Building a Game to Rebuild my Sanity

It’s been a while. I didn’t want to write a recap for 2020 because everyone pretty much covered that. I didn’t want to make my first post of 2021 about politics because, quite honestly, the topic is as exhausting for me to write as it is for you to read. This isn’t to say that I won’t talk about politics soon. We did just have an attempted coup, after all.

Tonight, I’d like to distract myself by talking about the activity I’ve been using to distract myself. I built a game, and it is successful.

Don’t get too excited. This is not likely to be the kind of game you’ll want to play. It’s entirely text-based. It’s slow paced, dependent on old technology, and it doesn’t attract a wide audience anymore. I built a MUSH.

I started playing on MUSHes in August, 1996, and I continued playing regularly until 2003. The main MUSH I played was the original Star Wars MUSH. It’s still up, and I could connect and play there right now, but it’s not the same. Not because the people have left. Most of them have. I don’t want to play there because it’s full of ghosts, and memories, and a kind of nostalgia I neither need nor want right now.

Here is a web page with all kinds of information about the game I made, Companion Cresh. It includes directions for how to connect, as well as information about the setting, character information, and logs.

Why did I start working on this? For starters, I needed the distraction. I wasn’t writing any fiction at all. I kept trying. I put my butt in the chair, my hands on the keyboard, and it just hurt. I felt pain while not writing and agony when I tried to force it.

Then my friend Donna asked me to re-host a MUSH instance, and I said sure. I fired up an old backup, connected, and saw that it was missing a number of systems vital to making it playable. Then I went into what can probably be described as a coding fugue. For weeks, I connected to this fledgling MUSH and wrote systems.

I thought I was building sandcastles, or carving intricate ice sculptures. I wrote code for the Star Wars MUSH for years, but this new code came after spending a couple of decades as an actual programmer, and it was good.

The reality of writing a game like that, using technology over 2 decades old, struck me as masochistic. At one point, I looked at the brand new character generation system, and the modifications I made to the space system, and all of the other intricate systems I created and installed… and I despaired. I didn’t believe I was digging a baseball diamond in the middle of a corn field. It felt more like the Winchester Mystery House, a construction wrought by my madness, with hallways and stairs and passageways that would never know proper use.

In October, I started writing the code. By the beginning of November, I finished enough of the game that we could start inviting people to try it out. Donna worked on the web page I linked above and she found ways to advertise the game. And then, miraculously, we had players.

I stopped treating it like a feverish coding project. It became a place where I exercised my other creative writing muscles. I created two characters and started playing. The words flowed.

A MUSH is almost a perfect game for a writer because you are forced to use all of the skills you use when working on stories. Dialog, characterization, voice, plot, setting… you have to do it all at once, all the time, and in tiny sprints. Like Exquisite Corpse, you take turns with other writers to craft scenes together, only they’re generally more coherent. And FUN.

This isn’t the end of my regular writing. I feel like what I’m doing on the MUSH is akin to physical therapy. It’s like a runner rebuilding the strength in their legs after a terrible accident by working out in a pool. I don’t feel the same kind of weight when I’m writing on the MUSH as I do when I’m trying to write a regular story.

It’s probably going to be a little while before I get back into a regular writing rhythm again. Not being able to get out of the house and hang out at a Starbucks twice a week killed my schedule. Feeling all of the pain and disappointment with what my country is going through, from the pandemic to the politics, has wounded me in other ways.

But I’m still going. I’m still here. I’d be lying if I said I still had the same faith in my dreams, but I’m still a writer. Writers write. And so I do.