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Love Your Limitations

Neil Stephenson quoteUntil a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.

– Neil Stephenson, Snow Crash

For a long, long time I wanted to make a grand scale WWII war game. I thought, I scribbled, I talked. I wrote up rules, made graphics, laid everything out. Everything was ready, except for one thing: the game.

Truth is I don’t have the time to playtest a grand scale war game. If an average scenario takes 8 hours, and an average campaign takes 50-100 hours, then work, family, friends and common sanity says STFU. There is not way that I can make a good grand scale WWII game. Not now.

I know I could. I know I might. But I never will. The costs associated with it, the time I could spend with my children, or writing, or designing twenty other games, is too much. My grand scale war game will have to wait.

For quite some years I was distraught about this. I thought that this was The Game, capital T, capital G. That if I didn’t complete it I was a failure as a game designer. I mean, I could see the game with my mind’s eye, all the units stacked as little blocks on the giant map, stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Ural mountains, from the kitchen window to the refrigerator (my family would have to eat somewhere else, but they would understand – it was, after all, The Game). The game was a flawless wonder.

Ever game is, before it is made. Before you see it as physical components, as executable code. Everything always works perfectly before it is tested. A car without an engine works great if you don’t need to drive it.

That’s the lure of the vision, that moment of clarity you get before you start to work. And that’s all right. Without your vision you wouldn’t know what to do, wouldn’t be passionate about your game, and then there wouldn’t be anything to force you to complete all the boring parts like prototyping and testing.

Hiro used to feel that way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this is liberating. He no longer has to worry about trying to be the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken. The crowning touch, the one thing that really puts true world-class badmotherfuckerdom totally out of reach, of course, is the hydrogen bomb. If it wasn’t for the hydrogen bomb, a man could still aspire. Maybe find Raven’s Achilles’ heel. Sneak up, get a drop, slip a mickey, pull a fast one. But Raven’s nuclear umbrella kind of puts the world title out of reach.

– Neil Stephenson, Snow Crash

Abandon a game I loved quoteThe trouble starts when you can’t let go. When you want to do everything. Me, I couldn’t let go of my war game. For over a year it took up all my time, all my energy, all my effort. And I knew that I wasn’t doing anything to move the project towards completion. I wasn’t prototyping, I wasn’t testing, I wasn’t moving the design forward. I was wasting my life on something that would never fly. I needed to abandon an idea that I loved, a game that I had spent countless hours dreaming about.

In the end I did just that. Not through choice but through sheer exhaustion. I got fed up with it to the point where I not only didn’t want to talk about it or think about it, I didn’t even want to complain about it.

It took me another year to bounce back, a year when I didn’t design anything, didn’t write, didn’t do squat.

That’s the part that saddens me the most, the lost year. Not the year where I was too stubborn to see the writing on the wall but the year when I gave up. It was the price I had to pay for overextending myself, for mistaking my design for my self-worth.

That’s right. I came to the point where my value in my own eyes was tied to whether I could pull this giant, abnormous, abysmal project off or not. And that was a crucial mistake.

One shouldn’t take one’s designing, or any form of creation or creativity, personally. I know that this goes against everything we’re taught in the media, against every shred of cultural common sense that says: artists put their soul into their work or they’re hacks, wannabes, plodders and drudges. True artists pour their heart out on paper, wood, marble, concrete.

Yeah, right.

The myth of the starving, raving, flipped out, freaked out, fruity genius has destroyed more potential artists than all the bad critics in the world combined. As an artist you create what speaks to you, what touches your emotions. You don’t need to be touched to do that, merely be in touch. Be in touch with your feelings, your imagination. And yes, you can follow rules and heuristics and still be creative.

By taking my game as a personal failure I put the blame on my mental capabilities (I wasn’t smart enough), on my psychological makeup (I wasn’t dedicated enough) and on my ability to dream (it wasn’t grand enough). In effect I undercut and killed my will to problem solve, my drive and my imagination. And believe me, when you give your imagination a whack, it sulks. For a long, long time.

So what has this got to do with knowing your limitations? Only this: I knew my limitations but I ignored them.

I knew that playtesting a grand scale war game was beyond me, beyond what I was willing to sacrifice to do it. Yet I wasn’t ready to give up. And by not giving up I forced myself to give up badly.

Because there are different ways to give up. You can look at a project and realize that it isn’t interesting any longer. You’re giving up because you’re bored, which is fine if you’re doing something for enjoyment. You can give up because it’s too costly, which is fine if you’re doing something for gain (note that I say gain and not profit – feeling proud of your work is a gain even if it doesn’t bring in any profits). You can give up for any number of good, solid, healthy reasons. And then you can give up because you can’t do anything else.

That’s the bad spot, the point to which ambition without reality checks leads. Or ambition with reality checks but without the courage to accept them.

I’m not saying that ambition is bad per se. Ambition can be a great driving force. It is only when it becomes expectation, when you tie it to your inner self with ropes of “must”, “have to” and “can’t fail” that it becomes destructive.

But back to Hiro Protagonist in Neil Stephenson’s now classic cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. Hiro, after meeting and fighting the antagonist Raven, realizes his limitations. Not only is Raven a better fighter than Hiro (even though Hiro is the greatest swordsman in the world), he’s got a nuclear bomb tied to an implanted brain wave scanner. Raven dies and wherever he’s parked his Harley goes gigantic boooooom!

Let’s forget for a while that people fight using swords and bamboo spears in the future (and in Cyberspace – Hiro goes off to a parking lot wearing cyber-goggles in order to have a nice little hack-attack). Let’s forget that Raven drives around with a Hydrogen bomb in the sidecar of his motorcycle and no one makes sure to assassinate him when he’s in transit somewhere far, far, far from major population centers. Let’s even forget the part about delivering pizzas for the Mob (ok, now you just got to read Snow Crash); the moment that Hiro realizes that he’s completely outmatched he is liberated. He no longer has to think that he could, give time and dedication, do anything. Now he can go on with being a world class hacker and swordsman without having to be Conan the Barbarian, Neo and Lisbeth Salander combined. He can accept his limitations and start to work within them.

I have a running file with all of my unfinished ideas. As of right now there are 584 documented, scanned and saved ideas in it. Their subjects range from games to non-fiction articles, inventions, poetry, characters, graphic designs, stories and recipes. Some of them are on photographed scraps of paper, others are several thousand words long, semi-developed scripts. None of them is complete, and most will never be. I collect them in part to assuage my imagination, telling it that it is free come up with great ideas and I will take note of every one of them. But then I sit down and do the work.

Will this idea fly? Will it work? Am I willing to give it the time it needs to develop? Will it be too costly, too derivate, too boring after a while? Will I be excited about it in a year, be able to make it to the best of my ability, be able to spread the results, maybe even make a few bucks from them?

This is all left hemisphere work*. Analysis. Deduction. Decision. Most importantly, it’s non-personal.

I do not put a moral value on my ideas and I certainly do not evaluate my own worth when thinking about them. I simply look at my limitations: will I be able to carry out this idea the way it, and my life, is structured right now? If so I evaluate it against the ideas I am currently pursuing: will the new idea be quicker/easier/more gainful than any of them? If so, should I put one of my old ideas on the back burner for a while and work on the new one, or should I add the new one to the queue and check if it’s still the best candidate when I free up some time and energy?

Conversely, are any of my current ideas passé? Do I need to remove them from my schedule? If so, why do I need to remove them? Is it only that I’ve fallen in love with some new concept (in which case I have to consider whether I’m doing this as enjoyment or for gain, or even more importantly, profit)? Or have I come to a point where I can no longer pursue this idea because I lack some skill, knowledge or resource? If so, could someone else do it better than me right now? Should I share or give away my work to someone else?

Yeah, it seems so dry, so predictable (albeit it isn’t, every decision, especially ones pertaining to ideas I love, can be gut-wrenching). But it actually is creative work in and off itself – I am problem solving my ideas. And I am doing this without putting my worth in question, without tying myself down with musts.

Instead I am being open with my limitations, with my knowledge that some things I can do, some things I would like to be able to do and some things I will, no matter how sadly, have to abandon.

I will never climb Mt. Everest, and that’s fine. I may never complete my grand scale war game.

And that is also fine.

Which is okay. Sometimes it’s all right just to be a little bad. To know your limitations. Make do with what you’ve got.

– Neil Stephenson, Snow Crash

* Actually it’s both hemispheres at work since modern neurological research on the lateralization of the brain doesn’t support the pop-psychology specializations for left and right hemispheres.

Dreams of Futures Past Book Cover


  • Ever since playing Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 and being disappointed by their endings, I told myself: “You know, I’ve played a lot of games, watched a lot of tv shows, movies, read books and I love storytelling… I know, why don’t I write a book! I certainly can do better than this!”

    Since then I’ve worked on and off on “The Story” (the novel I would write… one day… the literary masterwork that would contain all creative genius I’d acquired from all stories I’ve ever read, watched and played, in games, movies and books).

    But, “The Story” kept changing… it started off as just a dream. Sometimes I worked at it, other times I only thought about it, or took notes on what I– “would write when I was ready”.

    As time went on I worked a little more on it, but I grew frustrated with how slow I was going and blamed it all on “The Story” not being the “right” story. This put into my mind the idea that the men and women who write these stories… the stories I’ve enjoyed, and hoped I would be able to write, they’d all been able to find “Their Story”, and I just needed to do the same.

    So I changed it from third person point of view to first person… but that still wasn’t the “right” story… so it changed again, this time it was no longer a Game of Thrones inspired fantasy novel, this time it was a science fiction epic… because, I told myself: “I do like Aliens and Mass Effect… maybe I’m just not cut out to write fantasy… maybe that’s the reason why The Story isn’t getting written.”

    Nope… The Story wasn’t science fiction either… apparently… so it became fantasy again… and on, and on, and on it went.

    Overtime, as I continued this madness, I began to realize (after long periods of bitter self-disappointment) I had placed such an overwhelmingly high expectation on “The Story” that I’d put it light years beyond my reach. I’d placed such an ungodly expectation upon my own ability to write that I could NEVER compete with The Story. Because The Story could never be told.

    So now, here I am, four years later without having written a single story… (aside from a hilarious Nanowrimo escapade, co-written with my sister), but at least now I have some idea that “The Story” isn’t something I want to write. In fact, there’s a lot of other stories I’ve discovered along the way that aren’t as perfect, or as powerful, or as beautifully written as The Story… but they were a lot more fun to write… and they’re still there, waiting in my ideas bin after being passed over by that fickle “The Story” as being “unfit” to tell its tale.

    Now I just have to write those stories, those less impressive, but humbler, simpler, and most importantly funner stories that I’d completely ignored chasing after the unattainable perfect story.

    • Filip Wiltgren

      “I’d placed such an ungodly expectation upon my own ability to write that I could NEVER compete with The Story. Because The Story could never be told.”

      This one hit me when I was beginning. I just couldn’t get over the requirements of the story in my head and the limitations of the story I managed to put on paper. What helped me get over it was to write every day, and start out by saying that I was going to write crap that I would throw away at the end of the session. Sometimes I did, mostly I just buried it in my files (the stuff really was crap), but the practice in getting words out of my head and down on paper helped me a lot.

      Also, I can recommend following the 12 week course in Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way”.

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