Written for Postmortem Magazine, for Issue 3: Connection.
There’s never enough time to stop. The deep shadows and lurching motion in the dungeon make the coming deadline loom ever closer. Fluorescent light pulses through the dirt floor, the unearthly howls of creatures unknown and unknowable come from all around, and the relentless pulse of the beat continues to the end of the song. Every step is another opportunity for failure, every second increases the terrible terminality, and the monsters coalesce to get bigger, scarier, and more numerous.
Life challenges often remind me of the roguelike genre of video games. So named after Rogue, a classic 1980 role-playing game in which the player is in a deep dungeon crawling with monsters. The monsters and dungeon are all procedurally generated, meaning they’re created by the computer every time a new game is started. They are, however, incredibly punishing, where each death in game is the end of that character, and none of the collected items, power ups, or level ups are retained. There have been many variations on this game over the years, retaining the procedural generation and unforgiving dungeon, but one of the more interesting variations is a rhythm-based game named Crypt of the Necrodancer.
Like its older brother, Rogue, Crypt of the NecroDancer is unforgiving. It tasks the player with exploring the dungeon of the NecroDancer, chained to the rhythm of the background music. Each floor comes with an exit stairwell, and a miniboss, which the player must defeat in order to continue. While it’s about as fair as a rougelike can be, it’s still unyielding. The end of the song will automatically drop the player to the next level willing or unwilling; the enemies equally willingly attack by themselves or in massive swarms, and minibosses will charge through the stage to attack the player immediately. There’s no respite, as every step is another enemy closer, another beat later, and another split-second decision that, in tense situations, could spell the catastrophic end of a run. Many runs have ended with just too much happening at once, my brain melting down as I closed the game in disgust.
To me, the act of creation is a lot like that. Sitting down to build something, to make something new, is an open world full of opportunity, but it’s also a giant risk. There are an infinite number of obstacles, and sometimes they come too hard, too fast, with you never having enough time, knowledge, or skill to succeed. The pressure mounts until it’s overwhelming. It’s too much, and there’s never enough time to stop and breathe.
As a result, quitting is the easiest thing in the world.
There are a million perfectly good reasons to stop doing something, and even half as many to keep at it. The harder the task, the easier it is to justify stopping. It’s said that simply doing well is good enough. Giving anything the old college try and not making the cut is just human; in fact, understanding one’s limits is healthy. No matter how many approaches to a problem there are, there’s at least one more good reason to stop, admit defeat, and move on to something more productive. It’s so easy to quit.
Creating is harder. The act of willing something into being from nothingness requires monumental effort. Little hurdles grow to impossible size, and juggling even simple tasks as they grow out of hand becomes a herculean struggle. The further along a project is, the sharper the edge of pressure becomes, and the sooner the deadlines collide. Like a juggler, with time, it’s too much keeping all the balls in the air. Even with the best efforts, good projects and good planning can fall victim to a sudden curveball. Worst of all, succeeding might not be enough. It’s almost like it asked for more out of the creator than it could give in return.
It’s always worth doing, though.
The act of creation isn’t just about the product. It isn’t just about making something new—a new game, book, article, or idea—but also a reflection of the mind that made it. Entertainment is nice, but the bigger part of creation is actually how something is made. The unique mind, history, and eye behind every work is unique, valuable, and adds something new.
It never feels like it during creation, though. Creation itself is grueling, cold, and uncaring. Everything that goes wrong becomes a weight chained to the creator. Like the monsters hiding within the flashy, vibrant halls of the NecroDancer, obstacles mount from all sides, crash into everything with reckless abandon, and carry with them infinite opportunities for danger. The pulsing, frantic beat of the background music drives with them, commanding faster and faster reactions as the tempo mounts with each passing zone. There isn’t enough time for thought, and often there’s barely enough time for reaction, and no matter how frantic it feels, the music keeps on beating.
In true roguelike tradition, Crypt of the NecroDancer runs end with no progress sustained. All of the items collected, the healing items stored and weapons brandished, disappear into the ether the moment the final heart fades from existence. However, there is one item that carries over from each run: diamonds. They’re found in each floor of the NecroDancer’s four zones, and while they can’t be used inside the dungeon, they can be spent toward permanent upgrades while in the lobby. Given these diamond upgrades, and the knowledge gleaned from every failed run, the dungeon slowly becomes a less grueling, less vicious place. As time goes on, it gets easier. Unknown quantities become familiar mechanics, and subsequent runs feel more natural, more human. While they’re still humbling, they become conquerable.
When creating, everything is overwhelming. There are an infinite number of possibilities, each of them with their own skill requirements and demands, yet they’re all important in some way. They’ll all be needed eventually. Every step forward invites the skeletons and slimes of required knowledge. Every attempt brings with it a multitude of compromises, reconfigurations to adjust for a yet-unlearned skill, and leaves a sea of discarded first, second, third, and fiftieth drafts in its wake. For every success in that first creation, there were tens to hundreds of failures, and all of them were, at the time, soul-crushing, disheartening, and made the next effort feel impossible.
For me, the day of deadlines always feel this way. Creative work itself feels to me like magic, with the talented and capable always seeming to do something impossible in an even more impossible amount of time. Contrary to the how the professionals seem around me, I feel like a mess of panic and uncertainty. For me, the day of the deadline tightens like a noose, reaching for my anxieties, indecision, and insecurity, and rakes at my resolve.
My first professional writing work was that way. Unlike the countless long-form forum posts and nonprofessional reviews I’d submitted to contests up to that point, this was the real deal. Actual editors, an actual outlet, with actual work–and I was terrified. I wrote out the piece, sent it off, and looked on in horror when it came back marred in red. That alone almost made me want to back out entirely. It had felt like I had failed on some fundamental level. That my work wasn’t good enough. I soldiered on, clarifying how I could, and the second draft was just as bad. Notes would ask for expansion and cleanliness, and I sent back something that I now know to be clunky and unprofessional, but then found to the pinnacle of my ability. Getting back draft after draft of corrections and editorial was heartbreaking. It made me want to quit writing.
Like my first writing attempt, first runs of Crypt of the NecroDancer often end in Zone 1, Floor 1: the easiest of the easy. Every mechanic was laid out and explained perfectly in the tutorial. And yet, runs end over a simple mistake, a mistake so fundamental it can be avoided reflexively with just a little practice. It does, however, present that opportunity for that first diamond and first upgrade.
That first skill learned is like the first diamond. With it comes the ability to do something better the next time. That first failure wasn’t an utter failure, since failure never is; it was that first diamond. The next draft is fractionally better and teaches another new skill. Any finished product carries with the specters of failed attempts, along with the skills that were learned through failure.
My later works were still rough, but none of them would have been possible had it not been for continued to plug away at it, writing even when I felt like I shouldn’t, and getting to work with amazing, talented writers all over the world. Every piece I put out, despite all having just as many editors notes and just as many corrections, was another skill I could file away in my mind, and apply to my next work. Every “failure” of a piece wasn’t as much of a failure as it made it out to be, but proved to be just part of the process. Even great pieces start very rough, and works that began with massive edits resulted in some of my best works, shining like diamonds in the cold, damp walls of the dungeon.
Crypt of the NecroDancer is a bit kinder than creating, in ways, as each failure is softened by the bright colors and cheery music. It begs to be continued, each run can have a follow-up, and the enthralling soundtrack cheers players on as much as it puts them on a frantic deadline. Every monster is represents a challenge, certainly, but the game wants the player to succeed. The diamonds, the music, the neon-lit disco tiled floors of the dungeon are all in service of the player’s success. No matter what happens, no matter the challenge, the music keeps on beating.
Making should be empowered the same way. No matter the challenges, no matter the obstacles, no matter how many failed attempts end up discarded, each obstacle will ultimately become a footnote in a creator’s history. What was impossible challenge on day one is a hurdle so miniscule it’s wiped out by a single keystroke on day 100. Every failure is another diamond. Every mistake is just the first step in a new skill. Every creation is something that no one else can accomplish. Every creator is a captain of their own life and perspective, and not a single creation is worth losing if it can be finished.
Very contrary to how I was once, I am now a much more confident writer. In addition to my own writings, I’m also an editor. The writers and editors around me are no longer scary superiors. They’re my peers. I spend my time making the very edits I thought impossibly professional, and infinitely superior to what I thought I could have been. In retrospect, the gravity I felt making that first foray into writing is somewhat silly, but it was infinitely difficult to swallow as a starting writer. Too fast, too challenging, too impossible. Now, I view the same notes, “failures” as I once viewed them, as necessary parts of learning new skills myself.
After all, failure is just the rough around your diamond. Don’t let failure stop you; there’s never enough time to stop. Like the relentless tempo of the NecroDancer, keep on beating.
Was written for Issue 3 of Postmortem Magazine, Connection. If you enjoyed this piece, go read the other works and issues. You can find more about Portmortem Magazine via Twitter.