Note: This is a post I'd written in January 2017 on a personal blog. Since the topic is about creativity, I felt it'd be worth sharing here!
Have you ever wondered what the source of sudden bursts of inspiration/ beauty/ magic and creative ideas is? Many people often feel that ideas come from an outside source, not from within themselves. Sometimes we almost feel like the vehicle for creative work, that it comes through us and not from us. But what is this magical source of creativity?
Background on the theories:
Recently, I came across a video that talks about Joseph Campbell's well-known theory of The Hero's Journey. Wikipedia describes this as "In narratology and comparative mythology, the monomyth, or the hero's journey, is the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed."
The video explains Don Harmon’s interpretation of this structure (link to the video). He divides the journey into eight parts around a circle, involving variations of the steps described in the hero’s journey:
The part that we’re interested in here, though, is this distinction of the (same circle) worlds as described in the video. The top half of the circle is where the story begins and comes to an end. The bottom part of the circle is where the hero’s growth/ change happens. The top half is the normal world, and the bottom is the special world. (That sentence itself holds so much power, doesn’t it?)
Don Harmon writes, “Your mind is a home, with an upstairs and a downstairs.
Upstairs, in your consciousness, things are well-lit and regularly swept. Friends visit. Scrabble is played, hot cocoa is brewing. It is a pleasant, familiar place. Downstairs, it is older, darker, and much, much freakier. We call this basement the unconscious mind.
The unconscious is exactly what it sounds like: It’s the stuff you don’t, won’t, and/or can’t think about.”
"The point is: Occasional ventures by the ego into the unconscious, through therapy, meditation, confession, violence, or a good story, keep the consciousness in working order."
On entering the "special world" in our own lives:
Now in a story, according to the 8 step structure, when the character crosses from the upper half to the lower half (or from point 2: "the character needs something to 4: "the search for what they need"), the character enters the special world: Either the character enters a new place, or a new situation, and struggles to adapt. It's the difference between Neo living in the Matrix (normal world) and being in the "Real World" (special world). Or Frodo in the Shire (normal) vs all the places he's in during the journey (special). Or Harry Potter's story before and during Hogwarts. And then, of course, the character, having changed, returns to the normal world to end the story.
The video and the theory talk about how this structure is used by all stories that we write, explaining it in detail. What we're interested in, though, is how this is also applicable to us in our creative lives. My point here is that when we watch a movie/ experience a story, we journey with the protagonist. This means that the hero also takes us to the "special world" with him. And it is because of this that we feel inspired through other art. Creativity then comes from that "special world," as described above. I'll come back to all this in a bit.
The significance of this special world:
What sparked this thought was a fascinating comment on the video by a Youtube user named "Maitrī xp." Parts of what he said are–
"I think this structure is the basis of our consciousness; becoming aware of death means becoming aware of life, diving in the unconscious means coming back more creative with newly organized ideas."
"This cycle I first encountered, more profoundly, on psychedelic experiences."
"For me, it's more an inheritance of the cycle of season per se, or day and night, with which we have become so intricately connected."
"Then the sun becomes the bringer of consciousness over the unconscious when he rises; then the night becomes dissolution of boundaries and frontiers."
"When the nights come, and we can only see what we dream, we see everything merging and dancing like shadows."
The main takeaway from his comment is that the cycle described in the video, particularly the distinction of the two worlds, exists within us and is also a part of how the universe works, as the universe is creation itself. But more importantly, it is the special world from which we get our creative ideas.
Entering the special world:
The "special world" exists in the late nights, in dark corners where things are unclear, where nothing is certain, in fog and mystery, and especially in dreams. Dreams are probably when our minds are at their most effortlessly creative self. The day brings with it clarity, normalcy, and schedule. Spend your time only pursuing "normal world" activities, and creativity might suffer.
Maitrī (the Youtube comments guy) may have experienced this through psychedelic substances, but it can safely be said that there are many different triggers or doors to the special world. David Lynch is a prominent practitioner of transcendental meditation, and it should now be easy to see why. The Twin Peaks director is well known for his strange, dreamlike, and highly creative works, which often almost directly showcase the special world itself.
I, personally, like to work in the evenings with the lights dimmed. I also light incense sticks and keep a small water fountain switched on in the background. It takes me out of the bright, normal world and helps me knock on the special world's door. It has to be noted, though, that this doesn't always work.
Music and film are some of the best ways of attempting to get that door open. But the best medium for me is video games – they do the best job of transporting you to completely different, unrealistic, fantastical worlds.
Stories take you on a journey with the character, and maybe this is why they inspire us and spark creative ideas. With the character, we too enter the special world, where ideas reside. Perhaps this is why "art inspires art."
Protecting your special world:
Because of this, I'd say beware of the mundane, for it can push the door to the special world far away into obscurity, and of the trials of everyday life that can chain you to the normal world. If you spend every moment of your day thinking about work, bills, groceries, money, relationships, social life, and all these "normal world" concerns - even in bed at night - you might lose the way to the special world.
Instead, carve out some time and create a sanctum, a place, time, and an activity that allows your mind to dwell on obscurity – on things different from the normal world. Meditate, draw, write, look at the stars, watch the clouds, take a walk in the woods, travel – there are tons of options, just make sure it's different from the normal world, and make sure you're conscious and aware of the magic of that moment and of that activity. If you're not careful, the demands of everyday life can snatch it away from you.
I also feel that this is why we shouldn’t saturate our free time with too many sitcoms, news, mainstream media and entertainment - things that instantly gratify us, numb us and elevate our moods for a short time, and keep our minds trapped within the normal world. Instead, we should let our thoughts descend into the darker, more unfamiliar areas from time to time.
Having understood this, it might be interesting to watch a film and stop it midway – with the character suspended in their special world – and use that energy for creative work, and then finish off the movie later? It sure is worth a try!
What do you think? Do you feel this describes how you feel about creativity, art and beauty? And what are your methods to gain access to the special world?
Yesterday, I just got done with playing the second episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm. I absolutely loved the story, atmosphere and the characters, and felt it was one of the most enjoyable video game experiences of the year. In a year packed with so many high quality releases, that's saying something.
Having finished the episode, I started thinking about a question I usually return to when it comes to games that focus on story, more than they do on gameplay: Would this have been better as a movie? Why does it need to be a game? This is a question I sometimes worry about, as I am currently making a game like that too.
In my opinion, a few years back, gamers and developers weren't very comfortable with this idea. You'd hear statements along the lines of - If I want a good story, I'll watch a movie or read a book. Games should focus on gameplay. Many games felt like they needed to justify being a game. You'd have story focused experiences with "gamey" sections forced in. I think that thinking is now beginning to change, and we as players and creators are becoming more comfortable with the idea of these kind of games. "Walking simulators" for instance, are being taken more seriously and have a growing audience.
So fresh off playing the second episode, feeling more than a bit blown away and emotionally moved, I asked myself - What if this was just an animated film? What more can a video game like this offer that movies can't, when it comes to story telling? These are the aspects that jumped out at me in response, and I felt colored my experience of playing the story the most:
Pace: When you're in control of a character in a game, you decide when to hit the next trigger to proceed the story. It may sound like there's not much in that, but the pace at which you play a game is varies with each player, and that makes the story more personal to each player. For example, when Chloe is in the area outside the dorms, you can choose to talk to everyone, interact with every single object, stare at random spots, listen to the atmospheric sounds, and take it slow. Or you could skip some interactions, rush through and focus on the objective.
Being in a location for a certain amount of time, you allow its atmosphere to sink in. The place becomes more real. And if you rush through, that's still a decision that you made as someone that exists in that world. The memory of having made that choice is stronger than watching an actor take you through the story at a fixed pace.
Once you move on from that location to later sections of the game, the previous location feels more like a real place you had been to, and inhabited for as long as you wanted. The later sections feel like they're built upon that particular amount of time that you chose to take before reaching this point. It stacks up, and affects the overall experience.
Immersion: This is closely related to what I talked about earlier. When a game is able to sell you the idea that the world you're walking around in actually exists, when everything within it feels consistent to its world, then the story that you experience in it has the potential to affect you much more than in a movie. Why? Because if the world is (almost) real, and you exist within it, then the character's story can almost become your own. Those events can feel like they're happening to you, which is huge.
What makes a world atmospheric and immersive? For me, it depends on the amount of detail in that world, and the gaps that are left in between. Filling it with a specific mood, weather, time of the day (rain, associated sounds etc) lends to the atmosphere. A table in a kitchen littered with small objects (pencils, condiments or just random "stuff") makes the world feel lived in, as if someone had occupied that space before you. In a game you can stare at, examine and interact with these objects, and that places you firmly within this game world.
Getting a little off track: I also like catching glimpses of "incomplete" edges of the world. For instance, I'd enjoy looking at windows lit from within in buildings in Sleeping Dogs, and wondering what life exists within it. The answer would be - nothing, the buildings are hollow. But it's great when your brain begins to fill in the gaps. What you see gets the chance to become a world that exists partially in your mind. The game and the hardware that it's running on are limited, but your mind is not. This is where I feel sometimes (emphasis on some) newer open world games lose out. It's like putting the floodlights on and exposing the fact that it's a game world, where you can see the systems interconnecting and working with each other, responding to the player.
As an example for worlds with incomplete edges though, the diner in Life is Strange comes to mind. You can see outside the diner through its windows, and walk around outside on the streets a bit, but the scenery extends beyond where your character can go. You can see some of it, but you don't exactly know what lies beyond. It's probably a whole world out there right? There's no chance of going there, being proven wrong and having that illusion broken.
Choices: This is the big one, isn't it? The biggest weapon in video games' arsenal when it comes to story telling. Allowing the player to choose how the story itself proceeds, however small the decision and it's impact maybe, helps invest the player much more deeply into the story. A NPC's reaction to your character might differ based on something you did earlier, and it might just be a shift in tone with which the NPC talks to you, or a few different lines of dialogue, but you caused it.
The NPC might compliment your character because you chose to do or say something earlier, and that compliment is also meant for you, the player - causing you in turn to feel flattered due to the compliment as well. The character's reaction towards your player also mirrors how that character feels towards you, and that's something no other medium can do - allow characters to interact with its audience at that level. In a movie, you may feel happy for the protagonist, but that's about it. Here, you can actually have your own feelings and reactions involved. You're a part of it.
Making choices extends far beyond emotions and characters of course, it can alter the plot and bend the story. In Mass Effect 2, you might see characters dying towards the end because of what you did or didn't do. That's your story. I loved the epilogue in Dragon Age Origins, seeing how things turned out for all the characters due to my decisions. My friend hated his ending, his character sacrificed himself and stuff got dark for the other characters too. But that was his story, and it affected him.
In a way, everything I've talked about here has been circling around the same thing: feeling like you're a part of the world that the story is set in. Of removing a layer of obstruction that stands between the audience and the story, being able to convince the audience that the story is about them, for them, that this is real. The story is real, and it's yours. You know how there are studies that visualizing yourself running a race stimulates the same parts of your brain as those that are activated when you actually run one? Maybe it's got something to do with that too, your brain is in charge (even when that's just "walking") and the story feels that much more real. Just being in charge of you character, exploring the space and time of the story, gives the story greater power to move you.
There's huge potential still left to explore when it comes to stories in games, and a lot of it will rely on how technology evolves and how developers use that to create more convincing worlds and illusions. VR might be big for this reason. I hope all of this wasn't too vague or pointless, and maybe I'll understand my own points better with time.
Thanks for reading!
Hi, I'm Armaan, the creator of Rainswept and Forgotten Fields. On this blog, I post weekly updates about my games' development (or as often as possible!)