on nethack, fascism, fanbois, and being a writer

by Lexi Summer Hale (@velartrill)

games need to be focused. they need to have a theme, an atmosphere. writers know this. it's a really important aspect of storytelling, and it's even more critical when you're creating an open world people can explore at their leisure. this is one of the Big Problems with FOSS games. because there's generally no money involved, they're usually not written by writers

they're written by developers, who are, for the most part, nerd trash

they don't have the discipline or originality you need to tell a story. they have a load of beloved pop culture and a suboptimal grasp on non-technical writing. to them, a game isn't about building a unique experience, it's an opportunity to cram as many nerd fetishes in as they can. "this thing is cool and this other thing is cool so i'll put them together and make things EVEN MORE COOL" is the prevailing attitude. but that is not how storytelling works. things aren't awesome in their own right. they're awesome because of their relation to the rest of the narrative, their interation with other elements of the story. they're awesome because of their substance, not their flavor.

nerd writing is all flavor and no substance. it's, mostly, men taking bits of a work they didn't actually understand and mashing them together in aesthetically pleasing ways. (just like they did with the whole field of computer science, really) imagine if the works these trash nerds cherish so much had been written by people like them.

(oh wait, you don't have to imagine, because Steven Moffat exists)

incidentally, this toxic tendency is why, if you're running a collaborative writing project online, you have to be ABSOLUTELY RUTHLESS and start out with a core of writers who are good enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. because if you don't, you will wind up with legions of trash nerds spewing their daydreams all over what you're trying to make

i write @ApprovedNews6 which is a moderately popular Weird Twitter account, and so i see a LOT of this. about half of all the replies i get are references to Night Vale or Lovecraft. there's a constant pressure from readers to inject their nerd shibboleths into it. and that drives me nuts, but this isn't about my feelings. it's about why you can't just cater to the audience. democracy doesn't work for writing because by its very nature, democracy turns things into an undifferentiated mass that might please a focus group but will be utterly unmemorable. to be a good writer in the information age, you have to be a dictator, a fascist, an ideologue. not in your politics, but in your control over your work and your will to make your story stand on its own.

and you're not perfect. some of what you write will flop because it didn't capture anybody's imagination. that's the danger of making something dictatorially. so it's tempting to give into the audience, to give them what they're asking for, to bend to the will of the demos. because that's a virtual guarantee your work will be popular. you might even make money off it. but it won't stand out. it will be a reaction, not an action. it will never stand the test of time. it will be a pebble in the stream of literature, that flows away with the current, not a rock that sinks into the mud and takes hold for generations.

frankly, not all my own writing makes the cut. i try to keep @ApprovedNews6 original and i like to think it's one of the larger rocks in that stream, but it is mostly reactionary, mostly flavor and relatively little substance. and that makes me sad because it is by far my most popular work. it might last longer than the usual hackwork, but in time it'll pass away with the rest. and, predictably, it's the work i'm making my money off.

enter nethack. nethack is a game where you delve ever-deeper into subterannean dungeons in search of a powerful artifact, in a style called the roguelike. and it is the epitome of this class of hackwork. storywise, it's a mindless medley of Tolkien, Pratchett, Howard, and god knows how many more. it is, in every respect — its story, its code, its user experience — an example of what not to do.

dada, a movement brought to life by the brutality of World War I, sought to be "anti-art," to punish a world not worthy of art. but because it was pursued by, y'know, artists, they ended up creating something that was still original, that still had its own shining place in history. where dada failed, "nethackism," for lack of a better word, has unquestionably triumphed. it is the true anti-art, because it's not made by artists with a goal, but by consumers with a hard-on for the stories of their childhoods. where dada stuck out like a sore thumb, nethackism melds seamlessly with its cultural moment. it's not loud, angry, and perverse; it's quiet, tasteless, and conformist. it is to art what a blank white can with "FOOD" scrawled on it and filled with an undifferentiated gray mush is to a banquet.

let me end this with a plea to aspiring writers or game developers out there. be brave. be bold. be cruel. be ruthless. you will always stand to fail. so don't let yourself be vulnerable. keep your ego out of your writing. build your tower; let it stand or fall on its own merits, and if it falls (and some of them, maybe even most of them, will fall), learn from the fall. figure out why the supports gave way, figure out how to make a stable foundation on your terrain, and try again. and again. until you build something that stands tall and proud and is remembered. the temptation to become a hack will always be there. never give into it. you might have to indulge in it from time to time just to survive, if you want to build an audience, or make a career out of writing, but don't let it infect you. paint a bright red line between what you do and who you are.

for God's sake: don't let the fanbois win.

the work you're proud of may never catch on in your lifetime. but that doesn't mean you shouldn't write it.