For the past few months I have been trying to sell stories. Sell is a bit of a stretch I suppose. All the outlets that I have been sending them too would not have paid me much for them. In terms of per hour wages, I would be making less than pennies off these stories. That’s not really what I’m trying to do though is it? I’m not looking to get wealthy off these stories. I want people to read them.
I thought a lot about why. I thought maybe it was attention seeking, or validation, or some other ego issue. While all writing has a component of that, I’m not so sure that covers it anymore.
I have received a good handful of rejection letters. Not a ton, but more than a few. The last 3 have been of the ‘higher level’ variety. It seems there is a whole tier system for rejection letters. Almost all rejection letters people get are form letters, because the editors of magazines and podcasts receive a lot of submissions and don’t have time to respond to all of them with personalized criticism or comments. This makes perfect sense. What a lot of publishers do have is a set of modular rejection letters. They tack on bits and pieces depending on what feedback they want to send but don’t really have time to type out. Writers collect these letters to share and compare. They break them down into their component parts. The practice even has a name. Rejectomancy. The practice is so widespread that the word rejectomancy doesn’t set off this text editor’s spelling filters.
Since I can’t help but research anything and everything, I have done some research on rejectomancy. I tend to think that a very simple “Thanks, but we are going to pass” is a good enough rejection letter. It tells me what I need to know and lets me send the story to some other outlet. As it turns out, it isn’t that simple. Even in a form rejection letter there are a lot of little segments that publishers tend to add.
There is the ‘who’s desk did this come from?’. Usually it comes from ‘the magazine’ or ‘outlet’ and that would mean that a volunteer or contractor read the story and decided not to pass it up to the staff or editor. Then there is the editor’s desk. Depending on if they use ‘I’ or ‘We’ that might mean that they read it or not. Sometimes they just thank you for your time, but sometimes they say that they would like you to consider them when you are submitting other work. While it would be easy to see this as just being polite, it turns out that it usually isn’t, and depending on the outlet, when they say consider us with other work it means exactly that. They liked the story, but something about it didn’t fit. Could be the word count, could be the subject matter, could be the tone, could be anything. Maybe they had three dreary stories that issue and they wanted something upbeat to fill it out. Your story was a downer and they passed rather than holding it for a later issue. Or they had to pick between the 5000 word story and the 6000 word story and one of them just fit the space better.
I’ve gotten a couple of the ‘thanks’ variety and some of the ‘thanks, send more’ variety. I got a personal critique. I got at least one ‘thanks, it was yours or another one and we went with the other one’. A bummer, but also kind of encouraging.
Now that I have a few, I think rejection letters tell you what you are really looking for. If you were trying to please your ego, you would quit after receiving one or two. They do nothing good for the ego. I don’t quit though. I do some revisions and send them out again. And again. And again.
I’ve stopped submitting all scattershot. Instead I go out and look for the right place to send these stories, and I realize that it’s less about someone telling me that they like the story and more about getting it to the audience that would appreciate it. People who might read it and have it be important to them in some way. I want to give them away. I am making them to share. Of course I want people to like the stories, but I think, as I have gone through this process, It’s much less important that people like me.
If I could write a story that means something to someone else, someone that I have never met and will never meet, I think that is what I want. Publishing to these outlets is just the quickest way to get there. I could post them up here, where a dozen or so people would ever read them, but that’s not good enough. They need to get out of here and go have a life away from me. They need to have people read them or listen to them without ever having any idea who I am. They need another place to vouch for them and say ‘it’s okay, these are stories you might like’ to people far, far away from this keyboard that they came out of.
I’ll always love them, but I want them gone and off to their own adventures.
This is a picture. I made this picture. This picture gives me anxiety.
There is a state that all drawings and paintings go through that can be best classified as “unfortunate”. It’s the state that makes an artist want to cover the paper so people looking over your shoulder can’t see your mess. People who are not the artist might, rightly, think that this is as good as it will get and walk away disappointed. I have worked very long and very hard on myself to break the impulse to cover my paper.
I’ve been here before. Every time I draw, paint, write, model, texture, light, or animate anything, there is a point where the honest impulse would be to cover the paper. Hide the shame of a picture that is in that halfway and unfortunate state. Every time I hit that point, I feel it too. I think this picture, or story, or whatever, is always going to look like this and it will be terrible, and I am terrible, and why did I even try doing this thing in the first place.
Like I said though, I’ve been here before. I know what this feels like. I recognize what the unfortunate state looks like. Foggy as it might be, I can see the road ahead because it’s the one I walk every time I make anything. This unfortunate, halfway state is exactly that, halfway. Maybe a little more or less than halfway, but still, not the start or the end.
I will do some more work on this painting, and the story that goes with it. Both are in a similar state. They will get better. At some point they will be ‘done’. That point isn’t now, but that’s okay.
Artists should get used to showing off their process and their half-done work. The more you do it, the less scary it is. Being unafraid of the process of making things is probably the biggest hurdle an artist will ever have to leap.
Show off your bad work. Your stuff that is half done and mushy. Your thoughts half formed and half finished. Get used to working through that and improving them. This is what your creations look like today, just imagine how good they could look tomorrow.
I played a game that reinforced an opinion I have. I know, super scientific. I have, and will, substitute this opinion for actual research.
It’s a simple thing, but since this is more or less a notebook to my future self (who won’t go back and read it) I’ll jot it down here.
The most important thing to get right in a video game is control. It’s not graphics, it’s not sound, it’s not even ‘gameplay’. The single most important element of any video game is control.
If you watch a movie, the most important element is editing. If the editing is bad you won’t be able to follow the narrative. Second is sound. The visual quality can be trash, but if the movie sounds good. Mess up on editing and sound!?!? Forget about it. That movie won’t work.
Video games share a lot with movies and TV. They are all primarily visual mediums. They all have to deal with pacing, rising and falling tension, timing with soundtracks. The primary difference, you swap editing with control.
Ever since pong, the feeling of ‘I do this thing with a button or a switch or a knob and something happens on the screen’ has been the primary differentiator between video games and all other media. I do this, the game does that. That feedback loop has to be nearly instant for it to feel good.
Pong is a 2D game where input typically occupies a single plane. You turn the knob one way and the paddle goes up, you turn it the other way and it goes down. Simple.
Modern games have controls that operate on multiple planes with separate fine scale inputs on triggers and paddles and buttons and touch pads and touch screens and capacitive sensors and accelerometers and gyroscopic sensors and motion tracking and computer vision and outside in or inside out position tracking systems.
Exactly the same rules apply. When you do this, the game does that. And it must do that thing reliably and quickly and without disorienting the player. That is the end to end extent of the task. Do the thing, do it quickly, don’t do some other thing the player isn’t expecting.
When a game is bad, it’s almost always because they messed up on control.
Now that games are mostly 3D control often includes two in game entities. The thing the player is controlling and the camera that is showing it to you. It can be easy to imagine that these are separate problems. Like driving a car is the first problem and building a good chase camera is the second. It’s not. Those are the same problem. When the player presses a stick or trigger button the car has to react properly, quickly, and without doing anything unexpected, but so does the camera.
There is often a delay on the camera that lets it float a long lazily behind the action, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t reacting quickly. It needs to respond instantly to player input, and sometimes that means that the camera doesn’t stay right behind the car. Sometimes that means that the camera follows the motion vector of the car or refuses to float back behind the car because, at that exact moment, the car is in a drift and it feels more natural to see the car from the side or front. It is about responding quickly to the player's expectation of where the camera should be going and giving them the best view of the game they are playing.
With great controls, a pretty basic game can still feel fun to run around in. With poor controls, it won’t matter how good the game is. There will always be a certain amount of people that will be turned off and put the game down.
Controls are the editing of video games. Get them wrong, and the moment to moment just won’t make sense.
Best Games - SSX 3
The first SSX game was a banger right out of the gate. It could easily be in the running for a ‘best games’ write up. It had a solid but sort of complicated trick system. It felt fast and smooth. It looked and sounded great. It was fun to play. All good. I think though, the third entry in the series is really something special.
It was probably the Tony Hawk games that made extreme sports prime video game fodder. There were skateboarding and snowboarding games before that, but none of them had the same feeling of flow. The accuracy of control and speed and great looking tricks that make the player feel like they are floating from one obstacle to the next.
There were a lot of imitators to the Tony Hawk formula. Like a lot, lot. Way too many. SSX sort of goes it’s own way. The action sport element is there but after that, they are very different games.
SSX captures the speed of snowboarding. It is trivial to go fast. It’s not all about tricks and spins. It’s about speed. And not just simple acceleration. The way you turn is fast. the way you recover from crashes is fast. The way you get in and out of events is fast. Everything in SSX happens fast.
By the second game in the series, SSX Tricky, the core of the game was rock solid. You ride a snowboard down mountain slopes doing tricks and catching air. Do a big enough trick and you pull the board right off your feet and spin it around your head or something wild like that. But both the first two entries in the series still feel a little broken up. Each event is it’s own track and you learn them, beat them, and move on.
SSX 3 lets you ride a mountain.
It is a proto open world type game that borrows a lot from some of the racing games of the time. You can start a run from a few different points along the mountain and do pretty much anything you want on the way down. Flips, spins, ride rails, pickup bonuses, do side missions, enter races, compete in trick contests. Or you could just glide down to the bottom of the mountain, ride back up and do it again.
If you want to go to a race you ride to it. If you want to go to the shop and change your gear you ride to it. If you want to go to a different part of the mountain you ride to it. You can do any sort of grind, trick, or jump you want along the way.
Some of the races can be difficult and frustrating, but fun is only a button press away. Whatever you find fun, you can do. You are never locked into anything.
SSX On Tour would expand on the idea by making a single mountain that is massive and seamless from top to bottom, but SSX 3 got so much right already that it just seemed like a rehash of the same ideas.
SSX 3 does the same stuff as the rest of the series, only more polished and geared toward fun above all else.
In the years following, almost every sports or racing game that leaned toward goofy, fun, action would include an open world element. It might be a coincidence, but probably not.
This is just one of those games that gets everything right.
SSX 3 is one of the best games.
I have been writing here for over ten years. Something like eight years of that has been once a week. Almost all of it I have done alone.
Like, of course all the typing was done by me. That shouldn’t be too surprising. It is, after all, very difficult for two or more people to use one keyboard. What I mean by writing alone is, I don’t run any of this by an editor or second set of eyes. I just type it out and post it up. Including most of the stories. This is sort of a problem.
Working with other people is always a bit of a challenge. Everyone will have competing ideas about how a thing should be done. If everyone is professional, cordial, and shares a mutual respect that doesn’t need to be a source of conflict. I have worked together with other people to create things that are, by far, better than anything we would have done individually lots of times. I would even say that it’s kind of fun. Bouncing ideas off each other. Building on ideas and making them better, funnier, deeper, richer. Working with other people can be a really good time.
When I’m writing I just haven’t found the opportunity. Maybe it is more accurate to say that I haven’t run into a willing collaborator.
I have recently started running a lot of my stories past what people call Beta readers. Really just some friends that are willing to be subjected to very early versions of my stories. I’m extremely grateful for that feedback but I also thought I could benefit from searching out a wider community. A group of people that don’t know me, have no reason to be nice to me, and could care less if I wrote or didn’t. You know, a writers group.
First I posted a few things on Reddit under the destructive readers group. I didn’t feel I was getting much actual feedback there. I still jump in and give some people notes on their work because I had hoped that was what they would do for me, but yeah, you can post stuff there and not get a lot back.
I tried joining a writing group here in the city, but that was right before Covid made in person meetups an impossibility. They only have a facebook and yahoo group and I use neither of those.
I have had a lot of luck using Discord with game development groups so I started looking there. I found one in Edmonton (only a few hours away and somewhere I regularly travel) but they chased me out because I didn’t live in Edmonton. Out of an online group. That can only meet online right now. Strange, but whatever.
I joined two other groups, but left one almost instantly when I discovered everyone else was high school age.
So now I am testing out this third one. The people seem okay, but they are definitely much younger than me. Not that surprising with an all online group. I have offered some feedback on writing posted, but I have yet to receive any for my own. Maybe it will turn out to be helpful, maybe it won’t. Maybe I’ll hop out of here and head over to a different group. We’ll see.
What I do know is, I think I am done with doing this all alone. If I want my writing to get better, I need some other people to work with.
This is where I would usually post part of a story I’m working on. Since it seems I can’t do that if I ever want to sell the thing, instead I will write this short blurb.
I have, at any point, two to four stories that I am working on. I find that the way my brain works, it’s better to have a few going rather than trying to plow through one that may or may not be working. Right now I have two main stories that are anywhere from a quarter to three quarters done. At least the first draft. Each of them will be around five thousand words.
It doesn’t take a long time to type up five thousand words. A few hours maybe. Putting together a story can take days, or weeks. It isn’t getting the words out that is the problem, it’s pacing, tone, pov, style. Working out the puzzle of what set of words works best for the feeling I’m trying to convey. That stuff takes time. Or at least it can.
I got about 3000 words into one story when I realized it wasn’t hitting like I wanted. I tried to solve that puzzle. It wasn’t working. So I switched gears and moved to the other story. The other story started strong but quickly floundered. I switched back. I got a little more done on the first story. I went back and forth like this for at least a week.
One morning I was exercising and one of the two stories solved itself. My brain had been running it as a background process for several days and then ‘pop’ it laid itself out. Beat to beat to beat.
I moved some style choices from one story to the other and I was off and writing again.
I don’t think there is any such thing as waiting for inspiration. To make anything you have to work through the steps and build it a little at a time. I didn’t have ‘writer's block’. I didn’t wait for the muses to speak to me. I was doing the work. Chipping away at the task.
I get that the process I outlined above can make it seem like I waited and then all of a sudden, out of the blue, I thought of the whole story. It absolutely did not happen that way. I considered the problems, attempted to tackle them in many different ways and then, having solved several smaller puzzles, the solution to the larger puzzle came into view. It just happened to be when I was exercising and not when I was writing.
Stories are as much a mechanical puzzle as they are an emotional puzzle. Getting the words out efficiently and in the right order is part of the problem. Making them land so that the reader feels what you want them to feel is the other. It’s not enough to solve one or the other. They need to be solved together. Sometimes solving those puzzles can seem like magic. It can happen all at once. It can be surprising and exciting. In my experience, the only way to solve the puzzles is by doing the work. Gradually, even slowly, grinding through the problems until they are all complete. Sometimes that means that you get a clear picture of the whole thing early, sometimes it can seem to take ages.
It would be nice to think that one second I was spinning away on the elliptical and the next I had a fully formed story in my head, but that wouldn’t be the truth at all. I have pages of notes. I have many cut paragraphs and chunks of story written two, three, or four different ways. I did the work, solved the problems. After I had solved enough of the small ones I was able to solve the large ones all at once.
Now I only have the other story to fix, because that one isn’t working at all.
Best Games - Gunblade NY
Some games just fill their niche perfectly. Simple, concise. No extraneous bits.
Gunblade NY is built to a spec.
You want a shooting game. How about if you never have to stop shooting. You want an action game. Gunblade never lets up. You want a short game you can enjoy for a few moments in an arcade or bar. Gunblade is only minutes long. You want to play with a friend. The game expects that you will.
This is a game that knows what it is, and more importantly what it isn’t. It’s quick, it’s fun, it’s ridiculous.
Let’s go back a bit. SEGA has a pretty good track record with light gun games. Most of that is on their consoles. Just a bit prior to Gunblade NY, Sega had a huge arcade hit with Virtua Cop. Virtua Cop is what you get when you take these newfangled polygon 3D game and pair it with tried and true lightgun shooting. Gunblade is what you get if you take all the best parts of Virtua Cop and get rid of everything else. All that’s left is high speed robot shooting action out the side of a physics defying helicopter. With a rip roaring soundtrack.
In a lot of these Best Games posts I like to look at a game that did one thing better, or earlier, or different, than all the other games. Something that blazed a trail. A game that designers can look to as a touchstone of the artform. Every once in a while it’s worth looking at a game that just does what it does very well with no missteps. A small, simple game that never claims to be more than it is.
In that same spirit, this is a small simple post that is only here to praise Gunblade NY. If you get a chance to play it, you should. Gunblade NY is one of the best games.
This weekend was the Alberta Game Jam. You know what I did. I didn’t do the Alberta Game Jam.
I thought about it. I registered for it. I forgot about it. I noticed a message about it a few hours before it was going to start. I watched the theme reveal. I got an idea for a game I could work on. Then I didn’t.
I don’t really feel bad about that.
Since using Twine a few years ago for a game jam, I have thought about using it again.
Twine is a sort of framework for text based, choose your own adventure and interactive fiction. It’s fairly easy to use and surprisingly powerful and flexible. As long as the game you are making is primarily text based.
When I made that previous jam game, I came up with a way to use 2D arrays for maps and navigation could be handled semi procedurally. I then found out that other people had the same idea and there were instructions and frameworks for just such a system. I ended up making a sort of hybrid. Taking parts of the system I found and the system I came up with to make something that worked for the random escape game I created.
Like all jam games, there were ideas that I wanted to implement that I ran out of time for. Like most jam games, I never went back to add those features.
I thought “here we go”. I had the opportunity and the idea that would let me add those missing elements to that Twine framework.
So I sat down and added those features.
I tested those features.
The features worked.
And I was done.
I found I didn’t really have any interest in making the game. It wouldn’t have been great. I don’t think I would be that happy with it. What I really wanted to do was tinker with that engine and add the stuff that I wasn’t able to before. Once I did that, well, I was done. And that’s just fine.
Sometimes you just want to make something. That something might not be that useful, or something that you need to share with others. Sometimes you just have to make a thing for your own damn self.
So I did. And I liked it. And I was okay with finishing it there and moving on to some other writing that I do want to complete. Something that I do want to get into a state that I can share with others. So I changed gears and did that instead.
All in all, not a terrible use of a weekend.
Best Games - Bushido Blade
One perfect stroke. Perfectly timed. Perfectly executed. That is what we are told wins a sword fight.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t ever plan on being in a sword fight. It seems dangerous. All ,like, sharp and whatnot. Stabby. I’ll be content with sword fights of the virtual kind.
Most fighting games, even the ones with swords, are not very realistic. I can hit a character in Soul Calibur with a giant axe and they will be back up and swinging a few frames later. It doesn’t seem like that’s how that would happen. Of course I’ve never been in a sword fight, so what do I know.
I have played Bushido Blade. There are no health bars. No timers. No points. In Bushido Blade one slice to the legs or arms will maim. One good slash will kill . No counters, no reversals. Just stab and then dead. This makes every moment tense. Every button press counts. You can stand out of sword range or attempt to deflect an attack, but really, what you want to do is wait out your opponent and strike when they are defenseless. A match can last several minutes or a few seconds.
Input in Bushido Blade is incredibly slow and deliberate. That might sound like a bad thing. Most fighting games benefit from snappy responsive control. The slow control is part of the game's design. You can’t mash buttons in Bushido Blade. You can’t jump in on your enemy. Nothing but steady precise attacks will win. The controls in Bushido Blade are telling you to slow down, focus, be patient, be decisive. Be a Samurai. Or at least pretend like you are a Samurai.
Bushido Blade isn’t the sort of game that gets played at tournaments. There aren’t going to be many master level players out there. There is a level of luck involved in the outcome of a fight. Skill alone won’t win. It just depends which player blinks first, strikes slowest, or misreads the opponent. Long stalemates are as common as instant wins. It’s not the best fighting game. What it is, is uncompromising.
When Bushido Blade was developed, the fighting game genre was in full swing. If you were looking to make a new one, there were many strong examples to “borrow” ideas from. Bushido Blade carved its own path. It’s a path that I don’t think any game will ever wander down again.
Games are made to be enjoyed. There are a lot of aspects of Bushido Blade that are not enjoyable. Stiff controls, impossibly high penalties for failure, and a singular focus that is almost adversarial to a casual player. There are a lot of aspects of Bushido Blade that would never pass a focus group or play testing. The game would be labeled “not fun” and that would be that.
What is here though, is incredibly compelling. You want to play round after round. You want to try different tactics, different weapons. You want to change up your attacks and play with adjusting stances. It’s a game that you want to play. You want to understand how and why it was made. How an idea so pure and uncompromised made it to release as a commercial product.
In spite of itself Bushido Blade is an excellent game and a really good time. There is some developer out there right now trying to capture that magic in their own uncompromised vision, and I wish them luck. Maybe they will be able to execute with one perfect stroke.
Bushido Blade is one of the best games.