by Annabeth Leong
I've been a gamer all my life, and so I'm trained to think of quests in very specific ways.
The way it works these days in video games, I run my character around and explore every nook and cranny of the world that's been designed. Quests are marked on the map with little arrows, or with exclamation points over characters' heads.
I want to think about the character I'm playing and whether he or she would be interested in doing the things that are offered. For example, would my goody-two-shoes mage, who turned his own best friend in during the prologue for breaking the Circle of Magi's prohibitions against forbidden magic, actually agree to help hide bodies for a shady organization based in the capital city? I'm guessing no, but I'm not incentivized to have that much integrity.
If I refuse the quest, I'll miss out on experience points, which I need in order to make my character more powerful. I'll also fail to get the achievement the game offers for helping out these shady people. (It's amazing how much motivation an animated plaque can provide). Besides, I won't get to discover that part of the game. The statistics that mark what percentage of the world I explore will wind up flawed. There will be conversations I didn't have, people I didn't kill.
There's also a great coldness to the way quests work in video games. Your character is assigned to save, say, five slaves from a dungeon. You run in, and the game has provided you with an abundance of slaves. No need to wait around or search too hard—there are plenty to choose from. You save your five, and then you get out, because anything else would be a waste of time. Never mind how weird and inhuman that behavior is if you think about it from a different perspective. (The web comic Penny Arcade famously lampooned this mechanic in the controversial strip, "The Sixth Slave." The core criticism in the comic is spot on, though I do see why there was trouble over the callousness of the humor employed to make the point).
All this, however, represents a twisted version of the true concept of a quest. According to my dictionary, a quest is "a long and arduous search for something." According to what I recall from Arthurian legend, that search may not lead where it was supposed to, it may not end when it's supposed to, and it may not be summed up neatly by progress bars, percentage points, and achievements.
Maybe we're not all heroes, but I think we're all on a long and arduous search to figure out what the hell to do with our lives, or if what we're doing with our lives is meaningful or satisfying or useful or positive in any measurable way. I've played enough video games that I think of this life quest in video game terms, even when that's destructive for me.
Let's talk about grabbing quests, for example. In real life, indiscriminately accepting every opportunity that comes one's way is a great way to waste a lot of time and obliterate one's sense of self. There is a part of me that wants to write for every anthology call I see, but what about the times when that's not right for me? Sometimes, that's because of personal reasons or because of my interest or lack thereof or because of my need to protect my own time. Other times, it's because of my beliefs.
A while ago, a publisher put out a call for an anthology that would sport a cover image of a woman with very serious thigh gap. I've read fairly extensively about body image, including a lot of really disturbing stuff about the current obsession with thigh gap. I was interested in the concept of the anthology and even started a story for it, but I kept feeling uncomfortable about that cover image. I imagined posting it on my blog and talking about how beautiful it was (because I do like cover art a lot, and usually make a habit of doing that). I couldn't stomach the thought. I imagined critiquing the thigh gap issue when I posted the cover, then worried I would be seen as unprofessional. In the end, I decided not to grab that quest. Maybe I gave up some gold (heh) or experience points as a result, but in real life I'm not going to get the 100 percent exploration achievement, and I care more about defining my character and values than I do about reaching arbitrary statistical markers.
It disturbs me how often the desire to grab a quest tempts to me to violate my own values for what is likely to be a very small reward.
I've got to think about who I am, what I really want, and what purpose I've got. I'm not a character in someone else's world. In a game, I'm missing out on opportunities for fun by refusing to do things. In real life, there are plenty of great reasons to refuse things all the time.
Achievements are another twisted thing. In video games, I'm wild for those progress bars and percentage points and little shield icons. I want to level up. I want a high GamerScore. I thrill to the sight of the words, "Achievement unlocked," and when my numbers reach X/X, I feel a real sense of, well, achievement.
As a writer, I've unlocked some achievements, too: Story publication. E-book released. Novel out in print. Story singled out on an anthology's back cover. Invited to contribute. As in games, some of the achievements are negative: Bad contract. Deep disappointment. Cruel review. Laughable sales.
I think, though, that this idea of achievements is what saps a lot of the soul from my writing. If I've achieved this thing, then I should feel this thing. If you've achieved this thing and I haven't, then you're beating me. If you've been struck by a negative achievement that I've managed thus far to avoid, that means I'm somehow cleverer than you.
That's not the person I want to be. I don't want to think that way at all. I don't believe in measuring my life in sound bites and neat, pat phrases. I don't really believe in simplicity, either.
What's been even more poisonous for me than the idea of achievements is the idea of measuring progress the way a video game does. Some writers put progress bars for their novels up on their websites, as if a novel is a file downloading at a speed of, say, 1,667 words per day. (With NaNoWriMo approaching, that example speed seems apt). I've learned from writing to daily word count goals, but at a certain point I learned I needed to let them go. I'm not saying it's okay to fool around and pretend to be working when I'm not. Writing is a lot of hard work, and I believe in putting in the time. I'm not a machine or a program, though, and I've done myself a lot of harm by expecting myself to work as if I am. I've done myself grievous harm by expecting my quests—especially the quests as personal as digging a novel out of the collective unconscious and seasoning it with pieces of my soul—to proceed in neat, measured ways.
So many of my expectations for myself and my quests amount to techno-babble. They're not true to what we really know of story, if we stop to think. They're not true to what our fairy tales tell us.
Writing is a tough act of balance. Me versus you. Fulfilling reader expectations versus delighting and surprising. Listening versus speaking (or reading versus writing). White space covered by black words, which need the space or they won't sing. Working toward goals versus allowing room for exploration and discovery.
I don't want to write for maximum efficiency, because there's no joy in that. I need forward motion, yes, but I don't want to see it as a waste of time if I stop for the sixth slave. A real quest involves a lot of time logged in the wilderness. There are many hours when the compass seems broken and the map seems to have been drawn for another land altogether.
Lately, my writing is changing, and I'm not sure how. I am trying to balance the need to keep working and fulfilling my obligations with the equally important need to let myself develop and search. The only way I know to survive is to keep the older, mythical concept of a quest in mind. The video game concept of a quest can be fun, but it provides so much false comfort, and all too often it reveals how hard it still is for us to simulate the deep truths of the world in which we live.