Ninja Blues Writers Room: Jarenth

Hey readers. No normal review this week, sorry: It was the kind of week where I had very little time to play new games. Regular service should resume next week, assuming the universe is up for it.

Because I try to never leave you empty-handed, in lieu of a review I decided to this week write something that was requested in comments a few weeks back: An overview of / insight into my writing process. Behind the curtains at the sausage factory, so to say. I don’t know if this is of interest to any of you, and I have to stress that there really is no game review in the proceeding — I know, that’s something I would do, but I promise it isn’t. If you’ve ever wondered how I go about producing the content that I do, though, I guess today’s your lucky day.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone who’s read more than two of my pieces that I’m a big fan of structure in writing — that’s Insight #1, right there, that one’s on the house. There’s something of a structure in my entire review process too, though it’s a little more fuzzy and free-form. I go through roughly three phases every week: Gameplay, Exploration, and Writing. I don’t actually label this as such while doing it, but for the purposes of an overview article it’s a good enough narrative skeleton. So, starting from the top:

Gameplay
The most obvious part: I pick a game to play, and then I play it.

I joke a lot in review openers about how I often pick games at the drop of a hat, ‘because they look nice’ or ‘because I like the name’ or even ‘I didn’t know I owned this game to begin with’. I think a lot of you think that that’s comedic effect, that there’s obviously some preparation and research involved. And it’s true that I do gravitate towards games that I at least think I’ll like; I’ve (almost) never done sports-related games, for instance, or anything to do with photorealistic cars and the tuning thereof. But apart from that gut check… I have to tell you, the things I write in the opening are almost always completely true. If I tell you I stumbled over and insta-bought a game because the title made me laugh, the reality of the situation is that I stumbled over and insta-bought the game because the title made me laugh. Happens more often than you think. One reason I do Indie Wonderland as I do, i.e. one reason I focus on indie games, is because I love surprise and variety. I write about indie games because it’s usually possible to play and review a whole new game every week. And if I’m doing it for that reason, it’d be counterproductive to then only stick to stuff I already know about, right? In a way, Indie Wonderland is my self-devised excuse to be spontaneous: If I want to buy a game but I’m not sure ‘it’s worth the investment’, I can justify it to myself by saying that ‘I’ll probably be able to get a review out of it’. That I’ve been exposed this way to games I never considered I’d like this way is proof of the system working as designed.

I don’t take written notes during play. I’ve tried this as an approach, way back at the start of Indie Wonderland: I’d keep a notebook handy, and pause the game to jot down keywords. But this is not an approach that really works for me. Save for my diary, I’m not a great note-taker. When I write things down in the heat of the moment, I always think that summaries or short descriptions are perfectly. But… The thing is, and I may have written about this on here before, it’s that my memory is really bad. Really bad. I’m absent-minded to an almost embarrassing degree. I could tell you stories about My Adventures In Forgetting Things, if I remembered any. I once forgot I was wearing my glasses while I was looking for my glasses. Here’s how bad my memory is: I almost forgot to write this entire paragraph. That’s not a joke, I really did. So, notes… Unless I’m willing to write down entire stories at once, they’re not a method for me.

Instead, what I do is taking screenshots. It’s no exaggeration that 90% of Indies Wonderland owe their existence to Fraps. I take a lot of screenshots. No, more than that. At time of writing, this is what my Fraps Screenshots folder looks like:

If you still thought I was exaggerating, then surprise, I guess! I NEVER LIE

I take screenshots for two reasons. One, it’s visual material for the review, which I’m sure you all know I’m very fond of. And two, probably more importantly, I use screenshots as a visual log of my play experience. Especially during the first few hours, I’ll screenshot everything that happens. I’ve screenshotted whole player-NPC conversations box for box, sometimes even line for line. Better safe than sorry, I always think here, and you won’t be surprised that I very often have duplicates. When I play games with mouse and keyboard, the F10 key is my (already slightly faded) friend. When I play with my 360 controller, I use Joy2Key, a small program that maps controller button inputs to keyboard buttons. I have setups to map either the bumper buttons or thumbstick presses to F10. It’s real convenient, honestly; I notice myself defaulting to controller more and more these days. As long as the game in question doesn’t enforce uses for those button sets.

I usually play my games over the course of one week. How much and how long I’ll play depends on the game in question. Depending on context, I try to go for some level of completion. For stuff like visual novels, it’s almost a requirement to complete it 100%. Similarly, I try to reach the narrative end of story-based games with a defined ending. In the case of games without a defined ending (e.g. leaderboard-based games or games with infinite procedurally-generated content) I try to play for as long as I feel I need to in order to get a good review. Which is vague, yes, but the vagueness is part of the assessment: How long I willingly stick with a game is usually an indicator of how much I’m enjoying it, or how much complexity is involved in shaping an opinion. Similarly, if I stop playing a game way before the end, that in and by itself can say a lot. There’s a class of scientific experiments called free-choice experiments, where the point is to see how long participants will do an experimental task willingly before stopping; My procedure is kind of like that, except I test myself. As myself. It’s not a perfect procedure.

Exploration
At some point during the week I start trying to formulate my thoughts. This tends to start in the latter half, Thursday/Friday onward. Usually I’ll be done or at least done enough before I get to this stage, but thinking starts whenever thinking needs to start. During this phase, I basically try to suss out what the review’s going to be like.

Specifically, during this phase I focus on what I want to say on ‘the second page’. I know that my dividing Indie Wonderland into two pages is a little anachronistic in the Internet of today, and I really don’t want to drive up anyone’s page load time or data usage anymore than I already do. But the reason I’ve stuck with this for so long is because to me, it divides the review into neat logical segments: Page 1 describes my immediate thoughts, the opening play almost as it happens (though I don’t immediately write things down), while Page 2 describes the thoughts I have after I’ve had some time to think about things. As a result, Page 1 is a much more visceral writing process (more on that in a bit), while Page 2 tends to be longer in the making.

I use a method that Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has taught me is called the ‘rubber duck method’, but which I prefer to call ‘rambling like a lunatic’. What it boils down to is that during the sussing-out phase, I try to explain to myself what I did and did not like about the game. Out loud. Not necessarily loud out loud, I’ve developed a good subvocal mutter over the years. I tend to combine this with walking around town, because I like taking walks. I don’t remember who said the phrase or where I first read it, but “the legs are the pendulum to the soul” has stuck with me for as long as I can remember. I actually pace around a lot and talk to myself during any kind of creative work: If you were to ever visit me at the office, there’s a good chance you’d see me walk up and down our long hallways, softly muttering to myself. And gesturing, too, can’t forget the gesturing: If the legs are the pendulum to the soul, then the hands are the stress-overflow valve.

Really try to picture this the next time you read one of my reviews.

I explain my thoughts to myself in order to shape them. It’s impossible to say anything about the mind of another, obviously, so I can’t comment on how common this may or may not be. But my brain tends to be a multi-tracked noise jumble. Unless I’m really focused, or using some sort of physical prop (laptop, whiteboard, paper), ‘just thinking about things’ doesn’t have a great success rate for me. But if I say things, loud enough for myself to hear them… I don’t know, they become more real. Easier to focus on and to parse. And, as a bonus, saying things out loud also helps with figuring out good phrasing. One trick I use to spruce up my science writing (which can get very dry and technical) is to read the whole paper out loud to myself: If there are sentences or paragraphs that just don’t work, I’ll notice when I read them, because they’ll sound strange. The disconnect between the way things ‘sound’ in thought and the way things actually sound. Talking to myself forcibly confronts me with that, and helps me shape the jumbled mess of proto-thoughts into a (semi-)coherent list of game talking points.

So what did I like about this game? It’s definitely pretty, that’s for sure. And the writing is obviously excellent. It’s really good, really… character-driven, I care about these doofuses now. I care about them enough to walk through the same goddamn stretch of town every time. Which, you know. That’s not great. It works, I guess. It’s a nice town…

(Aside: You might know that I’m Dutch. But I generally do all this games self-talk stuff in English. I don’t know why, it’s not really a conscious choice. Perk of being functionally bilingual, I guess.)

In one sense, this exploration phase doesn’t really have an end, because it’s always possible to refine and re-evaluate my thoughts further. But in another, much more real sense, it has an incredibly hard deadline:

Writing
Barring emergencies, exceptions, or shenanigans (take your pick as to which one of the three this article one is) Indies Wonderland go up somewhere on Monday, Central European Time. I’m actually pretty proud of the fact I’ve been able to keep this up as regularly as I have. It helps readers, I think, to be able to rely (to some degree) on my weekly punctuality. And it helps me too: I find it easier to keep up with the routine of writing knowing that this Monday deadline is there. I know very little people probably actually care about this in their day-to-day life, but I’ve internalized it enough that I care, and that helps to keep the gears turning.

After the content generation of the Gameplay phase, and the planning and mental drafting of the Exploration phase, the actual Writing phase tends to pretty much be a straight shot. Astute readers may have seen me say in the past that I could probably use an editor, and astuter readers still will understand that that means I don’t have an editor now. My writing process is as simple as it gets: On Monday, I write the thing.

I have different approaches for both pages. For Page 1, I make good use of my screenshot log/repository. What I basically do is reconstruct the opening hours of gameplay, using my ridiculous supply of pictures, and then more or less chronicle what I was doing and thinking at the time. As bad as my episodic memory is generally, pictures really jog it well. And my propensity to hammer the screenshot button at the slightest provocation means I’m very likely to rediscover details or cool moments that I’d forgotten I even ever logged. Writing this part is pretty straightforward, and currently I often do it in the train home from work. There’s not really a set length or cutoff point: I write until I think I’ve done enough writing. Sometimes I’ll note these moments as I play: “Hmm, this seems like a good place for the first page to cut out.” Other times, I just go on gut feeling that the review’s been going for long enough. The more ham-handed the end-of-page transition reads, the more likely it is that I forcefully cut myself off from talking for infinity. It’s a fine line, because often there are plenty more things to talk about! But one of the things I try to ensure on the first page is that I don’t spoil or reveal too much outright. I don’t know if this ever happens, but if there are ever readers who are sold on a game after the first page, I want them to be as spoiler-free as possible.

The second page is where the self-explanation and the walking around pays off. I try to translate my thoughts onto digital paper as clear and complete as possible. Again, I don’t generally take notes, so instead I work from the memory of my mental discussions. In fact, the mumbling and the walking makes a repeat performance here, as I continually get up to pace around and try out sentences and thoughts. I got up two times already to think out these four sentences, no joke. I find it incredibly hard to sit still while writing. I can sort of do it in the train, because I choose to make the best of limited circumstances, but if you strapped me into a chair and told me to write a whole review sessile, I’d probably get so agitated that I’d vibrate out of existence. I vocalize while writing, too. You know how some artists make the faces and poses of characters they’re drawing, subconsciously? I sometimes whisper the lines I’m writing to myself. I have no idea why I do this.

It’s a writing style that has ups and downs. On the up, the preparation and the speech-practice means I write very close to how I speak, which I think makes for fairly accessible reading. On the down, you can probably see how my lack of note-taking and my absent-mindedness can combine in the worst way: It’s happened more than once that I returned to a review a few days later only to realize that, shit, I forgot to mention that one thing I wanted to mention! For all my prep, a significant part of the actual content is determined on Writing Day, and if something doesn’t make the cut then… Well, I write on Monday and I publish on Monday, you do the math on that one. If I were trying to spin it positively I’d say there’s almost a purity to the forgetting: If I was really upset with, say, the long loading times of a game during play, but then I forgot to bring it up during review, did it really matter that much? But I’m not trying to spin it positively, and in fact, this is something I’m working on. If you go back through old reviews and read the second pages, you might actually see a bit of a repeating pattern. I often open these segments with something like: “The graphics were great, and I liked how the gameplay systems reinforced the narrative, but the focus on leaderboard scoring brought the experience down, and there were odd difficulty spikes.” And then I’ll talk about those things in more detail, often in the exact order mentioned. That bit is my cheat sheet. It’s my reminder to myself that, hey, I’m intending to talk about these things in the review, so make sure that all goes in.

And it’s not like I do no editing. It’s just more of a… running process. I edit the small scale, individual sentences and paragraphs, as a part of the writing process. Sometimes it’s only really noticeable that a sentence doesn’t work after I’ve written it and seen it in context. But I rarely edit the large scale. I’m mean, I’m doing it now: This very sentence was added into the paragraph after the fact, and that’s extraordinary enough to deserve its own sentence! Apart from that, though… If you’ve ever thought that the points I was making were okay, but that they’d be better presented in a different order, then you’ve already looked at my work with a keener editing eye than me. Again: Something I’m working on.

Like the first page, I work on the second page for as long as I feel necessary. This is actually the part that surprises me the most: Almost all Indies Wonderland are comparable in length, between 4500 and 6000 words. This is not intentional. It just… works out, all the time. I stop writing the second page when I feel I’ve brought up everything I want to bring up, write an outro, and somehow it’ll be at the intended length. I know, it’s like magic.

While writing both pages, I keep my screenshot trove nearby. As a guide for the first page, and as a resource for the second, to leaf through at a moment’s notice whenever I feel I need some visual flair to whatever point I’m making. I’ll mark the place the screenshot goes in the manuscript, and then move the assorted image file to a separate folder. In the raw version it’ll look like this:

IMG: example (I’ll put the intended caption text here.//And the intended mouse-over text here.)

Which eventually becomes:

I’ll put the intended caption text here.

When I’m done with the writing part, I start the (somewhat boring) process of converting and incorporating all the screenshots. This tends to be between 30 and 40 screenshots total, which again: Not an intentional limit, it just happens. I use GIMP to process screenshots in bulk. First I rename each of them to something like GameName–ScreenshotName.png at the original size, and then resize then to 640×360 as GameName–ScreenshotName–Thumb.png. I’ve done this so often the key shortcuts for the process are burned into my brain. Ctrl-Shift-E to save the large file. Alt-I, then S, then 640, then Alt-S, to resize, and another Ctrl-Shift-E. This is the part where I tend to load up a podcast. Or fall asleep in the train, if I’m trying to do it there.

And from there on out, all that’s left is… Well, what little editing I do! I decide the level of spoiler tags I want to use at this point. I use the WordPress client to insert images and put the right captions and texts in place. I copy-paste the whole text into Notepad to do a few large substitutions, to get the alt-text and the image thumbnails working right. Then I paste the whole thing into Word for a final spellcheck. I don’t actually read the whole thing, because at this point my brain is more or less overloaded from writing — another downside of the method. Then, final step, I paste the text back into WordPress and check the Preview page. Any big mistakes in image editing, or unclosed HTML tags, I’ll find there. And if I see nothing wrong…

Time to share another Marvelous Creation with the world.

…Huh. I had no idea image captions for small images worked like that. Learn something new everyday.

And that, as they say, is that. Like almost all of the work I do, Indie Wonderland is fairly heavy on the preparation and the drafting, and lighter on the writing work and the post-work support. It’s a process with flaws, but it works for me, warts and all.

Things don’t always go exactly this way, obviously. The process as outlined here works in the case of games that I play and review in a single week, which is the vast majority of them. But one reason my Fraps folder is as large as it is, is… Since starting Indie Wonderland I’ve noticed that it’s hard for me to play and enjoy a game without using my critical eye. I think all critics get this, to some degree. So even if I play a game with little to no intent of reviewing it, I’ll still habitually load up Fraps. And screenshot everything that looks cool. Especially at the start. And especially the options menu. Then, on weeks where I’m not really feeling it, or weeks where I’m just busy, I can dip into that reservoir. Think of it as me doing the Gameplay phase in advance, and getting into Exploration and Writing later. It’s actually what got you last week’s triple review, which contained two games I’d played earlier and one game I didn’t think I’d have much to say about. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which.

I hope you enjoyed this look into the Ninja Blues writers room! If you have any questions I haven’t touched on, or any request for similar features — about my process, or about Ranneko or Ninjustin — feel free to let us know in the comments.

Jarenth found it a weird experience to be the subject of his own article for once. Follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam if that’s the sort of thing you’re into. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

2 comments

  1. You know it is almost certainly possible to script gimp/windows to do the bulk rename and create copies of the sizes you are after. It is the kind of thing that you only need to set up once.

    It even looks like GIMP has various online tutorials to do some of these things, I am sure it is a pain, but it is something you do every week…

  2. Thanks Jarenth, this was as interesting as I expected it would be. I knew you like screenshots, but I had no idea that they formed the backbone of your writing method. It makes me wonder how other people might do things – maybe dictating thoughts as they play, or even recording all of their footage. There’s a lot more muttering involved than I thought, too.

    I think the main takeaway from this for me is this: review methods are as varied as reviewers are themselves. It’s also strengthened my opinion that it’s good to stick to a few reviewers, and get to know them, as you’ll get more out of reviews that way, even if you disagree with the opinions presented in them.

    I hope you enjoyed writing this. :D

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