Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A Child of the Century

Playing the game

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Yesterday, the magazine PC Gamer published an article by Alex Wiltshire on the challenges of writing for blockbuster video games. It’s an illuminating piece, especially if you haven’t given much thought to the subject before, and it’s loaded with interesting insights. What struck me the most, though, was the way in which the writers tend to talk about themselves and their craft. Walt Williams, the author of a memoir about game development that I clearly need to read, says of the trade: “As much as we like to say that video games can be a narrative medium, financially they’re really not…Writing is expendable.” Tom Bissell, who has worked on games in the Gears of War and Uncharted series, has similar views, as Wiltshire writes:

Bissell says that games have “shitty stories” because games are often simply absurd. “That’s not a criticism, it’s an acknowledgment of the reality that stares anyone working on an action game right in the face…The only way you escape the absurdity problem is through sheer force of will, and you can do that only when the prime creative force behind the game is also overseeing virtually every aspect of it…That’s not a position most game writers will ever find themselves in, obviously.”

And Williams concludes: “Our biggest mistake is that we’ve decided to consider AAA [blockbuster] games as something better than they are. We like to think our super-silly destruction derby arena is a piece of serious art that can say something meaningful.”

As I read this, I was strongly reminded of what another writer says about an art form that had been around for decades, but was still in its formative stages at the height of his career:

The movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century…The persistent banality of the movies is due to the “vision” of their manufacturers. I do not mean by manufacturers, writers or directors. These harassed toilers are no more than the lowest of Unteroffizieren in movieland. The orders come from the tents of a dozen invisible generals. The “vision” is theirs. They keep a visionary eye glued to the fact that the lower in class an entertainment product is, the more people will buy it…[The studio head] must examine every idea, plot, or venture submitted to him from the single point of view of whether it is trite enough to appeal to the masses.

The writer here is the screenwriter Ben Hecht, whose memoir A Child of the Century is filled with what Pauline Kael describes in “Raising Kane” as his “frivolously cynical” view of filmmaking. In 1925, Hecht, who had only seen “a few movies” at the time, said confidently to his friend Herman J. Mankiewicz: “Anybody with a good memory for clichés and unafraid to write like a child can bat out a superb movie in a few days.” A year later, Mankiewicz—who would go on to win an Oscar for Citizen Kane—took him at his word, and he cabled Hecht from Hollywood: “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

Hecht went on to a legendary career, much of which was spent serving as what Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett calls a “narrative paramedic” on movies like Gone With the Wind. And while I doubt that any video game writers are earning millions from their work, their attitude toward their medium seems largely the same as Hecht’s, even before you account for the intervening ninety years. Hecht writes of the films of the thirties:

One basic plot only has appeared daily in their fifteen hundred theaters—the triumph of virtue and the overthrow of wickedness…Not only was the plot the same, but the characters in it never varied. These characters must always be good or bad (and never human) in order not to confuse the plot of Virtue Triumphing. This denouement could be best achieved by stereotypes a fraction removed from those in the comic strips.

Despite their occasional stabs at moral ambiguity, most games operate under similar constraints, and the situation is only exacerbated by the money and resources at stake. Hecht writes that “millions of dollars and not mere thousands were involved,” while Bissell says that video games are “possibly the most complicated popular art form ever created,” which only decreases any tolerance for risk. Invariably, it’s the writers who lose. Hecht says that he ultimately lost every fight that he had with his producers, adding mordantly: “Months later, watching ‘my’ movie in a theater, I realize that not much damage had actually been done. A movie is basically so trite and glib that the addition of a half dozen miserable inanities does not cripple it.”

You might think that the solution would be to give the writers more control, but those on the inside seem unconvinced. Wiltshire writes:

For Bissell it’s a misconception that they’d improve if only writers were more integral with development. “Sorry, but that’s just not true in my experience. Games can go wrong in so many ways that have nothing to do with who the writer is or how well or poorly he or she or they are treated. Sometimes cleaning up the mess in a wayward game falls on level design and sometimes art and sometimes narrative, but this idea that games have ‘shitty stories’ because there aren’t good writers in the industry, or that writers aren’t listened to, is, to be perfectly frank, a deflection.”

Hecht makes much the same observation: “In a curious way, there is not much difference between the product of a good writer and a bad one. They both have to toe the same mark.” Which seems to be the real point in common. Movies and video games can both produce masterpieces, even at their most commercial, but on the blockbuster level, they tend to be the sum of a pattern of forces, with the writer serving as a kind of release valve for the rest, even if his or her contributions are usually undervalued. (“Everyone writes, whereas not everyone designs or codes, and I think people feel they have a stake in it,” says Phil Huxley, a former writer for Rocksteady.) In both cases, success or failure can be a matter of luck, and in the meantime, the game has to be its own reward, as Hecht knows well: “Making movies is a game played by a few thousand toy-minded folk. It is obsessive, exhausting, and jolly, as a good game should be. Played intently, it divorces you from life, as a good game will do.”

Looking forward, looking back

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The Scythian Trilogy

If you ask a man how many times he has loved—unless there is love in his heart at the moment—he is likely to answer, “Never.”

—Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century

Every now and then, I’ll go over to the bookshelf, pull down a copy of one of my own novels, and idly leaf through the pages. Whenever I do, my first thought is usually, Hey, this isn’t bad. But I can’t say that I’m all that tempted to read them over again. Finished works are like the old girlfriends or boyfriends of the writing life: they’ve left you with some lasting memories and some regrets, but now that it’s all over and done, you don’t necessarily want to go poking around to see what might be there today. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t written a novel can understand the ambivalence with which a writer regards a story that used to be a living, growing entity, and now is something closer to a dead thing, with its mistakes and typos still intact. I like my novels; they were always books that I wanted to read myself. But going back to revisit them again now feels a little like digging around into matters that shouldn’t be disturbed. As the members of Spinal Tap say about their first drummer, who died in a bizarre gardening accident: “The authorities said it was best to leave it unsolved.”

John Updike says somewhere in Self-Consciousness that it doesn’t make sense to be afraid of death, since we’ve all successively taken on and given up a series of selves that might as well be other people entirely. I have a feeling that he was pushed into that insight by his work as a novelist, which superimposes a second layer of reinvention on the changes that we all undergo. A writer is never quite the same person he was while writing a particular novel: you immerse yourself for a year or so in a web of lives that feel very real in the moment, but they’re diminished the second you turn to the next story. I’ve always said that a draft of any novel amounts to a message from my past self to the future, and that’s doubly true of everything that ended up in print. I vaguely remember the months of work that each book required, and certain moments in the creative process are indelibly vivid, but a lot of it has faded into a kind of creative haze. Keeping focused on the work at hand is hard enough; if you want to give the current story everything you have, you need to kill all those old darlings.

The Scythian Trilogy

But that can be its own kind of trap. I’ve often thought that the secret to living a fulfilling life, not that I’ve managed to do this myself, is less about transforming into something better than about fully integrating all the old selves that we’ve left behind. If we could face each day as the sum of our experiences from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, with all those strange byways and fleeting obsessions and forgotten loves and hates organized into one person, we’d emerge as beings of incredible complexity, no matter how mundane the individual pieces might be. In practice, that’s not how we approach life: we’re more concerned with the little dilemmas that confront us every morning than with finding a shape for the whole. (Say what you will about psychoanalysis, but its underlying project—to understand the present in terms of the past—is hugely important, and it’s no surprise that it can require a lifetime of talk just to process what has already happened.) That’s true of writing, too. You do a better job of solving the problems in front of you if you have some sense of where you’ve been before, which means fighting against the amnesia that descends once you’ve moved on from an old story.

That’s a big part of the reason why I’ve spent so much time on the writer’s commentaries on The Icon Thief and City of Exiles. Like a lot of features on this blog, they’re really something I do for myself, even if I’d like to think that other readers—even those who haven’t picked up any of the novels—might get something out of it as well. They’re an excuse to confront old pages, gleaning any lessons I can from whatever I find there, while always remaining honest about their shortcomings: otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a point. Sometimes I’m a little confused by my own conclusions; I still can’t decide if City of Exiles is the strongest novel in the series or the weakest. But even that confusion has its place. Next week, I’m going to start the process all over again for Eternal Empire, the final novel in the trilogy, and the one that I probably know the least well. If it inspires you to purchase a copy, that’s fantastic, but selling books was never really the point here. It’s more a way of setting down certain impressions for my own edification before time and distance erase them all. That may seem like a lot to put on three books that were never intended to be much more than smart, diverting thrillers. But that’s how it always feels when you look up an old flame.

Written by nevalalee

December 5, 2014 at 9:42 am

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