Critiques and Feedback
In our editorial section, we check in with our Editor-in-Chief, Liz Kelly, for her thoughts on a wide variety of subjects related to storytelling and gaming. All potential spoilers will be labeled ahead of time, so that fans who wish to play specific games unspoiled will be able to set the editorial aside for a later time.
When you’ve been writing for as long as I have, you amass a fine collection of writing advice, both solicited and otherwise. One of the most commonly-repeated tips comes from Stephen King’s seminal tome, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In On Writing, King advises writers to edit ruthlessly by culling superfluous passages, no matter how much they enjoyed writing them. “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” In the decades since On Writing’s publication, King’s ‘kill your darlings’ mantra has been repeated so often that most authors you know are probably sick of hearing it, but the unfortunate truth is that it’s good advice. Even worse news: it’s also applicable to game writing.
On May 31st, 2023–a little under two weeks from this article’s publication—Atelier QDB’s Decarnation will launch on Steam and Nintendo Switch. Decarnation is a story-driven retro horror game based in 1980’s Paris, and I’m incredibly proud to say I’m one of the writers behind the title. Under the guidance of lead developer and writer Quentin De Beukelaer, I helped develop the scenario, the dialogue, and the English localization (which could be its own article). I’m thrilled with how the game turned out, and I can’t wait for the launch, but I doubt I’m the first to say it wasn’t always easy. Writing with other people means subjecting your ideas to other people’s scrutiny, which can be painful and frustrating even when you’re experienced in the field.
It’s already hard to kill your darlings, so how do you manage when someone else is wielding the hatchet? For me, the first question I try to ask myself is: “Is this the right choice for the story?” With Decarnation, I’m very fortunate to say that the majority of the edits made by Quentin and the rest of the team made the story better. Having said that, I am still human, so I always felt a little mournful when something I spent time on got cut—no matter how much it improved the story.
I’ll give you an example from Decarnation’s development process, one that came up somewhat late in the polishing stages. Without getting too deep into spoiler territory (because you should totally play the game and experience the story!), there was a scene involving the protagonist, Gloria, as she eavesdrops on someone else’s conversation about her. In the initial drafts (or builds, if you want to think of it that way), the conversation was about a pair of shoes Gloria had disliked as a little girl. I remember I had a lot of fun writing the dialogue for that scene, since the idea was that the people talking were leaving out key details Gloria remembered, and I was excited to see it in the final game.
A few months later, as you’ve no doubt guessed, the team decided they wanted to change the scene. My first reaction was, admittedly, a private moment of horror (Not my baby!), but then I took a breath and considered their arguments. While the subtext of the conversation was solid (illustrating the disconnect between Gloria and the people talking about her), the surface subject matter didn’t connect to anything else in the story. The shoes in question were irrelevant to the narrative, and the resolution to the anecdote didn’t tell us anything meaningful about any of the characters.
Now, you might be looking at that and thinking: “Is all of that really necessary for one conversation?” If you want to get technical about it, no, it doesn’t. Not every detail in a story has to be perfectly connected to everything else, and trying to force connections can backfire by making your world seem artificial. However, I consider it good practice to make scenes and dialogue work on multiple levels, so I saw the merit in reworking the conversation to form stronger thematic connections. And you know what? Once I did that, I actually liked the new scene better than the original. When you do it right, editing is like exercise: difficult in the moment, but worth it for the results.
That takes care of the changes you do agree with, but what about the changes you don’t agree with? Well, coming to terms with those can be harder, and every project will have a different amount. That’s a good thing, by the way: if everyone agrees with everyone, that means no one’s looking at the work with a critical eye, and the final result will suffer. Still, that doesn’t make the push-back any easier to hear, so you have to know how to handle yourself when it comes.
In the event you get writing feedback you don’t agree with, there are a couple of steps you can take to come to terms with it. First—and this is more life advice than writing advice, so apologies in advance—is to remember who’s in charge of the project. If you’re the boss, what you say goes, but if someone else’s the boss, you might find yourself deferring to them on something you fundamentally disagree with. And that happens! In those situations, I find it helps to remember that when you’re collaborating as a writer, you’re not necessarily trying to tell your story. Instead, you might be trying to help someone else tell their story, and your job is to help make their story as good as it can be. It’s like writing within a prompt: the constraints might seem confining at first, but once you accept them for what they are, they can actually be liberating.
Once you know who’s story you’re trying to tell, you can move onto the next step in accepting tough critiques: understanding the critique itself. There’s a Neil Gaiman quote I’ve always liked about feedback: “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” Now, the qualifier of ‘almost’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting there, but experience has shown me that this advice is ‘almost’ always on-point. It’s easy to diagnose when something in a scene feels off, but it’s not so easy to fix it with someone else’s suggestions.
If you do get a suggestion you disagree with (as Gaiman says you might), the key is to reexamine the issue the proposal is meant to fix. If you set aside the solution and focus on the problem, you might find that a) your writing partner is actually correct, and b) there’s a different solution that you both can agree on. Of course, this is contingent on you having a writing partner (or boss) who listens to you, so your mileage may vary as you apply this advice in your own career.
I’m fortunate enough to say that I don’t have any examples of major disagreements I while working on Decarnation, but I was young once (many moons ago) and I endured some hellish collaborations while trying to find my own voice. Those projects can be brutal while you’re going through them, and you may not even like the finished product when it’s done, but even those nightmare scenarios can help you grow in your career. You’ll learn what kind of feedback you can tolerate, what feedback you can’t, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll become a better writer along the way.
Liz Kelly, Editor-in-Chief
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