The importance of meandering in making

This year, I plan to release Horizon: Stories of Home, a new tabletop role-playing game where players create a community, its members, and play any combination of them as they go on adventures, changing themselves and the community in the process. This is part of an ongoing series of blogposts about its development and the ideas behind it.

I was on a panel recently where the panellists were asked “how do you stay motivated every day?”

The short version of my answer was “I don’t”. I think it’s important to say that out loud, and upfront, and not let this image linger that tricks people into thinking that once people hit a certain level of success/stability/etc they have unwavering motivation, and makes them feel awful when that (impossible) standard doesn’t hold up for them.

(Yeah, I’m aware of the irony of this being the post I write directly after one about ‘how to stay committed to/motivated about long-term projects’. What can I say, I’m a very multi-faceted and complex person. Yeah, that should do it.)

I recently hit what I’d consider my biggest ever game-design-block. I was basically looking at Horizon and having a bit of a crisis over what the game was about, how to achieve the things I thought I wanted to do with it, staring at the bits that I love and feel so smooth and elegant (the world-building and shifting location generation) and wondering how the hell I get all the other bits to that place – and, moreover, why that answer didn’t seem obvious. Because I’d done it with one piece of the game, right? So I should just be able to do it again!

I started getting pretty stressed, tying myself in knots, thinking about the still-not-even-fixed Kickstarter date and thinking of myself as somehow getting further and further behind on this totally imaginary schedule. Making myself feel like I’d already fucked it.

And that’s never really a good place to write a game from. So I emailed my mentor, who reminded me I hadn’t fucked it and these deadlines were mine to define and I haven’t failed if I do end up altering my plans, and I breathed a bit, and I spent some time not being stressed. Which meant not directly thinking about Horizon.

So I watched a video about cyberpunk stories on Youtube (research for another game…). I liked the channel’s style, so I watched some of their other videos about tropes, structures, film analysis, etc. One video mentioned a book called The Anatomy of Story. It referenced a quote about ‘ghosts’. It made me think of Horizon. So I bought the ebook. And this morning I had my most productive writing session in weeks – I’m suddenly full of ideas about character traits, how they’re used mechanically, how to try and give things the weight and history I want with the speed I need, I’ve pushed at what this world can contain an the interesting stories that could take place in it…

This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t basically meandered through what I found interesting or appealing – working on the other game, researching the cyberpunk aspect, exploring the Youtube channel, reading the book…And it brings me back to one of the most frustrating but (in my opinion) unavoidable things when it comes to making (whether as a theatre-maker or a game-maker): how immensely valuable time is.

Because, the more time you have, the more varied and wandering mental journey you can have and the more accidental discoveries you’ll make. (Of course, there does need to be an endpoint, and it’s significant that my accidental discovery about Horizon happened during some very deliberate, direct, not-varied-and-wandering work on a different game.) *Especially* on solo projects, where there can be periods of bouncing things around in your own skull, meandering can be really important to genuinely exploring what you’re making and making new discoveries when there isn’t always someone else to prompt them.

I guess this also leads me back to one of the things that helps me stay motivated, or excited, or interested in projects when they’re long-term ones: discovering new things as a part of the making process. Whether it’s new ways of analysing story and character, or new pieces of art, or voices I enjoy hearing thoughts from. And I more typically stumble across those when I give myself time and space to meander for at least a bit. It means I’m not trying to just force myself to come up with all the answers to my questions, fully formed, out of nothing – eventually I discover something that points me towards it and things start slipping into place again.

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