Sometimes it’s embarrassing how simple our tastes really are. You know, we can write essays about why we love what we love, what works and doesn’t, about the delicate structure of ideas that play against each other in this particular fascinating way, but often as not what we really liked is that it was blue, or that it was cloudy, or that it had cats in it, that there was a cello. We have likes and dislikes that have nothing to do with quality, that are so distant from the ideals high art or guilty pleasure as to render the entire idea of good or bad art nonsensical.
It’s deeply embarrassing. We don’t like to admit it. That’s why we talk about the symbolism of the colors so much: It allows us to avoid admitting that we just like the colors.
This is not to demean the deeper structural meanings we find. This is not to say these appealing superficialities are that that’s all there is to the creation of art or are the only things we really enjoy. Structure, symbolism, deeper meaning, all that stuff is important: I’m just saying these incredibly obvious things are also important, and in a way we prefer to politely avoid talking about.
I grew up in San Francisco. I mean, that was one of several cities I lived in growing up, but now I like cities and fog and the ocean and Chinese food. I don’t know if the effect emerges directly from the cause but I like these things. I like Dark Souls 2 better because it takes place next to a lovingly rendered ocean. I like Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines better because it takes place in a city. I like Silent Hill better because it’s foggy. And I just like Chinese food, period.
Inevitably, the artist starts including the things they like in their work for the same reasons that they’re drawn to works with that stuff in it. Sometimes this creates a kind of feedback loop: Game designers like a thing so they put it in their game, causing other game designers to like that thing so they put it in their games, and so on until it’s ubiquitous even in work by creators who don’t like it that much just because it’s part of what a game is, now. That may have been what happened with sexy women in fighting games, starting out as an attempt to create interesting and appealing characters and turning into a sort of rubber booby golem showdown.
That’s what happens when things get included just because they’re supposed to be there: They become empty, shoddy, pointless.
But when you put things in because you like them? Other people who like them will enjoy that, in an genuine way that has nothing to do with how clever or structurally sound your work is, and they will see a work within your work that serves only the natural appeal of its form. Several games have done well out of having dogs in them: Games that have nothing to do with dogs! People talk about the lore and weighty combat of Dark Souls, but a huge part of what makes it work is that it takes place in castles made by someone who likes castles. They aren’t rote castles, existing just to be a place to kill monsters in, but works of art in and of themselves. The Chinese Room kind of specializes in this work, taking unremarkable and mundane locations and through love and attention to detail bringing them to life, making them feel solid.
I guess this all boils down to the old chestnut about putting yourself into your art. I guess the difference is, I’m talking about the ways you put yourself into your art, through little matters of taste and aesthetic that aren’t right or wrong but are part of who you are. I guess what I’m saying, put stuff you like into your work just because you like it, and because you like it do everything you can to do it justice. Because then, all those other weirdos who just like oceans or punk music or mountains or victorian architecture or snakes or daisies? They’ll find something to love in your work, away from the complexities of high art and guilty pleasure, somewhere just for them.