Games People Play, You Take It Or You Leave It

Morning, campers!

Okay, the day before yesterday I posted a long screed about writing for games and what it takes to do it. Or at least, I started to. The problem was, that was the same day I also had a big meeting, so I didn’t get to go over it as carefully as I should have, to make sure I didn’t leave anything out. So here we are today, and my allergies are knocking me out, and I have another big meeting this afternoon, but I’m gonna try to finish what I started, and hopefully in less time.

[Time passes: Gary comes over unannounced; meeting time arrives; meeting ends, but article is forgotten; writing does not get done.]

[3 AM: wakes up super early; decides to return to article writing; Oh Yeah!]

Balance: This might seem a bit trite, but I’m a big believer in finding balance between seemingly volatile or ‘busy’ concepts. For example, when you put three things like Setting, Event and Pathos together, you get Story, but when trying to make sure you have a Good Story, you also have to apply Taste, and that is, as mentioned, highly subjective, and is not something you can be taught in school. Only experience and repetition can guide you, and in the end, you’re just as likely to be far out on a limb as at the center of the Zeitgeist, as far as anticipating what new and wild and woolly ideas may or may not fly with a thoroughly jaded audience of today.

So, how do you develop a sense of Taste that puts you in the right place at the right time to receive all of those accolades you might be craving as a writer or perhaps artist? Just about the only thing you can do is read and write and Practice, man, Practice, until you find yourself moving ahead with ideas that are a little further ahead of what is currently being done, perhaps anticipating the next wave of cultural interests and getting onboard before the rush.

That getting onboard part is IMPORTANT. I’ve had the bad fortune to have done this a few times in my life. I say unfortunate because, as you may have noticed, I’m not some famous writer who has cracked the bestseller market and bought a large house with a barn for writing in somewhere in the North East of the United States or some such thing. I’ll give you an example: I was a heavy reader of American superhero comics back in the 80s. I read them all, but I was particularly keen on the X-Men. I was also designing my own superhero universe with school friends of mine, and I hit upon an idea for a tactical group of operatives that would wear cybernetically-activated armour with exotic weaponry. It wasn’t a reinvention of the wheel. Obviously there was Deathlok and Iron Man and maybe Spitfire and the Trouble Shooters as a jumping off point. I also had a lot of psionics and mutants and such, but the armoured squadron of superheroes… that seemed kinda new.

But then, I had a terrible epiphany: I wasn’t a very good comic artist. I could draw and render stuff that looked pretty good, but I was slower than molasses in winter, and I hated drawing the same thing twice back then, so drawing comics was a real problem. It’s one of the reasons two or three of my five collaborators were chosen; they were much faster artists. The best creative partnership I had back then was with my friend Rod Brazeau, who was a very enthusiastic and creative artist, but he didn’t have the greatest anatomy or finishing skills. The artist who had the best finishing skills was Fred Bulbeck, but he had weak anatomy skills and was even flakier than me, and the artist who had arguably the best anatomy skills was Derrick Rose, but he and I didn’t really collaborate well because he was highly individual and did things his own way no matter what you told him. We tried it a few times in later years, but by then we were both out of school and neither of us could afford to sit around drawing comics all day.

Looking back on it, I really should have just worked with my friend Dawn McKechnie and gotten the best of all worlds: the most well-rounded comic artist I knew, with fire and imagination, who actually had good anatomy and good finish, but a distinctive style that didn’t look like all of her characters were constipated and addicted to steroids. Sadly, we never really got that together either, and I dearly regret it now. That combination might have worked, if I’d just let it happen. *Sigh*

And in the meantime, Jim Lee and the gang had left Marvel to form Image comics, and within a couple of years, we had Weapon Zero and WildCATS and Youngblood, and everything that I had been doing was eclipsed practically overnight. I put my old superhero comic universe away and started focussing on my graphic novel series, and I stopped working with other artists, figuring I’d rather go slow and do it right than put up with the egos and the hurt feelings and the disappointment. At least if I was the main artist as well as the writer, I could shoulder the blame myself and cope with being the sole disappointee.

Now, I told you that story to tell you this one: One of the cooler ideas I had late in the comic book creating thing was a Day of Future Past scenario that utilized a lot of End of Days scenarios and a team of survivors of the old Nova Universe banding together to take on all of the interdimensional conquerors and their alien robot legions. Of course, this idea too did not get drawn and published in any kind of time frame, and then along came Warren Ellis, who did those ideas at least as well as I had been trying, and without any help from me, and he just soared through Stormwatch and into The Authority and Planetary, and by that time, I had finally realized I was never going to be a famous superhero comic writer/artist. I wasn’t needed. Warren, if you ever read this, you have no idea how much trouble you saved me, and I thank you for it.

So, as I mentioned, I started focussing on my graphic novel ideas, being fueled by reading Alan Moore and Grant Morrison and thinking there has to be a way to create something cool that maybe uses superhumanity, but not in a standard superhero universe. I started playing with alternate realities juxtaposed against one another, telling different sides of the same larger story. I was pretty caught up in this concept, but I went off to college to become an animator, and failed miserably to do so, and then transformed into a musician for a while, and by the time I got back to writing and drawing comics, Warren Ellis was on the scene and I was surplus to requirements. I’ve been tinkering with my cosmology ever since, but what I’ve really needed was a sign that my ideas have a place again, and since I don’t read any comics regularly, of course I have no idea if that sign has come and gone and come again.

Take that as a life lesson about not hesitating (or else, about being appreciative of lost opportunities). Timing is critical. Taste, as I said, is subjective, and what might be a great idea this year might be played out next year. If you hit upon a Great Idea, write your ass off and get it out there before the idea grows long in the tooth.

But what, you ask, does that have to do with Balance? Well, not a lot, on the surface, but there is the part where I could have gotten more work done if I’d made myself do more drawing and developing my visual storytelling skills earlier on, instead of delegating that job to guys who weren’t really any better than me, and who almost all abandoned comic art to try to become animators (including Dawn). Balance is about recognizing all of the elements you have in play, and using your best judgement to distribute the weight evenly as you start to juggle disparate parts. It’s always a juggling act. Some people are naturally great with their hands, but most of us have to work at it, getting our timing and spatial awareness down before we can move three or more ideas, like Setting, Event and Pathos, through the air without colliding.

My metaphor is getting a little overworked here, so I’ll give you a f’rinstance:

Taylor is an artist who makes sculpture gardens out of fields of light. This connotes a few things right off the top: Taylor lives in the future, or on a world where futuristic technology is common; Taylor isn’t a standard hero, having technical skills and an artistic bent that is usually reserved for those who need heroes themselves; Taylor could be a male or female, or neither, depending on what sort of futuristic/alien world we’re dealing with.

Let’s suppose Taylor is a kind of hermaphrodite, on a world of similar hermaphrodites. Taylor looks like a physically fit specimen of indeterminate gender (broad shoulders, breasts, slightly thick around the waist, slight bulge in the trousers, narrow hips, round bottom, that sort of thing), but is perhaps a little more feminine than some of her counterparts, which is perhaps a factor in being set apart from both other hermaphrodites AND other ‘straight’ females, because sHe’s a bit of both and a lot of neither. Being humanoid, we might safely assume that Taylor’s species came from Earth at some point in the past (or winds up there in the future), but that, in developing whatever technology it took to prepare humans for space travel, they also developed genetics that permitted them to engineer a sub-species capable of reproducing with either sex, or, as it turns out, with other members of this third sex.

Suddenly, we have a science fiction story with genetic modification, space travel, and social engineering to accept transgenders. We don’t have an event yet, but we have a setting that suggests there might be a clash of cultures, where we run into perhaps a society that doesn’t accept transgenders, giving us the opportunity to examine the state of transgender relationships today, as well as the general nature of sexuality and sexual relationships, while disguising it as a story about the far-flung future, so that the straight folks at home don’t get too uptight if they find themselves becoming attracted to the freaky deaky hermaphrodite heroine.

None of these elements is out of balance yet. There’s just enough of everything here to suggest a whole story, without plot twists or intense character studies or deeply involved politics. We still don’t know hir favourite foods, hir favourite books, or hir favourite sex. We can save those for later, when we start to write the story and shape it to fit one medium or another.

A television show might not have enough space or time (or budget) for anything more than 45 minutes of up and down plot manipulation. So Taylor spends the first ten minutes discovering the problem de jour (which might be something about meeting an alien species that infects hermaphrodites but not ‘straight’ sexes, due to the nature of the genetic manipulation that created the hermaphrodites to begin with); the next ten minutes trying to understand it (the alien carrier species dies horribly, but an examination of their corpse reveals the truth about the genetic parasite that lives within them, feeding on abnormalities and genetic defects, or in this case, hermaphrodites), the next ten minutes realizing the stakes if sHe doesn’t solve the problem in a hurry (perhaps Taylor’s Mother has become infected, and sHe hirself is well on the way to contracting the virus as well, and sHe’s the only one with the skill to manipulate light fields to remove the viral loads safely), and the last ten minutes (give or take) racing the clock to resolve the major conflict of the episode (by generating and manipulating light fields for all of the infected hermaphrodites, thus cleansing them remotely before anyone else catches the disease). The last few minutes are spent resetting the clock and giving the audience a sense of cathartic release and reward for enduring forty minutes of uphill skiing. Although, there may also be a cliffhanger or dangling plotline introduced, where it’s discovered that the straight species of humans, if there are any present, can carry the infection unwittingly, and so, the disease is not wiped out, and may come back in a new strain later on. Dun dun dun duhhhhh!

And that, boys and girls, is how you plan an episode for television. I could probably use Taylor to tell you how to write for movies, novels, comics and games, but I think this post is already getting a bit long, so it might be time to wrap it up. If you’re interested in seeing me extend the premise to suit longer mediums, tell me so in the comments below.

Time to wrap this up. Thanks for reading. Next sub-topic on writing will probably involve the whole idea of egoless writing and writing in modular format, so I can get this back to discussing game writing.


Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.


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