Originality, the dreaded magnum opus and you

Rereading my pile of notes for past and upcoming blog entries – harshly disagreeing with you from weeks ago is a hilarious thing and it is a thing indeed! What has happened? As mentioned in the last blogpost, the lasting pressure to succeed is gone like a migraine. There is no need to beat myself up over things, insecurities are at bay. There is no need to become so dense about achieving that you start making stupid mistakes because you can’t even see what’s right before you anymore.

What happened? Amongst other things, I made an important discovery. I learned that everything I could hope to do in and with my creations has been done in one form or the other already. After all, works and ideas that inspire me, already exist and will also inspire others! And more works will be created with the potential to inspire future creators. Of course, there aren’t ever 1:1 matches that would make you creating your own version obsolete. There is always room for your version in your voice. But if I die tomorrow, nothing is truly lost. In the most optimistic case, one or two good original ideas I could have in my lifetime would die with me, and a creator voice vanishes in the big choir that doesn’t even sing together. But mostly, it would not affect culture in any way. I’d still feel sorry for my characters who can’t write their stories themselves, but the ideas underlying the characters do not die. They can return in other forms.

This is not self-defeating, on the contrary. Imagine the pressure you are under if you believe you are the chosen one and your future creations are so important that your premature death means the death of something new, that never was before and never will be if you – and only you – aren’t there to create it. In a way, there is some truth in that. You cannot be replicated. But creating something on a cosmic level of originality… these are expectations you cannot possibly fulfill, even if you are objectively good at your craft. At least you can’t force it.

I felt huge relief when I saw everything is safe. I still intend of having a lifetime full of creative endeavors, telling my stories and living life. Even if I fail, I cannot fail so hard an idea or a whole culture dies. I’m free. I am free to create whatever pleases me and I’m free to enjoy it no matter what I believe it’s value is. I had the looming shadow of an anticipated magnum opus over me that kept me from fully enjoying doing the smaller things. A magnum opus is a defining creative work a successful creator is mostly known for. Of course, if you yourself would know what that work is, why would you want to work on anything else? Most decide to wait to work on it for a couple of years, get good first or worse, wait until they feel ready which will never happen. The thing is, you as the creator do not get to decide what work of yours is the most popular one. Your audience and your audience alone makes that decision. So don’t worry about it and create your things, treating them equal and allowing yourself to enjoy them equally. What the dream of a magnum opus is good for on the other hand is bringing you through the difficult years in the beginning where you have to build up your skills from zero. Having a big dream definitely helps to deal with the frustrations of skill and ambitions never matching. You just have to be ready to let go off of the dream later when it doesn’t serve you anymore. And I’m not talking about giving it up. Imagine a situation where you as a child decide what you want to make and how you want to make it and how it is supposed to be. Later, as an adult, you have learned that things actually don’t work this way in reality, you know your craft and your personal limitations and your flawless work from back then actually has some brutal flaws that would keep it from becoming an enjoyable experience for people that aren’t you. Wouldn’t you want to adapt it? Wouldn’t it be an act of love to undo the magnum opus status of your own creation so that you can properly challenge and improve all aspects of it? And what if you have created things that are clearly better in the meantime? How would you deal with that emotionally?

I am lucky Street Prey(SPREY) was never meant as my magnum opus. Actually, it was a quick idea from a subway ride somewhere in 2011. SPREY just ended up as the thing that made it through and that I’m making right now. And I can take the unhealthy pressure out of that, too. There is no need to rush anymore. I have been and I am deeply in love with SPREY, every day, every working session I spend with it. I guess I will look back on this time and say SPREY was the project I figured a lot of things out with. SPREY that killed my future and gave me one.

What’s on the other side?

100 Days of making SPREY – 50

Today I want to share a lesson with you that I just learned. It is very special and it is okay if you don’t find meaning in it today.

At least in some creators, there is something like two souls, two hearts fighting each other, and it can be a source of great confusion. There is one that is sensible and wants to fit the mold society set as normal, such as having a stable job and would settle for just enough to get by on good, honest, and societal recognized work. Then there is the outrageous one that howls in disappointment and despair when you do the sensible thing, one that hates you when you comply, one that wants to go explore the void without a map and without a safeguard to ever get somewhere. Both hearts have their place and your life will most likely be a balancing act between both. But what if your wild heart eats you up for shunning it entirely while the docile heart eats you up for real or perceived irresponsible behavior such as following an artistic passion without compromise?

In a very simplified way, the human brain is a simulation machine. And when we cannot predict what the outcome of a decision we make is, we do not like that. Going off into the void is vague already as a statement. What is this void that artists talk about? Where is it? What will I find there? Will I find anything there that is valuable enough to make a living when brought back to other people? If I am not successful, can I go back in time to still become something socially acceptable? Can I still make something out of my life?

We hate that. But our wild heart still wants us to go there and to explore.

Then I found an answer I did not expect in places I did not expect. My good friend game developer Martin Chow introduced me to the works of Japanese game developer Kenji Eno. This man was so far ahead of his time, it is incredible. So far ahead many of his contemporaries did not understand him – and now, as the biggest irony of all, some of his works look dated to a viewer like me from my time, but then I realize they look dated because he was one of the first. Others became famous with more refined products in the same vein later. I would call Eno a champion of the void, of „the other side“. That is when people cross their personal void and come out on the other side with something. He did not buckle down under social pressure or the pressure to succeed in the games industry and still kept to his original, authentic creative vision. Apparently the pain to comply and bring sacrifices to fit in better was bigger than the pain of not knowing if he would find any success society understands as success ever. But the journey was not a bright-eyed wonderland, it cannot have been. The pressure of society and the piercing stings of doubts and fears never leave us creatives alone. My heart breaks every time when I think about disappointing my parents by not becoming something. If I am to believe the Kenji Eno documentary I will link down below, he went through the same thing. „Oh, he was once a good boy. A gifted child. But look at him now.“

But then, what was waiting on the other side for Eno, through the void?

When I first looked into a walkthrough of Eno‘s game D2, I found myself captivated. I did not like everything I was presented, but I knew I was witnessing a piece of art. And even now I feel like experiencing D2 felt like reading a heavy novel and left the same sort of deep impact that still echoes on. You do not have to like D2, it is flawed, but you have to acknowledge that it is art and cannot help but respect the artistic expression.

But will you personally find something that is like this and has this impact? You cannot know. Even if you tried to emulate Eno entirely, you might end up with something else. And in the worst case, indeed, you could spend your lifetime in the void, where everything is scary and insecure, and return empty-handed except for the experience of having lived that life and having created. From my own limited experience I can tell you that creations change you when you push through with them and finish your creations. But what about material success, your docile heart might ask now. We have been talking about artistic things until now.

Let‘s look at Mr. Eno‘s case. He is clearly underappreciated for what he did and has probably never made insane amounts of money. His lifestyle was not glamorous, in fact, he was a workaholic until the very end. But Eno‘s successes were big enough that he could sustain a family. And he got to live out his authentic artistic visions and moved a lot of people. And overall, he did what he want. This seems like a pretty good outcome.

Does this relax your docile heart a bit? There is so much ground between smashing success and absolute defeat. You might come out somewhere in the middle and it might seem and feel weird, when you can‘t even tell whether you are on the success or failure side, but it is not as scary as imagining the outcome as one extreme or the other and nothing in between.

Kenji Eno is a champion who went all the way into the void and returned. He brought something back that moved and inspired many other people in turn and has inspired this blog entry to help other creatives, too. So Eno‘s story might be some food for the simulation machine that is your brain, if you are struggling with doubt and confusion about your wild heart. This is where it is pointing you towards. This is what could be.

Sources:

Kenji Eno documentary:
https://youtu.be/dLLQm9GjN3c

Gamasutra obituary:

https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/188282/Kenji_Eno_A_voice_of_dissent_a_champion_for_creative_integrity.php