The Joy Of… Genre-Specific Creativity

2017-artwork-joy-of-genre-specific-things-article-sketch

Although this is an article about art, comics and fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about music. This is mostly because, a day or two before I wrote this article, I heard a rather interesting song called “Metal Inquisition” by Piledriver that made me think about audiences and genres.

“Metal Inquisition” is a song which heavy metal fans will find absolutely hilarious and non-metal fans will probably find mildly disturbing. It’s a knowingly silly song about a Spanish Inquisition-style group who try to ensure that everyone listens to heavy metal… or else!

And, it’s also the perfect example of a genre-specific thing. It’s a comedic song that is written specifically for heavy metal fans. If you aren’t a metalhead, then you probably won’t get the joke (eg: it’s about heavy metal’s [lack of] mainstream popularity etc..).

There’s certainly something to be said for things that are squarely aimed at fans of a particular genre. For starters, the trouble with making everything suitable for everyone is that, unless it’s done extremely well, it often ends up appealing to no-one.

Unless you are the mythical “normal person” that mainstream cinema, pop music, advertising, gaming etc… exists to serve, then there will be a certain emotional distance between you and the creative work in question. And, well, no-one is that idealised “normal person”. We’re all geeks or nerds in some way or another. We all have preferences and fascinations. We’re all fans of one thing or another. After all, we’re all unique human beings.

Creative works that are squarely aimed at fans of a particular genre acknowledge that uniqueness. They say “some people like this, and that’s cool. Some people don’t, and they should probably find something else“. As such, if you find something that you are a fan of, then it’ll feel more meaningful to you. It’ll feel like something made specifically for you.

This is also useful for creating a sense of community too. After all, if you’re a fan of a slightly obscure genre, then genre-specific things can be a thing which reminds you that “other people like this stuff too!“.

For example, going back to “Metal Inquisition”, the song is such an amazing song for the simple reason that it is a gleeful celebration of heavy metal music (a bit like Saxon’s “Denim And Leather”, Judas Preist’s “Deal With The Devil”, Helloween’s “Heavy Metal (is the law)”, Sabaton’s “Metal Machine” etc… ).

It’s a song that amusingly imagines what the world would be like if heavy metal was the most mainstream genre instead of the least mainstream genre. It’s a song that recreates the feeling of going to your first metal concert and seeing literally hundreds of other people who also like the same music you do. That awestruck sense of actually belonging somewhere.

But, in addition to this, genre-specific things are also awesome for the simple reason that they’re an expression of creative freedom. They show that the person who made them is such a fan of that particular genre that they felt compelled to actually make things for other fans. They show how great stories, films, games, albums etc… can inspire people to create things themselves. After all, you don’t make a genre-specific thing unless you’re a massive fan of things from that genre.

Genre-specific things aren’t “manufactured pop band # 345,237” who were designed by committee in order to maximise sales to the 16-24 demographic. They aren’t “Generic military action videogame #17” churned out annually in order to sell more games consoles. They aren’t “CGI-filled Hollywood Movie # 500,000” with 20% less dialogue to reduce translation costs for international distribution. They aren’t “hip fashion trend #7653” that will empty the wallets of trendy people in London, New York etc… 50% faster than usual.

No, genre-specific things are things made by people for people. They’re the sorts of things that people would make even if they didn’t get paid. They’re things that are made out of love, rather than out of greed. They are things that aren’t “mass-produced”. They’re things that are brave enough to say “if you like this, then that’s great. If you don’t, then find something else!

Genre-specific things are a testament to the power of creativity for the sake of creativity, and to the value of individuality.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Five Lessons About Creativity And Life That I’ve Learnt From Playing “Doom”

Well, technically, "Doom II" or "Final Doom" is actually my favourite game.

Well, technically, “Doom II” or “Final Doom” is actually my favourite game.

Although this is an inspirational article about writing, art and life in general, I’ll be spending most of it talking in a rose-tinted way about my favourite old computer game from the 1990s. Don’t worry, there’s a reason for this and – apart from the introduction to this article – I’m not geeking out about computer games just for the sake of it.

(Although I am going through another “obsessed with Doom” phase at the moment, so expect some fan art tonight. Normal articles will resume tomorrow.)

Anyway, in case you’ve never heard of the “Doom” games before – they were a series of sci-fi/horror/action games that popularised the first-person shooter genre in the early-mid 1990s. People still play these games enthusiastically (and make new levels for them ) over twenty years later.

“Doom” probably wasn’t the first FPS game I ever played (that honour probably goes to either “Wolfenstein 3D”, “Ken’s Labyrinth” or “Duke Nukem 3D”) but, ever since I was a teenager, I’ve played the old “Doom” games on at least a semi-regular basis.

Of course, if you believed all of the scaremongering in the media at the time of Doom’s release, all of this regular exposure to “Doom” should have turned me into a nihilistic violent psychopath of some kind. But, it didn’t.

In fact, it actually taught me quite a few positive lessons about creativity and about life in general and I thought that I’d share some of them with you today:

1) Nothing is unsolvable: The most fun part of playing “Doom” isn’t the times when you obliterate hordes of monsters with your most powerful weapons, it’s the times when you are quite literally doomed.

It’s the times where you only have a couple of health points and a few rounds of ammunition left, and you still have to get past a large horde of monsters in order to complete the level.

It takes a bit of skill, but 99.9% of the time, you can still complete the level. In fact, finding a way to complete a level under these seemingly “unwinnable” circumstances takes a lot of strategic thought and puzzle-solving skills.

But, once you’ve done it a few times, then you’ll actually look forward to these “unwinnable” situations and relish the challenge they bring or, at the very least, you’ll enter into them with the confident knowledge that you can win if you’re clever.

And, well, sometimes this feeling of confidence can carry over into my creative work when I’m uninspired. If I’ve got writer’s block or artist’s block, then I know that I will eventually produce something – but that I’ll probably just have to find a clever way to do it (eg: basing a blog article on my favourite computer game).

So, yes, “Doom” taught me that no problem is unsolvable and no situation is completely hopeless if you’re willing to think about things in a slightly different way.

2) Timeless things can still be made: When you hear the word “timeless” used to describe a creative work, you’ll probably think of really old stuff like Shakespeare’s plays, Rembrandt’s paintings etc… And, if you’re a writer or an artist, then it can be very easy to feel discouraged because of this.

After all, it can often seem like “timeless” things could only be made a few centuries ago and that we’ve all missed the boat. And, well, the old “Doom” games prove that this is just not true. Timeless things can still be made these days.

Computer and video games usually have a very short lifecycle. Usually after about five years at the absolute most, a game will be seen as “old hat” by most players, who will move on to the next big thing.

“Doom” is one of the few games to have avoided this fate (the only other example I can think of is “Tetris“) and you can still find playable versions of “Doom” on just about anything (even calculators!) more than twenty years after it was originally released. Chances are, people will still be playing it two hundred years from now.

The first “Doom” game was only released in 1993. So, what’s to say that you can’t make something timeless today?

3) Openness and fanworks: One of the reasons why “Doom” still has a dedicated fanbase these days is because, unlike a lot of modern mega-budget games, the creators of it actually left it open to fan interaction.

In the late 1990s, they released the source code for the game – so that people could modify it to their heart’s content and create versions of the game that would run on modern computers.

Likewise, “Doom” has always had a large community of people who build new levels for it – purely for their own enjoyment and for the enjoyment of other fans. Some modern games companies clamp down on this sort of thing with their games, so that they can sell new levels as “downloadable content”. But not “Doom”.

Ever since it’s inception, fan-made levels have been encouraged and supported. And, well, this is one of the main reasons why the game is still going over twenty years later.

So, what can we learn from this?

Well, one of the best ways to keep your creative works popular is to open them up to the fans. To allow people to make fan art and write fan fiction and to participate in your work in whatever ways they enjoy. Far from “ruining” a story or a type of art, allowing fan works is one of the main keys to it’s longevity.

4) Originality is overrated: It’s true. Execution matters a lot more than originality does and there’s no better example of this than “Doom”. Although it’s a great game, there’s very little completely original stuff in it.

The game’s backstory about hell was taken from Christian mythology, the gameplay is a slightly refined version of the gameplay found in other FPS games of the time and all of the sounds in the game were taken from a commercially-available sound library.

Not only that, the background music in “Doom” was heavily inspired by pre-existing heavy metal songs (like this one) and even some of the iconic weapon models were just digitised photographs of BB guns and a chainsaw.

So, if “Doom” isn’t a very original game, then why is it so great and what can it teach us?

It’s a great game because of the way that it took all of these “unoriginal” elements and combined them in a way that was shockingly new at the time and in a way that is still enjoyable many years later. In other words, it’s something that is far greater than the sum of it’s parts.

Yes, completely “original” things can be great – but things that take stuff from other great things and then turn them into something even greater are often far better.

In the words of Isaac Newton, it’s important to remember that we are all “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

5) The value of practice: One of the other useful lessons that playing “Doom” has taught me (or at least reinforced) is the value of regular practice.

You see, when I was a teenager, “Doom” was a lot more difficult game than I remembered. Yes, thanks to the “Doom 95” source port I used on my old Windows 98 PC at the time, I could select different levels – but I rarely actually finished the more difficult ones. Even on the easier difficulty settings.

Fast forward a few years later, and I can actually complete the notorious “Stardate 20X6” episode for the game (on the “hurt me plenty” difficulty setting). And this all comes down to having lots of practice, learning the “rules” of the game and learning the right tactics to use.

And, unsurprisingly, exactly the same thing is true for any creative skills that you want to learn. Anyway, I should probably end this article here before it turns into an essay of some kind.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Art And Trading Cards

If you've even heard of "Magic: The Gathering" before you're, probably rolling your eyes and groaning by now....

If you’ve even heard of “Magic: The Gathering” before, you’re probably rolling your eyes and groaning by now….

Well, I was browsing through some of my favourite Youtube channels a few weeks ago and, since there weren’t any new videos on General Lotz’s channel , I decided to check out the link to Timpedia’s channel instead. And, to my surprise, there were “Magic: The Gathering” gameplay videos on there.

Like with how I rediscovered my old “Tintin” comics a few weeks before this, I suddenly found myself staring face-to-face with another almost-forgotten part of my artistic development.

The fact is that, back in my very early teens, I was absolutely obsessed with collecting trading cards. Initially, I used to collect “Pokemon” cards – but when they went out of fashion slightly and seemed a bit ‘childish’, I moved on to “Magic: The Gathering”.

And, as art goes, “Magic: The Gathering” cards contain some absolutely astonishing art. Seriously, each 15-card booster pack was like a little art gallery in it’s own right.

Of course, I didn’t see myself as an “artist” back then and I wasn’t consciously interested in art – but the art on each card was probably the main thing that made them worth collecting.

Not only that, I really wanted to make trading cards back then too. I’d easily fill entire notebooks with badly-drawn designs for “Magic” cards and “Pokemon” cards – hell, I even invented my own trading card game back then too.

I can’t remember the exact rules of it, but I think that it was a “Top Trumps”/ “Magic: The Gathering”-style game which was based on a ludicrously exaggerated sci-fi/fantasy version of my old secondary school. And, yes, I’m making it sound about ten times more interesting than it actually was – in fact, I felt that it was so nerdy, that I didn’t really show it to anyone else…

UNTIL NOW!!!!

UNTIL NOW!!!!

To my younger self, none of this frequent drawing was really “art” – it was just something I did for fun. But, in reality, it was regular art practice. Hell, I even produced trading card designs almost as regularly as I make art for this website and DeviantART these days. I was getting lots of regular art practice and I didn’t even know it!

Of course, now that I’m in my mid-twenties and actually interested in making art – I can only stand in awe of the amazing art on most of my old “Magic: The Gathering” cards and I’m more than aware that my old dream of actually designing them is, at the very least, a few more years of practice away.

Still, the reason that I’m mentioning all of this is because trading cards are a really fascinating format for art. Seriously, they’re one of the few areas (outside of comics) where dramatic/ fantastical/ futuristic art is widely and enthusiastically bought by a large group of fans. And most of these people probably don’t even realise that they’re buying art.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the artwork produced by the artists who work on “Magic: The Gathering” has probably been seen by more people than half of the modern paintings or art installations in prestigious art galleries have.

So, if you’re slightly geeky and looking to start a new artistic project – then why not try inventing a trading card game? Hell, even if you just post a few preliminary designs online for people to print out and experiment with, then it’s probably one of the best ways to get people to remember and engage with your art.

But, if you aren’t particularly geeky or you don’t want to invent a whole game as an excuse for making trading card-size art, then it might be worth looking into the whole area of “Artist Trading Cards“. I’ve heard of this type of trading card a couple of times before and I’ve never actually made any of these cards, but they seem like a really interesting way to make and share artwork.

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Sorry that this article was so rambling and introspective, but I hope that it was interesting 🙂

Three Small Ways To Make Your Fans Geek Out About Your Story Or Comic More

2014 Artwork Three small geeky things sketch

The fact is that, often, the things which make us really geek out about stories, movies, games, comics etc… aren’t the big things. They’re the small things that we can carry over from our favourite fictional worlds into real life.

They’re the small things that make our daily lives just a little bit more amusing, cool, interesting, imaginative or just downright fun.

There are probably too many of these things to list, but I thought that I’d look at three of them today in case they can help you to cultivate a fandom of your own. So, let’s begin.

1) Catchphrases: I’m going to start by listing a few catchphrases from various things, see how many of them you recognise: “I’ll be back”, “Valar morghulis”, “Live long and prosper”, “Filthy assistants”, “The truth is out there”, “Use the force”, “The cake is a lie”, “No power in the ‘verse can stop me”, ” One does not simply walk into…” etc…..

How many did you get? One? Five? Ten? Chances are, if you’re at least vaguely interested in science fiction or fantasy, then you’ll have probably smiled to yourself when you saw at least one of these catchphrases. In fact, you may well have used one or two of these catchphrases in real life at some point or another.

Catchphrases are one of those few small things that you can take away from a great story and use in real life. As such, they give a story some “added value”. So, if you can find a way to add a memorable phrase or line to your story that can be used by geeky fans in real life, then they will probably thank you for it.

Yes, coming up with a good catchphrase can be difficult, but this can sometimes happen completely unintentionally (and it probably will if you’re good at writing dialogue). So, it’s usually a good idea to err on the side of caution and include several memorable and easily-quotable lines so that there’s a good chance that at least one of them will end up being picked up and used by your readers.

The best example I can think of at the moment is probably in “The Terminator”. I can’t remember where I heard this, but the one line that the people who made this film initially intended to be a catchphrase (Arnold’s brilliantly deadpan “F**k you, asshole” line) unfortunately didn’t become a catchphrase for obvious reasons.

However, since the film contains so many other great lines (“Come with me if you want to live”, “I’ll be back” etc…) it has still lived on in popular memory through some of these lines. So, it’s best to err on the side of caution and include several cool catchphrases in your story or comic.

2) In-universe jokes: Sometimes the thing that can really make fans of a show, comic or a novel squeal with nerdy joy is when their favourite story doesn’t take itself entirely seriously for a moment.

I’m talking about when there’s a brief moment of self-referential humour which takes place entirely within the context of the story and feels like it could have genuinely happened in that particular fictional world.

For “Star Trek” fans, a good example of this would probably be the “come to Quark’s, Quark’s is fun” adverts which Quark illicitly posts around the station in an episode from season four (?) of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”. Not only is this scene hilariously funny for fans of the show, it actually seems like something that Quark would genuinely do too.

Not only do these small jokes live on in the imaginations of your fans, they also reward your fans for getting to know the characters and the fictional universe of your story too.

I mean, if you’ve never watched “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” before, then the Youtube clip that I linked to earlier probably won’t be quite as funny as it would be if you were a fan of the show.

3) Designs: Sometimes the small thing which can really make your fans geek out about a story can be the logos, symbols and designs in it (eg: like the distinctive badges in “Star Trek”, the ‘I want to believe’ poster from “The X-Files”, Spider Jerusalem’s distinctive glasses from Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics etc….).

Not only do these things give geeky fans something to “latch onto” and use as a symbol of their fandom, you can use these designs to create merchandise that you can sell (eg: T-shirts) and/or you can allow your fans to create their own non-commercial stuff (eg: T-shirts, models, jewellery etc…) that uses them.

Whilst the latter might seem counter-productive from a business standpoint, allowing your fans to use these symbols freely not only increases their loyalty to your story but it also reminds them that you are a fan yourself (rather than a mercenary copyright-obsessed corporate businessperson who doens’t care about your own story, other than how much money it can make for you). Plus, it saves you actually having to make the merchandise yourself too.

Plus, although this technique obviously works best in visual-based storytelling mediums like comics, movies, TV shows and computer games, it can also work in prose fiction too.

For example, George R. R. Martin’s excellent “A Song Of Ice And Fire” novels chronicle the many wars and machinations between various noble houses in a medieval-style world. Each house has it’s own distinctive symbol (eg: House Lannister’s symbol is a lion, House Greyjoy’s is a giant squid etc…) and, although there are small pictures of each symbol in the appendix at the end of each novel, they are described so well that you can easily picture them even if you’ve never read the appendix at the end of the book.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂