Paul Barnett’s special Paul Barnett show (subtitled “Or what I learned this year with EA!”) was characteristically scatter shot. Like a blunderbuss filled with nails, fragments of old CRASH cover-tapes and radioactive filings. The title’s somewhat deceptive, being less what he’s learned recently, and more a format for a general meditation on creativity and videogames. “Meditation” is a word, I suspect, Barnett would bristle at. As far as theorists go, he’s resolutely anti-theory. If you have to draw a through line via all his observations, it’d be that. Show fear and suspicion at those who claim to be able to put a neat graph over art.
He’d bristle at art too. One of his opening points is that he’s not in the business of art – but in business. He makes commercial games. That’s the point of them. Which isn’t to say that they can’t be artful in and of themselves – but if you don’t sell, there’s no fucking point.
And… okay, I’m going to step away from trying to re-create his argument. Scanning down my page of notes it reads Explosive muppets. Bridge-children, CAT-Scan, Chair Nazis, Red Paint 42 shades…well, you get the point. Point being, that by suddenly changing tack every few minutes, he’s tangentially inching towards a larger truth. Barnett is big on Truth and low on Facts. He believes that a creative director’s job is very much to follow that things which are undeniable yet also false. He uses a lot of optical illusions, hailing the illusion over the trick. He shows pictures of his office – with as many clipping stuck to the wall as a true Teenage obsessive – which includes his own paintings. He can’t paint, but one of them is made of 42 shades of red paint. It’s a standard enough abstract piece. Of course, Barnett is colour-blind, so it just looks flat to him. Truth and facts.
One riff particularly caught my fancy, especially after our Gaming Made Me. Barnett explored what it was like in the eighties in the UK, both with obvious pride (“Wizzball was more important to me than Joy Division”). While the observation that British developers had to push the machines harder than US developers due to the latter having better hardware (a Commodore 64 with a disc-drive would be viewed as alien technology to the UK) is commonplace enough, what I hadn’t picked up on was the actual intellectual richness of the scene. Barnett does the rough maths on US games. calculating 8000 games were available in the eighties over there. Which is a lot. Conversely, over the the UK, another 17,000 games were available. The disparity was primarily due to the relative dominance of consoles there and the dominance of cheap home computers (Spectrums, etc) over here. More people could make games. More people made games. More games were played.
That means there were far more games to rip off. Which is absolutely key for a Creative Director. Old ideas become New Ideas when no fuck’s played them, and there’s a mass off half-implemented stuff in those 17,000 which US designers simply won’t have had exposure to. Barnett seems to posit history almost as a toolbox, with us being able to take whatever we wish from it. It’s not about originality or unoriginality. It’s about using whatever’s interesting right now. He also views the 90s as a graveyard, where the number of games available fell due to the global rise of consoles, and the 00s as a crazed renaissance, as via the webgame revolution there’s now 50,000+ games available as a click.
But equally key to his view of a Creative Director is to not let that past chain your thinking. You are defined by your culture. You cannot help it. Those games which were your first crushes will always resonate with you, but you need to be able to see past your Nostalgia. Or, in a phrase, Elite was shit.(And shouting that at the door through which the Braben/Jones conversation was happening got one of the larger laughs). Other people’s passions are just as worthy as your own. If you’re working with a team,you can’t look down on them. Or in a phrase: “It’s not their fault that their first Final Fantasy was IX”.
The latter stuff strikes me as both a little obvious, but also true and worth re-stating as I suspect we have a tendency to overlook it. Flipping around to the consumer-of-game side, looking down on what the kids are playing is the sort of old-man-ism which always grates with me a little. I found myself back on TTLG recently. While there’s a lot of lovely people there, I did find myself saddened. Back a decade, when Looking Glass were at their creative apex, this was a home of gaming’s futurists. Now, it’s primarily a home of reactionaries. Preventing yourself turning from the former into the latter is worth actively pursuing.