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You remember that scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the one where they’re at the museum? Surrounded by beautiful works of art, and Cameron cannot stop staring at the tiniest bit of the painting.

His field of vision narrows until that’s all he can take in. If I remember correctly, the next bit is the three characters all staring and asking “what is that?” It’s consumed them. Everything they could be paying attention to, reveling in, and they’re staring at a little blot of paint.

Context is King

When I think about writing games, especially when I’m building worlds, context is everything. Without context, nothing the players try to do makes sense. In games where we imagine together, the questions we ask each other provide more context.

How many guards are there?
What kind of dress is she wearing?
How steep does the drop look?

Without that information, we can’t act. We’ll fixate on the things we can control, to the exclusion of all else. In really bad circumstances, we take the burden of the story on ourselves, forgetting that there are other people we’re supposed be collaborating with.

Are you sensing now that I might not be talking just about games?

Part of the point of writing here is for me to sort out my thoughts. I’ve tended to do that a lot on Twitter. For myriad reasons, I want to shift things over to this website more and more. To that end, I’m sorting because, lemme tell you, I’ve become really prone to zooming in way too far.

The Dream is Dead, Long Live the Dream

Seven months ago, I left my day job at a local grocery store. I was on the verge of launching my most successful Kickstarter to-date, for You Are the Dungeon. A little less than two months later my partner gave birth to our first kid. In the span of seven weeks I went from working a good-but-pandemic-bad job to working at home on my own projects and taking care of the baby.

An absolute realization of a life-long dream.

So why in the name of all that’s holy does my brain insist on carrying me down these paths where my problems are all I can see? More than that, where even the smallest things feel like they have world-shattering import?

There are some baked-in reasons, of course. I haven’t had the most stable 20-year run. Even since college, I’ve had an uneven life, often because of the choices I’ve made. Adjusting to not living in crisis mode is a real thing and it’s hard to do. When we’re in a crisis, our option narrow. We may not be able exercise control over our circumstances, so we make the choices we do have into the most important things, ever.

I’m also a person with big, dramatic emotions. I can be really difficult for me to think that life is happening in a meaningful way if I’m not feeling everything all the time.

These are things I’ve known about myself for years. Things I’ve worked on in therapy and that I have tools to address. The thing that I think is tripping me up the most right now is what deserves the most exploration.

How do brains make things?

Patterns and Connections

Our brains, as a species, are really good at pattern recognition and making connections. I generalize because I know that there are people for whom that isn’t true. It’s how my brain works, though. When I’m writing or thinking about what I want a game to be like, my brain hunts around to find the patterns, the linkages between things.

How can I evoke the right feelings? How can I help people have this experience? What types of media do I need to draw on?

I’ve worked these particular mental muscles pretty well over the years. Right now, I’m thinking that I might have started using them when I don’t need to. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right? When you’ve been working to build connections and your field of vision narrows so all you can see is the problems, suddenly everything you say or do carries massive implications.

The same is doubly true for the things others say and do. For example, when your partner suggests that the dog should have a new place to sleep that isn’t the bed. Reader, I flipped out. I went on a tear about how she doesn’t know how hard it is to take care of things around the house all day (the dog tends to pee on the floor if she’s let to wander too much). All I could see were the potential problems of the dog not being on the bed.

It was bad. I’d fucked up royally and I couldn’t see it. I was so caught up in everything I was feeling. My connection-seeking muscles jumped immediately to the worst possible outcomes, fueled by my own misplaced outrage. Far from my finest moment. In fact, I sucked out loud.

Name Three Details

One of the hallmarks of the Eddic Engine is that when you meet a new character, the group gives that person three details. Probably not coincidentally, a tool my therapist gave me to be present in the moment is to look around the space I’m in and consciously name three things I hadn’t noticed before.

That practice is centering, grounding. It breaks me out of the mental patterns I’ve built up and, likely, have become trapped in. Patterns and connections are great things when they serve me. When they don’t, they’re burdens that wind me down ever-narrowing paths, like a fractal of thought I can’t escape.

There’s a lot riding on me being able to do this whole parent/creative professional thing. It’s not easy work. It’s also not everything in the entire world. It’s been difficult to remember that. The pandemic, being shut away from the added context provided by interacting freely with people in the world, it’s all made me focus far too much. Being forever online (mainly via Twitter, where we’re all the main characters in our own stories) hasn’t helped.

I want this essay to be the start of a change. Nothing overly dramatic. I just want to be better, to use the tools I have to be a better person. Someone who’s built to care and be cared for, rather than someone who runs hot and cold, vacillating between idealism and despair. It’s going to be a long road, likely. It’s one I started walking a while ago. It’s time to set my feet back on the path.

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