Three Reasons Why Writers Should Watch Game Design Videos

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this topic before, but I thought that I’d talk about why online videos about game design can useful for writers. Although prose fiction and videogames might seem like very different mediums (and they are), videos about game design can still be extremely useful to writers for a number of reasons.

So, I thought that I’d list a few of them.

1) Some lessons translate directly: A few days before I wrote this article, I happened to watch this fascinating (if lengthy) video about combat systems in action/thriller videogames. Whilst this might not seem directly relevant to writing, one part of the video stuck in my mind.

In one part of the video, there’s a description of how “dramatic” attack animations in videogames often focus more on the build-up and aftermath of an action than the action itself. It was then that I realised that dramatic fight scenes in many thriller novels often do something similar – devoting more words to both suspenseful descriptions before a fight scene and the consequences of each action after it happens.

So, yes, even though videogames may be a very different medium to prose fiction, some lessons can translate directly. This is probably because some dramatic techniques are fairly universal (after all, this advice about dramatic fight scenes would probably also apply to film and comics as well).

2) They teach you the value of design: One of the interesting things about game design videos is that they’ll often focus on how designers deliberately set up parts of their game in order to achieve a particular mood or effect. For example, a game might subtly encourage the player to explore by hiding useful items around the game’s world.

But, what does any of this have to do with writing? Simply put, it reminds you that every creative decision matters more than you think. After all, each structural or linguistic choice that you make will affect how the reader thinks and feels when they’re reading your story.

For example, Dan Brown’s 2003 thriller novel “The Da Vinci Code” has very short chapters. This design choice allows for frequent mini-cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, it gives the reader a sense of jumping from scene to scene quickly and – because each chapter is quick to read – it makes the reader feel like reading “just one more chapter…“.

This subtle design choice helps to keep a story fast-paced and gripping. So, it’s perfect for thriller novels. Yet, if you tried using it in a romance or a historical epic, then it would probably seem slightly out of place.

So, learning to look for design and appreciating how it can subtly shape the way your audience experiences your story can be really useful.

3) It makes you think about medium-specific stuff: Games are different to books. Books are different to games. Films are different to both, so are comics and music too. Every medium has things that it can do that all of the other mediums can’t.

Game design videos will often focus on the stuff games can do that nothing else can. And, although this isn’t directly relevant to writing, it helps you to think about all of the stuff that books can do that nothing else can.

For example, books can spend tens of pages focusing on the events of a single minute. Books can show what happens inside characters’ minds. Every reader will imagine the characters in a book slightly differently. I could go on for a while, but there’s loads of stuff that books can do that nothing else can. And seeing videos about the unique elements of other mediums can make you think “Well, they’re doing all of this stuff that I can’t do… what can I do that they can’t?”.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

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How To Find “New” Art Techniques – A Ramble

A few days before I wrote this article, I ended up making a digitally-edited drawing (based on a photo I took last April) that looked significantly more realistic than most of my art does. Here’s a preview of the picture:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size artwork will be posted here on the 5th April.

One of the interesting things about making this picture was that none of the techniques I used to make it were really “new” to me. Yet, they produced a piece of art that was totally different to anything I’d made before.

I already knew how to take interesting-looking photos, I already knew how to draw from photos by sight, I already knew how to directly sample colours using image editing programs, I already knew how to mask off areas by selecting them, I already knew how to use digital airbrush tools etc… Yet, I’d somehow never thought of combining these skills with each other before I made this picture.

Here’s a (slightly simplified) chart to show you what I mean:

(Note: To view full size image, click on it and then select “View Full Size” below the image). This chart doesn’t show every step, but it shows how combining skills you already know can result in new techniques etc..

So, one of the best ways to find “new” art techniques is simply to look at all of the techniques that you already know and to try combining them in different ways.

But, although this is something that can be done consciously and deliberately, the best examples of it just tend to appear when you are reasonably confident with the techniques that you already know. When you instinctively know how and why a particular technique “works”, then finding ways to combine it with other things you know well will seem a lot more natural and intuitive.

For example, I suddenly thought of the mixture of techniques I showed you earlier because I thought it would save time. It didn’t save much time, but it did result in more realistic-looking art. So, yes, these things don’t always happen completely deliberately.

Plus, of course, you can keep adding other techniques to the mix too. For example, here’s a preview of the digitally-edited drawing (based on this photo I took last April) that I made the day after the one I showed you earlier. It uses the same mixture of techniques I’ve already mentioned….

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size artwork will be posted here on the 5th April.

…But, if you look closely at the trees and buildings, you’ll see that there is some very slightly more dramatic lighting. Here’s a close-up to show you what I mean:

Notice how the light seems to be filtering through the trees and buildings in a slightly hazy “lens flare”-like way.

How did I do this? Simple. I just used a technique that I’d used in digitally-edited paintings before (but hadn’t thought to use in the previous picture).

More specifically, once I’d worked out what colour the light was, I used a very large digital airbrush (applied lightly) to create the impression of a lens flare. And this technique was something I originally discovered when trying to find quicker/easier alternatives to using the digital lighting effects in an open source program called “GIMP 2.8. 22” – and I worked it out because I was quite familiar with how the program’s airbrush feature worked.

So, the general lesson here is that if you learn an artistic skill or technique to the point where it almost seems instinctive, then finding new ways to combine it with other techniques will become a lot easier and more intuitive. In other words, skills build more skills.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

Two Practical Reasons Why English Lit Lessons/Lectures Are Important

A couple of days before I wrote this article, I ended up re-reading one of my favourite online newspaper articles. It is an article written by a university lecturer in Australia, talking about the problems she’s faced teaching English literature to modern students.

Although I’ve never been to Australia and the closest thing to teaching I’ve ever done is writing these articles, I still find the lecturer’s article absolutely fascinating since it usually makes me think about all of the English lit lectures and lessons I’ve attended (as a pupil or a student) in the past.

Most of all, it reminds me just how useful all of this “basic training” was. How, despite the fact that some of it was a little on the boring side, it has actually come in handy in all sorts of ways.

So, for anyone thinking that English lit lectures and/or lessons are a waste of time, here are two of the many practical reasons why they’re secretly really, really useful.

1) It’s about thinking for yourself: One of the great things about studying English lit formally is that it teaches you to take a deeper look at things. It not only teaches you to look at what writers are doing and why, but it also teaches you to look at the context that something was written in. This may all sound very theoretical and academic, but it can be useful in so, so many ways. Here are a few examples:

If you’ve ever wanted to write an online review of something then knowing how to study, “reverse-engineer” and/or examine things in detail will result in a much better and more interesting review than just “I really liked it because it was fun“. And, although English lit lessons/lectures will usually focus on examining rather boring texts, this is just to teach you how to apply these skills to more interesting stuff.

These skills are also incredibly useful when doing something as simple as looking at the news. If you know all of the techniques that writers can use to achieve a particular effect, then it’ll make it slightly easier for you to spot things like political bias, emotive/manipulative journalism etc… in the news reports you read online or in the paper. It can also help you to look at advertising more critically too, which means you are less likely to be swayed by it.

Plus, learning to look at the context can also help you to make sense of all sorts of things too.

For example, if you’ve ever wondered why Hollywood films from the 1990s are so much more cheerful and optimistic than modern films usually are, it’s probably because they were made after the end of the Cold War and before 9/11 (eg: a period of history where people were genuinely optimistic about the future). So, learning to look for the context will help you understand a lot of things a lot better.

Formally studying a piece of literature also trains you to look for connections and patterns (eg: what influenced this book? How does it relate to other books? etc..), and to think more deeply about everything (eg: why does the author write in this way? What is the author trying to say? etc..). And, needless to say, these are skills that are useful for pretty much everything.

2) The set texts are boring for a good, useful reason:
Yes, there’s actually a good practical reason why the set texts in many English lit lessons and lectures are often so thunderously, drearily dull.

Boring, old books are usually chosen as set texts to boost your confidence. Simply put, if you can learn how to read and understand novels from 200 years ago or earlier, then pretty much anything becomes easily readable afterwards.

When you read formal documents, you’ll glide through them with ease. If you find an interesting novel from the 1920s-60s, reading it will seem like child’s play by comparison.

If you read a more slow-paced or “high-brow” modern book, it’ll still seem easy in comparison to the musty old set texts you had to slog through during your English lit lectures/lessons. The boredom and difficulty of reading old set texts is designed to make you feel confident about reading everything else.

In other words, if you can get through things written by Shakespeare, Bronte, Austen and/or Dickens (even with help and tuition), then you’ll be able to read literally everything else with confidence and ease. So, yes, boring old books are often taught in English lit lessons and lectures for a very good reason. It makes reading and understanding even the most boring or difficult modern things seem like a breeze by comparison.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

Dabbling And Learning New Stuff – A Ramble

Although this is supposed to be an article about learning creative skills (eg: art, writing etc.. techniques), I’m going to have to spend most of the article talking about computer stuff.

As usual, there’s (sort of) a good reason for this (eg: the approach I took to the computer stuff in the article reminded me a bit of learning a new creative skill). But, I’ll try not to get too technical.

Basically, the day before I prepared the first draft of this article, I finally got round to installing a version of a non-commercial, open-source (eg: programmers can freely study and modify the program) operating system called Linux on my other computer.

Installing Linux on a computer was something that I’d been meaning to do for a while – but Linux has something of a reputation for being an ultra-geeky, ultra-technical thing. Not only that, getting programs to run with Linux is somewhat different to doing the same thing in, say, Windows. Still, one of the cool things about Linux is that it provides several different ways for people to dabble with it without permanently switching over to only using Linux.

The one I’d used in the past was using something called a “Live DVD“. Basically, some versions of Linux can be run directly from a DVD, a USB stick and/or your computer’s RAM (eg: the “short-term memory” of your computer), meaning that you can try out Linux without actually installing anything on your computer.

But, when I went a step further and actually installed Linux (on my other computer), I was still able to do this in a way that didn’t plunge me in at the deep end. Basically, I used a very user-friendly version of Linux called “Linux Mint MATE“. In practical everyday terms, it looks and works a bit like a modern version of Windows:

This is a screenshot of a slightly earlier, but extremely similar, version of Linux Mint MATE to the one I installed. This screenshot (by Clรฉment Lefรจbvre, released under a GNU GPL licence) is from Wikipedia, since I’m still working out how to take screenshots with Linux.

This version of Linux contains an easy-to-use installer that allows you to reserve (or “partition”) part of your computer’s hard drive for Linux – so that you can run both Linux and, say, Windows on the same computer (which is called “dual-booting”). There’s even a screen that allows you to choose which one you want to use every time you turn the computer on. So, if you get too confused by Linux, you can take a break from it and go back to your old operating system in a matter of minutes.

Yes, I’m still dabbling with Linux and getting used to how it works. I mean, it took me an hour or two to get Linux Mint to play MP3 files & DVDs, and to find a version of “Doom” that will run on it (Freedoom, with the PRBoom+ source port, if anyone’s curious). But, it has been a lot easier than I expected.

But, what was the point of all of this? What does it have to do with creativity?

Well, it’s all to do with learning new skills. Simply put, the best way to learn anything new is to dabble with it at a pace that seems right for you. If you’re nervous about making mistakes, then try to use things that minimise the amount of damage and/or wastage that mistakes cause (eg: use cheap art supplies, write short stories etc..). Likewise, don’t be afraid to use simplified versions of things at first.

Going back to the computer-related example, I’m still very much a “noob” when it comes to Linux stuff. For example, the only reason I was able to dual-boot Linux Mint is because the program itself did a lot of the hard work (eg: partitioning drives etc..) that other versions of Linux require people to do manually. Likewise, I’m still not using Linux on my main computer. Yet, I’m feeling a lot more confident than I probably would if I’d just jumped straight into the deep end.

Yes, dabbling might mean that it’ll take you longer to learn something. But, it has a major advantage. Your motivation will be better. Why? Simply put, dabbling is usually motivated by curiosity. And, curiosity is one of the best and strongest sources of motivation out there. So, although it might take you longer, you’ll feel more motivated and enthusiastic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

Art Practice Works! – A Ramble

If you’re new to making art, then it can be easy to feel discouraged. After all, even if you practice regularly, then it can sometimes be difficult to see improvements on a day-to-day basis. But, even though your improvements might be very gradual, you will get better at making art if you keep practicing.

When preparing a remake of an old painting of mine the night before I wrote this article, I was reminded of an amazing quote (from this page) by the webcomic creator Winston Rowntree. Rowntree’s quote is: “Practice is weird: pyhsically, you just do what you’ve always done, except one day you notice it’s resulting in far better artwork.

Never have truer words been spoken!

Anyway, the painting that I had decided to remake was an old painting of mine from 2016. It’s one of my favourite paintings from that year and I’d finally got the push to remake it after realising that I felt too uninspired to think of a good idea for a new painting.

Still, as I began to sketch out my new version of it, I initally started to worry that it wouldn’t look as good as the original. But, as the painting progressed, I suddenly realised how much I’d learnt over the past 1-2 years of daily practice.

I realised how my experiments with limited colour palettes (red, yellow, green, blue and black in this case) in late 2015/early 2016 had – along with some other inspirations – led to the eventual discovery of my current colour palette.

I realised that, 1-2 years ago, I didn’t know some of the digital image editing techniques (eg: for adding rain effects, realistic shading etc..) I use regularly these days. I realised how much the lighting in my art had improved over the past 1-2 years. Here’s a reduced-size preview of the new version of the painting:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] This is the result of 1-2 years of daily art practice.

So, yes, art practice works. You won’t actually notice improvements happening literally every day, but every extra piece of art that you make will make you a slightly confident and better. And this builds up over time!

One way to think of art practice is that it is like a stalagmite in an underground cave. Whilst an individual droplet of water might not look like it is doing anything to the stalagmite – over time, the mineral deposits from lots of water droplets can result in a really impressive-looking stalagmite.

Yes, art practice can feel more like a marathon than a sprint, but it is important to keep going. Once you’ve been practicing for a while, then even an uninspired painting that you make on a bad day will still look better than the “good” paintings that you made a few months or years ago.

Likewise, your art can also improve in slightly strange ways too. For example, the bulk of the improvements in the comparison I showed you earlier weren’t to the actual drawing itself but to surrounding things like the lighting, colours and shading. So, if it looks like regular practice isn’t improving one part of your art much, then it usually means that another part of your art is improving instead.

But, in summary, regular practice works! It might not work quickly, but it certainly works!

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

Why Creative People Should Be Critics Too – A Ramble

Although I’m more of an artist these days, most of my formal training is as a writer. However, a slightly strange thing about one of the creative writing courses that I took during my late teens/early twenties was that the course would often include more hours spent studying literature than actually practicing writing or even discussing writing techniques.

For quite a while, I thought that this was just “filler” or possibly a way to make the course seem more “prestigious” or something like that. At my most cynical, I concluded that the literature modules were included to make the writing-based parts of the course seem more interesting by comparison.

But, thinking about it more carefully, it was actually a much more essential part of the course than it first appeared to be. In fact, it has even been useful to me after I became an artist. But, why? Because studying literature makes you think like a critic.

There’s often something of an artificial divide between critics and creative people in popular culture. After all, there’s even the famous saying that “a critic is just a failed writer/artist/director/musician” But, thinking like a critic is one of the best ways to get good at writing or making art.

Why? Because, when you strip away all of the pretentiousness, the main job of a critic is to study and analyse other creative works. A critic takes a careful look at something and works out which parts of it “work” and which parts don’t. After this, they also have to work out why.

Once they’ve done this, a critic also has to look at how a creative work relates to other works in the same genre, how it takes inspiration from other things and what techniques the writer, artist etc.. used. A critic has to really “get to know” something and then describe it in a (relatively) concise review.

In other words, a critic has to “dissect” other things in order to see how they work and then distil that information into a small guide. A critic has to be able to look at creative works closely and think about them in a greater level of depth. Over time, a critic will also gain a good sense of both their own sensibilities and the sorts of things that appeal to audiences.

From there, it isn’t too much of a leap to “reverse engineering” other creative works in order to learn how to improve your own creative works.

And this is how you learn how to be a better artist, writer etc… You see what other people have done, you work out how they did it and then you use those techniques in a new and original way in your own works. In addition to this, if you have a basic knowledge of copyright law, you can even go a step further and take inspiration from any works that really impress you.

Part of taking inspiration properly includes being able to look at creative works in a fairly analytical “critic-like” way in order to break them down into the general, non-copyrightable elements that you can re-use in new and interesting ways.

Thinking like a critic means that you can focus on more than just the story that is being told or the image in a painting. It means that you also pay attention to things like story structure, emotional tone, narrative style, chapter length, art materials, colour palettes, lighting decisions, themes etc.. too.

Thinking like a critic also means that you can learn from more than just the things in your chosen field too.

For example, many of the art techniques that I’ve learnt over the past few years haven’t come from looking at other paintings and drawings, or even from reading art tutorials. They’ve come from looking closely at movies, TV shows, photographs and computer games. So, yes, thinking like a critic means that the range of “educational materials” available to you is much larger than you might think.

So, strange as it might sound, thinking like a critic is one of the best ways to become a better artist or a better writer.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

Three Tips For Finding Artistic Knowledge (That Can’t Be Found Online)

During a rather long series of thoughts I had the day before I wrote this article, one intriguing phrase appeared in my mind quite often – “knowledge that cannot be found on the internet“. The phrase sounded mysterious enough to fascinate me – but, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it probably applies to most artists in some way or another.

After all, aside from more basic things, there isn’t usually a tutorial online for the exact specific thing that you want to draw or paint. Usually, if you want to learn how to do something new, the internet can only often help in the most indirect of ways. So how do you learn how to do something artistic if there isn’t a specific online guide for it?

Here are a few tips:

1) Learn the basics (then extrapolate): One of the best ways to work out how to do something on your own is to have a basic knowledge of the theory of art and to have some basic art skills. No, this doesn’t mean that you have to have gone to art school (I haven’t) or even have a particularly advanced level of artistic skill. But, the more theory you know and the more skills you have, the easier it will be to work out how to do things that aren’t explained in online guides.

Why? Because you’ll be able to see which “rules” the thing you want to make follows. For example, if you see a really cool-looking piece of art and you want to make something in a similar style, but can’t find any guides online, then knowing some basic theory and having some basic skills can help in a number of ways, including….

Knowledge of different art mediums will allow you to guess which tools the artist used. And to find the closest available thing to it that you have.

Knowledge of colour theory will allow you to work out that colour palette that the artist used, and why it “works” so well. Likewise, it’ll allow you to see the relationship between the colours in the picture too (eg: does the artist use one or more complementary colour pairs? etc..).

Knowing how to copy from sight alone will allow you to make private studies and reconstructions of the artwork in question, which might give you an insight into some of the techniques the artist used, and why they used them. You can then use those techniques in new and different ways for your own original art.

Knowledge about how lighting is often relative (eg: something can be dark, but still appear bright when placed next to something even darker) can help you to work out how the artist gave their picture a particular “look” (eg: vivid, muted etc..) and how to use similar techniques in your own original art.

I could go on for a while, but the more theory you know and the more skills that you have, the easier it is to work out how to do things that aren’t explicitly spelled out for you in an online guide.

2) Observation (and study): If there isn’t a specific online guide for how to draw something, then start by looking at as many pictures of it as you can (in books, online etc..).

However, unless you own the copyright to the images, then you shouldn’t directly copy any of the images that you see.

Instead, your goal is to see as many different pictures of the thing in question from as many different angles and perspectives as possible. To break the object in question down into it’s most basic shapes and outlines. To see what visual features all of the pictures have in common and to build up a “3D model” of the thing in question inside your mind.

The more different pictures of the same thing that you see, the easier it will be for you to work out the basic principles of how to draw or paint it. Then you can use the “3D model” as the basis for a new and original piece of art.

3) Trial and error: If you really want to learn how to draw or paint something that isn’t explained in any online guide, then sometimes the best way to do it is simply through good old fashioned trial and error. Even if the results aren’t perfect, then at least you’ll be closer to achieving what you want than if you didn’t try.

Genrally, if an impressive piece of art or an interesting style of art exists, then that means that it (and more importantly, art in a similar style/traditon as it) can be made. After all, someone has already made it. So, there has to be a solution to the puzzle of how to make it.

It’s kind of like how, in old first-person shooter computer games from the early-mid 1990s, the player would often end up “stuck” in challenging situations. Yet, because these games were often designed to be fair, there was almost always some way or another, some tactic or stratagem that the player could use to progress, even if it took a lot of thought and a lot of failed attempts. If you play enough of these games (modern fan-made levels for “Doom II” are probably a good place to start), then they can really improve your attitude towards trial and error in other areas, such as making art.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚