Although this is an article about creativity and history in general, I’m going to have to start by talking cynically about computer games for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes apparent later.
A while back, I was going through yet another 1990s computer gaming nostalgia phase. That is, to say, I was feeling slightly more nostalgic about the golden age of computer games than I usually am.
As usually happens during one of these phases, I started to think “Computer games were way better in the 1990s!” And they were.
There’s a reason why, with a few exceptions, I mostly play actual 1990s games (and modern 1990s-style indie games) these days and it isn’t just because many modern games have ludicrous system requirements. Although games may have been less “graphically advanced” back then, they actually contained a lot of creativity.
In the 1990s, “point and click” adventure games were filled with humour, fascinating locations, beautiful artwork and/or interesting characters (then again, they still are today). 2D platform games were still a major genre. Even first-person shooter games not only had a sense of humour about themselves, but they often featured a wide variety of imaginative locations, level designs, challenging battles, outlandish weapons and unique monsters.
Not only that, some game designers provided fans with the things that they needed to extensively modify their games and/or encouraged people to share these modifications with others (I mean, there’s a reason why I’m still playing “Doom II” in 2016!) Back then, computer gaming was cool. It was fun. It was rebellious. It didn’t take itself so seriously.
Although computer games are more popular these days, this has come at a large cost. Almost every major game uses bland photo-realistic graphics, the gameplay in some genres of games has been heavily simplified, games companies are always looking for new ways to milk their customers (eg: “DLC”), games take themselves too seriously, games companies don’t boldly stand up to controversies in the way that they used to etc…
But this isn’t just the case with gaming, a similar case could possibly be made for comics aimed at more mature audiences.
Although I only really discovered this type of comics in 2008-11, the examples I saw showed me that my views about media being better in it’s early days are certainly true – albeit to a lesser extent than with games, since some of the more modern comics I read then were actually kind of good.
When comics were a relatively new medium, a lot of people in America produced astonishingly good horror comics during the 1940s and early 1950s that were filled with imagination, dark humour and wonderfully grotesque artwork. Of course, these got banned on both sides of the pond during the mid-1950s and “comics” soon became a synonym for the kind of generic, bland, sleep-inducing superhero stuff that still monopolises cinemas to this day.
In the 1970s-90s, comics aimed at mature audiences made a comeback in the UK (and via British writers working for US companies too). So many great comics, with a punk sensibility, were made back then. I’m talking about comics like “Tank Girl”, “The Sandman”, “V For Vendetta”, “Transmetropolitan”, “Judge Dredd” etc.. Comics were badass, comics were punk, comics were awesome.
I suppose that this attitude kind of lives on in some webcomics to this day, but comics just don’t seem to be as punk as they seemed to be in their earlier days. Not only that, many (western) comics often seem to use the same kind of almost photo-realistic digital artwork. Whatever happened to the days when “serious” print comics from Britain and America looked like they were actually drawn by a person holding a pen?
So, why are things often better in their early days? Well, it’s probably because of a number of factors. The first is that people who are new to a genre are either trying to rebel against what came before, or they’re trying to make an equivalent of the things that they love (from other mediums) using this new medium. I mean, there’s a reason why a lot of old early-mid 1990s computer games contained copious amounts of movie references, in jokes etc…
In addition to this, when a medium is new, the people making things in it are a small group of dedicated fans. The audience for the new medium also consists of a relatively small group of dedicated fans too. These are the only two groups of people that a new medium has to appeal to in it’s early days. In other words, it can be geekier, more complex, more edgy etc.. for the simple reason that the only people reading, playing, watching etc… are people who absolutely love the genre.
When something becomes more mainstream, it often has to be watered down in order to appeal to a mainstream audience quickly. In addition to this, when something enters the mainstream, it becomes part of popular culture and is held to the same stern and judgmental standards (whether conservative and/or liberal) as everything else is.
For example, if it was a new comic that started today, “Tank Girl” would be banned within a month or two. Both liberals and conservatives would probably be outraged by it for different reasons.
But, thankfully, “Tank Girl” didn’t start today. It started back in the days when comics that weren’t aimed at children were still a relatively “new” genre. It started in the days when these kinds of comics had a smaller audience that actively sought them out. It started in the days, when mature comics were ignored by the mainsteam. If something is ignored by the mainstream, then this usually equates to more freedom of speech – which equates to more creativity and individuality.
Finally, another reason why things are better in their early days is because there’s less money. Since there’s less money for people to spend on the superficial parts of the new medium, they have to focus on the things that really matter in order to attract (and keep) customers. Likewise, in the early stage of something, there aren’t that many corporate middle managers who want to maximise their revenue by playing it safe and making things as “mainstream” as possible.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂