Why E=mc² Proves You Need a Writing Partner.

Einstein’s theory of relativity is well known, but often misunderstood. And I think it’s the perfect framework to describe why having a creative partner is so valuable.

One way of looking at the famous equation is that, because the speed of light (c) is fixed within any frame of reference moving at a constant velocity, there is no fixed perspective that one can measure the physical laws with total accuracy.

So why should we expect to have the perfect perspective on a story idea all by ourselves?

Galileo – whose ideas Einstein revived with his theory – posited a thought experiment. A person is travelling below decks on a boat, and they drop a ball. They observe the ball dropping downwards of course, and they know intellectually that they are moving forward, but it cannot be observed. A fish, stationary in the water outside the boat, will not observe the ball dropping, but in that same time-frame, it could observe the ship moving laterally. Indeed, if the ship was transparent, the fish would be able to observe the ball travelling with velocity while being acted on by gravity.

So, E(nergy) = mass x speed of light squared. Let’s say energy refers to storytelling energy and Mass represents your ideas, or work. Put simply, no matter how much creative energy you produce, it will always be the case that you can’t viscerally feel with perfect accuracy where that energy will end up. With another observer – or a creative partner – you can course correct.

Let’s shift away from the metaphor – which, funnily enough, I know my writing partner Alex would hate. This mental model may sound obvious, but all I can say is I’ve grappled with the quandary of how authoritative to try and be with my ideas in the past. You’re the writer/narrative designer after all, you’re supposed to know best. And storytelling is so subjective – how do you know you know best, or which idea is going to resonate with audiences more?

This model and these questions feed into another saying I find myself reusing: ‘every writer deserves an editor.’ And by extension, every idea needs an editor, and every editor needs an editor. This model  has helped me fully come to terms with expecting my ideas to be audited and edited, to be looked at through new (and preferably contrasting)  perspectives, to be seen through different lenses.

In my experience of working across more than ten games, the best ideas always come when there’s a free flow and exchange of story ideas, early enough in a project for seismic shifts to be made.

Getting the story and writing for a game done requires lots of energy, and momentum. While I’m confident enough in my abilities and experience to know I’ll produce a decent story if left to my own devices, I’ve come to relish having a great writing partner to help me understand what I don’t know, and what has sneaked through my blind-spot. Only with another perspective can you truly understand the direction your story is going in.

Faux-Irony Is A Dead Scene

Or: How Tao Lin’s influence is beginning to be felt from indie to AAA games.

I’ve got a serious syntactical bone to pick with a particular brand of twee internet-speak that I’ve noticed has begun to infect narrative games recently. And I blame Tao Lin and Twitter.

The most recent victim of this is Mass Effect Andromeda, but it was most likely Life Is Strange which started the trend of ‘flippantitis’ as I’ve pointed out beforein games. Another notable recent example is Night In The Woods, which is essentially LiS but even more painfully earnest in its gratingly ‘ironic’ writing. For more examples cf. Horizon Zero Dawn, most of Destiny, Gone Home, Firewatch etc, Oxenfree, etc, etc.

Eurogamer commenter Cobalt_jackal sums it up quite nicely actually under the Andromeda review.

Fan fiction level, cringe af, tween, inane, Z-list hack writing

Badly delivered, stilted dialogue.

I can’t help but strongly agree with him.

Workplace sexual harassment disguised as ‘cute’.

And we’ve all seen this by now haven’t we?

And Night In The Woods doesn’t fare much better. It’s a charming game in so many ways that it just frustrates me the more. Protagonist Mae and her small-town friends deal with some interesting topics but in such a blasé, twee and painfully ‘uber-cool’ tone of voice that I found it difficult to sit through more than ten minutes of it at a time. Sure, it accurately reflects the way a certain segment of pre or post American teens might speak, but boy does it lay it on thick.

And don’t just take my word for it — the lead writer, Scott Benson cited ‘Twitter’ as his main source of dialogue/tone of voice inspiration:

Benson, a seasoned animator and illustrator from Pittsburgh…admitted to Joystiq at E3 that drafting lines for a video game is new to him: “I’ve never written fiction or characters really before,” as his previous animated shorts tended to be of the silent type. Benson had an interesting source of inspiration for his witty one-liners, then: Twitter. As he explained, the social media channel “has the same kind of cadence and kind of vague feelings” as Mae and friends display in Night in the Woods.

It’s all very reminiscent of Tao Lin’s Shoplifting From American Appareloften cited as an apex in novella form of the ‘apathy is cool’ school. Of course this movement can also be traced back further, Vice Magazine which started in 1994, some ten years before Tao Lin’s book, being the obvious forefather.

Back to Life Is Strange, a fantastic game all-told, with some genuinely emotional character beats and great pacing. The fact it went overboard with the hipster-isms is kinda old news now. The cutesy/twee vibes, the angsty/ironic notebook (ripped off shamelessly by NitW) and the painfully awkward delivery (intentionally or otherwise) frequently made me roll my eyes, but they’re accurate hallmarks of rebellious teenage years we may or may not like to forget. It’s a coming of age story that succeeds despite its vernacular, not because of it.

Night in the Woods: some will identify with the tone of voice strongly. For me, it ruins the entire game.

What gets me though, is that these three games consistently feel so self indulgent. It might be hilarious for a sub-set of Western millennials but you can’t substitute genuine pathos and humour for some ‘lolz’. NitW lays claim to a similar tone to LiS but I think veers wildly from ‘well observed’ to ‘contrived and tone-deaf’. And Andromeda absolutely has no business employing this kind of thing. Not because I think sci-fi is too arch to be humorous, but, well, a very contemporaneous (i.e. specific to this time) kind of humour doesn’t really mesh with a depiction of an inter-species far future.

I just want to make a plea to game-writers: don’t mistake memes and internet culture for genuine human communication. When we — or our characters — fall back on tired mass-meme tropes and verbal crutches, we celebrate how language evolves, but at the expense of what it can make you feel.

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