On his deathbed, theatre and film actor Edmund Gwenn purportedly said six simple words that summed up a lifetime of struggle: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
We players of games know the persistence necessary to die and die again, only to press “start” and re-try until we win the day. So who better than comedians, those molders of the mundane into wit, to help game designers break free from the formulaic and show us something new?
If telling a good joke is difficult, so is coming up with interesting, never-before-seen mechanics that reward the player, or make them feel emotion, or challenge their mind and thumbs in new ways.
One reason we see similiar concepts used over and over is the worship of the almighty dollar. One idea proves popular (1970s: Pong, 1980s: Pac-Man, 1990s: Street Fighter II, 2000s: Halo) and behold, an onslaught of hangers-on and coattail-riders hoping to catch a little heat from the last big thing. And so we get to play Tennis, and Munch Man, and Fighter’s History, and N.O.V.A., all derivative of their inspiration, all more or less the same thing.
But the other reason so few innovative, truly new games come out is because the creative impulse is so fickle. New ideas evade even the richest of minds. Implementing that idea in a videogame, created by dozens, maybe hundreds of people, with considerations for budget, timing, and platform? Nearly impossible.
The same obstacles a game designer has befall any artist of business-person. Samuel Bacharach, writing for Inc., compiled a list of advice for prospective entrepeneurs to tap into their creative sides in order to stand out amongst the me-too crowds. Such wisdom comes in the form of out-of-context quotes from comedians. And if you squint your eyes just right, the same lessons can be applied to today’s game-makers designing tomorrow’s games. Take a note, maker of First-Person Squad-Based Shooter.
Invoking George Carlin by way of Louis C.K., Bacharach writes:
Creativity can be unleashed by a constant purge of your old, comforting ideas. Renewing your old routine with “fresh material” can tap new springs of creativity.
Carlin, that irascible coot famous for his Seven Dirty Words routine, threw out all his old jokes after one year. He was also a constant note-taker. Only by refilling the pool can you afford to throw out the bathwater. C.K., in need of a new start after a decade of writing for Saturday Night Live, tried starting fresh after continued efforts at honing the same tired material. So he threw out his jokes. The same jokes he’d held onto for years, honing and crafting, giving his audience subtle variations, sly improvements. Threw them out. What came out of the fresh start from zero? The brilliant FX sitcom Louie, now in its fourth season.
After a generation of sequels and slight iterations, it’s imperative developers start again as they transition into new hardware and a bigger, wider audience. An example: Simogo could have pumped out another charming, off-kilter take on an established genre, as they already had with Bumpy Ride and Beat Sneak Bandit, two of our favorites. Instead they gave us Year Walk, a haunting, first-person fairytale based on an ancient Swedish tradition. The risk paid off. Best of all, we have no idea what they’ll come up with next.
Woody Allen shows a similar range, from slapstick buffoonery to social commentary. He also comes up with more ideas he can use at any one time. Instead of tossing them away, he’ll stick a note in a drawer and come back to it. The original script for Annie Hall focused around a murder, with the familiar romance and comedy offered as secondary flourishes. Allen dropped the murder scene but didn’t forget about it; two decades later, he made Manhattan Murder Mystery with Hall’s Diane Keaton. In time, a seed of a concept can grow and become something much greater than its original thought.
Had Shigeru Miyamoto given up after experimenting with simple avatars in Mario Artist: Talent Studio on the Japan-Only 64DD peripheral for Nintendo 64, he wouldn’t have had faith, six years later, in a refined version of them called Miis. You might have made one. More importantly, your grandma might have one, too. The Wii brand of games never would have garnered the same mass appeal without those funny cartoon versions of ourselves waddling around, an idea already tried, failed, and returned to years later.
Whether you’re refining an old idea or starting fresh, the main goal is to make something, anything, in the first place.
“You should bring something into the world that wasn’t in the world before,” Ricky Gervais, creator of The Office, told Scott Raab of Esquire. “It doesn’t matter what that is. It doesn’t matter if it’s a table or a film or gardening–everyone should create. You should do something, then sit back and say, ‘I did that.’”
Cue Stephen Lavelle and his prolix assortment of games/curiosities/whathaveyous as Increpare. Any goals present are slim, or obscured behind whatever fever dream Lavelle is invoking through code. Though these are his dreams, now they’re ours, too.
That same spirit of throwing ideas at a wall with gusto and abandon would be appreciated by those lovers of randomness Monty Python. Founding member John Cleese, and recent hawker of DirectTV, has said, “Creativity is not a talent; it’s a way of operating.” As Bacharach writes,
Play releases the creative spirit because play has no real purpose or end goal. Without a goal, there is no stress, and creativity can run riot.
Though a goal-less development cycle is something of an impossible outcome, given the realities of publisher demands and a competitive market, the philosophy can extend to the type of game itself, allowing a player to harness their own creative potential.
Look no further than Minecraft, the phenomenon by Markus Persson aka Notch that provides no finish line and limited obstacles all at the service of the player’s imagination. As of this writing, over ten million people have bought the game on PC or Mac, and the Xbox 360 edition is the most downloaded game on the system.
Who’s laughing now?