Three Reasons Why Mid-Budget Creative Works Are Important

Although I’m not sure whether I’ve talked about this topic before, I thought that I’d talk about mid-budget creative works today. This was mostly inspired by watching a few movies from the 1990s over the past few weeks and, during a few nostalgic moments, watching Youtube videos about old early-mid 2000s Playstation 2 games.

One of the great things about movies in the 1990s and videogames in the early-mid 2000s is that mid-budget stuff tended to be made a lot more often. Yes, there are still mid-budget creative works being made these days (such as “AA” computer/video games like “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” and “Skylar And Plux) but they are a lot less prominent or common than they were a couple of decades ago.

But, what’s so great about them? Why is mid-budget stuff so important?

1) Creativity: The main reason why mid-budget creative works are so awesome is because they add a lot of extra creativity into the mainstream. Yes, a very low budget can spur creativity and innovation but it also limits what can be done with certain ideas and certain genres, not to mention that these works often don’t get the kind of publicity that larger-budget stuff does. On the other hand, a high budget allows people to do more but it also usually means that there’s a lot riding on one particular project. It has to be optimised for the largest possible appeal. Creativity and imagination can often take a back seat to focus groups, market trends and a kind of safe “one size fits all” blandness.

Because mid-budget creative works sit in between these two things, they get to enjoy the best of both worlds. Because there’s less money invested in them and therefore less of a loss if they don’t do well, the people making them have a bit more freedom to actually be creative and try new things. Because they also get more money and publicity (eg: cinema releases, advertising etc…) than low-budget works do, they can do a bit more and there’s also more of a chance that a decent number of people will actually take a look at them.

The important thing here is that mid-budget works allow film-makers and game devs to smuggle some actual creativity into the mainstream. They allow for interesting new ideas, memorable concepts, subtle experimentation, fascinating experiences and all of the other cool stuff that would be “too expensive” for a low-budget project but “too risky” for a high-budget one. Not only is this great for the audience, but all of this experimentation and innovation can also help to improve larger-budget stuff too. Which brings me on to the importance of…

2) Variety: A couple of decades ago, a major “blockbuster” film could be a sci-fi film, a thriller, a superhero movie, an action movie, a historical drama, a romance, a horror film etc… These days, “blockbuster” is often synonymous with “superhero movies”. A couple of decades ago, a “major” videogame could be a racing game, a fighting game, a first-person shooter game, a strategy game, a stealth game, a role-playing game, a survival horror game, a platform game etc… These days, popular “AAA” games usually fit into a much smaller number of genres.

This dwindling of variety in the mainstream is a symptom of what happens when the middle is neglected. When companies pour all of their resources into a few large-budget releases rather than spreading them out over a much wider range of mid-budget things. Because several mid-budget projects can be made for the same amount that one large-budget project costs, there’s more incentive to put out a good variety of stuff. Not only does this lessen the risk from the financial failure of any one thing, but it also means that these works appeal to a wider audience in a much more meaningful way than just making one “one size fits all” large-budget thing does.

Variety is an important thing for so many reasons. Not only does it mean that people can actually have individual tastes without feeling “left out” by popular culture, but it is also seen as “good practice” in almost every other area too. There’s a reason why most countries don’t allow monopolies to form, why a lack of genetic variety will often doom a species, why the internet is platform-agnostic and distributed amongst a huge variety of servers across the world (rather than just one giant server), why democracies last longer than dictatorships do etc…

Variety is essential. It prevents stagnation. It means that any errors, failures or mistakes don’t have catastrophic consequences. It is good for innovation and creativity (since there’s a wider variety of ideas, genres, styles etc.. to be combined and mixed in interesting ways). It also just makes everything richer and more interesting (for example, imagine how limited the English language would be if it hadn’t incorporated and adapted numerous words from other languages over the centuries). Ironically, if you want to appeal to everyone, then just having a single “one size fits all” thing is the very last thing you want to do.

3) Quality: Going back to the first point on this list, one of the great things about mid-budget creative works is that they still have to appeal to an audience. Whilst lower budget creative works might enjoy being “avant garde” or “experimental”, the slightly larger amount of money invested in mid-budget projects means that they also have to make sure that all of this interesting stuff can appeal to and be understood by a slightly larger audience.

This might sound like it would lower the quality of mid-budget works, but it often still results in more innovative, intelligent and/or interesting creative works than those that have been built from the ground up for a mainstream audience. For example, whilst a mid-budget 1990s sci-fi film like “Dark City” might have fast pacing and might explicitly spell a few things out to the audience, it still has a lot more visual creativity (inspired by film noir, German expressionism etc…) and complex ideas (eg: What makes us human? What is reality? etc..) than, say, a modern large budget CGI-fest might have.

A medium-size budget means that the balance between producing thought-provoking innovative art and producing art that can actually be enjoyed is a lot fairer. A mid-budget film won’t be full of dry intellectual rambling but it also won’t be a completely hollow and meaningless spectacle either. Because the freedom to create something interesting is paired with the requirement to actually sell a reasonable number of copies, this results in better quality.

Yes, mid-budget creative works might not always have ultra-impressive special effects or hyper-realistic graphics, but they will be a better and richer experience. You’ll get many of the benefits and innovations of intelligent “high brow” stuff, but converted into something that is a bit more immediately enjoyable.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Skills Matter More Than Tools – A Ramble

Several days before writing this article, I was looking at online videos about old games consoles and was surprised by the ridiculously low specs of many of them (compared to computers of the time). Yet, as several comments below the videos pointed out, games for older consoles were often specifically designed and optimised for the limited hardware and took full advantage of it to produce graphics that were almost comparable to PC graphics at times.

During one of my photography trips a few days before preparing this article [Edit: In December 2019], I was reminded of the old advice that the best camera you can use is the one you have right now. How, having a low-end camera (like the one I use) with you is infinitely better than having a high-end camera that you’ve left at home. And, even though I’m hardly an expert at photography, it is still possible to produce dramatic-looking photos with a low-end camera if you get lucky with the weather and understand how your camera handles light/shadow:

The lighting effect in this photo I took of the graveyard in Titchfield last November was achieved by almost pointing the camera at the sun. Or, more accurately, standing just behind a tree that was blocking out the sun.

This gothic photo, taken on a road somewhere in the South Downs on a misty day last October has an ominously silhouetted foreground because I stood in a shaded area and pointed the camera towards a more brightly-lit area.

So, why have I mentioned these things?

Well, it’s all to do with how practice and knowledge matter a lot more than tools, money etc… do. I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth mentioning again.

If you are doing anything creative, then don’t worry too much about the tools that you’ve got. Instead, focus on practicing skills and expanding your knowledge of your chosen medium. Although it might not sound very glamourous, it will be considerably more useful than any kind of trendy, high-end etc… equipment or tools will be. Having low-end tools and the right knowledge will result in much better work than having high-end tools but less knowledge.

To give you an example, if you’re an artist and you’ve got an old version of MS Paint and a standard computer mouse, then you can do some fairly impressive stuff with it if you’ve practiced using MS Paint, if you’ve practiced using a mouse, if you’ve got a bit of extra time, if you’ve got a reference photo (and know how to use MS Paint’s “pick color” feature, in addition to knowing how to copy by sight) and/or if you’ve learnt a few pixel art-style techniques:

“Portsdown Hill – Pavement (MS Paint 5. 1)” By C. A. Brown

“Westbrook – Snowfall 2018 (MS Paint 5.1)” by C. A. Brown

Practice and knowledge matter a lot more than the tools that you are using. For example, whilst there are a plethora of expensive word processing programs that are designed specifically for writers, none of them will make you a better writer unless you practice writing regularly (and read a wide variety of fiction too). Or, to put it another way, a skilled and experienced writer like George R. R. Martin can create something as impressive as the novels that “Game Of Thrones” is based on with an absolutely ancient DOS-based word processing program.

Another example of this sort of thing is probably the computer game “Ion Fury“. This is a low-budget first-person shooter game from 2019 that, out of nostalgia, uses a modified version of a game engine from 1995. Compared to a lot of other modern games, this is very “obselete” technology. But, because the people making the game are experts at game design/level design, skilled at making impressive pixel art and good enough at programming to add some extra stuff to the engine, they’ve produced a game that is considerably more fun to play than many more graphically-intensive games are.

So, in conclusion, the tools that you use to create things with don’t matter as much as you might think. The only things that really matter are practice, skill and/or knowledge.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Two Things To Do When You Find An Obscure Genre (Other Than Internet Searches)

Well, I thought that I’d write about obscure genres today. In particular, what to do when you find something in an interesting obscure genre – but don’t know what else is in it or what makes it so distinctive. Although this has happened to me a couple of times (and I’ve probably written at least one article about it before), the thing that reminded me of it this time was listening to a song by The Beatles called “For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”.

It’s this wonderfully weird vaudevillian circus-themed song that has a really distinctive atmosphere that is both creepy and amusing at the same time. It suddenly made me think about the “evil circus” genre (I think this is what it’s called) and I started trying to think of other examples of it for a list-based article about the genre. But, I could only think of about three or four other things that came close to fitting into this genre (eg: Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes“, a few parts of the movie “Paprika”, a level from “Blood” and two segments from “Silent Hill 3).

Noticing that this list was probably fairly incomplete and/or partial, I thought that it would probably be better to come up with a more general list of things to do if you find something interesting in a random or obscure genre that you don’t know much about.

I’ll also focus on non-internet ways to do this because, when I tried to talk about internet searches in the first draft of this article, it sounded really patronising and obvious. Plus, although the constantly increasing amount of stuff being put on the internet means that we live in an age when finding something cool and then thinking “How do I find anything else like it?” isn’t as much of a problem as it was even a decade or two ago, it also means that you don’t really get any of the fringe benefits of the “old school” methods I’ll be talking about in this article.

1) Passive searching: This is more useful if you’re looking for something that is hard to define, if you aren’t in a rush and/or if internet searches aren’t helpful. In short, just carry on enjoying lots of different creative works that interest you until something similar shows up again. If you’re the sort of person who reads, listens to music, plays games etc… regularly, then it will probably happen at some point. But, don’t expect it to happen that quickly. Still, it is really cool when everything just falls into place.

For example, in late 2008, I read “Lost Souls” and “Drawing Blood” by Poppy Z. Brite. The lush, poetic and vivid writing style in these novels really amazed me, but I had no way of giving this style of narration a name.

A little under a decade later, I was going through a “1990s films” phase and ended up watching the film “Practical Magic” . I learnt that it was based on a book by Alice Hoffman. Out of curiosity, I found one of Hoffman’s other novels and was amazed that it used a vaguely similar writing style to the two novels I mentioned earlier. Since all of the novels I’d seen this style in were from 1990s America, I thought of this writing style as a “1990s America” thing, which helped me to think of it in terms of time and place.

In a totally unrelated comment on this site, someone recommended Ray Bradbury’s 1960s novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes” to me. Eventually, I got round to actually reading it and – to my delight – I suddenly realised that it was probably the inspiration for this “1990s America” writing style I’d been trying to learn more about. Bradbury’s writing style was like the ones I’d seen before, but turned up to eleven. Suddenly the pieces fell into place and I had a much better definition of what this writing style was. Not only was it inspired by Bradbury, but it was also a slightly more understated 1990s version of the psychedelic 1960s too.

And all of this came from just knowing what interested me and/or looking for creative works that I thought I’d enjoy. It took a decade, but I gained the knowledge I’d been seeking. So, if you found something in an interesting obscure genre, then you’ll probably find out more about it if you just keep looking for things that interest you. It might not happen for years, but it’ll probably happen. Just enjoy the journey. In the meantime, you can always do some…

2) Study and creativity:
In short, if you can’t find anything else in an obscure genre that interests you, then make it yourself. Even if you’re fairly inexperienced at creating stuff, then it’s still worth having a go at this.

Begin by carefully and closely studying the creative work you’ve found and find a way to break it down into it’s most basic and generic elements (which can be described in just 1-3 words and aren’t specific to the thing you’re looking at). Be sure look for things like over-arching themes, prominent colour palettes, unusual techniques, emotional elements etc… too whilst you are studying. Then write a list of all of this stuff.

For example, if you’re interested in Sherlock Holmes, then your list of basic elements might include things like: “solving puzzles”, “complex crimes”, “genius and sidekick”, “eccentric detective”, “scientific study”, “formal narration”, “sidekick narrator” etc…

When you’ve got your list of generic elements, try to make something different that includes all of these things. Don’t write “fan fiction” or make “fan art”, make something different and original that also includes the basic elements you’ve found in the thing that interests you. Yes, it probably won’t be as good and – depending on your skills – you might even have to work in a completely different creative medium, but the experience will teach you a lot. It’ll also mean that your next attempt at making something will be a little bit better because you’ve had some practice.

Not only will this lead to you actually adding something to an obscure genre but, if you’re doing it right, then you’ll probably “fill in the gaps” by taking inspiration from other things and/or using your own creative sensibilities. This will result in better work than just simple “fan fiction” or “fan art”, because you’ll actually make something that is your own distinctive interpretation of the genre. You’ll also bring in new things from outside the genre that will make it more interesting. It’ll be something that, if you’ve had enough practice, might even inspire other people – and this is also how new genres also get started too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Paradoxes Of Creativity

Well, after having a few random moments of inspiration in the days before writing this article, this made me think about creativity itself. In particular, the unusual, ironic, counter-intuitive and downright paradoxical parts of creating anything.

So, here are a few of the paradoxes you might encounter when you try to create something. And, yes, this will be a slightly weirder article than usual.

1) Self-expression and self-censorship: When you feel really inspired – the kind of brilliant inspiration where making stuff feels almost like a spiritual activity of some kind – it is usually because what you are creating feels relevant to you in some way or another. It is a part of yourself, your emotions or your imagination that can only be expressed through the medium of art, fiction, comics, music, poetry etc…

Of course, these types of creative works feel absolutely amazing to make. But, one of the pitfalls of this is that you’ll sometimes look at this wonderful piece of self-expression and suddenly think “Oh my god, this is far too weird, cynical and/or personal to show anyone else“. And you’ll probably end up self-censoring it in some way or not showing it to anyone else.

And, to further compound the irony of all of this, most of the creative works made by other people that will really inspire you to create stuff are the kind of unique, weird, subversive, satirical, rebellious, introspective, irreverent, funny, quirky etc… things that will probably lead to you self-censoring when you try to make your own “equivalent” of them.

2) Improvement and nostalgia: If you’ve been practicing creating stuff regularly, then you’ve probably run into this one at some point or another. Either you get nostalgic about an inspired time you had several months or years ago, or someone says something nice about something you created ages ago. So, you go back… and it looks nowhere near as good as you remember it being!

As bizarre and frustrating as this might be when it happens to you for the first time, it is very much a good thing. It means that you’ve improved as both a person and an artist/writer/musician etc… That old creative work was probably the best thing that you could create at the time. It was something which you poured all of your creative practice, imagination and life experience into. Because it was the best thing you can create, it will look really good to you at the time.

Of course, when you’ve had a few more years practice, life experience etc.. and been exposed to even more creative inspirations, you’ll see it for what it actually is. A snapshot of your imagination several years ago. Something made by a younger, more limited and less practiced/experienced version of who you are today. So, it’ll probably make you cringe.

But, and here’s the pardox, don’t get too smug about the stuff that you’re making today. Because you’ll also experience this exact thing with it at some point in the future. I can pretty much guarantee it.

3) Getting inspired by other stuff (means your stuff has to be different): When you see a truly great creative work, it makes you want to make something like it. This is a perfectly normal part of the creative process and, when handled well, can be a great source of motivation that also helps you to improve and refine your creative works.

However, there is a massive paradox that you have to be aware of here. If you try to create something like the creative works that have inspired you, then it won’t work. At best, you’ll produce an amusing novelty pastiche/parody but, at worst, you’ll produce something crappy or something that makes you feel less enthusiastic about creating things.

Ironically, to actually use these types of moments to your advantage, you need to produce something very different to what inspired you. Why? Because your imagination, personality, worldview, circumstances, experiences and sensibilities will be different to those of the artist, writer, musician etc… that has just inspired you. You will never be able to write exactly like your favourite author, draw exactly like your favourite artist or play exactly like your favourite musician.

And this is a good thing! The reason why these great creative works have inspired you so much is because they are an expression of that person’s unique imagination. They are something that only that one person could make. And, if you want to make things that have this quality, then you need to make stuff that only you can make. Stuff that feels relevant to you, that is a part of your imagination that screams to be expressed.

Yes, you should still carefully study anything that inspires you to see if it can teach you any new technical skills (eg: art techniques, writing techniques etc..) and if there are any general elements that interest you enough to make you want to create your own interpretation of them.

You should also try to have a wide range of inspirations, because this also helps to add originality to your work. But, if you want to make something as great as the thing that inspired you, then you need to look inside yourself at your own unique thoughts, emotions, daydreams, fascinations etc… and use them as the basis for what you are making. Because this is exactly what your favourite artist, musician etc… did when they made the thing that inspired you.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Lessons Creative People Can Learn From The Beatles

Well, since I seem to be going through another phase of listening to The Beatles quite a lot (after only really becoming a fan of them several months before I prepared this article), I thought that I’d look at some of the lessons this band can teach anyone who does anything creative.

1) Practice!: Although The Beatles are quite rightly praised for the more psychedelic music they produced later in their career, they would probably have never been able to produce music of this quality without all of the frequent practice earlier in their career. Not only were they already playing music when they were teenagers but, fairly early in the band’s history, they famously travelled to Hamburg to be the “resident band” in a nightclub, where they performed live sets ridiculously often.

In other words, although The Beatles had some level of innate talent, this was something that was sharpened and improved by a rigorous schedule of frequent practice. Yes, it’s probably the least glamourous part of the band’s career, but the grinding regularity of performing concerts repeatedly over an extended period of time probably played a huge role in the quality of their music. So, whether or not you have “talent”, practice is what really matters.

In addition to this, one of the really interesting things about The Beatles is the sheer number of alternate takes and earlier “work in progress” versions of their songs that can be found on the band’s official Youtube channel. The main reason that I bring this up is because it also shows that great creative works don’t usually just appear fully-formed in a sudden moment of inspiration. They often take editing, refinement, trial-and-error and, yes, practice too.

2) Variety and curiosity: One of the reasons why The Beatles are such a hugely influential and famous band is because they weren’t afraid to experiment with a variety of different styles. Yes, the gradually increasing musical differences between band members were apparently one of the reasons why they split up. But, the lesson here is not to be afraid to try different things if they interest you. To take inspiration from a variety of different genres and to experiment with them.

For example, although they’re more famous for their rock and roll music and their more psychedelic music, they wrote songs in a surprisingly large variety of genres.

There’s the jaunty music hall sound of their hilarious dark comedy song “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. The energetic reggae/ska style of a song like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”. The gritty, sleazy and vaguely proto-punk sound of a song like “Polythene Pam”. And, most famously, their proto-heavy metal song “Helter Skelter”. Yes, The Beatles played an early version of heavy metal 🙂

The lesson here is not to be afraid to try different stuff. Not to mistake having a distinctive “style” for just doing the same thing over and over again. Originality comes from having a wide range of different influences and not being afraid to try new stuff, even if it doesn’t always work out that well.

Because, if you want to make stuff that will influence other musicians, artists, writers etc… then you need to be original. You need to make something that is not only different from everything they’ve seen before, but which also makes them think “I want more of this” – only to find that they can’t find it anywhere else and have to work out how to make it themselves (and, in the process, create something intriguingly different).

3) Mistakes and personality: One of the things that makes The Beatles so timeless is how relatable they are. I’m not talking about the carefully-cultivated “wholesome” image that they tried to project during the early parts of their mainstream career, but when their actual personalities come across in things like historical accounts, studio mistakes etc…

Whether it’s the random snippets of studio dialogue that turn up in some of their songs, the occasional small studio accidents and imperfections that they left in their songs (eg: Paul almost laughing during “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, John’s startled exclamation in the background of “Hey Jude” etc…), the numerous legends/anecdotes surrounding the band or the weird references and moments of personal humour in some of their songs.

They actually come across as being actual real people, rather than carefully-manufactured “celebrities”. Their music is perfect because it contains some imperfections, which give their music the kind of uniqueness and personality that you don’t get when creative works are too “perfect”.

Ok, you probably shouldn’t take this to the extreme of some early punk bands or some conceptual artists. You still actually need to produce stuff that is sophisticated, good, well-written etc.. on a technical level. But, small mistakes aren’t the end of the world and they also show the audience that you are human too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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 Low-Budget Tips For Passing The Time During The Lockdown

Well, although I often try to avoid topical stuff on this blog, I thought that I’d write an extra article about passing the time during the current Coronavirus lockdown here in the UK. After all, as someone who wasn’t exactly the most extroverted person in the world before all of this happened, I’ve gained at least a little bit of knowledge about how to spend meaningful time alone on a reasonably low budget.

So, let’s get started:

1) The Internet: If you’re reading this, then you probably have an internet connection. This is good. There are an absolute ton of interesting free things on the internet that are well worth taking a look at if you want a substantial and meaningful way to pass the next few days, weeks or months. Here’s a small selection:

Let’s start with webcomics. In particular, the one webcomic I’d recommend taking a look at these days is probably Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality“. In addition to featuring lots of cool-looking ultra-detailed artwork, a subtle punk sensibility and a level of emotional and intellectual depth that wouldn’t be out of place in a high-brow novel, pretty much every comic update is also a small graphic novel in it’s own right (the perfect length for the current time). This is the kind of enriching and utterly fascinating webcomic that you can lose yourself in for hours and not feel like you’ve wasted a single second.

As for reading matter – although I prefer physical books, I’d recommend taking a look at the free selection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” short stories and novellas on Project Gutenburg. It isn’t a complete selection (since one short story collection is still copyrighted in the US), but almost everything there can be read in any order that you want to – but be sure to read “The Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes” before you read “The Return Of Sherlock Holmes” though.

Yes, the Sherlock Holmes stories are fairly old – but the writing style is surprisingly readable when you get used to it, even the novellas are often short enough not to get boring, most of the stories have aged surprisingly well (although one or two short stories unfortunately haven’t) and they usually have really gripping mystery plots too.

Another pair of out-of-copyright books that are well worth reading are John Kendrick Bangs’ “A House-Boat On The Styx” and its sequel “The Pursuit Of The House-Boat“. Yes, the writing style is a bit old and some moments may seem mildly dated – but, these things aside, these two comedy novellas about famous historical figures hanging out in the afterlife and having silly adventures still hold up reasonably well when read today.

Oh, and, of course – I can’t not mention Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque Of The Red Death“. If ever there was a 19th century horror story more suited to the current situation….

If reading isn’t your thing, then there is an absolute mountain of interesting Youtube channels that can provide many hours of interesting binge-watching too.

If you want something relaxing, I’d recommend this general interest/film-making channel by Austin McConnell, the landscape painting videos on the official Bob Ross Youtube channel or possibly a channel of long-form relaxation footage filmed by people walking around pre-pandemic cities on channels like Nomadic Ambience.

If you want to learn about how videogames are designed, then I’d recommend taking a look at channels like Extra Credits or Game Maker’s Toolkit. If you’re in the mood for the macabre and aren’t squeamish, then I’d recommend taking a look at Ryan Hollinger’s extended reviews/critiques of various horror movies. If you want an art channel with a slightly quirky and gothic sense of humour, then I’d recommend Mary Doodles. If you want high-brow mini-documentaries about art, film-making etc.. then take a look at Nerdwriter1. I could go on for a while, but there are a lot of very interesting binge-watchable Youtube channels out there.

If you want free games that will run on almost any computer and don’t try to sting you for micro-transactions or anything like that, then take a look at my old reviews of the following freeware games: “Freedoom“, “Beneath A Steel Sky“, “Treasure Adventure Game“, “SkyRoads“, “Tyrian 2000” and “Hacx 1.2“. Plus, I should probably give a shout-out to OpenArena and SuperTux too.

2) Your imagination: Hour upon hour of solitude is the perfect blank canvas for daydreams. Yes, you probably already know how to daydream – but, if you haven’t had any practice with doing it for sustained periods of time, then doing so might sound “weird” or “difficult”.

One of the best ways to train your imagination for extended daydreaming is to read a few novels – these will provide you with a focused and sustained “daydream” that will get you used to the idea of it. Just choose a novel that you think you will enjoy and, if reading a whole novel sounds difficult, then start with short stories.

Whilst going out to a physical bookshop or library is out of the question at the moment, there are – as I mentioned earlier – lots of older out-of-copyright novels that can legally be downloaded for free on sites like Project Gutenberg, there are still websites that sell second-hand physical books cheaply and, of course, you may possibly have a “to read” pile that you’ve been meaning to take a look at for a while. This is the perfect time!

If books aren’t your thing, then films and television can sort of provide a substitute. Sort of. At the very least, these things give you images and ideas that you can use as source material for any daydreams you might want to have after you have finished watching them.

And, no, daydreaming isn’t a “waste of time”. A long and interesting daydream can turn a “boring” moment into something much more interesting, it can lift your mood (provided it isn’t a worry-based daydream. And, yes, worrying is basically just daydreaming – but in the horror genre. So, you might already be more well-practiced at daydreaming than you think) and it can also provide you with all sorts of creative ideas and moments of inspiration. Which brings me on to….

3) Create stuff: Yes, it’s a massive cliche – but this really is the time to start practicing a creative skill.

Yes, you probably won’t be very good at it at first – but, if you do it for the sake of fun or to pass the time, then this won’t matter. It’s a way of having fun and also having something to show for it at the end. Not to mention that setting a regular practice schedule can provide you with a highlight for each day and will also mean that you will gradually get better at whatever you are doing. And, best of all, you don’t need a massive budget for any of this sort of thing too.

Quite a lot of creative skills can be practiced with equipment that you probably have lying around right now. Drawings can be made with ordinary pencils or ballpoint pens. Digital art can be made with completely free open-source programs like the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP).

All you need to start writing fiction is either a pen and paper or a basic word processing program (either the one that came with your computer and/or a free open-source one). Smartphone cameras or that old digital camera you might have lying around can be used for photography/film. I could go on for a while, but you almost certainly have something near you right now that you can use in a creative way.

And, yes, thinking about what to do with it can be a challenge. All creative people feel uninspired from time to time – it is perfectly normal. But, try to make something – even if it isn’t very good or very imaginative, you’d be surprised at how satisfying making things can feel. Even if you never show it to anyone else, then it is worth at least doing it for the fun of doing so. At the very least, you’ll have a funny story to tell people when all of this is over.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Using Themes And Focus To Innovate In Genre Fiction – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk about one way to make your genre fiction (eg: horror, sci-fi, thriller, detective, fantasy etc.. fiction) story stand out from the crowd. I am, of course, talking about using different themes and/or having a different focus than many other stories in your chosen genre.

This was something that I ended up thinking about whilst reading a really interesting sci-fi novel from 2014 called “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers that I’ll probably review fully in a couple of days time. Needless to say, this article will contain some mild SPOILERS for this novel.

One of the interesting things about this novel is that, although it contains all of the stuff that you’d expect from a traditional sci-fi story (eg: futuristic technology, spaceships, alien civilisations, galactic alliances/politics etc…), the focus and themes of the novel are surprisingly different to what you’d typically expect to see in traditional sci-fi.

Whilst the main focus of many sci-fi stories is on “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and maths) stuff, this novel tends to focus more on “the humanities” (eg: languages, empathy, culture, introspection, imagination, art etc..) and this makes a surprisingly large difference to the story.

It changes the atmosphere, mood, style etc… of the story in a really interesting way. To give one small example, when the main characters’ spaceship is boarded by space pirates, this situation isn’t resolved with a dramatic laser battle or through technological trickery.

Instead, it is resolved by the fact that the ship’s clerk can speak a second language and has just enough historical/cultural knowledge to come up with a way of persuading the heavily-armed pirates to steal much less than they’d originally planned to. It’s a really tense and dramatic scene that catches the reader off-guard whilst also coming across as more “realistic” than many things in the sci-fi genre do.

And all because the author made a decision to write a sci-fi story that focuses more on humanities than on STEM. It’s a brilliantly subversive take on the genre – especially given that we live in an age where STEM stuff often tends to be valued more and seen as more “useful” than humanities stuff.

Even the fact that this is a novel (eg: a “low tech” storytelling medium that requires the audience to think, empathise and imagine) is a part of this change in focus – since the structure, style, pacing, tone, atmosphere etc.. of the story is designed specifically for the strengths of the written word. In other words, it does loads of subtle and large-scale stuff that can’t really be done in more “high tech” storytelling mediums like film, television, videogames etc…

So, one way to tell an innovative genre story that will surprise your readers and linger in their memories is to look at the themes and focus of your chosen genre and try to do something a bit different with them. But, not only does this require a good knowledge of the genre you’re writing in (so, get reading) but it also has to be done for a good reason too.

In order for your reader to not only get used to the change, but to actually consciously notice it, your reason for changing the genre’s themes/focus has to matter to you enough for it to shape the entire story in a profound way. It has to be something that is important enough to your story that your story wouldn’t really “work” without the change.

But, how do you think of an interesting change? Well, the easiest way of doing this is to look at what is wrong with the genre you are planning to write in. When you spot a large enough deficiency, oversight or problem that annoys you enough to actually make you notice it, then you have the beginnings of your story’s change.

But, although changing the themes and focus of your story can be a great way to innovate, you still have to handle this well. In other words, you still need to write your story in a way that people will still want to read even if they are a bit surprised or confused by the changes you have made. Things like characterisation, atmosphere, worldbuilding, good writing etc… matter even more than usual when you’re doing something innovative.

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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 🙂

Three Reasons Why Modern Creative Works Use Nostalgic Elements

I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this topic before, but I thought that I’d look at some of the reasons why modern creative works use nostalgic elements.

1) Inspirations: This is the most obvious one. In short, people usually become writers, artists, musicians, film-makers, game designers etc… because they see, hear, play or read something so impressive that it makes them think “I want to make something like that!

Of course, thanks to copyright law, we can’t just directly copy the things we love. So, we have to learn what makes these things so nostalgic and find ways to incorporate these general elements in new and original works. This is why, for example, some modern creative works will be stylistically similar to things from previous decades, even if they differ in detail.

Inspiration is an essential part of the creative process and finding ways to make original stuff that is evocative of the things that inspired you can be a really brilliant source of creative motivation. Hence why it happens in films, music, books, games etc…

2) An instant quality bump: One of the things that prompted this article was that, the day before I prepared this article , I happened to find a modern punk song (explicit lyrics) that not only sounds like something from the early-mid 2000s, but also protests about current US politics in the same way that punk bands used to do about G.W.Bush during the early-mid 2000s.

One of the interesting things about this song is that if I had actually heard it during the early-mid 2000s, my reaction would have probably been “It’s ok“. Yet, listening to it today, my reaction was more like “Cool! It’s an early 2000s-style punk song from last year. This is so awesome!“.

In other words, the nostalgic musical elements actually made the song seem better than it would have done in the time period it took inspiration from. But, why? There are several reasons.

First of all, there aren’t that many bands still using this style of punk music, so the rarity of the song instantly makes it more impressive. Secondly, it evokes memories of the time when this type of music was a bit more mainstream. Thirdly, there’s a really interesting contrast between the “old” musical style and the modern subject matter.

So, using nostalgic elements can be a way to make your current creative works seem better in comparison to more “modern” stuff.

3) Audience connection: Including nostalgic elements can be a good way to connect with members of your audience who either remember the time period that you’re taking inspiration from and/or are fans of things made during that period of history. When done right, this evokes warmly nostalgic memories in older audience members and makes younger members of your audience think “Cool! People are still making stuff like this these days!

This is especially effective if you’re taking inspiration from a part of history that isn’t covered by popular nostalgia. For example, the reason why the modern early-mid 2000s style punk song surprised and delighted me so much is because this period of history currently falls slightly outside of the usual 20-30 year nostalgia gap.

It’s a period of history that I remember really well, yet it hasn’t quite passed into popular nostalgia yet. So, it stands out more and has more of an emotional impact than it probably will in 5-10 years time when there are lots of early-mid 2000s style movies in the cinema, lots of TV shows about this part of history, lots of computer games set in this time period etc…

So, if you want to evoke an emotional reaction in the audience, then nostalgic elements can be really useful.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂