Dangers in Design
Sometimes, you get self-reflective. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe it’s the whole getting older and wiser thing. Maybe it’s the wanderlust that settles in the blood, in the bones, that tickles my feet, my soul, and makes me look towards the horizon, towards the sky, towards the endless tomorrow.
I’ve been staring into the abyss for quite some time. When you work on horror and the macabre, that’s a natural extension of things. Be it tremulus or Realms of Cthulhu or Agents of Oblivion, I choose to work on horror. I attempt to cover the whole gamut of horror because horror isn’t just one thing. There are many facets to the most base emotions and it fascinates me how the rational mind can succumb to the irrational with just a few tonal shifts, a few words, or an unknown sounds. It’s the atavistic survival nature of man thrummed into our reptile brains, encoded into the strands of DNA that have been playing a relay race of the fittest since we quit dragging our knuckles in the primordial ooze, but I digress.
I came here to talk about design, not to bury it in a morass of musings.
I don’t think I’m alone in what I’m about to say, but I’ll say it. It may not be the most diplomatic or commercial directions I can take in an age when image can be everything, but I have bordered on boredom in what I do. While there is no boredom for an educated mind, even in the most mundane of tasks, there are occasions when I question what I do, even when I love what I do.
And, please remember, I do love what I do.
Love is not a passive thing. It is an active verb. And, like your kid or your dog or your woman, man, or mop, you have to love it unconditionally. Even if it throws up in your face. Especially if it throws up in your face.
Writing can be damned hard. And the better you get, the harder it is. You shudder at your past words, works, unfinished manuscripts, half-turned thoughts. Ideas mouldering on pages you see other people execute, maybe not in the exact same way you would, however, that thing is out there, and maybe it’s ruined and maybe it’s wonderful. If you don’t write the words, you’ll never know.
You pause, breathe deeply, and you dive back in.
Game design is a curious beast. Especially, if you’re overseeing production or are producing as many elements of it as you can. There is font choice and tonal quality and the mechanical bits of rules and expression of thoughts. It’s fascinating to capture the essence of things with chants, ritual, and a touch of numerology. It’s magic. We are wizards weaving together worlds.
I have been wrestling with getting things right with Agents of Oblivion. There is a sense of expectation and evolution I place upon myself and I’m sure some of you do too. If we don’t grow, we die. I won’t say I overthink things. I’d rather say I judiciously apply critical analyses to various factors. It’s part of my process. It’s likely why things just don’t spring out of my head all the time.
At times, I am carving through granite with a penknife and am getting buried beneath all the dust.
I am reading more books on creativity and business and design. In addition to the works of fiction I fill my head in. I play video games. I make sure to consume shows. I am reintroducing more structure into my life as I shift gears more heavily into create.
I am finding my rhythm and place among the constellations and crustaceans in the oceans of the sky.
One of the problems I had been struggling with the most for Agents of Oblivion was presentation of data. Struggling with (over)simplification versus data overload. This could be viewed as a minor thing or a major thing, depending upon your point of view. Once upon a time, I may have considered it a secondary thing. As part of the overall design aesthetic, I wanted this to be a specific way. I didn’t know what that specific way actually was, so I stepped back and stepped over. I focused on another aspect of the work, more on the setting materials than presentation, and let my mind noodle over this issue.
This issue is something I have been wrestling with for a year. This issue is something I cracked yesterday. Finally. Here’s how.
I’d been staring at this dossier (character sheet) for Agents of Oblivion and its jammed up, overfull. In other words, it’s too busy. With tremulus, I stylistically constrained myself to a single sheet of paper, front and back, to sum up a character. And, it works wonderfully for its intended purpose. Form and function unite. I’m a happy camper.
Structure is Cool, Routine is Not
With Agents of Oblivion, one of the problems I contended with was placing the same arbitrary parameters on the dossier design. And I knew this. I made a mistake of allowing an imaginary audience carry on a critical conversation with me. And I know better. My best designs are when I design for myself first and foremost. It’s when I jump back before all this publishing business and I’m sitting at the dining room table trying to figure out the campaign notes for the next adventure or writing a backstory for my character (which I always did) or programming random treasure generators or drawing maps of worlds and dungeons and detailing cities.
I want things to be clear, concise, and fun. Agents of Oblivion is a modern setting, a step away from the cobblestone streets I’ve been wandering lately, and I want to reflect that, too.
I realized I had been looking at the character sheet, er…dossier, all wrong. Round peg, square holes, all that sort of thing. I wasn’t trying to create something abstract or outré either. I threw on some music, stared at the ceiling, and pondered how character sheets might look today if created without all the baggage of the past. Then I thought of graphical interfaces. I did some work on those back in the day, and then I scanned my shelves, my library, where there is an array of things that inform me regularly. I grabbed a graphic design book off the shelf for inspiration and began flipping through it. I grabbed a glass of wine to increase my receptivity. I found a design that was weird and funky and I mocked it up in illustrator and found it to be impractical. I compared what I made to what I saw in the book and then a thumbnail on the opposite page caught my eye and inspired me. I fused some of what I liked from the first mockup into the second and I was off to the races.
I cast off the encumbering chains I wrapped around my creativity and recaptured the bliss, the joy, of doing good work. And remembered the most important lesson of all: Good work, satisfying work, is often hard every single time. Experience doesn’t mean easier unless you’re happy with mediocrity. Experience means refining, improving, reaching higher, striving farther. Experience lets us better navigate the terrain early on, so we have more energy left when we explore new ground. And as gamers, writers, designers, whatever, we are adventurers at heart and always want to see what’s down the corridor, behind the door, and around the corner.