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Writing

This is the last of a month of daily Problem Machine blog posts. It’s been a tiring month. I’m looking forward to never writing another word for the rest of my life, or at least a few days. I guess this is the time to reflect back over what I’ve learned.

  1. Ideas are not rare

I worry sometimes that I’ve already thought of every topic that I’m going to think of, that the barrel is dry and I’m just scraping out splinters. I don’t consider that a reasonable worry but also I don’t consider it an escapable one. What’s been driven home over the last month is that not coming up with any ideas has more to do with where I’m at on that day – that when I can’t think of anything it’s not a permanent affliction, but just one day where my brain is interested in doing different things that aren’t coming up with ideas for something to write.

Unfortunately, when I’ve committed myself to doing daily essays I can’t really allow my mind the extra time it wants to come up with something, so I end up having to push myself to write after several hours of thinking and false starts. This is the most exhausting part: The actual writing is usually (not always) fairly effortless, comparatively.

  1. Ideas do, nevertheless, become scarcer

The first 10 days or so were fairly forthcoming and exhilarating, though it still took a certain amount of pushing to get myself to come up with concepts, and a while to build up momentum. The next 10 days were probably the easiest, where I had my habits built up and still had a creative reservoir, but I started feeling the strain.

The last 10 started really taking a toll. It might also be the weather changing for Winter I suppose, but I’ve been very tired. Nearly every post now takes a few hours of sitting and thinking and reworking before I can turn it into anything, and this isn’t leaving me a ton of time and energy for other work. Fortunately, for today’s post I had the incredibly convenient pre-made topic of this being the last daily post to write about!

  1. Super Hexagon is a good video game

I’ve written in the past about how I like to use Super Hexagon as a creative tool, almost a form of meditation, since it requires such acute spatial concentration it really leaves the verbal/abstract parts of my brain free to think about this and that. Thus for the last month, as I try to write every day, I have been playing approximately one shitload of Super Hexagon – enough to actually get good at the game again and beat most of the best times on my friends list.

It’s a relief, when I’m drilling myself on the abstract ideals of improvement at art and what that means in this world, at the unsolvable dilemmas of game design and how to do better, to spend time in bits and pieces in something that I can definitely and quantifiably improve at. Many games promise this idea of visible improvement, but few single-player games in particular can satisfyingly offer it – frequently offering upgrades to equipment and characters instead of instilling a direct change in the player’s skill. The aspirational goal being measured in mere seconds is pleasing in both its straightforwardness its limitedness: Even an amazing time, for me, would be at most a few minutes, which is something I can definitely fit in my schedule. Even though I described the last month as having contained one shitload of Super Hexagon, in fact I think I’ve spent less than 10 hours actually playing it over the last 30 days – it just feels so dense and active that it felt like many more.

What’s next? I think I’m going to be going back to weekly posts for the immediate future, though I’ll probably be skipping this Saturday for obvious reasons and will probably be a bit spotty through December for other obvious reasons. At one point I was considering going twice-weekly and starting a Patreon to support my writing, but though the readership seems to have increased a bit – around 30 views a day, which is encouraging but not astounding – I don’t think I have much of a readership base sufficient to really offer significant support. Feel free to pipe up in the comments if you feel differently.

That said, I do generally feel more confident in both the quality and consistency of my writing ability now, so I’ll probably be working on collating a bunch of past Problem Machine posts into some sort of structure and begin the process of converting that into a book. At a rough estimate, I think I probably have about 5 years of weekly 500 word blog posts, and between overlap and unsuitability I figure I’ll probably be able to use maybe half of these, so this book will start with around 60,000-70,000 words, which I can then revise and add supplementary material to to round it to probably around 100,000-150,000 – pretty substantial. We’ll see when I get there, but I think it could be something I can be really proud of when it’s done, and encompass a lot of the philosophy I’ve put into this blog.

Part of the reason, as well, that I think I’d like to put a book together is pursuant to one of the ideas I’ve been talking about recently: The idea that to be a good artist is to be a good promoter of your art. It’s not an approach that comes easily to me, but I think as a naturally cautious person I have a much easier time promoting the idea that this thing I have made is good than the idea that this thing I will make will be good – I am generally very chary of making promises about what will happen in the future. Having one discrete thing that I can promote as my work sounds very appealing. If people then take that work as evidence that I can produce work of similar quality in the future, that’s on them – even if I, too, hope and believe that they are correct in that presumption.

I will probably also do another month of daily work in the near future, even if this one made me want to die a little bit. December’s no good, and I will need to stabilize my money situation a bit – this writing-binge was enabled by a small windfall I received a few months ago, which I’ve tried to be careful with but which half of has already eroded. Probably next up will be a daily music project: I’ll post the results here probably in weekly digests. This is all up in the air, but I thought y’all might be interested in hearing where I’m going with this.

So, to close out this month, here’s some of my other stuff you can check out:

As I just mentioned, I write music. Here’s where most of it is:

http://problemmachine.bandcamp.com

I also stream on Twitch! My current schedule is Tuesday, Thursday, Friday at 8pm Pacific time, Sunday at 6pm Pacific time:

http://www.twitch.tv/problemmachine/

I’m also working on a game! I’ve been having to dial back my efforts on this recently due to increased focus on the blog, but I post about my progress on that project here as well.

https://problemmachine.wordpress.com/category/devblog/

Thanks for checking out my work. Every view and every like means a lot to me, since it’s so easy to feel isolated and powerless in the world today. I hope I’ve brightened your day or broadened your perspective a bit, as well, through the work I’ve put in over the last month, and the last five years.

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I’m thinking about how I think; I’m processing my process. For whatever reason I seem to be a weirdo who ends up thinking about things a bit too much – most of the time this is super inconvenient because it makes it difficult to communicate with people who aren’t me and aren’t related to me. Sometimes also it lets me make interesting things, perhaps finding an novel angle or perspective someone else might not find. Or maybe I have the cause and effect in reverse here: it could be that the act of creating interesting things has tweaked my brain away from the standards of human discourse and into weird and specialized pathways. Likely some combination of both.

Perhaps these approaches will be interesting to you. Perhaps not. I’m trying to spend a little bit more time understanding how other people approach problems and creative tasks, so perhaps you may be interested in learning my approach as well.

What do I do? I ask a lot of questions. From any one fact, you can start pulling at threads, start prodding at what has to be true as prerequisite to this being true and what must be true as consequence of this truth. From any one fact you can then unearth a network of facts, from any one question a cluster of further questions. This is helpful for the direct problem-solving stuff, figuring out what logistically needs to be lined up in order to make something work, but it’s also useful for philosophical exploration.

Really what I’m talking about is applying programming logic to situations more complex and nuanced than a program. I’m used to programming, so I always try to find the most general case. If there’s something that is common knowledge in one field, maybe it has more general applications – helpful metaphors are often born this way, such as when we take our knowledge of the way rot spreads through produce and helpfully inform people that one bad apple spoils the bunch. Unfortunately then people use the helpful phrase “one bad apple” to say oh it’s just one bad apple so it’s not a big problem, which is the exact opposite of the intended meaning of the phrase. It may be that we don’t have much call to skin cats any more, but there’s probably still more than one way to do that if we really want to, and probably more than one way to do most other things as well. Metaphorical aphorisms are usually just using a specific description of the best practice within a field that to describe a more general case. In, um, exactly the way that I just did by beginning this paragraph with an analogy to programming.

Of course, these metaphors are often bullshit. That is, what’s good for the goose may not actually, in practice, be good for the gander. So somewhere in this spectrum, from the specific application of an idea out to the most general application of the idea, there’s usually a point where it stops actually being useful and becomes extremely bad advice. Somewhere there’s a discontinuity. These breakdowns are also an interesting point to start exploring from, to trace out from the specific case to the general until we find where it breaks down, to then describe the consequences of using this concept, that has been accepted as generally good advice from a specific application, outside of the scope of its utility.

Sometimes something just feels wrong, or disproportionately satisfying, in ways that aren’t readily described, and these are interesting places to begin to explore as well. Why does this feel different than I’d expect it to? What does it say about the thing that it instigates these emotions? What does it say about me thant these emotions are instigated? Or, inversely, if others seem to be reacting unusually strongly to something, what does that signify? What sort of unfed hungers are indicated when something becomes explosively popular, what kind of unspoken rage when something becomes a locus of incandescent fury?

The through-line here is that we probe using emotion and intuition and then dig deeper using logic. Neither of these tools are honestly especially useful on their own – and most people who think they’re being purely logical are actually being guided and biased by emotions they fail to acknowledge, people who sell themselves as in tune with pure emotional truth are guided by logic that they pretend isn’t logic by avoiding giving it any concrete description. Everyone is guided by emotions and by logic, and the only way to navigate with any goddamn clarity is to acknowledge the presence of both and harness them, rather than to try to reject one or the other. The above approaches are really just frameworks for attempting that – likely your own personal creative and analytical approaches are as well.

I’ve been thinking about ideas and about plagiarism. The concept of stealing ideas is a bit of a tricky one, since it conceives of ideas as having a single origin point, or of being discrete and quantifiable things – but so much of the life-cycle ideas is of them being misinterpreted, reinterpreted, hazily remembered, recombined, turned into new ideas. I have not plagiarized and have no intention to, no one has ever accused me and I hope no one ever will, but I’m sure that some bits and pieces of other ideas which have originated elsewhere have found their way into my work. How could they not?

There’s so many ways for this to go wrong and I have honestly zero idea how to approach this as a problem. People should get credit for their work, but also it should be possible to accumulate knowledge without strenuously and probably erroneously tracking the source for every tidbit we happen to pick up. I can see the endpoints of both sides of this chain of logic though, and neither is satisfactory: Either we regard everything that goes on in our minds as wholly our own, and the credit and benefit of all ideation goes to the highest profile person to convincingly present those ideas, or we regard everything that goes on in our minds as coming from elsewhere, at which point presentation of ideas stagnates as everyone is certain that their ideas must have been presented elsewhere and better before. I feel like I’ve been on both sides of this, and found both deeply unsatisfactory.

Fortunately we are not restrained to only the extremes of every possible divide. There’s probably a few guidelines worth following here:

  1. If you know an idea came from elsewhere, give credit. If you’re not sure and it’s searchable, do a search. If you’re not sure and don’t find anything, but someone points it out later, update to give credit.

  2. Independent discovery happens all the time, but there’s no reason not to give someone credit if they happen to come up with the same idea. Go ahead and link to their work as further reading if it comes to your attention later.

  3. Try to add something new. Personally this is always my goal when writing, but it’s a worthy goal as well to just seek to share knowledge – a fact I sometimes forget to my detriment. If you’re just sharing knowledge, though, try to share some of the context where you got that knowledge as well – context is everything, and sometimes this context will make it easier to give credit where it’s due, especially when that credit is experience gained as part of a community or culture. It will also, incidentally, probably make the knowledge more useful.

  4. Boost the voices of others when they say something that you feel is worthwhile. Giving credit for the ideas that inspire you is great when it comes to the piece that has been inspired, but maybe even better if you do it every day.

When it comes to that last point I feel rather remiss. I think I feel hesitant to try to boost other peoples voices because I usually feel that I don’t have much voice of my own, and that it feels weirdly presumptuous to do so, but I definitely should get over it. In the spirit of trying to do better, here’s a few voices that I think have had a particular influence on me:

This current reflection, in particular, I started writing as a consideration of Liz Ryerson‘s recent thoughts on the economy of ideas in games writing. She’s a particularly incisive voice in critique around games culture, though she’s now distanced herself from that scene. Also I think her game Problem Attic is quite interesting, particularly in how it harnesses the mechanics of glitchiness into metaphor and has likely inspired several of my pieces.

A lot of the original inspiration for starting a blog to talk about game design came from the lectures of Jon Blow – though I often disagree with his perspective nowadays, I still feel his critiques of mainstream game design were interesting and edifying. Unfortunately I unfollowed his Twitter feed after his unimpressive and unnecessary response to the Google memo shit show, but I can’t deny that his ideas have greatly influenced my own.

I was also inspired to begin this blog by the insightful and hilarious discussions on the Idle Thumbs Podcast, where the experience of playing games is taken apart, put back together again, and extrapolated out into absurd scenarios exploring why we love ridiculous video game bullshit.

There’s probably more I should put here, but I don’t expect to solve this all at once. I’ll just try to boost more voices in the future – and, perhaps, the first step in doing that is to believe that my own voice can be heard.

I thought of a piece to write but I realized I didn’t have much to say about it. I was going to discuss the texture of canvas and brush and how they work to create texture in a painting, how that becomes part of the painted scene, standing in for the pebbling of goosebumps or the rough surface of a stone – I was going to compare that to the texture created by pixels and polygons and how these can work to sell interesting visual illusions. Maybe someday I’ll have something to say about it, but in order for it to be any good I’d need lots of visual examples. I definitely didn’t feel up to that tonight.

I thought about another piece about how difficult I find it to ask for anything, how my usual strategy is just to do my thing quietly in a corner and hope that things work out. I didn’t want to write this piece because I feel that it’s a rather self-pitying topic and one that I’ve touched on already a few times recently. Yes, everyone knows that men are terrible about asking for directions, and no it’s not really that interesting that this toxic stoicism has a tendency to derail other parts of one’s life when taken too far. This is probably a helpful topic for me to remind myself of every so often, but not so much an interesting topic to write about more often than perhaps once every six months or so.

I thought about another piece about the habits of skepticism and what a pain in the ass they make me to be around. Most people don’t like being questioned all the time: Maybe this is part of the reason I’m enjoying watching Columbo so much. I sometimes feel like I’m a pain in the ass in very similar ways to those in which he is a pain in the ass – though, unfortunately, I don’t get to arrest so many rich people. I do value questions I think more than I value answers – I trust questions more than I trust answers, since they’re more rarely lies. Maybe not much more rarely, as it’s actually easy for a question to be a lie, or at least extremely misleading – but a bit less easy than it is for an answer.

Then I started writing down all of my aborted ideas for a piece, and maybe they became something new. Sitting under a grating where bits of jigsaw puzzle fall through every once in a while by happenstance, trying to assemble a picture that makes sense out of pieces that were never meant to go together. The second two fit together okay – asking and questions are thematically similar. But the first… I guess the message is that the thing we make isn’t a product of the choices we make, but also the context they’re made in. Sometimes, a bunch of disparate ideas can be thrown together and create something worthwhile. And, sometimes, they can’t.

Just gotta keep jamming those suckers together to see how they look.

Fictional lies pose an interesting challenge. With the (many) lies we encounter in our daily lives, we understand that there is a reality that these lies are purposefully misrepresenting – that, even if we don’t know the truth, there is a truth to be known. However, when the entire reality of the thing is made-up, when even the truth of the world we are participating in is a lie, lies that happen within the fiction of that world become strangely insidious. Sherlock Holmes says that once you have eliminated the impossible then whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be true – Sherlock Holmes also solved a mystery where a man drank a de-evolution serum and turned into an ape-like creature to murder the victim, so I feel his claims should be taken with a grain of salt. Within the world of Sherlock Holmes the impossible is quite possible, because he is a character in a book and the only guarantee we have against impossibility is the discretion of the author.

It’s particularly difficult to convey lies in games. In novels and movies the audience doesn’t need to worry about what to do next, so they don’t actually need to worry about whether something a character says is true or not – it might be fun and interesting to think about, but determining falsehood won’t factor into what happens next at all. A lie in a game, however, can have consequences for how the player experiences that game, possibly leading them on a wild-goose chase or towards a decision which will turn out to be disastrous. Also, since people don’t expect to encounter lies in games, they tend to regard any information which doesn’t pan out and isn’t explicitly revealed as a lie to be a mistake or, at best, a vestige of cut content. For instance, the villagers in Castlevania 2 may have been lying or the game may have been poorly translated – as best as I can tell from a cursory look online it appears to have been both – but when players were misled they read that not as thematic but as accidental, and blamed the developers for slipshod work.

Because of this, certain conventions have arisen in games when it comes to falsehood, and these are rarely betrayed. Lies are almost always constrained to the narrative of the game, while rarely affecting the actual gameplay. That is, being lied to by your commander has become such a common game trope that it’s surprising on the rare occasions that you’re not betrayed, but since being lied to or not makes absolutely zero difference in how you approach the problems presented by the game it doesn’t matter. It’s just fluff.

This is a solution, of sorts, but it also removes most of the narrative power and interest from falsehood. Another solution might lie in informing players that they will be lied to and that it’s on them to believe or disbelieve what they’re being told, but this results in its own set of problems – asking players to determine whether someone is lying is a core mechanic of LA Noire, but in reality every actor whose performance was captured for the game was, in fact, lying. They’re actors, that’s the job. So it’s a matter of determining which lie was the more convincing looking lie – which is really a shit way of determining when someone’s lying, since accomplished liars are much better at being convincing than people who are unaccustomed to lying, even when the latter are actually being completely truthful.

I suspect that the only way to integrate falsehood into gameplay in a way that’s satisfying is to leave traditional failure states behind completely. If we refocus the game’s design around exploring a story, rather than ‘winning’ at it, then the player is free to believe or disbelieve what characters say based on what they think is the most interesting to the story or on where they’d like to see it go next. This also opens the door for playing a character role, where the character can be trusting or cynical, rather than analyze the scenario for optimal play.

Even then, something is lost, because this makes the deception stakes low for the player. Is there a way to satisfyingly integrate falsehood into a single-player game, when the systems of the game and its narrative are being conveyed through the same channels? How can the player know what to trust, without the game being scrupulously honest at all times?

Ideas are important. There are two conceptions we seem to have of what ideas are, what ideas do: The first is that the world runs on ideas, that new ideas fundamentally shift the world, and that just coming up with one really good idea is enough to move continents. The second conception is that ideas are nothing, that hard work and sometimes luck is what makes the world move. And, though it may seem obvious, rarely do we approach the slightly more nuanced truth of the matter: Ideas are important, but useless without the labor to manifest them and the luck to make that labor pay off.

But, okay: Let’s take the labor part for granted. That is not to say that the labor isn’t valuable – to the contrary, without the work nothing can happen – but only to say that it can be measured in a way that idea creation cannot. As an example, I’ve already committed to writing every day this month, so we can figure that I’m prepared to spend the hour or so it takes every day to put around 500 words together, take a couple of editing passes at them, and schedule them to upload here the next day. However, the time it takes to find a core idea to write those 500 words is really an unknown quantity: Sometimes an idea will occur to me naturally over the course of the day and I’ll remember that and have it ready to go when I start writing; sometimes I draw a blank and have to hammer at it for hours, maybe take a walk or play some Super Hexagon, both of which I find useful for brainstorming. Sometimes nothing occurs at all, and I have to delay the post, or just try writing words down until something useful emerges. Finding the idea to write a piece around can range from almost no work at all to almost a full day’s work by itself.

That’s not even getting into the difference between an idea and a good idea. A lot of practice, as well, goes into learning how to tell how good an idea is likely to be – the only way to tell for sure is to follow it through and create something out of it, but of course by the time you do that it’s too late to not use the idea any more. Mostly, it’s a sort of projected sense memory, a glimpse into the future, into the piece I might write using the idea and whether, looking at it then, I think it’s an interesting piece which I’m proud of having written and which I believe other people are interested in reading. Every time, before I start writing, I imagine being the man who has written the thing I am thinking of writing, and think about how enthusiastic I am about that idea. I don’t know if that’s how other people do it, but that’s how I do it.

Thus a large part of the process of coming up with an idea is often just discarding ideas that aren’t useful: There’s so much out there that I feel like I have absolutely no new ideas to offer about, where anything I could write on the topic could be improved by replacing it with a link to Wikipedia or some other resource – or, indeed, to some earlier post I’ve already written on the same topic, though when I do (frequently) end up accidentally re-using a topic I usually end up approaching it differently enough to still make for a piece worth writing.

Here’s a topic I’ve touched on before: The similarity of the first idea to the first stroke in a drawing or painting, how these end up unavoidably shaping the final form of the piece no matter how hard we try to rework them. That’s why I think it’s worth taking a bit of extra time to make sure the idea I start from is a worthwhile one, otherwise I am, from the start, creating an inferior version of the piece I could be making. Still, a shape emerges – every time I write I chart a bit of the territory of my mind, and roads start to intersect and show a map. I’m not worried about running out of ideas, since the shape of that terrain keeps changing and expanding: When I cross the same bridge again I find new water running underneath it.

I must know, though, before I ever begin talking, that I have something to say. I don’t want to be one of those who never stops talking but never begins having anything to say.

If there’s a saying that’s haunted me over the years, it’s “Jack of all trades, master of none.” There’s a sense of causality implied here, suggesting that being a jack of all trades necessarily implies being a master of none – which makes a certain amount of consequential sense, given that we only have so much time to dedicate to practice, and that practicing one thing must necessarily take time that could be used practicing another. And yet… well, I really would like to be a master of, if not all, then several trades.

I’m proud of the progress I’ve made, but the better I get at anything the more I see how much I have yet to learn, and the more time passes the more I’m scared that I don’t have enough time or energy to learn anything to the extent that I would like to. Every bit of pleasure I take in seeing my art improve drips into the gap I perceive between that improvement and what it is possible to achieve with the medium. And yet, can I give up on anything? Can I stop writing, stop drawing, stop making games, stop making music – how can I stop, when I’ve already come so far? I don’t feel okay with stopping – I don’t even feel okay with the idea of stopping starting, since there are other skills still I want to pick up and improve at, and I also want to push my abilities along new avenues – to write different kinds of words and music, make different kinds of art. I just started streaming games on Twitch a while ago, which is developing a whole new set of verbal performative skills, a category of art I’ve barely approached before in my life but have felt a subtle yearning for.

Yet I also don’t feel okay about being broke, though that seems to be where I’ve gotten with these trades and practices and skills thus far – either because I’m not confident enough to sell the products of my labor or because the products of my labor are of insufficient quality or breadth of appeal to find purchase. I’m trying to work on both of those right now as well, but it’s slow going and in the meanwhile, as I chew through my monetary reserves, I feel quite broke and somewhat worried.

There’s no good way I can see besides the way I’m doing it. If I try to raise money through more traditional venues (IE get a job selling coffee or burgers) I have dramatically less time and energy to develop my abilities and create new works, further reducing my capacity for self-improvement and self-sufficiency – though, I suppose, I might gain some additional and unexpected skills through the work itself.

Maybe I’m greedy. I just can’t let anything go. It’s a privileged position to be in, still. Most people don’t get a chance to make this choice. Sometimes I wonder if I’m making the most of it, but all I can do is my best, and it’s also an opportunity I can’t let pass – though I know that, as with everything, this, too, shall pass. I just have to be ready before that happens.