A few weeks ago from when I’m writing this (March 13, 2018), I finally pulled the trigger on purchasing the seminal novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I have only read the introduction so far, as I have some other books I need to finish first since I want to devote as much attention and time as I can to Wallace’s encyclopedic opus. But just the sheer thrill of now possessing such a mythical and polarizing book has been exhilarating in its own right. I mean, it’s fucking Infinite Jest, a novel so revered, a creative work so colossal that the mere mention of it will either send fans into hyperkinetic spasms of worship or detractors into belligerence and malicious tirades. The overall reaction to such a work is astounding to me, even as someone who fancies themselves as a fan of controversial and difficult literature. I’ll come right out and say that I’m still new to the world of DFW and his works, having only read two short story collections by him at the moment, but I’ll still sit here and say that I have no qualms (currently) about undertaking such a quest as reading Infinite Jest.
But as the excitement continued to stir in me, an intrusive yet intriguing thought came to me. I had also recently been on a gaming binge as of late (blame writer’s block), and after playing some cheesy third-person action games like The Suffering and BloodRayne, I finally came around to dipping my toes back into an almost equally mythical game of both notoriety and significance: Dwarf Fortress.
It’s hard to accurate summarize what Dwarf Fortress is with mere words and not having a computer screen in front of you and I to help further my explanation certainly works against me. But, having at least poured some time into this doorstopper of a game, allow me to do my best here: Dwarf Fortress is a hybrid of SimCity-style resource management and building simulator, and late-80s ASCII-graphics roguelike madness. The game’s objective sounds simple when described as such: the player must control a band of dwarves and maintain a fortress while gathering resources and protecting the inhabitants from outside threats. Alright, simple enough, but now comes the tricky part. The amount of detail shoved into every goddamn aspect of the game rivals even, dare I say, Dunegons and Dragons. At least with D&D you have lore and races and a world to already explore right from the first dice throw. Dwarf Fortress, at the start of every new game, instead generates an entire world from scratch, procedurally created to be completely unique the moment you hit ‘Create New World.’ An entire world, complete with geography, lore, monsters, dwarves that’re unique every single time, and a myriad of resources, all brought to life with mountains of text boxes and ASCII text graphics. And this is a game that’s been in development since 2002, with the first official version not being released until 2006, and all being made by two brothers, Tarn and Zach Adams.
This all got me thinking: is Dwarf Fortress the video game equivalent of Infinite Jest? Both works are the result of lone creators, both are hugely influential and monuments of their respective mediums, they both are deeply polarizing, have cultivated rabid followings of devotees, have remained relevant and revered years later, after their initial breakouts onto their respective scenes.
A rather silly thought, yeah, this desire to compare two vastly different, detail-heavy, famously difficult works and name them unrelated brothers from unrelated mothers. But that’s not what this is about. No, this is about something else: ambition and doing what you damn well please.
Ambition is hard to come by these days. I’ve heard creators of all kinds say how it’s become cool to ‘not try,’ to half-ass it and accept the outcome without a second thought or any form of reconsideration. DFW himself, whether he meant to or not, fought against irony and postmodernism and all the things keeping humans from just being human. I myself am guilty of half-assing things just to get them out there, just to prove to people I’m one thing or another. So many artists are so hasty to show the world what they can do that, in their mad dash to send out anything and everything they can as fast as they can, they ultimately fall short of their true potential and focus less on creating what they see in their head and more on embodying what they want to be seen as. It’s like a genocide of talent, all in the name of status or profit.
And that’s why folks like DFW and the brothers Adams should be look at as what we artists should strive to be. No one told Wallace that he couldn’t write a 1079 page book about a lost film, addicts in a halfway house, and the minutia of tennis, all topped off with over 300 endnotes. And so he did it. No one told Tarn and Zach that they couldn’t make a roguelike game that literally created a brand new world that rivals the depth of a Robert Jordan novel with every hit of the ‘go’ button. And again, they did it, and are still doing it. People still play Dwarf Fortress and donate to the Adams brothers. People still go out and buy Infinite Jest and read it and love it and fight other people (verbally) about it. To reference a previous piece, no one told Mike Diana he couldn’t make his underground comics, and yet, despite getting arrested on grounds of obscenity, he continues to do so to this day. Or even the guys in Japan who draw tentacle erotica for a living, no one told them they couldn’t, so they do it and helped popularize hentai or erotic manga/anime, possibly the only style of pornography to rival the porn producers of the San Fernando Valley. These folks all have ambition, I’d argue. There’s something beautiful in wanting to create something that so audaciously break every damn rule that’d be established before it. It’s a sense of vanguard that’s never died out. There will always be those who never learn the limitations and just do it.
I mentioned a little earlier in here that I’m guilty of hastily sending out unfinished things. And I have my own reasons for doing this, i.e. my insecurities and desperate need for identity. All sorts of nonsense that just ruins the creative process in anyone. But that doesn’t mean that I lack ambition. It means I just haven’t learned how to break the limitations. If I want to write a story about a nature documentary produced by aliens depicting a home invasion, then goddammit, I should be able to do so without hesitation. I want to do so without hesitation. But the limitations I’ve put in place for myself must be broken if I want to continue as a writer, as a storyteller, as a creator. Just because most of us (don’t deny it) unfortunately learned the limitations to a fucking T, doesn’t mean that we lack the ambition or the desire to create what we want to.
To end this on a happier note and not delve into politics or censorship or what you should and shouldn’t put out or what have you, allow me to give a tiny morsel of advice: stop giving a damn and make what you want. The important part of being creative is being able to create for yourself. And I, like many others, are still learning how to do that. But at least we have the ambition to try.