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15 May 2013

VIDEO GAMES: STRANGER THAN FICTION

Something’s happened over the last couple months: I feel fully focused on writing and not at all focused on game design, and I’ve discovered (with some surprise) that I’m really okay with that.

When my thoughts do drift back to game design now, it feels less like inspiration than like a habitual mental rhythm born of eight-and-a-half years in the games industry. To a very large extent I’m finding that I just do not care to design more mechanics and write more code and [struggle to] make more art and so on and so forth.

Like, it seriously sounds like such a drag. In games there’s so much technical, political, and financial friction between my creative ideas and the execution thereof.

Worse, many of my ideas have more to do with stories and emotions than with systems and agency. I’ve grown tired of games’ tension between mechanics and narrative, between player agency and storytelling, and while I’d like to say I am (or could be) the guy that solves that problem — or at least takes the next big step — in reality I’m just exhausted by the debate and kind of want to distance myself from it.

Several years ago I read an opinion that lots of game designers are really just frustrated writers. The concept resonated and I liked the turn of phrase, so I incorporated that idea into my job interviews while building the Starhawk design team. I didn’t want to hire frustrated writers, see, I wanted to hire bona fide game designers.

Ironically, it turns out the frustrated writer was me.


I started my first novel when I was eight, and finished it at 13 or so. I still have it in a manuscript box in a drawer; that one physical copy is the only evidence of its existence, because when you’re a pre-teen in the dial-up age you’re not exactly thinking about long-term data backups, y’know?

Of course I read that manuscript now and it’s predictably terrible — I was a dumb kid aping the D&D-inspired fantasy novels I was obsessed with at the time, most of which were good examples of bad fantasy — but the fact remains that I wrote some 90,000 words of a complete, reasonably-coherent story, pretty much in elementary school. It may suck, and it will never be published, but I’m still damn proud of it.

During high school I very nearly finished a second, much longer novel. It was better in some ways, but fatally flawed by the existential angst every socially-awkward teenager carries around and can’t control. It will never be finished, much less published.

Video games are the reason I stopped writing that second book: that was about the time I decided that pursuing a career in game design was an awesome idea. I haven’t seriously written fiction since, but it’s never been far from my mind.


Maybe I’ll get back into games in a few years; hell, maybe I’ll feel completely differently tomorrow (though I highly doubt that). Maybe this is just a sabbatical and not the career change I currently see it as.

But I’m skeptical: the commercial games industry feels like a terribly hostile place lately, one where you crunch your life away on someone else’s game just to earn the privilege of being laid off when it finally ships. You don’t (and can’t) own your work, you can’t talk about or share your work, and you can’t control the intensity of your work or the time you spend doing it. If you’re uncomfortable with the subject matter, the business model, or the game design, well that’s just tough: games are a business and you don’t have a say.

You do get paid well — in some cases extremely well — and that’s legitimately awesome, but my 20s haven’t exactly been a sterling example of “having a life” or even “taking care of myself” and I’d kinda like my 30s to be, you know, different from that.


Frankly, where games are concerned I’d like to go back to just enjoying them: as a gamer, as a fan. I’m absolutely loving my renewed time with Skyrim lately, and like every other game designer I’ve built up such a ridiculous backlog over the years that I’m looking forward to chewing through. High on the list: Uncharted 3, Ico (I know!), Gears of War 3, Resistance 2 & 3, Killzone 3, and Persona 4: Golden. And I still need to finish Ni No Kuni, Shadow of the Colossus (I know!), Dishonored, Far Cry 3, Bioshock 2 (2!), Red Dead Redemption, Disgaea 3 and g’damn there’s probably countless others I’m forgetting.

And those are just the games I own. Eventually I need to pick up Bioshock Infinite and the new Tomb Raider and I don’t even know what else I’ve missed. And this is not even to mention all the amazing indie games out there! (And the ones I’m looking forward to: I’ve lost count of how many sweet-looking indie game projects I’ve backed on Kickstarter already.)

But this thing about enjoying games again, it’s really less about time and more about distance. As a professional game designer it’s hard to sit down and just play a game without analyzing it. I mean, they’re our competition, right? One of the things that troubled me over the last few years is how critical I became, to the point that it seemed like I wasn’t even capable of enjoying things any more. It was all about “this sucks” and “that’s awful” and “we could seriously do better than that” and “OMG are you kidding me”. And okay, there are legitimate complaints about the recent output of the commercial games industry, but it’s not all bad. I was (necessarily, I think) starting to view games through an overly-critical — maybe even damaging — lens.

I grew up playing games, and I was starting to hate my hobby.


There’s been an obvious trend in AAA games lately: seasoned veteran ships high-profile game, then jumps ship and goes indie. Steve Gaynor graduates from Minerva’s Den to design ‘90s mystery adventure game Gone Home. Joe Houston sets out after Dishonored to craft Unwritten Passage, a turn-based strategy game about the oral traditions of nomadic tribes. Lee Perry leaves Epic Games to create quirky adventure RPG hybrid Lili.

When I moved on from AAA back in March, I meant to follow in these footsteps while resurrecting my writing hobby in bits and pieces on the side. I’ve discovered, though, that a similar kind of “indie exodus” is happening in the fiction-publishing world: authors are walking away from traditional publishing deals and taking up residence in the greener pastures of self-published e-books. The same sense of excitement with which we’ve witnessed the rise of indie games is evident in the land of literature as well, and a lot of the research I’ve done into running an indie games business appears to be applicable over there.

It begs the question: with indie games, am I more interested in the “indie” part or the “games” part?

And I think the answer is starting to become clear.

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business game-design video-games writing