“The Making of Karateka: Journals 1982-1985” by Jordan Mechner

Book Notes

I love diaries about creative work.

My favorite short form example: The Making of de_dust2.

My favorite long form example: “Rebel Without a Crew” by Robert Rodriguez (which I made a podcast episode about here).

I read Jordan Mechner’s “The Making of Prince of Persia” before I read this book. I didn’t realize that book picked up right after this one so I read them in a bit of the wrong order.

Both are great. So pick them up.

Diaries and older biographies of currently famous people do a better job capturing a time. There’s not retrospective lens, or its at least not a decades-old lens.

Given enough time, tedium becomes interesting. It’s fascinating to read about the process of early video game animation and rotoscoping.

There are constant reminders of all the things we take for granted today.

Not just that we have computers in our pockets now. Things like…

…Oh, someone was the first person to think about putting a cut scene in a video game.

That was Jordan Mechner. His journey in making Karateka and Prince of Persia is one of the best examples of taking concepts from one discipline (filmmaking) and applying it to another (video games).

He moved the storytelling from the back of the box into the game itself.

At the same time, both books capture the struggle of being interested in multiple disciplines: throughout his entries, he’s constantly questioning whether he should go all in on designing and programming games, focus more on his studies because Yale isn’t cheap, or really pursue his dream of being a feature film director.

Guess what: he’s human. He changes his mind a bunch.

That’s life. You can be indecisive in the big picture and still find success.

Development diary #

“Start keeping a development diary. Write a little in it each day, explaining what you’ve been working on, justifying your design decisions, and vetting tough technical or professional decisions. Even though you are the primary (or only—it’s up to you) audience, pay attention to the quality of your writing and to your ability to clearly express yourself. Occasionally reread old entries, and critique them. Adjust your new entries based on what you liked and disliked about the old ones. Not only will your writing improve, but you can also use this diary as a way to strengthen your understanding of the decisions you make and as a place to refer to when you need to understand how or why you did something previously.” – The Passionate Programmer by Chad Fowler

I’m reading “The Making of Karateka” by Jordan Mechner. It’s pretty much a development diary. Or at least partly. Outside of development, Jordan writes about films he’s watching, attending Yale, and generally just what’s going on in life.

I mean I guess it’s just a normal diary.

Anyway, the thing I’m enjoying is seeing the sways of energy and enthusiasm for different projects that he’s working on. He’s working on something called Alphabet which sounds tedious but that pays well.

He’s excited for Deathbounce but the enthusiasm wanes as he gets closer to finishing it.

He’s super pumped as Karateka comes together.

July 23, 1983: It’s been a Karateka day. I Versa’d and DRAXed all twelve BLOCK shapes. It really is a joy to work on something I enjoy working on. It seems too good to be true after Alphabet. I can’t wait to get up tomorrow morning and work on it some more.

But then he returns to school and real life beyond programming gets exciting. He’s not thinking about programming all day. He might be waking up excited for the day, but it’s not excitement to program like it was in the summer.

September 7, 1983: I’m not working on Karateka. This is dangerous. At this moment, computer programming seems boring compared to a lot of other things. If I don’t jump back in soon, I may not want to.

The entries above are six weeks apart.

That can be the flow of creative work.

Steven Pressfield talks about The Resistance and how it can show up strongest as you’re getting toward the end of a project.

Starting is easy when you just need to start sketching game ideas without worrying about the software and hardware constraints to come.

It makes Resistance at the end of a project that much harder to deal with. You’re starting to think about what your next project will be after finishing the current one. You can even start planning that next one. Or maybe sketch out ideas for 2 or 3 other projects.

You can get sucked so deep into the fun nascent stages of the next projects that your enthusiasm wanes for your current project.

This can get so bad that you never finish it at all.