If someone were to ask me how long I’ve been writing professionally, I would say a couple of years. But I’ve been honing the craft of creation nearly all my life, through pretend games as a child, through re-interpreting media as I grew older, and through writing throughout my life. It wasn’t until I had released my first game, that I thought to call myself a game designer, but most of us have been game designers before we even knew that label existed.
One of the earliest games I ever made was inspired by Jurassic Park. My cousin and I made it together, cobbled together over time, it was a game that we only played in the car. We would pretend to be trapped on an island with dinosaurs, one of us was the driver and the other was the weapon specialist. The driver would describe what we were about to run into, and the specialist would yell out what dinosaurs were chasing us and what weapons they were pulling out. Quickly we realized that the driver role wasn’t as interesting so we changed the rules so that the vehicle could change into any other vehicle like an infinite loop transformer.
This was one of my first forays into game design and I’d never know how hard I’d work as an adult to recapture the thrill of creation that I had as a kid. In childhood, creation was about trying to beat back boredom and making connections with friends. Creating pretend games that were fluid and flexible; they grew with us because everything we made was a natural evolution of what we had made before. I worry about half finished games nowadays, feeling defeated that I am not able to complete an idea to a finished product. But I must have made and abandoned hundreds of games in my childhood. All of them discarded without a thought once they had served their purpose, something that I find difficult to do now where our end goal is always to have something that can be presented to the market.
Part and parcel of creating as a kid was the quick and easy discarding and adding of rules and themes through play. I consider this as I painstakingly work through mechanics, trying to put together the perfect set of rules for a game I am making, and how there really is no such thing.
The first game I published, Kick Rocks!, was meant to only be an experiment in game design. It was a silly game I slowly put together while taking a walk, letting rules and ideas come to me naturally as I kicked a rock around. A lot of the other work I’ve done has been more stressful, pushing through writer’s blocks, unsure whether the words I was setting down matched up with the caliber of the work I saw in the industry. The difficult thing about making a creative pursuit a professional one is that you have to trade one benefit for another. It took me almost a year from concept to layout to make Kick Rocks! Much of that time, the game was left forgotten while I worked on other projects; it only came to fruition because an opportunity to promote it in a jam crossed with some new resources (and a deadline to keep me accountable). My method lately has been to create games and hold it up to work I admire, and then frustratingly reiterating on it to see if I can inspire the same feeling in my own. It’s hard to ignore the pressure of a fast moving market with the slow amble of discovery, but with more than a dozen unfinished games, I’ve felt the need to rethink my process.
Often we tell ourselves that the moment of joy is in the finished product, holding something polished and perfect in our hands. But I think about those moments when I am in the midst of creating, pulling myself apart into pieces and rearranging them to find a different perspective. Seeing the gaps in those rearrangements and filling them with something new, so that when I pull all my pieces back together again, I am something different than what I was before. After I design there is more of me than when I started. It’s hard to see this perspective when I’m writing or designing, but when I look back on each project, I see that I always come away with something new. Sometimes, those new pieces are jagged and painful, bringing up insecurities and fears about my skills, and it can feel like a step backwards. It hurts to look at a project and see a piece of myself that I had hoped would stay buried deep down.
What I find when I write is that the process causes me to face myself and I don’t know that I always like what I see. I see a messy person whose voice is inconsistent, staring back at me when I’m straining to see a perfect picture. A project that I was excited for and couldn’t wait to get started on, becomes one I dread. I feel too afraid to let ink hit paper because how could my words match the enormity and chaos of the idea in my head? But what I can trust is that it is a true reflection. A true reflection doesn’t care if I feel bad about what I see. It’s not bothered by writer’s blocks or whether my work is marketable or has perfectly sanded down edges. It shows up just as it is, and as difficult as it is to face, over time I am trying to find value in what surfaces.
As I sit here trying to find a place for myself in this industry, mired in thoughts of how I compare to others or how to present myself on social media so that others will see what I make, I consider the difference in my creative process when I was young and what it is now. Things inevitably change and trying to recapture the exact circumstances from my childhood would be impossible and unfulfilling in the end. As adults, we have different responsibilities and desires, that we didn’t have as a kid, but in many ways I feel freer now. If I’m willing to take the risk, I can safely fall and break the pieces of myself and instead of being told to throw away the failures, I can pause to take in what new shapes form. My focus while creating is to consider if perhaps these broken pieces could fit on me, if I only made the space.