Although I’d planned to write a different article for today, I saw something shortly before writing this article [Edit: Which was several months before I got a vaguely modern refurbished computer] which made me think about creativity and the limitations of the written word.
It was a trailer for an upcoming computer game (called “Cyberpunk 2077”), of all things. For a few seconds, I really wanted to play the game until I suddenly realised “The system requirements will be sky-high. It would melt my vintage computer if I even tried.” This then morphed into the forlorn thought “If this was a novel instead of a game, I could actually enjoy it“.
After all, in English at least, writers only have 26 letters that they can use. Pretty much everyone is trained to read from a young age. Books don’t really have system requirements. And, whilst this means that we can do things like read books from literally over a century ago, it also has a lot of limitations too. After all, there are only 26 letters to work with.
Yet, these limitations are one of the main things that makes prose fiction such a creative thing. After all, writers can’t rely on fancy new computer graphics or anything like that in order to impress their readers. They have 26 letters and a pre-made system of grammar to work with. As such, writers have to get creative in order to make something astonishing within these old limitations.
And this produces some truly spectacular results. For example, when I was watching the modern game trailer I mentioned earlier, one of my first thoughts was “Oooh! A cyberpunk city during the daytime. This reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash‘“. Now, for comparison, “Snow Crash” was published in 1992. On the other hand, the best computer game graphics from 1992 looked a bit like this:
So, yes, novels have been using spectacular “graphics” for much longer than computer games have. Using just 26 letters.
This limitation has spurred writers to do things like find their own unique “style”, to think of interesting locations, to come up with brilliant characters, to tell new types of stories, to use things like grammar and chapter length to achieve particular effects (eg: short sentences and short chapters in a fast-paced thriller novel) etc….
In other words, it has forced writers to be creative. After all, every other writer will be using the same letters, words etc… so, what matters is how a writer uses them.
Interestingly, there is a little bit of a parallel with computer games here. After all, there’s a lot of nostalgia for games from the 1990s – and with good reason! Back then, computer technology was a lot more limited. So, like writers, game designers had to be creative within these limitations. Since they couldn’t rely on flashy photo-realistic graphics, they had to set their games apart from the crowd through the use of things like imagination, clever design, innovative ideas etc…
But, I digress. The point of all of this is that if you want to see a perfect example of how limitations can actually make people more creative, then pick up a book.
Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was interesting 🙂