Three Rambling Thoughts About Good And Bad Creative Works

Well, due to a mixture of binge-watching Jim Sterling’s game industry criticism videos on Youtube, binge-reading Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” webcomics, being slightly disappointed by a monster movie and deliberately not binge-reading an epic sci-fi novel from the 1980s (“The Snow Queen” by Joan D. Vinge), I suddenly realised that my thoughts about these four different things had one thing in common.

They all made me think about creative works and quality. So, as a way of writing all of this wasted time off as “productive”, I thought that I’d share some of three of these rambling thoughts.

1) Good creative works keep you returning (using honest methods): If a creative work is any good, then it is something that you will want to return to. For example, the “Subnormality” webcomics I binge-read were all ones that I’ve read several times before. I returned to them because of their amazing hyper-detailed art (that makes me care more about making art), the surreal humour/creativity and the profound dialogue.

Likewise, although I’m only reading about 20-30 pages of “The Snow Queen” almost every day (after getting burnt out by lots of binge-reading over the past year or two), I haven’t abandoned this enormous book. This is because it contains a really interesting fictional world, a complex storyline, compelling characters etc… Although my enthusiasm seems to have shifted a bit from reading stuff to watching stuff, I still find myself returning to this book almost every day because of these things, even if I’m reading it much more slowly than I would have done several weeks or months ago.

What’s the point of all of this? Good creative works are things that make you want to spend time with them because they give something to the audience. Because their quality is it’s own reward. These creative works don’t need to do anything other than be themselves because this is enough to make people want to look at them again and again. In other words, they keep the audience returning via honest methods. By using nothing more than the sheer quality, creativity and uniqueness of their writing, art, acting, lyrics, gameplay, instrumentation, journalism etc…

Bad creative works, on the other hand, can’t do this. So, they sometimes rely on other methods to keep the audience returning. Whether it is excessive advertising, cultivating peer pressure, various other forms of subtle psychological manipulation etc… that – as pointed out in many Jim Sterling videos – focus more on financial greed than on the audience’s enjoyment.

In short, when you experience a good creative work, you feel richer for the experience. When you experience a bad creative work, you feel cheated. When you return to a good creative work, it is because it has something more to offer you. When you return to a bad creative work, it is because it has tricked you into returning in order to take something from you (eg: happiness, time, opinions, money etc…).

2) Bad creative works still have value: If you spend long enough around creative works, you’ll probably want to start making some of your own. Surprisingly, both good and bad creative works can teach you a lot about how to do this. Whilst it’s fairly obvious that good creative works can spark your imagination, show you how to do things well and also inspire you to keep practicing, learning, experimenting etc… I thought that I’d talk about what bad creative works can teach you.

Because, yes, bad creative works do actually have some value.

They show you what not to do and this is just as important as learning what to do. For example, whilst it isn’t quite a “bad” film, the 1997 monster movie “The Relic” can teach you a few lessons about how not to handle lighting in visual media (eg: gloomy lighting is awesome – but you also need to include enough brightness to contrast with that gloom and allow the audience to see what is going on). It can also teach you the importance of including detailed characters (who the audience can get invested in) in the horror genre. I could go on, but all of this film’s mistakes are valuable lessons for any artist, writer, director, game dev etc… watching it.

Likewise, learning how to recognise and avoid bad creative works can also teach you how to find good creative works. It teaches you to judge creative works on their own merits and to understand your own tastes more. This also means that things like manufactured popularity, advertising and other tricks that are sometimes used to foist bad creative works onto you won’t have as much of an effect.

But, saying all of this, remember that….

3) Sometimes good creative works can be popular too: Yes, a lot of “popular” or “mainstream” stuff is there because of advertising or marketing tricks used to disguise sub-par or mediocre things. Just because something is “cool” or “trendy” doesn’t mean that it is necessarily good. But, use your own judgement! Being the kind of person who automatically dismisses anything “popular” as bad will mean that you’ll miss out on those uncommon creative works that are actually popular because of their quality.

To give an embarrassing personal example: Although I’d heard a couple of their songs in the background over the years (it’s kind of impossible not to), I only really “discovered” The Beatles relatively recently. For many years, I actively avoided their music because of it’s mainstream ultra-popularity.

Then, after seeing a Beatles-inspired level in a “Doom II” WAD (for younger gamers, this is like DLC – but fan-made and free, like it should be), I felt curious enough about the band to actually properly listen to some of their music and… Wow… It suddenly made perfect sense why so many people have been fans of them for the past few decades. They were a timelessly brilliant and absolutely amazing band, who richly deserve those decades of praise.

So, yes, just because a lot of great creative works either languish in indie obscurity or are overlooked cult classics (just look at how the critics reacted to “Blade Runner” when it was first released) doesn’t mean that popularity automatically equals “bad”. Sometimes good creative works become popular because of their quality, rather than despite it.

So, again, the lesson here is to use your own judgement. To experience enough examples of good and bad creative works that you become aware enough of your own standards, tastes, sensibilities, emotions etc.. to be able to make your own decisions about the quality of a creative work, uninfluenced by popularity.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why Creative Works That Are Never Made Seem So Good

The day before I wrote this article, I happened to find a really cool video on Youtube where, by editing together various audience recordings, someone was able to reconstruct what a live concert video for Iron Maiden’s 1986/7 world tour would have possibly looked like. This was a tour that was apparently never officially filmed and, were it not for the fans, would have been lost to the mists of time.

Although the tour was from before my time, I was astonished by how awesome this fan reconstruction was. Everything from the “Blade Runner”-themed introduction, to the costumes to the performance of songs that the band rarely plays live were really amazing. The blurry camcorder footage also made me wonder how much more awesome a proper official live video would have looked like if it had ever been made.

And this, of course, made me think about the topic of creative works that were never made. In particular, why they can sometimes seem better than things that were actually made.

1) Imagination: This is the most obvious one. If something is never made, then people will have to use whatever clues they can find in order to imagine what it looks like.

First of all, everyone’s imagination is at least slightly different. So, your idea of what a cool-sounding unreleased computer game/film/album/novel etc… would look like will probably be at least slightly different to that of the people who would have made it.

In addition to this, our imaginations also have very little in the way of limitations. In other words, we don’t have to worry about things like budgets, practical concerns or anything like that when we imagine what an unreleased film, game etc… might look like. So, it is probably going to look better in our imaginations than it ever would in real life.

2) Fandom: Following on from this, if you’re imagining something that was never made, then you are probably a fan of whoever would have made it. In other words, you’re probably judging it by the high standards of everything else that they have made. At the very least, you will probably expect it to be similar to these things.

The thing to remember here is that things that aren’t made sometimes aren’t made for a good reason. Maybe the underlying idea had a flaw of some kind? Maybe it was something that sounded cooler in principle than it actually did in practice? Maybe it would have required the person creating it to change something in a way that would alienate fans? etc…

A good videogame-based example of this is probably “Duke Nukem Forever”. For many years, this was a legendary unreleased game from the makers of the 1996 FPS classic “Duke Nukem 3D”. Everyone expected it to be like an enhanced version of “Duke Nukem 3D”. Of course, when it was eventually released in 2011, it was widely criticised for including all of the worst elements of modern FPS games (eg: linear levels, two-weapon limits etc..).

So, yes, “lost” creative works can seem better for the simple reason that you expect them to be like things that have already been released.

3) Context: Another reason why “lost” creative works can seem so amazing is because of the historical context surrounding them. In short, they evoke nostalgia. When we think about them, we think about the time period that they could have been made in.

We think about the earlier days of our favourite musicians, writers, game companies etc… and find ourselves wishing that we lived in that time period. And, whilst released creative works can evoke this nostalgia, unreleased ones tend to evoke it a lot more powerfully for the simple reason that we aren’t familiar with them (since they were never actually made).

As such, even a few vague clues about these things can seem like something “new” from the glory days of our favourite creative people.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Art Changes The Way You See The World – A Ramble

Although I’ve talked about this topic at least twice before, I felt like returning to it again because it is always interesting. I am, of course talking about the way that creative works change the way you see the world – whether you make them or are part of the audience.

I was reminded of this subject when, a couple of hours before I started preparing this article, there were two power cuts. After noticing that I couldn’t turn the downstairs hall light on, the upstairs hall light started flickering ominously. My first thought was “Oh my god, this is like something from a horror movie. Cool!“. Which, in retrospect, was probably better than feeling scared.

Then, when I went upstairs, I happened to notice that the bathroom was bathed in the early evening light. Thanks to my years of daily art practice, I was able to memorise the way that the light looked – so that I could turn it into a stylised painting later. Here’s a preview of said painting:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here tomorrow.

Whilst I was somewhat puzzled by the power cut, the wails of car and building alarms in the distance suddenly made me think of this absolutely hilarious “SMBC” comic. Remembering this comic lightened my mood considerably and meant that I felt amused, rather than annoyed or frightened, by the power cut.

Finally, after the first power cut had finished, I powered up my computer and the first thing I did was to look online for a music video for Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017“. Why? Because it was a song that I’ve associated with power cuts since I found myself in the middle of one when I was in Aberystwyth about 7-8 years ago. This also brought back lots of wonderful memories and helped me feel nostalgic, rather than angry or annoyed, about the power cut.

This is far from the only time that creative works have lightened the mood. When, last year, the afternoon sky turned an ominous shade of muddy orange due to a combination of a distant storm and sand from the Sahara (or something like that), I was quite surprised to read in online news stories about it that people were joking that it was a sign of the apocalypse. My thoughts at the time hadn’t been “it’s the apocalypse! The end-times are upon us!“, but “Cool! Everywhere looks like part of the intro movie to ‘Silent Hill 3‘. This is awesome!

So, what was the point of mentioning all of this?

Well, it’s yet another example of how important creativity and creative works are. Whilst “the arts” or “culture” are often commonly seen as frivolous or pretentious, they have an incredibly important everyday role in our lives – since they can be one of the things that shapes how we see and think about the world.

And, before anyone says anything, this isn’t a call for censorship. Whilst creative works can shape the way we see the world, they aren’t all-powerful things. In other words, they can slightly influence the way we see the world to an extent, but they can’t control us. We obviously still have brains, personalities etc…

Not to mention that most of the ways that creative works influence how we see the world are positive. They make us look at “ordinary” landscapes in interesting ways, they can provide an emotional boost to us, they can add humour to our lives and they can provoke interesting daydreams.

Plus, of course, if you’re a creative person yourself, then every creative work that you see will probably influence what you create to some extent or another – even if it’s just a “I’m not making something like that!” negative influence.

Not to mention that making art regularly also means that you tend to notice things like realistic colours, the exact outlines of everything, the beauty of everything, background details in TV shows etc… This is kind of hard to describe, but it’s a little bit like gaining an extra sense or something like that.

So yes, creative works are important, valuable things because they can shape the way that we see the world.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of… Slightly Old Creative Works

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about slightly old creative works and why they’re so awesome. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to limit myself to novels published between 1950-2000, music from 1980-2000, games from 1990-2005, comics from 1980-2001 and films/TV shows from 1980-2005. Sorry for the ultra-specific definitions, but the term “slightly old” is fairly ambiguous.

So, why am I talking about these creative works? Well, it’s mostly because a large percentage of the creative works that I’ve ever read, played, watched or listened to fit into this category. For quite a while, this was mostly for financial reasons and/or practical reasons. But, these days, it’s as much of a choice as anything else.

But, why are slightly old creative works so awesome? Simply put, they often tend to have more of a “personality” to them. In part, this is because they depict a historical version of the world that no longer exists but also in part because culture seemed to contain a lot more variation in the past. Hollywood took more risks (and used less CGI), large game studios innovated more, comics aimed at mature audiences were still a “new” thing, mid-list authors could still succeed etc…

Likewise, older creative works can contain a lot more personality for the simple reason that many of them came from a time before the internet was mainstream. From a time before mainstream culture was more universal and research material was just a click away. What this means is that authors, film-makers, game developers etc… had to rely on whatever they had for inspiration. Their creative works tended to be more of a reflection of their personal interests, their own worldviews, their social circle etc..

Another cool side effect of creative works from before the internet was a mainstream thing was that there was a larger separation between creative people and their critics. No, I’m not talking about things like reviews (which are a good thing from a consumer standpoint). I’m talking about the modern phenomenon of a few people on Twitter or Tumblr or wherever stirring up gigantic worldwide controversies or genuinely calling for censorship, because they personally disagree with or dislike a creative work.

In the past, these “critics” were restricted to writing to their local paper or grumbling to their friends in person. One side-effect of this is that slightly old creative works often tend to contain slightly more nuanced, moderate, ambiguous, unusual and/or complicated opinions and worldviews. In these polarised and ideologically-rigid times, this can be surprisingly refreshing.

Another reason why slightly old creative works are so interesting is because they don’t tend to have that much publicity these days. Since the media always promotes the latest thing, a gigantic number of interesting older creative works can get overlooked slightly. So, when you discover something good online or in a second-hand shop, it really feels like serendipity. It really feels like luck, because you found it on your own.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of cost. One really great things about older creative works is that, since they tend to be released on physical media, you can usually find second-hand copies of things cheaply. But, even if you buy retro games via digital download, then they still often tend to be cheaper than new ones. So, unlike the latest new thing, older creative works tend to be a bit more sensibly-priced – which means you can enjoy more of them for less.

Then, especially with films, TV shows and games, there are the technological limitations. Because directors and game developers couldn’t dazzle audiences with lots of flashy graphics and/or CGI effects, they had to find other ways to make their works interesting. In other words, things like enjoyable gameplay, good storytelling, good characterisation etc…

Finally, slightly older creative works aren’t some kind of dusty, faded relics. They are designed to be enjoyed and you’d be surprised at how much fun can still be had with these creative works that have faded from the public imagination slightly.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Four Reasons Why Some Creative Works Become Better With Time

Well, for today, I thought that I’d look at why some older creative works can seemingly become better with time. This was something that I noticed when I happened to re-listen to Iron Maiden’s “The Final Frontier” album from 2010 a while before writing this article. When this album was originally released, I really liked a few songs from it but didn’t quite consider it to be one of Iron Maiden’s better albums.

But, a few years later, it seems like a considerably better album than I’d originally thought that it was. So, I thought that I’d look at a few possible reasons why some creative works can seemingly become better with the passage of time.

1) Hype and expectations: Carrying on with the example I used earlier, Iron Maiden albums are one of the few things that I tend to buy when they’re still “new”. When a new Iron Maiden album is released, it’s an incredibly exciting time. There’s a lot of expectations and pre-release information (and the occasional music video) on the internet. The same sort of thing is probably true for anything made by your favourite musicians, writers, game developers etc..

One of the advantages of revisiting things that have stopped being new (or looking for older creative works) is that they aren’t surrounded by lots of hype and expectations. In other words, it’s easier to look at these things on their own merits. If something is good, but different, then this is easier to see when your mind isn’t clouded by hype and anticipation.

It’s also easier to see these things as one stage in a band’s, novelist’s or game franchise’s creative development when you can also see later things that have been made by the same people. Being able to put a creative work in context can sometimes make it seem even better as a result (either because you can see hints of older works or newer works in it).

2) Nostalgia and historical curiosity: This is a fairly obvious one, but looking at older creative works can be a great way to “travel back in time” to better parts of our lives or to interesting parts of the past. This alone can make some creative works seem a lot better than they probably were at the time.

For me, a good example of this is an American TV show from the 1990s called “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman“. I saw at least two episodes of this on the BBC when I was a child. But, I considered it to be somewhat cheesy. It wasn’t a bad program, but it didn’t really impress me as much as other TV shows of the time did.

Yet, during a “1990s nostalgia” phase late last year and earlier this year, I ended up getting most of the show on DVD. This time round, it seemed to sum up everything wonderful about the 1990s. The fashions! The set design! The production values! The optimistic attitudes! The guest stars! The humour! The gloriously silly storylines! I could go on. But, the show seems to work a lot better as a “retro” historical artefact than it did when it was actually “modern”.

So, yes, when something goes from being current to being “a way to step back into the past” or even “a way to escape from the present day for a while”, it will generally seem better as a result.

3) You’re older: Following on from my last point, if you revisit a creative work several years after you first encountered it, then you aren’t the same person you were then. You’ve got more experience, you’re more intelligent and your tastes might be very slightly different.

As such, you’re more likely to see things that your younger self dismissed as “boring” or “crap” in a slightly different way. You’re more likely to pick up nuances or themes in a creative work that your younger self might have missed. You’re more likely to be able to empathise more with some characters than you were before. You’re more likely to enjoy things like slower-paced storytelling, philosophical depth or narrative complexity.

Of course, this sort of thing can cut both ways. Things that seemed really cool when you were younger can seem trite, superficial and/or embarassing when you’re slightly older. But, even so, it will allow you to enjoy some creative works significantly more than you did when you were younger.

4) Modern culture: This one is a bit cynical, but one reason why creative works that seemed “mediocre” when they were new can seem “amazing” when they’re a bit older can be because current culture has got worse.

When this sort of thing happens then anything from a time that you consider to be a “golden age” gets an almost instant upgrade. After all, it’s better than the modern stuff by comparison. A good example of this can probably be seen with many computer and video games.

Even slightly “mediocre” games from the past can seem better when compared to everything I’ve seen and read about their modern counterparts. For example, even the crappiest 1990s first-person shooter game will still include things like non-linear level design, imaginative weapon designs, a focus on single-player gameplay etc.. But, from everything I’ve heard about FPS games from this decade, many of them seem to be linear, militaristic, simplified, multiplayer-focused things that focus more on fancy graphics than enjoyable gameplay.

So, yes, if one of your favourite genres of entertainment has gone downhill in recent years, then even mediocre things from the past can start to look like masterpieces.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂