Leaving Room To Imagine – A Ramble

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Although this is an article about creativity in general, I’m probably going to have to start by talking about computer games for a while. This is mainly because, as regular readers of this site know, I mostly play old games and/or low-budget indie games these days.

Anyway, one of the interesting things about old and low-budget games is the fact that they often don’t include “realistic” graphics. Likewise, really old-school/low-budget games sometimes don’t even include voice acting – choosing instead to use text for the dialogue. Here are some examples of the types of games I’m talking about:

This is a screenshot from "The Last Door: Season 2" (2016).

This is a screenshot from “The Last Door: Season 2” (2016). Note the use of text-based dialogue and the impressionistic graphics.

This is a screenshot from "Zombie Shooter" (2007)

This is a screenshot from “Zombie Shooter” (2007). Note the “unrealistic” graphics.

This is a screenshot from "Eradicator" (1996). Surprisingly, it is the only game of these three that actually includes voice-acting.

This is a screenshot from “Eradicator” (1996). Surprisingly, it is the only game of these three that actually includes voice-acting.

Yet, surprisingly, these games are often a lot more engrossing than more “realistic” games would be. For the most part, this is because these games don’t try to look ultra-realistic. In fact, they often leave a lot of visual details purposely or accidentally vague.

This, of course, means that not only does the player focus more on the events of the game than on the graphics, but it means that the player also has to actually use their imagination to work out what the locations are supposed to look like. These games give the player enough visual details to give them an idea of what the setting is meant to be, but it is left up to them to fill in the fine details with their own imaginations.

Likewise, the lack of voice-acting in some of these games means that it is left to the player to work out what the characters’ voices sound like. Like with reading a novel or a comic, the audience’s imaginations are probably going to come up with better voice acting than most voice-actors could probably do. After all, your own imagination is better at coming up with things that are well-suited to you than anyone else is.

In fact, comics are probably another good example of this sort of thing.

The artwork in many comics is deliberately unrealistic (for both time reasons and creative reasons). They don’t include voice-acting either. Likewise, they only show still “frames” from a movie-like series of events. And, yet, a good comic can often be more immersive and interesting than a film for the simple reason that the audience is left to imagine things like the fine details of the world, the sound of the characters’ voices etc… And, well, imagination is usually better than expensive special effects or A-list actors.

The best way to see how important leaving room for the audience to imagine things is to start by watching a film adaptation of a novel you haven’t read. Then read the original novel. I can almost guarantee that you’ll probably imagine the characters, voices, locations and events of the novel in a pretty similar way to how they looked in the film.

Now try the same thing in reverse. Read a popular novel that you enjoy, then watch the film adaptation of it (that you’ve never seen before). Chances are, the film will look at least slightly different to what you imagined when you were reading the novel. In fact, there are actually a few film adaptations that I absolutely refuse to watch, lest they ruin my imagined ideas about what the characters and/or settings of several novels look like.

So, what was the point of all of this? Well, the point is that – if you are creating something – then you need to leave room for your audience to use their imaginations. You need to give them the space to come up with their own custom interpretation of the story you are telling.

In other words, you don’t have to make the art in your comics hyper-detailed, you shouldn’t worry if your fiction never gets adapted into a film etc… The more room that your audience has to imagine things, the better.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Ways To Make Something That Is ‘So Bad That It’s Good’

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I’ve probably talked about things that are ‘so bad that they’re good’ before, but I was reminded of this subject the night before I wrote this article. This was mainly because I started watching an anime series called ‘Tokko‘ about a police officer who has to face hordes of demonic creatures.

It might be because I accidentally left the default dubbed audio track on or because I had slightly different expectations about the series, but it fell into the ‘so bad that it’s good’ category. Far from being a serious horror series, it is (both unintentionally and intentionally) one of the funniest comedies that I’ve seen recently.

The police officer and his best friend look like what people in the very late 1990s/early 2000s considered to be “cool”. Personality wise, they are basically two American frat boys/slackers. The cheesy dubbed dialogue tries to be ‘edgy’ at every opportunity, and often comes across as being eye-rollingly immature. The “scary” monsters either look adorable and/or hilarious. The animation can be a bit clunky and the fight scenes are ludicrously gruesome (in a silly over-the-top way, rather than in a genuinely disturbing way). Yet, surprisingly, I really enjoyed the episodes I’ve seen so far. As I said, it’s literally so bad that it’s good.

So, how can you make things that are so bad that they’re good? Here are three of the many ways:

1) Awesome idea, terrible implementation: One of the best ways to make something ‘so bad that it’s good’ is to try to stretch yourself far beyond your abilities. To have the ambition of creating something awesome, but without the resources or knowledge to really do it properly.

There something endearing about someone trying to create something great, even when they can’t. There’s something warmly amusing about, say, a low-budget DVD whose cover art promises an epic story that both you and the people making the DVD know won’t be delivered.

Most people’s first attempts at making a webcomic automatically fall into this category too ( in fact, making it through this ‘crappy’ early phase is something of a test for webcomic creators), because they’re both highly inexperienced and yet highly inspired by other webcomics that they’ve seen.

These things are “so bad that they’re good” because they’re more ‘real’. They’re literally the polar opposite of flashy Hollywood movies, slick mainstream comics etc.. They show people trying to create things because they want to and because they believe in what they’re doing, rather than because they want to make millions.

2) Hyper modernity: If you make something that is very much of the time that it’s made then, years later, it will look amusingly dated. This is especially true if you are trying to use an old idea for inspiration, which can often result in something appearing slightly dated when it is originally released.

This is also especially true if you try to make ‘modern’ science fiction. A great example of this would probably be a ‘so bad that it’s good’ spy/thriller/sci-fi/comedy TV series from the mid-late 1990s called “Bugs“. At the time, it was probably a lot more “cool” and “futuristic”. But, these days, it’s joyously hilarious to see all of the characters using ‘gadgets’ and surfing the internet with 56k modems and computers that still have CRT monitors.

So, if you make something very ‘modern’, then there’s a good chance that it will become ‘so bad that it’s good’ in a few years’ time.

3) Earnestness: Creative works that try to be hyper-earnest about politics, or go to ridiculous lengths to show off how “liberal” or “conservative” they are, can often fall into the ‘so bad that it’s good category’.

This is basically because the extremely prominent and earnest politics end up distracting the audience from the actual story and completely wrecking their suspension of disbelief. This will reduce even the most serious story to unintentional comedy within minutes.

I would describe modern examples of this sort of thing. But, ironically, in our highly-politicised age, I’d probably end up infuriating a lot of people if I gave cynical descriptions of these things. Still, the modern trend for hyper-earnest politics (on both sides of the political spectrum) will at least ensure that we’ll never run out of ‘so bad that it’s good’ things in the near future.

But, if you earnestly try to shoehorn politics into the things you make, then they’ll probably turn into unintentional comedy fairly quickly.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

One Cool Thing That TV Shows Taught Me About Storytelling In Webcomics

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As I mentioned yesterday, I’m busy making another webcomic mini series at the time of writing.

This one will appear in mid-late July and I’m planning on taking a slightly similar approach to the storytelling in it as I did in “Damania Retrofuturistic“, “Damania Renaissance” and “Damania Repressed“. In other words, there will be an overarching plot, but (hopefully) several self-contained updates too.

This is an approach to storytelling that I’ve learnt from watching numerous TV shows. Most recently, I’ve seen an absolutely great example of this technique in the first season of “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex“. One really cool thing about this show is the fact that the episode title screen looks different depending on whether the episode is a stand-alone episode or part of the series’ main story arc.

Although television is a different medium to webcomics, they have more in common than you might think. They’re both visual mediums and they’re both released in an episodic fashion. Likewise, since they’re often produced in less time, on a lower budget and/or in larger quantities than films or novels are, there’s a lot more emphasis on characterisation and writing than there is on visual spectacle.

Anyway, the main reasons why a lot of TV shows use this structure is because, before the days of DVD boxsets, internet TV etc.. they couldn’t rely on their audience watching every episode in order. So, self-contained episodes provide something for people who have missed a few episodes and/or have started watching the TV show halfway through a season etc…

Even though most webcomics have easily searchable archives of one kind or another (like with the comics index page on this site), most people become interested in a webcomic by stumbling across just one episode of it by accident. So, if you include self-contained comic updates, then this makes your webcomic more easily accessible and it increases the chances of new readers being amused or intrigued by just seeing one comic update.

In addition to this, in television, these types of episodes also provide a bit of variety within the show itself. For example, a TV show with a depressing main plot might try to lighten the tone by including a few humourous or light-hearted stand-alone episodes in each season.

In webcomics, this sort of thing can allow you to include extra characterisation, to make jokes that wouldn’t fit into the main storyline and things like that. It gives you more room to try different things and to add more to your comic, without affecting the main storyline too much.

The trick to all of this is, of course, working out the ratio of self-contained to story-based episodes. Generally, if you include more story-based episodes, then you can tell a more detailed and complex story – albeit at the expense of making it more accessible to new readers. Likewise, if most of the updates in your comic are self-contained, then you’ll probably have to use a simpler story for the main plot.

Of course, if you’re really up for a challenge- you can include an over-arching plot in the background, whilst also giving each “episode” a self-contained sub plot. This is probably a lot more difficult to do in webcomics than it is in TV for the simple reason that you’ll only have 1-8 panels to work with in every comic update (as opposed to 45 minutes of screen time). But, the main advantage of this is that it makes your comic more accessible to new and/or infrequent readers than if you use a combination of self-contained comics and story-based comics.

But, yes, TV shows can teach you a lot about story structure in webcomics.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Two Ways To Find Your Own “Version” Of The Cyberpunk Genre

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If you’ve been reading this site recently, you can probably guess that I’m in something of a cyberpunk mood at the moment. The interesting thing about the cyberpunk genre is that, despite the fact that it’s only been around for 32-37 years, there are numerous “versions” of it.

From the rainy, neon-lit streets of “Blade Runner” to the gothic green-tinted world of “The Matrix” to the bright bleached cityscapes in some footage I’ve seen of a cyberpunk-influenced modern dystopian sci-fi game called “Mirror’s Edge“, no two things in the cyberpunk genre look exactly alike.

One small silver lining of the miserable fact that virtually nothing from the genre is in the public domain (in a way that many cyberpunk “classics” would if copyright laws were more rational) is the fact that everyone making something in the cyberpunk genre has to come up with their own very slightly unique interpretation of it.

Yes, it might be heavily influenced by the cyberpunk “canon” but, it will be at least subtly different from these things. But, this isn’t an article about copyright, it’s an article about how you can find your own version of the cyberpunk genre. So, how do you do this?

1) Have other influences!: Whenever it comes to anything creative or even anything to do with humanity, variety usually equals strength and/or quality. Democracies can last for centuries or more because they allow a wide variety of political opinions to exist. The food in the UK is significantly better than it apparently was 60-70 years ago, due to a wider variety of influences from around the world. Even genetics itself obviously relies on variety too. I could go on for a while, but I should probably get back to the cyberpunk genre.

What I’m trying to say here is that you aren’t going to find your own “version” of the cyberpunk genre if you aren’t willing to look outside of the cyberpunk genre for inspiration.

But, given how obscure this genre is these days – it’s pretty much impossible for you not to also have favourite novels, films, games etc.. from outside the genre too. So, let these influence your cyberpunk art, fiction, comics etc.. too.

Always be on the lookout for cool things, regardless of whether they’re cyberpunk or not, which instantly make you think “I want to learn how to make something like that”. Once you’ve worked out what generic features (eg: lighting, composition types, colour schemes, general types of locations, pacing, narrative style, themes etc..) make these things so interesting, then apply that knowledge to the cyberpunk things that you make.

To give you a recent example, here’s a reduced-size preview of a digitally-edited cyberpunk painting that will appear here in July:

The full-size painting will appear here on the 13th July.

The full-size painting will appear here on the 13th July.

Whilst the three “traditional” cyberpunk inspirations for this painting are “Blade Runner“, “Ghost In The Shell[NSFW] (I watched the “2.0” director’s cut shortly before making most of this painting) and Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics, you’ll probably notice that it looks a bit more colourful than any of these things. This element of the painting was inspired by the use of multiple complementary colour palettes in a set of “Doom II” levels called “Ancient Aliens“.

Likewise, the setting of the painting was also inspired by photos of New York and Tokyo that I’d seen online a couple of days earlier. Several clothing designs in the painting were inspired by 1980s fashion rather than by traditional “noir” cyberpunk. I could go on for a while…

The fact is that many of the “classics” of the cyberpunk genre have become unique classics for the simple reason that they looked for influences outside of the cyberpunk genre. For example, “The Matrix” owes as much to 1980s/90s goth culture as it does to prior cyberpunk films like “Blade Runner”, “Akira”, “Ghost In The Shell” etc..

2) Ask a simple question: One way to come up with your own “version” of the cyberpunk genre is just to ask yourself “what makes something cyberpunk?“. Go on, do it now.

Once you’ve written down or memorised your list of answers, then see if you can find a way to create something that fits into this definition. Whilst this might not sound like a way to come up with your own “unique” version of the genre, it will do exactly that! But, why?

Simply put, everyone is different. The things that really appeal to you about the cyberpunk genre will be at least slightly different from the things that appeal to everyone else about it. Whether you’re thinking about the visual elements of the genre or the thematic elements, you’ll probably have a slightly different idea of what makes something cyberpunk to everyone else.

For example, as an artist, the things that really appeal to me about the cyberpunk genre are the high-contrast lighting (eg: neon signs at night, CRT monitors in the dark etc..), the dense, angular cityscapes, the idea of an “old future”, flying cars, “film noir” rain, the idea of sensory overload etc…

But, other artists may be more fascinated by things like cyborgs, cyberspace, lines of programming code superimposed onto the real world, dystopian politics, environmental issues etc…

Everyone sees something slightly different when they look at the cyberpunk genre, so ask yourself what you see.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Using Fake Subcultures To Make Your Comic Or Story More Interesting

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Although this is an article about a really interesting storytelling technique that can help you to make your audience more interested in your comics and/or fiction, I’m going to have to spend pretty much all of this article discussing and dissecting a single TV show because it contains the best example of this one technique that I’ve ever seen.

During the week or two before I originally wrote this article, I’d started rewatching some DVDs of the first few series of a TV show called “Hustle“. If you’ve never heard of this show before, it’s a BBC comedy/drama show that focuses on a group of con artists who live in London.

In every episode of “Hustle”, the main characters pull off some kind of large con, heist and/or scam which usually involves an almost Sherlock Holmes-like level of complex thought, a large number of magic trick-like plot twists and a lot of comedy.

Anyway, the reason why I’m mentioning this show is because of the way that these characters are presented. Whilst the show quickly gets the audience on side by showing that they rigidly follow a rule of “you can’t cheat an honest man” (eg: they only steal large amounts of money from worse criminals, corrupt people, arrogant aristocrats etc..), it also does something much more interesting too.

It presents con artistry as a kind of subculture. The characters all have their own slang (eg: they refer to themselves as “grifters” etc..), there are occasional references to the “traditions” and “superstitions” of being a con artist, they seem to know a network of other “good” criminals who are all fairly similar to them, they have a strong attitude that “it isn’t about the money” and often seem to treat their activities more like a sport than anything else etc..

Of course, even a cursory glance at a newspaper or news site will show you that this is clearly artistic licence. Most real con artists either seem to be located in countries with more lenient internet fraud laws/extradition laws, or they seem to be sneaky and unprincipled opportunists who prey on the vulnerable, or they just seem to be ordinary people who happened to find a dubious way to make some quick cash, or they are members of vicious organised crime gangs, or they are motivated by unglamourous things like poverty rather than by “the sport of it”.

And, yet, if “Hustle” had more ‘realistic’ main characters, it wouldn’t be a very entertaining show. It would be an extremely depressing one. The show works because it creates a fictional subculture surrounding a slightly “mysterious” part of real life.

The show isn’t actually a show about scams, heists and con tricks, it’s actually a show about friendship, teamwork and the power of the intellect. If all of the main characters were stage magicians or private detectives instead of con artists, it would still be just as entertaining to watch.

One of the reasons why obviously fake subcultures work so well in TV shows is because they tap into several basic parts of our minds. For starters, they help us to feel a sense of belonging by showing us an interesting group of people who we’d probably like to join. Since we get to see a lot of their adventures, their conversations and their history, we get to feel a vicarious sense of belonging. In some small way, we temporarily feel like we’re associated with a group of people who have been designed to be likeable.

Likewise, many of these “fake subculture” TV shows (“Supernatural” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” spring to mind too) often hint that the main characters are only a small part of a much larger subculture. This is designed to provoke the audience’s imaginations and to make them wonder what the rest of the “world” of the show is like. This is the sort of thing that prompts people to write fan fiction or, even better, to come up with actual original things inspired by the shows in question.

Plus, by hinting at a larger subculture, it also briefly makes the audience what the real world would be like if such a subculture actually existed. After all, subcultures are a thing that actually exists – and the best ones usually aren’t “mainstream”. So, by showing something similar to the real way that subcultures work, it makes the audience wonder if the fictional subculture could actually ever exist in the real world.

Yes, fake subcultures can be unintentionally hilarious/ laughably stupid when they’re done badly. But, when they’re done well, they can be an extremely useful tool for making your audience more interested in the story that you’re telling.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Basic Tips For Making Detective Comedy Comics

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Well, at the time of writing, I was busy making a webcomic mini series that will probably be posted here in late June (in the meantime, you can find links to many others here).

Since this webcomic mini series will be something of a parody of traditional “cosy” detective stories (and it’s also kind of like these other detective comedy comics I’ve made), I thought that I’d talk about how to make detective comedy comics today. But, first, here’s a preview of the first comic update from the upcoming mini series:

The full comic update will be posted here on the 25th June

The full comic update will be posted here on the 25th June

So, how do you make detective comedy comics? here are a few basic tips:

1) Research and inspiration: The best detective comedy comics are usually a parody of various pre-existing things in the detective genre. So, do your research first! I mean, the main thing that inspired the upcoming webcomic that I mentioned earlier was the fact that I’d watched a couple of series of the classic ITV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Poirot” a couple of weeks earlier.

Find a type of detective story that interests you (eg: hardboiled detective stories, “cosy” mysteries, modern forensic detective shows etc..) and then immerse yourself in them as much as possible. Binge-watch DVDs, read online articles, read novels etc… until you can firmly picture what one of these stories looks like. After all, you can’t parody something if you don’t know much about it…

2) Detective types: As any fan of the detective genre will tell you, detectives come in many types. There’s the classic “Sherlock Holmes”-type detective, who uses logic and reason. There’s the more sophisticated Agatha Christie-type detective who uses an understanding of the human condition to solve mysteries. There’s the hardboiled gumshoe of the film noir genre who isn’t afraid to get tough to get some answers etc…

One of the easiest ways to make a detective comedy comic is to put a detective in a story that is set up for another type of detective. For example, the main detective in my occasional long-running webcomic series is more of a “Sherlock Holmes”-type detective (with maybe a few hints of a classic pulp fiction private eye), so by putting him in a more Agatha Christie-style story, there will be a few differences between audience expectations and the events of the story.

Of course, you can take this a step further by, say, putting a genteel Agatha Christie-style detective in the hardboiled world of, say, 1930s Chicago or something like that.

3) Farce and dark comedy: By it’s very nature, the detective genre is absolutely perfect for old-school farce. After all, it’s a very physical genre – there are bodies lying around, villains lurking behind things and all sorts of unusual items that could be used as murder weapons. It doesn’t take a genius to see how these things can be used for farcical slapstick comedy.

Likewise, because detective stories revolve around murder, evil and treachery they are absolutely perfect for the dark comedy genre too. You can do all sorts of things, like showing that the crime has been committed for a really silly reason or adding some humour to the discovery of the body. Likewise, the detective’s deductions can also be a good source of dark comedy, like in this old comic of mine:

"Diabolical Sigil - Page 5" By C. A. Brown

“Diabolical Sigil – Page 5” By C. A. Brown

4) The detective gets something wrong: This one is really self-explanatory, but people expect detectives to actually solve mysteries.

If your detective gets either all or part of the final conclusion to the mystery wrong, then this can be a brilliant source of comedy. Of course, you can also go one better than this and have your detective realise that they were wrong – only to come up with another wrong answer.

If you want a brilliant example of this comedy technique at it’s best, then check out an episode of a classic BBC sitcom called “Blackadder Goes Forth” called “General Hospital”, where the main character has to find a German spy in a WW1-era field hospital.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Never Underestimate The Value Of Subtle Suspense In The Suspense Genre.

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Well, whilst I was watching the first season of a “this is hilariously silly, but I’ll watch just one more episode…” American TV series called “Nikita” on DVD, I realised something about the suspense genre – subtle suspense is important.

The interesting thing about this show is that the earlier episodes of the first season of “Nikita” focus on two main plot threads involving a rogue government agency who takes prisoners from death row in order to turn then into assassins.

One plot threat is about an escaped assassin called Nikita who has advanced training and is waging war on the rogue agency. Needless to say, she gets involved in a lot of dramatic gunfights, fist fights, car chases etc…

The other plot thread is about a nineteen year old character called Alex who has teamed up with Nikita. By staging a botched robbery, she has been able to gain admission to the agency’s harsh training program in order to spy on the agency for Nikita. Apart from the occasional boxing bout, she doesn’t really do that much fighting – instead, she has to sneak around the base occasionally to spy for Nikita, she has to communicate with Nikita secretly and she has to try to deflect any suspicions from her fellow trainees (and, occasionally, her evil instructors).

On paper the first plot thread sounds like it would be the most suspenseful and dramatic of the two. But, in reality, the second one is mostly likely to have you on the edge of your seat, biting your nails and almost afraid to watch more.

Why? Because, despite the contrived premise of the story, Alex’s storyline still seems marginally more “realistic”. It seems at least a tiny bit closer to the suspenseful situations that we’ve all been in throughout our lives.

Whether it was blagging your way into a horror movie at the cinema when you were underage, whether it was trying to think of an excuse for something or whether it was finding a way out of an awkward social situation, we’ve all had suspenseful moments in our lives. And they don’t involve things like car chases, gun fights etc…

Although melodramatic suspense can be extremely fun to watch or read, it’s often highly unrealistic. Not to mention that the characters involved in it often seem more superhuman than anything else. Ironically, there’s actually less suspense because we know that these characters will always know what to do in any situation and that they will (probably) survive and win.

Subtle, realistic suspense on the other hand may not look as good but it tends to have a lot more dramatic power for the simple reason that it’s easier for the audience to relate to.

Of course, many things in the suspense genre tend to include a blend of both melodramatic suspense and subtle suspense. The presence of one helps to make the other one seem more exciting, dangerous and/or nerve-wracking, and vice versa.

Still, if you’re making something in the suspense and/or thriller genre, then never underestimate how important or useful subtle suspense can be.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂