16 September 2010

The Proper Way to Pan Halo: Reach

My friend John Teti has a website which he uses as an aggregator for the various writings he does for various publications. (Bookmark it, if you haven't done so already. John's one of the best writers I know.) Taking a page from the J. Teti playbook--this isn't the first time I've stolen a page from you, sir--I've decided to also post links to the stories I write during spare moments away from the show. Last week my review of Halo: Reach appeared in The A.V. Club. Here's a sample:

"The original Halo was many things—space opera, technical achievement, irrefutable proof that first-person shooters on consoles didn’t have to be mediocre—but above all, the first game was a love story between a 7-foot-tall super-soldier and a tiny blue virtual woman. Within seconds of seeing each another, Cortana asks the Master Chief if he slept well during his cryogenic sleep. “No thanks to your driving, yes,” he quips. She smiles, cocks her head, and says, “So you did miss me.” For the remainder of the game, these two flirt and banter like a new-media version of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

The new Halo: Reach doesn’t have a single relationship—or for that matter, a single moment—that displays this kind of relatable humanity. Instead, it gives us a squad of anonymous super-soldiers who, over the course of the game, literally disappear inside their own hyperbolic armor."

Read the rest of the review here. Better still, read the lengthy, sometimes clever, sometimes cruel, but consistently funny comment digression below the review. (290 comments so far and counting.) I'm telling you, these are the finest comment threads in the world, bar none. I love-hate you all.

This was not an easy review to write. Writing a review for a game that perpetuates a beloved franchise, as Reach does, is always challenging. I did not like the game. (I've liked each successive game in the series markedly less than the game that preceded it.) And trying to articulate why I've grown cold towards the Halo zeitgeist, which seems to still be cresting even as I type this--note the extraordinary number of perfect scores on Metacritic--was no small task.

The review went through two drafts, neither of which sat well with my editors. I promised to deliver a third, mind-blowing draft to their desks--well, virtually to their desks; they're in Chicago, and I'm in Vancouver--first thing the next morning. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't stop thinking about the review. What exactly was I trying to say here? I realized I wasn't alone in bed that night. Self-doubt, that old cold-handed witch, had gotten under the covers with me.

Part of me, if I'm going to be completely honest, wanted to quit in this moment. I wanted to say, "Get someone else. Because I can't do this." I love looking back on a piece of writing, and seeing it once it's completed. But the process itself? The actual casting-of-the-sentences? The searching-for-the-right-words? It's messy, and ugly, and it can be, at times, a downward spiral into self-doubt and misery.

But I couldn't quit. It was far too late for that. After you've pushed out two drafts, and the editors are anxiously awaiting a third, you're in, the way that mob guys are in in the movies.

After a sleepless night--yes, my soul was searched; I rifled through it several times, in fact--I got out of bed at 4:30 the next morning. I put on some coffee. I sat down at my desk and stared mindlessly at the blinking cursor.

Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink.

Empirical fact: A cursor blinks at approximately the rate of a slightly accelerated heartbeat. Whoever decided to make them blink at this annoying pace deserves to be seated next to pop sensation Justin Bieber for the duration of a transcontinental flight.

Vexed with self-doubt and anxiety, I did what I always do whenever I feel this way in my life: I completely vex myself with even more self-doubt and anxiety. I accomplished this by ditching my earlier draft entirely. Everything, every word I'd pulled out of myself so far: gone.

It was just me and cursor now--blink, blink--and a vast expanse of virtual white space.

Game on, fucker, I thought.

I wrote a sentence that didn't make me want to throw up on my shoes. I looked at it for a few minutes. I figured out a way to make it better. Then I wrote a second sentence that I didn't mind too much. Then a third.

I could already feel, at this early moment, that the review was moving in an entirely new direction. What I was saying, or at this point, still trying--and hoping--to say, was dramatically different from the previous drafts. I had a different kind of feeling in my stomach. It wasn't an entirely terrible feeling. I suddenly recognized what that feeling was: It was hope. I felt hopeful, goddamn it. I felt hopeful that things could still turn out OK for this review, and more importantly, for me. Maybe, just maybe, I'll come out of this shit-hell OK after all, I thought.

What was born, in the pre-dawn light of British Columbia, what was cajoled into life by bad coffee and an iota of hope, is the review that appears on the A.V. Club website. (And in print this week in select urban areas.) Trust me, it's infinitely better than the original drafts.

The moral of the story is this, kids: Become doctors, or lawyers, or Indian chiefs. Because this writing bullshit? This is no way to fucking live, man.


  1. I'm a lawyer, Scott, and trust me when I say, I'd happily trade with you to write for a living. Of course I'm not as talented as you, so I probably wouldn't be very successful, but man, I do think I'd love it.

  2. Oh, and just to add to the list of Crispy alumni with negative Halo Reach reviews, see Mr. Tom Chick's review over at GameShark.com

  3. Scott Jones is the Sarah Silverman of the video game world.

  4. I'm an environmental chemist and I've wanted to be a writer for awhile now, a long long while. It gets in, doesn't get out, I've tried. But with any job, career, passion, there sits waiting, darkness. You just have to walk away, find another way to approach it. (which you did obviously) Don't tell people to turn away from writing, that darkness is everywhere, people just need to learn their own way of walking around it.

    I love your writing. You're brave and I appreciate it.

  5. Sarah Silverman probably uses Herbal Essences too.

  6. I usually agree, but I can't here Scott. I disliked Halo 2 and 3, but I haven't been able to put this one down, but that could be because the game appeals to my taste more now.

  7. Nice blogging, My review is very good example.
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