go play your video games

courtneythis is not a test, video games, writing

I’ve decided to modify my Blog Once a Month plan to Blog at Least Twice a Year. I’m sure I will find it just as impossible BUT time spent not blogging is time spent writing books, so there’s that! Also time spent not blogging is time spent playing video games and as it happens, I am going to blog about video games! If I didn’t play video games instead of blogging, I wouldn’t even have THIS much to blog about so it all works out somehow. I don’t know. Hi!

Did you know without a certain video game there might not be a This is Not a Test? It’s true. I’ve mentioned in several places that writing This is Not a Test was an incredibly nervewracking and challenging experience. All of my books are difficult in their own special ways, but this time around I put a lot of pressure on myself based on what I assumed people would expect from a zombie novel written by me. I wanted to please everyone. In attempting that, I got farther and farther away from the zombie novel I wanted to write. This is one of the worst things a writer can do to themselves or have happen to them. It’s something I should’ve known better than to let happen but it did. I got so tangled up in it all, I reached a point where I hated zombies and writing about them. If you have followed my blog for any length of time, you know this is a Big Deal. Also tragic.

I pulled the book.

I’d heard of that happening to authors before–entire books coming off the table because, for whatever reason, they are just not working. Long before TINAT, I used to imagine how that might feel to a writer and I figured it would suck. The reality of it was far worse than anything I imagined. Though there were seeds of what became the final book inside it, the first draft of the novel did not work. I did not know how to make it work on a level that would satisfy everyone and ended up with something that satisfied no one and every time I tried to start it over, even with that knowledge, I somehow made it worse. I lost my passion. These are all understatements. I emailed my agent and I told her I can’t write this and then we told my editor and like that, This is Not a Test was no longer to be my fourth book.

Instead of sweet relief, I felt like I’d failed everyone. And I felt stupid because I could not seem to write about a subject that I love. No one gave me the impression that I was a stupid failure, but it was how I felt. And so I tabled a new idea and got to work and…

Trying to write THAT book was so. Much. Worse. I could not see it as anything but a symbol of defeat. Like, This is What I Wrote Because Zombies Got the Best of Me. Which in turn knotted me up so badly, I just stopped writing. Which was worse. I’m trying to tell this story with a light hand but it was a very bad time. Imagine a montage of a lot of crying. I was at a loss, totally stuck, completely burnt out and in desperate need of fuel.

And then.

My laptop started acting funny.

I am extremely hard on my laptops. I guess they can be turned off and maybe you should do that every once in a while, but pft. Anyways, I needed a replacement to write (or not write as I was doing at the time) and I got one and I realized something nifty about it. My new laptop could handle GAMES. Easily. And so I decided to get myself a game. Apparently, I did not hate zombies as much as I thought because there was only one game I wanted.

I played and played and played and played and played. Left 4 Dead is beautiful in its simplicity! You play as one of four survivors, going through different campaigns, killing zombies with guns and melee weapons. At the end, you signal for rescue and fend off the undead until it comes. There was something so soothing about fighting my way through the hordes, listening for the musical cues attached to appearances of Tanks and Hunters…

At first I thought it was just helping with the horrible stress I was under. But it was more than that.

It was fuel!

What I love most about Left 4 Dead (besides killing the hell out of zombies) is the story and characters. At a glance, Left 4 Dead seems light on story, but there is so much of it to glean from the government posters and notes and graffiti left by other survivors in buildings and safe houses. The green flu! Carriers! I loved filling in the blanks.

And the characters! You’d think there wouldn’t be a lot of character development in such a fast-paced shooter, but the characters reveal a lot about themselves in the way they interact with each other and their surroundings. A character remarks about not being able to get blood out of a wedding dress and “don’t ask me how I know that” and my mind is like, HOW DOES HE KNOW THAT? Over the course of the campaign, character growth is effectively rendered through dialogue alone. I’d play through so many times on so many settings just to hear them say something new. I loved the way each character’s personal backgrounds informed the way they responded to the zombie apocalypse, how the zombie apocalypse informed the way they responded to each other. I remembered that was what I loved about zombies stories–how personal stories are filtered through the apocalypse. Which was what I had been trying to do before I got too worried about everyone else. The seeds were definitely there in that first draft, I just had to dig them out of the mess.

Thanks to Left 4 Dead, I remembered that they were there. I’ll never forget playing and having the book I wanted to write reassert itself and then thinking, wait, I don’t hate zombies! I never hated zombies! I LOVE ZOMBIES!

Also I love Nick.

I opened up my Word doc and got to work. I pulled the other book. By no means was the process of writing This is Not a Test easier once I got past that hurdle, but I didn’t lose sight of the novel so easily the second time around. And that would not have happened without Left 4 Dead.

So that is the story of how I traumatized my editor and agent, maybe! But also it is especially the story of how Left 4 Dead saved This is Not a Test. Consequently, there are two nods to Left 4 Dead in This is Not a Test. I won’t say what they are! If you’re a fan, maybe you will catch them. I felt it was the least I could do since it saved my book.

THANKS, VALVE! You’re the best.

So you’d think after saving my novel, Left 4 Dead wouldn’t have to do another nice thing for me ever again. But it did! It pointed me in the direction of the most awesome thing ever: more video games!

Portal made want to write outside my comfort zone and made me think hard about secondary characters–especially when the lead in Portal DOES NOT TALK AT ALL! The way Left 4 Dead wasn’t afraid to let players fill in the story through sharp lines of dialogue tickled my brain. Both Portal and Left 4 Dead made me think about effective and compelling ways to distribute information.

Games like Portal and Half-Life 2 helped me “see” worldbuilding. It might sound silly to you, but my books can have an intensely narrow focus and it can be hard for me to see past my protagonist. Someday, I would like to write about larger worlds, different worlds–I don’t know what kind, yet–but have always been intimidated by the idea of building them and feeding that world to the reader. I still am intimidated, but something about seeing and actively participating in these strange new landscapes gave me ideas on how to see past a protagonist, or how to feed a world to a reader through a protagonist.

The eerie, beautiful aesthetics of games like Limbo and Alan Wake remind me of the importance of mood. Alan Wake made me remember being a kid and being scared of the dark and all the bizarre rituals I’d invented to fend off monsters. It reminded me of the universalities of things like that and how important they are and how deeply they can make a story resonate.

I actually just finished Half-Life 2 and it was crazy good. The environments were so bleak and The Combine terrified me and the fight felt hopeless and I wasn’t sure I liked it–but suddenly you’re taking back the earth little by little and it’s like yeaaaaah! It’s that moment you realize how invested you are, like when you’re reading a book and you can’t turn pages fast enough to find out what happens next.

My favourite game that I’ve played this year so far has been L.A. Noire. Cole Phelps’s character arc devastated me. The slow build of it was brilliant. I do not want to admit how much it made me cry but when I was done crying it made me want to type millions of words.

If you had told me a year ago how much gaming would positively impact my creative process, I would be like huh. I have always liked them but their influence levels over me have been negligible unless you count the Wii Fit Balance Board disappointedly saying “Oh” every time I got on it, shaming me into rhythm boxing. I am always looking for inspiration–whether it’s a book or a movie or a song–art that is so good it makes me want to improve my own and I am totally finding that in video games.

I feel dumb I wasn’t looking at them for this sooner.

And besides that, DID YOU ALSO KNOW THEY ARE SO MUCH FUN? Amazing.

I am going to go play one now!