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The way art happens, I think, is much the same way pearls are made: A tiny grit of something gets inside of our shells, grinds its way into us uncomfortably, and we have to weave some softer facade around it to keep it from hurting.

I’ve been very tired recently, so I’ve been dialing back my ambitions for the month. I’ve relaxed my scheduling, I’ve let myself feel okay with getting less done every day, and I’ve been generally taking a bit of time to lean back and think about why I feel so tired, so discouraged, so unenthusiastic.

For the most part I live a fairly solitary life. I sit around in my tiny room and I try to make art and enjoy art and that’s basically how it goes. I can usually do this because I believe in what I’m doing and I believe that it’s intrinsic to who I am to want to make things that are interesting and, perhaps, even beautiful.

The more I think about it, though, the less certain I am that this life is any more intrinsically a part of who I am than any other life I might live. Certainly I have certain priorities or activities I might be predisposed to, and certainly I value art, but I have learned to view certain aspects of my existence, certain priorities and values, as solid – as immovable. I have learned to believe that only one type of life could possibly suit me, and the only choice I had was to see what else I could fit in around those immobile points: That this was my nature, the core of who I am. However, when I ask myself questions about why I feel uncomfortable, why I live the life I do, I then also must question how much of this identity I inhabit is intrinsic to me as a person – and how much of it is just habit, just the memories called up by being in this room, living in this body, and having each day follow its predecessor in a chain that seems often to be unbreakable.

The tricky part is, even if you identify your current life as imperfect, it is at least one life that has worked. Out there, there’s an infinite number of lives that may or may not work. Once you identify that something that you thought was constant is a variable, you have to wonder what else could fit in its place… and, if it might be moved, what else could fit in around it that couldn’t before?

I like the idea of being an artist. I like the act of creating art – usually. However, I see very few models of how being an independent artist can be compatible with leading a happy and rewarding life. Not being able to see these lives being lived is unfortunate, because while I believe it can happen, I also believe it is a difficult life to build, and made more so by the lack of any reliable guide. In a context where many people exploit and abuse artists, in a context where what is considered good entertainment is increasingly consolidated into the coffers of a few megacorporations, in a context where social safety nets are getting sawed away by bandits, in a context where we are told that we must constantly be working and constantly be making or we are worse-than, less-than… How can one halfheartedly create, and hope to get anywhere? What can I do with these doubts besides diminish myself?

Yet halfhearted creation may sometimes be all I have, as I do not always have a whole heart available to create with. I’m split in so many directions, the projects and ambitions and the leisure and the longing, I feel like I have no time or energy left over to seek to rectify the holes I perceive in my life. I keep feeling I ought to give something up to make room for something else, and yet I have no idea what to give up, like ceding any territory is self-annihilation. I keep feeling that there has to be some way to rearrange things to make room.

I keep feeling so tired.

When you’re an independent artist, with little to no audience, and you lose interest in what you’re making, there’s no real reason to keep working on a thing that no one wants to exist – or, at least, a thing no one knows they want to exist. The only resource I have at my disposal for creating my passion-projects is passion, and if I let that slip I really don’t have anything. Which raises the question of how I can be consistently passionate if I want to do another project every month. Which raises the question of why I want to do another project every month.

I keep getting caught in these feedback loops, where I nudge myself to make progress, stall out, nudge again, stall, nudge, stall – and this process, even when I don’t actually do anything, consumes a huge amount of energy. While I burn energy this way, I burn even more energy getting angry at myself for not doing anything while I’m stalled out.

This, I think, is how a person can burn themselves out while doing absolutely nothing at all.

The nice thing about working for other people is you can know at least one other person wants your work. The nice thing about working for other people is you can blame someone besides yourself for feeling tired, crushed, hopeless. The nice thing about working for other people is that it doesn’t have to be your identity, it can just be a job.

The terrible thing about working for other people is that, because the richest have so much more power, the value your time and effort creates, in the form of the money you need to survive and thrive, is the value of the change in their pocket and is utterly without significance to them. The terrible thing about working for other people is you have no power to change your approach if you feel tired, crushed, hopeless. The terrible thing about working for other people is that they won’t let it just be a job for you, they want it to be the reason for your existence.

And at the end here I would like to come to some big meaningful conclusion, something with impact, something Important. We always want what we write to be important. And that which is important compels change. So if I conclude here with something Big and Important, I need to change my life afterwards. If I want to claim insight, I have to make a change. I wonder how much of my confusion stems from trying to regularly create viewpoint-shifting insights, and having to believe them. Is this another way I’ve sabotaged myself?

I suppose the next day will be much the same as today, and I won’t be compelled to make some huge lifestyle change. Perhaps this is just my process of finding point of discomfort and encasing them, softening them, beautifying them. Or perhaps my role, here, is just to be the tide that brings sand to you, and to make you uncomfortable – but just uncomfortable enough, and in a way that you can work with.

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I always had trouble identifying with the parts of kids’ cartoons where the main character wishes they were normal. I think that this is partially an indication of privilege: I’ve never really had to suffer much for being a weirdo. I mostly kept to myself and, always having been on the big side, was never a very attractive target for bullying. Maybe that’s why I never found ‘normal’ a very appealing thing to be. Perhaps this means that I really internalized those cartoons’ lessons about how it’s okay to be different, that everyone is unique and contributes something of their own, but as time has gone on, as I’ve found myself isolated and struggling, I’ve come more and more to see the appeal of normalcy.

There’s probably some sort of difference between opting out and being unable to fit in. I’ve always strenuously avoided having to think too hard about which, exactly, I’m doing at any given time.

I don’t really believe that any existing human being is not, deep down, a huge weirdo. We are a fundamentally neurotic species, overloaded with crossed wires, beliefs connected to anxieties connected to fetishes connected to fears, all of it coated in a vague post-hoc rationalization we call a personality. Normal is a set of behaviors, a standardized interface between you and society that you can fit on top of your natural impulses, and some people have an easier time of making that fit than others. Normal is a thing that you do and that is done to you rather than a thing that you fundamentally are – a distinction far too fine for me to grasp as a child, or for these children’s cartoons to attempt to impart.

And this allergy to normality might sound like a good trait to have as an artist – I sure thought it would be! But art is communication, and communication gets a lot more difficult when you have semi-intentionally disconnected yourself from the standardized interface of your culture. What I mean when I say this is that the most generic, uninspired, boilerplate boring design-by-committee extra-smooth-applesauce piece of art has a huge advantage relative to anything I create, no matter how careful or inspired or well-thought-out my work may be: People know what it is, how to engage with it, and what it means.

When I’m in art classes, teachers frequently tell me that I needn’t try to be so representational, that I don’t have to get every color and proportion perfectly accurate – which is, of course, true, but is also unnecessary advice. I know how to not do the obvious thing. What I need to learn is how to be expected, predictable, how to meet people where they are at. Maybe this leads me to overcompensate, but I figure practice is the best time to fixate on technique. Everyone is probably going to come at this challenge from one side of the divide or the other: Every artist is going to either find it relatively easy to make generic art that everyone can appreciate but is soon forgotten, or to make weird art that few people enjoy but is extremely distinctive and perhaps offers something difficult to find elsewhere. For passionate creators, they’re probably going to start pursuing whichever one they perceive themselves to lack.

As hard as I work now to pursue an understanding of shared language, cultural norms, realism, and ‘polish’, others are surely working just as hard to define a unique voice, a look and sound, a bit of grit and identity. Perhaps we are working towards the same thing from different directions, some searching for a truth occluded while others for words to speak a truth perceived.

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Generally speaking, I want to make games. Specifically speaking, making an actual game of the sort I want to make is a nightmare proposition. Games take a tremendous amount time and of energy to create, and for many years I’ve said: That’s okay. I’ll put in the time. I’ll put in the energy. Right now, though, I’m not sure about the supplies of time and energy. Right now, on our current trajectory, time is running short. And the more I think about that, the less energy I have to work on making a game.

There is a plausible apocalypse looming. There’s no point in pretending it’s impossible. Even if we dodge the greater threat of the global ecosystem collapsing due to greenhouse gases, there’s still the global rise of nationalism and fascism, the increasingly unsustainable income inequality, the creeping capture of all political systems by malicious actors – and then there’s the old problems, stuff that has been around for a while, the racism and sexism and sundry bigotry, freehanded abuse of the socially and financially and physically disadvantaged.

It’s a lot. Not sure what to do about all that.

It feels like a blockage. Fixing this feels like a prerequisite without which no other work can commence. But this cannot be completely fixed. There are no complete solutions to these problems, only processes that can be enacted to slowly ameliorate them over time. This is a frustrating realization because honestly this is not how I work. I like to fix things once, and I like them to stay fixed. I freely admit that this is an unrealistic expectation.

So I fret. I wonder what I ought to be doing. Is it ethically acceptable to make art on the eve of Armageddon? Is it ethically acceptable not to? What could I realistically fix, out there, in the world, given my aptitudes and experience? What fundamental change would I have to enact upon myself in order to do so? How dangerous would it be to try? How dangerous would it be not to try?

And so forth, in circles.

I think sometimes maybe it would be better for me to just do small works. Just do little paintings, bits of music, write these posts. Forget games. I could, I suppose, just keep making small games, little monthly projects like I’ve been trying to do (with mixed success) – but, so far, all of my small games feel small. Some people have the knack of creating small projects that feel like little explorations of big ideas, bite-sized chunks of something huge and important. I don’t have that knack, at least not yet. So I keep thinking, then, that perhaps this isn’t a good use of my time and energy. Maybe I shouldn’t be trying to make games.

And yet. The end can only come by consensus. This world ends when we agree it ends. Maybe right now is the perfect time, actually, for a long-term art project. It’s a vote for tomorrow. It’s a leap of belief in an audience existing.

There are three reasons to do creative work, as I see it – besides making money that is, which so far remains a largely hypothetical benefit to me. Often, it’s just for practice: We play our scales, do our figure studies, write journals or bits of poetry and lyrics that never go anywhere, and hone our skills. Sometimes, it’s to express something within us, to take it out of the unspeaking back corridors of our minds and out into the world, for exorcism or for self-understanding. And, of course, sometimes it’s for each other. Sometimes it’s to say something to someone else, to make them understand a viewpoint, feel an emotion, perceive a shift.

If we don’t practice we stagnate, lose the technical capacity to say what we want to say. If we don’t create for ourselves, we lose touch and create something we don’t care about, or cease to care enough to bring a work to completion. If we don’t create for each other, we sink into silence, stop hearing from each other, learning from each other, and eventually dissolve.

I’m going to keep creating. For practice, for me, and for you. I hope you will do likewise.

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Art is like clothing: It displays and it conceals at the same time. We open parts of ourselves to the world while closing off other parts, we express our self through artful concealment – projecting our light in certain particular ways; creating shadow puppets.

I often hear writing in particular, and art in general, discussed as an act of radical vulnerability, of pure honesty – opening up to the world in a pure and unfiltered way so that other people can engage most directly with your internal life. They say that to write is to reveal – and I think, like so many creative maxims, there is a bit of truth to it but that, but that it is incomplete. There is much of myself I’m not prepared to talk about in public: I don’t think that inherently makes me a worse writer or artist. There’s parts of my brain that I take care not to expose because the time isn’t right, the place isn’t right, because it makes me uncomfortable or because it’s inappropriate. I think that’s true of everyone to varying degrees, and artistic success is not reserved solely for those who manage to escape that gravity, to become emotional nudists. The aim of art, then, is not full exposure, but the careful decisions of what to expose, how much to expose, when to expose – and, conversely, what to conceal and how to conceal it.

That’s still not right, though, is it? That black and white balance suggests that concealment and exposure of the self are inherently in conflict, that we lift up a piece of our soul and choose to show or hide it based on the compositional needs of the work. I don’t think that’s actually the case. We are faceted – we have many faces. We wear many masks – and every mask serves a dual purpose, it both expresses a persona and conceals the face underneath. The act of choosing to express one aspect of our selves is also the act of choosing to conceal others.

“Write what you know”, they say. “Write with absolute honesty and openness”, they often say as well. Also, “Show, don’t tell”. These pat bits of advice are, again, scraping at a truth, but not wholly representing it. The truth is that absent care and attention it’s easy to end up on auto-pilot, mimicking other art, mindlessly copying styles and scenarios, because these are the things that are closest to the surface when we cast out the fishing lines of our imagination. These are just tricks to force you to Pay Attention. Writing what you know ensures that you have details and nuances at hand to work with, absolute honesty pushes you to access your own personality and opinion with care and attention. Showing, not telling forces you to think about the details of each scene instead of glossing over them* – and all of these work, but are really just ways of making sure that you’re actually thinking about what you’re doing and why, what each word and sentiment actually signifies, and aren’t on auto-pilot.

If your work is dishonest, if it’s misleading, then that’s fine: Mislead for a reason. If it’s truthful, that’s also fine: Decide what truth it is you want to tell. No matter what your intent is, whatever the end product is going to be is probably going to reveal something and conceal something. Art is a lie. Art is the truth. It’s not a contradiction, it’s a necessity of how we see the world, just from one angle at a time when infinite view-points are possible, two-dimensional minds occupying a three-dimensional space.

* As well as working to prevent structural analysis of culture, likely one of the reasons the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was funded by the CIA.

 

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Sometimes making art is as natural as breathing or sweating or speaking and you just need to figure out a way to bottle it. Sometimes making art is like trying to hold your mind in the shape of a mold while you pour plaster into it. Sometimes making art is like putting together a puzzle, and each piece you place gives you a clue to where every other piece needs to go. Sometimes making art is like producing a pearl, where something just rubs you the wrong way for too long so you try to wrap it up nicely and present it to the world. Sometimes making art is an accident and sometimes making art is a mistake. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s a burden and sometimes an escape.

The art of making games is chiefly defined by how incredibly long it takes. It’s a marathon, the kind that leaves your pants pissed and your nipples bleeding. It’s carving a new piece of a miniature ship and fitting it into place in a bottle every day, and each piece is its own work of art that is itself sometimes like this, sometimes like that. It’s such a vast task that each day it presents another aspect of itself, and you have to find another way to love it enough to keep working on it. Or to hate it enough. Or to have no other choice.

Sometimes making art is a job that you just have to go to every day, or a spouse that you wake up next to and that you go to sleep next to. It shapes how you engage with the world. Sometimes making art is a country that you travel to. Sometimes making art is a therapist, an architect, an accountant. Fictional lives bleed out into real lives. Fictional characters bleed out on fictional floors, and real tears are cried for them, and something slowly shifts inside, and we walk away different than we were before.

It’s not like we have a choice. We’d be making art whether we want to or not. Ancient peoples crafted pots to piss in, and they didn’t know that they were making future valuable antiques. People cave painted before they had a word for paint. We made art before we made artists. So why should this be so hard, or be so pressing? What shifted that made this easy and natural thing such a struggle, such an imperative?

Saying something specific is much harder than saying just anything. Maybe we’re searching for the right words to say the things that need to be said, and it’s really not certain whether those words have been invented yet. Maybe it’s just hard because it feels like time is running out, that we’re sinking, and that we need to make a monument so that someday we could be rediscovered. And I know now that art isn’t actually immortality, that even the longest-lasting work on Earth will probably die with our species sooner or later, hopefully later, probably sooner. What else can we do, but try to leave a death rattle that echoes as long as possible?

Sometimes making art is as natural as breathing. You cannot stop, until one day you must.

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Every day that passes, the events in our lives create for us a unique blend of experiences and emotions. Most of the time these aren’t very interesting, but every once in a while it creates something incredible, a moment of transcendence, joy, elation, wonder. Then it passes. That’s just how things happen. Some of us, though, just can’t let it go. We try to capture the moment. Crystallize it. Preserve it. That’s how art is born.

Those emotions and experiences that we try to preserve, though, don’t exist in a void. What creates the moment is the moments that came before it, and it becomes a pressing question: How much of this experience can we carry away from the preceding experiences? How can we separate it from the whole? We can’t completely: That’s why we tell stories instead of moments, why we build to crescendos instead of constantly playing at maximum volume. There’s a desire in inexperienced artists to be at maximum intensity at all times, without really acknowledging that things can only feel intense if there’s a corresponding calmness, lack of intensity, to contrast against.

That’s pretty elementary though. Most artists figure it out pretty fast. Contrast is the foundation of art. However, if you’re trying to create a particular emotional experience, that raises a lot of questions about what that balance ought to look like. How much time should an experience about triumph spend in despair to make the triumph taste sweet? How much time should an experience about love spend in loneliness and disaffection? There’s different ways to answer this, different balances to strike, but over time a set of formulas emerge. The most popular of these is probably the hero’s journey formula, which many set out as the archetypal formula which all stories are cut from – this is an absurd pronouncement that requires many increasingly tenuous analogies to make fit, but it is nevertheless a common argument.

Regardless, the hero’s journey is a useful formula for creating a certain kind of story (the kind where there’s a hero and they journey). Many games, being stories where there’s a hero and a journey, seek to adhere to this formula, but in this medium we have fairly limited control over the exact narrative arc of the experiences we create: Though we might set out to tell a story about a call to action, an ordeal, a boon, and so forth, just as often we create an experience of getting stuck on the first boss for 3 infuriating hours then getting a magic sword and easily murdering the lord of darkness. The dynamic nature of games makes it even harder to create a consistent emotional response, makes it even harder to stick to a formula that strikes the exact balance of sensations we might desire – and, correspondingly, makes it harder for the hero’s journey to be crafted into a game narrative, as gamey as that narrative might at first sound in the abstract.

These are, in short, the two main ways that video game stories suck. Either they try to create a consistent experience of the same emotion – such as, say, empowerment – or they try to recreate a tried and true narrative formula such as the hero’s journey within a dynamic framework that cannot accommodate it. The first is completely untenable, since feelings can only be meaningfully experienced in relation to each other. The second is… difficult, but not actually impossible.

Many game designers would then take that as the challenge: How to systematize the hero’s journey. How to create a narrative-making machine, a myth-making machine, something that takes in player inputs and spits out a grand epic tale. I don’t think that’s a particularly worthwhile goal. The most interesting stories that games spit out right now aren’t imitations of the hero’s journey or some other hackneyed formula, but startling stories of systems gone rampant, results that make sense but are utterly surprising, with the all the perverse interconnectedness and none of the post-hoc narrativization of real history.

Rather than this, we should seek to understand how game systems can lead to emotional outcomes, both in terms of the primary emotion we seek to elicit and the secondary emotions, its opposites, which we seek to define it by. If a game system has an understanding of how it can create frustration and elation, confusion and understanding, joy and sorrow, power and weakness, then it can balance these against each other into a satisfying complete experience. Perhaps this is a more challenging goal than creating a systematization of the hero’s journey, but I believe it is one far more worth striving towards.

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Well I’ve finally gone and done it. I finally made myself a Patreon. Largely this is because they were about to change their payment structure in an unfavorable way and I wanted to sneak in before that deadline, but this is something I’ve wanted to try for a long time. I wrote a bit about the reasons why on the Patreon page. The fact of the matter is, I’ve put an awful lot of time and energy into this blog over the years and been extremely broke for pretty much all that time, so it feels worthwhile to see whether I can use fact A to resolve fact B.

But, more than that, I wanted to take this step because it’s very easy to stop taking steps and stand in place. It’s very easy to just not make something like a Patreon page, to never ask for anything, to never presume your work is worth anything, if you can survive without doing so. To me that has been the path of least resistance for a long time, to just quietly do work and ask for nothing, not even acknowledgement, in return, and to quietly hope that perhaps it will be of value to someone somewhere. Eventually, though, if you have something to say you have to start saying it loudly. Whispering gets so tiresome. If you’ve enjoyed my work here, I hope you’ll consider supporting me on this new endeavor.

For the most part, though, things are going to stay basically the same here: one post a week on various game and art-related topics. The only real difference is there’s now going to be a week’s delay between when I write new posts and when they come up here, since I’m giving each new micro-essay one week of exclusivity on the Patreon before it gets posted on the blog. Over time, as I get feedback and new ideas percolate, maybe I’ll make more changes. Who knows what the future will bring? As long as it’s something different than what the present is bringing.