Paid to Create: The Intersection of Money and Creativity

Here in the United States, we consider ourselves a capitalist society.  And what that means in the long run is that money makes the world go round.  In some ways, this can be a good thing.  It breeds competition, and the beauty of the human spirit is that competition can bring out the best in us.  To put it another way, we often do our best work under pressure.  I know that’s true.  I once wrote a seven-page paper in high school the night before it was due, and I received an A on it.  Not only that, but the teacher wanted to use it as an example for future classes.

Let’s just say I casually left out the part about writing it the night before…

But not everything is gumdrops and rainbows.  When it comes to any system, there are pros and cons.  While competition can inspire creativity, it can also breed a certain sort of staleness in the market.  Look at video games and movies, and you’ll often find trends.  A while back, it seemed like Hollywood was obsessed with making alien invasion movies.  Then it was dark re-imaginings of classic fairy tales.  And now it’s superheroes.  We can’t seem to go more than a couple of months without a new superhero movie hitting the market.  It’s not that superhero movies are a bad thing.  I happen to enjoy a few of them (although I am getting tired of them these days, especially after the disappointing Avengers: Age of Ultron).  But with success comes imitation, and that’s where my problem with the whole thing lies.

With the way our economy is doing right now, and people’s reluctance to spend a lot of money, we tend to see the same types of movies making all the money.  People like to see what they know they will enjoy.  It’s hard for them to justify going to watch a movie that’s outside their normal comfort zone or that they haven’t heard great praise about.  This is part of the reason why I think Hollywood has fallen into a trend of remaking old movies or adapting stories from books or other sources.  If the old movie or book has a big enough audience, then they can bank on people at least going to see it out of curiosity.

The problem is that this mode of thinking stifles creativity, in that we hardly ever see original plots in movies (by which I mean that we see a plot written exclusively to be a movie, not adapted form another source).  Sure, you could consider Star Wars: The Force Awakens to be an original movie.  But there are two problems with that assertion.  One, The Force Awakens is already part of a large, established franchise that has been around for decades.  And two (possible minor spoilers follow), the movie is steeped in nostalgia.  It hits a lot of the same story beats as A New Hope, meaning that while it features a new story and new characters, a lot of the plot points feel readily familiar.

You can observe the same phenomena in the video game world, although in a different form.  Video games don’t tend to adapt stories from other sources.  Instead, they can suffer from an overflow of sequels.  A good example of this is the Call of Duty franchise, which has been around for a long time and has spawned over two dozen different games.  The general complaint around the series is that most of the games feel the same.  But at the same time, there must be an incentive for them to be so similar.  At the end of the day, they want to turn a profit.  So many franchises get caught in this delicate balance between changing enough of the game to justify a sequel in the mind of gamers, but also leaving enough of its core intact so that people feel at home with it.  This is something franchises like Grand Theft Auto have gotten so good at.  They change with the times, getting more and more advanced in look and feel, but they are loaded with nostalgia, giving the hardcore fans little hints and nods at the older games in the series.

You see this in movie sequels as well.  They have to up the ante with each successive movie, making things bigger (like the explosions…always bigger explosions), but also keeping the core feel of their fictional universe intact.  This line of thinking can end up creating a feedback loop where the same few stories get told over and over again.

But sometimes this drive of competition and money can lead to good ideas in the long run.  Let’s again look to the video game world, specifically at Bethesda Game Studios.  Bethesda, most known for their Elder Scrolls series of video games, isn’t just a game development company.  They are a publisher as well, and one of the better ones to work for from what I’ve heard.  The developers of the game Dishonored were basically told by Bethesda to take all the time they needed to make the game as good as they desired.  Bethesda wasn’t on a time crunch.  They didn’t need money immediately.  The Elder Scrolls games sell like crazy every time they come out.  They’re one of the most trusted game developers in the market, so they can allow themselves to take chances on nontraditional ideas or unproven intellectual properties.

The same thing is true of books.  Unlike movies and games, books aren’t constantly driven by this idea of success and money, although it still plays a role.  Take Stephen King for example.  He may be known for his horror stories, but King has also written a fantasy series known as the Dark Tower series, which is a blend of different genres including western, dark fantasy, science fantasy, and horror (of course).  When you have a stable reputation and income, you can feel free to experiment and try new things.  But this experimental mindset is still tempered by the idea of competition, in that you want to make your creation as good as possible so that people will enjoy it.

In the long run, money might be more of a detriment to creativity than anything, but like all things in the world it isn’t a simple black and white situation.  People won’t be inclined to try making something new when they can make something they know works.  But at the same time, trying new things can lead to unexpected success.

After all, trends have to start somewhere.

 

Well that’s all I have for this time.  Tune in next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

This blog just hit one hundred posts!  It’s an incredible milestone for me, one that I wish I had prepared for a little better.  I honestly didn’t realize I had hit it until I started writing this post.  It amazes me that I’ve come this far.  And I haven’t missed a single week since I began this blog.  Every week, on Wednesday, I have made a post.  They might not have all been good (I am particularly disappointed with my story analysis posts…I never did manage to shape those into something I was satisfied with), but consistency is one of the greatest habits you can get into.  You will only get better at something as long as you keep doing it.

So thank you all for following me this far and for reading my weekly ramblings.

Once again, have a wonderful week!  See you next Wednesday.

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Misunderstanding: Popular Perception of Video Games

“Long ago, two races ruled over Earth: HUMANS and MONSTERS.  One day, war broke out between the two races.  After a long battle, the humans were victorious.  They sealed the monsters underground with a magic spell.  Many years later…”

The setup to indie darling Undertale is nothing new to people familiar with the genre of Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs).  However, Undertale sets itself apart in that you are not forced to kill a single enemy in the game unless you want to.  Which is interesting, considering that video games are often dramatically decried as murder simulators.  It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it did in the late ’90s and early 2000’s, but every once in a while someone will hop up on a soapbox and shout to the sky about how video games are corrupting the youth.

See here’s the thing.  How can a game like Undertale even exist, if all video games are supposedly for is simulating violence and mayhem?  Why do these critics of the gaming medium not seem to acknowledge games like this?

I think the simple answer is that they just don’t know these games exist.

Part of the problem with the general discourse around video games is that it becomes locked in this exclusive club of gamers and video game journalists.  If you belong to either of these clubs, a game like Undertale pops up on your radar regardless of what you do.  At some point, you will hear about it because everyone starts talking about it.  And yet, people outside these circles will most likely just cock their heads sideways and utter a confused “huh” if the game ever crops up in conversation.

This is because while Undertale is loved by critics, it doesn’t have the reach that other games do.  When people outside the typical market hear about games, which ones get their attention?  The ones that sell the most.  The ones that are “popular”.  So namely games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, the ones that earn megabucks profits whenever they hit the scene.  And anyone familiar with either of those games knows that they are violent by nature.  So is it any wonder that the vast majority of non-gamers just don’t get it?

I’ve talked about Gone Home at length in a previous post, and I bring it up again here because it’s another example of a game that received great attention, but only within the restrictive group of gamers and game journalists.  In my opinion, it’s a wonderful game that prides curiosity and exploration over all else.  But then again, I’m a big fan of Myst and that sort of adventure gaming mindset.

But I digress.  Gone Home was a game that charmed many and irritated others.  It was even awarded “game of the year” by at least a couple of online outlets.  But again, outside of the immediate group of gamers and game critics, few know it exists.  Honestly, if I hadn’t written about it in my blog previously, I bet if I went up to my parents and asked them about the game, they would say they had never heard of it.  But why would they?  They don’t read gaming news.  They don’t peruse review sites for video games.

When it comes down to it, I believe games are a form of expression.  Just like movies.  Just like books.  Just like painting or any other such endeavor.  They have the capacity to evoke emotions, make you consider different ways of looking at the world, and they can even help improve your cognitive skills (science said so).  And in that sense, they should be allowed to explore all that they can do.  Unless someone can prove beyond even a shadow of a doubt that games are detrimental to society, we shouldn’t give in to fear just because we don’t understand them.  I’ve been steeped in gaming culture for a long time.  I’ve played games since I was very young.  I know how they work.  I’ve seen the different ways they can express worlds and stories.  But that’s just it.  I have history with the medium.  A lot of people out there don’t.  Their experiences with gaming often barely extend beyond Mario moves left to right on his quest to save the princess from Bowser.  Modern video games are a mystery to them.  Grand Theft Auto and other similar games just strike them as bizarre.

In much the same way that we don’t blame movies every time someone commits a horrible act inspired by the film, we shouldn’t blame games for every time a kid shoots up a school.  Because unless it affects all people the same way, causing them to go mad, then it stands to reason that there was something unique in the perpetrator’s case, something that caused him/her to go berserk.  And one way we could alleviate this is to spread gaming culture beyond this exclusive little club we have going on.  Show people that games don’t just have to be about big, tough guys with guns making things go boom.  Sometimes, a game can just be about a place, a time, a feeling.  They can be Gone Home, a game whose central premise is that you’re exploring a house, trying to piece together where everyone is.  They can be Undertale, a cutesy game about humans and monsters with bold moral choices.  They can also be the equivalent of a big, dumb action blockbuster.  The breadth of experiences they can provide should not be brought down by a simple misunderstanding and unfamiliarity with the medium.

Games like Undertale and Gone Home show that games aren’t just simple toys for entertainment.  They are stories.  They are worlds.  They are the culmination of hundreds of hours of hard work by people with a drive and passion (most of the time anyway).  They are a system of mechanics that come together to form something truly marvelous.  Even in Grand Theft Auto, a game more widely known for its emphasis on rampant violence and chaos, provides a stunning world that at times seems almost believable.  An absurd amount of time goes into crafting radio stations that you can listen to while you play, with talk radio shows that can have hours of content.  And it’s all in the service of the experience.

Because to me, that’s what games are in the end: an experience.  And experiences are meant to be shared and enjoyed…

 

Well that’s all I have this time.  Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post.  Have a wonderful week and a happy new year!

Nebulous and Murky: The Definition of Art

When you ask Google to define art you get two definitions:

  1. The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
  2. The various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.

But what is the problem with these definitions?  At first glance they seem pretty obvious.  Art is anything that requires creativity.  But here’s the issue.  How do we determine whether something is creative or not?  How do we determine if something has raw, emotional power?  For some people, action movies could be seen as art because they might identify with and feel for the characters.  Yet, in general society, action movies are not considered artistic.  So where’s the true line here?  Where does something cross over into “being art”?

The simple answer is that no one really knows.

Everybody seems to have their own specific definition of what art is to them.  I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.  The same thing goes for art.  Someone might look at an old Picasso painting and deem it a work of high art, whereas someone else might look at it and see nothing more than a raving lunatic’s imagination.  It’s all subjective, changing from person to person.

There is no one concrete definition for art.  A lot of people out there talk about art like there is one, but there isn’t.  We all define art for ourselves based on the things that impact us the most.  We start running into problems when people try to use their personal definition of art as a general standard.

If you’ve read my blog enough, you know that I usually don’t care about the debate of what is art and what isn’t, especially in the video game world.  It’s a pointless and pretentious endeavor that does little more than muddy up the waters.  I mean I can understand why people care about the debate so much.  If people accept a general ruling that something is classified as art, then said thing is given a much bigger lease to do what it wants.  That’s why there’s a number of people out there debating whether or not video games can be art, because if video games are classified as art then games like Grand Theft Auto wouldn’t be such a large target for the anti-video game crowd.

But while I understand it, I don’t endorse it.  We shouldn’t be striving for one, universal definition of art.  Because what would that accomplish?  Imagine if we actually agreed upon a definition.  We agreed that art was “this” or “that”.  Then, imagine you went to an art show.  Wandering among the different shades of colors, the different styles and perspectives, you find yourself drawn to one specific painting.  The hues of color wash over you, shifting you into a magical state of being.  You feel uplifted, enlightened by this painting.  You absolutely adore it.  It’s beautiful, soulful, and downright pleasing to the eyes.  But then you find out that it’s not art, because it doesn’t meet the definition perfectly.  How would that make you feel?  How would you react to the news that something that spoke to you so clearly wasn’t able to be art because of one little flaw or one missed criteria?

Art is not mathematical (although math can be artistic in nature).  There is no one formula for deciding what is and isn’t art.  And you know what?  There shouldn’t be.  Art has changed so much over the course of human history that even if we wanted to, we most likely couldn’t find a concrete definition for it.  We can say that it’s anything that has emotional power, but that is still subjective in nature.

For a good example on the subjectivity of art, let’s take a look at an indie video game called Thirty Flights of Loving.  This is a game that a lot of people would consider artistic.  They would say that it provides a great meta-examination of video game storytelling because it tells a minimalist tale with the bare basics of a plot and characters.  They discuss it endlessly, finding hidden meanings in every scene.

But me?  I found it boring, pretentious, and over far too quickly.

I really wanted to like this game, but I couldn’t.  For starters, the game is only ten minutes long.  There wasn’t enough time for me to connect with anything in the game.  All I really got out of it is that your character was some kind of secret agent or something on a mission that goes wrong somehow.  There are flashbacks to some kind of romantic involvement with a girl that take place throughout, but the whole thing feels so disjointed and bland that I couldn’t get into it.  There was no real characters in the game (no real voices either, it’s that fake kind of talking like in The Sims), no real depth to the plot, and before I could even put anything together, the game just ends.  There isn’t even any real gameplay to be had.  You essentially just walk around and stuff happens (which is fine if it’s done right).  In the end, I found myself profoundly disappointed.

The entire point of the game I guess was to strip out all the fluff you normally see in a story.  And on that point they succeeded very well.  The problem is that the fluff is what keeps us interested.  The characters, the setting, the exposition……all of it is there to keep us grounded in the narrative.  If you strip that out, all you find yourself left with is a sequence of vague events with no real context.

At least, that’s how I felt about the game.  You might think differently, and that’s the beauty of art.

Art is subjective.  Art cannot be defined.  Art resists being defined.  Art speaks to people in unique ways, providing someone with their own personal experience.  No one’s experience will be identical to the other.  They may have similarities, but no one will have the exact same one.  Art gets us to discuss things, to tackle issues we might not otherwise consider.  Art brings things to the forefront that we might wish to ignore.  Art tells us things about ourselves as a species.  It shifts our perspectives, even if  just for a moment.  And art can change us in the long run, for better or for worse.

We make art, and art makes us.

 

Another week, another post.  Thank you all for taking the time to read my ramblings.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a great week everyone.

 

The Curse of Writer’s Block

Nearly slipping on the fancy red rug, he stumbles around the corner of the hallway.  The chandeliers rock back and forth eerily, shoved from rest by unknown forces.  A low cackling echoes from everywhere at once, yet seems to be behind him as he runs.  Whispering fills his ears.  The lights click off one by one, trying to catch up to him.  Panting, sweating, his stomach twisted into knots, he stumbles around another corner and finds himself face to face with a heavy oak door.  The cackling and whispering cease abruptly as his eyes lock onto the faded brown door.  The door is incredibly old, and seems unremarkable.  But he feels something, something strange, yet oddly familiar.  In a flash he knows that the answers he has been seeking lie beyond the door.  The explanation to the creatures stalking him in the night, the ceaseless nightmares, the inexplicable feeling he had whenever he looked at this old mansion, all of these would be explained the moment he stepped across the threshold.

He lays a sweaty and shaking hand on the brass knob.  It feels cold, far too cold.  As he turns the knob, it seems almost reluctant, like it’s trying to protect him.  But whatever was behind that door, he had to know.  Slowly, slowly, slowly he turns the knob, and the door pops open.  A draft of cool air billows forth, ruffling his clothing.  Steeling himself, he pulls open the door and steps inside.

It feels much cooler in here than anywhere else in the mansion.  The moon shines in through a large window in the back, casting a dim light on the far end, the only source of illumination in the entire room.  He’s about to take a step further when suddenly a silhouetted figure darts past the window, casting a misshapen shadow.  He gasps, and turns around only to watch the door he entered from slam shut.  He turns back toward the window, and sees the blinds descend, casting the room into total darkness.

Instinctively he knows something is staring at him, mere inches from his face.  He can feel its breath.  Shakily, he pulls a tiny pocket flashlight out of his pants.  He points it directly in front of him, and clicks it on.

And there, standing in front of him is the specter of someone who should not there.  The phantom of the past.  The emblem of all his troubles.  Slowly his mind starts to unravel.  How, how could this be?

Standing in front him was none other than…than…

And then you realize, your fingers stopping mid-sentence, and you stare at the words before you.  You have no idea where this is going.  It all leads up to this one pivotal, essential moment, but you don’t know how it should end.  You stare down at your immovable hands.  And then it hits you.  Writer’s block.  It happens to many writers somewhere down the line.  You just didn’t expect it to happen to you.

 

How many of you have encountered a situation like this before?  A situation where you simply cannot write, or even think of anything.  Where your creative energy just leaves you, flies away like a bird escaping captivity.  If you answered “no”, you’re probably lying to yourself.

Writer’s block can happen, and will happen at some point in your writing.  It’s pretty much inevitable.  It’s best not to try to avoid it, because in most cases you will simply hasten its coming.  You can only fight it once it arrives.

AND HERE IS MY THREE-STEP PROGRAM FOR DEALING WITH WRITER’S BLOCK.  FEEL TRAPPED NO MORE!  EXPERIENCE PURE CREATIVE ENERGY!  STEP RIGHT UP AND FEEL THE WORDS FLOW!

Just kidding.  In reality there really is no hard and fast solution (like many of the things in our craft) to writer’s block.  It just happens, and you have to find your own path through it.  So then, why am I telling you all this?  Why am I even talking about the problem of writer’s block?  The answer is simple: you’re not alone.

One of the things that tends to happen to people who experience this is that they withdraw into themselves, and feel like they’re all alone in the world.  The truth is, you’re not.  So many young writers and even older, acclaimed writers will experience this from time to time.  Writing is not a science.  You can’t just draw up a formula for producing lengthy, quality writing and use it every single time you want to write a story.  You stumble forth, blindly following your inspiration wherever it takes you.  Then, once you finish a piece of work, you begin the process of hammering it out into something you can be proud of.

Sometimes just looking at an image or a place can help spark your imagination and creativity.  It's often those times when we don't think about it that we get past our block.

Sometimes just looking at an image or a place can help spark your imagination and creativity. It’s often those times when we don’t think about it that we get past our block. Enjoy this scenic image of Duluth.

As for actually dealing with writer’s block itself, like I said there is no clear perfect way to do it.  It all depends on who you are as a person.  Some might just need to take a break from writing.  Some people might like to read a book to get their creativity flowing again.  Others might play a video game.  Another possibility is taking a walk.  Studies have shown that walking does help provide that creative jolt.

Regardless of what your method is, you do what you have to do.  Because we are all imperfect beings with flaws and issues, who have our own unique quirks and personalities.  We have our own ways of coping with the world and its problems.  We have our own hopes and dreams, our own paths through life.  We are not just machines that can effortlessly crank out writing whenever we feel like it.  We are unpredictable.  We are often cranky when things don’t go the way we want it to.  We are mellow.  We are loud.  We are who we are, and there’s no better way to put it.

 

That’s all I’ve got for you this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post.  Until then, have a wonderful week.

The Creative Struggle

From the beginning of this blog, its purpose was to give me a place to focus my creative energies.  From the outside it might just look like a place where I go on long-winded discussions about a bunch of different topics, but that is secondary to the blog’s true purpose.  The primary purpose of this blog is to allow me to practice my writing skills and to keep me writing.  Any creative-minded person knows that sometimes it is incredibly difficult to gather up the will to just write, draw, create, or whatever.  It’s not a hard and fast field, where there can be only one true answer.  Instead, it’s a nebulous arena of disjointed thoughts and feelings, interposed onto whatever canvas we choose.

The struggling or tortured artist is almost a bad cliché at this point, but there is a certain point to it.  In some ways, being a writer or a musician or so on can be far more difficult than being an engineer or a mathematician.  Instead of living in a world of concrete problems to solve, people like us live in a world where we constantly struggle to find our place, to find an outlet to throw our voice out into the world.  For the most part it tends to be thankless work, because generally we rack our minds infusing our work with pieces of ourselves, draining our energies without really knowing if it will matter in the end.

So why do we do it?  Why do artists bother creating if there’s no certainty for their work to be showcased or even recognized as an object of expression?  Wouldn’t it just be easier to work a paying nine to five job for the rest of your life to live in financial security?  In a lot of ways, that would be the smarter thing to do.  But that’s not what it’s about.  In a lot of ways, it is more of  a “need” rather than a “want”.

People like me tend to feel a certain need to create something, to find an avenue of expression beyond the typical.  Some people in the world are wired so that they can be happy with their lives if they work in a job that gives them financial security and allows them to live comfortable for the rest of their lives.  They’re content with routine, worrying more about their paycheck than anything else.  We are not that kind of people.

We are driven to be different, driven to create.  We are often dysfunctional, and slightly psychotic.  We are strange, off-putting, and at odds with the general milieu around us.  We live on the inside, cultivating vibrant imaginary landscapes and worlds deep within our minds.  We do not have an on/off switch.  Inspiration comes in fits and starts, and sometimes we have to try to jump-start the process.

But it’s not always about the work.  Sometimes we recognize that we need to take a break and recharge.  Sometimes all we really want to do is sit back and enjoy the day, without worrying about the problems of the world (which is sometimes incredibly difficult given how connected the world is today with the internet among other things).  Sometimes we don’t really want to talk to people who much, but would rather be alone with our thoughts.  And sometimes, we want the company of another human being to remind us that we are not alone in our struggles.

Please understand that this post is not some cry for pity.  I don’t need anyone’s sympathy, because I am fine with who I am.  It took a long time, and a lot of work, but I become someone I can be proud of.  I was never very comfortable with myself in high school (along with probably everyone else), but it still continued into college to some degree.  I had very little direction and didn’t really understand where I was going for quite some time.  In fact, it wasn’t really until my second year of college when the idea dawned on me to try to pursue a career in writing.

The reality is that it might take me a long time to even get my foot in the door.  But you know what?  I really don’t care.  I would rather be pursuing my dream and be poor than be rich and unsatisfied with my life.  Because after all, isn’t one of the ideals of this country to be able to pursue your dreams?  Are we not allowed to express ourselves in whatever manner we see fit?  I’m pretty sure one of the amendments talks a lot about that (cough cough the first one cough).

So despite the challenge of my chosen profession, I have determined to keep moving forward.  After all, you only fail when you stop trying.

And that’s all I have for this week.  Thanks for reading my ramblings, and I hope you enjoy the rest of your week.  As always, a new post will be posted next Wednesday at noon.  See you then.