Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox
Spread Your Wings: Forging a Distinctive Brand and Identity as a Creative Talent
Bethesda Softworks alumnus Michel Sabbagh tackles the value of artistic individualism in creative industries that are simultaneously varied and over-saturated with run-of-the-mill artworks. How tangible is the desire to follow trends?
January 24, 2019
19 Min Read
Write what you know. Draw what you see. Compose what you hear.
If you deem yourself an artist seeking to share your creativity with the masses (and believe me, anything is possible with social media and electronic formats at your disposal), then you've most likely had the above advice chucked at you in some shape or form, regardless of your modus operandi.
On the surface, said advice makes for a logical pearl of wisdom: Why, for instance, would you attempt to outdo the likes of Hank Locklin and Gene Autry if you ain't into country music? Or, alternatively, what's the point of doing horror if you're the more comedic ty—
Oh wait, John Krasinski and Jordan Peele beg to differ. Let me spruce that first line up.
Write what you know. Draw what you see. Compose what you hear. Do what you love.
Again, seems logical. As human beings, creative talents have a finite number of mental resources they can allocate into any given field and subject matter if they hope to perfect their craft and do justice to whatever they are whipping out with the tools of the trade. Don't stretch yourself too thin and focus on what you cherish the most, as they say.
But what if your interests closely parallel those of others, to the point where it seems like you're merely following trends? Great minds think alike, you reckon, right? Right?
Yes and no. For, you see, great minds think alike, but fools seldom differ. Let me explain.
Only Dead Fish Follow The Stream
Back in the olden days of 2016, I included in my gaming presentation piece the importance of leveraging as many creative sources as need be for the purposes of one's artworks, but such a principle is hardly restricted to interactive entertainment. From storytelling to audiovisual fidelity, the number of artistic references and their precise application can mean the difference between derivativeness and noteworthiness.
Nothing exudes pure originality or springs out of a vacuum, so the best one can do to ensure their work looks/sounds/reads like something only THEY could achieve is to forage inspirational material and whip up a medley befitting of their individuality. If it sounds like a time-consuming process, that's because it is. As the Cleaner from Toy Story 2 once pointed out:
In an immaculate world, such an endeavor would not be ignored, let alone taken lightly, but said world is hardly ideal and this can be seen in some of the works being pumped out in all creative industries and for specific genres.
From battle royales to comedy flicks, dystopian young adult novels to pop music, hundreds of thousands of aspiring or veteran talents aim to carve out a piece of the proverbial cake (in financial and/or novelty-based terms) and use the medium they throw their hat into as a platform for meting out their ideas, beliefs, convictions and overall imagination. A more than relatable goal given that imbuing one's life with meaning and self-actualization is the most human thing to do, but this unfortunately leads me to my main concern with sundry talents: lack of creative identity.
To concretize my point, let's take a gander at two of the most ground-breaking video games of the last decade, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Gears of War. Both are superlative titles that advanced their genre with progression-heavy online multiplayer and cover-based shooting respectively. Even if they weren't the first to employ such features, their perfecting of them paved the way for their popularization in subsequent years, and with that, rather haphazard legacies were propped up in terms of innovation.
Inversion, Quantum Theory, Fracture, Alien Rage, Warface, Raven Squad... If you had to Google those games to figure out what in the name of Golly I'm blathering on about, you'd be swiftly forgiven. Why? 'Cause those titles are part of the copycat wave that succeeded the efforts of Infinity Ward and Epic Games. Through a wholly po-faced tone, an uninspired setting and/or a lack of worthwhile features that don't feel like gimmicks, the above assembly line of shooters capitalizing on the success of others via imitation has left an identity-based void within their shells, ultimately undoing their ability to stand out from the hoi polloi and set an example for subsequent artworks.
The same goes for the legacies of The Hunger Games, Neuromancer, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and Grand Theft Auto, just to name a few. The troubling thing about trends is that, like cheating, people make the claim that it is inherently human to find the best shortcut toward achieving something of varying significance, and one may think that brainstorming for hours on end in a fast-paced industry would amount to stagnation and a FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) mentality that delay their entry into the entertainment world. The fact that it takes a highly conscientious demeanor and plenty of patience to craft something sufficiently novel can also prove daunting to many artists who may have yet to hone an especially rigorous and sustainable (!) work ethic.
While it's far more inexcusable for veterans to follow the creative flow instead of continuously outdoing themselves, newcomers must still bear the responsibility and foresight to forge their own artistic brand via thorough self-analysis and inspiration-hunting if they hope to make themselves known in their respective mediums. Even then, they'll have to contend with the expectation of future projects being superior to earlier ones, which is necessary to remain afloat both financially and creatively. Wonders never cease, after all, and that's something artists should keep in mind when treating their handiwork as such — which brings me to the following question:
What Makes You, Well, "You"?
If it takes you a fair while to ascertain your distinguishing features — preferably those uncommon in your peers and surroundings — then perhaps holding a mirror up to yourself and staring at your reflection (literally and/or figuratively) will enable you to identify innermost features that you thought you never had. Given that every person is unique, right down to the most trivial of details, this process is unlikely to fail when properly undertaken.
Found all of 'em? Even the damning ones? Congrats! Now you're nearing the fun bit.
You see, people are many things, including bipedal repositories of idiosyncrasies stemming from their individual endeavors, hobbies and the environment in which they were brought up. These affect the kinds of things one lets into their lives, which can mean anything from deciding which movie/music/game/literary genre they experience to whether they should include more veggies or proteins into their diet. Long story short, humans are mosaics, and this should be reflected in their creative output.
Of course, the issue of individualism should still be taken into account. Let's say you're young and enjoy anime and video games, for instance. Lots of folks relish those sorts of things, no doubt about it. But let's say you dislike the idea of being like the others and instead wish to stand out from the pack. That's where you get to add the following to the blender (bear in mind these are just random examples and they may be substituted for their equivalents or something else entirely):
Vexillology (Study of flags)
Listening to oldies
Collecting vintage posters
Teutonophilia (Love of German culture)
Swell, now you're a much better-rounded chum who doesn't just sustain themselves on trends, if any, to nurture their character. Logically, the more interests you embody and leverage, the greater the potential to develop a distinct identity for creative purposes. Depending on the medium you specialize in, you may have to perform some extra mental gymnastics to fit your defining peculiarities into your artistic handiwork.
The best analogy I can make for the above is to imagine oneself as said blender, with the spinning, pureeing and emulsifying being representative of writing/drawing/composing/filming/*insert artistic motion here*. What you pour out of your noggin will determine not just the balance of the ingredients (i.e. interests and ideas derived from the former), but also the uniqueness of the final product. If it ends up as something too similar to another work, address the culprits, rinse and repeat. The key is to give identity crises or the lack of style and substance a wide berth. Like a bottle of Baltais yogurt.
Which brings me to...
Thinking Outside The Box
Let me preface this segment by addressing the following:
Initially you're going to fail. A lot. There's just no way around that.
The same way that lessons exist because there's an ill out there that needs to be circumvented, failures are a thing since they allow others to learn from what didn't work in the past and build upon the foundations that passed the proverbial test. It's true for virtually all things in life, including the development of a peculiar creative identity. To put it analogically, you don't want to be the human equivalent of your average American state flag (i.e. official seal against a plain background. Still love you, neighbor). Instead you want to be more akin to the likes of Maryland, Arizona and Tennessee.
The reason why such failures occur in the first place? Two words: Human complexity. When I mentioned self-reflection earlier in this article, I didn't do so lightly. Be prepared to spend a lot of time finding the parts of yourself you can leverage to your artistic advantage. It'll take a lot of burrowing and polishing, but you'll get there eventually. Even if you do, there's still the issue of allocation to deal with. By that, I mean the ways in which you communicate your beliefs and interests through your art.
Should you do it through the choice of location for your next big novel, the types of instruments you wish to employ for your forthcoming musical piece, or the camera techniques that evoke the tone and atmosphere of your motion picture? The possibilities are endless and seemingly uncategorizable, which is why many people can struggle to find the one mechanism that sets them apart from their contemporaries.
As free-form and liberating as art is, guidance and focus are still a necessity in all creative industries. Without them, the intentions, nuances and visions laid out by aspiring and veteran talents would get lost in the artistic briny. That's to say nothing of the amount of content-cutting and fine-tuning one has to undertake in order to bring their work to a satisfyingly polished state.
I'm going to summarize my point in the form of four pillars for generating unique confluences:
Topic: What is the artwork about? Does it cover a conflict? A major historical/current event? A familial kerfuffle? A castaway situation? A competition of the sportive/corporate kind? A rivalry between siblings/peers? LGBT/racial discrimination? Mental illness? A romantic bond? An immigrant tale? A royal scandal? Gang violence? Robberies?
Remember, what you choose to focus on as part of your work partially represents you as an artist and it will gradually lead toward a specific reputation. The more experimental and/or niche you are with your subject matter, the more likely you are to stand out. As with many things, research is your best friend!
Backdrop: On top of the subject matter, there's also the sociogeographical context to think of. This can mean anything from the culture tackled in the artwork to the location of the story the artist is trying to tell. Because the backdrop can have a palpable effect on the themes and style of the work, care must be taken with its selection. By that, I don't simply mean avoiding cultural appropriation or inaccuracy. The backdrop must feel like something that can't be swapped with an alternative without severely affecting the nature of the production.
If the topic is World War II, for instance, where would the work take place? The Pacific Theater? North Africa? France? Germany? Poland? Likewise, if the subject matter is post-apocalyptia, where does the action unfold? America? Russia? Britain? China? A location is more than a geographic consideration. Culture and atmosphere also play a key role in solidifying the value of the backdrop. Because a topic doesn't necessarily have to be tied to one location to make sense (save for real-life events, but even those can be played with in science fictional or fantastical terms), the chances for the work to stand out even more increase.
Theme: "Hold up, aren't theme and topic the same thing?" Not exactly, chum. Whereas a topic addresses the "who, what, when and how" in an artwork, a theme consists of a deep, underlying message rarely stated in words and mostly implied from the (sub)text instead. The topic may drive the progression of the production, but the theme provides meaning to whatever the artist relays to the audience.
Love, change, authority, gratitude, personal identity, hardship, coming of age, compassion... These are examples of themes that can separate works with similar topics from one another. While certain contexts need to have specific themes addressed for the subject matter to have justice done to, the talent is free to experiment with the messages they wish to share with the participant. The more unorthodox and nuanced the theme is, the better.
Style: Gritty? Surreal? Grungy? Colorful? Kinetic? Meditative? Fast-paced? Slow-paced? Epic? Intimate? Shocking? There are many ways to skin a cat, as well as sundry manners in which to relay the artwork's values. Since style has an impact on the work's storytelling and ambiance, the artist must identify the emotions to which they closely relate and treasure in order to tap into the audience's visual and auditory senses.
Different people have varying views on joy, fear, anger, sadness, etc., as well as wide-ranging life experiences during their upbringing and adulthood, so it makes sense to channel that reflective energy into style. Most importantly, style mirrors the way in which the creative talent sees and treats the world, so the process of forging a distinctive flair can be highly self-analytical and enjoyable. Looking at the bright side of life in spite of worldly woes? Dark humor may be up your alley. Spending a lot of time pondering human nature? A slow pace may benefit your work.
Setting An Example For Others
So all of this sounds fine and dandy, but you may be asking: "But Mitch, is such a feat even feasible, or is it all theory and no practice?"
Well, chum, if you're anything like me, then you probably enjoy consuming content on top of producing it, meaning you may have stumbled upon your fair share of standout works made by atypical minds, minds that were or are out there setting an example for others.
From movies to books, there's hardly a shortage of talents who've made their mark on their industries and earned the admiration of millions with their attention-to-detail and idiosyncrasies. The latter attribute is especially crucial when you recall Oscar Wilde's saying that "art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known." It's important to learn the rules of what constitutes a good artwork, yes, but artistic quirks and creative basics are not mutually exclusive.
Bear in mind, however, that the more experienced one becomes, the more likely they'll bend the rules to their advantage so that they may realize their artistic visions with nary a compromise. If you're just starting out, getting highly experimental with the pillars of the medium you specialize in may prove quite risky, but the do's and don't's of the examples I'm about to present are still worth knowing for referential purposes, especially given that they can be applied on a far less complex level.
So without further ado:
Hayao Miyazaki (Filmmaker): An unabashed pacifist, feminist and environmentalist with a remarkable talent for depicting the wonders of life via otherworldly imagery and characters, the "Walt Disney of Japan" hardly needs an introduction for those keeping abreast of developments in the film industry. From offering a potent allegory on nuclear warfare with Castle in the Sky (whose "Laputa Effect" redefined the looks and sounds of Japanese animation and role-playing games) to showing the extreme lengths to which Mother Nature and captains of industry would go to protect their interests in Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki is dedicated to offering potent messages on human values through the malleable medium of animation, and isn't afraid of making critical statements about world affairs and creative industries in order to remind others of the importance of humanity in both real-life and art.
Edgar Wright (Filmmaker): Shaun of the Dead. Hot Fuzz. The World's End. With his focus on kinetic action, comedic timing and interpersonal dynamism, the director of Simon Pegg's and Nick Frost's exploits has many redeeming qualities when it comes to shooting a lively flick brimming with character and heart. Whereas most comedies can feel almost akin to vignettes straight out of a Tales game, Wright's are able to turn any scene that may feel like bloated downtime (e.g. pouring beer, watching TV, traveling from one place to another) into its own hilarious skit. Couple that with environmental storytelling and audiovisual cues that risibly feed into the action, and you begin to understand why time has been kind to Wright's films. The fact that his other outings, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Baby Driver, exhibit similar levels of energy without his usual collaborators also helps.
Hideo Kojima (Game developer): Seen as the quintessential gaming auteur of modern times, Kojima should ring a bell to anyone enamored of interactive entertainment. Best known for his Metal Gear Solid-related endeavors, Kojima embraced his love of film-making and literature to create highly cinematic experiences that reinforced the status of gaming as an art form capable of avant-garde grandeur. The game director's use of pastiche, mechanical tricks (Psycho Mantis, anyone?), complex storytelling and surreal imagery lends the likes of Zone of the Enders and Snatcher a tangibly peculiar sense of style that seemingly can't exist outside of the visionary's mind. While his creative brand and design philosophy have attracted admirers and detractors alike, Kojima remains the apotheosis of artistic freedom and idiosyncrasies in a highly competitive industry split between factory titles and passion projects.
Lorne Lanning (Game developer): When it comes to portraying socioeconomic travails in a simultaneously humorous and damning fashion, you can do a lot worse than Lorne Lanning's work on the Oddworld series. Like Miyazaki, Lanning has no qualms about voicing his criticism of neoliberal institutionalism and globalization, but he does so with a dash of dark comedy and oddball imagery that turn the player's exploits into an interactive allegory full of meaning and laughs. The combination of storytelling karma and anthropomorphic humanoids to communicate Oddworld's tales of exploitation and social retribution allows Lanning to shed a light on the issues that impacted him as a budding talent without ever condescending the participant or hampering the narrative. While Lanning may be more obscure a figure than the likes of Miyamoto and Druckmann, his signature style can still be felt in his juxtapositions of serious subject matter and cartoonish derring-do.
Junji Ito (Writer): Known by some as the "Clive Barker of manga," Ito has developed a reputation for crafting ghastly body horror that has a thing or two to say about the human mind and incomprehensible nature of the universe. From the downward spiral that is Uzumaki to the accursed tales of the titular Tomie, the comic artist draws heavily from the likes of H.P. Lovecraft while still adding a uniquely Eastern flair to the genre of cosmicism with his grisly depiction of the woes of cultural conformity and the facets of Japanese society that Ito tackles. The ambiguity emblematic of Eastern horror serves to reinforce the unearthly scenarios and social commentary that define Ito's work, which also forsook many of the tropes present in Japanese animation and comics in favor of an unfiltered look at the atrocities people inflict on one another when irrationality takes root in their brains.
Ray Bradbury (Writer): Science fictional shenanigans and an emphasis on intimate human values aren't mutually exclusive, something Ray Bradbury knew quite well. As an author of both fix-ups and novels, Bradbury strove to tackle ambitious "what if" scenarios such as book burning in Fahrenheit 451 and malicious traveling carnival folks in Something Wicked This Way Comes without ever compromising on the lyrical and sensory prose he utilized to turn even the most mundane scenes into vivid descriptions of the worlds and characters he concocted. This one-two punch of thematic and poetic potency added a sense of magic and innermost drama to even the solemnest of tales, avoiding the pitfalls of unfeeling rationality and maudlin emotionalism afflicting other artworks. It's thanks to the gifts of language and humanism that Bradbury was able to bring science fiction from a niche spot to the literary masses, a testament to his style and optimism that added heart to a genre previously seen as more mechanical than humanizing.
As an individualist, I always cared deeply about the necessity to stand out in whichever endeavor one undertakes. Self-actualization is a human imperative — one that varies greatly from person to person — and no industry emphasizes that impulse more than the artistic sort, a realm of subjectivity and imagination that can appear simultaneously varied and homogeneous depending on where you look. The key to success is to ensure that said diversity expands, not just for the benefit of all, but also for that of the individual who may feel compelled to raise their standards.
With the advancement of electronic platforms and more voices being propped up during these trying times, artists have additional reasons to further individualize their approach and set themselves apart from their peers and contemporaries. Competition and diversity are healthy because they foster the creative drive that's needed for talents to fully realize their potential and whip up works worthy of their names and personalities.
In spite of what I've stated in my article, I'm glad that both niches and trends exist alongside one another. They give everyone an idea of what works, what's been tackled and what can be further explored to advance their respective mediums and make their styles more focused and noteworthy. Following trends and doubling down on one's time-tested strengths aren't sins in and of themselves, but it hardly hurts to look beyond one's comfort zone and ponder the many possibilities that beckon artists over.
After all, as Craig Hubbard once said:
Let me know what you think of my article in the comments section, and feel free to share this post and ask me questions! I’ll do my best to get back to you as promptly as possible.
Personal blog: https://michelsabbagh.wordpress.com/
Email: [email protected]
Read more about:Blogs
You May Also Like
Accessibility and fancy footwork with GLYDR's John Warren - Game Developer Podcast ep. 40Feb 28, 2024
Exploring the 2024 State of the Game Industry report - Game Developer Podcast ep. 39Feb 2, 2024
Phantom inspiration and the ethical auteur with Xalavier Nelson Jr.Dec 8, 2023
Designing Killer Queen: from playground experiment to modern arcade sensationOct 18, 2023
Get daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox
Subscribe to Game Developer Newsletters to stay caught up with the latest news, design insights, marketing tips, and more