer’. It makes no more sense than dreaming of being ‘a speaker’. Partly I suspect those with ill-defined romantic notions of anything are likely not to be very good at it; we’re drawn to ideas and people who represent what’s lacking in ourselves. But also it seems that writing for its own sake is tremendously self-indulgent, despite the internet’s overwhelming propaganda to the contrary. People who want to write, without wanting to write about anything, concern me because I know myself how seductive the illusion of creation fostered by the writing process is. We are all writers, aren’t we. So doing it for a living feels within the grasp of anyone who can string a sentence together. This mysterious profession happens behind closed doors – it’s vastly flattering, because it promises a personal deal: one equally valid writer per human life. The writer within us is already there – it is us, it must be, and a terrible clever and glamorous version of us at that.

But the truth is, the urge to write will strike when there is nothing left to say, and to make marks on the page is to create the dangerous illusion that something has been said. It is only a small step to deciding that something might be something important, and as readers are trained to look for meaning in words like fortune-tellers peering into a tea-cup, the illusion self-perpetuates.

We seem to be forgetting that writing is just a tool. It’s a fine way to get said what you have to say, however trivial or entertaining or meaningless or niche or self-referential it is. You don’t need to be a diplomat, you don’t need to be delivering revelations to the people of Israel. As soon as we start to think one does need anything special to write, we can back our work into the spectacle… it’s special simply because it is written and we must be special because we made a write.

No, you don’t need to be anything special. But what you do need is an original reason to communicate, and because writing is social, one should find motivation from outside to frame something in a common language. Writing without a reason is humming to yourself – it reassures you that you’re still alive but it doesn’t need an audience, and it’s almost rude to demand one. Moreover, this kind of writing parodies genuine communication and in doing so, degrades it. And it’s exactly the kind of thing I see again and again on the internet.

By the same token I often think that writing can be most constructive when it doesn’t exist. Thinking about TV shows recently, and particularly their relationship with games, it occurs to me that an awful lot of dramatic writing isn’t writing at all. It’s the notes in the margins that no one will ever see. It’s first drafts, the gaps left, the prompts for imaginings, stage directions, and thinking that sets the tone. Writing has elevated its status, no longer just constructing temples, it has started trying to inhabit them too. But when writing worries about being something rather than saying something, I really think it’s doing too much.

I’m not really a writer. I make no money from selling fictions, I have very little interest in the worlds that words alone create. I read critical theory at university because I have such a poor grasp of the point of poetry and literary writing in its own right and needed to be helped to understand. I sometimes write down interesting ideas or things people might say. But I get no joy from labouring language in the way Will Self does. I don’t do word counts before bed every night. I don’t spend evenings slaving over “my novel”; miming out the dream of an ideal intellectual lifestyle. It may very well just be that I’m not actually that good at it, that this would be a dream and a mime for me simply because I’m genuinely not too bright – and this disdain I have for the idea is just a sort of pre-emptive defense mechanism. But the fact is, a tiny proportion of what I do involves stitching sentences together until I have a patchwork of paragraphs. The words are a by-product of the real, mental, work as much as a necessary medium for sharing that work. I simply don’t know what it means to describe oneself as a writer. Of all the kinds of thinking and work real writers do, it seems such an arbitrary strand to nominate for the title.

And yet, if any of my projects take off this year, ‘writer’ is how I’ll be credited. Of the TV shows I’ve enjoyed watching, the scripted dialogue is usually the part of the show I’ve enjoyed the least. It’s also the part that matters the least. Because the craft in great drama, I think, is about the all-encompassing, unrelenting manipulation of emotion. It’s hard to see where the act of ‘writing’ can be placed at all in this. Music is used wonderfully in lots of the shows I enjoy, but music picks up where words fail. Are the ‘writers’ responsible for the music? It weaves through the story, for sure, but what part of it was written? Who gets the credit there?

Words are somewhat over-rated, I think. They’re limited and interchangeable and can be fragile and hard to handle. So why does everyone want to be a writer? If we see what’s really intuitive, what’s really untrained and raw about the world, we turn away from the cliche and convention of the literary and turn our backs on what it is to write. Instead, we make things. We create, and we become creators, little gods of a thousand private worlds. When we work with the world rather than words, we find not fictions, but original emotional experiences.

Very little drama is bold enough to go far and deep with emotion, even though, I guess, this is almost always its ostensible point. But even our vanity must know that the true jackpot of the artist is that moment of connection; the real triumph of the metaphors we make is not making people listen to our voices, or even making people think our thoughts, but making people feel things.

Games have a hotline to truth that straight fictions don’t, because they ask you, an unpredictable slice of reality, to complete them. But how many games get you genuinely emotional? And yet they are more interested in experience than any other art form. I wrote about games and humour on this blog the other day because I think humour is an excellent tool for games to intercept expectation and become genuinely personal. And it’s a tool many have used successfully and memorably.

It may well be that I just haven’t played enough games, but is there a game that is genuinely affecting? It doesn’t have to be troubling or preachy – simply something that’s more concerned with synthesising and tuning into our inner worlds than realistic rendering of the outer one. A lot of people go to a lot of trouble to make action sequences and physics and causal behaviours feel realistic, but the further we go from the emotional motivations of gameplay the less real, the less affecting, games may become. Obviously I’m not talking about all video games here, as the range seems very diverse, but is it not curious that people don’t play games that reflect their fears as subtley as the best TV thriller? Why aren’t games able to be more emotionally manipulative? Why aren’t games as upsetting or troubling or absolutely infused with bittersweet hope as the best action films?

I don’t have the answers, I just wonder if there’s an overdevelopment in certain areas. I wonder whether the new games writing is a kind of colouring in, a superficial versimilitude that, like all writing for its own sake, simply fills in the gaps in the page, when the expertly-positioned gaps are precisely where the magic happens.

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9 Responses to “Writing, feeling, gaming”

  1. Rhodri Marsden Says:

    I enjoyed this.

    I don’t really like the process of writing, which is boring, or the idea of being a writer, which is embarrassing. I just like to do things that make people think I’m not shit.

    McCandless, a very good writer, is now a successful “information journalist” who uses the “minimum of words”. I admit to a small amount of jealousy.


  2. Good rant. I play Call of Duty 2 when I’m done writing to clear out my head.

  3. Roo Says:

    I love the idea that writing is just one by product of what a ‘writer’ does. I’ve long complained that ‘blogger’ isn’t a meaningful label, for exactly the same reasons. If you’re famous for being a blogger there’s something dreadfully important missing from that picture.

    Oh, and an affecting game? Try Passage. Not to everybody’s taste, but quite powerful and (apparently) moves some people to tears. Once you’ve finished it, take the time to read the creator’s statement too.

  4. Ben Says:

    I like your point about notes in the margins – where gaming is concerned, there’s very few companies who think “acting” in a game is a genuine concern. As a player, I get the feeling they hand a voice actor a script, they get the recorded audio, make a character’s lips move in time with the words, and that’s all. Job done. The only exceptions to this I can think of are the Half Life series, the Uncharted games (from what I’ve heard about them, anyways) and at a push, the recent output from Bioware and Infinity Ward (the first Modern Warfare, not necessarily the second one).

    And it’s a damn shame. Modern games tend to have voice artists, motion capture, script writers etc, but as you’ve noted, the results tend to lack an element of drama. As you see the results of the months or years of hard work on the screen, you can see where the joins are from all the disciplines that make up the game. Maybe an artistic director of some sort could help blur the lines between them all? Maybe inject an element of human behaviour in there that a motion capture studio or voice actor wouldn’t think to add at the time?

    Cos if Half Life 2 taught me anything, it’s that sometimes all I need is an arched eyebrow, and I got myself a character I don’t want to lose in a hurry.

    Fuck it, I’ll type some more. There’s a game from relatively waaaay back in the mists of time, which has grown old disgracefully, which I still remember fondly for a few reasons. The game is called Shadow of Memories (Shadow of Destiny in the States, coming out on PSP soon!), and amidst the batshit insane plot, daftly-named and voiced characters and fucking hideous gameplay, there’s certain things that games just don’t touch. There’s drama of the more traditional sense – jealousy, romance, bad things done for good reasons (and vice versa), and a fair chunk of tragedy. This patently stupid and badly executed game actually made me give a shit because it went where games fear to tread. OK, so it wasn’t the best it could have been, but it fucking tried, and I’ll never forget jumping out the chair when one character decided to kill a baby. A baby. In a game. And not one space marine in sight! πŸ™‚

  5. enemyofchaos Says:

    We should talk about this further Ben, after I’ve looked up your references, but this is very interesting if you haven’t already seen it. A bit new age about ‘finding your inner truth’ but thought-provoking and interesting about why games aren’t as good as they should be…

    http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4263/truth_in_game_design.php?print=1


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