Tag Archives: Creativity

When we search for meaning in an uncaring universe, what is it we search for? Meaning isn’t an object that can be found, isn’t an inherent trait of anything, isn’t even a truth that can be discovered – meaning is a trait of categorization. Things begin to mean something when you arrange them in your thoughts, place them in relation to each other, and begin to understand some sort of structure that holds them together.

Meaning is story. Story is meaning.

Thus, when we set out to find meaning, this is an act of construction and creativity as much as it is an act of discovery. It is building a narrative that we can place the facts of existence into – but building that context is still an adventure, an exploration, a search. This is why authoritarians have little regard for the arts – to be creative is to discover and to devise meaning, and to make meaning is to refuse to accept the meaning that has been prescribed for you.

People say the universe has no meaning – as though it ought to. The medium is not, in this case, the message. The paper is not the story. The canvas is not the painting – even the paint is not the painting until it is perceived by the eye and understood by the mind. Meaning is the lemonade we make out of lemons. That is not to say that we need to shape the world in our image – though people are often very enthusiastic to interpret it that way – but just that, when we view wonders, what makes them wondrous is our wonderment. Diamonds are just rocks.

I suspect I have approached the search for meaning from the opposite side that most approach from. Most people, I think, spend much of their life looking only towards an immediate goal, experiencing each moment in relative isolation, and need to seek within later to find some way to bind those moments into a narrative they can be comfortable with. Myself, I always just assumed that the path to meaning and the life I wanted to live lay in art, in its creation and appreciation and understanding, and looked within – but, as I’ve gotten older, and started to gather bits and pieces of a wider understanding, I start to see how tethered our art is to the context in which it was made. There’s beauty in these ties, but they also makes the fields of our view terrifyingly small. So, while others have had experience with no context, and have needed to search inwards, I have had context with no experience, and had to seek outwards – it’s not as simple as all that, of course, but since we tend to most keenly feel our own shortcomings it does often seem to be just that stark, that black and white.

The search for meaning is not one that has a conclusion. What would lie at the ends of such a search? Understanding? The degree to which we know ourselves to have understanding is the degree to which we understand the world to be knowable, and this belief, like belief in Santa Claus, tends to erode over time. Understanding is not attainable except asymptotically, and the closer we get to it the farther away we perceive ourselves to be. Contentment? Contentment is something you can feel in a moment, but content is not something you can be for a lifetime. You’ll still have bad days. You’ll still have regrets. Change will still wash over you, tragedies will still happen, and the weight of tragedies yet to come will demand your attention. How could understanding and contentment possibly cohabitate?

In the end all you have is a story. The story of your life. And you can tell it to someone else, and they can listen, and it will become part of the story of their life. As long as we’re all talking, as long as we’re all listening, our words converge. Together they are our story, and there are no main characters.

Our story is not over.

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I’ve been drawing for a while now, and the mindset of art has changed the way I understand human beauty. I find it strange now that people can admire the beauty of a body as a whole without really noticing the shape and movement of the limbs, the folds of nose and eyelid, the manner of the fingertips, the position they take, the way they hold steady or fidget or tremble. It’s strange that people can love the beauty that’s skin deep without really seeing the muscles and fat underneath that skin, how they slide over under one another and give that skin shape, the bones they attach to creating levers and joints to move that skin, give it ways to touch the world and interact with the world with purpose, with meaning. And below the fat and muscle and tendon and bone is the brain and other assorted organs, keeping it all moving, giving it all intent and life. How odd to only feel the exterior of that system is the beautiful part. The exterior is the part we see, the exterior is the part I draw, but every part of how that exterior is shaped and positioned is a symptom of and consequence of these underlying structures – what makes it beautiful is this relationship, this system of causes and effects, this machine that we call human.

It’s not actually drawing that made me feel this way, though. I’ve always solved problems by tracing backwards, to determining, once I find an end-state, what must have occurred to bring it about. I’ve always observed the reverse to revere the obverse, understanding things from both ends, conflating the effects and their causes: What is effect and what is cause is mostly a matter of perspective. It’s how a lot of humor works: Show the audience a situation that is, at first, inexplicable, and then connect it just tenuously enough to its antecedents to give them the delightful sensation of discovering the explanation for the inexplicable.

When we tell stories, if we tell them well, every moment leads to the next in a way that seems inevitable. We create not just a series of moments, a set of scenes, but also a set of connections between those scenes. A moment in the story may be exciting and beautiful, but what gives it meaning isn’t just that moment, it’s the moments that made the moment happen. There’s the whole ‘butterfly effect’ idea, of how a butterfly flaps its wings and down the line by the by eventually causes a great storm – but it’s never just one butterfly, it’s the breeze of a million insect wings, heartbeats, falling leaves, that somehow coalesce into a great consequence. There’s nothing special about the butterfly or its breath, and the great consequences could descend from any sufficiently long chain of insignificant events, moving the world by weight of a sufficiently long lever and place to stand.

You can’t be so blinded by the beauty of the system at play that you cease to care about results though. Every system is equal if you stop caring about results – death and life, sickness and health, liberty and fascism, these all may emerge from systems of beauty and elegance, but some are far less agreeable than others to those of us doomed to live in these systems. There’s no difference between the accidental systems of natural happenstance and the (supposedly) carefully cultivated systems of human society – except that (again, supposedly) the systems of human society provide results more congruent to the purposes of living a comfortable human life.

There’s a sense of inevitability when you look at the moving gears, at the anatomy of the world. But there’s no reason why the gears need to be where they are. There’s no reason for us not to move them as needed. We may, in fact, only be a tiny part of the system. It may, in fact, only be guesswork what will happen when we move things around, when we seek to change the system. And yeah, occasionally our spasms will cause earthquakes and our wings will cause hurricanes… but earthquakes and hurricanes happen anyway. We’ve lived in a system long enough to have some idea, some idea of what might lead to what. We can move. We can change. And though we will be attended by disasters and though harm will be caused, the world will change with us, and we will create more than we destroy, and we can slowly tune the heartbeat of the world into harmony.

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I’ve been having a hard time writing recently. Sometimes it feels like I’ve got nothing left to say – not necessarily there aren’t any ideas for topics, but that all of them seem thin or redundant, either something I could only say one or two facile things about, or something I’ve already written about, or something that anything I wrote about would be so close to the common pre-existing conception of the topic that I might as well not bother. Usually I figure something out. Every time, though, it gets harder – not consistently, since some are easier and some are harder, but steadily, over time, the resistance builds up.

The world is vast, though, far vaster than my meager writings. Even my chosen niche, that of games and art and how we touch them and they us, is wide enough that I ought to be able to write on it indefinitely. Still, it becomes more difficult to do so meaningfully. Every time, there’s a part of me that’s scared that maybe I’ve mined this vein out, that maybe I’m running dry and I’ll just be unable to say anything more that means anything – without, perhaps, going out and finding new experiences, without prospecting the stories out from the world at large.

This fear reveals a gap, a hole, a bleeding wound in my conception of what creativity is. I have a tendency to view creation as the act of taking something out of myself and polishing it and presenting it to the world, and in exchange I take whatever their response is, be it emotional or fiduciary, and digest it, and then along with other bits and pieces of myself use that to fuel the next work, and so on, and so forth. The factory model, the miner model, where resources are stripped away and manufactured and sold and then more resources are acquired to replace them. It is a very American mindset. I am colonizing myself, stealing my territory, stocking my shelves off of my shipments of vital supplies.

Why would I think about myself this way?

I am not plundering when I write. I am not burning resources – even the time and energy it takes to write are still mine, as much as any time or energy were ever mine. I am just mapping the territory, charting the ever-changing landscape of my mind, of the world as I understand it. The work will always be incomplete, because both my inner world and our outer world which it resides in are in a constant state of flux. The work will always be imperfect, because it is impossible to understand anything completely.

We do not understand anything in the world as it is, but approximate it successively through symbolic analogy. The painting The Treachery of Images, by René Magritte, shows an image of a pipe with the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” or “This is not a pipe,” written underneath. This illustrates the difference between the real and the image – but even the physical object we call a pipe isn’t itself a pipe, at least not on its own. What makes it a pipe is its perception as and use of as a pipe – the ‘pipe’ symbol, stored in our brain, as it is applied to the pipe-shaped object with pipe-like properties. This is the way we understand the world: pipe symbols, tobacco symbols, fire symbols, smoke signals, none of which are quite directly related to the world objects they refer to, and we become adept at understanding how the real-world objects can interact so that we can abstractly model these interactions using the symbols in our mind. This is what applied mathematics are as well: A methodology for converting objects into symbolic representations and performing abstract operations on them in an effort to predict how they will behave.

All of this is a long detour to state that, no, I can’t strip-mine my mind, because my mind cannot store a language to completely describe itself, just as a book can’t losslessly contain the description of a book ten times its length. No matter how much of myself I can strain to successfully describe, there will always be uncharted parts of my mind, left covered in clouds, stamped with a legend that says “Here be Dragons.”

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The monthly project thing didn’t work out. There’s a few reasons for that, but the biggest one is the issue of enthusiasm management, a skill which I’ve had to improve at over the past few years. I guess some people call it passion when they’re able to work on the same project for half a decade. It’s passion in the way that gripping onto a flotation device in the ocean is passion, I suppose. It’s passion in the way that being compelled to return to the scene of the crime is passion. In the way getting a song stuck your head is passion.

I like making things – or, at least, I get restless very quickly when I stop. However, I have a hard time caring about any particular thing consistently. Something that seems extremely important one day can seem utterly pointless the next. It’s a toxic amount of perspective. EverEnding is the rare project that still interests me on successive days, weeks, months… and when I have something that I can care about consistently, that still feels like it has meaning from one day to the next, I cling to it. Perhaps I cling too tightly. Perhaps I sabotage myself in terms of completing the project because I’m not sure what will come next. I think I could come up with another project, though, if I needed to, once this one’s done – what I can’t do is commit to a bunch of small things, objects made to be practice, to be stepping stones, to be disposable, forgettable, irrelevant. I know that’s a bad way to think about them. I know that you never know where a work of art might lead, what might reveal itself to be important later, what might be the actual core of who you are as an artist.

Nevertheless, if the work feels trivial, I cannot do it. Not for long. So it seems.

And yet, if all I want to work on are large projects, then I can work for a very long time while achieving relatively little. If I spend weeks making an animation or a feature, and the game never comes to fruition, then what have I done with those weeks? Are they wasted? Evaporated?

Is this a question that only makes sense to ask because I have little else in my life besides my work – work which seldom seems meaningful to anyone besides myself?

Sometimes all it takes is a change of perspective to see value again. I don’t like anything to be forgotten, to be just a point in between, to be flyover country, so I’ve started to change the way I think about work. Every game is made of hundreds, of thousands of tiny components – art and music and writing and so forth. I’ve tended to think of these as being stepping stones: of being necessary components to create the game I envision. That’s not inaccurate, but each of these creations also exists in its own right, each is something I’ve made, each is a work of art. It’s time I took pride in that. It is necessary: Otherwise every today becomes dependent upon an unknown tomorrow, instead of each tomorrow extending from the foundation of today. At a time in the world where tomorrow is so uncertain, when I don’t know how long I will be able to work before disaster begins to overtake us or who will be left to be interested in my work, I have to find value in what I am doing now. Later can wait until later.

Rather than every month being a new monthly project, every month from now on is both part of a large overarching project and a succession of micro-projects, which I will do my best to share with you. I may withhold bits and pieces here and there if I think it would be spoiling a surprise, but short of that I will try to be as open as possible. I’ll also be, once I get a bit more groundwork laid, setting myself milestones. If I commit to the idea of a large creation as a series of smaller creations, and if I’ve proved that I can do smaller creations to deadline, then there’s no reason why I can’t create, and perhaps even release, the entire project that way.

So far, EverEnding is one of the few projects I’ve managed to care about for more than a month or two, and also one of a very few among those few that I have a chance to actually bring to fruition. As overambitious as the concept may be, it’s fairly modest in many ways. If I was less particular about the methods of its execution and more consistent in my ability to work on it, it would likely be done by now.

That was the main thing I wanted to talk about. But something else is gnawing at me, and I can’t exactly describe its outline. I feel so strongly about imparting emotion and experiences to others that I feel like I’ve numbed myself, cloistered myself, robbed myself of emotions and experiences of my own. My world is a world of words and lines and numbers. It is beautiful and these are good and necessary things, but it’s nutritionally incomplete. If the unexamined life is, as they say, not worth living, what about the opposite? Is a life comprised entirely of examination any more worthy? It feels like half to two-thirds of an actual human life. I don’t know how to finish it – but I suppose life, like all art, is never finished, only abandoned.

If nothing else, I will continue to write. More than being a consistent creative outlet, more than it hopefully providing interest and insight to readers, this has become an invaluable tool for sorting out and expressing my own ideas and emotions – not to mention archiving them, since it is terrifyingly easy to forget things that seemed very important just days before.

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Is there a name for the deep hunger for evidence that we actually exist? “I think, therefore I am” is a pretty flimsy reassurance. Every character we write believes that they think; every character we write believes that they are. It feels all too likely sometimes that we’re just Bruce Willis at the end of The Sixth Sense, suddenly noticing that we aren’t here and never were. We crave evidence – evidence that there is an “I” that can be, evidence that there are thoughts separable from background noise, evidence that the world is in some way measurably different than it would be if we were not here. We can only seek within our perception for proof of our existence, though: What measurements can we meaningfully take when every data point is filtered through a suspect perception?

It’s a need without a name. Not quite social, since the evidence needn’t come from other people, but one often fed by friends and family. Not quite self-fulfillment, since in many ways it doesn’t actually matter if the role we play is one we particularly enjoy. It isn’t recognition because the only person whose perspective matters on it is ourselves. It isn’t a craving for power, though power is often necessary to fulfill it. Where does it come from? A multi-millennia old optimization, ensuring that if we don’t play a vital role in constructing our environment we slowly come to feel apart from it and unwelcome within it.

Why does it feel like so many are left hungering, looking for any evidence that their life, body, and mind, are tangible?

This craving always existed but it has also been fostered. We always wanted to be valued, to contribute, but the cultural narratives we are given of what work has worth and who can contribute has been constrained to a terribly narrow slice, defined in capitalistic terms of ceaseless and blind growth and ambition. To truly exist becomes defined as achieving success, and achieving success is measured by generation of profit. We are told that it is not just an opportunity but an obligation for us to make a difference. We are told stories of great men who shaped the world instead of the stories of good people who improved it. We are told to work hard, to make money, that the only way to feel like we exist is to produce value – though, in the end. we keep little of the value that we have produced.

There is, in each of us, a craving to be part of something greater than ourselves. There is also, in each of us, a craving to stand out, be seen, to be an individual. There is a fear that we are disconnected; there is also a fear that we are replaceable. And we spend our lives seeking some way to balance these cravings and these fears.

Different cultures push further towards one or the other of these as a norm. While elsewhere there is greater emphasis on defining yourself on being part of a family or community, here in the USA we tend to push way over towards the individualistic side, to be unique and to be seen, to tell ourselves that until we’re somebody we’re nobody. There’s a huge drive to distinguish ourselves in some way, to become singular, outstanding. Being the best at something is a common desire but is just one obvious path. There are many paths to individuality, and as many lead to infamy as lead to fame.

In our stories, we create conflicts between characters, between individuals. Often their motivations are entirely personal: Greed, jealousy, anger, fear. Rarely, though, do we explore where greed comes from, where jealousy and anger and fear are created – perhaps, at best, the proximate cause, the slight or the insult or the disappointment, but extremely rarely the characters’ cultural understanding that the right way to respond to these infractions is with revenge, with conflict, with violence. This, perhaps counter-intuitively, becomes even more true as the media becomes more prestigious: High art is rarely concerned with why things are, only that they are. It is concerned with the specifics of trauma and violence and lust, and never with the underpinnings of where these emotions are seeded. It is concerned with the individual, and not with the society they emerged from.

All this is exemplified by and to some degree stems from the prime edict of ‘good’ writing: Show, don’t tell. Show the characters’ internal lives, don’t tell what gave rise to them. Show the sex and violence, the immediate and visceral interaction, without attempting to impart any understanding of where the desires towards intercourse or physical harm emerge. These are just human nature, right? Right??

Lust and violence, urges to power and protect, love and hate, these are all part of our species-wide heritage – that much is undeniably true. However, the form that these take, the things we come to lust after or hate, hurt or protect, are shaped by the culture they exist within. But ‘good’ art is not allowed to question these, because that would be telling – not showing. We are concerned with only the proximate cause and effect, and never the long chains of systemic causes and effects that lead to them. So every villain in our stories is on trial for war crimes, saying over and over that they were just following orders – and we never stop to wonder who gave the orders in the first place.

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Everyone feels trapped. Helpless. We have a problem, and it’s a trolley problem. We are on rails, and the scope of our choices sharply constrained. There is no preventing the harm, only, perhaps, reducing it.

In the face of impending disaster, the scope of the world shrinks. When the tiger is chasing us, there is no east or west, just a one-dimensional measure: Away from or towards. Like an action hero escaping a rolling boulder, the idea of dodging to the side never enters our minds: We must move as quickly as possible away from the threat, even if it dooms us.

We wake up. We eat breakfast. Go to work, go to the movies, go to sleep, and follow the tracks laid out, and the scarier it is the more unthinkable it becomes to change the routine. Even if our routine is part of the threat, we cling to it because it is also the only thing we can rely upon. Trapped in a prison, we reinforce its walls to try to feel safer.

Violence blooms. When you believe your life exists on a single axis, that your worth is measured by your impact and that the only tool you have to create an impact is your violence, it becomes startlingly easy to justify unthinkable atrocity to yourself. It is only expected that someone will do something drastic when they feel trapped – and the more horrible things we do to each other the more trapped we feel by one another, and each act of violence acts catalyst to the next.

What role does art have in this world? What role do games have in it? Violence has always been a huge part of American art. We see the world in terms of violence – the real, physical, undeniable kind, because the tacit violences of oppression and denial are invisible and unacknowledged by us. Crime is violence. Justice is violence. Violence is understood as the alpha and omega, the cause and solution of all of our problems. When presented with a time machine and the horrors of the holocaust, the question we come up with is whether you should go back in time to murder baby Hitler. This probably wouldn’t solve the problem and it would be murdering a baby, but this is the calculus of our morality, atrocity vs atrocity. This has become extremely normal. We export it worldwide.

There is no reason to believe that this is a necessary intrinsic trait of art. It’s just how things are now.

Traditional narrative art, novels and movies and so forth, frequently feature violence – but, because they are singular narratives, it’s easy for us to assume that this violence is just a point of drama and interest in the context of an otherwise full world, with love and science and food and all that other good stuff that we like to spend time on. Games, though… are odd. Violent games aren’t just a portrayal of a violent anomaly in a normal world, they are portrayals of violent worlds, worlds where the only way to interact is through attacking and killing. You are on a track. Your only problem is a trolley problem: What path will you take, and what will the final body count be?

Narrative art, in each case, tells just one story, but implies the existence of many diverse others within its unseen world. Games, by necessity, have to collapse the possibilities of their world into near-nothingness, just so their inevitable bloody endings will make sense. This tendency is, if anything, made worse by the advent of “open-world” games – games which pretend to a living and breathing verisimilitude while presenting a paucity of genuine options. “You can do anything” they quietly promise – and, as long as the only thing you want to do is race cars and shoot people, you might never know the difference.

Obvious lies are not ineffective lies, and are still easily believed by those with motivation to believe them. They tell us we can do anything. They tell us this world exists beyond the boundaries of violence, and then give us only the tools of violence with which to explore it – and, in this way, these games truly are simulations of America: A country that believes it still must arm good guys in order to kill bad guys, a country that believes it is the sole role of a man to stand up and fight for what he believe in no matter what it might be, a country that believes that choosing the hard choice to sacrifice human life for the ‘greater good’ is just and admirable. A country with an entire toolbox but that never lays down its hammer, and sees human lives only as nails.

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What is good art? We are constantly declaring various books and movies and games to be good or bad – we get in arguments about these classifications, have entire professions dedicated to evangelizing them. We go to great lengths to highlight the good points of one thing or the bad points of another, and we rarely bother to define what we mean when we say that it’s good or that it’s bad. Does it just mean that we enjoyed it? No, because sometimes we say things that are harrowing or awkward or unpleasant are good. Does it just mean that we found value in the time we spent with it? No, because if that’s all it was then we wouldn’t get into arguments over it, since there’s no point in trying to convince someone they actually did or didn’t enjoy something (not that that stops anyone from trying).

I don’t think good/bad judgments mean much of anything in the absence of more specificity. Art isn’t good or bad, it’s good at or bad at – good at making you understand the internal conflict of a character, for instance, or bad at presenting a physically convincing reality. These artistic traits may or may not be something you personally are interested in , but they’re something you can make a convincing argument about when debating the nature of a work and what it accomplishes.

Yet it obviously means something when we say that a given work is good. There’s some nebulous but shared set of standards that, when a work excels at them, defines it as good. So we end up with weird splittings-of-hairs – “Oh, it’s not a good movie, but it’s a good action movie,” “I don’t think it’s a bad book but it’s deeply misogynist” – where these standards for what we expect and how we measure quality butt up against one another.

When we say “good” we are secretly saying “good at“, with the ‘at’ standing in for a whole host of assumed criteria for quality: It has to have convincing characters and effects, it has to have reasonably but not excessively attractive people, it has to have an epic or emotionally moving score, it has to be between 80 and 160 minutes, the motion of the plot and systems have to be completely transparent at all moments, to be sexy but not sexual, to deal with pain and violence and sadness and serious things, and it is judged bad if it fails to live up to these standards – regardless of whether these standards were even attempted, whether the artists cared at all in the first place.

Conflicts emerge between our personal style and standards and those metrics of quality that all art is measured against. We may deeply love a work, or merely enjoy it, while the standards of art proclaim that it is shlock, garbage, meritless. We call these “guilty pleasures”: That which lives up to our own personal standards of quality, that we find personally enjoyable, but which doesn’t adhere to the cultural standard, or possibly even attempt to. Yet sometimes, rather than declaim the guilt of our pleasures, we will call something “schlocky” good – not in support of these principles, but in defiance of them. Saying that art which does not adhere to these standards is still good is drawing a line in the sand and saying no, your criteria for quality are wrong and don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes if enough people recognize something the standards will shift: When the game Demon’s Souls came out a decade ago, many players immediately rejected it as confusing, clunky, and punishing. By most of the game design standards of the time, these traits were regarded by many as a sign of bad game design; any developer who put them into a game was assumed to be incompetent, whether or not it was done with intent or artistry. Yet enough people understood and appreciated the intent of the game that the loosely cohesive Souls-like series of followups has gained a massive and dedicated following. Demon’s Souls is still a fairly conventional game in most ways, though: For every Demon’s Souls, there’s hundreds of unconventional masterpieces that never find an audience.

However, as art becomes homogenized towards the Disney manual of style, audiences may come to see anything that deviates from the standards set by mega-corporations as artless, clumsy – not as an experiment in a different style, but as an amateurish bungling of what everyone knows is the correct way to make art. These fears may seem alarmist, but they’re already coming to pass: The scope of what’s considered a valid film, book, or game is vastly narrower now than it was even thirty years ago, and it’s hard not to see a correlation with the consolidation of most mass-media power, which unilaterally declares the standards of artistic merit, into a few wealthy white grasping hands.

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