Creativity And Originality Are Different Things – A Ramble

Well, since I’m still going through more of a retro gaming phase than usual at the moment, I thought that I’d look at another thing that computer and video games from the 1990s can teach us about making art, writing fiction, making webcomics etc… I am, of course, talking about the difference between creativity and originality.

The 1990s has something of a reputation for being one of the most creative decades in the history of computer and video games. Yet, it was probably also one of the least original decades in gaming history.

Because gaming was still something of a “new” medium during the 1990s, the people who made games often had to take heavy influence from other artforms (eg: cinema, television, music etc..) – and this actually resulted in better and more creative games, even if they were less “original” than they might initially seem to be. Likewise, games often took inspiration from other games too – and still managed to be extremely creative.

Why? Because there’s no such thing as a truly “original” creative work. Everything is inspired by something. What really matters is both how many inspirations you have and what you do with them.

Before I go any further, I should probably talk about copyright law and how it relates to creative people. Although I’m not a copyright lawyer (and this shouldn’t be considered legal advice), even some basic research will show you that most copyright laws around the world are explicitly designed to encourage creative people to take inspiration from other stuff. The only thing that they prohibit is lazy and uncreative plagiarism.

In other words, copyright law does not cover concepts or ideas, it only covers the highly-specific way that these things are expressed.

To use a retro gaming-related example, both 1992’s “Alone In The Dark” and 1996’s “Resident Evil” are horror games about people stranded in old, monster-filled mansions. They both include fixed camera angles, deliberately awkward controls, lots of in-game documents, item-based puzzles, a choice of either a male or female protagonist, a third-person perspective etc… In terms of ideas and concepts, both games are very similar…..

This is a screenshot from “Alone In The Dark” (1992), a game set within a monster-filled mansion.

This is a screenshot from the 1997 Director’s Cut version of “Resident Evil” (1996), a game set within a monster-filled mansion.

Yet, these games express these similar ideas and concepts in very different ways.

“Alone In The Dark” is a more ‘traditional’ horror game that is set in the early 20th century and is inspired by old horror literature (H.P.Lovecraft in particular). There is less of an emphasis on weapons/combat and more on puzzle-solving and exploration. The game’s horror relies on slowly creating an ominous atmosphere of dread, with barely any blood or gory detail being shown.

“Resident Evil”, on the other hand, takes influence from more modern horror and thriller movies. It focuses on a highly-trained elite police unit that is stranded near a decrepit old mansion during the summer of 1998. The game’s array of realistic modern weapons have well-researched descriptions in the game’s item menu. There’s slightly more of an emphasis on combat, resource management and grisly blood-spattered horror. Later on, the game even begins to introduce elements from the science fiction genre too.

Because both games can draw on a common set of ideas and concepts, this frees the creators up to focus on expressing these ideas in unique and creative ways. Because the developers can’t make exactly the same game, it means that they have to look for ideas and concepts from other things (that aren’t games). This sort of thing results in a much greater level of creativity, even if the things created aren’t entirely “original”.

So, yes, creativity and originality are two different things.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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