scott pilgrim level up

There are quite a few ways that video games are better than real life. For one, there are very few consequences for your actions. Want to eat mushrooms? Snack away, Mr. Plumber. Want to try to defeat the world’s most evil wizard with a bunch of Deku nuts? Have at it, Hero of Time! Pretty much anything goes.

But one of the things I really love about video games happens to come from role-playing games in particular — the idea of leveling up. For the uninitiated and unnerdy, leveling up is when your character gains a certain amount of experience (from killing endangered tortoises, going on epic quests or fetching a maiden’s shoes) and crosses a new threshold, wherein he learns new abilities, gains more hit points and turns into more of an overall badass. This is usually accompanied by some pretty sweet music and other visual cues, cluing you in on the fact that you are now more mighty and more fierce, even if you are a conglomeration of pixels and muddy textures.

And really, it’s the signifier that I love. It’s just a couple of numbers next to my character’s name, but it makes all the difference for me. I love quantitative evidence that my time has been well spent, that I’m moving on up in the world to face the final boss, that my stat grinding is making a dent in this fantastical realm made entirely of bits of data.

It’s a shame that the real world doesn’t always seem to work that way. You toil and toil, and no music blasts at the end of your accomplishments to say “hey, you nailed that,” or “whoa, look how strong you are now, bro!” There’s no feedback to let you know that you leveled up.

Perhaps one of the biggest ways that this indicator is helpful in a game is when you come up against an enemy that you just can’t defeat. He’s hitting you for loads of hit points, almost as much as you even have, your weapons aren’t making a dent in his crazy spiked armor, and his spells make you dizzy while you try to browse menus to find the right items to mop up the damage. He is just too much for you to handle at the moment, and the game always lets you know that.

But real life isn’t always as kind and helpful as even the most punishing video game.

My biggest mistake that I’ve made recently with my writing was the two years that I slaved away on The Collector’s Legacy, with a total of five drafts. By the end of that second year, I had exhausted every item in my inventory, and the manuscript was the spiky-armored boss who I couldn’t even harm, not with my wildest imagination. Draft five was mostly me butting my head against his armor while he laughed a maniacal laugh, full in my face, his monster breath steaming. Gross.

Walking away from this boss felt like utter defeat at the time. But that’s not the way it works in the game, right? In the game, you’re an idiot if you hang around a high level haunt and hope to slay some red dragons with your level 1 wooden sword and swashbuckling bucket helm. It’s not perseverance if you stay. It’s madness. So what do you do? You go tackle something else. Fight some butterflies or some wolves. Find some new equipment. You go level up, and then you return.

And even though we like to think life doesn’t work like video games, sometimes it does. In order to get back to Gabe and the Collector’s Legacy, I had to walk away and tackle another project, at the behest of my good friend Kiersi.

The thing is, the more you exercise your creative muscle, the stronger it gets — even if there’s no victory fanfare or imaginary numbers going up next to your dialogue, plot development and worldbuilding skills. And the more you write, the better your skills will be, especially if you go dump hundreds of hours into a new setting, voice and set of characters. All of those things are teaching you lessons, helping you get ready for that big boss again. And beyond even those basic skills, time and distance are like two totally new classes of armor in and of themselves, because they arm you against all the things you couldn’t see the first time around.

After several months, I think I’m finally ready to jump back into The Collector’s Legacy again, and within just a few days I’ve got a million new ideas, scaled down from my overambitious ones that I had to begin with. I know how it needs to be rewritten, and how to identify the broken stuff that had always eluded me. I know the changes in voice that need to happen, the changes in character, the changes in plot that’ll really make the story click like it hadn’t been before. It’s going to take a lot of work to slay the monster, but it actually seems within my grasp this time. He might still be a spiky-armored ruffian, but I’m no slouch myself anymore, and he hasn’t been down the business end of some of these new weapons and abilities yet.

So yeah — it’s time to start grinding again.

If you’ve got a project that you’ve been hard at work on, and you feel like you’re not making any headway on it, it’s OK to walk away. Find a new dungeon. A smaller one, a more friendly one, a more fun one. Find some new items. Go sightseeing. Find different treasure chests to open and meet some new NPCs. I promise you that the experience you get will help you come back to slay the beast. That’s just the way these things work sometimes, even in real life.

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