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