Monday, April 5, 2010

Free Verse: Talking 'Bout Failure, Modding, and Fan Fiction

Notes: I'm completely winging this post, as I've got to get this out of my system before I get ready for the night shift. I will get around to finishing my thoughts on The Force Unleashed, I swear. Just not this week, since Triangle Game Conference is less than two days away.

Back in February, I mentioned on Twitter the C.H.A.T. Festival, a conference hosted by the University at North Carolina. C.H.A.T. stands for "Collaboration of Humanities and Technology. " There were a lot of great talks, from games as medium all the way to the redefining the term "gamer,", but the one that sticks out the most nearly 2 months later was the panel on Games & Storytelling.

One of the gentlemen working on Splinter Cell: Conviction (and I promise I'll dig out my notes from the panel and name names later), mentioned the difficulty of shoehorning a game plot into the existing mythos of an established intellectual property. In this case, of course, he was talking about the world created by Tom Clancy. While he quipped that creating something true to the 'universe' often takes lots and lots of scotch to accomplish, he also said (in all seriousness) that it takes lots of practice.

I didn't think much of it at the time, but that quote kept rolling around in my head for weeks afterward, and I hit upon a truth that I'm not sure a lot of people have discovered: Creating fan fiction is to writing what modding is to game design.

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Let me explain some things before the lot of you turn tail and run away screaming. I promise it will all make sense. You just have to hang in there with me.

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Settled? Alrighty, then.

Whenever you talk to professionals at conferences about how to break into the video game business, the first thing 90% of these folks will tell you is to pick up a game engine, and start modding. Use an existing tool to create something new and original, and polish the bejeezus out of it. Then, show it to people you're networking with and hope someone thinks it deems you worthy of a shot at a games industry job. This is sound, time-tested advice, and it shouldn't be ignored. However, there is something the other 10% of professionals will say that often gets glossed over: Make games for yourself.

This advice is very valuable, though it may not seem like it until long after you've convinced someone to give you your shot at glory. (Or at least let you into the QA department to try and break every game they shove in your face until you've proven your worth.) Not everything you create is going to be a masterpiece. I doubt sincerely that Van Gogh got "Starry Night," right on the first try. Game design is no different. You have to physically try new things in order to get comfortable with the process, and with trying new things comes failure. That may sound bad, but failure is NOT a dirty word. If you think it is, then you need a little change in perspective.

Possibly kick-started by a boot to the head, but that's neither here nor there.

You learn a lot more from failure than you do from success, so feeling shame for all of your misfires and blunders is far from necessary and could be downright harmful to your creative process. (Continuously missing deadlines or breaking promises? Yeah, go ahead and hang your head for that stuff. Just not this.) Embrace failure as the learning opportunity it is, and move on. You don't have to forget them; you just have to forgive yourself for them.

Constantly, novelists, script writers and filmmakers tell us junior ink-jockeys to write for ourselves. They remind us that no one can take writing away from us, and that it costs us nothing (financially) to dive into it head-first in the privacy of our own home offices. For some of us, though, the idea of jumping into anything head-first without nose plugs and floaties scares us half to death just thinking it. Well, fan-generated fiction for popular shows and book series is great way to stick your toes into the writing waters without fear of getting swallowed by what lies in the dark depths below.

Yes, there is a LOT of really awful fan fiction out there, filled with stupid, half-assed ideas and enough Mary Sues to fill Mile High Stadium. However, there are a lot of examples of stellar writing in that community, too, so one shouldn't toss out the entire bushel for fear of a few bad apples. Writing fan fiction can help you take a shot at that notion I mentioned above, shoehorning a new story into an existing universe. If you can successfully craft a tale that fits into all the lore an intellectual property has to offer (later attempts at retroactive continuity notwithstanding), then you've got it made! You'll know for a fact you can do it on a larger scale should you get hired as a writer, and that confidence in your skills will make you much more attractive to studios shopping around for good pen monkeys.

Whether it will help you pick up hot chicks or dudes at after-parties remains to be seen. But, hey, it certainly couldn't hurt.

You will not accomplish anything if you don't try. Sure, trying something new is scary, but it can be thrilling, too. So conventional methods, such as going for a computer science degree or taking a creative writing course might not be your style; there's nothing wrong with that. If unconventional methods can get you to actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), then by all means, go for it! Sure, your first few attempts at making something solid will probably crash and burn, but that's all part of the process. Rather than berate yourself for wasting your time (which you most certainly haven't), take pride in the fact that you're willing to do what it takes to get where you want to go. Naysayers be damned.