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Force Majeure

The Writing Metaphor

Many years ago, I was working on my first novel-length writing project. I wrote it on weekends when I was not focused on work or classes. One day at work, I was talking about it with a co-worker and she mused that maybe she should write a novel. It seemed easy. At the time, I did find it easy. I had a loose plot, some characters, and few distractions. Over the course of about nine months, I actually completed the novel. But I also realised that it was not very good.

Since I had an interest in improving myself as a writer, I began to take classes. I began to converse with other people who were also writers and looked to hone myself. What I found that was while I did improve as a writer, the ability to put together a long piece of fiction was harder. I have started an number of novels since then. None have yet been completed, but some have begun to turn into stories that may, one day, step far beyond the quality of that first completed novel. (Much like many youthful writers, I had a series of aborted projects before that, too.)

In a philosophy class I took, my professor told a story of his days in a writing course. He mentioned that early in the class they were given writing assignments with very loose guidelines. Write about a certain topic with few limitations. These assignments were easy. He could write for hours on a subject with little problem. I am certain most of the population could do the same, if a grade were on the line.

One day they were given an assignment to read a random chapter in their book and then summarise it in under a thousand words.

This assignment had him completely turned around from the previous ones. Before he had had an easy time, now he could not find what to say or how to say it.

The question arises as to why this is the case. Why did my professor, who had such an easy time with the first assignments have such trouble with this summary? Why did my writing, while improving in quality, also have me struggling to complete a story?

My co-worker was wrong. Writing is not easy. Or rather, good writing is not easy. And good writing very often stems from limitations. Consider two different writing assignments. The first is about someone who is waiting for someone else who is late. The second is about two characters and neither is allowed to talk.

The second is a more difficult story to write. But if you approach that story, you have to think about how to make it work. The way you write the story will require a more creative approach, such that it is not possible to write it well without applying yourself.

When I run writing events, I design them with this in mind. If you consider the microfiction tournament, each successive round had requirements that were progressively more difficult. While this was meant to match the increased difficulty on one hand, the other was a desire to see the players involved apply themselves at a greater level.

The common adage "necessity is the mother of invention" applies. Increasing the difficulty by providing an additional challenge forces the writer to engage in the craft at a higher level, thereby improving the writing.

Other creative endeavors will be similar. Poetry is an obvious example, where there are numerous difficult forms. Paint a picture using only tints of blue. Compose a song with only minims and quavers.

This is not to say that such limitations are necessary, just that by using them the writer, painter, or musician will be able to improve his or her craft more than without. Limitations are not obstacles, they are tools to be utilised.

Game design will be similar. If there is a limitation, something preventing the sky being the limit for the designer, he or she will have to come up with a creative way to achieve a goal. In the realm of computer games, this may be near absolute. There are some things that are not possible, due to limitations of hardware.

However, there is constant momentum to bypass these problems by keeping the hardware baseline moving forward. Rather than letting designers work within the limitations, they are told to use the upgraded graphics and sound.

That means time must be spent understanding these upgraded graphics. While this may make for a pretty product, it also means that the designers are working on those and not the core part of the game that makes them fun. In movies when this happens, the product is hollow and forgettable.

Consider the Wii. While it is in some respects and innovative and revolutionary product, the core hardware is very similar to the GameCube. As such, there is far less difficulty for designers on one to transition to the other. Likewise, Nintendo has apparently developed programs that will aid designers in the interface.

What is left is that there is little time that needs to be spent understanding the machine, so that creative energy may be applied to designing the game. However, there are limitations, and from there the more creative solutions will appear and, with hope, make even greater games.

Three Rings, I must note, operates similarly. Our games are programmed in Java, which has a number of limitations in comparison to other languages, such as C++. Overcoming these limitations requires creativity and no small amount of skill. But the games that we have are engrossing and fun. They also have the advantages of Java, in that they may be played on nearly any computer.

With hope the creativity and skill can approach the limitations that exist such that our games continue to be the most fun possible.

Comments:

Posted by Shannal, Midnight

Very well thought out piece Bia :)

July 12, 2007 at 09:06 AM PDT | permalink

Posted by Kalvyn

I was recently looking at Valve Entertainment. The engine has absolutely amazing adaptability, and I've been impressed with the interactive quality of the games it has produced.

Well thought post, I liked the transition and relation from writing to programming.

July 12, 2007 at 02:54 PM PDT | permalink

Posted by BulletTime

Oh, wow. I really, really hope you're judging Greatest Hits, because you're going to love (or, um, loathe) my entry. If I can finish it in time.

July 13, 2007 at 09:51 AM PDT | permalink

Posted by Whitemonkey

Kalvyn wrote:
"I was recently looking at Valve Entertainment. The engine has absolutely amazing adaptability, and I've been impressed with the interactive quality of the games it has produced."

It NOW has amazing adaptability and quality, but when the Source engine was first released it was a huge buggy mess that only the very top end computers could run and only with certain Graphics cards. Now that a) Valve have patched up Source and b) Hardware has moved on people can easily enjoy the brilliance that is Source.
This is what Bia was saying, that people are constantly limited by their users hardware, and Valve didn't quite get it right at first!

Brilliant blog Bia. Makes my mornings fun!

July 14, 2007 at 01:55 AM PDT | permalink

Posted by Bia

The limitation of user hardware is slightly tangential. If designers are making games that are beyond the capabilities of most users, they are not working within limitations nor challenging themselves. They are, instead, engaging in a separate, but related, issue that is promoting hardware advancement beyond what is necessary.

If I am able, I will try to write a third blog post on the subject addressing this and the relationship the gaming media has with it.

July 14, 2007 at 02:51 AM PDT | permalink

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