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The Designer's Notebook: Tolkien, Beethoven, Vision

June 18, 1999
 

In J.R.R Tolkien's creation myth for his fantasy world, the Earth was designed by music. Eru, The One, created a number of spirit beings called the Ainur, who sang before him. But there were conflicts among the Ainur over whose theme should dominate, and several were tried. Eventually Eru stopped the music in a single tremendous chord, and he revealed to the Ainur what their singing had actually done — it had formed a vision of the Earth and all its history. Then, with a word, Eru caused the vision to become reality.

Tolkien's creation myth irresistibly brings Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to mind, so much so that I sometimes wonder if Tolkien was inspired by it. The Ninth Symphony consists of five movements. In the first three, the orchestra explores three very different themes. But in the fourth movement, a conversation takes place between the cellos, which are clearly a teacher, and the violins, which are the pupils. One after another, the violins start to play each of the themes of the first three movements. Each time, the cellos cut them off with an emphatic negative. Finally, timidly, the violins introduce a new theme. The cellos encourage them, and the theme expands into the soaring Ode to Joy that is the fifth movement.

Beethoven was inspired by a vision (if you can call a purely auditory experience a vision). He never actually heard the Ninth Symphony except inside his own head. By the time he wrote it, he was completely deaf. Beethoven conducted the first performance personally without ever hearing a note.

Tolkien's work, too, was the expression of his own vision, one which he had held ever since he was a young man. He refined it over the years, but many of its fundamental elements remained the same throughout his life. In the end, Tolkien didn't really think of himself as "creating" his world, but more as bringing to light something which already existed. When someone once asked him a question about Middle-Earth for which he had no answer, he made a note in his diary: "Must find out." Not "must think of something" or "must make something up," but "must find out." Tolkien was not a novelist creating a world, he was a historian documenting one that he could see in his head.

This quality of vision is one that we, as creative people, ignore at our peril. No, we're not Beethovens or Tolkiens; most of us aren't geniuses; we produce mass-market entertainment, not towering masterworks of music or storytelling. We design by committee, not as individuals; we work under deadline pressures; our primary aim is to make a game which will sell and make money. The circumstances under which we work are almost totally unlike those under which Tolkien and Beethoven worked. But every creative person needs a vision for all that, a picture in her head of the completed work.

It's easy to spot games that lack vision. They seem pale, insubstantial, missing the harmony that I wrote of a couple of columns back. Sometimes this happens when there are two competing visions of the game among the developers, and the producer, in order to restore peace on the team, devises a bad compromise between them. At other times, it's because no one really has a vision; the team is floundering to construct something that they don't understand – or worse yet, don't believe.

I've often heard the producer's role described as "the keeper of the vision." The producer can be the keeper of the vision, if he's also the designer, but often the producer is so tied up in administrative details that the vision gets lost. The vision needs a keeper, though, a person who believes it and understands it, loves it and can explain it and argue for it. In many companies nowadays it's not enough to design the game; it's also necessary to mount a propaganda campaign on its behalf, to get the sales staff and senior management excited about it. The vision must not only be kept and nurtured, but also championed and evangelized. This is part of the role of the game designer today.

Visions, however, are not created by typing on a computer. Visions are born of concepts and knowledge. They arise from the cross-fertilization of ideas. They are the products of thought itself. This is one of the reasons that it's a mistake for would-be game developers to concentrate solely on learning programming, or art tools, or music. We create entertainment. Programming and music and 3D modeling are a means to that end, but they are only a means. Before them must come the vision, and the vision emerges from literature and art, history and architecture, observation, and emotion, and experience interacting in a mind that cares about such things.

A real part of game design is sitting and staring at the wall. This is the hardest part, and also the most rewarding. It's also the part that productivity-conscious project managers are least able to understand. Yes, you need to hold brainstorming meetings with the team. Yes, you need to consult with the marketing people. Yes, you need to write design documents. But none of those activities can accomplish the most essential part of the design process, and that is simple thought. Some of the time you have to spend sitting alone, in a quiet place, in a comfortable chair, staring at the wall and thinking. Maybe you have a pad and a pencil – but not a computer. A computer is too distracting, too demanding. It sits there, blinking its cursor at you, revving its 450 MHz engine, just waiting to execute in a matter of milliseconds any task you may have for it. You give it something to do and ker-pow! It does it in a flicker of light, then rushes back and blinks its cursor at you again like the panting of an overenthusiastic dog.

Visions are not born of data processed quickly. They're born of knowledge understood, slowly. Of reflection and consideration. Recently I had the task of working on a design for which a prototyping team was already assembled. Three programmers, an artist, a level designer, and a project manager were all waiting to hear what I had to say, and they wanted amplification on every crazy idea I thought up so that they could get to work. I found this rather awkward. I knew they were always waiting for more material, so I never felt as if I had the time just to sit and think by myself about the design, to let it bubble and ferment in my brain. It's a process that can't be rushed.

I've never been a big believer in the notion that creativity requires some kind of special, inexplicable, quality of mind which isn't subject to rational analysis and which only artists possess. This is a 20th century Western conceit. Most tribal cultures have no word for "art" and no word for "artist." They just make stuff. The stuff they make may have decorative, or ceremonial, or spiritual, or other non-utilitarian purposes, but they still don't put it on a pedestal and call it art.

The Balinese are a good example of this. In Bali, everybody makes stuff all the time. The taxi driver who takes you to your hotel from the airport is probably making something at home that we would classify as art, but they don't have any word for art because they don't make a fuss about it. The concept of art and the artist is not a human universal. The desire to make stuff is a human universal, but placing the stuff and its makers into a special category called art is characteristic of extremely complex cultures like ours.

I say this because I don't want you to think that I'm arguing for this quiet time in the design process as some kind of a mystical thing, or because I want to put game design creativity on a pedestal. When I speak of the designer's vision, I'm not talking about a religious or a spiritual vision, but the simple vision that occurs in the head of any creative person, the vision that is the answer to the question, "What's it gonna look like/feel like/work like/smell like when it's done?" All creative people share this, from Picasso to some guy building furniture in his garage.

Game development is a business with schedules to meet and money to make. The vast majority of the time, our actions are dictated by purely pragmatic considerations. But it is still a creative process requiring imagination and inspiration, and those rarely occur in meetings. There's a period near the beginning of the development process when the thing a designer needs most is solitude.


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