The Craft: What I Learned about Writing from TECMO Bowl

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

I’ve written before about the importance of taking lessons learned elsewhere in lTecmobowlfront[1]ife and applying them to writing. Woodworking and playing video games are just two areas where I learned things that I later applied to my writing. Today, I’m adding one more video game that, retrospectively, taught me something about the craft. It’s more like an extended metaphor, but I think it’s a point worth making.

Way, way back I used to have a Nintendo Entertainment System hooked up to the TV. It was the first “console” gaming system I owned as compared to a personal computer. I used to play Mario Brothers, a little Zelda and then this other game, TECMO Bowl, came along. It was fun playing the game against the NES at first, but soon enough you mastered the AI. And taking the mediocre 1990 Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl or having Bo Jackson humiliate the NES, got boring after awhile. (God, I miss those days when AI was so facile, so simplistic!)

Bo humiliates the NES and the 1990 Seattle Seahawks.

So, after a few more hundred-yard runs with Bo, it was time to call my buddies over. We were all young teenagers without drivers’ licenses, so this game essentially became our lives. And you learned pretty quick that human intelligence was far tougher playing against than the NES AI.

To set this up a little, before each play, both players had to select a play and only the computer could see those selections. If the offense and defense selected the same play, the play would be stopped in it tracks. If they selected different plays, it was up to the skill of the players to determine the outcome. So, the key was trying to keep the other guy off guard and selected a play they didn’t anticipate.

Well, I quickly learned that just an offensive strategy of going long for passes (an air attack resulting in big  gains in yards) like the San Francisco 49ers (Montana to Rice!), didn’t work against humans like it had against the AI. The human would have your receivers locked down and intercept the ball every time. But on the other hand, the short, running game (where a team runs the ball forward a few yards at a time) as favored by the Chicago Bears (Walter Payton!) wouldn’t work either. The defense would simply move up and shut you down at the line each time.

But there was a strategy that could work against other humans. I would call it a “Short-Long Strategy.” Each down, you select a random play, one that could be long or short. That way, the defense couldn’t guess which play you were going to use. You simply alternated between short and long plays. Suddenly, your adversary was back on his heels: Would you go for a “Long Bomb” pass or a short run? If they covered the long pass, things were wide open for a 5-yard run. If they got to focused on the short run, you could toss a button hook pass and eat up 20 yards. Keeping them guessing was the key to scoring points and winning. The game was a gross oversimplification of football, but it captured its spirit remarkably well.

So what the heck does this have to do with writing? As I noted in my writing resolutions for this year, I want to concentrate less on novellas. This is simply because the market for them is smaller. I’ve decided, so to speak, to go short and go long. I’m going to write short stories (less than 7,500 words) or novels (50K words and  up). That way, I hope to make progress.

Now, I realize this metaphor doesn’t make much sense. The editors out there aren’t adversaries trying to stop everything I’ve written from getting published (though it sometimes feels like it). And I’m not trying to catch them by surprise with something totally unsuspected. But for me, as someone trying to get published, mixing up my submittals by choosing to write short stories and novels—the Short-Long Strategy was the first thing that came to mind. I think the metaphor most appeals to me because it makes me think of my short pieces as runs and my longer pieces as “Long Bomb” passes. One of them is bound to end up connecting. So there you have it.

Next time, I’ll look at another element of story writing and give you a little update on works in progress. See you guys in a couple of weeks.

And to wrap up with some music…I’ve been listening to Imagine Dragons’s new album quite a bit lately. Here’s an acoustic version of my favorite song from the album.

Your time will come if you wait for it.

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