So You Want To Write About Games, Part 2
This is the second part in a sporadic series of articles about games writing. The principles presented are general rather than specific, but are what I consider the fundamentals any student should remember as they write. Part 2 only touches on two topics for the sake of brevity. But you can also read Part 1 for more general, quickfire principles about writing.
Banner image is "Office Shot" by Martin Thomas. (Source: Flickr)
Write outside of your comfort zone. Too many people who want to write about games, only write about games. They burrow into a tunnel through which all other writing is filtered, and that blinds them to the nuances of the art as a whole. Because writing, even the most technical and mundane, is an art. And to understand any art you must study and practice its totality.
Don’t stay confined in your arena. Leave it and see the world.
Write about anything that interests you: science fiction, cybersecurity, book reviews, how climate change will impact downtown Manhattan, politics, room 237 in The Shining, why Hollywood can’t release a good film in January; try your luck writing a short story, write a poem in iambic pentameter; take a word and dissect it, starting from your first proposition and weaving a logical chain which argues dictionaries have taken a terrible direction since “civilization” was added. Write about anything, EXCEPT games. It will aid you in your craft immensely, embed you in the nearly infinite styles and ways to present material.
I’m not suggesting you stop writing about games. Keep at it. But incorporate other writing experiences into your games writing. Learn to present your writing in new ways outside of typical formats, e.g. point-by-point reviews.
Because there is no Council Of Games Writing (COGW? /CGW?) that hands down a style guide like the APA. You are free to present your work however you choose: string it along in experimental ways. Too many people continue to follow the same formula concocted by review sites and extinct gaming magazines. And there’s nothing wrong with them, but to follow them as your only guides is limiting.
Write a story about your time playing a game that elicits the points you want to make. Or, write a letter to the developer/publisher explaining what you do and don’t like, with the voice of someone dipping quill into ink, or write it as a stream of consciousness. There are no rules. Pretend to be someone else, another character, and write it from their perspective. Don’t chain your creativity to the paradigms set by other writers.
Constantly push against your limitations, expand them, inflate them, challenge yourself. See what works, what doesn’t. What you like, what you don’t. You’ll start to see from new perspectives, sometimes more than one. And that’s when you’ll wake up in the middle of the night with an idea.
Where do ideas come from? The common conception of ideas is that they appear as nebulous hazes, muses that only the most creative individuals can reach out and shape into something worthwhile. It’s Romantic and, as with many other pop-culture fantasies, wrong.
James Webb Young wrote a tiny book in the 1960’s called A Technique For Producing Ideas—it might as well be a pamphlet. (The lecture which the book is based on was produced for advertisers, but its lessons can be applied to anyone in any creative field.) Young writes his method is “so simple to state that few who hear it really believe in it.” Here's the basic layout:
You come up with ideas by combining seemingly unconnected elements of knowledge. (This is why it's important to write and study outside of your comfort zone.) The human mind comes prepackaged to connect. It’s how humanity made the logical leap from natural disasters to angry gods, or tumultuous politics to lizardmen puppeteers. Each one of us is able to bind things which should have no ties. Of course, not all connections are viable or even interesting. Some are ludicrous. But only through study can you separate the two.
As far as games go, if you know something about Art History, you combine your knowledge with the works of Yoshitaka Amano to tell readers how concept art informs players about Final Fantasy characters. Or you use your Economics 101 textbook to talk about the impact of gold sellers in a nascent MMORPG. These aren't as nuances as they could be. But the point is, you make a venn-diagram between any two elements.
It takes a trained mind to see the world not as independent factoids only useful for trivia night, but as an endless space of connected knowledge. And you can only train your mind by cultivating a passion for all knowledge. Cast your net across the entire ocean, learning about everything you can. You’ll be surprised by the connections between ideas that you snag.
"The process is something like that which takes place in the kaleidoscope. The kaleidoscope, as you know, is an instrument which designers sometimes use in searching for new patterns. It has little pieces of colored glass in it, and when these are viewed through a prism they reveal all sorts of geometrical designs, Every turns of its crank shifts these bits of glass into a new relationships and reveals a new pattern. The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater the number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations." (pg 25. A Technique For Producing Ideas.)
Then when you go to write, study your subject intimately. Let’s say you want to talk EverQuest, then know everything EverQuest, until it becomes a person, an old friend you can talk to on Discord. Do not be lazy in your pursuit. Don’t act off of one forum post, off of one fan-run message board, by one angry commenter. Learn and discover for yourself. Be not only a writer, be a researcher. And allow your general knowledge and your specific knowledge to mingle.
“Of course if you consider that your education was finished when you left college and wouldn’t be caught dead with a copy of, say, one of Jane Austen’s novels under your pillow, go no farther.”
Keep a journal, or notebook, or use a napkin, and write every fleeting idea that holds your interest, even if it's only for a moment. That initial thought won't be the final product, but it will be an infant, and transmitting from your mind to paper gives it the climate in which to grow. If it doesn’t go anywhere right away, don’t worry. Ideas take time to mature. It could be next week, next year, next month, until something springs your memory backwards and you capitalize on whatever it was you jotted down.
Your mind needs time to digest. It’s important to leave your work and return to it later, to look on with rested eyes. An idea will burst through the soil while you're showering or riding your bike, arriving unannounced and unexpected, but it will arrive so long as you cultivate your knowledge, and think.
So start studying, and writing.
If you have any questions at all, want to know where to start, need someone to look over an article, you can email me at email@example.com.
A Technique For Producing Ideas, by James Webb Young (PDF)