You Okay Buddy?

By Shamus Posted Sunday Aug 5, 2018

Filed under: Random 27 comments

I’m currently reading a book – a gift from a reader – and I’d like to share a quote with you:

Creating art is hard, even painful. Writing, in particular can require days, if not months, of solitude, doubt, and struggle against your better judgement. To be good, you have to put in the time and effort. You have to consume the work of others, both good and bad. You have to write, then revise and revise and revise and revise until you can accept it is time to let go. Most importantly, you have to sit down every day and punch yourself in the face repeatedly, hoping in the end you will come out the winner in a fight against no one but yourself. You can teach yourself to live this way, but it does not come naturally.

That quote is from Walt Williams in his book Significant Zero, an autobiographical journey through the videogame industry. Walt here wrote Spec Ops: The Line, and this quote gives a pretty good clue as to why it felt like: PTSD: The Game. If this is his creative process, then it’s no wonder the game was a descent into madness.

I’m about halfway through the book at this point, and it’s pretty amazing. On this site I’m usually raging against the dysfunction among the leadership of the major publishers, but this book is more focused on the dysfunction at the level of middle management.

Another fun fact? Spec Ops starts off with a rail shooter-style helicopter battle with confusing dialog and it doesn’t totally fit with the rest of the game. I always wondered what the deal was with that. According to the book, late in development some ninny in management decided that the game needed to open with the helicopter section, even though that works directly against the slow-burn opening the game is designed around. The strange dialog in this section was the author’s protest against this decision. Williams deliberately made it so this bit couldn’t fit into the continuity of the rest of the story. It was a middle finger to the dumbass that decided to destroy the intended pacing and tone because they thought gamers are too dumb to appreciate a slow opening.

For the record, I’ve never found punching myself in the face to be at all conducive to writing. Maybe I’m just lucky, but I find the process to be enjoyable and sometimes even cathartic.

Editing, on the other hand… editing sucks.


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27 thoughts on “You Okay Buddy?

  1. Allan says:

    I’ve not wrote books and games and movies or anything like that, but I’ve done a lot of preparation and worldbuilding work for a bunch of RPG campaigns and sessions in the last couple of years and that quote describes the feeling of it for me pretty accurately. Its horribe excruciating work trying to turn ideas into pretty word arrangements that effectively communicate meaning not only to future me but entirely other people and I can only stand bothering with it for the potential pay off of getting to implement them in my games.

  2. RFS-81 says:

    Huh, and I thought the helicopter scene was a really clever trick to get the player in on Walker’s deja-vu feelings later.

    Editing, on the other hand… editing sucks.

    I’m with you about writing vs. editing. I’ve been busy adding the final polish to my PhD thesis since…forever. My contract at the research institute has run out, so I’m working in my first Real Job (TM) now. Should be easy to finish it up in my free time, right? No real work left to do, right? It’s like a Windows installer stuck at 99% for hours, except infinitely worse.

    Speaking of which, back to glaring at LaTeX code.

    1. AG-3 says:

      Print it out, edit on paper. Believe me, worked much better for my PhD.

  3. Xeorm says:

    Huh, that is a pretty good quote. I’ve felt before that when I write for fun it’s usually cathartic and can be enjoyable, though the editing process when something isn’t quite right is terrible. But the times I’ve needed to write and wasn’t in the mood? Those are terrible.

    1. Zekiel says:

      It reminds me of a quote from Douglas Adams (apparently he didn’t actually originate it, but he quoted it):

      “Writing is easy. You just sit and stare at a blank sheet of paper until your forehead bleeds.”

  4. Ilseroth says:

    Lesee… right now I am in burnout from a year of throwing myself at the creative process of game dev. Specifically art stuff (modeling, texturing, rigging, animating, ect. ect.) because I was fairly inexperienced at it and wanted to make a product at the end of it. Originally I hired an artist, but it didn’t work out, so I took on the art part of the job myself and well…

    So what happened was, as I became more experienced I would grow to hate my old art, and as opposed to if you were making single paintings or renders that are designed to work on their own, these were all meant to be part of a single product. Eventually my hatred of the art I made before would grow so intense that I elected to start over the art and sometimes the project itself to be more fitting to the art that I *could* produce, rather then what I wanted to…

    So this cycled in on itself, I would try to rein myself in, simplifying the art style, but grow to hate it, so I make it more complex, which improves my skill over time and makes me grow to hate how clumsy the pieces from the start of that iteration looked. This happened for a few months at a time, over an over for a whole year.

    As it stands right now, I’m having a hard time getting back into it… I want to but after essentially failing for practically a year straight, it’s pretty frustrating. In addition I picked up a job to make ends meet and it’s massively exhausting…

    So yeah, everyone has their own creative process, what I should do is just ignore art and focus on just making a game I like and worry about making it a product later, but sadly financial wellness isn’t something you can just ignore and games are a massive investment of time and energy.

  5. Benjamin Hilton says:

    This quote brings up something I’ve noticed allot in the artistic world, where despite art being by its nature whatever you want, you will run into artists who claim that their way of doing things is the only way. Is it narcissism, or do these people truly believe that this is just how everyone does it?

    1. ElementalAlchemist says:

      It’s not an artist thing, it’s just human nature. Pretty much everyone thinks that their way is the “right” way for some given aspect of their life, although it may not be something they are consciously aware of. Artists by their nature tend further towards the pretentious dick end of the personality scale, so they are typically more overt about it.

      1. Benjamin Hilton says:

        I mean still, dies he really believe that everyone who writes goes through that all the time? Surely he must realize there would be less writers in the world if that were true.

  6. BlueHorus says:

    *Brief search*
    Hah! I knew I remembered it right!

    Want a sample of Walt Williams’ work? He co-wrote an article from back in 2016 which touches on the development of Spec Ops: The Line.
    Apparently a few of the plot twists owe as much to ‘development hijinks’ as much as they do quality writing…

    1. Thomas says:

      That includes a good example of “Everyone thinks their view is right” – he complains about the manager making him keep the two-men hanging morale choice – but people love that scene and it got brought up a bunch when people talk about the game. I’m sure Campster does a whole section on it.

    2. DavidJCobb says:

      Ah! That article!

      Apparently a few of the plot twists owe as much to ‘development hijinks’ as much as they do quality writing…

      It gets even better, though.

      That’s the article where Williams says that the “No, I mean we did this already!” line was added out of spite. When you do the helicopter chase the second time, Walker remembers the first time because Williams wanted Walker to have been dead all along.

      The thing is, the writers have stressed repeatedly that their interpretations (of their own plot, yes) are no more valid than anyone else’s. In that regard, Walker’s line can be seen in an entirely different manner: it’s the moment at which the separation between the game and reality begins to fall apart.

      Walker remembers a repeated scene because the player remembers it. Shortly after, at the start of the next level, the 33rd openly acknowledge the game’s revive mechanic: they switch focus to you when Adams is downed, and they telegraph this in dialogue; there’s no plausible narrative explanation, but killing Adams would be against the rules of the game. At the end of that level, you find an audio log where Walker wrongly uses the term “clips” instead of “magazines” — an error that the player, not the character as established, would be likely to make.

      The latter events could be dismissed as situational, but that first moment in the helicopter chase allows for this interpretation. Executive meddling and Walt Williams’ pushback together created a series of events that perfectly hints at the game’s themes.

  7. Angie says:

    I’m a writer, and as a data point, yeah, that poor sucker needs to go do something else for a living. :/ Seriously, if your standard work process feels like punching yourself in the face over and over? You’re in the wrong business. Good grief….


    1. Jabberwok says:

      Everyone’s different. Some writers are prolific, some can only manage one book in a lifetime, some can never finish anything, some churn out trash novels every year. The struggles are different from person to person. Don’t know if that means they are in the wrong business just because the process is difficult. He probably still finds it worth doing or he wouldn’t do it.

  8. Vi says:

    The creative process used to be like that for me, until circumstances beyond my control forced me to confront my serious personal issues (and in the process, admit to myself that I didn’t completely believe in anything I was doing). Currently, I’m almost as unproductive as I always was, but it’s not painful the way it used to be. It also probably helps that the stakes are now much lower–my family is in a good place financially and in more significant ways, so I don’t have to worry about “making it big” to save us all from any particular type of doom.
    On the other hand, the familiar urgency-anxiety-shame reappears at my completely non-creative day job! Half the time I come home from work and go straight to sleep, disappointed that I have no stamina left to work on the creative projects I’ve been thinking about all day. So, I have to hypothesize that this problem isn’t closely related to the creative nature of the tasks at all…

  9. Aevylmar says:

    I tend to be editing Chapter One at the same time as I’m writing Chapter Two, and if I don’t like Chapter One – yeah, that is, metaphorically speaking, punching myself in the face. And I have very little ability to tell whether Chapter One is good except through reader feedback – stuff I hate, I’ve had readers love, and stuff I love, I’ve had readers hate. So by that sense, I agree with him.

    Ultimately, I find that writing is incredibly cathartic, and it lifts my mood enormously – after I’ve done it. But doing it often takes immense amounts of willpower and is very stressful and depressing until I get into the flow, when everything becomes golden and perfect and it becomes The Best Thing. And then I have to go back and edit it and it becomes face-punching time.

  10. MichaelG says:

    Editing is easy! Works with my programmer instincts to find the flaws in things. It’s the creative part that brings out all my doubts and self-criticism.

    The impressive part of this post is that you are reading a book someone gave you. I thought that never happened…. :-)

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      You have confused Shamus with dave lister.

  11. Philadelphus says:

    Editing, on the other hand… editing sucks.

    I’ve sort of done a 180° on this myself. As a teenager taking writing classes I believed that one’s ability as a writer meant writing something perfect on the first try without needing to edit. Then over the years as I did more writing (including starting a personal blog) I’ve come to embrace and even somewhat enjoy the editing process.

    Part of that, I think, happened when I went from writing things by hand (which I loathe, and will do all kinds of things to avoid) to writing on a computer (which I could happily do all day long, and actually do as a grad student). Editing is just so much less painful on a computer…

  12. Redrock says:

    Oh, how much I hate editing. I’ve been occasionally stuck in editing postitions and I absolutely suck at it. I have no patience and routinely miss obvious mistakes, pretty much in the same way I suck at finding videogame secrets.

  13. Zekiel says:

    Man I loved Spec Ops: The Line so much. Sounds like I need to read this book.

    And that’s a fascinating tidbit about the chopper at the beginning – its both intriging and funny that it doesn’t fit quite right into the narrative. (When it comes around again later in narrative order, Walker breaks the fourth wall by saying “Wait – didn’t we do this already?”)

  14. EwgB says:

    Huh, I honestly forgot there even was a helicopter section. Even reading the post didn’t nudge my memory, had to go to youtube to remind myself.

  15. ccesarano says:

    I can relate. My standard process of video making is to spend way too long rewriting the script, and as I’m editing the video find all the tiny flaws and oversights with little capability for correction. Often results in feelings of self-anger and just cutting things together to get it done. My latest on Iconoclasts is the first where the tiny oversights didn’t bug me much, and I was happy during video editing from start to finish.

    But the script? Probably the most frustrating I’ve worked on in a long time. So many rewrites, so much second guessing and self-doubt.

    I have a book idea I’d like to write but want a clear outline before I start. Sadly the self-doubt rears its ugly head there, too. You only have two options, the way I see it: quit because you let that stuff get to you or learn to… well, learn, and push through and improve. I may have doubts about my channel and work, but I think it’s clear both Metroid and Iconoclasts this year are some of my best work. I owe that to my past failures, and all work follow will grow thanks to current and future failures

    …at least, I try and talk the big talk, but my walk is a lot more shakey.

  16. MadTinkerer says:

    Someone gifted the book to you? Have fun!

    I borrowed my copy from the local library because it was next to the game guides but stuck out because it wasn’t a game guide. (It was something like WoW guide, WoW guide, KOTOR 2 guide, D&D 3e book, D&D4e book, WoW guide, Programming Java Games for Dummies, and finally Significant Zero.) I didn’t realize until after I started reading it that it was by the guy who wrote SO:TL.

  17. Nessus says:

    I’ll admit, that POV on writing feels mostly alien to me. I don’t necessarily find writing easy, but even when it’s hard I don’t find it torturous. It’s as enjoyable as any artistic process I’ve dabbled in.

    Editing too. In fact, between writing and editing, editing is kinda actually a way smoother experience. Once you’ve got something actually on the page, revising is where the creative process really takes off for me. It’s getting that first rough version dragged kicking and screaming out of the ether that’s difficult (that Douglas Addams quote someone cited above is more on the mark for me). Once you’ve got the raw clay there in front of me though, refining, adding, reworking, etc to turn that vaguely story-shaped lump into a fleshed out plot with engaging prose is huge fun and really lights up my brain.

    I mean, unless by “editing” you just mean manually hunting down all the typos the automated checkers missed. That’s the stuff that makes my brain glaze over and my eyes ache. That and stuff that requires fussy special formatting, like screenplays (I have other capital “O” Opinions on screenplays as a thing in general, but that’s a different topic).

  18. Zak McKracken says:

    Writing/editing, and what part of it sucks:

    I think it’s down to how you divide the labour. As I understand it from the quote, Walt Williams probably means the combined process, because that’s what gives you the final output.

    I don’t really do artistic writing (more academic and technical stuff), but I feel I can relate to what Walt says there. Some people will just output whatever is in their minds, which can sometimes flow really easy, and sometimes not. I used to just write in one happy stream, but then editing was hell. Lately, I’ve switched over to realizing, while writing the first draft, what kind of problems the current version was going to cause me during editing, and confronting those problems during draft/writing time. Which makes the first draft waaay more slow and painful, and the whole process not much better, but once I see a problem, I cannot let go of it. Effectively, I do (some of) the editing while writing, and it’s not even a conscious choice. It’s something that comes out of having produced bad output in the past, wanting to do better, and being eminently aware of my own shortcomings.

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