Electron Dance
25Apr/14Off

Auto-Critique 2

Auto-critique is an infrequent series of posts about the process of writing.

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Stop Crying About Choice was meant to be a short post that mused “maybe all narrative games are actually hypertext” and let others debate it out.

That is not what I eventually published. What I published was a 5,000 word epic that made April the most successful Electron Dance month in its four-year history.

But I learnt some important lessons through both its slow development and the resulting wave of attention. These lessons, however, have worrying ramifications for the Electron Dance book.

Back at the beginning of the site, I wrote defensively as if every single reader knew a lot more than I did. In aggregate, that’s true. All of the readers together will know more than you, the one writer. This led to an approach which is a bit like “know your audience” but taken to the max. I would try not to explain too much. You know what an FPS is, right? Half-Life? Armageddon Empires? Narratology? I feared explanations would appear to be explaining something mundane to myself, thus no one would think I was "experienced" in game writing.

Over time, I relaxed this weird rule and this change was important. More reminders and pointers for the reader keep the writing accessible and prevents the writer from disappearing down the jargon vortex of shame (in the reverse direction, this is known as “up their own arse”). While concise, explicit jargon is good for an academic paper, it destroys your potential audience. I’ve become more sensitive to the buzzword bingo in the videogames space. In olden days, I might have wheeled out the term “ludonarrative dissonance” to prove my credentials but now I’m suspicious if I use it, and more likely to label it “a mouthful”. I deleted a reference to the term “shameplay” in Choice for similar reasons.

In Choice I was quite aggressive in unbundling concepts into explanations, shying away from assuming anything. I thought I might be an asshole for explaining how a Twine decision functioned but wanted to make the idea of aggregate hypertext knowledge seem an obvious consequence of decision trees, rather than something to question.

But there were a few horrible consequences of unpacking everything.

First, word count went up, which means longer writing and longer editing. Second, for every new paragraph explaining a term, a concept, a developer, or a whoopsie on the floor... there was an hour of research or more.

There was a third consequence. If you have a problem you can’t solve, one recommended course of action is to explain the problem to someone else. The process of explaining forces you to organise the problem efficiently which, in itself, often reveals the solution. In Choice, all these additional explanations highlighted connections I hadn’t originally noticed. The best example of this was the realisation that readers played CYOA books the same way we play our computer-based hypertext, which only occurred to me because I Googled around to confirm my memories of Deathtrap Dungeon as a forced replay game.

I was always intending to put Choice out “next week” but it never seemed finished. It was meant to end with “look everything is hypertext, so maybe we need to think of everything as hypertext”. But I kept hearing... the sigh.

The sigh is paralysing.

Whenever I put something out there on the internet to read, I imagine someone sitting in front of their PC, reading something supposedly clever on Electron Dance and sighing. Maybe they also shake their head. But that imagined sigh and its companion, the grumpy sigher, becomes more formidable the further the writing goes out on a limb. Someone, I feared, is going to call out this article as a pile of crap.

I could already see a problem. I was arguing that consequences were an illusion and that we were playing hypertext instead: you’re all fucking dreaming that you’re invested personally. Really? That’s what I’m going to say? We can argue 'til the cows come home that The Last of Us is linear and potentially exploitative but it makes no difference to the hordes of players calling it the best game ever. Lots of players said the same thing about Bioshock Infinite and that got dynamite shoved up its butt by critics. I couldn’t end the article expecting the reader to swallow, “All those things you feel? Not real.”

So that whole section at the end about how games make us feel and different types of storytelling acknowledged all that. It led me down some alleyways I was not expecting such as the importance of grind, which had been on my mind for some time, but the thought had never had its moment in the sun.

The word count kept going upwards and something nasty started to happen. I could no longer fit the whole article in my head and this was bad news. For example, I was constantly repeating myself at different points in the text and did not notice. Elsewhere, paragraphs became orphaned by neighbouring edits. I became wary of opening the document after three weeks of seeing the article grow with every change. I fought back against the complexity, but it was harder work than I’d anticipated.

And in the end, I was left with a nagging sense that there were unanswered questions and implicit assumptions: this was not a complete article but one which had quite a few holes. But how to cover all bases? Where were the holes?

I’ve come to realise that releasing Electron Dance words into the world is part of a learning experience. My ideas are rarely complete but if I didn’t put them out there, they would never be finished. Once the words are released to the internet, that’s when the feedback comes in to tell you what you’ve missed. Since Choice went live, here are some directions I would explore if I wrote it today:

  • Players usually have one “canonical” play of a hypertext structure, the one they played first, which represents their actual choices. Replays are hypertext exploration but the first is likely to be different.
  • Reading about hypertext secrets is not the same as playing through them. The bit on the importance of grind should make that clear.
  • The hypertext association is overdone. Hypertext is the foundation example, but it would be better to generalise into “finite, knowable” story structures. This way you sidestep discussions on whether a game is approximately hypertext or not and focus on the predictability of the story.

But I wouldn’t have been able to conceive these points unless I’d published the essay. Things only move forward if you get the ideas out there: hoarding them “until perfect” probably just makes you kooky and defensive in the long run.

Now here are the implied downsides for the Electron Dance book.

Long writing is difficult to manage. I’m already having a lot of problems juggling the content of the book. I’ve redefined the chapter divisions three times now and as soon as I’ve done it, new thoughts and ideas get assigned to chapters on a best-fit basis. I’m worried I’ll need to redefine the chapters again and again and again...

Better to get ideas out there than hoard them. That’s a great principle for a blog or academic progress but with books the reader expects stories, solutions, answers. Readers are not expecting “here are 200 pages of incomplete thoughts, tell me what I’m missing”. You have to project some backbone, maybe a little authority.

In summary, I learnt a lot from Choice and it clarified some of the problems I’m having with the book.

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  1. I absolutely think that a book – well, a theoretical book or a non-fiction book or whatever – is never really finished. Everything is still in transit. It can’t be perfect, because it’s a part of a vast cultural machine (civilisation) which is constantly evolving into something different. The process will never be complete, civilisation will never be “finished”, it’ll always be changing into something else, so why should a part of that process ever be perfect?

    I mean, if you read the foundation texts of any discipline they’re going to be important building blocks for your thinking, but they’re never going to be the be-all and end-all. That’s why academia is never satisfied with that original idea (in the humanities, anyway – can’t speak for the sciences) – as soon as a brilliant, seemingly perfect text is released into the wild, there’s always someone standing with a red pen trying to take it down, scrutinise every last bit, show where all the weak joints are – which will in themselves open into a whole new idea or way of thinking.

    I mean, Aarseth and Murray are great videogame academics and they wrote thought-provoking books, but I’d never, ever take either of them as the final word on videogames. There’s so much more to be said – there’s [i]always[/i] more to be said.

  2. James, you’re right, of course. Technically a non-fiction book is not the last word on anything. I guess I’m poking at the fact that a non-fiction book must feel more complete than a blog series, that the author has done his due diligence. With the blog format I would shoot from the hip a little more – oh everyone knows this – but with the book version I’m finding I need to take more time over simple concepts: wait, is this memory I have actually true?

  3. HM, does the structure of your book prevent you from releasing chapters before it’s done (such as Bob Nystrom did; parenthetically, how does formatting work here?)? It wouldn’t help with the completeness of the project, but could help with the downsides you’ve identified.

  4. Hi, Kevin, I’ve fixed your comment to include your link from Twitter. HTML is allowed in comments so you’d use an HTML link.

    The problem with my book is that the chapters are closely linked. I keep having to move material back and forth and the chapter definitions continually slide around. Unlike a design pattern book, where you could probably compartmentalize quite easy, the chapters build towards a overarching hypothesis. It’s the opposite of “a sequence of fleshed-out blogposts”. The book was meant to be an Electron Dance series and it was trouble enough then!

    I’ve started a sort of minilog on the development of the book on the Appendix forum. I’ll be more clear about book structure once the big 15-minute video hits the airwaves.

  5. Thanks to my good friend, collaborator, and former classmate James up there, I’ve been reading your words for months now. This post seems as good as any to jump into the comments and say a bit. It’s also appropriate as I find myself attempting to start a blog as well, partially inspired by your own endeavors. I’ve been on holiday most of this month and haven’t been writing, but before I left I had hoped to write a short piece on the Facebook acquisition of Oculus Rift. It evolved into this monstrosity of piece where I was trying to cram in all of this Marxist theory I had read in my MA course. When I left, it had 3,500 words and I didn’t even feel like I was halfway finished. Worse, I felt as if it had turned into a lecture and not even a particularly good one. I lost interest in writing it, and that means no one would be interested in reading it. So it’s both coincidental and fitting that you write this beautiful piece at this exact moment in my life, because it’s mirroring my own thoughts about what purpose a blog really should serve.

    The expectation of an audience changes everything. And it’s made more difficult when you put things online and have no idea who your audience will even be. You’re pretty lucky based on the comments I’ve seen here – your writing attracts a certain, critical type of reader. The type of reader that actually cares about video games and is willing to put some thought into the subject. Because you leave comments open, the comments become a part of the work as much as the words you’ve already written. So I think the best perspective for a post is the beginning of a conversation. Maybe think about it in a similar vein to opening pages of a Socratic dialogue.

    A book is a totally different beast and one in which I have absolutely no experience. Expectations for a complete and self-contained work do exist. However, I can’t tell you the number of various philosophers/critics who have books published that just contain disconnected chapters on random subjects or collections of essays. I’m about to start a book of Foucault that’s just transcriptions of his lectures, not even essays. So if you’re worried about having some sort of traditional narrative arc or at least the feeling of one, there’s already great precedent for many books without it. Sure, from a marketing perspective it might be harder to sell “The Disconnected and Incomplete Thoughts of Joel Goodwin About Video Games” but if you’ve ever been worried about marketing you wouldn’t be making the blog you are. You already have an audience, so I say write the book you want to write, as incomplete as it may feel to you. There are so many great thinkers whose later works completely contradict their early work. It’s always a process and no one has different expectations just for you. I guess the biggest question to answer is WHY you want to write a book over blog posts? Does this particular form serve your thoughts better? For financial gain (and this is legitimate, better to live off what you love if possible)? A feeling of personal accomplishment?

    As for “Stop Crying About Choice” I think you touch on one of THE fundamental issues in video games. After all, choice is essentially the crux of the narratology/ludology debate and most arguments pertaining to video games tend to be derivatives of that conflict. I really liked your exploration of grinding as important. I’ve generally held the opposite view and even devoted a portion of my Master’s thesis to arguing against the grind. Your words made me re-consider some things. To be honest, I’m not sure my full opinion on the mechanic anymore and need to devote more thought to the matter.

    As for personal investment, I also come to the same problem. Take the example of Bioshock Infinite. Upon completion I had a big emotional reaction. It affected me for the whole day and set my mind racing in all the ways that good art does. Then I started to read the articles discussing the flaws of the piece and I began to agree. The more thought I gave to the game, the more problematic I found it. Now I find almost the whole game troubling for a variety of different aspects. Perhaps my opinion has shifted that it should have been a movie and not a game, although I’m not sold on that either. Does this mean that I now have to discredit my initial emotional reaction to the game?

    I also have to wonder if people had this much confusion when it came to the early days of other forms of art. Did people voice great concern over the future of writing and the novel after the release of Don Quixote? Was there such anxiety on establishing governing principles of film when Méliès was capturing stage performances on camera? I honestly don’t know the historical answers to those questions but I have to suspect not. Maybe our current state of turmoil is merely a side effect of living in a postmodern age. We’re all so self-aware of everything we produce that anything to emerge now will be submitted to a great crisis of identity. Is establishing a video game identity really a good goal? All musings I don’t have the answer to.

  6. Andy,

    We sure do a get a lot of long comments on Electron Dance! Thanks for coming out of the lurker shadows.

    Writing long pieces is a double-edged sword. Some pieces like Choice do exceptionally well and their depth, their exhaustive approach is celebrated while others do not. Breaking long pieces up doesn’t make that much difference – it just exposes the how few people return for the later parts, unless it does especially well. It’s particularly important to make enough of a hook to pull people in for the later parts, so the writing itself becomes a marketing exercise. I cut up No Alternative as a bit of a test and it was kind of harrowing to see so few people come back for the second part. And series! Unless it’s something that grips the attention like The Aspiration, it can be dispiriting to see people leaving the site in droves (ugh, this is boring, I’ll be back in 3 months).

    The tone of the comments is likely to change if the site starts hitting a couple of thousand followers; it’s possible the site will escape that particular fate but the internet evidence is against it. Maybe some of that discussion will retreat into the Appendix. I don’t know. The downside is that it does cost me as much time to reply to comments, though, as it does to write the articles. I often wonder whether to just stop replying, considering the strain it puts on my writing time, and it’s possible down the road I will have to do that. For now, I think really getting into the discussion down here is what makes part of the site special. And I’m always willing to be wrong. Maybe not always immediately, but I’ve changed my mind many times due to what I’ve seen in the comments.

    On the book – it’s still on the cards to do an Electron Dance anthology which would be a lot easier to put together than the current idea. The anthology would just be disconnected essays and I have no problem with that; but as I’ve said here and elsewhere, the current project is the opposite of that. It’s like an Electron Dance essay that has to be split up over three months of posts. It’s hard work but I’m excited for it and that’s the main thing. The book is more like a thesis; look at all this evidence and see what it’s pointing towards. I have to check each piece of evidence otherwise I fall into the trap of writing nothing more than just another internet opinion.

    On Choice: “I’ve generally held the opposite view” So have I! When I started Electron Dance, I was more of the ludology camp [Anti Games], seeing audiovisual presentation as mere skin and brainless grind as padding. Then I gravitated towards presentation as extremely important – but after an overload of presentation-heavy games and articles lauding such, I swung back. I’m finally somewhere in the middle. Cart Life was the game that taught me grind could be important which, I had to concede, meant it might have similar impact in less “worthy” titles. I try to be more pragmatic than dogmatic: if it works, it has value, if it doesn’t… I gave up Septerra Core years before writing Electron Dance because I got fed up of seventeen battles every time I changed location.

    With Bioshock Infinite, I had the reverse. I was determined to “like” the game in face of critical condemnation (I don’t like following the crowd) but I absolutely hated it. But, sure, I’ve also had games that have been downgraded by reading about them – the same with films and series. When a light is shone on a work’s flaws, you can’t ignore them after that. But we can still treasure our initial reaction. This might not be a great analogy, but you enjoy so many thing when you are young that you do not as an adult because everything is fresh and new: this isn’t a one-time deal, but something that keeps happening as you get older.

    I think I will sound flippant if I say I’m not interested in a form of video game identity however it worries me that pervasive interpretations of videogames skew immediate trajectory. I’ve heard a lot of “fuck this” and “destroy that” with regards to overturning entrenched culture – but what I’d like to see is the end of the term videogame. Maybe I should write about that but… I don’t think I’d enjoy the resulting discussions. Maybe I should talk about colour of the bike shed discussions in games.

  7. Books need editors. Editing your own articles is fine – they do tend to be shorter than 5k words, after all. Editing your own book is useless. You go through a couple of drafts, then let the editor make fucking sense of it. Fresh eyes and all.

    So you’d either need to pay a proper editor, or use the power of the hive – I’m pretty sure you could get ten writers whose expertise (both in terms of writing and videogameing) you’re certain of, who’d love to read your book and offer feedback before publishing.

  8. @Ketchua: Yeah, this is down the line a bit. I’ve been seriously considering hiring an editor even though this might sink the entire profits of the book! But structure is still completely in flux.


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