Novelty and Repetition (and Repetition)

I keep on starting new entries only to remember something I’d written before on a very similar subject.

I keep being stopped short when I find I’ve written something that sounds very familiar.

As the Problem Machine updates progress, more and more I find myself repeating myself, and I find as the library of Things I Have Said expands it seems to shelve a lot of duplicates.

Well. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. If something is worth saying once, it’s probably worth saying lots of times, isn’t it? Maybe I’m just too persuasive, such that my persuasion has lodged into my own mind and I can’t help parroting my own words.

That must be it.

While intentionally avoiding convention is often the first step to creating something really special, there is no inherent value to novelty. If I must repeat myself sometimes, then I must repeat myself sometimes. Repetitiveness is my job! My job! Repetitiveness is my job!

Thus resolved: I will stop giving a shit if I am repeating myself or, for that matter, anyone else. Art is regurgitation, the questions is merely how much we digest and how broadly we sample before we spit it back up for our audience.

You’re welcome for that mental image, by the way.

Here’s a picture of some delicious looking beef stew to take your mind off that metaphor

The things we create are product of not only the person who created them, but the time and place they were created. A man writing a story about loss of a loved one will write it very differently at 18 than he will at 40… or even very differently at 18 than at 19, provided an eventful enough year. And though, admittedly, we’re not talking about vast lifetime span differences covering this writing space, I think there’s still some value in revisiting a subject.

Certainly there is comfort in the well known.

I just find it difficult to not feel like I’m wasting time. Do let me know if I regress from exploring fertile territory more deeply into merely abusing horse carcasses, would you?

If all of this sounds like a lot of shallow self-justification, well, yeah. Walt Whitman said “do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself” and you people lapped that shit up.

Pissed me off when I was in my teens. But I’m basically over it now. Fuckin’ Walt Whitman. Anyway.

This issue, struggling against novelty and trying to figure out the appropriate balance between tried and true vs wild and new is something all creators have to butt up against sooner or later. Well, those who value novelty in the first place. Once we get our first few awesome ideas out there that inspired us to create in the first place, the question is raised:

What now?

“The day I run out of ideas is the day before the towering inferno”
“But what if I told you there was a better way?”
“I would ask if you were flammable”
“I’ll just let myself out then.”

Well, many people end up basically making those same few things over and over again, it’s true. Some people simply leave it at that and go on to do something else with their lives, explore some new ideas, and maybe one day they come back and bring those new ideas back with them. Some decide to dig deeper, put in the hours necessary to unearth ideas new, undiscovered, strange, and potent.

It’s not extraordinarily difficult here to find parallels to the game industry– which is fortunate because that’s my job and I don’t feel like working hard right now. We see big-name companies retreading the same ground over and over again, slight variations on a theme; we sometimes see developers like Jordan Mechner branch out and explore other media; and we see primarily indie developers digging deep into unexplored territory in search of novelty.

All of these are valuable services. Refining old ideas, bringing in outside ideas, and digging for new ideas are all part of keeping the overall design space healthy. Unfortunately, it’s also very easy for these to take over the design of a game. Design retreads, cinematic semi-games, avant-garde experimental games, all of these tend to be much more valuable as examples than they are as games themselves. The problem with all three of these, as driving elements of a game design at least, is that they will never be robust enough to build a memorable experience on top of. Puzzles, excitement, simple tensions with simple solutions, these are all easily forgotten the next day. Perhaps it can be good for making money, having an audience which always seeks more from you because everything you offer is quickly digested and without substance, but if you’re interested in creating anything aside from the disposable it’s valuable to look past novelty and tradition as the foundations of a game.

What’s important to making something truly compelling isn’t how new or how old the ideas involved are, but how big and how meaningful they are, and how well the game expresses those ideas. Well-honed ideas and newly discovered ideas can both be extremely powerful tools in expressing these big and meaningful concepts, but they can’t drive the design of a game in the same way.

It’s peculiar to conceive of a zombie abomination which is not soulless, but merely animated by an insufficiency of soul. However, that’s exactly what most of the so-called ‘triple-A’ game-space is: There are ideas there, good and worthy and interesting ideas, but ideas nowhere near robust enough to act as the nucleus for these hundred-million dollar budgets to be built upon.

Pictured: 80% of modern games.
(Take that how you will)

So it falls to me to repeat myself once more: What’s important is that you know where you’re going with your game. What’s important is that you can sieve out the design concepts which are useful for expressing the particular idea that is the ‘soul’, or foundation, of your game, which of course means that you must first be able to zero in on what that foundation is. What’s important is to play games, and to understand them, because understanding the design tropes used by others and how they have expressed (or failed to express) the idea driving those games helps give you tools to tackle your own design problems.

Basically: Don’t be afraid to retread the old. Don’t be afraid to embrace the new, either. Just be sure you’re doing it for a reason, and are not merely enamored with tradition or novelty. Traditions are useful because they’re known, and novelties are interesting because they’re unknown, but except in situations where you’re specifically trying to express the known or the unknown (which do exist: see Spec Ops: The Line) there’s no intrinsic usefulness to either of these properties.

I guess, again, repeating incessantly: Evaluate each idea you use, individually and on its own merits, and how well it serves your purpose.

Always.

Important ideas are worth repeating.

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