In high school, I was a member of the debate team. Debate, especially Lincoln-Douglas debate, teaches you to bullshit well. Even if your opponent has superior logical arguments, better evidence, and is a more talented speaker, you will still normally make an argument against each and every one of their contentions. Those arguments may not be strong enough to win you the debate, but they are enough to usually put up a fight.
Every once in a while though you face an opponent who is vastly better than you are, and you just shut down. This happened to me twice in my high school debate career: once against a debater from the national circuit and another time against the eventual Texas state champion. All of the time for my rebuttal speeches was spent stuttering and stumbling, trying to fight a battle I had no chance of winning. Normally after a debate, even one I thought I might have lost, I normally thought to myself, “I might win if they voted based on this issue or aspect of the debate.” After I got massacred in these two debates though, I knew my only chance of victory was if the judge had a stroke and circled the wrong winner on the paper.
Being crushed in a debate is especially painful since it is a competition of the mind. If you lose at basketball, you can defend your pride by saying the other person is naturally more athletic than you. The 5’1″ player is probably going to get out played by the 6’8″ one. But debate is a battle of intelligence. If you lose, you can try to say they were better prepared or got lucky with the judge, but really it just feels like your opponent is smarter than you. You are just some dumb, lesser being.
Making video games feels the same way because it is a mental, creative skill. This is especially true when I compare myself to someone like Jonathan Blow, a game dev genius. Braid and The Witness are two of my favorite games. And while those games are not technically works from a sole creator, Blow is clearly the primary driver of their creative visions.
From both a technical and design standpoint, The Witness seems to be beyond anything I could ever be capable of doing. Blow’s game contains a beautiful 3-D world where the player is taught how to solve staggeringly complex puzzles through mechanics alone. I, on the other hand, stick to 2-D projects because the third dimension makes programming too complicated. As for design, I struggle to develop a mindlessly fun experience, yet alone something that “reveals the nature of the universe”.
Maybe one day I will tackle some advanced projects instead of making another Pong clone, but I will probably never get good enough to make a game like The Witness. And I am OK with that.
My favorite novel is A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami. Near the end of the novel, the protagonist meets a lost friend who gives a line that hit me deep in my soul:
I guess I felt attached to my weakness. My pain and suffering too. Summer light, the smell of a breeze, the sound of cicadas—if I like these things, why should I apologize. The same with having a beer with you…
Growing up, I wanted to strive for grandiose accomplishments: Write the Great American Novel. Program the Great American Video Game. Start a billion-dollar business. Marry a harem of super models. Be knighted by the Queen. But over time, you realize that those achievements are not what you really need. What I truly want is a modest salary, a family to come home to, and a little extra time at night to make mediocre novels and video games.
If I owned a large video game studio, I would be beholden to someone. If not a publisher, then at the very least I would be forced to appeal to an audience or alter my creative vision to work with different team members. On the other hand if I work alone and assume no one is paying attention to my projects, I can be completely honest with my games. They may not be great, but those games will be exactly what I want to create. Mediocrity is not something to be derided; it is the only force that can provide true creative freedom.