I don’t write a lot about my work here mostly because I typically can’t. I can’t tell you what I’m working on or how it’s going, really; I can’t reveal anything we haven’t said before. So it’s generally just easier for me to avoid the topic.
Still, now that we’re very close to shipping Quantum Break, and I’ve moved on to Something Else, I’ve had a chance to reflect on things a little bit, and I feel like talking about writing games in general. Back when I was still busting ass on Quantum Break, which wasn’t very long ago at all, a lot of people — friends and random people on the internet alike — would go, “what, don’t you have the story done yet?” when they heard that I wasn’t, well, not working. Some people were genuinely mystified and/or concerned; others were kind of tongue in cheek, but it’s something I heard a lot.
So while I don’t feel comfortable talking about the specifics of what I was doing, exactly, let me take a step back and talk about what kind of work I was doing — specifically, what being a writer on a video game actually entails. This isn’t a universal experience, I should stress; different studios can have wildly different practices — this is just the kind of stuff I do at Remedy as a writer. Many studios still hire writers as contractors who aren’t directly involved with the team or the game production, and for them the work will be very different. (Not surprisingly, these also tend to be games where the story and the gameplay are not particularly well integrated into each other.) In any case, I’m aware of many misconceptions and assumptions people make about what game writers actually do.
One general point is that writers often write or at least edit a lot of stuff that isn’t directly story-related — mundane but necessary things like marketing materials or error messages. Quite often this involves rewriting things somebody else put in as a placeholder. Developers working in other disciplines often end up entering text into the game in one form or another by themselves, and that can cause a wide range of issues, ranging from using the wrong terminology (there are often internally used nicknames for enemies and features that aren’t actually a part of the intended player experience), to having a voice that’s incompatible with how the rest of the game is presented, to technical things like punctuation and capitalization — yes, there are very, very talented people who still struggle with concepts like “sentences start with a capital letter” and “you hit the space bar after the period, not before it.” It’s just not their field of expertise, just like their specialty isn’t mine.
At companies that have such a person on staff, these things are often taken care of by an editor, but unless your company hits a certain size, you’re unlikely to have an editor working at the office full-time. Thus, the writer also ends up wearing the editor’s hat, and is hopefully up to the task. (Not every writer is; some people are genuinely great writers in terms of constructing story or writing engaging dialogue, but still can’t spell or punctuate to save their lives. It takes a certain anal retentive approach to be good at that.)
So, here’s a list of all the tasks I can think of that I do, as a writer, in no particular order. Some of these are small tasks, some of these are big ongoing processes. Most of them involve dependencies, meaning that somebody else needs to do something before I can do my tasks, or someone else is depending on me to complete my tasks so they can finish theirs. That’s largely how I determine priorities for my work. (And it’s worth noting that I also do a bunch of other things that I won’t go into in here, because while they’re important, they aren’t really “writer stuff” per se.)
- Character bios. Important for casting and for character concepting. If you’re looking for a Latino woman in her mid-thirties who can make technobabble sound natural, for instance, you actually need to write it out. What you write early on and what characters you actually end up with can be two very different things, but you have to start somewhere.
- Story design. What happens, when, where, and to whom, and why. This a big one, and while you typically nail down core concepts early on, it will keep on changing through development for a myriad of reasons. You get feedback from the team and from the publisher, some of which you incorporate and some of which you ignore, but all of it needs to be evaluated and often responded to and discussed. Sometimes you realize what you had early on just wasn’t good enough. Or sometimes you get a better idea.
- Dialogue. This is the other big one. What the characters say, how much of it they say, and when they say it. Dialogue typically takes a lot of revision — you write one version, then the player objectives change, or the story changes, or user research indicates that people get lost, or you just hear an actor actually say the words out loud and you realize how stupid it sounds, or… so many reasons. So many revisions.
- Dialogue pacing. Closely related to the previous item, dialogue pacing is something that often ends up being a writing task, even if it’s actually being implemented by somebody else. Often nudging a line’s timing a little can make all the difference — when there’s a loud noise and the character’s reaction is just right, it feels good; if it’s off, it just feels wrong, even if the player can’t quite articulate why. And one thing you often see games screw up is the interruption — you know, the sort of thing where somebody is supposed to be interrupted, but what you actually end up hearing is Person A suddenly just stopping in mid-sentence, a pause of .6 seconds, and then Person B saying something that’s clearly meant to be an interruption. Very distracting. As the people who know how the dialogue should be implemented, writers often end up hunting down problems like this.
- Revisions. Endless revisions. People often think that writing games is a linear process, where you sit down, write the story, and when it’s done, people turn that into a game. Not unless you’re doing a pretty bad job of narrative design. In reality, the story and the way you tell it keeps changing as the actual gameplay experience is being built. You add dialogue and other things to increase player clarity, to explain plot points, and for player guidance. You remove it if it’s confusing or seems to mislead the player away from their actual gameplay goal at the time. You cut or add or merge or rewrite scenes to reflect the current state of the gameplay. Designers change the way the puzzle works? Usually, the dialogue related to it also has to change. The player character gets a new ability? That can have an impact on the story.
- Politics. You work in any company with a decent-sized headcount, there are politics. Before you go all House of Cards in your head, this doesn’t mean backstabbing and power plays, unless you’ve done some bad hiring; it just means that you have to negotiate for the things you want and make others see why they are important, and why they make the product better. There are limited resources and not everything can be the most important thing, so it takes communication and persuasion to get people to cooperate. In particular, when you’re the writer, you’re the primary person who advocates for the story. There are people who really hate this, and I can certainly relate to that, but if you can’t deal with it, you’ll always be the one bitching about decisions and never the one making them. Harsh, but true. (Be nice to people. Seriously, don’t be a dick.)
- Meetings. So many meetings. Some of it is related to the previous item, but a lot of it is just taking care of business. Communication is a key thing. I’m a writer, but very little of my time is spent actually writing; as a joke-that-is-not-really-a-joke I like to say that about 90% of my working hours are spent in discussions where people tell me I can’t do what I want to do and I tell them why they can’t do what they want to do, and then we try to find solutions that satisfy everybody. Compromises, in other words.
- Optional content. Stuff that isn’t on the player’s critical path (i.e., you can complete the game without encountering this content). This could be anything, really — it can often be text-only content along the lines of discoverable e-mail messages or other content (which, being text-only, is just about the cheapest content you can have in a game), or it can be something a little more elaborate. For instance, I wrote the Night Springs episodes and radio shows for Alan Wake fully aware that the player might decide to just ignore them, or or might not even find them. So while this material is important for the overall game and can be a great tool to bring depth to the game, you probably don’t want to hang anything the player needs to understand the core plot on it. This is something that can be plugged in fairly late in the process, because it won’t affect level pacing, this is often something we do towards the end of the project. It’s also an opportunity to address specific issues that may be raised by the team or come up in user research — if we realize that people are unclear on something or merely very curious about an aspect of the game world or story, we can create a piece of optional content that deals with the topic.
- Player objectives, achievements, tutorials, menu items, etc. Typically not a part of the story, per se, but these things have an impact on the game’s atmosphere and style. These are often some of the last things we finalize, because you can’t really do it properly until everything else in the game is nailed down — you can’t write a tutorial text about how to use a power if its actual functionality is still a little up in the air. Typically, it’s a good idea to have a writer work on these, or at least do an editing pass on them after a designer’s been through them.
- Marketing support. Quite often copy is needed, and when they need it, they often come to the source. If you want something to introduce characters or summarize the plot, it’s usually best if I write it, rather than, for instance, some marketing person somewhere who may not even be directly involved with the game, possibly using some two-year-old out-of-date document somebody forwarded to them — which, given a large enough organization and multiple aspects of the project being advanced at the same time, can happen. Often they just need somebody to explain to them what the game is really about, and what kind of stuff they can talk about and what they should sit on so as to not spoil the experience.
- Ancillary projects. Games are often accompanied by other materials — it could be transmedia fiction, art books, strategy guides, etc. Whether or not I actually work on those directly, they often require my feedback, if nothing else. And if there happened to be something like, oh, a live-action show that was very closely tied to the game you were working on, that might conceivably eat up a huge amount of your time even if you didn’t actually write it yourself. Conceivably.
- Actor performances. I actually do a lot of things on this front, but many of them aren’t necessarily about writing. That said, when an actor gets involved, they typically have a lot of questions about their character and the story in general. It’s important to bring them up to speed and making sure they not only understand the story, but are focusing on the correct aspects of it in their performance.
- Audio work. When it comes to people I end up working extremely closely with, the audio team tends to be at the top of the list — getting that dialogue right, or getting proper audio cues or filters in place is something that often requires very detailed discussions. Likewise, they often have questions and concerns about dialogue implementation that only a writer can properly answer. In our specific case, the dialogue I write is actually linked directly to our dialogue database, which grants certain advantages — and imposes certain limitations. Either way, it also creates a need for fairly constant communication with the audio teamk.
- Subtitles. Do they match what’s being said? Actors often end up saying something slightly different, or in some cases entirely different from the actual line for various reasons. Tracking these changes and making sure they are reflected in the game subtitles is an important task.
- Localization. This one can be a doozy, because there’s just so much content in most modern games. When you localize a game, it can be a tremendously complicated and time-consuming process — even when it’s being mostly handled by another party, such as the publisher, you still have to lend a lot of support to them, because the people translating the actual text — who often work under incredibly tight deadlines and for not a lot of money (full disclosure: I did translation work for a decade back in my freelancin’ days) — don’t actually know what the fuck it is they’re translating. They have very little or no context — all they get is, essentially, an Excel sheet full of text strings they have to translate. (Because we can’t take the risk of something leaking, we often can’t send them full screenplays, let alone gameplay videos or the like.) So when they don’t know what’s going on, they send queries we need to answer, preferably as clearly as possible. As a practical example, we had a situation where a line of dialogue read “Okay…”, and the the translator sent a query asking what that was in response to. In the language in question, the difference between “yes, I agree to do this” and “yes, I understand,” for instance, was noticeable, so they had to know what it was in response to, and they couldn’t figure it out from the information they had. (In actuality, this was actually a character speaking to himself, reacting to an elevator stopping unexpectedly. But the translator had no way of knowing that.)
- Bugs. A lot of bugs require my attention, even if they aren’t story bugs per se — often I’m not expected to fix them, but somebody needs advice or a judgment call on whether something is a serious issue, or indeed a bug at all.
There. A fairly long list, and I have no doubt I’ve forgotten an essential thing or two. All of these things fall under the heading of “game writing” — or at least they do for me where I work. Storytelling is obviously a huge priority for us, but in the grand scheme of doing everything that needs doing in order to ship a game, it’s just one thing among many demanding our attention.
As a final note, as games can be very complex things, just keeping tabs on everything that needs doing can be an intimidating task. I can’t overstate the value of competent producers who can actually track all the crap that needs tracking, and poke you when you need to be poked. I can keep track of my own stuff, but having people in my corner who constantly deal with many disciplines and let me know what they need and when — that’s incredibly valuable. Making games is very much a team effort, and when the team dynamic is humming along, that makes getting through the above list much easier, and will perhaps even keep you from wanting to drink yourself to death. Bonus!
These days, I find that get asked about various aspects of writing surprisingly often, so I thought I’d write some of these things down in one place instead of repeatedly writing forum posts or e-mail about it. I don’t claim to be any kind of an authority as such, but I do write for a living, so I guess I must be doing something right. I’ll probably update this post if/when new things that seem relevant crop up.
Also, while I’m focusing on writing in this post because that’s my own field, I do think that most of this stuff definitely applies to just about every kind of creative work in principle.
“I’ve got this great idea, but I need to figure out what to do with it first.” This is something I hear a lot. I’ll get into ideas in a bit, but a lot of people seem to feel that they can’t start working on a thing until they know exactly what it is they’re going to do with it. That’s understandable, but I think the useful length of time spent on that kind of thinking tends to be a lot shorter than many people seem to think.
I’m not saying that planning is a bad thing. Of course it isn’t! But I think it’s common for people to fall into the procrastination trap where they keep “thinking about it” and “planning it,” but in reality they’re just screwing around without getting anything done. There comes a point where you should either shit or get off the pot, and it typically comes much sooner than we think.
At the heart of this whole thing is this idea that you need to know exactly what you’re going to be doing with a project before you can start actually working on it — you need to know what’s going to happen at every turn of the plot before you can start writing it, for example. How could you start writing the story before you know how it’s going to unfold? You need to work it all out!
The problem with this is, that’s not how the creative process usually works. That first draft? That’s you, working it out. Until you actually put pen to paper and lock some things down, you won’t know how well your ideas actually perform, or how they relate to each other, or what the whole really conveys to the reader, or if the pacing works, or any number of other things that you may not even have realized could be an issue before you have something you can evaluate.
Until you make actual decisions, all you’ve got is a weird miasma of unrealized potential, full of contradictory concepts that don’t actually fit together in any useful way. Chances are, you don’t even realize that, because you haven’t done any of the actual work trying to put them together in a way that forms a coherent and useful whole. You’ve just been dicking around, indulging yourself.
You’re not supposed to figure it out perfectly before you start working on it. You’re supposed to perfect it by working on it. First drafts need work; that’s the nature of the first draft. That’s okay; now you know where the problems are and what parts are doing what you want them to be doing, and you can start working them out. A good second draft is a beautiful thing.
And really in, the end? Insisting that you need to have it all nailed down before you can start working on it is just arrogant. You’re essentially saying that your first ideas are so good that you won’t come up with better ones later on. That’s rarely the case.
(I should stress that I’m emphatically not talking about planning a larger project that involves multiple people or multiple disciplines. That’s a completely different thing.)
Here’s another thing that crops up a lot — “I’ve got these great characters and plots and everything in my head, but when I try to write about it, nothing comes out.”
I don’t want to state flat out that writer’s block is not a real thing, but I will say that it’s an amazingly convenient excuse for avoiding work. “I got great stuff in me, but it’s just not coming out! Not my fault!”
Personally, I find that when I go to write something and nothing comes out, that’s not because I’m “blocked,” it’s because I don’t really know what I want to do, and the things I try don’t work. Typically, it means that the great idea I have just isn’t that great, and it’s time to kill that darling.
That’s not to say I never get into a state where I just can’t get anything done, but that’s got more to do with being unable to let go of bad ideas, or being too stressed out, or lacking focus, or lacking motivation, or any number of other reasons. It’s not some kind of a magical state that just overcomes me.
That said, sometimes you just need to take your time — this isn’t like painting a wall where you can just keep going at a steady pace for as long as your arm and back hold up and you don’t run out of paint or wall. Creative work is hard and tends to require focus and drive — but not being in a state to get something done is not the same thing as being blocked, and I think self-deception tends to play a pretty big part in that — there’s a certain romantic inevitability to writer’s block, and the best thing is, it’s not your own fault.
(In Alan Wake, Wake himself suffers from writer’s block that keeps him from writing his next book, a departure from his established main character and essentially guaranteed popularity. Being unable to write drives him to a self-destructive and self-indulgent cycle of substance abuse, wild parties and poor judgment. Gosh, cause and effect are so hard to figure out, aren’t they?)
I’m not a big believer in talent, to be honest. Some people clearly have it, but I really can’t tell if that’s because they were born with it or because they made the commitment to develop it. I’d bet that in most cases, it’s the latter. I tend to be of the opinion that most people can learn anything reasonably well if they really put their minds to it. I’m not a big believer in genes — I’ll freely admit that they have an impact, but in most cases, people who moan about their “lack of talent” are just taking advantage of a free pass. Sure, they’d love to work, but why bother when there’s no talent? Gosh, what an unfortunate turn of luck!
Which may be an unnecessarily harsh thing to say. And when you run across some young, super creative guy who’s producing absolutely amazing work like a seasoned professional, I know this may seem like bullshit, and maybe it is. I guess what I’m saying is that I believe the vast majority of people who are really good at something didn’t get that way because of some mysterious, innate talent, they got that way because they had a passion for something and were willing to put in the effort.
It’s a bit of a chicken/egg problem, I admit — did somebody start working hard in their field because they had a talent for it and it came naturally, or did they become talented because they put in that hard work? In the end, that’s missing the point — essentially everybody who’s good at something works hard at it. There may be exceptions to that, but what’s that got to do with you and me? Not a lot, I’d bet. True savants are few and far in between.
I don’t much believe in inspiration, either.
That’s not to say I don’t think it doesn’t exist — sure it does, and when it strikes, life is good. Very good. But you can’t build a career on inspiration — hell, you can’t get much of anything done if that’s what you’re banking on.
As the old joke goes, creativity is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. You want to finish, or even get started? Better roll up those sleeves and get to work, because unless you’re just an enthusiastic wannabe who’s content to get by on the occasional burst of energy, you’re gonna have to earn your goddamn keep. People who wander around in search of inspiration are typically far more enamored with the idea of being a writer than the actual act of writing.
Am I being a jerk? Possibly, but you hear that a lot — “I’m just waiting for inspiration!” That’s great, let me know when it strikes. In the meantime, I’ll be over here in the real world, dealing with real deadlines, trying to get shit done.
Ideas are another thing more or less in the same vein. I’m not even talking about the old “where do you get your ideas?” thing, although that’s a part of it — but what I find annoying is this persistent misconception that in order to do good work, you need good ideas.
At work, we recently had a writer position open, and we got about 200 applications — an amazing number; we don’t usually get anywhere near that many people applying for a job. I don’t want to get into details here; that kind of thing is sort of confidential and the process is ongoing, but I don’t think I’m betraying any confidences when I say that in addition to many wonderfully talented people, there was a considerable number of people who had no writing or game industry experience at all, but they felt they were very creative and had great ideas, and that this somehow qualified them for the position. (Typically, these applicants neglected to even include their resume or writing samples or anything with their application.) Many of these people probably weren’t very serious when they sent off their application, but you could tell that some of them were.
For some of them, that was probably a Dunning-Kruger effect moment — that in this particular field, they were essentially too incompetent to understand just how incompetent they were, or why, but I think there’s something more to this than just that. I think there’s this modern myth of “great ideas” that’s fairly pervasive — that if you just have that great insight, if you just can rattle off great ideas and have this wonderful and entirely non-specific creativity pouring out of every orifice, that by itself is enough to guarantee success.
I really don’t think so. On the whole, ideas are completely overrated. Creative people have no shortage of ideas; if anything, their problem is that they have too many of them, all the time. The challenge lies not in getting ideas, but in finding good ways of doing something with them. Sure, some ideas are better than others, but I don’t think anybody who’s even halfway serious about doing creative work is typically going to be seriously whining about not having ideas. I’m sure there’s the odd exception to this, but the vast majority of the time, the topics of lamentation tend to be more about lack of money, time, resources, opportunities or motivation — you know, real problems. Ideas? Ideas are cheap and plentiful.
And don’t get me wrong, there are definitely bad, boring, banal and downright stupid ideas, and some people just have enormously bad judgment when it comes to evaluating them. Good ideas are important. But they aren’t scarce.
When I think about this, I always think about Elmore Leonard, whose actual plots are often amazingly simple. His ideas, to be frank, often aren’t that interesting in themselves. And yet, Leonard’s writing just flows — what’s actually happening may not be all that complicated, but the magic is in how he tells it. It’s all in the execution.
There’s that old thing about every writer having a million bad words inside them, and once you’ve written them out of your system, the good words will come. There’s a lot of truth to that — practice does make perfect, or at least adequate. But if you want to write, what you really need to do is read. Just read. And think about it as you do.
That’s easier said than done — you kind of need to train yourself to pay attention. Why is the writer saying that, instead of this? Do you like the phrasing or the pacing? If not, why not? What would you do differently? How would you do it? What is the writer really telling you here? What is the writer telling you by omission?
I don’t mean that it should be some kind of a deeply spiritual exercise where you engage in thinly veiled navel-gazing and get off on how smart you are now that you “get” this book. I just mean you should make it a point to pay attention to things other than the content in the story you’re reading.
It’s obvious that you should read things you love, but what may not be as obvious is that you should also read at least some books that you hate — how else are you going to learn to articulate what it is that you hate about them? I’m not talking about literary criticism, I should add, I’m talking about craftmanship. It’s all an opportunity to learn. And while there may be a single book that really blows your mind and unlocks something in your own head, that’s rare. Mostly, this is an ongoing process. The choice to read or not read a single book is probably not significant, but whether you read five or twenty — or fifty — books a year is.
And yes, by all means, emulate. Steal like a motherfucker — and I don’t mean “plagiarize,” and if you don’t know the difference, that probably means you’re not ready, yet. Your work is inevitably going to be informed by the work of other creators, and that’s how it should be. Is your work too derivative? All that means is you need to get better at stealing — or, to quote somebody who put it much better than I can:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
— Jim Jarmusch
If this sounds like some kind of a “stop whining and pull yourself up by your bootstraps” thing, I apologize. I’m honestly not a big fan of that kind of rhetoric, and I swear I don’t mean it like that. But I do think people love to mystify the creative process to a great extent and ignore how much of it is just commitment and hard work. Writing is not easy work, and it can take a lot out of you; if nothing else, to do it is to open yourself up to criticism, and that can be downright harrowing.
Craftmanship and dedication count. It’s not a coincidence that people who get things done tend to excel in both of those things — and people who prefer talking about being a writer to actually writing don’t.
So, last month, I wrote a book. It’s called Fadeout, and it’s a NaNoWriMo novel. It’s a kind of a crime/mystery thing with some, er, SF/horror/general weirdness elements thrown in for good measure. It’s got a bit of suspense, romance, fistfights, a lot of cussin’ and even an ending, although there was a point when that was by no means to be taken for granted.
If you’re not familiar with NaNoWriMo, here’s the deal: the idea is to write a novel of at least 50,000 words during 30 days. Yes, this is a challenge, and yes, it means that you’ll end up with something very first drafty and unpolished, and that definitely applies to Fadeout. I go into more detail about the process and the end result in the introduction I wrote for the book itself, but, you know, fair warning: it gets kinda rough in places! Still, it was a challenge (I almost hit 70,000 words), and I’m happy that I made it.
Showing something this rough to people is hard — seriously, it’s like sitting down in a barber’s chair and asking for a shave with a straight razor, and then insisting that the chair must be installed on a horse-drawn cart that races down a cobblestoned street. It’s scary, putting out something like this. But just the same, I’ve decided to embrace the NaNoWriMo spirit and let people read it if they want to, because, goddammit, I took the challenge and I beat it, and it was worthwhile.
So, I’ve decided to publish Fadeout as an e-book. It’s a .mobi file, which means it’s compatible with Kindle and other e-book readers. If you don’t have one, you can also read it on your computer and most mobile devices by downloading the free Kindle software.
You can download Fadeout here.
I’m not charging anything for this, this is a free download — to be frank, it doesn’t feel right to ask for money for something that is so clearly a first draft, it’s a little like baking half a cake and then charging money for it. That said, if you do download it, I’d appreciate it if you also made a donation to Amnesty International. They do very important human rights work all over the world, and they can’t do it without support. Entirely up to you, but it’d be awesome.
The cover is by my friend Timo Vuorensola, who is a very cool guy, and you should check him out. He’s currently working on a movie about Moon Nazis, which keeps him super busy, so I’m very grateful that he took the time to help me out.
Oh, and this is the first time I’ve actually constructed an e-book. I’m pretty sure I’ve done everything correctly (it seems to work just fine on my own Kindle, at least!), but if you spot something that doesn’t work properly, please let me know so I can fix it.
Hope you enjoy it!
Exciting and Interesting Copyright Stuff
I’ve decided to go with a Creative Commons License for Fadeout.
Fadeout by Mikko Rautalahti is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
What this means in practice is that you can download the book, and distribute it however you please (Want to give a copy to a friend? Go for it!), but you can’t alter the file in any way, you can’t sell it or otherwise make money from it, and you have to say I made it.
I recently read all four books of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, which concerns the adventures of the torturer Severian in the far, far, ridiculously far future, in which Earth’s resources are getting to be pretty much depleted, the Sun is old and weak, and humans live in a society that is primitive, somewhat barbaric and yet past the point where technology is definitely sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic.
(Yeah, some spoilers ahead, if you’re sensitive to that kind of stuff.)
I just finished reading The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead, by Max Brooks. Obviously, this is a tremendously important book. It tells you how to protect yourself and your family from the living dead, starting from the simple and obvious lessons, such as “don’t try to engage them in hand-to-hand combat” all the way to the big questions, like how to survive once civilization has self-destructed in the wake of the inevitable zombie apocalypse. It deals with weapons and tactics and gives excellent advice on all aspects of survival.
Except one — and that is a glaring and shocking omission.
As useful as the book is, it glosses over perhaps the most important survival lesson of all. I don’t know whether this is because Brooks assumes that it’s so obvious that it doesn’t need to be stated, or perhaps because he lacks the stomach for covering it. I’m talking about the human factor. Certainly, when surrounded by zombies, the practical issues involve neutralizing the threat and/or escaping from the area. But what about afterwards — what about when someone has been bit, or when you encounter your best friend among the walking dead?
The psychological pressure of encountering a mass of zombies is staggering as it is, and Brooks merely talks about taking leadership classes and studying psychology in passing. This is a grave omission, because what the survivors of a zombie encounter absolutely have to understand, accept and — without hesitation — act on is the simple fact that the enemy is no longer human. Even if the zombie was only an hour ago your lover, your child, your parent or your sibling, you absolutely cannot hesitate. If it’s any consolation, you can rest assured that the zombie feels no pain when you put it down.
In the same vein, the book really should discuss the issues of psychological weaknesses and the impact stress can have on a person’s judgement. In a crisis situation, when people feel that they’ve lost everything, often what they have left takes on a disproportionately important role in their minds. Pets, for example, may become central to their existence, and if that pet is somehow threatened, the owner may become completely irrational and oblivious to the danger that seems obvious to a survivor who is in better control of his faculties. This is an understandable reaction, and in a better world and a less dangerous situation, it could be let run its course… but when you are under attack by the shambling hordes of the undead, that is not a luxury your group can afford.
In many documented cases, survivors have wandered off from a safe area in search of their pets, only to return as one of the enemy. Likewise, many people have recognized a loved one in the group of zombies and allowed them to enter the stronghold, fully believing that they will not be harmed — with entirely predictable results. The wishful urge — which may sometimes go so far as to lead to a survivor imprisoning a former loved one in the insane hope that he or she might somehow turn back into a human being! — is understandable, but it is essential for survival that it be crushed immediately. When someone has been bit, there is no hope. They are essentially dead. Naturally, while they are still capable of rational thought, they should be treated with respect and humanity. Absolutely. But let there be no pretense that they will not turn, or that they might retain any of their humanity afterwards. They will turn, and when they do, they hunger.
It should be accepted that some people are simply not mentally equipped to deal with these situations. Denial is a staggeringly powerful psychological force that can defy any amount of reason and logic. One should never just assume that everyone in a group of survivors understands and accepts the harsh realities.
People who show any symptoms like this should, at the very least, be directly and uncompromisingly explained the realities of the situation. Unless you are absolutely certain that they understand and accept them and are capable of acting in a rational manner, they must be restrained — or, if the circumstances require it, eliminated.
This is harsh, absolutely. It’s also unfair. But it must be done. Not only does it set an example to everyone else, it is also vital for the survival of the group. Don’t kid yourself: you cannot take the chance. My considerable personal experience with zombies has shown time and time again that letting those who compromise the group’s security run loose is simply suicidal. With zombies, you just don’t get any second chances. Do not let some weak or insane fool run rampant and doom you all.
I’m angry and shocked that Brooks doesn’t address this vital issue at all in a book that could otherwise be considered an exemplary guide to surviving the hordes of living dead that may come at any moment. Still, I have to admit that this unfortunate omission notwithstanding, The Zombie Survival Guide is the definitive book on the subject.
Okay — thanks to a couple of unforeseen delays, the print-on-demand version of Beyond the Storm: Shadows of the Big Easy took its time to become available, but here it is. Just so’s you know.
While you’re busy buying your own copy (and it’s actually a fairly pretty book) and basking in the warm feeling of doing good to your fellow man, I’m off to Barcelona for a press gig.
Comments Off on no, this time i mean it
So, we made a book. It’s called Beyond the Storm: Shadows of the Big Easy, and it’s pretty much a collection of whatever stuff we could throw together at a fairly short notice. You get some RPG scenarios, a couple of minigames, some short stories and essays… well, like I said, a collection of stuff. That said, it’s not bad stuff, and it looks very nice, thanks to the excellent artists we managed to rope for this one and the downright Herculean efforts of my friend Adam Jury. Personally, I edited a chunk of the book and wrote a short story for it, titled Take Me to Mardi Gras. I think it turned out pretty well, especially considering that we put the whole thing together in under a month.
Anyway, it’s a book worth buying, because — and pay attention now, this is the part that really matters — the proceeds go directly to the Red Cross Hurricane Katrina relief fund. That is to say, I ain’t making any money off this and neither is anyone else involved with the project, but the victims of the New Orleans disaster are. It’s a good cause, and as the whole thing clocks in at about 160 pages, you get some serious bang for your buck.
You can either get it as a PDF for ten bucks, or if you wanna get fancy and make like a big spender, you can get a real paper copy of your own as print-on-demand. Either way, considering the shape of the dollar right now, that’s particularly cheap going for us euro types. There’s also a preview to give you an idea of what the book actually contains.
So please, go ahead and buy it. I realize that I’m kind of like one of those people who pester you at train stations and other public places, asking for a donation, but there’s one important difference: with me, you get something fairly substantial in return.
Go on, buy the goddamn thing.