A colleague recently loaned me Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.
I knew it existed, but wasn’t planning to buy it immediately. Since I’ve been freelancing in the field, I’ve been focusing on books specifically about writing for games, rather than broader criticism.
This is a stodgy process, requiring self-discipline. There’s much I feel I need to know, but it’s often sandwiched in between things I consider too obvious to be worth saying and things I consider insanely wrongheaded.
The latest book on the pile is Lee Sheldon’s Character Development and Storytelling for Games, which is apparently designed for those game writers who have never written anything before and came in from some other part of the production team.
Sheldon’s book dutifully describes many, many basic aspects of story-building; offers an introductory view of plot structures for video games, while deftly avoiding any really hard problems or really interesting solutions; and takes care to remind the reader every few pages of Sheldon’s credentials not only as a professional writer but as the sort of person who has shared a limo with Dick Clark.
The prose is breezily good-natured and would not tax the vocabulary of a fourth-grader, but it gets through its material slowly, with many explanations per concept, so that it becomes boring in aggregate. It is the mental-nutrition equivalent of buttered macaroni. I don’t feel respected by this book, though it is probably fairest to say I am not its intended audience. If I were, I might find it a thorough, not-too-hard introduction to many of the core concepts of the craft.
Bissell’s book, therefore, was refreshing. For one thing, it’s very well-written, in the sense that individual sentences give pleasure. After reading a bit, I find my own writing turning into half-conscious, third-rate Bissell pastiche. This is annoying, but also a sure indicator of prose whose rhythm has got into my head like a hooky song.
Extra Lives is observant. It reads like the kind of travel narrative that is as much about the traveler’s inward journey as his outward one. It captures many of the things I find compelling about games as an expressive medium, and also identifies many of the aspects that are hard to defend. If you’re reading my blog because you’re interested in the problems of narrative/mechanic interface I often write about, then Extra Lives might well appeal to you.
It is pyrotechnic in its wording—I said it was well-written, not that it is modest, and I was not surprised by Amazon reviewers who said they had come to personally dislike the author on the basis of his narrative voice. That wasn’t my own reaction, but I can see where it comes from.
Anyway, here is a guy who turns such phrases as “ozonically scorched” to describe the atmosphere of a room after a disturbing presentation; “thermonuclear charisma” for a personality; “Bachelor Futurist” for a decor style. It is characteristic of Bissell to take an idea that would take most of us a prepositional phrase or a whole clause to express, and condense it to one adverb. If he has to invent that adverb himself, so much the better. Sharp observations in small spaces, that’s Bissell.
It is probably for this reason that Bissell’s chapter on Braid struck me so forcefully.
I asked Blow what he thought about the question [of whether games should be respected as art]. “It’s a prerequisite,” he said, “that to be respected as somebody who is saying important things, you have important things to say. We’re not really trying to have important things to say right now. Or even interesting things to say.” (102)
This is a key passage in a much lengthier discussion that left me with increased respect for Braid and for the other things its creator was trying to say. Blow’s ideas, elicited and then elaborated by Bissell, made more sense to me than Blow in his own words.
And all at once there crystallized for me what I find problematic about Braid.
There emerges from the end level of Braid, and from pieces of the prose, a message about relationships, about clinging to and idealizing them and refusing to see what the other person thinks is going on. This is extremely powerful. I acknowledge the genius of this. It is an interesting and important thing to say.
The problem is, it’s not the only thing Braid seems to be trying to say. The text passages hint at further meanings, but they are messy and confused, and do not seem to relate clearly to the play of the game. Is this about relationships or about the bomb, or about something else or more? Is Tim really a psychopath? What? Huh?
And the presence of these clues that I can neither resolve into meaning nor ignore diminishes, rather than heightening, the impact of what Braid does say clearly.
For this I largely blame the words themselves. I find the prose passages of Braid painful. They are vague, they are overwrought, they are not good writing. They portend something, but even when you have played through to the end of the game, it’s not clear exactly what. They stand out as amateurish when everything else—art, music, design—is so very polished, so exactly right.
Roger Ebert was wrong to write off games without being willing to try any, but I certainly sympathize with his unimpressed reaction to the Braid text.
The Braid book passages feel bad to me in a way that I have come to see almost as a genre characteristic of indie art games. Many samples come to mind, most much worse than Braid‘s. It merely feels harsher to pick on those by name, since Braid was both a commercial success and (despite its textual stolidity) a masterpiece.
Throughout the movement, there’s a lot of writing by people who want to express something deep, but who are experienced game designers, not experienced writers.
In saying this, I do not simply mean to reiterate the familiar complaint that game designers should develop more respect for writing as a craft.
I mean something narrower. This ghastly indie-art-game prose: it’s writing that tries to communicate ideas in the same way that game mechanics communicate ideas. Such writing offers allusions and suggestions, hints for the player to assemble, but it shies away from specifics or a through-line plot. Characters often go unnamed, or are named something thuddingly symbolic, or are Everyman. Theme is presented heavy-handedly (you wouldn’t want players to miss it!) and via the most cliché images. Expect frequent references to light and dark, cold and loneliness, broken hearts and shattered dreams. Memories may get a look in. Also death. It’s like reading a collage of the manuscripts sent to a high school poetry contest right after one of the students got in a fatal crash.
In games, there are reasons for all these methods. Assembling clues to the past is a kind of puzzle that fits well in game environments. Protagonists are created with a gap in which the player can insert himself; they are not fully determined. And as for thematic clues, a level saturated with chill blue light evokes a mood. If this is also the narrative point where the protagonist is most alone, that metaphor may enter the player’s perception gradually and without being in the least heavy-handed.
You cannot cast the same effect into text by talking about how the protagonist was cold, so cold, without his teammates. People will snicker. They will be right to do so.
You also cannot do clue-assembly meaning in text solely via references to “bad memories” or “loneliness.” There’s little here for the reader’s mind to lock onto, too little to imagine in response to the words.
The fault is not in the choice of concepts. Many of our important and interesting ideas will inevitably be about love, loss, human connection, mortality, freedom, constraint.
There are still ways to talk about these things, to make them lucid and memorable to the reader in prose form. Not every writer is Tom Bissell, expert saucier, rendering gallons of stock thought down to a piquant drizzle. Not every sentence needs to startle and amaze. But an idea that is going to appear in written form often needs to be refined in different ways than an idea destined to inform a level design or a lighting choice, if it is not to seem banal, confusing, or vague.
That’s where the writing craft comes in.