Do you remember learning how to swim?
Maybe you had instructors who cradled you and coaxed you into putting your face into the water - just a second at a time - and helped you develop the skills you needed to become a strong swimmer.
Or maybe they just threw you into the deep end of the pool and said "Good luck, kid! Hope you don't drown!"
There’s a school of thought that says that’s the right way to teach those dumb babies - just make them figure it out; literally, sink or swim.
Which, sure OK, that’s one way to do it - but doesn’t that seem like the hard way? The traumatic “what the hell just happened to me, I never want to do that again” kind of way?
Early in my game-writing career, I definitely felt like I was in the deep end of the pool without any water wings. There were no classes or teachers or mentors - just me and a blinking cursor and the sinking feeling that I was on my own.
But things have changed for the better.
- The number of games in the world has just exploded - which means there are so many titles we can study and learn from;
- The audience for games has exploded, too - which means we can find an audience for the stories we want to tell; and
- More developers have stayed in the industry, honed their craft, and are sharing what they know
Here are three people who have something smart to say about the work they (and we) do.
What Kurt Vonnegut knows
Kurt Vonnegut wrote 14 novels, including Slaughterhouse-Five. He also wrote plays, short stories, and nonfiction books. AND he taught what he knew about writing, for years and years. In the book Pity The Reader, Chapter 1 is titled "Advice For Everyone On Writing Everything." It opens with this quote:
When I teach - and I've taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, at City College, at Harvard - I'm not looking for people who want to be writers. I'm looking for people who are passionate, who care terribly about something.
Here's Vonnegut describing the shape of stories. (It starts a little slow, but hang in there: it's worth it.)
If we can start to think of stories as shapes, suddenly we have new ways of visualizing the experience - and sharing it with other people on the team.
Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words.
What Austin Kleon knows
Speaking of pictures, Austin Kleon describes himself as “a writer who draws.” His book, Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, is full of great ideas on how to grow and thrive as a creative.
Here’s one of my favorites: Climb your own family tree.
“Marcel Duchamp said, ‘I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.’ This is actually a pretty good method for studying - if you try to devour the history of your discipline all at once, you’ll choke.
“Instead, chew on one thinker - writer, [game designer], artist - you really love. Study everything there is to know about that thinker. Then find three people that thinker loved, and find out everything about them. Repeat this as many times as you can. Climb up the tree as far as you can go. Once you build your tree, it’s time to start your own branch.”
What games do you love? Who made them? What games do they love?
What Jesse Schell knows
Finally, here’s a thinker that lives a little closer to home - unlike Vonnegut and Kleon, Schell actually works in the game industry. He runs a studio (Schell Games) and teaches game design at Carnegie Mellon University. And he wrote a fantastic book, The Art of Game Design, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary. It’s full of practical, nuts-and-bolts advice, but at the very end he really challenges the reader - in the best way.
“What is (your) important work? How can you know?
"This is why you must learn to listen to yourself. There is some important purpose that is hidden inside you, and you must find out what it is.
“Surely, there is some reason you are going through all the trouble of trying to design (or write) great games. Maybe it is because you can see something in your mind’s eye that you feel will change someone's life. Maybe it is because of something wonderful that you experienced once, and you want to share it with the world. Maybe something terrible happened to someone you loved, and you want to make sure it never happens again, to anyone.
“No one can know this purpose but you, and no one needs to know it but you. We spoke about how much more powerful your game will be if you know its theme, but do you know your own personal theme?
“You must figure it out as soon as possible, for once you know it, you will undergo an important creative change: your conscious and subconscious motivations will be united, and your work will gain a passion, a focus, and an intensity that cannot possibly be greater.”
Thanks for reading. See you next week.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.