Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Making a Beautiful Game


What is the point of getting good?

Let's put aside the material elements of vocation and occupation.  We will pretend you have a stable job and a wonderful significant other (others? I'm not judging) and somewhere in this materially satisfactory life of yours, you have the time and resources to train and play the game of your choice.

Let's also say that deep down you have no inferiority complex to fight or superiority complex to maintain, no fragile ego to preserve, no stained-glass self-image to keep unshattered.  You just really like the game.  So why not just hang out and unwind?  Why strive and invest and risk failure?

(Remember, no concrete/material/physical gains, and no neuroses involved)

In a story, there is an element that reigns above all others, the thing that every part of the story serves.  When you're learning to write, this is the only effect you truly care about.  Without it, you've lost.  You want the reader to keep asking: "What comes next?"

Plot, characters concept, dialogue, similes, metaphors, motifs, themes, atmosphere, setting, point-of-view, exposition, climax, none of it matters when the reader stops caring about what comes next.  That curiosity, that feeling, that's what every part of the story serves.  That effect is how you measure the strength and allure of the story.  You only want them to stop wondering what comes next when there's nothing left to read (sometimes not even then).

When it comes to our games, if you strip away material needs (like contracts and prizes) and insecurities and neuroses (like obsessive perfectionism and the need for validation through victory), that is the only thing that can last as motivation.  What will our game be tomorrow?  What can be done?  How good can it be?  How beautiful can we make our game?

That's why communities share knowledge, even when it isn't beneficial to the individuals.  The point isn't to defeat the ignorant.  We wouldn't distribute information, otherwise.  We wouldn't seek stronger opponents.  We would be content to remain the bigger fish in a tiny bowl with one smaller fish that we could bully forever.

But winning isn't valuable to us that way.  Our competitors are our friends and colleagues, because they help us create the game anew each time.  They help us make it better, sharper, faster, smarter, more cunning, more layered.  We want our opponents to know the tricks and find a way to land them anyhow.  We use sleight-of-mind, deception, mental artistry, we make them forget the things they thought they knew just long enough for them to work.  It's always fun to impress laypeople with simple magic tricks, but the real satisfaction comes from making a colleague think, for a breathtaking moment, that you might actually have supernatural power.

The following (very related) excerpt comes from a book by Patrick Rothfuss, called "The Wise Man's Fear":

"I think I'm finally getting my teeth into the game," I said an hour later after losing by the narrowest of margins.

Bredon pushed his chair away from the table with an expression of distaste.  "No," he said.  "Quite the opposite.  You have the basics, but you're missing the whole point."

I began to sort out the stones.  "The point is that I'm finally close to beating you after all this time."

"No," Bredon said.  "That's not it at all.  Tak is a subtle game.  That's the reason I have such trouble finding people who can play it.  Right now you are stomping about like a thug.  If anything you're worse than you were two days ago."

"Admit it," I said.  "I nearly had you that last time."

He merely scowled and pointed imperiously to the table.

I set to it with a will, smiling and humming, sure that today I would finally beat him.

But nothing could be further from the truth.  Bredon set his stones ruthlessly, not a breath of hesitation between his moves.  He tore me apart as easily as you rip a sheet of paper in half.

The game was over so quickly it left me breathless.

"Again," Bredon said, a note of command in his voice I'd never heard before.

I tried to rally, but the next game was worse.  I felt like a puppy fighting a wolf.  No.  I was a mouse at the mercy of an owl.  There was not even the pretense of a fight.  All I could do was run.

But I couldn't run fast enough.  This game was over sooner than the last.

"Again," he demanded.

And we played again.  This time, I was not even a living thing.  Bredon was calm and dispassionate as a butcher with a boning knife.  The game lasted about the length of time it takes to gut and bone a chicken.

At the end of it Bredon frowned and shook his hands briskly to both sides of the board, as if he had just washed them and was trying to flick them dry.

"Fine," I said, leaning back in my chair.  "I take your point.  You've been going easy on me."

"No," Bredon said with a grim look.  "That is far gone from the point I am trying to make."

"What then?"

"I am trying to make you understand the game," he said.  "The entire game, not just the fiddling about with stones.  The point is not to play as tight as you can.  The point is to be bold.  To be dangerous.  Be elegant."

He tapped the board with two fingers.  "Any man that's half awake can spot a trap that's laid for him.  But to stride in boldly with a plan to turn it on its ear, that is a marvelous thing."  He smiled without any of the grimness leaving his face.  "To set a trap and know someone will come in wary, ready with a trick of their own, then beat them.  That is twice marvelous."

Bredon's expression softened, and his voice became almost like an entreaty.  "Tak reflects the subtle turning of the world.  It is a mirror we hold to life.  No one wins a dance, boy.  The point of dancing is the motion that a body makes.  A well-played game of Tak reveals the moving of a mind.  There is a beauty to these things for those with eyes to see it."

He gestured at the brief and brutal lay of stones between us.  "Look at that.  Why would I ever want to win a game such as this?"

I looked down at the board.  "The point isn't to win?"  I asked.

"The point," Bredon said grandly, "is to play a beautiful game."  He lifted his hands and shrugged, his face breaking into a beatific smile.  "Why would I want to win anything other than a beautiful game?"

Knowing that you and your opponent are both strong, and that you have an amazing, intense match full of incredible moments is what ultimately makes the game rewarding.  The process of learning and creating greater and more beautiful matches is what keeps us coming back.  It's why we stay to watch the finals even when we've been eliminated.  Because we hope to see a beautiful game.  And the childish sense of wonder and want you feel when you witness it, the feeling of "man, I wish I could do that," is the hope that you'll be able to make one yourself.

Thanks for reading.

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