Sunday 19 October 2014

My Story of Making Stuff

It’s been a while, erstwhile fans of my blog (yes, all 2 of you) so you might be wondering what games and films I’m planning to review next. Actually, I did promise someone to add some variety on here by not restricting myself to only doing half-arsed reviews every now and then… So I’m back with something unapologetically self-obsessed that maybe taps into the reason I’m doing this silly little thing in the first place.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to create. It’s always been a driving force in my life, and I’ve also never been particularly restricted to one form or another. Well, okay, there are restrictions, in the sense that there are certain things that I’m so appallingly bad at that it makes no sense to even contemplate trying them. And that’s ok. Arts and crafts, anything relying on manual dexterity; certain primary school projects featuring pottery or stitching or woodwork come to mind as disastrously applied examples of botched art; it is quite apparent that these are not areas that I should be looking to fulfill my creative itches.

So, at a young age, faced with an overwhelming lack of ability in sports but above average literary skills, it makes perfect sense that I would want to write. All kids doodle, and doodle I did, but I also wrote, and wrote a lot. The really early ‘stories’ I wrote are surreal to the point of actually not making any sense at all, and not just because of the terrible handwriting. Looking back through all these archives (I’ve got really good at hoarding everything through the years, both on computer and on paper), it’s quite amusing to see how many stories and things I abandoned soon after beginning, after the first chapter, first page, or in some cases, after just the contents page (for a while as a kid, I had this hilarious quirk of wanting to do the contents page first, and guess the page numbers for each chapter, before even writing a single sentence.)

Video games had a massive impact on me. We got the Nintendo 64 in 1997, and my five-year old brain just exploded. I’d never seen anything like it; bearing in mind until then I’d only ever seen games on the blurry monochrome screen of the original Game Boy. So, of course, soon everything I was writing was video game themed; I’d be making up badly-worded game walkthroughs for games that didn’t exist and writing lists of game menus - even more pointless than fake contents pages. It didn’t matter though, it was all just adding fuel to the childish fantasies in my head, no different to kids playing make-believe and running around pretending there are exploding spaceships everywhere. 

The first ‘book’ of any notable length that I finished was based on N64 classic Banjo-Kazooie in 1998. It was about 50 pages long in the end (albeit with massive handwriting and huge pictures) but it was complete, and I was so proud of it I spun out two sequels over the next few years, and then tape-recorded myself reading it out loud like an audio-book, high-pitched voice and all. I would have been maybe 8 years old. I have no shame. (I also used to record myself playing around with a Casio keyboard - badly, I never learned to play piano - and singing along... THAT, my friends, is embarrassing.)

Of course, this was around the time I ended up starting to make things on computers. There was a great old art program called Kid Pix that I was obsessed with, not just because it was a child doodler’s paradise, but because it let you stitch together slideshows and essentially make your own little movies. Here's one of them:

"I think it's about time we fought Earth" - Great motivation there from the Martian leader

That was mind-blowing, because now I could tell stories through moving pictures as well as words. Over time, my dad’s graphic design credentials led me to gradually become exposed to what is now Adobe Flash, and it’s what I’ve used as an animating tool now for almost 15 years. The beauty of Flash is that it also houses its own programming language and combined with the visual interface it’s quite easy to make certain basic types of games. Yeah, games. I’d already been tinkering with level editors at this point, but there’s just something different about being able to make something entirely on your own. I had no idea what I was doing at the time, back in the early 2000s, but I figured out how to do point and click styled things and had an absolute blast doing so. Most of the time I’d knock out a title screen and get no further, but it didn’t matter that I was never going to finish most things, it was just fun to try.

Everything changed when we finally got broadband in the mid-2000s and I realised I could share my stuff with the outside world. Before then, I’d done the odd crude animation or two to share with people at school, but as I started developing my skills, I realised I really could do something more ambitious. My first real internet project in 2006, Stupid Mario Bros, was a crude sprite-animation video that I chose to do, pretty much, because similar things were already widespread and attracted a lot of views. Funnily enough, this video has had by far the biggest viewership of anything I’ve ever made, even though it’s unoriginal and was animated it in a single day.

10,000 views… 100,000 views… This was exciting! For a while I became captivated with the idea of simply having an audience, so I guess I became a bit of a sell-out. I jumped aboard the ‘YouTube Poop’ train, basically a fad of doing quick and silly remixes of memes, particularly the Cd-i videos, and these made up the majority of my YouTube channel for a good few years. I brought in a whole load of views this way, but it didn’t feel earned. It was fun for a while, but it was too cheap and lacking in spirit. I took up a number of ambitious projects to try and dispel this bad taste, and most fell through, though there were exceptions - this Star Wars game I did stands out as being a massive 6-month long project I can actually say I finished, back in 2008. During this period I had a website too, It’s long-gone now, was never particularly successful, but it was a massive learning experience. In a way, I think it proved to me that internet views are pretty meaningless. You can attract a following from any kind of rubbish, but is that really what you want to do? You have to be a) absurdly lucky and b) obsessively committed to make a living off it anyway, so surely it’s better to just do what you feel like doing?

The flip-side of the coin is the feeling of having made a difference on a more personal, interconnected level. There’s the rare occasion where you get a comment along the lines of ‘this video cheered me up after a hard day’ or perhaps most unbelievably ’I watched this video with my parents and we quote it every day,’ and you can’t help but feel proud of what you’ve done. It’s still true, then, that people’s reactions to what I’ve made are something I actively seek out, whether it be between my friends or amongst strangers online. Of course, that can mean sifting through criticism or incessant trolling if you’ve ever navigated the labyrinths of YouTube comments before. It’s never been a problem for me, though. Sometimes I question whether I’m just selfishly looking for something to prove, to witness that spontaneous reaction of people being impressed, amused, or even in awe of seeing something they wouldn’t know how to make themselves. I don’t know whether that’s really what it’s all about. There is something special about being able to provoke a reaction in something you’ve made, but there’s also something special about fulfilling your own desire to simply create, to seize ownership of your own imagination and turn it into something tangible. 

In recent years perhaps my output has lessened. It’s a pretty natural effect of growing up, grinding through university, having to get a job and then having less time week on week to make things at the same rate as before. Also, it’s a side effect of wanting to make everything better, trying more and more ambitious ideas that just aren’t going to go anywhere without proper planning and time management. As recently as 2012 I was trying to focus on Shoe Sandwich, a collaborative channel with much higher quality output; for a while it looked like it would work - the Shoenice video below is the most sophisticated animation I’ve worked on - but like many things Shoe Sandwich soon fell apart due to a lack of time and overly elaborate ideas.

If I die tomorrow, at least I can die knowing that I once voiced a talking tampon.

But elaborate ideas can’t be ignored. My own YouTube account may have gone quiet and it may be harder for me to find the right time or place to work on something, but I can never give up on my desire to create. Why else do you think I started this blog? I have massive projects I still want to do someday, things I’ve never tried before, other things I’m already half-way there on. I’ve come full circle, in a way, back to my original desire to tell stories and design games, and I’m finding it exciting. It’s really, really exciting. What I’ve learned is that it really doesn’t matter what medium you choose. Writing books, poems, drawing comics, painting, making music, singing, dancing, acting, directing, programming… it doesn’t matter what it is you choose to do, or how you choose to do it, or how successful you are at it. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with your career, or get in the way of your degree. It can just be a hobby. I actually like the fact that it’s just a hobby for me. In a way, that makes it more special. Do it because it’s enjoyable. I know what I want to do.