The Process

On the questions we ask ourselves when writing and feel totally screwed.

This week a friend, who is working on his company’s first video game, sent me an email that definitely could’ve been written by me at any time during the development of anything I’ve ever worked on. Here’s the gist:

We are still working away on our thing. Still throwing away and rewriting the story over and over. Not sure if we are terrible at this or investing in the right thing…
I’m curious what your experience is like in this area. How do you deal with expectations, or the pressure of being a unique story and not a genre trope? When do you give up and decide to make a generic minimum viable product?
Hopefully there is space in the market for us by the time we launch.

I wanted to share what I wrote back to him because it’s far easier to sound like you know the answers when you’re not in the shit, not paralyzed with the same fear, not at a loss while your money evaporates before your eyes. This is a post for future me, I think, when I feel the same way about my next project and come back here to remember I didn’t always feel lost and like a total clown.

My response:

I’m sorry to hear you’re struggling. All of these concerns and worries resonate with me — I think they resonate with anyone who does any storytelling in any medium. It’s just that with games you get all the insecurity of making a creative product (with no right answers) and all of the fun of trying to make software (a literal, roiling hell).

Firstly, put the pressure of competition aside — you absolutely can’t control it and worrying about it only serves to make the emotional toil of a typical work-day worse. Obviously you have to be *aware* of what else is in the marketplace but it truly can’t be your concern. Anecdotally, The Long Dark, The Forest, and a host of either first person adventure or first person outdoors games were in development or came out while we were working on Firewatch. Not only did we not care about them — we aggressively chose not to care about them, not because we’re bad-asses assured of our creative vision but because the quality of all of those games was indisputable and their financial success was undeniable and if we held ourselves up against them (when our game was still a pile of crap waiting to congeal into… I guess congealed crap. Like a flan, but poop. Anyway.) we’d crush ourselves. We had to forcibly tell ourselves to not care (when we DID care) because if we did care (again, about things we couldn’t control) we’d only make worse choices. Furthermore, we didn’t want to be influenced by anything they were doing and, in the face of our own insecurity, knew our only real option was to be like “What we are doing is unique (I hope!!!) and we’re going to make something with our sensibilities better than anyone else (Oh God please!!!).”

Now, writing, story and tropes. The tropes part is easy — if you don’t like tropes and don’t want tropes in your story, don’t put tropes in. Choose not to rely on them. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that tropes aren’t immediately bad if used with care and used responsibly — they do a good job of on-boarding your audience to what you’re trying to do, but if you employ them you need to do so with choice and confidence. There are lots of good examples of this in film. The difference between a B action movie and something written/directed by, say, Joss Whedon, is that Joss is aware of all the tropes and tools of the genres and then subverts them and partners them up with multi-dimensional, believable and likable characters of all genders and races. That is that man’s jam.

A story is never going to tell you it’s good. You have to be able to see it and have faith and, in the case of what you’re making, be sagacious in casting your actors. Let me let you in on a secret: the script of Firewatch isn’t that great (OK, not a secret if you’re a BAFTA voter or a Neogaf commenter). Sure, there’s stuff in there I’m legitimately stoked to have written (mostly the puns) but it’s not Steinbeck. Nevertheless, I spent five grueling months casting Rich (we already had Cissy) and the reward for that time was that those two took my sirloin steak and transformed it into filet mignon. A good actor will get you out of so so so many pickles in your script. They will tell you when the dialog is wonky or not motivating or flat. They are worth their weight in gold (and Rich is like 6'1 and built like a truck).

The next best thing you can do to shipping a masterpiece is get your story done and ship literally anything and start figuring out how to make the next one — if you had a time machine I would’ve said “raise money for three of these, because your first is going to be garbage,” because you need to learn the process of making a story come out of a screen with actors and there’s no easy way to do that. It’s just the process.

That being said, there is usually a decent story inside of every failed script so I would say find some folks you trust, find that nugget in what you’ve got, and focus on execution (secret number two: the plot of Firewatch isn’t great, I wish I could do it again, but we focused all of our energy on superb execution and then shipped it. And now we can try to improve.).

As for giving up and making a minimum viable product, never think of it as giving up and think of everything you ship as the minimum viable product. When have you ever shipped a game and gone “well, this is far fancier than it needed to be?” I’m usually just happy it’s not malware. When I finally feel something while playing the game, when I feel the feeling that I was hoping someone would feel when playing it, we fix the bugs and get it out the door. If you don’t feel anything, it’s not that you’re too close to it, it’s just that you got something wrong somewhere along the way. You’d be surprised how quickly you can find that thing when you start to unwind it. For us, I rewrote the last third of the game in September (we shipped in Feb) because we’d given Delilah a weird turn where she refused to trust or talk to Henry and the soul left the game. We fixed it even though it was a big fix and the story worked. These type of story adjustments *are* mechanical, they require logic and tinkering, but the feelings you’re after aren’t — they are in your guts. Think about why you’re feeling what you’re feeling in the story and make your choices based on that.

The odds are your thing will come out and fail — we felt that way about Firewatch — not because we thought it was bad but because 95% of games fail. That’s life. That’s movies, that’s books, that’s everything. Write and ship the thing that gets you to the next thing and try (TRY!) to be fearless of the process. It’s really all you’ve got and why we’re all here.

Good luck,

Sean