Something I always liked about playing Final Fantasy games in particular and JRPGs in general is the way random deities tended to turn up as various monsters in the world. These creatures usually had approximately fuck-all to do with their basis in real-world mythology beyond usually some vague visual resemblance– and, just as often not even that.
Shiva, the Hindu god, somehow metamorphizes into a giant blue chick with ice magic, presumably as some play on the name. Cait Sith, a faerie cat from Celtic mythology, is interpreted as a toy cat remote controlled by a spy. Bahamut is an interesting case: The great fish that holds the earth of arabian myth, was first re-interpreted by Dungeons and Dragons as a god-dragon who reigns over the other good dragons, and this interpretation is obviously what the Final Fantasy series ends up riffing off of.
One can imagine it’s only due to some perceived notion of the sensibilities of their international audience that we didn’t end up with Jesus, the giant lightning-breathing bear made out of wood.
There’s something magnificently and wonderfully careless in just appropriating a name and sometimes an image of some mythical creature and making something new from it with no regard to what the original is or represents. Pure creativity certainly can provide a compelling alternative to rigorous research. If you’re creating a fantasy world, why worry about getting the myth or the symbolism right? Make your own myth, your own symbolism.
This is not to devalue research, but rather to suggest that there are two broad categories of research that go into creating a fiction: Research for material, and research for accuracy. The latter of those two can, depending on what you’re creating, sometimes be disregarded. It is important for all artists to consume as much material as possible, to try to observe as much of the tiny fragment of the variety and majesty of the world as a human can comprehend, and it is important to observe the general flow of myth, or of history, or of whatever it is you’re trying to create, but it is often not important to know exactly how things turned out in our reality if you are crafting a completely separate reality.
What do you owe to reality? Does this have to exist in our world, our history, or one very much like it? If not, then do whatever it takes to be imaginative. If that means appropriating any weird evocative imagery, ideas, or names you can find, then why the hell not?
“Good artists borrow– great artists steal.”
For some reason this mindset seems to be more common in Japanese games than Western ones, Dungeons and Dragons aside. I suppose it has a great deal to do with the Western enthusiasm for ‘more realism’.
Anyway. I aspire to an imagination which takes everything in and owes nothing, which observes and interprets and creates and never worries whether it got everything right in the first place. It, uh, works a lot better for writing than it does for engineering. I suppose that might make it a bit trickier to do in games, but no less a worthy ambition.
Of course, basically what I’m describing here is kid stuff. Kids don’t give a crap, they will take in whatever they see and riff on it in whatever crazy free-associative direction occurs to them first, with whatever’s at hand leading them from idea to idea. This is the purest form of creativity, that which acknowledges nothing beyond itself. As we learn to fit into the roles life provides for us we tend to lose the knack of it, and many of us resent that.
This is one reason why Axe Cop became so popular so quickly: The wild path the plot takes is formed by the whim of a 5-year old, rather than an adult brain steeped in a story-telling tradition that dictates a basic form which is inherently similar to other stories. It’s not that Axe Cop is devoid of influences, it’s just that they’re not formalized in the same way: it’s obviously influenced by all manner of cartoons and cop shows and random factoids, but doesn’t feel any obligation to stick to the format suggested by any one source. The end result is something which has its own internal logic, but doesn’t much adhere to anyone else’s.
Also, a 5-year old kid’s understanding of ethics is consistently hilarious: “Then he chopped off all the bad guys’ heads while they were sleeping.”
Unfortunately, there are drawbacks to going completely off on your own creative tangent. While Axe Cop is tremendously funny and endearing, it doesn’t have the sort of drama and resonance that we crave, it doesn’t have that depth of meaning, that true transformative power of art.
It is a balancing act, trying to create something that has structure and theme and meaning but still has that unrestrained creativity, that alchemical ability to transmute nonsense into story. It’s like trying to handcuff two squids together, there’s just a lot to keep track of. This is why I am so willing to be an unrepentant fanboy for the Japanese manga series One Piece.
On the one level, it sticks pretty closely to the formula set by other ‘shonen manga’ series such as Naruto and Dragon Ball: You’ve got a kid, he’s got ambitions, he goes on adventures, fights dudes, makes friends who adventure with him, and so forth. Where One Piece distinguishes itself is both in the breadth of its imagination and in its attention to detail.
As an example of the former: A villain team of a mole-woman and a man with a baseball bat and a bomb-sneezing dog– their battle strategy is that the mole-woman digs a network of tunnels, the dog sneezes out a bomb, and the batter knocks it towards the enemy with his bat.
As an example of the latter: A character shown in one panel in the 19th issue was revealed, in the 500th issue, to be tremendously important.
The reason why I’m explaining all this is to give you some idea of what I aspire to: An imagination which is unconstrained but which constantly loops back in on itself and expands in a self consistent way, an imagination which explores the weird and silly wildernesses of thought while still touching on those themes which are most important to us as people: Love, ambition, death, loneliness, creation…
I’m making a game. The main character is named Eve, and draws inspiration from the biblical character of the same name while being absolutely nothing like her. She is a little bit like a clay golem, and a little bit like the grim reaper, a little bit like a lot of different things. There is also a character named Lucifer, and he’s a little bit like Prometheus, and a little bit like Jesus, and a little bit like… me. But then, aren’t all characters a little bit like their creators?
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Just ask Eve.