Author: Dean Holden

Surviving Finals Week: Keeping Focused, and Letting Loose

The writing process is a strange thing. What do you think of when you hear “the writing process?”

Maybe something like Prewriting -> Writing -> Revision?  How about First draft -> Revision -> Final draft? Or maybe you think about it in terms of steps. Like, you do research, then outlining, then writing, then adding citations?

These are all fine. The important thing is knowing what kind of process works for you. But equally important, and rarely considered, are the parts of the writing process that actually have nothing to do with you writing something. Have you ever been stumped on a project or idea of some kind, and then BAM! An idea comes to you at the most random time? Like, just before you go to bed, or while you’re out with friends, or upon your first mouthful of mac and cheese?

OmNomN… I just thought of something AMAZING!

That’s because your brain never really shuts off from the things you need it to do. The temptation, especially as finals week approaches, is to force yourself to sit down and make work come out of you. But sometimes, just plain and simply, you just cannot focus. For whatever reason, it’s the wrong time to be doing this. Forcing yourself to work late into the night might seem like you’re being diligent, but it might not actually help you get things done.

Sometimes, you have to know when to take some time. If you’re sitting there, staring at a blank screen, and nothing is coming out of your head, staring at it longer probably won’t help. What might help is giving yourself a break. Play a game. Call a friend. Get some food. Chill on Facebook. Watch an episode or two of Breaking Bad. Whatever you want. Continue reading “Surviving Finals Week: Keeping Focused, and Letting Loose”

Voice Acting in Digital Narratives

Back in my day (I’m currently 27, but that’s like 256 in video game years) playing a video game with a story meant a lot of reading. Like, a novel’s worth.

When I was little, I would read books, but I would also play Chrono Trigger, and those were very similar actions, as far as I was concerned. Chrono Trigger required a little more active thought, but they were of roughly equal literary value (I still feel that way, though the writing in some of those 90’s-era RPGs was a bit hokey).

But in the last decade, playing a game with a storyline has become a lot more like watching a movie. There are cutscenes that James Cameron would be proud of, skillfully written plot arcs, and voice work by actual real people. At one point, voice acting meant having something to listen to while you read the dialog box in major events. Game development companies lacked the means or the desire to fully voice a game, so you’d get a few lines with highly compressed audio wherever the developers felt like it.

Today, voice acting in video games is so prevalent, that what was once known as the “text box” is now known as “subtitles.” And their default setting when you start the game is “off.”

This a big reason why video games have flooded the mainstream media in recent years. In the same way that movies are more prevalent in the mainstream than books (though most movies are based on books), new games are more mainstream than old games (though most new games are based on old games).

I don’t particularly wish to make a value judgement on whether that’s a good or bad thing in terms of the literary value of modern video games, but it does present a new challenge for those who create narratives in the digital age:

Voice acting is a thing. In the same way bad acting can throw off the impact of a good movie, bad voice acting can ruin a well-written story. The delivery is every bit as important as the composition itself. Continue reading “Voice Acting in Digital Narratives”

Digital Storytelling: Writing to Augment Reality

Do you know why fiction is so much fun? Fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, even realistic drama?

It’s fun because reality can be so boring. Elves don’t exist? Space battles with lasers and explosions aren’t yet feasible? No such thing as magic? Everyday people have no cold cases to solve?

Ugh. What, then, is reality even good for? All the fun stuff is reserved for fictional settings and characters.

That is, of course, unless someone takes it into their own hands to make reality more interesting. Alternate reality games (also called augmented reality games, or just ARGs), are games that create a fictional world around their players, but that fictional world overlaps with the real world. In other words, you play the game not with a controller or an interface, but with your real world actions.One of the most accessible versions of a ARG is the jogging game Zombies, Run!

Fans of The Walking Dead should appreciate this. This is a mobile app, in which you play a game about running from zombies by — get this — actually running in real life. You put earphones in, switch on your favorite music, and go for a run to the sweet sound of bloodthirty zombies who got louder and closer if you don’t keep up the pace. Continue reading “Digital Storytelling: Writing to Augment Reality”

Exploring “Loved” as a Short Story about Gender and Relationships

Some time ago, I shared a flash game called Dys4ia that dealt with one person’s experience with hormone replacement therapy.

There were gameplay elements to it, but I argued for it as more of an interactive narrative that required user interaction to tell parts of the story.

This week, we’ll discuss a similar game with similar theming. This game also attempts to tell a story through gameplay, and it also tries to make you a little bit uncomfortable.

Loved Title

The game (or “short story,” as creator Alexander Ocias classifies it) is called “Loved,” and you can play it (for free) right here in about 10 minutes or less. It tackles gender roles to an extent, but the game is really about making players understand the nature of an emotionally abusive relationship. Continue reading “Exploring “Loved” as a Short Story about Gender and Relationships”

Grammar: The Difference Between “Important” and “Most Important”

The Great Grammar Debate

It’s a normal occurrence in a writing center appointment. I will ask, “what would you like to work on today?”  The response typically includes — or starts with — the word “grammar.”

I want to stress, first and foremost, that this is okay. There is nothing wrong with wanting your college paper to contain Standard American English grammar, especially considering how it generally is part of your grade. That said, many writing assignments have grammar and mechanics as part of a paper’s grade, but it often accounts for roughly 10 percent or less of that paper’s grade. That means there’s another 90 percent of that paper to work on, so why wouldn’t we talk about that, too? Put another way, a paper can have absolutely perfect grammar and still fail miserably. Continue reading “Grammar: The Difference Between “Important” and “Most Important””

The Fourth Wall and the Sledgehammer in Spec Ops: The Line

Many of us grew up hearing about the evils of using the word “you” in writing. It is often taught — somewhat lazily — as a steadfast rule, when really it’s more of a way to keep you from making unintended shifts in tense.

Often, in writing, we’re supposed to put our audience in a glass box, where they’re seen, but not interacted with. This is true not only in writing, but in many forms of media.

This is why it’s so jarring (and rare) to see someone on a TV show or in a movie look directly at the camera.

That would be breaking the “fourth wall,” that fictional plane that separates actor from audience, beyond which we suspend our disbelief and accept that the fiction we see is in an enclosed space, and that the characters on screen are ignorant of anybody watching. We expect that we are invisible spectators, watching events unfold independent of our own existence.

But what happens when you break that fourth wall on purpose? That’s something that happens, particularly when you want to say something directly to your audience. I’m doing it right now, for starters. But I want to talk about a game that does this in a more subtle, more controversial, and (I would argue) more meaningful way.

Spec Ops: The Line logo - foreground person with bandana covering face, background people marching with guns

Spec Ops: The Line succeeds in many ways both as a game and as a storytelling device. As a representative of the intersection between video game and digital narrative, it may be the most important game to come out in several years. But before I get ahead of myself with praise, some background. Continue reading “The Fourth Wall and the Sledgehammer in Spec Ops: The Line”

Bastion and Narrative Voice

If you’ve been into The Writing Center here at MSU, you’ll hear us talk an awful lot about “voice.” How do you create a unique voice? How do you maintain it? Why in the world does it matter?

The short answer is that the voice you use changes the way you connect with your audience.

Sometimes it’s something as simple as the difference between saying, “I saw some kinda eagle the other day” to your friends, or, “I suddenly spotted a majestic winged creature approximately forty-eight hours ago,” in a paper to a writing instructor you’re trying to impress with your eloquence (this usually doesn’t actually work, for the record). In a newspaper, it shows up as “A red-tailed hawk was observed Monday afternoon.”

All say the same things, but differently, and to different people. They sound different, because those lines have the same information with different goals. The first is about starting conversation, the second about sounding cool, the third about impartially relaying information.

The point? The voice you use in writing has to correspond with the purpose you’re trying to achieve. Perhaps the best recent example of this is a game called Bastion.

Continue reading “Bastion and Narrative Voice”

Telling a Story with Sound, Gameplay, and Skrillex

Screenshot of a pixel art character with sword and shield, looking out at a glitched game world

Here at The Writing Center, we run something called the Digital Video Workshop at least a dozen times (most likely more) every semester.

In it, we talk about how different elements of a video work together to create meaning. There are both visual and audible elements in any video worth watching, and if it’s well made, the sound matches what you see. In fact, doesn’t just match it; it frames it. The sound takes what you see on the screen, and changes the way you process it.

And if you don’t believe me, see if this changes your mind.

Continue reading “Telling a Story with Sound, Gameplay, and Skrillex”