Posted

Originally published at Gameranx

I admit, I wasn't sold on Nathan Meunier's Kickstarter—at least, not until I watched the accompanying video, in which his rocket-powered head flies out of his own empty neck. (Oh, just watch it.)

Meunier's proposed book, Up Up Down Down Left Write: the Freelance Guide to Video Game Journalism, promises to help newcomers navigate those roiling waters I like to call "too many writers, not enough jobs." And although Meunier's book proposal is strong enough to woo an actual, big-time literary agent, I certainly respect his can-do attitude toward self-publishing.

Maybe the Internet is deluged in writing and journalism tips right now, but it's only because people keep scrambling to read them. Even the University of Iowa—home to the most prestigious creative writing department in the nation—now offers a games journalism class.

But good freelance writing is fostered by healthy competition, and that is why I have decided to undermine Meunier's noble Kickstarter with a how-to guide of my own.

To write it, I contemplated everything I've learned in the last seven years. That part took a couple minutes. Then I belched out these ten great tips.

HOW TO BE A FREELANCE GAMES JOURNALIST

#1: Don't

I love to tell people to believe in their dreams, to pursue their bliss with every last, threadbare fiber in their stringy little hearts.

Do you know what's better than following your dream? Eating. Sorry, mom: freelancing is the dumbest decision I ever made.

#2: Oh, whatever

Well, maybe you don't believe in "eating." Or maybe you are a sociopath who doesn't do well in an office setting. Maybe other people set your teeth on edge. If you have ever thought to yourself I have to write exactly what I want to write, on my own terms, or else I will die, you are a big baby. Freelancing is for you.

#3: Be a good writer

Actually, I never say this. That's because I believe that passion is enough, that good writing can be taught. Anyone can communicate conversationally, effortlessly. Anyone can learn the secret formula behind a sentence. But the truth is, you don't have to be a good writer to get a freelance gig. You don't even have to be an adequate writer. You can be absolutely terrible.

There will always be somebody else to do your job, faster, worse, and for less money. In fact, that hack writer will jump at the chance. And if you're the slow, longwinded writer that I am, being "decent" is your only advantage against those twerps.

#4: Do the math

If you're a full-time writer, you're poor, okay? You already know that time is your most precious resource.

One day I suddenly decided I wanted to be paid double what I was already making, and I earnestly began to consider freelancing full-time. So I estimated the amount of work I'd need to take, along with how much time I could conceivably afford each article, column, or review. Once I had a plan in place, I resigned from a job I loved.

Now I find myself weighing the value of any gig before saying yes. Is the time commitment commensurate with the pay? Is this job a time-sink in disguise? If the gig barely pays, is the prestige worth it? Is this job for a friend? Do we really, really like this friend?

Be warned: your math is never correct. Something always goes wrong.

#5: Read other people

If you're a decent writer, you're probably a good reader. Perhaps you have a couple favorite writers already—Clive Thompson or Tom Bissell or Leigh Alexander or whoever. Follow them! Follow them on Twitter. If they have Tumblrs, follow those, too. If you aren't a morning person, spend your mornings reading. If you aren't a night person, read at night.

When your favorite writers point to great articles by other people, go read those, too. Then follow those people. Read constantly. Read in bed, on the toilet, at the beach. Install Instapaper and Reeder and Kindle on your smartphone. Don't drop your smartphone in the bathtub.

Next, announce what you've read. Anytime something is good, plug it. Advocate it. This isn't about "social collateral" or "schmoozing"; it's about curating. Having good taste reflects positively on you as a reader. And as everyone knows, good readers are good writers.

#6: Dick around

When you have writer's block, the best thing you can do for yourself is Anything Else. Watch YouTube videos. Watch television. Wash dishes; vacuum. Go out with friends. Sit on the porch with a book. Have yourself a sit-down and a nice long poop. Buy a netbook; carry it everywhere. You won't believe how many articles will spring to mind, fully-formed and ready to go, right there in the bathroom.

Sanitize your netbook's keyboard frequently. I like to use a little spray bottle.

#7: Damn your "art"; be "prolific" instead

Oh, sure, academic criticism has its place. So do stories and essays. I say this as a writer who is wont to submit painstaking, 5000-word essays only once a month (I have a very patient editor over at Unwinnable). Also, I'm picky. I decided to freelance precisely because I wanted to control when and where my byline appears.

But here's the problem: just because I thought some of my columns were "artful" doesn't mean anyone else did. Just because they were meticulously written doesn't mean I was paid more money.

Some of the very best freelancers out there include Andrew Hayward, Gus Mastrapa, and Brendan Keogh. They have hustle. They never quit. They adjust and adapt their voices to every publication that publishes them, and their bylines are nigh ubiquitous. If I could kickstart a book called Do Whatever It Is Andrew Hayward Does without being sued by Andrew Hayward, I would.

Look, save the "art" for a Rich Month. If you're in the midst of a Poor Month—if you're going to a wedding in Colorado in two days, say, and you're freaking out about renting a car at the airport—just write a top ten list. Write a zillion of 'em.

#8: Be present

There's no such thing as luck. There is only being in the right place at the right time. Life is a series of trains coming and going, and your only job is to get your butt onto the platform. Pack up and get ready. If you're present and willing, you'll be there right when someone needs you.

The very worst freelancers tend to be respectable, established writers. That's because, in the transition from Cushy Office to Mad Max Thunderdome, they've forgotten how to try. They're used to receiving "assignments" from salaried "editors," so they don't know how to pitch articles. Then their morale drops and they wonder where they went wrong.

When I say "be present," I'm not saying "just stand there." What I really mean is, be a ready mercenary. You aren't just your own boss—you're also the PR, the guy in charge of branding, the one who sends invoices. Respond to every email, even if it's to say "no." (I'm getting better at this one, if barely.)

Editors seldom pitch to their writers. But if you do hope someone will pitch an assignment to you, work constantly. Constant work tells other people you're "available." Tweet clever things on Twitter when you're bored. Leave your IM window open. Blog in your downtime. Don't be desperate. For the love of God, don't be desperate. Don't be piteous. Don't be envious. People work hard to be able to afford their writing careers, and you will work hard, too.

Be present. Be present so that, when that gravy train does arrive, you can step off the platform and into the car. If you see an opportunity coming toward your station, haul ass.

#9: Defend your workspace

Oh, great. Between the full-time writing and the also-full-time dicking around, you never look busy enough. When you do go into business for yourself, your friends suddenly want to hang out with you. They've heard about your flexible hours, and they've decided you're never "really" on the clock. If you have roommates, they'll ask you to run a "quick errand." Oh, God, and your mother. Just turn off your cell phone already.

Learn how to tell your freelancer friends who IM, "Please, not this instant." Stop answering the door. Let editors divert your attention, but only for a few minutes. (If you're really crunched, writer Ariel Gore recommends fibbing and telling people you're on vacation, then holing up in someone else's apartment.)

Let's face it: at the end of the day, you are your own worst enemy, and you need to install certain rituals and safeguards. Dr. Eric Maisel calls it "honoring your space," but what you're actually doing is defending your space from yourself, you saboteur.

Outsmart yourself. Just as you ought to never eat in front of the television, you should never surf the Internet in the room where you plan to write. Use fullscreen software like iA Writer or Scrivener. Use your computer's built-in plaintext editor. Or switch to a netbook—if you ever open more than five Chrome tabs, the computer will burst into flames. That'll teach you.

#10: Be audacious

My first-ever rejection letter came from The New Yorker. Yep, the magazine.

I was 13 years old.

Rejection sucks. My submission was asinine. Even though the editor wrote me a letter—thanking me, explaining how I could strengthen my short story, workshopping—I was so wounded. Years passed before I realized how kind he was.

I am so proud of my rejection letter. Most people never hear back from the New Yorker.

The difference between a kid and an adult is, most adults never submit stories to the New Yorker. They simply would not dare.

Yeah, you should be cautious. You have to do all this math, you have to know when to say no, you have to save a little extra money in case you get sick (because Lord knows you don't have health insurance).

What's incredible, though, is how many freelancers choose a full-time writing career—the stupidest, most uncertain career in the world—and then instantly clam up. You're already taking a huge risk, so take some more risks! Are you writing an article? Solicit quotes from every big-name AAA developer you can find. Are you applying for an editorial position? Tell your future employer why you're great! If you have an idea, pitch it to the biggest outlet you can.

Don't live in fear. Write something that really scares you.

I bet having a Kickstarter project is scary. In fact, I bet it's absolutely bone-rattling: refreshing the page once every few minutes, a hundred times a day for an entire month, waiting to see whether people like your ideas. For a writer to put himself into that position is incredibly bold, and brave, and necessary. 

I hope Nathan Meunier's Kickstarter succeeds, because I'm looking forward to his book.

Posted

Originally published at Vice Motherboard

Developed in 1994 and published the following year, Chop Suey was a cunning piece of multimedia edutainment, suited just as well to grown-ups—smirking hipsters and punk rockers, probably—as it was to the prescribed “girls 7 to 12” crowd.

But it wasn’t a computer game. It was something else: a loosely-strung system of vignettes; a psychedelic exercise in “let’s-pretend”; a daydream in which the mundanity of smalltown Ohio collides with the interior lives of its two young protagonists.

As the game opens, the Bugg sisters are idling on a grassy knoll, counting clouds and recalling the day’s events. Lily and June Bugg, we are informed, have spent the afternoon with Aunt Vera. The narrator—a yet-unknown David Sedaris—sets the scene in nasally twee, occasionally grating reeds.

“They didn’t know the names of the flowers in which they lay—pollen dusty daisies, wild violets, cornflowers—so June Bugg named them herself, touching a finger to the soft center of each.”

When Sedaris concludes his opening narration, our player immediately regains control of her cursor. From here she can survey Cortland’s landmarks in any order she chooses, repeating anything she likes. She might revisit lunch at the Ping Ping Palace, where the food is so exotic, it’s often tinted cyan or hot pink. She might play dress-up with Aunt Vera—whom, we suspect, is something of a lush and a man-eater.

…Lily and June’s own imaginations illustrate those stories in happier, more magical idioms

The player might go to the carnival to have her fortune read; she might play Bingo. Perhaps she might visit Aunt Vera’s second husband, Bob, or else she could visit Vera’s third husband, also Bob. (Tragically, it is impossible to visit Bob #1, except through occasional flashbacks.)

“‘A broken heart for every light,’ she said, and sighed, rearranging her pink flowered bathrobe.”

Most in-game stories are delivered secondhand from a reminiscing grown-up, while Lily and June’s own imaginations illustrate those stories in happier, more magical idioms. The game never oversteps, never makes “regret” its central concern; after all, this is a children’s game. But an adult player might be surprised at how wistful the game actually is.

Wry flourishes give Chop Suey its teeth: Dooner, an unemployed Gen-X slob, hides his girly mag in the dresser’s top drawer. And if our player puts on a pair of X-Ray Spex, Aunt Vera and boyfriend Ned are both reduced, tastefully, to their undergarments.

Were Chop Suey a literal, physical picturebook, it might resemble Richard Scarry’s Busytown as revised by Bratmobile. Alternatively, we might go along with Entertainment Weekly‘s description: “a little like Alice in Wonderland as performed by the B-52s for NPR.” (The magazine went on to name Chop Suey 1995’s CD-ROM of the Year.)

Chop Suey‘s nearest analog, though, is a very different edutainment title, Cosmology of Kyoto. Released the same year as Chop Suey, Kyoto is another interactive storybook designed to make good on the early-‘90s’ promise of CD-based “multimedia.” But Kyoto is technically limited by Macromedia: the game itself feels strangely static, and while there’s lots to explore, there’s little to do.

Chop Suey suffers these failings and worse. All told, it takes only an hour to see everything in the game once, and then there is little incentive to play again, except to remember how the game went. The player can’t “save” her “progress,” because there is no such thing as progress. In 1995 at least one reviewer worried Chop Suey might frustrate children with its circular narrative.

Every moment in the game, however connected, is also suspended in time

But the game’s perpetual loop of story is deliberate: “It works the same way that Alice in Wonderland does, where she leaves home and then she has adventures,” designer Theresa Duncan explained in 1998, “but if you took everything in between the beginning and the end of Alice in Wonderland and scrambled up every chapter, it would make no difference to the development of the story.” Every moment in the game, however connected, is also suspended in time.

In an industry glutted by worthless “games” for “girls”—the mid ‘90s begat a tide of titles like McKenzie & Co., Let’s Talk About Me!, and Barbie Fashion DesignerChop Suey really did get it right.

Wired‘s Greg Beato was certainly impressed. “With its sly whimsy and tactile, folk-art imagery,” Beato writes, “Chop Suey brings a whole new sensibility—quirky, poetic, almost bittersweet—to a medium that’s often lacking in such nuance.”

The game’s visual charm owes no small debt to collaborator Monica Lynn Gesue, whose handmade art is at once childlike and sophisticated. Every screen is a frenetic hodgepodge; every animated painting, all squiggles and loop-de-loops.

Nevertheless, Chop Suey‘s main star was Theresa Duncan, whose competence as a game designer inspired a flurry of magazine profiles. But Duncan was celebrated as much for her audacious wardrobe as she was for her intellect. Salon, in 1998, called her “a predatory businesswoman,” taking extra care to note how well-dressed she was. In a 2000 issue of Shift Magazine she was heralded “Silicon Valley’s It Girl”; this proclamation was accompanied by a photo spread. Paper profiled Duncan as well: “Theresa wears a top by Ashley Pearce.”

In a 1997 issue of Bitch Magazine, Doreen Hinton—who presumably had never seen a glamor shot of Duncan—succeeded in praising Chop Suey itself, saying, “This is the least gender-specific game of all the ones labeled ‘for girls’ by marketers and writers.”

Indeed, where many developers were briefly, madly obsessed with giving pre-teen girls their own tier of games, Chop Suey‘s real accomplishment was that it seemingly targeted nobody. It’s “feminist,” albeit in a 1990s way: subtly, subversively. Not so long ago, girls’ books, girls’ music, and girls’ games demanded to be taken as seriously as the boys’, simply by being better than the boys’ stuff. A ’90s kid could opt to trade Sweet Valley High for Weetzie Bat or a Blake Nelson novel, say.

“[Duncan is] clearly the one to watch among developers of any gender,” Hinton’s article continued. “I can’t wait to see and hear and play her next offering.”

But Theresa Duncan managed only two more games. Smarty (1997) starred an eponymous heroine, Mimi Smartypants, and garnered a fast cult-like following. Zero Zero was released the very same year (“It’s good,” conceded the Associated Press, “but it’s no Chop Suey”).

The Internet has been an unkind documentarian, slowly turning Chop Suey from a “has-been” into a “never-was.”

Why isn’t Chop Suey better remembered?

Even as Duncan struggled to market her next two games independently, the 1990s edutainment craze had staggered to a halt.

Despite all its critical acclaim, it’s tough to say whether Chop Suey ever sold well. Anyway, how could it have? By 1997, when I first started searching for a copy, the disc was completely out of production. (I did eventually find the game, in its original box, eight years later.) Tech journalist Sam Machkovech explains that contemporary educational software has no shelf life: “Edutainment sellers quickly realized families would pass CD-ROMs along to friends once their kids had grown out of them,” he told me, “like used baby clothes.”

Computer gamers, too, had lost patience for so-called interactive fiction. The genre was quaint at best; at worst, adventure games were boring.

In the end, though, the Internet’s memory is not too long. A search for Chop Suey uncovers almost nothing, redirecting instead to endless, looping coverage of Theresa Duncan’s 2007 death—a suicide, and a salacious one at that. Circular narratives really are frustrating, it turns out.

By 2007, 40-year-old Duncan had reinvented herself as a blogger and filmmaker. As a result, most obituaries blithely skim Duncan’s contributions to children’s edutainment. New York Magazine remembers the erstwhile visionary as a “woman spurned by success.” Another article, this one from Vanity Fair, describes a party at which Duncan “dragged out of a closet her old CD-ROMs”: the writer recasts Duncan’s computer games as some ancient football trophy the woman ought to have been embarrassed about. (The article continues, “‘Everybody kind of looked at each other like, Oh no, what is she doing?’”)

When Duncan reappeared in the news cycle, I thought Chop Suey might finally elicit more attention. I was wrong. A terrible, titillating death is far, far more interesting than an author or artist’s creative output.

Theresa Duncan’s death was assuredly a tragedy. But Chop Suey, like Duncan herself, was a critical darling of its time. The slow retcon of Chop Suey into anything less than a towering achievement is, in itself, tragic. The Internet has been an unkind documentarian, slowly turning Chop Suey from a “has-been” into a “never-was.”

In some ways, Chop Suey is very much a product of the ‘90s. It banked on that decade’s “girl game” boom. Its soundtrack screams alternative radio. Ornate scribbles and doodles glow as if they were lifted from MTV.

In other ways, Chop Suey is timeless. The technology holds up: the disc runs well, even on the latest computers. Duncan’s writing is still fresh, and Gesue’s artwork seems so alive. I’d venture to say that the game has aged “gracefully,” except that it has barely aged at all. Chop Suey is several perfect moments, suspended—“like shiny-dull pearls on a long, long necklace.”

Above all, Chop Suey was brave. It dared to represent the criminally underrepresented: that is, the wild imagination of some girl aged 7 to 12.

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