Monday, September 20, 2010

Creative Inspiration

Where does inspiration come from? I refer to creative inspiration, the kind that wakes up the mind of the artist, author, game maker, and the like to produce amazing works that is enjoyed by so many. Do people use stepping stones to lift themselves up high enough to see over the haze of the normal human mind into a universe of endless possibility? Or does creative inspiration come from some alternate universe through mystical inter-dimensional travel mechanisms that serve to enlighten the mind of us paltry human beings?

I know that there are a lot of people out there that make the attempt to create the ‘perfect’ game, whether it’s a MMO or FPS or even board game (yes, board games still exist in the 21st century). In their attempts they all fall short due to the seemingly endless definitions of perfection that are both a blessing and a curse to those who make and those who play the games. No game has been made perfect, at least according to somebody. Still, despite the failure to achieve perfection, and our recognition of imperfection, we play away at games that are surprisingly humorous, clever, artistic, intelligent, immersive, well thought, and even ingenious. The creativity that goes into a game such as World of Warcraft is no less impressive to me than the creativity of Beethoven’s 5th symphony.

(Although, I admit that Mozart writing his first symphony at age 7 is more impressive than any game I’ve played, but not in content, simply for the fact that he was frickin’ 7 years old.)

I have never been a stout follower of WoW lore, but I have started reading more things here and there lately and have come to really appreciate the depth to which writers go to create motive and move stories forward and introduce heroes and villains that I can both love and hate; and doing all this while remaining consistent. It’s incredibly difficult to maintain consistency in a fantasy story, as the writer’s mind is naturally engaged in ‘making things up’, there can easily be mistakes and slips of the mind which produce contradictory realities that require reconciliation in order for the reader to be satisfied. Again, there may have been inconsistencies in WoW lore that I know not of, but for the most part it’s amazingly consistent.

I believe that creativity is made easier, or should I say that inspiration flows more freely where there is already intelligence and knowledge. I used to work for a large mortgage company (accounting dept) and brought to the company certain skills and knowledge that their current staff of accountants didn’t have in the same degrees. I knew a lot more about the mortgage industry in general, and technically I could program applications like Excel to interface with our accounting software to significantly speed up certain processes and improve accuracy to near perfection. I used my knowledge in creating things that could not have been created by others at the company, not because they weren’t smart enough, but because my specific knowledge and skill set made it possible for me to see things from a different perspective and therefore find different answers to the company’s problems.

The same is true for any creator (of anything), and so Blizzard doesn’t just hire idiots or slouches that live in their mom’s basement to design their games. They, I assume, hire people who have demonstrated competence and specific knowledge in the fields necessary to do their jobs. Without this specific knowledge, these developers could not do the jobs that were needed. Their perspective would be limited, and therefore so would their ability to solve problems and receive creative inspiration.

Don’t think, however, that I would ever suggest that knowledge is the source of creative inspiration, but it is a factor. The other side of creativity comes from a place that I cannot explain or rationalize. I believe that everyone is born with some particular talent(s). These talents can be improved upon, additional talents can be developed through hard work, but there is ultimately some aspect of a person’s talent set that cannot be explained. How did it flash into somebody’s head to create a computer game that thousands or millions could play at the same time, could interact with each other in various ways, all the while throwing around fire balls, lightening bolts, and shadowy darkness at “bad guys” and, sometimes (just for fun), at each other?

I realize that MMO’s like WoW are part of a process, where through time one game or story has evolved into another, and where they merged the ideas merged, and the next thing you know we have what is available to the market today in the many computer games that we enjoy so much. All of them born out of creative inspiration of somebody, taken by another and added upon or altered depending on the second person’s own innate creativity.

I stand in awe of the super creative people of this world. Those engineers who can build giant dams and bridges and buildings that touch the clouds. Our world and our games are born out of the vision of many, and enjoyed by so many. I speak a lot about the vision of great authors or artists, but in that I must include those that first created the computer games that we now enjoy, and those that continue in the wonderful traditions of creative inspiration that permeate the game making world.

There are so many out there who will decry game developers for not making the perfect game, or at least one that nearly attains perfection. True, some may not contain the creativity necessary to hold my attention, but all of them are born out of somebody’s creative mind, and that inspiration is something to be praised. It’s not as easy as people think to create something truly great, or else great would be common place and no longer great. There was only one Mozart, one Tolkien, one Rowling. There are many game developers, all of differing skill and knowledge and talent levels. Not all games will be great, it is a human impossibility, and no game will ever be perfect, that’s yet another.

Speaking for myself I will continue to play games that I view have achieved a particular level of greatness according to may tastes. To me, WoW isn’t perfect and never will be. But I am in awe of the creative inspiration that seems to occur on a regular basis that that game company. All business decisions aside, their creative minds cannot be insulted, and I am grateful to be able to live in this day in age where they and many other creative minds can give us entertainment worth talking about.


Tesh said...

"I believe that creativity is made easier, or should I say that inspiration flows more freely where there is already intelligence and knowledge."

Yes, a thousand times yes. I've argued before that the more you know, the more you *can* know, and it's firmly rooted in making connections between disparate bits of data. (Nicely reflected in the physiology of neurons making connections, incidentally.) Similarly, the more you know, the more connections you can make and stir up ideas in ways unheard of previously.

For me, that's "creativity"; when I experiment with bits of data in new ways. Some of it is subconscious, where some part of my mind chews on ideas that piqued my interest once upon a time, some of it is very focused experimentation in the conscious mind with full attention. Both can be creative, but the former seems more mysterious, as ideas seem to come from nowhere.

I do believe that there's always a seed for those ideas, though. I've found it to be good mental exercise to chase down those seeds.

It's a shame that creativity always has to be monetized in this insane material world. I've found in myself that bending my whimsy and creativity to the schedule of a business has all sorts of deleterious effects. Creativity just doesn't always work 9 to 5, or in time to match the quarterlies.

That's one reason why I like indie games. They are usually labors of love rather than corporate processed products. They may be rough around the edges, but the sheer creativity shines through in ways that big business never can.

Gronthe said...

@ Tesh: "Creativity just doesn't always work 9 to 5, or in time to match the quarterlies."

It's so funny to me that you say that, it's what I run into on a daily basis. I'm always stuck between the world of strict accounting rules and the creativity to develop systems my company hadn't even considered in their wildest dreams. But I hate that I have to do it before I go home for the day.

Knowledge is how we develop talents that were raw at birth. Creatity then comes when we have a foundation for it, otherwise it would be a passing thought that our brains wouldn't know what to do with. I can't design a beautiful skyscraper until I gain the engineering knowledge as its foundation. It seems like such a simple principle, but it becomes more profound when we put it to use.

I am very, very new to the current gaming world. I would love to try other games and get a flavor for the amazing creativity that I know must flow in them. Maybe you could give me some suggestions, or I'll check out your site and try and find names of stuff you play.

Tesh said...

Oi. I've played way too many games, physical (board/card) to digital (PC/console/arcade). I've played big megagames and little indie ones. I think the best recommendation would be to look around, see what has buzz, and investigate. Then check out some games that almost nobody is talking about. See as much of the spectrum as you can. From Settlers of Catan to Mancala, Guillotine (card game) to Magic: the Gathering, Chess to Candyland, Pong to Tron, D&D to WoW, Battle for Wesnoth to Final Fantasy Tactics, Castlevania to Metroid to Super Mario Galaxy. There are lessons to be learned (for good or ill) from nearly any game, especially when compared and contrasted with others with similar style or goals.

One thing I've done lately is really dig into game design books, then try to see how classics like Chess or Go actually resolve things like balance, tactics and strategy, memory, simplicity and complexity, depth and decision making (the heart of gaming is making decisions, as far as I can tell). That way I can see how all the parts work, and I can start to see implications of design choices. When I design my own games, I chase through all the ramifications of design decisions I can think of, and do a LOT of "what if" thinking. (Which, interestingly enough, is how I approach playing Chess... I think about what I might do, then what the responses might be, and so on a few moves ahead. It's a useful habit.)

It's the scientific approach to an art, really. (I have background in science and art, so it's easy to apply lessons from both.) Dig into why something works, and then you might start to be able to extrapolate into creative spaces. You have to know where the box is before you can start thinking outside of it, to turn a pithy quote on its ear.

The same could be said of animation (what my degree is in), fine art, literature... any creative discipline, really. It's even relevant in the sciences and other "hard" pursuits, since seeing those connections between data bits is how you start to build comprehension, and from comprehension comes creativity. The greater the gestalt, the greater the potential creativity that adds to it.

You're spot on when noting that ideas mean little without the proper foundation, as in the architecture example.

Excellent article with some fun potential for discussion, by the way. ;)