Saturday 24 November 2007

Review: Minerva

"You are a master of linguistic flourishes, but you ultimately have nothing to say.” - David Sirlin's English teacher.

I finished Minerva last night, a free single-player Half-Life 2 mod, just as my wife came through the door of the flat. I had been up waiting for her after deciding not to go into town to meet her journalist friend, and she was bubbly with enthusiasm after a few glasses of wine.

Actually, much like the narrator of the Minerva frequently does, I just lied to you. I finished Minerva about twenty minutes after she came back to the flat. I was annoyed with her, because she'd been late without telling me. It wasn't her fault, as I currently have the cell phone that we've been sharing since we arrived in Sydney, but I took it out on her anyway by ignoring her until I had killed the last of the zombines silhouetted in the evening sun, as they struggled in the downdraft of a helicopter gunship.

In the bigger scheme of things, it doesn't mean much. We're happily married, and despite my repeated failure to find work at the moment, moving to Sydney has been an exciting change of scene after five and a half years in London. So the happy moments outnumber the petty power plays. And because of her generosity of spirit, I know that this will never change.

But what unemployment has done is give me the opportunity to spend a lot more time thinking, and consequently writing. I've taken that opportunity out in anger on this blog, deferring as I am at the moment fixing the final few bugs in the latest Unangband release, and completely forgetting the promise I made to myself that if I hadn't found work in November I'd spend it writing a novel as a part of NaNoWriMo.

Writing is like programming in that there is no better advice you can give someone in the field than to spend as much time as possible doing the activity as opposed to thinking about doing it or talking about doing it. Jasmin's journalist friend is a great writer, but she says she's 'not disciplined enough' to write anything great. That is like saying you're a great climber but you're not ready to conquer Mt Everest, or you're a great pitcher but you're not ready to improve your season average, or you're a little lonely in a new city but you're not ready to go out and make new friends.

Developing a roguelike game is like writing, in that the you can spend forever planning, but until you write a line of code, you're not developing a roguelike game. I'm not sure what you're doing, but you could equally be sitting at a cocktail party asking a couple whether they know the length of time they could be detained under the anti-terrorism act, expecting that to somehow impact Australian foreign policy. Which is why once or twice a year, the roguelike community sits down and runs a competition that, like the NaNoWriMo, encourages you to sit down and devote time to doing nothing more complicated than coding. It's called the 7 day roguelike competition, and this year, one Glenn Wichman made himself a promise that he'd do it.

Glenn is now in the process of writing a novel in November. How do I know that? It's because having made the promise to write a roguelike, he started with one line of code, and added another, and then another, he ended finding himself in a position where he could say, I have done this thing. I have met this milestone and accomplished something. And he could tell his friends, last night, I finished writing a game (and you can play it online yourself to prove it). And he's also promised to finish the NaNoWriMo.

Glenn is a special case, because if you know your roguelike history, you'll know he wrote not just one roguelike, but two. The other is called Rogue.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, that you can start off on a journey of a line of code, or a sentence, or a footstep, and end up changing just a little piece of the world.

Last night, I finished playing Minerva. I finished playing it because one Adam Foster made a promise to himself, to write a Half-Life 2 mod. And he placed one brush after another in the Hammer editor until he was finished, and could tell his friends that last night, I finished doing something special.

Half-Life spawned many mods, single and multi-player, Half-Life 2, not so many at all. Adam believes the mod scene has had so many failures recently, because mod teams are trying to build too much, with too many people on board. I suspect he's right. Because it's easier to make a promise to other people, than it is to make a promise to yourself - you know when you're lying.

I started this wanting to write about the importance of having something to say, or at least thinking that you do. I used to think that writers are successful because they operate under this delusion. Deep down I know I'm just covering for the fact that's only part of the problem. You need to have something to say, and you have to say it well.

And that's a skill in itself: saying something well. Or I should say: saying something well is a craft in itself. A skill implies that you have an innate ability, a craft implies that you can work on something, over and over, honing it into shape with repeated work. And so that's why I'm writing this blog. I'm not sure if I have something to say still, but I know that if I don't write, one line after the other, when I find the things to say, I may not say it well.


Andrew Doull said...

Links to come. It's my 33rd birthday on Monday and I'm rushing out the door for birthday dinner...

Mikolaj said...

"the final few bugs in [...] Unangband"


"you know when you're lying"

Oh, OK. :)

BTW, a nice joke this Minerva Review, where you've not told a thing about the mod itself. :)

Happy birthday, Andrew!!!

Andrew Doull said...

It was an attempt at New Games Journalism (scroll down for details). I hope I got the tone right without making it a pastiche...

I'll address the 'final few bugs' comment in a separate blog post.

Adam Skinner said...
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