Friday, November 11, 2011

Constraint and Inspiration

Courbet: Desperate Man
I was fortunate to grow up during the genesis of video gaming. As games have matured and grown along with computer technology the gameplay, sound and graphics have improved steadily.  The first video "game" that I ever played was on a "dumb" terminal. We used to type out racetracks on the screen in ASCII characters, and then we would "race" the cursor around the course using the arrow keys. We thought this was very entertaining at the time. Then came a little program called "Eliza" that simulated a psychiatrist. It was a crude piece of code that did little more than rephrase what you typed in and posed it as a question back to you. But we spent hours and hours playing with it.

Next came the wonder of the Atari 2600. The graphics were amazingly crude. But we were still enchanted by them--and also by the richness of the interactivity. This was magic. I can't express to someone who didn't live through it what the sheer wonder of that era of gaming was like.
Soon advances in graphics became the driver of the "WHOA!" moments of video gaming. Video resolution (number of pixels on screen) and amount of colors became the focal point of innovation. I remember seeing 16 bit games for the first time and it was just astonishing. I later had an Amiga computer and there was an entire sub-industry built around trying to achieve the holy grail of 24bit color images (essentially as many colors as the eye can see). Again, it was mind blowing seeing a high resolution game image in true color.

Today we have essentially reached the zenith of conventional gaming display techology. There are still advances, but they are more incremental than generational; and these advances don't produce the same level of astonishment as the older breakthroughs.  Producing game imagery with only a paltry 32 or 64 colors has become a lost art. The amazing thing is that artists were able to make beautiful games with such a limited palette. Incredible passion went into milking every last bit of technology out of the earlier platforms to produce the best experience possible. Compare that to the modern environment where every game has enough boilerplate technology available to seemingly allow it to be great. But few are.

I think the lack of technological constraint might be making game designers less inspired than in prior eras.  Constraint imposes boundaries on us, and boundaries challenge us to break through them. I think the process of transcending constraint produces greatness as a necessary by-product.

My writing time is very constrained right now. When I do get time to write it often bursts out of me like one of those xenomorphs from the Alien movies. Sometimes it is a painful process--I've written myself to the point of illness a few times because I overwork myself when I should be relaxing after a tough week of work (unlike some that I greatly admire, I am not a work 24x7 person).

Like many do, I fantasize about being a full-time writer some day. But I can't help but wonder: how would I react to having an unlimited amount of time to write? Would the lack of a time constraint affect the quality of my work? Maybe I'm just being paranoid (actually, that's fairly likely), but I'm afraid to change anything about my lifestyle and work habits until the Hemlock series (official title now "The Maker's Fire") is done. I think Hemlock and her adventures are at least partially a by-product of my creative constraint.

I have a feeling that if I was no longer constrained then I would probably be writing about peace and tranquility instead of rancor and adventure. Of course life is full of surprises! Maybe if I were to start writing full time then another constraint would present itself, and I would produce good writing as a result of a different struggle. Only time will tell...

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