Over the weekend, the esteemed Mr James Wallis posted another update for his kickstarted RPG Alas Vegas. Although funded in Feburary, the game has not yet been finished, and James took another moment to address that, and he did so with his characteristic frankness. Indeed, one of the reasons I like and respect Mr Wallis so much is because he wears his heart on his chest, and lets us see inside the project, sometimes down to the bone. I wish him a speedy recovery from the pains he’s experiencing, but I also want to salute the gesture of opening that door.
He’s not in a wonderful situation: for reasons both personal and artistic, his RPG has failed to appear despite not only a promise of a release date but taking people’s money. Some would suggest his funders are in a worse situation. Commercially speaking, they have given cash for a promise and it has not arisen. And up to a point, I have sympathy for those who feel some sense of entitlement in these days of instant entertainment and total communication. Especially as many production companies treat their fans like a drug dealer treats a junkie – and many fans love being treated like that, and worship the crumbs thrown to them to keep their addictions pumping. When you feed a monster like that, you have to expect it to grow crazed for a fix.
But if you’re not a drooling capitalist zombie or fanboy (ie the same thing), if you’re a human being of anything worth the stripe, then the total communication of the internet and the relative intimacy of the gaming industry offers us a chance to be a lot better than that. We can see – because he’s let us – that James is aggrieved both by his personal situation and by his failure to fulfill the deal. We can use that information to make a judgement as something other than just consumers. We all want to get return for our hard-earned money, but not at the cost of our humanity – and that sounds florid, but when Chris Pramas had to push back a book or two in the Green Ronin schedule because he desperately needed expensive spinal surgery, he was vilified by some not-so-valued customers.
Even without financial and social consequences, it takes guts for a designer or a company to do this sort of thing, even in the smaller world of game design. It’s offering up intimacy to those who have no reason to offer it in return, and can easily slap the hand away. And it’s something that we should encourage, I think, and see a lot more of in the game industry. We can use this era of total communication to do more than just keep us up to date, but allow us into each other’s worlds a bit more. In business and in design.
We’re conditioned not to get too personal, but we’re building art here; nothing is more personal. We take the personal out because we feel people won’t be interested, but again, that reduces the relationship to artist and audience (or worse, producer and customer). I don’t need to know you’re life story if I’m buying your game, no. But if I’m looking for information on you and your game, you shouldn’t feel that I’m not interested in all sides of that conversation. The elephant in the room in conversations about art and design is the personal – and the pain.
Art critics talk about it – my English teacher told me that Polanski’s violent Macbeth came shortly after his wife was violently murdered. And Roy Orbison’s work is enriched by knowing about his terrible stage fright. But I don’t see too much of this in game design. I mean, we’re not always making Macbeth, of course, and the self-doubt of the artist can be excruciatingly dull, but as I wrestle with my self-doubt, I feel enriched and empowered to hear the same kinds of words coming from a luminary like Mr Wallis. Maybe if we talked about it more, we’d find it more of a part of the design process than we thought. Maybe all the people making it look easy would show us just how hard it is.
I’ve talked before about how working on Daughters of Exile literally almost killed me. Right now, my brain also literally will not let me work on personal projects, only those that emulate existing settings, because I cannot let myself create on a blank page, my brain violently rejects that kind of ambition. That’s how my mental illness is operating right now, and that’s part of my design and writing life. Mr Wallis isn’t sick, but he’s dealing with grief and self-doubt and that is part of his writing life. Some others I follow on Twitter – David Pidgeon, Charles Valentine, Philipe-Antoine Menard – talk about their struggles, and that helps me a lot. As long as it’s not defeatist, we can help each other.
As I’ve said before, we get so obsessed with art being the finished product we lose sight of the wonder of practice, which in the long run, is the only thing that matters. Writing a great book is a terrible thing if you hated writing it. The more we look into the process, the more we can separate these two things out, and thus better understand the process that produces the outcome. If we talk more about the path and less about the destination, we can make the path easier to walk. And part of talking about the path is talking about how, sometimes, it is agony to walk it. And indeed, how sometimes the best thing we can do is wait and go another day, or another way. Or even stay home altogether.
Richard Simmons’ exercise programs were never about showing thin people with big smiles showing off their abs. They were about showing people who were so fat they couldn’t walk and how they made their choices and faced their demons and fell down half the time. I think we could use more of that in other fields. In the world in general.