Why It Is Difficult To Emulate The Past – A Ramble

Although this is a rambling article about making art, making comics and/or writing fiction, I’m going to have to do my usual thing of going off on a slight tangent about computer games for a couple of paragraphs. As usual, this will be relevant to the point that I’m trying to make.

One of the great things about being somewhat behind on computer technology is the fact that, aside from a few modern low-budget 2D indie games (like “Technobabylon“, “Abyss: The Wraiths Of Eden” etc..) and a tiny number of low-spec modern 3D games that will actually run on my computer, most of the games I’ve played over the past decade or so have been made in 1993-2006.

So, I felt a bit of schadenfreude when I saw this negative video review of a modern “retro-style” action game that I’d been vaguely interested in, but couldn’t play due to the system requirements. This was a game that apparently tried to emulate first-person shooter games from 1996-9. Yet, despite an abundance of research material for the developers to draw on, the game apparently fails miserably at this for a multitude of reasons. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

But, what does any of this have to do with art, comics and writing?

It’s because emulating the past can often be a surprisingly challenging thing. As regular readers of this site know, I’m a fan of the 1990s (and, to a lesser extent, the 1980s and early-mid 2000s) – yet, it’s taken me quite a while to get even vaguely good at making art that even looks like a modern tribute to these three time periods:

“Metallic Magic” By C. A. Brown

“Marina” By C. A. Brown

“Death Takes A Holiday” By C. A. Brown

Not only that, my attempts at writing “realistic” fiction set in the 1990s didn’t turn out that well. Plus, although many of my occasional webcomics are heavily inspired by slightly older comics, they still don’t quite seem to have the same quality of humour as many older 1980s-mid 2000s comics do.

So, why is it so difficult to emulate the past? The main reason is that it not only requires a surprising amount of research, but you also have to work out how to use that research in order to create new and original things. You have to study a surprisingly large number of things from the past to see what they have in common and then see if you can derive any “rules” from this that you can apply to your own work.

For example, if you want to include “1980s cyberpunk movie” and/or “late 1990s computer game”-style lighting in your artwork, then the general rule is that at least 30-50% of the total surface area of your painting or drawing has to be covered with black paint or ink, in order to make the lighting stand out by comparison.

“Scaffolding” By C. A. Brown

In addition to finding rules to follow, you also need to know where to look and what to look for. This can, surprisingly, be the most challenging part of the research process.

To give you an example, one of the most informative/inspirational pieces of 1990s research material that I’ve found within the past year or two has been an old American TV show called “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman“.

This is a screenshot from season one of “Lois & Clark” (1993-4). As well as being a fascinating look at a stylised version of part of 1990s America, it’s also something in the superhero genre that ISN’T an ultra-serious, CGI-filled part of a “cinematic universe”. Seriously, I wish that the superhero genre was more like this one good example of it.

It’s a cheesy TV show about superheroes that has been pretty much forgotten when compared to some other TV shows from the time period (eg: “The X Files” etc..). In fact, the only reason that I eventually thought to seek it out on DVD was because I had a vague memory of seeing a repeat of it on the BBC once when I was a child. Yet, although the early seasons of the show are a fantastic source of research material for things like 1990s fashions, 1990s interior design, 1990s optimism, 1990s storytelling etc… it’ll only tell you about a stylised fictional city that is based on 1990s New York.

I mention the location because culture tended to be less “universal” in the past, which also makes it more difficult to emulate – or, more likely, means that your “retro” art/comics/fiction will be a hodge-podge of different cultures from the same time period. For example, something from 1990s California will be very different from something from 1990s Britain. Yet, if you’ve been heavily influenced by both things, then your creative works will be an ‘unrealistic’ mixture of the two. They will still be unique and cool, but probably not “accurate” in the strictest sense of the word.

Finally, even if you’ve done all of this stuff, trying to create new things in the style of things from the past is also challenging for the simple reason that we’re living in the present day. What this means is that we will inevitably be influenced by parts of modern culture when creating things. It also means that we won’t have the limitations that creative people back then used to have (which would often give historical creative works a distinctive “flavour”).

For example, although the written word hasn’t changed much within the past 2-3 decades, the resources available to writers have. These days, if a writer wants to research something or get inspired, they have the whole internet at their disposal. They have streaming video sites, search engines and vast online encyclopaedias. A writer in, say, the 1980s or the early 1990s wouldn’t have had this, so this limitation would have influenced what they wrote about and possibly even how they wrote.

So, yes, emulating the past can be surprisingly difficult. But, it’s incredibly fun nonetheless.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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