Limitations Can Spark The Imagination

2014 Artwork Creaitve Limitations Sketch

Even though I’m an artist and a writer, I’ll start this article by talking about computer games for a few paragraphs because they contain some of the best examples of how limitations can be useful for creative people and creativity in general…. and it gives me yet another chance to talk about how old games are better than new ones too 🙂

As regular readers of this blog probably know by now, I’m a massive fan of old sprite-based 1990s FPS games like “Doom II”, “Heretic”, “Duke Nukem 3D”, “Shadow Warrior”, and “Exhumed” (although I still haven’t played or got a copy of “Blood” yet).

In case you’ve never played one of these games before, here’s some gameplay footage from “Doom” to give you an impression of what these games look like.

Although I love these old games for nostalgia value and the cartoonish pixel art that they use, one of the main reasons I love them so much is because they’re just so much more fun and imaginative than modern FPS games.

These days, most FPS games have flashy ultra-realistic graphics and the storylines are often boringly “realistic” too (I’ve never quite seen the appeal of realistic military-based FPS games – give me a wildly unrealistic sci-fi/horror FPS game any day!). But, they don’t usually really seem to have the same level of atmosphere, humour and imagination as the old games do.

Yes, games that are getting close to twenty years old and which use cartoonish 256 colour graphics can be better than much more sophisticated modern games. Why?

I would argue that it is because of these limitations. Because game developers couldn’t really wow their audience with flashy realistic graphics twenty years ago, they had to focus on making their games look distinctive and they had to focus on making their games fun and innovative too. I mean, it’s no coincidence that at least some of the “modern” games made for the “7 Day FPS” challenge bear a striking resemblance to the classics from the 1990s.

Yes, this is all something of an oversimplification (and both FPS games increasingly being designed for consoles rather than PC and the rise of some FPS franchises like “Call Of Duty” have had a part in ruining the modern FPS genre too) but it raises a really interesting point about creativity.

As strange and counter-intuitive as it might sound, limitations can really spark the imagination in all sorts of unexpected ways. Whether it’s a limit to the length of a story (eg: in writing competitions and writing courses), a limit to the number of colours an artist can use in a piece of art, trying to sneak something past the censors or even following a strict schedule for a webcomic – limitations can make us focus on what is really important about the thing that we’re creating.

Not only that, limitations also help to spark the imagination by turning what would just be an “ordinary” act of creativity into an exciting challenge. Yes, it’s easy to make fairly good art if you have a wide variety of art supplies, options and digital editing tools at your disposal.

But if, say, you only had a ballpoint pen and there was a limit to the number of lines that you could use in your drawing – then, making something that will impress people becomes a lot more of a challenge. Almost a puzzle even.

Puzzles and problem-solving are two things that humanity does best. In fact, it’s part of who we all are – I mean, if it wasn’t for people solving complex problems and seemingly impossible challenges, I wouldn’t be able to write this article on a computer and you wouldn’t be able to use the internet to read it. Inventiveness is, and always has been, a crucial part of humanity as a whole.

And, well, putting some kinds of limitations on a piece of creative work can often tap into this innate drive towards puzzle-solving that we all have.

Not only that, limitations can also “separate the wheat from the chaff”, so to speak. If you’ve had quite a bit of practice at making art or telling stories, then one of the ways that you can really show off your skills is by producing something that is still great despite a lot of limitations.

As well as for obvious practical reasons (since contest judges can’t read 100+ novels in a couple of weeks), I personally think that this is one reason why most writing competitions set strict word limits on submissions.

So, yes, limitations aren’t an entirely bad thing.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

2 comments on “Limitations Can Spark The Imagination

  1. pekoeblaze says:

    [I’ve decided to delete this comment – it relates to a brief problem I had with this blog which has since been rectified :)]

  2. […] This Awesome Story Structure?” – “The Joy Of… Distractions” – “Limitations Can Spark The Imagination” – “Three Things To Do When You Can’t Produce Good Art” – “Four […]

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