Wednesday, 1 February 2012

On Stuff 01/02/2012

Dream Games

It shouldn't be news to anyone that being ill is unpleasant. While thankfully only afflicted by an irritating cold/flu/headache thing, I've been reminded yet again how useless being under the weather makes you feel, something I always forget until the cloud is actually over my head. In my case, the silver lining of that mixed metaphorical cloud is that having a cold often gives me very vivid dreams, whereas normally I remember dreams only occasionally and abstractly. This morning's one started excellently, with me as some kind of parkour film star, before going downhill when my friend's Mum attempted to deliberately run me over in what I believe was a Renault Clio.

I wont delve into the psychological implications of those scenarios, but I did have a couple of more literal dreams earlier in the night, which were worryingly accurate depictions of games I've played. The first was Defense Grid, which I've been playing for around a month and hope to write about soon, and the second was Eve Online.

Will I Ever Shut Up About Eve?

Probably not. Forgive the addendum to the addendum that was my previous blog post, but the more I live my fairly normal Western life, the more I become convinced Eve was one of the most profoundly interesting things I've been a part of, even if I didn't realise it at the time. I may be misquoting here, and I don't remember the general point being made, but I recall reading something recently along the lines of "MMOs are not games, they're something else with game-like experiences included". This rang true, because the individual things I did in Eve were game-like interactions, but the whole experience as I remember it was like no other game, single- or multi-player, that I've played before or since.

I remarked last time how much Eve must have stuck with me after I wrote a sentence that might as well be in another language to a non-player. My dream beat that by an order of magnitude.

I was parked in an Apoc in a Caldari station somewhere in Empire near Jita, playing my main character. The graphics were recognisably pre-overhaul and I had the skill training window open. I remember starting training Amarr BS to level V, which had 7 days, 14 hours remaining on it, but then decided to switch to a learning skill, which had 1 day, 12 hours remaining. I then undocked with the intention of going ratting.

The things I was doing didn't make perfect sense (my char has BS V and max learning skills, no one would rat hi sec in an Apoc), but the level of accurate detail was remarkable and nothing happened in the dream that wasn't within the possibilities of the game as I played it. Weird. And kinda cool.

Perpetual Thoughts

Why was Eve on my mind? I believe it was because I've recently heard about Perpetuum from a couple of websites, which has been described as Eve with robots.

It would be weird and depressing to try and get back into Eve, because getting to the point where the game is at its best involves learning reams of tactics and information, spending large amounts of time grinding for cash and gradually building up friends and some kinds of PvP reputation. While the game and its mechanics are still new and fresh this doesn't present too much of a problem: you're too busy gaping in awe at the new and the unfamiliar to realise that you're months of play away from the end game conflicts. But having gotten to that place once and then taken a break, the thought of making that journey again doesn't much appeal. Plus I have no where near as much free time as I did while at Uni (and even then that didn't seem like enough), so I feel like I wouldn't do it justice.

But another game, a bit like Eve? One with the same core values, but fresh mechanics and a different world and community? Well until now I haven't really heard of any such thing. And perhaps that's a good thing: as I said I don't know if I have the time to make the most of another Eve, and worse than that I worry that I would make the time at the expense of other activities. I tell myself now that I could play casually, only get involved when I have the spare time, but there's an angel - or is it a demon - on my shoulder telling tales of 4am POS ops and lectures missed to run L4 missions.

I just don't know. Perhaps I'll give the free trial a go in the next couple of weeks. One thing I want to make sure of is that if I do play the game at all I'll write it up in good time, rather than ranting incoherently about it several years down the line.

Writing Can Be Hard

Of course it can - only an idiot would tell you otherwise - but it was quite interesting to be hit in the face with that fact for the first time. Everything I'd written for this blog up until Diaries of Dredmor was stuff that was buzzing around in my head, bursting to be put into coherent form on a virtual page (or at least that's how it felt). That's not to say writing it was simple, or that I think I've produced world changing essays with an effortless flutter of hand on keyboard, but it has all kind of flowed from brain to page quite easily and I was quite pleased with the results.

Diaries of Dredmor was originally something I was going to pitch as freelance. When I say this, I don't want to seem arrogant, as this was merely case of potentially being in the right place at the right time: my house-mate works in the industry and suggested I pitch something. That caveat noted, I thought I had a decent if unoriginal idea that could produce an entirely readable piece. And I did - I do - and I'm pretty happy with what I wrote. However, while the intro felt like it flowed, actually writing the diary pieces was and is quite difficult.

The main problem was knowing what to leave out: a lot of stuff happens in a game, enough to write whole books about. Horrible, terrible, thousand page books that no one would ever want to read. I hadn't fully appreciated beforehand what an important skill it was to cut out the fat and narrow the piece down to the core of what makes a game diary interesting and compelling. That's a skill that you can't learn, or even realise you need to learn, from reading lots of other game diaries: by reading a lot of the sort of thing you want to write, you can gain some appreciation of, say, good sentence construction, how to use humour, how to argue a point or any number of relevant techniques that are normally included in the type of piece in question. What you don't get is what the writer left out and why.

My other blog posts have been translations of thoughts that had been rattling round in my head, and as such were pre-honed into the most relevant points necessary to make the argument. All that was needed was to hang the flesh of prose onto the skeleton of said thoughts. Attempting something more creative meant I had to choose from a whole jumble of bones to fit together a working skeleton that didn't collapse under its own weight, as well as picking the right sort of flesh to make the resultant beast in any way appealing.

So it was tricky, and even once I knew roughly what bits to include, it was hard to make the piece flow as a narrative rather than writing what sounded like a list of rooms and events: "I started here, I did this, and this, and then I did this, and then I went here, and then this happened, and then I died." I guess this is a common problem with writing any kind of narrative, but it's exacerbated when writing about single-player sandbox or semi-sandbox games: while emergent narratives do occur and indeed have great power, they are still at a fairly high level a series of discrete interactions with a rigid logical system; once you start to write an account of this in detail, the narrative in your head can fall away and it can start to sound like the list of events it started out as.

Perhaps I'm just saying our minds and the imaginations within them are much better at fooling themselves that something is a meaningful story than they are at convincingly expressing this outwardly. Now that's not hugely surprising, but it's nice to work back from a high level effect to a basic principal that you feel should be true.

Wow, Sidetracked Am I

Despite all that, I did enjoyed writing Diaries of Dredmor part 1 and I think the piece is decent. More than that, I feel like I've learned a bit more about the challenge of writing well. Nothing that surprised me or that I didn't know at least in part before, but still something that set my neurones firing in a way that felt scarily worthwhile.

I decided not to pitch it though, as it felt too much like a practice piece for me to feel good about asking for money for it. I appreciate this makes no sense: the worst that happens is I get a rejection and confirm what I thought already, but on the other hand that might have killed the series dead, whereas doing it for my blog I know I'll carry it on for at least a little while and hopefully continue to learn.

Also, I think a little bit of me was scared of the opposite result. Thus far, writing has been fun and satisfying (when I've found the time and energy), and I worry that were money and obligation to become involved with the process that might be lost somehow.

Who knows? Maybe I'll find out some day, but not yet.

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