How One Video Game Helped Me Overcome Writer's Block
One writer’s journey through a video game that can only be completed by writing.
Confession: I’ve been trying to finish a screenplay for almost a year. I have an outlet for it, it can help my career -- I’m just terrified it’ll be crap. So here I am, picking at the thing, crippling my prospects instead of making it happen. It’s Writer’s Block. And fear. And a big damn problem.
I think this video game might be my solution.
Elegy for a Dead World is a game we’ve written about but never played before. Created by indie developers Dejobaan Games, Elegy puts players in the position of an astronaut exploring three beautiful, abandoned worlds. All are colorful and rich, but desolate and broken. Their designs are inspired by three landmark poems: Ozymandius by Percy Shelley, When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be by John Keats, and Darkness by Lord Byron. It is the astronaut’s - and player’s - job to investigate each world, catalogue the remains, and piece together the mysteries of each civilization by completing 27 writing challenges. The worlds are merely prompts for writing, and the goal of the game as Dejobaan sees is it is “everyone can write.”
So I gave it a shot.
“You begin on Shelley’s World, now devoid of life,” Dejobaan explains on the site. “A bloated, red sun scorches a landscape of towers, sculptures, and cryptic machinery.” Shelley’s World, the one based on Ozymandius, looks like this:
I know Ozymandius, but I remember nothing about burned skies and broken machinery in it. As I walked through an empty planet full of wreckage, the wreckage implied a story. That was a puzzle in need of a solution, as Dejobaan explains:
Each world offers multiple sets of prompts. Each intended to inspire you to write a different story about it. Elegy might ask you to write a short story about an individual’s final days, a song about resignation, or a poem about war… we like to think of those as puzzles — writing yourself out of a corner, so to speak.
The first prompt didn’t match up with the poem. Neither did any of the others. With no other clues to go by save what I saw, I wandered the desolation forced to stitch together an answer myself.
I started filling in the prompts. Small ones at first. Timidly. Blathering words out through my fingers as quickly as they popped into my head. They were silly. They were on the nose. They were crap. But they were writing, and they were helping me advance through the level.
As I did that, I found myself learning more about the world from the prompts and getting sucked in by the visuals. By the end of the first level, I was shocked by how the prompts guided the story I was writing. I went back through the level and amended my early answers, weaving newly learned information into the narrative I just discovered. Then I saved the whole thing and left, returning to float in the void of the main menu screen.
From there, I played my way through the other two worlds. The Keats world was colorful and bright, like a Bob Ross painting of a Miyazaki film. It’s prompts were more abstract and personal than the Shelley one, asking me to do things like write a letter back home and write a song. Truthfully, it took me a few passes to get comfortable with those prompts. They were more personal and required more reflection and vulnerability than I expected to put into this game. Writing those prompts was much harder than simply writing observations about the scenery, especially since the scenery was so cheery and the prompts were decidedly not. But they were a good stretch for my creative muscles, and jibed well with the screenplay I need to finish. I appreciated the challenge.
Byron’s world was the most complex, with four distinct locations and a more diverse set of prompts. I settled for one that prompted me to add to the poem, since I don’t know it. This prompt was the most sparse of any I tried, and I enjoyed the freedom to write what I wanted. I felt like I’d hit my creative groove and enjoyed my time creating a story.
By the time I’d gotten to the end, I was sad I was finished. So I went and played through the worlds again with different prompts. Now that I’d found my groove and trusted my writing abilities again, it was a joy -- and that is the great secret of this game. Elegy does everything it can to inspire you. The visuals are abstract. The soundtrack is ambient, with very few musical cues (if any). Playing the game, they only appeared in key moments of each world’s story -- at least, I think they were key moments. I was making up the story, after all; I assume all important plot points are scored by musical cues. The sound effects are also minimal, including the astronaut’s breathing. It gets heavy and loud at certain points in the game and that freaked me out. I never expected it and could not figure out what caused it. But, again, the sound told me that this was an important plot point, so I wrote accordingly.
As you finish each level, you publish your story. You can read others, and even share yours with other players. It’s a great way to build engagement with the gaming community, and helped me feel immediately better about my writing because I saw that I was part of a whole community doing the same thing. That took the loneliness out of creating something on my own, and made me feel like part of something special.
The developers will even let you screenshot your stories and print them out as a physical full-color book if you want to. I might. I found myself staring at the designs, wishing that my screen was bigger and the resolution was higher so I could see more of them.
And yes: it did help me face my screenplay fears and write more of it. I even made up an extra silly story for no reason that got drafted into a potential children’s book. Elegy ended up being a fantastic tool for warming up my writing muscles and helping me trust my own instincts again. I’ll definitely play it again… and who knows what the story will be?
Elegy for a Dead World is available for $7.49 on Steam for Windows, Mac and Linux.
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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
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