From the Outside Looking In

A good critic is not a good creator. We saw this well with Roger Ebert, who became one of the most important voices in the film industry for his critiques and reviews, but the actual movies he was behind saw a troubled reception at best. Critiquing something takes a totally different skillset than creating something, which itself takes a totally different skillset than getting someone interested in something. Talking about what did or would make something good in retrospect is a completely different picture that building something good from the ground up. And frankly, creators have the harder job.

I used to follow Shamus Young’s blog pretty consistently. Dude’s pretty prolific with it, so I’ve read a lot of his words. His former LP series was the first Let’s Plays I got into, so… yeah. He’s put a lot of thoughts on video games out into the world, and I’d absorbed a lot of his ideas over the years I spent with him.

About the time I moved on from his content, he was working on building a game of his own. I ended up being surprised that it actually existed when I caught it by chance on a Steam sale last year, so I picked it up, toyed around with it a few times, and finally gave it a good, earnest playthrough relatively recently.

There’s something very surprising about Good Robot. Namely, after all his commentary on games that I’ve consumed, this would be the last game in the world I would have expected him to make.

Which, to be fair, he didn’t end up being the only person making the game. He took it to a point, but got another team involved once it turned out he couldn’t get it to where he wanted himself. But still. There’s a lot in that game that runs completely along the same lines as things he’s been completely dour for before.

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Let’s give you a picture of what we’re looking at first. Good Robot. It’s a twin-stick shooter roguelike. And… that’s about it, actually. The real notable things about it are the interesting things it does with vision, and the fact that the levels are truly procedurally generated rather than being a collection of pre-built rooms in random formation. Aside from that… meh. The engine seems pretty solid, and it feels good to move and shoot, which is what you do most of the game, but it’s aggressively simple and feels like it’s just wasting a lot of potential. Also has some pretty major, avoidable flaws that just make the game less fun.

And it’s those flaws that are really interesting to me, because I’ve seen Shamus identify them in other works before.

Let’s talk about the most apparent one to me, and probably the biggest one with the game. Good Robot is a rogue-like. Meaning that death is a complete restart of the game. But it’s a slow, long rogue-like. The game encourages hesitant and defensive play by virtue of having the permadeath in the first place, and the levels are just so loooooong. I beat the game. It took about two hours, start to finish. If I had made a stupid mistake (which I never do, but hypothetically) at any point during the latter part of that run, that’d be a solid two hours of my life cut down by a video game punishing me for essentially pressing buttons wrong.

That’s a problem on its own. But then that comes from a guy who once termed the “Dark Souls problem” wherein failure makes you repeat something you’ve already done in order to get to any new content. This comes from a guy who stated that rogue-likes don’t have to do this, followed by examples of some who have circumvented the problem by implementing a level select. This comes from a guy who complains about a game’s difficulty coming from punishment rather than challenge, yet built what’s potentially the most punishment-heavy game I’ve played in a long while.

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There’s plenty of examples like that, but I don’t want this post to be turning too negative on an innocent blogger I haven’t followed in a while. Rather, the big thing I want to focus on is why that happened. And why you’ll see that happen in most critics-turned-creators. It all comes down to what I mentioned, that there’s completely different skillsets involved.

What I would consider to be good critiquing largely comes down to being able to analyze oneself, particularly one’s own thoughts, and being able to communicate them well. Sure, being able to analyze the work itself, break it down into its component parts and talk about how that works, because that gets people to understand how what relates to you would relate to them, but overall, critiquing is really a selfish process. It’s all about your own opinion, how you’ve arrived at it, and what reactions you have to what’s going on with whatever you’re looking at. I’d like to say that good critics are able to analyze themselves the whole way through and track their emotional development throughout, but particularly in video games it seems that the most popular critics never leave their first impressions, just making things work because they’re good at communicating those first impressions. In any case, though, critiquing is very self-focused, very reactionary, and has a strong basis in communication.

Creating has a strong basis in communication as well, but aside from that, it’s where the similarities with critiquing end. It’s not about communicating a reaction, it’s about communicating a vision. Which of course, requires being able to build an interesting and full vision in the first place, having the technical chops and the resources required to achieve that vision, and a whole bunch of other skills I probably can’t speak to very well because I’m not a professional creator. Creating is forward-looking whereas critiquing is reactionary, building the material to deliver that reaction from whole cloth.

Which is not to say that being good at one can’t help you with the other. But there’s a lot of primary skills in both that don’t cross over. There’s a lot of stuff we can bemoan about a bad game, and armchair game design is a lot of fun, but we probably wouldn’t be able to build anything better without a lot of skill-building to overcome some of the realities of game creation. I can rail against the rogue-like nature of a game that seems poorly suited for it here, but perhaps without that the game had some even greater flaw.

It’s easy to be a critic. I’ve done it. So have plenty of other random internet weirdos with some free time and a checklist of slightly edgy jokes. And critics are very valuable. I’d say they’ve become even more valuable as it’s become easier to be a critic. And it is still important to call out bad games for what they are. But I have found Good Robot to be an excellent reminder that just being a good critic doesn’t mean anyone would be a good creator. Bad games are bad usually because game creation is hard and complex way more than anyone not involved in the process can understand, and that can sometimes be hard to see from the outside looking in.

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Peril of the Producer

A lot of creative types tend to give producers a bad rap. The suits. The MBAs. The squares. Those guys who take their SACRED and HOLY capital A Art and turn it into something profane in pursuit of that almighty dollar. Those who ruin everything that was good about the original creation. Those who cause all the bad things you ever hear about that one thing you like.

But no. In truth, producers, good producers, are usually very valuable to the creation. They may not be popular. People who impact the artistic vision of the creative types aren’t usually very welcome around the bullpen.

A producer’s job is to make sure the creative work is profitable. This means making sure it’s… you know… good. Also means making sure it’s going to be palatable to enough of an audience to support its cost plus margin. Sometimes, it means changing the vision of the creative folks heading the production. Sometimes it means making sure they have the free rein and the resources to thrive. Usually, they’re in charge of cultivating the material from the beginning either selecting the base and giving it the resources to grow or coming up with the source idea itself and putting the right people in place to build that seed up. Producers can be known by different terms in different mediums. Editors are more common for written form. But yeah, these are the people in charge of making sure this thing makes money.

A good producer can make the product. A bad producer ruins it. When a producer does their job well, you will rarely ever know what they did in the final product. When a producer doesn’t, well, that’s where we get all these stories from.

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Just look at Silicon Knights. When they had a good, strong, producer, they made magic. Much has been made of the quality of their work when they were a second-party developer under Nintendo. Let free of that arrangement, their work just fell apart. An article (admittedly, published by Kotaku, so, you know keep that garbage can handy) published a few years back sees an anonymous former Silicon Knights employee credit Nintendo’s very involved producing with the reason for the high quality behind those releases.

Likewise, you know all those Kickstarter games by proven developers that seem to keep crapping the bed. Most of their problems seem to stem from things a quality producer would help them avoid. Not to say that the creative types, people involved in the development, can’t be good producers in their own right. There’re plenty who can manage both the creative and the business needs of their projects. Most of the indie successes out there can attest to that.

But, at the same time, it takes a lot to be a good producer. You need good strong knowledge of the creative process, a great awareness of your team and what they’re capable of, and you need to be able to fit everything in with an ultimate vision for the project. Without all of those, it is really, really easy for a producer to have some strong adverse impacts on the project.

Much has been made of Shigeru Miyamoto’s ability to upend the table on any project Nintendo’s working on. If he sees you doing something, and he decides you need to change, you’re changing. Miyamoto’s also got a very distinct taste in what makes a good game. That’s one of the reasons Nintendo puts out games with a very unique flavor. Overall, it seems to have been a positive arrangement for Nintendo, overall.

But if you’re going to be changing the creative vision of something, you have to be choosing the right time to do it, and make sure the team has the time and resources to follow through and implement that new vision totally. Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures seems to be lacking for that. The game was originally designed as a direct prequel to A Link to the Past. In its original form, it told the tale of the war that led Ganon to the situation he was in in the middle of the SNES game.

Miyamoto wasn’t into that. He’s never been big on continuity and storytelling in games, and didn’t like the connections this game had with A Link to the Past. So he made sure the Links between the two were removed. In the end, Four Swords Adventures ended up in a completely different branch of the timeline than A Link to the Past.

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I don’t know when in the development cycle the change was made. But it was obvious it wasn’t near early enough, and once the change was made, the team didn’t have what they needed to implement it completely. In spite of having no story ties to a Link to the Past, Four Swords Adventures is LTTP as all hell. The art style mimics that of the former game, much of the music comes directly from the earlier game, and the overall feel is very, very much that of “Link to the Past callback”.

To the point that the lack of story elements and the insistence of telling a different tale caused me a huge amount of cognitive dissonance. Now, I don’t demand a great, in depth story in my Zelda games. The games are what they are, and while they do have a story, it’s not the most important part of their experience. But when you have the story actively running counter to everything the tone and atmosphere and visuals are telling me, it makes it really hard to get involved in either. Because of this change, elements were in strong conflict with each other, and it made it a lot harder to get myself involved in it.

Maybe the decision did lead to a better game. Maybe the tale about the Sealing War in Link to the Past’s backstory just wasn’t very good, and is one of those things that are better left to the imagination. Maybe the change was necessary. But it wasn’t handled effectively, and that really comes down to the producer. The change completely altered the game’s vision, and at the time it came around, there either wasn’t enough time or enough resources to make the necessary changes to the sound, art, and atmosphere to see that through. If that decision just came at a better time, or with more of a mind to what the team had to work with, Four Swords Adventures may have been a much better game for it.

Letters Home from Camp NaNoWriMo

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I used to do NaNoWriMo whenever it came around.  It wasn’t easy getting 50,000 words down in a month, but knowing that thousands of other people are suffering along with me does wonders for my motivation.  Maybe I’m a sociopath or something.  Anyways, in spite of the fact that I have yet to pack up my action figures and I still combat invisible adversaries with a toy sword in my living room, I’ve somehow become a “mature adult,” or so people tell me.  And part of being a “mature adult” is that I don’t have the kind of time to be spending a couple hours a day writing.  I’ve tried a few times, but my word count has been so pathetically low that the comments of this post would be full of people laughing at me were I to mention it here, so I won’t.

Luckily, NaNoWriMo’s little brother is on the scene!  For the past couple years, there’s been Camp NaNoWriMo, where you set your own word count goals and work towards it during a month that’s not November.  As you may have gathered from my taking the time to write this post, I’m taking part in it, for their April session.  I’m going for 10,000 words over the course of the month, which should be a pretty modest goal.  Hell, I’ve written posts on this blog that are close to 10,000 words.  It started on the first of the month and I’ve written a grand total of… 0 words.  Yeah, I’ve been procrastinating a bit.  That’s what this post is all about, helping me procrastinate.  I am writing words here so I don’t have to be writing words there.  So by reading this, you are officially helping me screw around and not write anything.  Thanks for that.

With this writing exercise, I’m wanting to explore areas I’m not familiar with.  Normally, I like to write grand plots, where events therein change the course of nations or worlds.  With this story, I’m wanting something much more personal in scale.  I’m really comfortable with writing momentous fight scenes; this project will have to largely deliver conflict without direct violence.  In general, stuff like that.  I’m also wanting to keep this relatively short, wrapping things up shortly after the 10,000 word mark.  I usually write much more long form than that, and it’d be nice to try writing a more accelerated story.

First step of the process for me was coming up with a story concept.  Which I really should have done before the month started, but hey, procrastination.  I came up with a couple of concepts.  The first was to just write whatever ridiculous thing came to mind with absolutely no filter in a stream-of-consciousness type thing, but that feels dumb and cheaty.  The first real usable concept I came up with was inspired by someone unironically using the word “muggle.”  Sometimes, that’s all it takes.  Lifting the idea of a whole secret magical underworld from the Harry Potter series that inspired the term and putting my own spin on it, I came up with the concept of a mage’s police force, tasked with ensuring that magic remains an unseen, unknowable force in the world of mortals.  The idea would be to deliver an urban police beat/investigation story with plenty of fantastic elements.

Thing is, though, that would require some worldbuilding, and I think I’d want more than 10,000 words to work with to pull that off properly.  One way to avoid that would be to stick with elements that most of the audience is already familiar with.  So drop the magic, because that varies too much between fictional worlds, and stick with something where the rules are largely the same between portrayals.  So maybe like, vampire cops or something like that.  A lot of urban fantasy works have the whole Masquerade deal, where there’s the whole secret world beneath the normal one and everyone involved has to go to great lengths to keep it hidden.  I like the idea of a story where the masquerade falls, and the public is made aware of all the magic/weird creatures in their midst, and everyone has to deal with the fallout.  Thing is, I think I like that idea too much, and again, I’d want to devote more than just 10,000 words to exploring that.

So what if we played up the more personal tone I’m wanting to go for.  Make it just one person who reveals too much to another, and take it from there.  That’s the idea I ended up going with, although I’m pulling back a little from the whole ‘secret world’ thing.  Since we’ll just be dealing with a couple people in this story, it makes sense to have them more as independent operators rather than having to involve the shadow organizations and whatnot.  Still have to do a bit of world building to establish what’s going on, but since we’re only having one magic man it will be a lot simpler to do it through his actions rather than background narrative, dialog, or anything that doesn’t move the story as far.  As for what’s going to happen in this story… I dunno.  Usually I have at least a few major points planned out, but this time, I’m writing entirely by the seat of my pants.  Hey, I was wanting to explore new ground with this project, this is just one more area I get to do so.  Will this turn out the greatest short story of our generation?  Will it at least be good?  Probably not.  But it will be a learning experience, and that’s more what I’m looking for right now.

Now I just have to figure out how to start the blasted thing.

When Writers Get it Wrong: Interpretation and Authorial Intent

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Every form of art, every bit of media, every story told, it all relies on the reader’s interpretation. That’s just how these things work. Everyone has their own personal lens through which they view these things. Stories do have different depths, of course. Something like George Orwell’s Animal Farm is meant to be analyzed at a far deeper level than the average Jason Statham face-kicking action movie. They both still require interpretation to get their point across to the viewer. Every artist has to leave it up to the viewer to interpret why it’s OK for Jason Statham to kick all those faces off, why his face-kicking cause is a noble one, and why kicking everyone’s face is going to help him achieve his goals. Thing is, it’s impossible to tell how one random person is going to read things. Everyone has their own unique set of experiences, preferences, morals, etc., and that colors they way they absorb this sort of stuff. Everyone’s going to read a story just a little bit differently. All the artist can do is put their content up there and hope the viewer is going to read it the way they expect.

Stories are what the reader reads, not what the writer writes. That’s just the way they work. The writer can use all the pretty prose and flowery phrases available to them when writing the perfect content to get across their point, but no matter how well crafted they are, words on paper are still just words on paper until the reader absorbs them. And readers don’t always read things the way the author intends. Those pesky consumers are always applying their own perspectives to what the artist lays out. It’s a beautiful thing, though. That’s what makes morals hit home, makes art more than just ink on a page or lights on a screen, makes stories apply to you personally. But what happens if the writer intends one thing, and you see another? Or what if the filmmaker intends something simple, while you find something deep and grandiose?

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