Why Creative Works Don’t Always Have To Make Sense – A Ramble

Although this is a rambling article about why some creative works can still be good even when they don’t make logical sense, I’m going to have to start by spending several paragraphs talking enthusiastically about playing an old computer game whilst listening to even older heavy metal music. There’s a good reason for this that will become obvious later.

Anyway, as regular readers of this site probably know, I’m going through a bit of a “Quake” phase at the moment. If you’ve never heard of this classic mid-late 1990s computer game before, it’s basically a gothic horror-themed action game where you fight lots of monsters. But, whilst playing yet another level of the game’s “Dissolution Of Eternity” expansion pack, I suddenly realised something…. this game makes no logical sense!

Seriously, you run through a series of random rooms and the game just throws lots of monsters at you. After a while, playing the game begins to take on a strange rhythm- like some kind of bizarre dance that ultimately doesn’t mean anything and is done purely for it’s own sake. For a while, I almost started to feel like I was wasting my time…

…But, then, I found myself in the middle of an ancient Egypt-themed level and my attitude suddenly changed.

This is a screenshot from E2M4 of “Quake: Dissolution Of Eternity” (1997) [an expansion for “Quake” (1996)]. This one level is amazing!

Almost instinctively, I paused the game for a second, went through my music collection and started playing an ancient Egypt-themed heavy metal song by Iron Maiden called “Powerslave” loudly in the background. Then I continued playing.

Iron Maiden’s music suddenly felt just as awesome as it did in the months after I first discovered the band during my early teens and “Quake” suddenly felt just as cool as it did when I’d previously played it during my childhood, my mid-late teens and my early-mid twenties. And I realised that I didn’t give a damn that this game’s story and premise made no sense whatsoever. It was just awesome fun for the sake of awesome fun.

So, what was the point of this? Well, it’s an illustrative example of how (and why) a creative work can still be enjoyable even when it doesn’t make perfect logical sense. “Quake” is just a game about shooting random monsters and “Powerslave” is a random song about ancient Egyptian gods, death, servitude and… pharaohs? I don’t know. But, the experience of playing “Quake” and/or listening to “Powerslave” is brilliant regardless.

These things are enjoyable because they have some underlying element that is enjoyable regardless of whether the rest of the work makes perfect logical sense. They evoke emotions. They provide an experience. They make you spontaneously play the air guitar. They look cool. I could go on for a while…

A good literary example of this kind of thing would be Poppy Z. Brite’s “Lost Souls”. This is a novel that is almost plotless, yet it is one of my favourite novels of all time purely because of things like the atmosphere, the narrative style, the characters and the general “attitude” of the book. On a purely story-based level, it shouldn’t be a great novel. But, thanks to all of this other stuff, it is an astonishingly great novel.

The same is true for art too. A painting or drawing doesn’t have to be 100% realistic or even a depiction of part of a logical story to be impressive. If the artist’s style, the composition, the lighting, the use of colour etc… is interesting enough, then the fact that the picture makes no logical sense or has no deeper meaning doesn’t matter because it is a demonstration of the artist’s technical skill and aesthetic sensibilities.

So, yes, creative works don’t “have” to make sense in order to be interesting or enjoyable. However, this only works if the creative work in question has some other underlying element that is inherently interesting, fun, evocative or fascinating.

————

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Advertisements

Why Inspiration Works In “Strange” Ways

A while before I wrote this article, I happened to read this list of “unexpected” inspirations behind various films but, rather than finding it strange or bizarre, my reaction was more along the lines of ‘it’s a bit of an over-simplification, but that’s how inspiration works‘.

The first thing to remember about inspiration is that it shouldn’t involve directly copying other things. After all, inspiration and plagiarism are two different things. So, taking inspiration usually involves taking the underlying elements, themes etc… of something and using them in a totally different way. So, when done well, inspired creative works should look at least slightly different to the things that inspired them.

The second thing to remember is that creative people rarely just have one inspiration. In order to create interesting and original works, you need to have as many different inspirations as possible. The more inspirations you have, the less obvious any one inspiration is and the more chance there is of your inspirations interacting and merging with each other in interesting ways.

The third thing to remember is that inspiration is a highly personal and unique thing. Two artists, writers, directors etc… might be inspired by the same thing, but will take inspiration from different parts of it due to their own preferences, sensibilities and interests. As such, it is very difficult to tell exactly how someone will be inspired by something.

The fourth thing to remember is that creative people are often on the lookout for inspirations. As such, it is possible to discover inspirations in all sorts of unexpected places.

For example, the use of colour in most of my art was inspired by a set of fan-made “Doom II” levels, of all things. The process of finding new inspirations is part research, part vigilance and part luck/serendipity. So, this is why creative people can sometimes have “strange” or “random” inspirations.

The fifth thing to remember is that inspiration and fandom generally go hand in hand. Most of the time, people are only inspired by things that they really like in some way or another. And, since creative people are… well… people, they don’t fit into neat boxes and categories. In other words, they often have a wide range of interests and fascinations. As such, “strange” inspirations are often just inspirations based on something that you might not expect the artist, writer etc.. in question to be interested in.

The sixth thing to remember is that inspirations can often be an offshoot from daydreams. For example, at least two of the inspirations on the list I linked to at the beginning of the article came about because a director saw or experienced something and then started daydreaming about applying the “mechanics” of it to some other situation or circumstance. As such, inspiration can often be a way to connect two seemingly unrelated things in the way that only daydreams can.

The seventh thing to remember is that inspiration can be a very subtle thing. Sometimes, someone might not be inspired by any of the obvious visual or narrative features of something, but by the “atmosphere” or “mood” that this thing evokes in them. This means that an inspiration may not be immediately obvious at first glance, since it is based on something that can’t be “seen” directly.

The eighth thing to remember is that what a creative person does with an inspiration is often more important than the inspiration itself. In other words, inspirations can be used in unusual or unexpected ways and still be really effective. This, of course, can sometimes make it difficult to spot what has inspired someone.

The ninth thing to remember is the whole subject of common inspirations. It’s possible for two things to either be inspired by the same thing or for someone to be inspired by something that is inspired by something else. As such, an artist’s or writer’s inspirations might not be what you might think.

For example, if one artist takes inspiration from the lighting used in 1980s horror novel covers, another artist takes inspiration from “film noir” movies and another artist takes inspiration from the lighting used in Caravaggio paintings, then the lighting in all four pictures will look similar because all of these inspirations use some type of chiaroscuro lighting.

The final thing to remember is that inspiration isn’t an exact science. Like dreaming or daydreaming, it can often follow it’s own unique logic. As such, trying to apply logical rules to it won’t work all of the time.

—————–

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

One Surprising Thing FPS Games Can Teach Us About Creativity – A Ramble

A while before I prepared the first draft of this article, I decided to procrastinate and take a look at Youtube. One of the things that surprised me was that the “recommended” videos on the main page (which were mostly about computer/video games) showed several screenshots of first-person shooter (FPS) games which, at a glance, looked almost identical.

Of course, I could tell that one was from the original “Doom“, that one was from a more modern game etc…. but the composition was nearly identical in all of the pictures. Although I’ve played a fair number of games in this genre, somehow seeing pictures of old and new FPS games juxtaposed with each other made me realise how much they have in common.

At first, I worried that this meant that one of my favourite genres of game was boring and unoriginal. But, then I remembered that this similarity was one of the genre’s strengths for a whole host of reasons. For example, once you know how to play one FPS game, then the only thing you have to “learn” when playing others are subtle changes in each game’s “rules”. This means that the barrier to entry is relatively low.

In addition to this, the similarities in composition, format etc… also mean that creativity has to be included elsewhere. This is much more noticeable during the heyday of the genre – when even “really similar” FPS games would be wildly different in artistic and atmospheric terms.

For example a cartoonish heavy metal-themed sci-fi horror FPS like “Doom” would be wildly different in style, atmosphere and tone to a brooding, Lovecraftian sci-fi horror FPS like “Quake” (by the same studio), which itself would be different to a cartoonish Lovecraftian horror-inspired FPS like “Blood“:

This is a screenshot from “Doom” (1993).

This is a screenshot from “Quake: Scourge Of Armagon” (1997) – An expansion for “Quake” [1996]

This is a screenshot from “Blood” (1997)

Each game has a distinctive aesthetic, atmosphere and style – despite their many similarities. In fact, the differences are probably because of the similarities. If you have a common set of features that you have to include in something, then you have to compensate for this by adding extra creativity and originality elsewhere. If you don’t, then your creative works won’t stand out from the crowd.

This also gives the makers of these games an added level of challenge, since they have to work out how to make something “familiar” new and interesting. Challenges and limitations are one of the best ways to inspire creativity, and having to include a common set of features can be a good way to force people to think more creatively.

Likewise, having to include a common set of features places extra emphasis on individual interpretation. In other words, several people making things in the same genre have to make sure that their creative works are an expression of their own imaginations. They have to take something familiar and interpret it in their own way.

Of course, all of this isn’t exclusive to computer games. For example, the romance genre has to include two characters falling in love – with all of the variation coming from the settings, the details of the story and the characters themselves. Likewise, the zombie genre has to include zombies – but where they appear, how frightening they are, what happens and how the story ends is left up to the writer’s imagination.

Yes, variation-based creativity might not look very “original” at first glance. But, as a way to prompt creativity, individual interpretation and more subtle forms of originality – it’s one of the best things out there!

———-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Random Tips For Informal Creative Research

Well, I thought that I’d talk about research and creativity today since I seem to be going through a bit of a phase where I’m watching and/or rewatching as many films from the 1990s as possible (hence the ridiculously large number of film reviews on here recently). Although I’m mostly just doing this for the fun of it, it is also a way to gain an even better understanding of the 1990s – which could be useful for any of my future creative projects.

So, here are three random tips for good informal creative research:

1) Set yourself rules: When I started this informal research project, I set myself a few vague rules. These mostly included things like focusing slightly more on the mid-late 1990s than the early 1990s (since I actually remember the mid-late 1990s), not buying second-hand DVDs that cost more than a certain amount (so that I could buy more films) and avoiding films with a running time of more than about 100 minutes or so (since I’m more likely to actually watch a film if it is shorter).

In addition to this, I mostly tried to look for films that I’d either heard of or watched when I was younger. I’m also trying to stick to my usual rule about not posting film/game reviews on here more than once every two days (for a whole host of reasons). I also try to watch no more than one film every day or two (mostly for time reasons, and to avoid running out of films too quickly). I also set myself the rule of “when the research project stops being fun, seems less fun than another type of research or starts costing too much, then take a break from it“.

Setting yourself lots of rules might seem like a restrictive thing, but it can actually help your creative research in all sorts of ways. It can keep your research more focused, it can stop “fascinating” research turning into an all-consuming obsession and it can also make your research more effective too. As fascinating as totally uncontrolled research into something really interesting might seem, it can quickly end up gobbling up your time, energy and/or money if you aren’t careful. The thing to remember here is that your research is supposed to support your imagination and creative projects, not overwhelm them.

Of course, you’re going to have to come up with your own set of rules. So, try to think of rules that will not only improve your project but are also the kind of rules that you will actually follow too. So, make sure that there’s a useful practical reason for each rule. These rules don’t have to be set in stone, but they also shouldn’t be too vague either.

2) The emotional component: Simply put, the best types of informal creative research have some kind of emotional component to them. In my case, this seems to include both personal nostalgia and cultural nostalgia. It includes a feeling of curiosity about a decade that is both recognisably “modern” and yet also very different to the present day. In addition to this, it also includes things like a desire to learn more about how to make my creative works look, read and/or “feel” more like they came from the 1990s.

Having some type of emotional component to your informal creative research is absolutely essential since it provides both a feeling of motivation as well as source material for your imagination to work with too (in other words, things to get inspired by). Whilst academic research requires the researcher to be an objective observer, you can get a bit more personal and emotional if you’re doing informal research in order to improve your imagination and/or creative works.

At the end of the day, the main point of informal creative research is to both improve your imagination and to create better things (by gaining a greater understanding of the things you’re researching, that you can later use in your own works). You aren’t going to get any kind of academic qualifications or immediate reward for it. So, make sure that it is something that feels both emotionally and creatively rewarding to you.

3) Look for similarities: The best way to keep your informal research both useful and focused is to look for similarities, both when gathering research materials and when studying them.

If you’re fascinated by something, then try to work out what specific category of it you are most interested in (eg: “films that are mostly from the mid-late 1990s”) and then devote most of your efforts to that one category. This will help to keep your research manageable and focused.

Likewise, when actually looking at research materials, one of the best ways to learn from them is to see what they all have in common with each other. This can include things like narrative style, emotional tone, lighting techniques etc… If you can work out what the things you’re researching have in common with each other, then you can use these common generic elements in your own creative works.

———–

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

How To Avoid Your “Inspired By..” Creative Works Turning Into Rip-Offs

The night before I wrote this article, I had a rather interesting experience that made me think about the difference between inspiration and rip-offs again. This was mostly because I happened to watch two episodes from season three of “Sliders” called ‘The Dream Masters’ and ‘Desert Storm’.

Both of these episodes have been inspired by different movies. ‘The Dream Masters’ is a genuinely creepy horror-themed episode that has clearly been inspired by the “Nightmare On Elm Street” films and ‘Desert Storm’ has clearly been inspired by the “Mad Max” films.

This is a screenshot from the episode “The Dream Masters” from season three (1996/7) of “Sliders”. As you can see, it takes some inspiration from ‘Nightmare On Elm Street’.

This is a screenshot from the episode “Desert Storm” from season three (1996/7) of “Sliders”. As you can see, it takes some inspiration from ‘Mad Max’ (and this is even referenced once in the episode’s dialogue too).

However, both episodes are also at least mildly good examples of how to take inspiration well. Although both episodes take fairly heavy visual and stylistic inspiration from their respective films, they also add a lot of original stuff too.

For example, the horror in “The Dream Masters” doesn’t just come from the nightmare scenes but from the fact that a small group of people with magical powers wield an enormous amount of power over the world (a horror further increased when one of these people takes a rather stalker-like interest in one of the main characters). Likewise, “Desert Storm” also includes quite a lot of New Age-themed stuff too.

Yes, the horror in “The Dream Masters” doesn’t come from one monster but from a secret society of evil magicians who wield absolute power. Likewise, note the use of scary red/blue lighting to signify that they’re the villains.

Likewise, the story in “Desert Storm” also includes a lot of New Age-y stuff, like magical crystals and psychic visions.

But, although these two episodes still tell original stories, they still almost fall into the trap of being “oh my god, this is just like…” rather than “hmm… this seems to be inspired by..“. In other words, their inspirations are a bit too obvious, even though they still avoid straying into the realm of plagiarism.

But, how do you avoid this in the things that you create?

The simple answer is to have lots of inspirations. The more inspirations you have, the less obvious each individual inspiration will be and the more “original” your work will be.

For example, for Halloween 2015, I wrote an interactive online novella called “Acolyte!” which can be read/played for free here:

Although the original inspiration was the old “Fighting Fantasy“/”Choose Your Own Adventure” books I read when I was a child (Steve Jackson’s “House Of Hell” especially), my interactive novel is distinctively different from these for several reasons.

For starters, it includes a lot more humour and it positions the main character as a more morally-ambiguous figure (rather than a heroic one). Although it includes illustrations, like in the books that inspired it, these illustrations have a more cartoonish style. Like in this poster I made for it:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE]. This was a promotional poster I made for “Acolyte!” in 2015 which shows off some of the story’s illustrations.

In addition to this, it also included a few other influences such as the classic computer game “Blood“, the horror fiction of H.P.Lovecraft, classic Monty Python, a “Doom II” mod called “Reelism Gold“, classic British sci-fi/fantasy comic fiction (eg: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams etc..), a slight satire on occultism (eg: “ancient orders” that were started in the 20th century), “The Devil Rides Out” by Dennis Wheatley, and the hilariously melodramatic 1960s film adaptation of it.

Thanks to the wider mixture of inspirations, the interactive novella manages to be it’s own thing rather than a rip-off of any one particular thing. So, the more inspirations you have, the lower the risk of producing a plagiaristic “rip-off” (eg: almost a direct copy) of something else will be.

—————

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Top Ten Articles – May 2018

Well, it’s the end of the month and this means that it’s time for me to provide my usual list of links to my ten favourite articles about making art, writing fiction and/or making webcomics that I’ve posted here over the past month. As usual, I’ll also include a couple of honourable mentions.

All in all, this month was something of a mixed bag. Although there are some articles that I’m really proud of, there were also times when the quality dropped somewhat. In addition to this, I also ended up writing more reviews than usual this month too (this may end up turning into something of a trend, or it might not. I’m not sure, although I’ll still try to follow my “don’t post two reviews in a row” rule).

Anyway, here are the lists. Enjoy 🙂

Top Ten Articles – May 2018:

– “Why Does Current Art Often Look Slightly ‘Old’? – A Ramble
– “When NOT To Let Your Art Evolve – A Ramble
– “Four Tips For Adding Some 1990s-Style Silliness To Your Story Or Comic
– “Five Things That Two Old TV Shows Can Teach Us About 1990s-Style Storytelling
– “Four Ways To Make Your Audience Feel Like Rebels
– “Why Creative People Should Be Critics Too – A Ramble
– “Making Digital Art With Open-Source Software – A Demonstration
– “Five Reasons Why Artists Should Be Gamers Too
“How Artists Work Out Their ‘Process'”
– “Three Cheap Ways To Make Trendy Types Of Art

Honourable Mentions:

– “Two Basic Ways To Use Reference Images When Making Art
– “Making Art Based On Daydreams – A Ramble

Four Ways To Make Your Audience Feel Like Rebels

The night before I wrote this article, I ended up thinking about what several of my favourite creative works have in common with each other and the answer was “they make the audience feel like they’re rebelling“.

They’re the kind of things that don’t necessarily aim for shock value, but which just feel “rebellious” when seen, heard, played or read.

So, I thought that I’d look at a few ways that you can do this in your own creative works:

1) The journey, not the destination: A lot of what makes the audience feel like rebels isn’t the content of a work, but how that content is presented to them. In other words, things like your narrative voice, the background details in your art, the art style you use, the emotional tone of your song lyrics etc… matter a lot more than you might think.

In other words, rebellious creative works are more about the “journey” than the “destination”. They’re about the audience having the chance to experience hanging out with a really cool narrator, character, musician, fictional world etc.. than they are about telling a good story.

For example, the actual stories in Hewlett & Martin’s “Tank Girl” comics are bizarrely nonsensical things which, if they were written in a more “serious” way, wouldn’t be that good. Yet, these comics are so compellingly, rebelliously re-readable because of the eccentric characters, the anarchic “attitude” that these stories have, the hilariously puerile comedy and the gloriously detailed and unique art style:

This is an excerpt from “Tank Girl 2” (1996) by Hewlett & Martin. As you can see, it uses a very vivid and distinctive art style and contains some fairly unique characters. Even though the actual “story” of this comic makes literally no sense whatsoever, the comic is still very “rebellious” due to it’s attitude, characters and humour.

So, the journey matters more than the destination.

2) Intelligent writing/visuals: Likewise, just because you want your audience to feel like “rebels” doesn’t mean that you should write badly, draw badly etc.. If anything, having a very good command of the intricacies of language and art can actually make a work seem more rebellious since it gives the audience the impression that they’re hanging out with someone cool, intelligent and/or interesting.

For example, here’s a quote from Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” (1971-2): ‘It was treacherous, stupid and demented in every way – but there was no avoiding the stench of twisted humour that hovered around the idea of a gonzo journalist in the grip of a potentially terminal drug episode being invited to cover the National District Attorney’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

Although the novel that this quote is taken from is a wildly bizarre, satirical, countercultural classic – this quote actually uses rather formal and almost “literary” language. Although this is a novel with a drug-addled narrator, the prose here has the kind of clarity which only comes from carefully-crafted, sober writing. So, craftsmanship matters a lot more than you might think.

Likewise, using copious amounts of profanity won’t automatically make your audience feel like “rebels”. Using a measured amount of profanity in a carefully-chosen, clever and funny way – on the other hand – will. So, be funny, sparing, creative and intelligent with the profanity in your creative works.

3) Politics: Strange as it may sound, don’t get too political. Or, rather, don’t be too “serious” when you inevitably get political.

The best rebellious creative works have fun with politics. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum they land on, they actively attack pompous over-seriousness and self-righteousness. They often also have a very slightly “apolitical” quality too by actively ridiculing both “sides” of a political issue through showing what unpleasant features they have in common with each other.

But, when rebellious creative works include politics, they will often just quietly lead by example.

For example, they’ll just show characters who are typically sneered at by mainstream society in a more positive light. They’ll show authority figures as being stupid, hypocritical and/or malevolent. Or they might just show characters gleefully breaking petty, stupid and/or unjust rules, without anyone raising an eyebrow (or, conversely, show people over-reacting to said transgressions in a hilariously exaggerated way that highlights the ridiculousness of the rule in question).

4) Emotional satisfaction: In short, the best way to make your audience feel like rebels is to give them something. Whether it is acceptance, belonging, laughter, a different worldview etc… you need to give them something.

Because, despite all of the technical stuff I’ve mentioned, making your audience feel like rebels is an emotional thing. It’s the feeling of “wow” that comes from seeing something that is so different in perspective and tone from mainstream entertainment. It’s the feeling of “Wow! I didn’t know how to put that into words” that your audience get from something incredibly profound that they wouldn’t find in mainstream culture.

A great example of this type of rebellious emotional satisfaction can be found in an astonishingly good webcomic called “Subnormality” by Winston Rowntree. Often, these comics will make some kind of point or express some facet of the human condition that isn’t often explored in mainstream creative works. And, Rowntree’s comics are some of the most emotionally-profound, but rebellious, things that you’ll ever read as a result:

This is an excerpt from “Duel” (‘Subnormality #219) By Winston Rowntree (2014), which contains an example of the kind of profound, emotional introspection that makes this comic surprisingly “rebellious” when compared to more mainstream offerings.

So, yes, give your audience something. Whether you make them laugh, make them think, make them feel better or even make them see the world differently, give them something.

————–

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂