Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Question and Answer: Advice On Describing Maps

I would like to ask... As a person who wrote hundreds and hundreds of map descriptions, do you have any advice on how to make one's writing more interesting and varied? For example, do you sometimes struggle to come up with something new to say that you haven't already said about many other wads before? Maybe at times you feel like you're repeating similar sentences. After all, lots of wads kind of imitate each other and I think it's not always easy to find enough unique moments to comment on. How do you deal with that?

There are, I think, two aspects of this question. The first is about making your compositions more alluring to other people and the second is your own engagement in the act of composing map descriptions. For the former, I don't have a good way to measure how engrossed readers are with this blog as it relates to the quality of my writing. The vast majority of the people commenting are authors thanking me for reviews and players offering their own experiences. The only major negative feedback I've ever received - with one exception that I'll get to in a minute - comes either from people who hate a PWAD given a good review (e.g. Erkattäññe) or those who take issue with negative opinions about a beloved release (e.g. Hellbound). The only real way for me to gauge raw interest is based on web traffic statistics but even then I'm ignorant of the why.

When it comes to your own gratification my advice is unfortunately generic. I think that your main goal should be to find the satisfaction in your own writing, figuring out what motivates you. I have written a lot of reviews but I don't think that my commentary provides the same function as feedback created from in-depth playtesting. Much of it is polished for players past and potential with an intent to either paint a picture for prospective participants containing enough information to decide whether their interest is piqued or evoke erstwhile experiences. As an anonymous commentator wrote on my 2015 suggestions list, "it's nice to have something like a sleek travelogue guide down memory lane, so to speak, especially as it will occasionally leave me hankering to revisit something from the past." Some of my reviews probably provide insights to the authors who read them but only in a broad sense, I imagine, much like the size of the strokes I tend to paint with.

My writing developed from the fey notion that the quality of my Doom playing sessions could be improved by writing about the levels I had just played. This has its roots in theories behind processing information - specifically, taking notes during lectures - but my appreciation of the "why" was superficial at best. Now I understand that writing about my session after having played effectively extends my experience beyond the confines of the executable, adding depth to my involvement twofold first by taking it to an entirely different avenue and second by forcing me to process the raw sensory perceptions of Doom gameplay, digesting them into the bare essentials required to convey them over the written medium.

At first, I wasn't at all concerned about people reading what I had composed. My early musings were short and punchy descriptions of TNT Evilution and The Plutonia Experiment; they gradually got longer toward the end. Afterward I started exploring the Doom community and realized that PWAD review sites had tapered into archival oblivion. In an uncharacteristic bout of egotism, I believed that there might be an audience no matter how small for reviews of PWADs no matter how old. I didn't quite have my voice ironed out but there wasn't a particular one in mind; I grew into it as I started to focus on what was important to me.

The genesis of my distinct mission began with my playthrough of the Heroes collection where I attempted to dig up info on the sources of all the maps edited by Dewey. I did not know at the time that someone (Never_Again, I believe) had already done most of the work; the wealth of potential information contained in the Doomed Speed Demos Archive was unknown to me until I was almost finished. However, the act added an additional layer of involvement and kickstarted this blog's second purpose: to enshrine them within their historical context as glimpsed through the archives (WAD archeology) or as observed personally from 2011 and on (WAD anthropology).

ONEMANDOOM has understandably ballooned along with its readership. In writing so many level descriptions - nearly 5,000 and some much more detailed than others - I cannot help but tread the same ground and have at one point or another experienced deja vu. I am not overly concerned with whether my viewpoint is particularly unique because, as you pointed out, there are plenty of people bent on imitating certain styles like Romero's execution of Knee Deep in the Dead. My goal is not to identify a PWAD's absolute novelty but to give people unfamiliar with it the details to decide whether it is worth their time. For those who have, they should be able to see something of their own experiences, not necessarily in how I feel but in what I describe is there is to find.

The end result of writing so many descriptions is the creation of a process, largely abandoning the pursuit of making my writing interesting and varied when it comes to describing levels. As another anonymous commentator wrote in response to my own reply to a comment on Titan Manor, "Your spoiler heavy, room by room analysis approach to reviewing is often as rote as many of the levels I have played. I would love to see more reviews done in the style of the comment quoted: more abstract and opinion lead." Unfortunately, the average Doom level does not have the substance required for me personally to be able to really sink my teeth into the sort of observations the author enjoyed.

Pinning down such thoughts is difficult enough, but rendering commentary on what each and every map means to the metaphysics of Doom would tax me to my core. I prefer to let these abstract musings arrive organically as my fancy takes me like gold sinking to the bottom of the pan while the agitated surface-level observations float at the top. My resulting theoretical writings are I think the most precious to me and while I cannot offer them for every level I write up I will continue to play whatever I can as each release contributes to my overall understanding of Doom and its supporting community. Banal as it may feel at times, I doubt that I would have arrived to many of my conclusions had I not devoted myself to writing about something in the first place.

Of course, the majority of my effort spent on this blog is far from being dull, grinding busywork. The worst time I have while drafting is a result of temporal disconnect. Back when I first opened OMD I had a lot more free time and all of it could easily be spent playing and reviewing Doom PWADs. Throw in a drastic increase in working hours - rotating shifts - plus a family with children and it could be several days in between writing periods. Such is the main reason why I had a long hiatus after finishing my playthrough of The Inquisitor 3 and had to eventually muster the sheer fortitude required to grind out an article whose source content had gradually become distant to me.

Two of the pillars of my engagement in my own writing come from fleshing out a semi-historical travelogue of the Doom community and the pursuit of those flashes of insight that energize my theoretical understanding of Doom and its association of users. The third and perhaps most important to my own preservation is self-amusement, especially when there is nothing inherently interesting about the subject. The most obvious examples of this are the "stingers" lurking at the bottom of every review but you can also see it in the fake titlepics - the more recent ones I'm rather proud of - and the various turns of phrases or runs of alliteration I use to pepper my writing. Oftentimes I just organically stumble into the latter and then undertake a private challenge to see how long I am comfortable stretching it. I rarely if ever hear any comments about these self-indulgences but, as with the many liberties taken that comprise the elusive authorial "charm" defined upon reflection on the community's early years, they exist firstly for my own pleasure and are shared to no one in particular.

I'm not really concerned if I don't manage to glean a novelty from my playthrough or writing. If I find something, great. If not, well, I probably had fun. I am mainly looking to share some facet of the experience with the people who read this blog and if I have captured that, everything else is a bonus. I don't want to spend my time avoiding the repetition of statements or ideas, which I feel is unavoidable given how long I've been writing and how many works I have played. If someone picks up on similar wording used to describe a PWAD it may help them find other things to appreciate - or avoid - based on their own interests.

I believe that your personal motivation is the key because your enjoyment in your own writing trumps the reader's. Without it the act will become a chore, tarnishing everything that surrounds it. This year (2017) I did not write any articles for the Cacowards because I could not handle keeping up with current releases without it dominating every moment of my severely reduced free time. Once I divested myself of the obligation I felt like I could finally loosen up and actually take the time to enjoy both my playing and my writing. I now have the freedom to play whatever I want whenever I can afford to. Furthermore, since this blog is a hobby and not (currently) a source of revenue I am unbeholden to pandering to an audience beyond one that is presumably interested in reading reviews of Doom WADs and, occasionally, gameplay mods.

When I publish these articles I ultimately intend for them to be read but they are not written for any particular group of persons. They are produced for my own edification and bared to the cold bosom of the internet one journal page at a time, chronicling my journey through the worlds of Doom produced by a vibrant modding community. I don't have any concrete advice to provide in making your writing appealing to yourself or others; all I can offer is my own particular situation. Hopefully you can glean from it something to aid you in your own pursuits.

P.S. I started to write a "nuts and bolts"-style overview of the process I used to play and write reviews but it didn't seem pertinent to the question. If anyone is interested I'm more than willing to finish it.


  1. Am I crazy, or didn't you publish this, like, a month ago?

    1. I might have accidentally published a draft version and removed it but it definitely wasn't something that I considered finished or ready to be seen. This answer has had roughly three different, progressive drafts before I settled on this.

  2. this is a good piece, thanks for writing!

  3. I love this site. That is the one thing as in the DooM community it may not be the biggest at times but it sure as Hell is one of the most passionate.