At the end of last year, I made a video game. Some people might argue that it’s not really a game, and at the time, I would have nonchalantly told them that I honestly don’t care about what the proper “definition” of a video game is, and in fact, here’s a ton of research I did about video game development functioning as art therapy that explains how putting walls around those concepts is, for lack of a better term, elitist bullshit.
These days I’ve become much less confident on the matter. Call it what you will, imposter syndrome or what have you. Maybe it’s that age old issue that every artist has: distance (in time) makes the fondness for old projects wane, because you increase in skill, so you look back at old work and think “man, I could have done so much better.”
I had worked up the courage—after Paper Cranes went live—to email some people about it. It was a long shot: in this day and age, who’s gonna answer an unsolicited email from someone asking them to look at the game they’ve made (especially since it’s such a common scam tactic on social media now). But wouldn’t you know it, the one person that actually responded to me was probably the one that had the possibility of mattering the most: David D’Angelo from Yacht Club Games. You know, Yacht Club Games, the people who made Shovel Knight? Yeah. It was a big deal to me. Still is.
You see, last summer, I picked up Shovel Knight (they were playing it on Game Grumps, and I thought, dang, this game looks amazing!) and it rocked my world. I was coming off of an extremely rocky semester, I doubted everything I had been aspiring to become, I doubted if college had even been the right decision, and Shovel Knight turned everything upside down. I fell in love with that game, with the music, the characters, the feel of it. But more importantly, something clicked in my head when I played it. Something in me looked at Shovel Knight and thought, hey…I could do this! I could be a game designer. I could be a part of the world that captivated me all of my life, that basically fueled my entire artistic aspirations.
So here’s this guy, who was a part of the thing that basically made me realize that game design is a thing people do, is a thing I could do, who took the time to play my game and respond to my email. And I couldn’t believe his response, because he told me it was good. He told me that, if this was the first game I had ever made, that I was on my way to making better games than them. I was floored.
I don’t think I would be able to have the courage to send that email now.
Shortly after I finished Paper Cranes, I felt a massive disconnect from it, and from a lot of my work thus far. It’s the reason Dream State has been on a long-term hiatus: I just feel entirely detached from it. They both feel lifeless to me, even though it was me writing everything, drawing everything, working from those deep places because that’s just how I communicated at that point. It feels to me, in some respects, fake.
Around the same time, I read The Last Unicorn. There was a forward in the version I had, and it struck me hard:
For all that spontaneity, the truth is that The Last Unicorn was a grubby, sweaty, joyless job of work, except now and then. It was squeezed and twisted out of an imagination that never felt as though it had very much to give. I went through black cycles of depression and self-disgust, lightened by occasional periods when I felt that the book had been a bad idea in the first place, and at least it wasn’t as though I was messing up something pretty. But most of the time I knew that the unicorn, Schmendrick, Lír, Molly Grue, and all the rest were alive, and that I was failing them. I don’t know for sure that that’s the worst feeling an author can have, being still new to the trade. But it’s the worst one I know so far.
And further on:
But I’m with Disraeli when he says “Madam, when I want to read a good book, I write one.” I wrote The Last Unicorn for me to read, and for no other reason that I understand just yet; and when I was through with it at last, and off the tightrope, I couldn’t bear to look at the thing. People whose opinions meant a good deal to me liked it, and I was glad, but it didn’t make any difference. I couldn’t see anything but me hacking away on the text—without grace, without love, without pleasure. Hell of a way to treat a unicorn.
I read this, and I started sobbing. Here, on the page in front of me, was the exact same thing I was feeling about my work, put into words I couldn’t find myself. I went on to finish reading the book in one sitting. It really sticks with me. Especially Molly Grue.
I don’t know who or what Hase and Katz are anymore. To my professors, I played them off as these grand metaphors for two parts of myself, two parts that combine to make a whole, at the end. Some days they feel extremely different, not the yin and yang I once imagined. Most days, they don’t even really feel like me at all. Not anymore, at least.
To date, 78 people have downloaded Paper Cranes. Maybe to some people that’s not a lot, but it’s more than I ever could have imagined during those late nights working away on my laptop in my dorm room, and I am extremely touched and humbled by that. I am also, in some respects, embarrassed by it.
I hope one day I can look back at Paper Cranes and feel better about it. Maybe it just takes more distance. I’ve just never been a patient person.