“All writers are mystery writers. We may not employ detectives in our work, but as seekers of guilty parties, we can identify with Nick Charles, Sam Spade, Lew Archer, Miss Marple and the rest. Like them, we muck about in a world studded with clues, neck-deep in motives. Like them, we falter in our investigations and follow wrong leads. We are foolhardy, preposterous, nosy, irritating. No one wants us around. We work alone, yet like Sam Spade, we operate within a tradition of our own, of which we are respectfully aware. Write and you are in the company of all who have written before you. Only when we have finished a piece of work do we know true shamus loneliness, realizing that the chase is over and that no one has been watching us but us.”—
The point of any art is to make you feel some irreducible, numinous, complicated emotion. The characters in a story are inconsequential, literally (Romeo and Juliet never lived, never died, and are less worthy of our sympathy and care than the bacterial culture in my yogurt this morning, because at least that was a real, living thing). Insofar as imaginary people matter, it’s because their made-up, not-real adventures make you feel those complicated and interesting emotions. But it’s a very roundabout way of getting people to feel stuff. Novels do it by tricking your limbic system into mistaking the adventures of not-real people for things happening to real people.
Games and comics do it differently — there’s some of that “caring about not-real people” stuff, but there’s also a lot more of the “here’s a visual image that, because of its own formal characteristics, its colors and composition, makes you feel a thing just by looking at it.” The relationship between words about made-up people and pictures is like the relationship between talk-therapy and SSRIs — the former is supposed to get your brain to generate interesting psychological effects, the latter just imposes the effects right on your brain by altering its chemical makeup.
Games have other mechanics, of course, that are inaccessible to comics. They make you physically engage with the art, using your body (or at least your fingers) to make the art-thing happen. I think that recruiting more senses and modes probably makes the effect more immediate and possibly more profound, inasmuch as there are more mechanisms at play with which to evoke that inchoate and irreducible etcetera. There’s just stuff that you probably can’t feel (or not as readily) by reading about stuff, that’s accessible when you’re moving your body. Psychologically, of course, but physiologically too: things that happen to your brain and your thought processes when you are directing movement, as opposed to when you’re imagining it.
Games also engage a different kind of puzzle-solving mental apparatus; Raph Koster calls games something like, “NP-hard problems that can only be solved through the iterative application of heuristics.” Which is fancy math talk, but it means that games are interesting in part because they present puzzles whose ideal solutions are indeterminate — for example, there are more possible games of chess than there are hydrogen atoms in the universe, so you can’t “solve” chess the way you can tic-tac-toe, by mapping out every possible chess game and ensuring that you always play towards a non-losing outcome.
Because you can’t solve these puzzles with pure logic, you have to apply heuristics — rules of thumb — that you develop through a combination of intuition and reasoned thinking, and that you refine by trying them and varying them, more or less systematically, in order to improve your performance in the game. This variation and retrying is what Koster means by “iteration.”
This has a lot in common with “reality.” There’s no optimal way to be alive and human in the world, no Plato’s Republic course of “right action” that will reliably produce a happy outcome for you. All you can do is try your best, developing theories of how to conduct your life and refining them as time goes by.
Games, then, are microcosmic versions of life. It’s not surprising that they engage our attention and our fascination, because the reason our ancestors survived to have the children that we became is that they were reasonably good at this process. When processes like this emerge, they give us both satisfaction from mastery, and an almost irresistible urge to play on. They’re rehearsal for the only “life skill” that matters — figuring out how to come up with rules of thumb for hard problems, and how to refine them or discard them if they don’t work.
“People talk about books that write themselves, and it’s a lie. Books don’t write themselves. It takes thought and research and backache and notes and more time and more work than you’d believe.”—Neil Gaiman, Smoke and Mirrors (via maxkirin)
The Justice Department is claiming, in a little-noticed court filing, that a federal agent had the right to impersonate a young woman online by creating a Facebook page in her name without her knowledge. Government lawyers also are defending the agent’s right to scour the…
The Library of Congress’s website hosts a high-resolution scan of a rare edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” illustrated by Gustave Doré. The title-page is at page 11, the list of illustrations is on page 14.
The illustrations are amazing, like no other illustrated Poe I’ve seen. I’ve collected my favorites above, and there are a lot of them — honestly, it was impossible to choose.
After years of speculation and rumors, further fueled by mysterious tweets from both series creators Mark Frost and David Lynch this weekend, it’s finally official: Twin Peaks, the super influential cult television series that ran on ABC from…
Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants is an inspiring, provocative and sweeping account of how our world works and where it’s going. Kelly is one of the great technology thinkers, an old Whole Earth editor and co-founder of Wired, an extraordinary photographer, a technology refusenik, and a…
“Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.”—William Strunk Jr. (via maxkirin)
“You do have a leash, finally, as a writer. You’re holding a dog. You let the dog run about. But you finally can pull him back. Finally, I’m in control. But the great excitement is to see what happens if you let the whole thing go. And the dog or the character really runs about, bites everyone in sight, jumps up trees, falls into lakes, gets wet, and you let that happen. That’s the excitement of writing plays—to allow the thing to be free but still hold the final leash.”—Harold Pinter (via writingquotes)
“I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings.’”—Stanley Kubrick (via wnycradiolab)
On the book tour, people always ask how to get started writing. The trick is to remember two things. The first is to start working. If you have an idea, just do it. Don’t worry if it’s no good. That’s what second drafts are for. The other thing to remember is that you’re going to die. Period. There’s no way around it. Between now and then, what do you want to do with your time? Something you’re passionate about or do you want to play another video game and stay safe?
You want to be a writer? Take the leap and see what happens.
After the second world war, the American road trip became a cultural phenomenon, as artists journeyed across the States in search of inspiration. Here are some of the most iconic images by photographers who, down the decades, have treated the great American highway as a muse