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Monthly Archives: June 2016

I keep on circling around thoughts about how not to be manipulative, how to respect your audience, and I end up not writing them down because, well – obviously, right? It seems obvious to say you should respect your audience, but in practice it’s often quite difficult – not because we’re inherently driven to be contemptuous of those who enjoy our work (though this is a problem for some creators), but because respecting an audience as an equal means striving beyond yourself, creating something beyond what you now know.

Now: I should clarify that I don’t mean that all creations made from the perspective of superior knowledge are contemptuous, or even without artistic merit. Sometimes we need to teach others skills and perspectives that they don’t have, and they come to us specifically because we are more learned or experienced in a particular topic. This is the foundation of all education. And, in the course of passing on this knowledge, it’s only natural to try to embrace the craft and aesthetic of art. Nevertheless, didacticism itself has little place within arts and entertainment, and art that sets out to be both fun and educational more often than not fails to be either; however, art that sets out to build entertainment on the basis of knowledge is often extraordinarily successful, whether it be the programming games of Zachtronics or the lurid history-inspired fantasy of George RR Martin.

In respecting your audience, you regard them as equal to yourselves; and, to provide someone who is equal to yourself with an experience that seems novel, you must exceed yourself, exceed the creativity that is familiar, and open yourself up to experiencing your art as your own audience, your first test audience of one. The tricky part about respect is that it’s not a coat of paint you can apply to a complete work, not a lacquer or a finish, but something that shapes from the ground up. If you want to respect the people who consume your work, you will have to respect yourself, to believe that you have hidden depths to be plumbed, because otherwise everything will be self-evident, obvious, cliche.

The art of creation is that of drawing out. We cannot, with pure intent, create the whole work; what comes feels trivial and contrived. We can create the first string, hooked into place, and then pull on that string gently and persistently until the tapestry emerges. This metaphor is useful, but is also limited because that makes it sound like what we then create isn’t really our creation, is actually some kind of divine inspiration. Really, our intent permeates, each aspect of the creation a decision made. We are neither quite an architect nor quite a prophet: We draw out, but we build; we plan, yet we intuit; we surprise, we are surprised; we are the artist, we are the audience. We must be both. It is craven for the artist to hold their self apart, to try to create something enumerable. We should be trying to create something that can never quite be described except as itself.

If we do our jobs right, we make the rock that’s too heavy for even us to lift.

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Say something true.

Now say something else true.

Keep doing it. An hour or a day, or whatever pace you feel comfortable with; any pace will eventually take you to the same place. Don’t repeat yourself. Say something new, say something true, every day, every week, every month.

It gets harder, the opposite of practice. The easy truths dry up quickly, though occasionally you find one you missed, a rare delight. Soon, though, it becomes a full time job, simply thinking of what to say next, something true, something new. And you’re constantly afraid you’ll run out. And you’re constantly afraid that tomorrow you’ll just sit there all day long and wrack your brain and nothing will come out, that there’s nothing left, nothing to say. You’ve said it all.

The world keeps moving, though. There’s always new truth being made, old truth invalidated. What was true yesterday is not true today. Some things are true when told one way but a lie when told another. Do you contradict yourself? You can’t not. Words have their limits, and where they divide the world there are crumbs left over.

You can never say it all, but it feels like you already have. It’s impossible and humdrum at the same time. Maybe there are only a few truths within reach at any moment, and trying to catch them is like fishing. Maybe there really is such a thing as divine inspiration, bolts from heaven that strike us right in the brain to give us the right idea at the right time, and all we can do is wait in place and try to make ourselves look like lightning rods.

What can I say, past that it’s difficult except when it isn’t? All you can do is wait until you think of something. All you can do is keep talking until you stumble upon something, even if you have to sift through mountains of lie and cliche. But someone, maybe, is waiting to hear what you have to say. The world needs truth, and heretofore you’ve taken pride in finding it, prospecting it, providing stepping stones for other people. Who knows why? You just do.

But sometimes it’s hard – to say something true.

medicine

I’ve spent so long feeling I am training to create greatness that I cannot countenance the idea that anything I’ve created might be good already, or to describe it as such. Every creation is a learning experience, it’s true, but every learning experience is also a creation, and creditable as such in its own right.

But the sad fact of the matter is that creating good work isn’t enough. You have to convince people that it’s good: Convincing people that it’s good starts with convincing yourself that it’s good. It’s a hard first step to take.

Listen: It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with my work. I don’t think anything I create is bad – well, except when it obviously is, but that’s quite rare as I mostly just don’t put in the time to finish work like that in the first place. No, I just fail to believe that it’s good enough; good enough that I should be going around telling people to spend their precious time with it, much less spending their precious money on it; good enough to compete in a marketplace of ideas and creations that were each conceived and created by their own experienced artist.

I enjoy my own work. I enjoy creating it and, often, I enjoy consuming it: I like reading my old essays on here when I take the time to, I like listening to my music quite frequently on trips and while working on art, and I’m pretty sure that if I can ever finish a damn game I’ll enjoy playing it as well. But, you know, I consider myself a biased source. Maybe I made something good, but maybe it’s just narcissism. Do I want to try to market my work, knowing that risk? Do I feel confident enough that I’m selling something good, and not just my puffed up self-delusions?

Is this how all artists feel? Can they possibly be so confident in their own work to carry on despite that? Or does it just not occur to them? Do they just create and sell art, and feel confident in the audience’s ability to discern whether or not it’s worth their time?

Not only am I my own worst critic, I’m my own worst curator, distributor, and marketer.

There’s a lot of ways I can see this breaking. One, obviously, is that I give up. Doesn’t seem likely any time soon, but if I’m still in basically the same creative place in five or ten years, well… Yeah, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Another is that someone convinces me I’m good and that my work is worthwhile. I’m very difficult to convince in this regard; if someone tells me they like something I created, I immediately start concocting reasons why their viewpoint is biased in this particular or why obviously this one work is okay but doesn’t indicate anything about the quality of my work overall or, you know, whatever. Third, I could get really broke, and need to get a lot more aggressive about selling my work. This keeps happening by half-measures, and I keep getting broker and broker, but I seem to have a high smoking point for desperation and so far it hasn’t pushed me into being more aggressive about creating and selling art.

I’m grateful I’ve made it work so far. Three or four years now, I’ve lost track, basically self-employed, scraping by bit-by-bit; but I know I could be doing better. I know I need to be looking for places to take my work, rather than just leaving it here, hoping it comes to life. I never knew that the hardest part of art wasn’t figuring out how to make it, but figuring out where to put it. It’s been a difficult realization as, even as I spent years learning to create, I never learned how believe in my creations.

So: Now it’s time to learn.

ds3

I think it’s interesting that, even as I consider myself someone who enjoys thinking about art, I find myself growing increasingly distrustful and annoyed by art debates. Even civil debates are often incredibly tedious, since the nature of a debate is that it has sides and each side is advocating a position. Consider: What makes art interesting and meaningful is that every decision is a trade-off, a subtle one with deep implications as to what the work is and means. With that understanding, I find myself consistently annoyed by any discussion format that attempts to argue for or against those decisions absent the context that defines that trade-off.

I’ve been feeling this disinterest growing for a while, but what really brought it to my attention a while ago was a debate that sprung up over whether Dark Souls games should have a difficulty setting. Even though I love Dark Souls and am constantly intrigued by the delicate balances of challenge and accessibility that go into art, I found myself immediately tuning out simply due to the way the question was framed. There are two positions that get advocated from that question: Either touting the importance of accessibility, or the importance of allowing artists to follow their own visions. Both these positions are, in the abstract, completely correct and, in the particular, completely irrelevant.

Obviously accessibility is important if you want an audience, but just as obvious you can’t make anything enjoyable for everybody. In some cases it will be physically difficult for someone to play a game, in some cases intellectually overwhelming, and in many simply impossible to appreciate for anyone who hasn’t learned the conventions of that particular genre. None of that is an argument against inclusion or accessibility, just an acknowledgment that you can’t often make a game more accessible without changing the core of the experience – which, itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes (often!) you can greatly improve a work by changing some core assumption about how it works to make it more enjoyable for more people. But, still, these concessions and adaptations are hardly something we should expect artists to make without careful consideration about how it will impact the final piece. Conversely, we have people arguing that we should respect the artist’s vision – an argument which, while agreeable in principle, would if taken to its logical extreme rule out all criticism of any sort.

So yeah, we should respect the artist’s vision, we should make the game accessible; on their own these aren’t interesting statements or significant arguments. And yet people will spend hours ‘debating’ them, debating which takes primacy, accessibility or artistic intent, without acknowledging that these things depend on context, that these are decisions to be made carefully with constant attention as to their impact one way or the other; that these directives aren’t just moral, but also aesthetic, that the artist must be free to change their work or not, and that the result should be evaluated on its own merits rather than how it measures up to some ethereal ideal.

I’m allergic to all forms of prescriptivism, so spare me your impassioned debates about what games (or any other art form) should look like. I’m sorry, but in all honesty people arguing about how other people should create art, rather than discussing the benefits and trade-offs of different approaches, shows a childish understanding of what art is and can be. If these questions could be answered by debates we wouldn’t need artists in the first place. These aren’t questions that have just one answer, but are resplendent with a spectrum of answers, each shifting meaning, showing different faces, like gems in a flickering light.