The Good We Do

This is a story about kindness, art, and healing. It follows from the most amazing email arriving in my inbox this week. But to do it justice, and to understand how it brought me to tears, I have to start from the beginning.

About 2 years ago, I worked with a small Belgian studio called Fishing Cactus. Together, we made a video game called Epistory - Typing Chronicles. It's a typing adventure game: which means the whole game is played through the keyboard and all interaction happens by typing words on the screen. It's a bit like Typing of the Dead. Or Mavis Beacon meets Zelda.

I was closely involved in making this game: I designed the story from an early prototype, wrote the script, worked with the voice actress, and helped integrate the story into the level design. It remains one of the most rewarding projects I've had the pleasure to work on, and is still the jewel in my portfolio.

Epistory has largely been pretty successful, although it’s taken quite a while for it to get there and it hasn’t been quite as lucrative for the studio as you might think. Generally speaking, I’d say it’s received a lot of great feedback from players, a bit of good feedback from critics, and a not insignificant amount of negative feedback - especially where the story is concerned. The good reviews make my heart sing. The bad ones, well, let’s just say I don’t dwell on them.

Earlier this week, Fishing Cactus received an email from a fan, which they forwarded on. The studio is pretty good to me and they tend to send the positive feedback my way (they’re kind enough to filter out the bad stuff).

Now, I have to put this out there early: I am not a crier. I’m not trying to be macho - I’m about as un-macho as you can get. It’s just one of those things. I am a pretty emotional person though, with a terrible knack for feeling other peoples' pain. A friend of mine once described a 'surfeit of empathy', a phrase which has stayed with me. Passers-by in the street will often bring about an unbearable wave of despair and sadness in me. Sentimental endings in films have a tendency to make me well up - even bad ones. But tears, well, I don't think I've cried for twenty years.

This email almost made me start bawling my eyes out in the office. And again, today, when a follow-up came through.

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There Was A Girl...

Let me try and summarise the email.

Audrey - I'm going to call her Audrey - recently fell into a coma after suffering a stroke. Mercifully she woke up after a week, but she'd lost some dexterity and coordination. In particular the ability to type. Audrey's daughter had played Epistory and recommended it to her mother to play.

Now Audrey isn't a gamer, but she managed to finish the game. This, as far as I’m concerned, is an amazing enough thing in itself. But she goes on to talk about how she and her daughter fell into tears at the ending, and credits the game with helping her recovery.

Here's a lightly edited extract from her email:

I wanted you to know that your game made a huge difference in my life. There is so much bad going on, it's nice to recognise when some good happens.

A couple of months ago, I got a clot in my brain. This put me in a coma for a week or so, and really I don't remember the next month well at all.

My daughter sat by my bed most of the day. I think it was a horrible and scary time for my family. Eventually I came back, but my hands wouldn't work right, and I couldn't even type a short sentence.

I'm 62, and have never been into games. But I started playing Epistory, and yep, my typing got better. So I kept doing it for days. I'm almost back to my old typing skills!

Then I reached the end of the game though, and collapsed into tears.

We've since heard from her daughter, too, who has explained how they finished the game together and cried at the ending.

Every day I saw her progressing through Epistory, and putting her mind and hands back in order. I really think the powerful combination of story, puzzles, mystery, and modulated difficulty made this game the perfect thing for her. When she finished the game, we cried together, so happy, sad, and moved.

Hearing this story broke my heart. I was so humbled and happy that my story, and our game, played a part in someone's recovery. That it touched someone in this way. That art could do something so important. So practical. So beautiful.

Just writing this out is making me feel emotional. I don’t think I can put into words how it makes me feel - I suspect you can understand, though.

Desert Dream

You may wonder why Epistory brought this kind of reaction from Audrey and her daughter. Why it, in particular, struck such a connection.

This next bit has some heavy spoilers about Epistory so if you want to play the game, I recommend you skip forward. There’s a nice bit in the next section (I hope) where I wax lyrical about the art of writing and the value of feedback. I use the word ‘fuck’, too, in an effort to end with a big finish.

Reading this next paragraph will change your experience and you can't turn the clock back. Proceed with caution.

Epistory is, on the surface, a game about a writer trying to complete her story. As you move through the world, you hear the voice of a narrator responding to your actions. By typing the words that appear on screen, the player drives the story forward.

But there's a layer of meaning beneath this - and it turns out that actually, the player character is lying in a coma, that the story and game world are actually a representation of the sleeping mind trying to recover. By typing words you aren't just killing bugs, opening treasure chests and expanding the world: you're restoring someone's memory. Each word you type, each discovery you make, brings her a little closer to waking up. Almost every player action in the game has a metaphorical meaning and is directly tied to this idea of recovery and regrowth.

There’s a lot to say about this, and its wider reception amongst players. But that’s a blog post for another day.

But you can see why I’m so pleased to hear the game resonate in this particular way.

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Signal Fires

Hearing stories like this from fans (although obviously we don't often get them QUITE like this) is such a tonic for me - or indeed any artist. This stuff keeps us going. We say we’re writing for ourselves, or to scratch an itch. And that’s usually true, to some extent. But I think the dragon we all chase is to write words which spark an emotional reaction in someone else. We write to make people cry.

It’s easy to forget, but games, stories, films, music - they're all made by people. When you buy a finished thing off the shelf, that end product is so far removed from the people and processes behind it. And of course, money changes everything: paying for something feels very different to, say, a hand-written note which someone has given you. Even I am lulled into forgetting how much love goes into stuff.

But artists are not automatons, or emotionless Vulcans, or highly-drilled, steely-eyed elites. We're just humans. We have good days and bad, we make mistakes, and we suffer to finish our projects. Even if we get paid to do so - that doesn't magically invalidate the stress, the worry, the disagreements, the doubt, the emotions we tap into and the criticism we receive.

Yet, for the hundred bad or indifferent reviews artists get - it only takes one or two hints of true human connection to make it all feel worthwhile.

You know, writing takes a lot of faith. Sometimes you get lucky and idea pops into your head - a story you want to tell, a moment you want to share, an idea you want to explore. And then you get lucky enough to find the time and energy (both are in short supply these days) to follow through and actually commit that idea to the page. But before you can show anyone (and let's not get onto how hard it is to get any bugger to actually read it) you have to have faith that you've successfully translated the idea in your head onto the page, and that other people will, more or less, get the same idea. That’s kind of how you know it’s finished.

And if you're able to actually get something published, you probably won’t actually hear very much about it. No matter how many times you refresh your inbox. You’ll maybe see a few sales, a few reviews. You still have to take it on faith that you made the right decisions, told the right story, and managed to engage someone. Explicit detailed feedback is rare - and tends to be critical. You have to take it on faith that if someone got to the end, and was moved to write about it, you've done something right.

If after all this you have the faith to start all over again and release something new, then you're made of steel and stardust and finer things than me. I've hardly written anything new for nearly a year (and where did that time go?!).

I do a lot of performance poetry these days. One benefit of that is getting to see your audience in the eye. Getting immediate feedback, a sense of the emotion in the room, the adrenaline kick which I’m now addicted to. But still you lean on faith: does that silence denote boredom, or rapt attention? Are those laughs for you, and are they in the right place? Does applause mean genuine enjoyment, or is it just politeness?

And even then, when people tell me they enjoy a set, or they find me funny, I am drowning in questions. Was it funny in the right places? Why was it funny? Did they get the joke or did they just enjoy the bit where I say 'Fuck'? Did I even perform any funny material in that set?

So I try to have faith that, if anything ever goes public, people will probably enjoy it. And probably for the right reasons. Maintaining this faith isn't easy - especially when you publish to silence, or your audience is remote, or just if, like most artists, you’re plagued with self-doubt and insecurity.

To hear a story like Audrey’s, to hear first-hand that you've been part of a project which has touched someone like that - well, that's a real and rare blessing. I can't tell you how grateful I am to be part of it. How lucky.

So thank you Epistory. Thank you Fishing Cactus and your amazing team. And thank you Audrey. You have changed my life.