By Elizabeth O. Smith
I’ve lived a good majority of my life considering “what if”? It’s cliché, but it’s true that I have longed to walk the road less traveled. Now in the middle of another cool, Midwestern summer, I consider the times when I was young that I let myself be taken down a path I did not want to go to.
A memory that sticks out vividly to me is when the fair came around at the beginning of my junior year. I was grown then, but I was still scared. The mass of screaming children and arguing parents drove my anxiety through the roof. And, being pulled between the merry-go-round, which I wanted to ride, and $5 game stations, which I dreaded since I have no aim, made me think about “what if” again.
It wasn’t until I stumbled across a genre called “visual novels” later in that same year did I begin to contemplate ways in which I could change into the person I knew I could be.
An artist is slave only to the thoughts they create.
An artist cannot separate personal bias from their work.
An artist does not interpret or invent, they recycle and transform.
I call this my mini-manifesto not because I’m claiming anything revolutionary, but because it’s the only way I can make sense of why I do what I do. I am an artist. I am an artist who believes she still has much to learn. I am an artist who manipulates words and colors and emotions into something more.
I started writing out of necessity rather than any real desire to become an author. When I was in middle school, I doodled on the side of my notebooks with no intent to make a career out of it. Back then, fiddling around with my new GameBoy Advance, I never dreamed I’d be the person behind the screen creating the worlds I use to escape into.
When I was young, opportunity was always accessible to others unless I seized it, threw my whole being into it. The drabble above encapsulates those feelings of desperate hopelessness when I couldn’t meet this imagery standard of perfection I saw around me. Writing became my means of escape, and I desperately wanted to feel connected to somebody else. For me, interactive fiction was the means by which I bridged this gap of feeling isolated but wanting to connect.
I was very lonely as a child. I didn’t understand why my mind worked the way it did. Plus, these feelings of being ostracized were compounded by the circumstances surrounding my race.
Despite it all, I can’t say my childhood was an unhappy one. It was just one filled with more taped boxes, houses, and states than most. Moving from place to place resulted in me not setting down roots. I made friends for a year, and felt a bigger wave of sadness hit every time I had to say those dreadful words...
The anonymity of the internet allowed me a venue to purge all these unwanted emotions. I wanted to become emotionless but realized that without my thoughts and feelings, my creations held no real worth or depth to them. But, no matter how hard I searched, I couldn’t find me.
You see, I hoped from place to place and noticed that my surroundings grew whiter and more Hispanic, and drew more hostility from my own race. I was quirky (weird and intelligent because adults said I was), neither ghetto enough nor willing to play a Tom well enough to fit in anywhere I went.
Representation, for me, could not be confined to certain hours of mainstream TV, or segregated programs like B.E.T, or old black programs such as "Good Times and "Roots," aimed at a society less multicultural as the one I came of age in. I longed to convey the tastes and sounds and sensations that made me who I am today. I longed--and still long--to capture that bit of wordplay that could act as a symbol of lived experiences.
Instead of confronting this reality, I decided to escape. I escaped into a world where I was in control and guided my own destiny. I created characters and worlds and plot lines relevant to my experience. Somehow along the way it started to reach people outside of the small sphere called me.
There’s no such thing as art that doesn’t speak, and I’m not of the ideology an artist can ever fully separate themselves from their work. Some part of oneself can be found inside. Why create at all if something or someone didn’t push you to do so?
Artwork is cyclical in nature, much like the progression of history in my mind. It winds and winds around and changes but always ends up repeating itself.
History repeats itself but it’s never the same. This might sound paradoxical, but if one stops to take into account the multitudes of people who experience similar struggles, they’ll come to understand that they deal with it and express it in different way.
In my case, a merry-go-round of disaster marked my passage to the macabre through visual novels and flash fiction. No matter how hard I try to get away from my art, it haunts me, speaking to that tiny place I had locked away inside. Sometimes it whispers to others too.
Text adventures have been the means by which I’ve sorted through problems in my life. Losing my home inspired a visual novel about a girl feeling deserted by authority, feelings of hopelessness in the mites of my depression conjured up 100 words about melancholy, and a desire for security after money struggles in college inspired me to hop on board a NaNoRenO project aimed at change.
I've always been obsessed with the road that wasn't taken. Maybe it's just anxiety speaking, but some tiny voice inside of me always asks "what if?" And, interactive fiction, as well as the short but emotional journey of creating flash fiction, helps me to express what I believe are the outcomes of those "what if" questions. The brevity and constraints that come with short form fiction allow me to really consider the impact of each and every word I use throughout a piece. While I’m encouraged to be more verbose when writing for magazines (since one is paid by the word), my drabbles are a way to covey something in the least amount of words possible. Conversely, visual novels expand the scope by which I can reach my audience and play with the English language. Instead of being limited by text on screen or paper in a certain amount of words, I can utilize pictures, sounds, music, and so much more.
There's a saying that goes something like, "I know myself because I see you in me." I'm probably butchering it but the point is clear. I understand myself through the lenses of others, but that image is often distorted and painted by misconceptions of who I think I truly am. So, when I help create something like the dieselpunk fantasy pictured below, I do so because I want to create a world that reflects the vision of me I see and what I wish could have happened in the world. I see myself as an adventurer, a creator, a daughter, a friend, a mentor, and countless other titles. But, when asked what I do and why I do it, the answer is often simply this.
“Somethings got to change, and I'm going to change it…"
I was lonely as a child, yes, and often afraid, but it never stifled my creativity or desire to make things my way. Many struggles, trials and tribulations halted my path however. The world, it seemed to me, was telling me to give up and give in.
Then, I discovered visual novels and flash fiction. It combined two of my greatest passions and helped me learn to love many more. Various communities nurtured me and also left me more informed on issues I never considered relevant to myself. College gave me the vocabulary to understand saliency of blackness and the predominance of white narratives in my work. I could go on and on but it’s better to just say I got smarter, older, and more willing to try new things.
I decided that not only was I going to create the stories and characters I needed growing up, I’d make a classic out of it.
A classic, in my humble opinion, isn’t always something authored by dead white men. A classic, in fact, doesn’t even have to be something you're proud of. Nothing exists in isolation, it is always influenced directly or indirectly. It grows on me or it haunts me in my dreams, so I return to it time and time again. A classic, by my definition, is a piece of work or fiction that you can’t help but think “what if I returned to it again?”.
“It goes around and around and around-”
I feel like I’m progressing but keep hitting dead ends. Maybe that’s why I love VNs so much, because it’s all about making the right choices I don’t in life, and coming up empty when I mess up.
Maybe I like interactive fiction as it lets me explore so many tangents of being I was uprooted from when I was young.
Maybe I just love good looking men in anime, pixelated, digital formats.
Maybe it’s because I love analogies, or because I long to go to the carnival again and be carefree. Either way, I’ll always remember the feelings I had when I first set pen to paper, finger to keyboard, and started creating for someone other than the scared little girl within.
Who knows, maybe I’ll write your story next.
Elizabeth O. Smith has been active in the english visual novel scene, and general gamedev work, for over three years now. She's been a life long casual gaming enthusiast, and when she's not trying to figure out the barebones of code, she's gearing up to write her next story. Follow her on Twitter, visit the group's website, and consider donating to her Patreon account if you find something you like!