On RPGs, Focus, and the Battle to Complete Your Writing
For a time, I was a gamer. Or perhaps, I’m still a gamer at heart, in that way that you never really give it up. Although I don’t play as much now as I used to (subject to change, as Diablo 3 is out this week), there was a time when gaming was my preferred means of wasting time entertainment.
During that time, role-playing games—or RPGs, as they’re known to the initiated—were the dominant iteration. I spent time in Hyrule. I explored all of the worlds the geniuses at Square could come up with.
From an early age, they developed my problem solving skills, as well my appreciation for the value of those skills. I believe that RPGs helped me develop creatively, fostered my love of reading, and in some ways even helped shape me as a writer. In some ways, they made me better; I learned a lot of word 9-year olds generally don’t know. I understood character development, and the depth of story lines.
However, I think they also created and encouraged habits that have had some severe influences on my development.
As any true RPG player will tell you—especially those who played high fantasy RPGs on consoles—you want to do everything, uncover everything. Anytime you come to a crossroads in a dungeon, you explore one path, but always make sure to come back and hit the other one.
After all, if you don’t go into the OTHER cave, you might miss a treasure chest. That treasure chest might contain something valuable: It could be a powerful sword or piece of armor that will help you get through the dungeon. It could also just be a health potion that you can add to your collection of 45 other potions that you don’t use because it’s generally faster and easier to use regenerative magic to heal yourself.
No matter what, you would HAVE to go back and look; it’s this sort of strange internal drive, a response to an unwritten directive to explore every room and every crevice. On those occasions where a door locked behind you and you couldn’t go back and look, you’d be left with the choice of either: re-loading a recent save and start from the beginning (we’ve all done this); or proceed to the end of the dungeon with some sort of resigned compunction that you’d committed a crime against the natural order of things.
But you hadn’t.
Which is the damnable irony of it all. Games then were designed in a very specific way; if you needed something—really and truly NEEDED it to beat the game—the game was going make sure you got it.
If, at the end of the game, you needed the Earth Crystal to activate a portal taking you to the Big Boss, then at some point in the game, you’d get it. You’d wind up in dungeon about halfway through the game, and somewhere in that dungeon, you’d find the Earth Crystal. You HAD to find it, because there’d be some door that you couldn’t open unless you had the Earth Crystal, preventing your exit.
All of those extras were irrelevant. If you missed something—if you were ALLOWED to miss it—then it ultimately didn’t really matter. It wasn’t essential to the game, to the quest. If you missed that potion, you were fine. Even if you missed something kinda awesome, which seemed important, it might not have been. Sure, it’s nice to get a new set of gauntlets—the boost to your Armor Class is wonderful, but guess what? Chances are, when you get to the next town, there’ll be a better set of gauntlets to buy. An important point that seems irrelevant to someone exploring a dungeon with the ardency of an addict looking for the next fix.
I’m not the only gamer who’s noticed this, by the way. In his snarky analysis of Skyrim (appropriately titled “5 Personality Disorders Skyrim Forces You to Deal With“), CRACKED writer Robert Brockway observes:
“[…]I totally acknowledge that this is a personal failing within me. This terrible habit – of scouting out every single other pathway before the main one – may be a leftover impulse from older RPGs, where many areas became inaccessible after you advanced through them. So if you wanted to make sure you found all the secret spells and legendary weapons, you had to explore every other path before the right one, otherwise the story might drag you, kicking and screaming, away from the best toys. That’s no longer the case with modern games. Most let you visit and revisit any area at any point, but it’s too late for me: The behavior is learned, and the damage is done.”
Both Brockway and I are aware of the strangeness of our behavior, and it’s source, and—while I can’t speak for him—there’s something that becomes clear with the benefit of hindsight gifted 10 years after having last played through Final Fantasy 2 (known as Final Fantasy 4 in Japan, and, incidentally, my favorite of the series).
It doesn’t matter though. Not if you’re like me. Because if you’re like me, you need some help. You’re a gaming god, a fantasy fiend—you’ve got RPG OCD, and damn it, you need those fucking gauntlets. But you don’t.
Even if you find an item that does have some magical property that helps you in that specific area of the game (you’re in a fire dungeon? Oh, look! Gauntlets that improve your defense against fire!), you don’t NEED them. You can beat the dungeon without them. You can beat the game without them. You can win the princess, free the kingdom, save the world without them. In other words, you can do your actual job—finish the game—without the gauntlets.
And now, years later, even though I recognize the behavior, and the reason for it, I am a victim of this strange RPG-OCD. This behavioral disorder makes you
want need to try everything – you’re always afraid you’re going to miss out on something. Makes it hard to order at a restaurant (what if the ribeye is better than the strip steak?) hard to select a workout (what if I go on this mass gaining program, and then I decide I want to go to Mexico, but I’m not ripped enough!?), and even hard to select a city to live in (I love Cali…but if I leave NYC, I might miss media opportunities!).
In other words, you never, ever, want to feel like this:
Essentially, role-playing games have fostered a mild fear of commitment, because you’re afraid you’ll miss out on stuff. I won’t bother making obvious jokes about how this might have affected my personal life (har har), but what I will talk about—what I’ve really wanted to talk about this entire time—is how this affects me as a content creator.
The main job of anyone who writes isn’t really to write something: It’s to finish writing it.
What I’ve come to realize after a few years of having my income derived primarily from things I write (whether it’s articles or programs), is that nothing really counts until it’s done. Magazines don’t pay you for half finished articles, and clients wouldn’t accept incomplete programs.
Obvious, of course, and no one, reader or writer, needs to see that in print to realize it.
However, despite my acceptance of the fact that my job is ultimately to finish the main quest, my RPG OCD and years of gaming have conditioned me to not only accept but to seek out side-quests and mini-games. To look for things that are not truly essential to the task at hand, but that allow for expression or embodiment of some other feeling.
Put somewhat more directly, allowing for a potent dose of the insidious drug to which every writer is at least partially addicted: distraction.
Every writer has a different process, and they differ so widely that it’s very hard to spot common threads. Save one: every single writer I know—and probably all the ones I don’t—has, as part of their process, procrastination. Which is, by turns, either the genesis or the product of distraction.
To write and bring ideas from heart to page is, at least for me, to engage in battle with oneself.
In his work on writing (appropriately titled The War of Art), Stephen Pressfield agrees. No stranger to writing about battles great and small, Pressfield makes a number of compelling arguments in his book.
The best of these is the first, and it’s simply this:
There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.
If I may take it a step further, I’d like to suggest that nearly anything that must or will be written is, I think, already written. It lives deep within the heart and mind of the writer, who must only bring it out. If only it were that simple.
Writers seek—crave—distraction. It’s inherent in the process.
Those writers who can acknowledge this and find a way to master it are the most productive. (A great example of this is Craig Ballantyne, who is so ruthlessly opposed to allowing for distraction that he does not have internet in his home, and spends just 180 minutes per day of internet access in a coffee shop, all to avoid the temptation of distraction.)
Swinging back to me personally, and back to RPG OCD, we come to my specific issues and how I contend with them. For me, distraction manifests itself in a few particular ways, which don’t prevent me from writing per se, but rather make my writing an incredibly circuitous process.
I am not so much distracted from writing as I am distracted by writing—and this allows my RPG OCD to take hold.
As I working diligently on an article I mean to finish by the end of the day, I will mention something in the piece, sort of as an aside. And that’s when the trouble begins.
This reference, whether it’s to something related to the article or just some pop-culture color, will cause a bizarre chemical reaction deep in my brain. Thoughts and ideas begin to boil, deep down below the surface; the ideas germinate and eventually force their way to the top, percolating through the thin membrane of my willpower, and taking center stage.
This idea, whatever it’s origins, must be given some attention. The other cave, now presented, must be explored.
It pains the gamer in me to say this, but there is very clearly a certain lack of discipline inherent in allowing yourself to explore these caves, because they interfere with your job: finishing something—anything.
It is the job of both the hero and the writer to finish the quest.
I know this. I know it. I arm myself with this knowledge daily. And yet then I go, even so knowing, into the darkness of the other cave, seeking treasures. Not always. Just usually.
At the best of times, there is a simple reorganization of thoughts and words in the existing article, allowing me to give voice to the idea that must be born. Other times, the thought was one I fleshed out long ago, and I am able to address the attention hungry idea by embedding a link, joining these related ideas permanently. But those are the best of times, and not frequent.
More often, this idea demands a sentence or a paragraph; many times, it becomes a tangent. If you have read my writing, you are familiar with these things, although for your benefit I have often tried to rein them in.
In worst instances of such frenzied non-productivity, the thought, the tangent, the distraction becomes unruly; it must be plucked at the root from the place that gave it birth. The idea—though no longer at home in the piece of writing that birthed it—is not done with me. Snipped neatly with a deft combination of COMMAND + X, the idea is moved a new home. A blank document will be the new home to the idea; scratch-marks clawed onto the wall of the other cave.
Regretfully, I must say that I have a good number of such documents. An astounding number, a depressing and maddening number of caves, some less than half explored–because my RPG OCD is so severe that even when exploring the other cave, I’m still tempted by ideas that spring up while writing, and then all of a sudden, I’m in the other, other cave.
There are moments of victory, I think, and I am getting better. I have at least, become better at recognizing when an idea will become a tangent. At these times, I am able to explore the cave slightly, and—to stay with this video game metaphor (despite having thoroughly exhausted it)—mark a spot on Link’s map, promising to come back to it. This allows me, at times, to focus on the task at hand, the quest I’m on, and finish my article. At times.
Controlling these impulses, the desires to explore every cave that presents itself, is a daily struggle. It is the daily struggle; the great battle I must wage every time I set pen to page, meaning to give voice to heart. I fail often.
But, as is the case with any type of art (a word I detest applying to my writing, which I both love and loathe by turns, and in equal measure), there is occasionally victory in failure.
While rare, there are times when one of those errant notions becomes more than just a seedling. The paragraph becomes a tangent, and then it becomes an article until itself. Sometimes, that offshoot article is better than the root from whence it sprung. Sometimes, a stray thought leads you into a cave where there are treasures worth finding; not necessary, perhaps, to the completion of the quest, but which make the journey more enjoyable.
It is at these moments where you realize the beauty of writing, and the reason we write. Because there are times, though not many, when even when you lose, you win.
Very probably, I will live a good number of my days cursing Hironobu Sakaguchi for creating the genre-defining Final Fantasy series, for which I blame this inconvenient affliction. However, there are days when I thank the heavens for his creation—for through it’s creation, and that of my disorder, I have given breath to some of my best work.
This very piece of writing is one such example. Not in the sense this this is some of my best work; I have no illusions of that, and in fact the opposite will be shown over time, or so I must believe, if I hope to improve at this craft. Rather, this piece is like those others in the way it came to be: Quite by accident.
Of all things, this article began a Facebook status. Meaning only to make a silly comment about the relationship between RPGs and writing, I wound up with about 937 individual instances of word-vomit. With 937 words written and more to say, I drew forth my shears, and with a quick cut/paste, entered into a cave I didn’t think I’d explore; at least, not publicly, not with you, not yet.
It’s likely the case that any bit of writing concerning itself with video games cannot be good writing, so I won’t call this that, but I do hope at least to give some perspective; not on the writing process, but on a writing process, even if it’s just my own.
But, if nothing else, there’s honor in honesty, and I have here been honest, and laid bare some piece of myself that many of you may have wondered about, opening myself to your scrutiny; and there remains a bit of myself (and my work) here that I am not ashamed of. Perhaps, if I am very lucky, I’ve made a deft stroke here or there, and given you something worth reading and sharing.
This piece—this blog or article or rant or crack in the armor—was born of a moment of hesitant creation, a moment where I reluctantly followed my RPG OCD into a cave that I just could not leave unexplored. It’s frustrating as hell, to have such moments so frequently, for through them the quest is prolonged, and sometimes forsaken—at least for a time.
Some moments turn out okay, though, and you have to appreciate them. If you don’t, you’re dead. At those moments, you have to step back, shake your head, and just appreciate the awesome randomness and the random awesomeness that can come from unnecessary, irresponsible exploration.
Because, really, it’s not all bad.
After all, those fire gauntlets are pretty fucking sweet.