Pretentious artists

Note:  I posted this on a message board in response to a user’s opinion that the creators of hit indie games Fez, Super Meat Boy and Braid were pretentious and overstating the struggle they went through in the documentary “Indie Game: The Movie”.  I wrote this not to have a go at that user, but instead to communicate to others why artists often come across as ‘pretentious’ and more than a little frenzied.  It’s worth noting that this all came out at once in sleep-deprived state on a gaming board, so please forgive the language.

I see a lot of strong opinions online regarding a certain kind of person who makes things, and how they act regarding their own work. They’re often seen as pretentious, and I guess they are, to an extent. I haven’t seen Indie Game (yet), so I’m certainly not excusing any asshole behaviour towards others, but I do think the blasé dismissal of these people is a bit unfair. What I’m about to say may seem confrontational, but please bear with me:

Unless you’ve actually spent a significant amount of time creating something hugely personal, you can’t really understand what these people are going through.

Like I said, that sounds confrontational, but it’s true. It’s not the same as schoolwork, or something you do for your job – it’s something that represents your beliefs, your values and your personality. And you know that one day people are going to experience it, and by extension, experience a part of you. You’re acutely aware, every single moment that you’re working on it, that if things don’t go just right, your audience might not get it and think it’s shit. And if they think it’s shit, it means you’re shit.

If you’re just jamming a song on the guitar, or throwing together a little game demo, or sketching some cartoons, it’s not really such a big deal if people don’t like it, because you weren’t really trying. But there comes a time when you decide you’re going to throw everything on the line and make something really valuable. You spend weeks, months, years on it. Your friends and family all know you’re doing it, they all know how hard you’ve been working, how long it’s taking, and while they have faith in you, all they really have to go on is your word that “it’s gonna be really good when it’s done, I promise”. Not “good” as in “kinda cool”, “good” as in “you’re gonna be really proud of me and want to share it with everyone you know because it’s so good”.

So you draw on the material you know best – yourself. For the first time, you’re not going to try to please someone else, or try to be cool, you’re going to be the hardest thing to be: honest with yourself and the world. You put so much of yourself and your hopes, dreams, insecurities and fears into it that the end result simply has to justify the amount of effort you expended upon it. Because it’s you on that screen, or in that recording, or on that page, and if the one time you gave it all you had and put yourself and everything you believe out there for everyone to see and they weren’t remotely impressed… well, I guess that means you’re worthless after all and all those years you spent dreaming of being a video game designer and telling yourself that one day you’d make something genuinely good were really just the delusions of a poor fool.

What I’m saying is that whatever you’re working on becomes the most important thing in the world, and it has to be just right or all those months or years you spent making a fucking video game will have been wasted and you’ll have let everyone down, especially yourself. It’s not about “making a good game”, it’s about proving to yourself and the entire world that you’re actually worth a damn even though you’re not a fucking doctor or engineer or something else that’s respectable.

So yeah. Next time you see some crazy-eyed creator rambling some nonsense about how they’re struggling, go easy on them. They’re under a lot of pressure, from the worst, most critical boss in the world: themselves. And they don’t get to go home, pound a couple of brews and forget about their shitty job, because that boss follows you every fucking second of the day.

The Three Chefs (or, “How to not go crazy trying to be something you’re not”)

Imagine there are three chefs: basic, professional and fancy. All three of them have the same signature dish, the cheeseburger. Everyone likes cheeseburgers. Well, everyone who’s not a vegetarian or a vegan. Run with me on this.

The basic chef makes regular ol’ burgers. They’re pretty good, just your standard grilled meat patty, slice of cheese and a bun. Maybe some ketchup if you’re so inclined. The good thing is that they’re quick and available pretty much everywhere.

The professional chef takes the formula for regular burgers and pushes it. Not too much, but with a keen eye for what works and what doesn’t. Instead of mince, the professional chef uses ground sirloin, cooks it carefully and maybe throws some brie and chipotle sauce on there. It’s a damn good burger, but you can’t always find them. Maybe just in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Like for a birthday celebration without putting on the ritz.

The fancy chef renounces the formula entirely. To the fancy chef, settling for a ‘regular burger’ is tantamount to heresy, and is disrespectful of cookery. They will combine bizarre flavours, and utilise obscure cooking techniques in their quest to redefine what a burger can be.

You probably already know which of the three chefs has the most customers. It’s the basic chef, with their emphasis on convenience and giving the people what they want. The fancy chef has the least, because their approach relies on a knowledge of cookery and a refined palate to really appreciate just how much of an achievement the food is. It’s not something that satisfies your craving for ‘a burger’ – it’s an achievement in cookery, and the vast majority of people simply aren’t interested in that. They just want a burger. The professional chef, on the other hand, can draw fans from either side, because sometimes the people who don’t care are looking for something special, and sometimes the connisseurs just want a burger without lowering themselves to the level of the basic chef.

Pick which one of the chefs you want to be, and for your own happiness, be as good a basic, professional or fancy chef as you can. Whichever one you choose to be, there will always be people who love your burgers – as long as you’re good enough at making them. Just be certain of what you can realistically expect once you start that journey.  Nothing will frustrate you more than if you think you should be a fancy chef but care too much about being popular, or if you think the fancy chefs are pretentious but can’t understand why nobody seems to think your burgers are unique and groundbreaking. Pick one, because if you don’t know what you are, no-one else will either.

All my favourite songs are the songs of ‘professional chefs’. It was overplayed until we were all numbed to its charm, but I still believe Outkast’s “Hey Ya” might have been a truly perfect pop song.  Every single element and phrase in that track is a tremendous hook by itself, and yet it all fits together flawlessly.  Seriously: try taking it apart one day.  Nothing is wasted or put there just for the sake of it.  It’s masterfully crafted, but retains its sheer joy and invention without being formulaic and cynical, and that’s a hell of a balancing act to pull off.  I may like to dip my toe into the fancy chefs more than most, but in the end, I really just like regular ol’ songs.

Still despise the radio, though. Fucking basic chefs.

Soundtrack to a Game that Doesn’t Exist – released 6/12/12

cover copy

1.  Intro Sequence
2.  Night Driver
3.  Dr. Hugonaut Escapes
4.  After Him!  Through the Wormhole!
5.  Where Is This Place? (Lost in the Ice Caverns)
6.  Captain Trips Victorious (Thanks for Playing!)

I’m the world’s biggest hypocrite, because I think listening to film scores for pleasure is kind of weak.

How could I think that? I’m not sure. Lots of people do it. I like film scores too. It just seems to exemplify a certain absence of musical engagement. If someone’s listening to the score from Gladiator, my immediate reaction is that they can only enjoy music if it reminds them of something else they also enjoyed. It’s a stupid reaction to have, I don’t rationally agree with it, and I’m a huge hypocrite because I do the exact same thing with video game soundtracks. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself; I am large and I contain multitudes.

If someone asked me what my two biggest influences were musically, I’d be forced to answer “Mozart and video game soundtracks”, because those were the two things I listened to most as a child. My dad had a ‘greatest hits’ Mozart CD he played incessantly, and I played a lot of Super Nintendo. Those roots run deep. I’m certain I’ll never be a composer for a full-scale orchestra, but I’d love to write music for a video game. Given the rise of the indie movement in gaming, that might still be a possibility.

I do love those soundtracks, though. When I was drawing How the Whole-Hearted Live, I spent a lot of time listening to music from the likes of VVVVVV, Super Meat Boy, Final Fantasy VI-IX and Yoshi’s Island. It’s music that’s specifically designed to be catchy, set the atmosphere and be listened to incessantly without becoming annoying. In other words, perfect for making the hundreds of hours I spent tracing photos go a little faster.

I was enjoying them so much, in fact, that I decided my next collection of laptop songs was going to take the form of a video game soundtrack, even though I had no video game to set it to. I sketched out perhaps 20 ideas; some were almost-complete, others were short, unlistenable messes. I had to abandon the project, however, because it was taking too much time away from rotoscoping, and I’d soured somewhat on the idea of making laptop music. It felt like I was avoiding the real issue as far as my music-making was concerned: that I played it safe, didn’t adhere to clear standards, and would consequently beat myself up for not creating something truly great. I went back to the guitar, resolved to start anew, finished How the Whole-Hearted Live and I’ve been working on my new music since.

It’s tough going, however. Those clear standards I mentioned? Turns out they mean you’ll spend 49 hours (25 minutes and 58 seconds, to be exact) trying to get things just right, and only have the instrumental track for a single song to show for it. It sounds pretty good, but there’s still a lot to do. I needed a break, but I wanted it to be a productive one, so I went back to my abandoned video game soundtrack project, fixed up the mostly-complete ones and did some ZX Spectrum inspired cover art. It’s actually something of a shame, looking back on it. I don’t think it was that bad an idea. I feel if my passion for it had lasted long enough and I’d applied the same attention to detail to it as I have to my current project, it might’ve ended up being pretty good. But hey, it was a fun diversion.

Sure, it’s not the great, honest work I’ve been writing about for the past six months. But it was fun, creative and productive, and I’m glad I did it. It’s better than the project joining the hundreds of other song fragments I have sitting on my hard drive that no-one ever hears. Not only was it good to work on something different for a change (instead of simply playing Europa Universalis III to pass the time), I figure that if someone hears it and gets even ten seconds of enjoyment out of the experience, it’ll have been totally worth it, because that’s ten more seconds of enjoyment I’ve contributed to the world that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. It’s not much, but at least it’s something.

I hope one of you gets something out of it, I know I have.