Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Play The Game - Why Writing Should Never Be Difficult

There's a lot of quotes out there about how difficult it is to write.

A blank piece of paper is God's way of telling us how hard it to be God.  -Sidney Sheldon

I love being a writer.  What I can't stand is the paperwork.  -Peter De Vries

Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.   -Gene Fowler

Not shown: a teacher asking students to write a poem during a hurricane of tossed chairs.

Make no mistake...there's also quotes about how words stir the soul.  It's fun to write.  ("And then Blake Morrison was hit by a Boeing - the fate of all who messed with me in 2nd grade.")  But it's so easy to stumble.  Maybe you realize this client's copy has to be perfect.  Or maybe you're trying to capture the perfect metaphor.  Maybe you're like me and you realize your fiction needs to be sealed in the places they make Indiana Jones movies about.

And then what happens?  Bam.  The running engine chugs and the dream is over, Rudy.

That really sucks!

Under Pressure

Look.  I'm am American.  And as the rest of the world is keen to point out (THANKS, England!) we're lazy.  I can live with that to a degree.  I don't hate all work, I just hate overwrought work.  The concept of struggling to finish something is undesirable to me.

And lately, after trying to hammer out these posts, thinking I should be writing like some sort of Richard Pryor-Graham Greene-April O'Neil hydra, I think to myself, "wow, I shouldn't be struggling like this."  I love writing funny stuff.  So why should I have to suffer some internal critic to do so?  Just look at him!  Chilling in the back of my brainspace, nagging me to tighten these words up, eating entire KFCs so he can cosplay as Jabba the Hutt's ass this year!

Now that's when the standard advice comes in for writers who battle the block.  And I'm not saying it's not useful.  It's just that it feels like you shouldn't have to silence the critic.  There shouldn't even be a critic.  He should be a Frankenstein of half-director, half-flower child - effortlessly guiding your writing while he prays for the village mob to end his authority hippie existence.

If there's one lesson I learned in this crazy life, it's that we all operate on assumptions.  And just because people say writing can be work doesn't mean it should be at any point.


Now, don't get me wrong - I haven't entirely mastered this.  I can't give you a microwave-ready answer to this problem just yet.  But looking back on my own successes and failures as a writer, I've noticed a definite pattern, one I'll be taking further as I create my own unique solution.  Like shoving a puzzle piece into a different one you're working on.  Yes, that dog has a river for a stomach, it was totally like that when we got him from the pound.

As I've said before, I used to write fiction.  It sucked even though I learned the tricks and tried to meet the quotas.  I even tried to slam down drinks like Hemingway but I got nausea after my first Mr. Pibb.  Looking back, I think those quotas and tips were the problem.  Write like this, damn it, because I'm Writer's Digest, and I rule a small country of books whipped by Orson Scott Card in a turban.

But then I started playing tabletop RPGs.  Suddenly I was writing fiction again.  Sure, I played as a character fighting through scenarios, but isn't that how fiction rolls anyway?  And those techniques I learned just enhanced the game's story even further.  See, when I approached fiction like everyone else, my battleship sunk.  But through the lens of a game, tons of stories suddenly exploded from my brain.  Coherent, viable, badass power stories that could unfold on the side of Dave's tour van.  It was because I ignored the typical way of doing things and made up my own.

Dreamer's Ball

This isn't a perfect solution, but thinking this way's opened up a whole new world for me.  Think about what it can do for you.  If the act of creativity is hard - no matter what field you roam - try pulling back.  Ask yourself if it needs to be hard.  Ask yourself if ignoring common ways of doing things and finding your own path would rock the hell out.

Writing doesn't have to be difficult.  Maybe all it takes is a little brain matter.  And in the case of giving Dave something for van space, it takes grass that lets you see the color Paraguay.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hemingway In HD - "The Sun Also Rises" Videogame

It's always been a trend for Hollywood to turn books into movies and make more cash, but these days doing it to comic books makes a good donation to the "buy us a tiger" fund.  Another trend is to turn those same comic book movies into poor tie-in video games.  I never got the point myself.  Movie tie-in games are always savaged by critics - do these guys really think they're going to make back on the game what they dumped into it?  Though judging by how cheap they look, "a penny for your thoughts" sounds like their ideal profit margin.

Of course, movie tie-in games sell because of the movie.  And the book sells because of the movie as well.  So why don't we skip the middle man?  Let's turn a book into a video game.  A novel, not a comic.  Even better - let's go with a book that, at first glance, doesn't seem like it'd make a very good game at all.  Can we change that?  More importantly...can we sell it?

I'll prove we can with The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway.  (Which isn't as patronizing of a title as Leaves of Grass Are Green, by the Walt Whitman of an alternate jackass universe.)

I'm pretty sure this is how Hemingway saw the world every time he left Sloppy Joe's Bar.

Now, can this game sell in a mainstream market?  No.  God no.  But since we're bypassing the marketing vehicle of a feature film, a niche audience is the best we can do anyway.  But can we sell enough to get gas money for the entire station?  With the right marketing, plus the advent of downloadable gaming, I think it's possible.

We'd obviously need solid game design to make this work, but a strong script is also key.  It needs to be strong because we're going to flesh out the world beyond the book, so we need writers who can ape Hemingway's style (and hopefully knows to stop before aping his four-drink minimum).  Since games are a visual medium, we can also get away with Hemingway's "iceberg theory", where layers of subtext are implied in subtle cues and words.

And, of course, we need a smidge of totally neccessary ass-kicking montages.

Good thing The Sun Also Rises provides characters for both ends.  The narrator, Jake Barnes, is a journalist working in Paris after World War II.  Since we find out he did a biographical sketch of his friend Robert Cohn, we've got a gameplay goal all set - complete the profiles of every character and location in the game.  By speaking to characters, uncovering clues, and even solving some puzzles, Jake Barnes's story is definitely not inspired by Professor Layton in any way, and don't try saying otherwise - one call and he'll unearth the skeletons in your closet, after which they'll be buried again on Yahoo News.

...didn't I play this on Newgrounds once?

Speaking of brutal violence, that Robert Cohn character I mentioned is perfect for the role.  In the novel he beats the tar out of a few people, so I foresee his story being one of choice.  You can either have Robert give in to his beliefs like he does in the novel or have him ignore the transgressions on his "honor".  That might be hard when confronting some characters, though.  They might antagonize you, or move on your woman, or in the case of Mike Campbell, just be cursed to act Scottish.

And that's what would make this kind of game stand out.  In The Sun Also Rises, everyone kinda meanders everywhere.  The book's about being aimless, insecure.  You can definitely play the game like that if you want, or you can take charge and change the outcome of the tale.  This wouldn't be a major selling point - people came here for a game, not some artsy Cannes Film Festival B-roll - but it'd be a neat little bonus.

Of course, the fact that The Sun Also Rises has an aimless narrative thrust might not work well in a game structure.  There's usually one last big puzzle to solve, one big health bar to wear down.  But this game could have that - a tough final profile for Jake, an imposing "Punch-me-for-prizes" figure for Robert to box.  Adaptations don't have to be spot on - there's a goal here to work towards like in all games.  The point is the presentation.

And we all know this is exactly how the Pedro Romero fight needs to be done.

But at the end of the day...could you sell The Sun Also Rises, The Game?  With the right emphasis, sure.  The closest genre this game fits in is the adventure game genre, so emphasize the unique environment, the characters, and the two gameplay styles.  Don't rely on the book's name to sell copies.  Dante's Inferno hilariously included the book on the game CD, when the only people who bought it just wanted God of War: Dirge of The Squandered Paycheck.  You're not selling to the mainstream here.  You can't.  Find who would like this game, and play to them.

It'd take a bold game company to move ahead with this kind of idea.  Fair enough.  But do it strategically and it won't bust.  That requires the creativity the video game industry is known for.

(NOTE: Every day, thousands of people are cursed to be Scottish.  With your help, we can help these people resume normal, un-Scottish lives.  Donate now so we can find a cure for being Scottish as well as other unfortunate conditions, like how I live in Florida.)