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The Varied Forms of Muse – Infinite Sadness and Happiness

May 20, 2009

I’ve been thinking about this lately, about inspirations that lead us directly or indirectly through a particular game or to a particular idea in the first place.

The Burst of Inspiration

First, the obvious one, the sudden and overwhelming, “wouldn’t that be amazing” train of thought that leads to a game idea. I don’t and I do often have these. As a game designer, something’s wired oddly in my brain, and I tend to see everything as a system. I always want to know how it works or how it was made. This can be, in fact, irritating to me when I see a beautiful work of art, and I am first struck by the formal structure of the thing and need to process that first before I can just take it in.  Sometimes, in these systems, I will see something compelling that I want to explore further. More often, the random ideas come when constraints have been established. This is the bread and butter of every game designer.

Recognizing the Right Answer When it Comes

I firmly, deeply believe that a good game will make itself, and you as its designer will not need to push it much except to recognize the right answer when your brain suggests solutions to problems.  This process requires time, of course, and enough experience a) to recognize the good solutions vs. the not so good ones and b) to have a collection of solutions in the first place. It also requires the discipline to isolate the problems, ask the questions and not ram forward before the answers come. In some of my games, there is clear evidence that my solutions could have used a few more years experience. There are also some awesome moments in there of which I am still proud. This is something Ian Schreiber and I have gone back and forth on a number of times (with Ian comparing it with some of the Surrealists), and it fascinates me. There is only one way to polish this particular “muse” skill, and it is three-fold: play a ton of games, make a ton of prototypes (screw up and succeed) and become a constant mental explorer.

Significant Happiness

This is the muse of a literal kind, sort of like Jackson Pollock’s Ruth Kligman or Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Testorf. These individuals played different roles in the lives of the artists, from lover to intensely studied subject. There are also events in our lives which fill us with crazy creative energy. I am guessing we’ve all had such moments – when we practically bounce into work or into a project, and the source of our delirious happiness is completely external to the project at hand. I am not precisely sure how this happiness fuels things (note my previous comment about seeing everything as a system). There is the obvious added energy, and the happiness that spills out and affects those who work with us. Of absolute direct inspiration? I don’t know. I am looking at my own life for examples of this and its correlating transition to game. For me, the best sort of design happiness comes when a system can be created and shared and continued happiness rises from that. It causes me to become attached to and passionate about the system itself, and therefore, I become protective of it and much more careful in the handling of solutions as they rise.

Wow. That may be the nerdiest think I ever said.


There was a time in my life that I was cut to the proverbial bone.  To greater or lesser degrees, we have each experienced a deep and lasting sadness that eventually passes, let’s hope, with time. How does that influence the games we create? I can see a direct trajectory in my case, though the reasons weren’t clear at the time. I thought how the after effects of the “cut to the bone” thing would play themselves out in a game world. How did a single thing affect others? It was way more artgame than traditional game. Clearly, this was my brain trying to make sense of what had happened in the way it is wired to make sense. I never did make the game, though I may someday.

Sadness has influenced a great many artists. Some of my favorite music – and a whole hell of a lot of blues – rises from sadness. Pollock is said to have started his infamous Blue Poles in a drunken state, in an incredible depression and very nearly suicidal.

The External Thing

Somewhat related to the “significant happiness” muse I noted above, there is also great power in singular object, music, locations or incidents as inspirations. Miyamoto has discussed how his childhood play locations informed his later games. You can see Will Wright’s fascination with robots in every single game he creates, or maybe it is his fascination in AI and how things interact with one another and create emergent behavior. You can see the visual representation of the music Romero listened  to when he designed the levels for his early FPS masterpieces. Sometimes, I believe the artists are aware of their muse and its purpose (in the case of the three artists named above, I know this to be true for certain). In the design of my current games, I look at pictures for a very long time, trying to imagine what people felt like when they were where they were in history. Sometimes, it is horrible, and I need to understand that.

Other times, the purpose of object and its role as muse is not so clear. Take my current muse:

This is Jackson Pollock’s The Deep from 1953. It’s a very late painting for him, after he’d moved away from his “drip” style. This painting wasn’t critically lauded. In fact, he took a lot of heat from critics for what many perceived as a step back. He stops painting entirely not too long after The Deep before dying in a car wreck in 1956.

I have no idea what it is about this painting that completely has me. If we’re calculating play time, I’ve invested at least 20 hours pondering it. I think the key part about this is that I don’t really care why I am drawn to it. I trust that there is a reason, much like we as designers trust we’re onto something when we’re researching it.

I am interested to hear about your muses, too.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2009 1:57 am

    It’s a hard question, really. I’m slightly abashed to say my muse often seems to be a moral consternation in relation to someone elses position.

  2. May 29, 2009 1:23 am

    I went to some live wrestling in Melbourne recently, for the first time. It occured to me, what would happen if you were trying to make a game of that, when it isn’t actually a game itself – it’s a prescripted match? What happens when you try and make a game of something that isn’t a game? Is that a muse? If you keep thinking something is a game and you try to make a game like it, when there was no game to begin with?

    More specifically I was thinking of many table top RPG’s aren’t much more than a programming language, but if you keep looking at them and using the bits provided in the text as if it were a game…is that a muse?


  1. The +1 Road to Happiness « Applied Game Design

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