“Dawning realisation that I’ll never be great at anything. The eternal dabbler.”
That sounds like something I could have written at any point over the last five years, but in fact they’re the words of erstwhile One A Day leader Andy Kelly, Tweeted just a few short hours ago. It’s the disappointment of a man who feels he should be doing more than he currently is, and it’s a sensation that’s all too familiar to me. The key difference here being that Andy’s a relatively sprightly 24, while in a few weeks I’ll reach the ripe old age of 33. He’s got nine years on me, the bastard. How dare he complain!
It’s easy to get hung up on your own lack of achievement, especially – so it seems – among people who write about games for a living. It’s become apparent to me pretty much since the advent of Twitter that I’m not the only person in my field of work that worries about not having done enough with their life. Perhaps it’s because many of us are frustrated creatives; in many ways a lot of us would like to be making games rather than writing about them, albeit without wanting to start on the bottom rung of the ladder. “Those who can’t, become critics”, as the saying goes. But it’s not necessarily that we can’t, just that we’re perhaps a little too late to realise that ambition, or maybe we’re not confident enough to think that we’d make it.
If it seems a more obvious frustration for game critics than those of any other medium, that’s perhaps because the act of playing can often feel like a creative endeavour. The way you play a game is essentially like sculpting your own version of the game’s story, particularly in more open-ended games where player choice affects the way the narrative unfolds. And with more and more games providing more elaborate creative tools for players to craft their own levels, and even share them online with others, the distance between creator and consumer narrows further. I’ve seen palpable disappointment on gaming forums when a user-created LittleBIGPlanet level hasn’t been ‘hearted’ enough.
It doesn’t have to be games, either. Life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of any kind of creative dabbling. In recent years, I’ve started a screenplay whose first two pages have been sitting on my hard drive for eighteen months; I’ve promised myself I’d return to the painting I so enjoyed during my Art A-level; I’ve dusted off my acoustic guitar a number of times, vowing to write and/or perform a few songs (if only for my own personal benefit) but never got around to it. In my head I’ve directed entire sequences from films that will never be made. I imagine I’m not the only one.
It’s all too easy to directly compare your own achievements with that of others, but it’s rarely sensible to do so. Hideki Kamiya may have created Devil May Cry by the age of 31, but while his talent is impossible to deny, it’s also likely a number of other factors conspired to make that possible. It can be a simple matter of being in the right place at the right time, or knowing the right people rather than the right things. Many of the world’s best writers were rejected several times over before someone realised their genius. Think about the number of famous painters who died destitute before finding fame after their death.
I’m not saying that we’re all incredible undiscovered talents, merely that success or failure can often be down to pure dumb luck. Circumstance has a heavy bearing upon your life’s direction, and there are millions – nay, billions – of us who never achieve their dreams. Often it’s due to financial or emotional commitments; we sacrifice our dreams for others, or simply to earn enough to live. Perhaps for critics it’s more pronounced because we’re so close to what we really want to do. The nearer you get to glory, the more frustrating it can be to have it snatched away from you.
But if you think about it, it’s the tiniest percentage of people who achieve the greatest feats; those seemingly unattainable heights we all strive for. The rest of us fall short of the stars, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing of worth in not quite making it, or in excelling within an entirely different niche. I’m firmly of the belief that we all have a key role to play in life. There’s something that we’re all brilliant at, or at the very least good enough at to inspire others. Many of my own personal inspirations won’t necessarily have considered themselves the best in their chosen field, but they contributed something very specific at a very specific time of my life that made them important.
Often, it’s not the most bold and brilliant creatives that inspire the most, but those who have skills that seem within reach. It’s entirely conceivable, for example, that someone may have read one of my reviews, and been inspired to put pen to paper themselves. I know I’m not the most erudite game critic around, but perhaps my mediocrity is a low enough bar for someone otherwise daunted by the brilliance of others to try and clear.
In short: not being great doesn’t mean you can’t be important. Sometimes being good enough is good enough. And if it’s not, then console yourself with the fact that there’s always someone worse off than you. Even if it just means they’re nine years closer to the grave…