The Finite, Irreplaceable Hours of Your Life

Posted by: Steve Swink In: Misc On: 2010-8-17  At:3:07 PM

Today is "Size Doesn't Matter Day", as you have perhaps heard. My take is a bit meta.

I try to live my life on a simple premise:

There are a finite number of irreplaceable hours in a human life and it makes sense to fill those limited hours with as much remarkable experience as possible.

For me, this means things like going Skydiving despite the risk of death. It means forgoing the pleasure of sleeping in and the false comfort of inactivity to go to Crossfit at 8:30am four times a week. It also means I have a low tolerance for mediocrity in media. I have no concept of "time investment." If something is bad, it's bad. If it was good at first then became bad, it's still bad. Turn it off. Put the book down. Leave the theater. Ignore sunk costs.

Many friends of mine watched the entirety of Lost. I watched the first season, which was mostly excellent, then stopped watching when it became clear that the writers had not planned ahead. I was no longer entertained, so I stopped watching. My friends who "stuck with" the show until the end seem to regard this as a badge of honor. They also say things like "well, I've watched it for so long, I might as well finish."

This makes no sense to me. There's no such thing as 'good for a TV show.' It's either good - it gives you pleasure and enjoyment to watch - or it doesn't. The highest praise you can give to a piece of media is to say that it changed the way you view the world, or that it enriched your life. The Wire and Band of Brothers are examples of television shows that did this for me. They aren't good because of or in spite of being TV shows. They're just good. End of story.

The same metric can and should be applied to all activities: is the experience worth the irreplaceable hours of your life? Not just consuming media, but hobbies, travel, acts of creation and destruction. Quiet moments with people you love.

Living this way is difficult and requires a lot of courage. It's exhausting and sometimes depressing. I feel I'm not doing everything I should be or could be. I feel guilt. I feel a nagging, gnawing desire to create something meaningful that will outlast my finite life. Sometimes this prevents me from relaxing or enjoying leisure time or experiencing pleasures other people take for granted.

The thing is, worthwhile activities are always difficult. Just because something's difficult doesn't make it worthwhile, but a hallmark of many of the most amazing, fulfilling, life enriching experiences I've had is that they required dilligence, persistence, and great personal sacrifice. You must forego temporary comfort and short-term pleasure to gain truly worthwhile life experience.

Sometimes in the middle of a workout like Cindy or Fight Gone Bad I can imagine nothing more painful than continuing. Sometimes my hands bleed from doing pull ups. Sometimes I feel like I'm going to throw up. Sometimes I end up breathing so hard I blow out my eardrums. But those feelings are temporary. I never, ever regret going to the gym to work out. No matter how hard it was to get out of bed or how uncomfortable it is to stretch, I'm always happy I did.

Making a good game is an even more protracted and painful experience. Sometimes I wake up and hate Shadow Physics and wish I never had to work on it again. But just as writing Game Feel was the most uncomfortable and harrowing experience of my life, I know that Shadow Physics is the best thing I can be doing with my time right now. I don't regret a single minute I've spent working on it.

To a lesser degree, I have no regrets about playing Spelunky. I played an hour of Spelunky every day for more than a year. I played as long as I still found it an enjoyable and life-enriching experience. When I finally Iron Manned the game (beat all 16 levels and the final boss in a single play) I stood up, put my hands over my head like Rocky Balboa, and ran a victory lap around the house. The dog was confused and terrified. It was the most satisfying experience of achievement I've ever had playing a game.

As game players, we should hold all games to high standards. Is this experience life enriching? It is beautiful? Meaningful in the grand scheme of human experience. With this view, hours of gameplay is an especially irrelevant metric. It's the opposite of what's important in many ways.

As game developers, we should strive to make games as good as a Mozart aria, a Scorsese film, a Nabokov novel, a DuChamps painting. The reason we don't like to think in these terms is because we don't know how to make comparable experiences.

We shouldn't feel too bad about this, though. Our medium is new.
This doesn't let us off the hook, it just means we have to keep iterating, keep holding ourselves to a higher standard than the one our players have come to accept.

We should feel excited. We have a frontier. We are explorers.

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Other "Size Doesn't Matter" articles by indie developers (these gents have all ze links):

Ron Carmel of 2d Boy

Jonathan Blow of Number None

Chris Hecker of Spy Party

Jeffrey Rosen of Wolfire


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