I’ve done a lot of writing for the game Battle For Wesnoth. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned, and now teach others, is this: genre cliches are your friend. Too much originality can badly disrupt the gameplay experience. This is so at variance with our expectations about ‘good’ art that I think it deserves some explanation and exploration.
Wesnoth is a fantasy-themed game, and I’ve worked quite hard at bringing the prose in Wesnoth up to the standard of the better grade of fantasy novel. But I have to deal constantly with the fact that Wesnoth is not a novel – it’s a battle game, and the text occurs in rather small dollops as narrative decoration around battles. The purpose of the game is to present those battle scenarios in an appealing and involving way, not to present a work of literature in which there happen to be embedded tactical puzzles.
One consequence is that writing for Wesnoth is rather like constructing a ship in a bottle. You have to be ruthlessly economical with your prose, because the form and the players won’t tolerate expository lumps – or, really, any kind of lump. You must routinely accomplish a great deal in a very few words. I find meeting this sort of artistic challenge very satisfying when I can pull it off; in one example that I’m particularly proud of, I wrote a love scene emotionally powerful enough to make my wife cry in four lines of dialogue (Kalenz and Cleodil in The Legend of Wesmere; you’ll know it when you see it).
Another consequence of the hard constraints on length of exposition is that cliche is your friend. When you’re scene-painting with so few words, you have to rely on the reader’s interpretive context for the work and evoke the reader’s pre-existing ideas about and images of elves, orcs, undead and so forth, rather than trying to create novel ones. Too much originality is actually dangerous; it risks leaving players puzzled and stranded in a secondary world they suddenly find they lack the information to understand.
Creativity is certainly possible under these constraints, but it has to be additive and incremental. For example, my campaign The Hammer of Thursagan begins with Dwarves that are very much ANSI standard and never tries to subvert or reject that Tolkien-derived cliche – but it does explore some ideas about Dwarvish society (the role of loremasters) and psychology (the revulsion against masking and deception, the terror of being outcast) that add levels of complexity and non-human nuance to that cliche.
And, unashamedly, I steal from good sources in order to enhance the player’s experience. For example, the description I wrote for the death of the lich Mal-Ravanal at the end of Eastern Invasion consciously echoes the death of Sauron in The Return of The King. The imagistic and emotional parallel is a tool with which I make that scene more powerful, more resonant, for anyone who has read the Tolkien and half-remembers it. I had to do it that way, because I couldn’t spend the wordage required to produce a powerful and original death scene!
The visual art for Wesnoth has similar qualities. Some of it is quite lovely and striking, but very little of it is actually surprising. Likewise the music, which (like the film scores it strongly resembles) is thoroughly situated within genres comfortable to the listener’s ear rather than avant-garde. Like the prose, the visual art and music are support elements for gameplay rather than than ends in themselves; too much originality would be distracting, and would demand a kind of cognitive effort from players that they didn’t really sign up for. They have battles to win and puzzles to solve!
We’re all so marinated in the 20th-century idea that good art is required to challenge one’s preconceptions and be original that it is perhaps difficult for to receive this sort of deliberately derivative work as art at all. But it’s worth remembering that standalone art intended primarily to express the artist’s personal creativity is a very recent idea, not actually fully developed until the collapse of aristocratic patronage at the end of the 19th century and the “back to zero” impulse of modernism in the early 20th.
In most cultures at most times, quotation and bricolage have been as important to artists, or far more important, than individual creativity. Art was tied to and primarily generated for non-artistic purposes – as an evocative device for religions, as decoration for craft objects and architecture, as a peacock-tail display tactic for the wealthy and powerful. Individual creativity was restrained, additive, and incremental; as in Wesnoth, too much originality would have separated art from its purposes and alienated its audience.
It isn’t Wesnoth that is exceptional, it’s art-for-art’s sake. That stance depends on the existence of a specialized audience of aesthetes who are willing to value and consume art-for-art’s sake, detached from any of the purposes that are historically normal for art. Which is all very well, except when art-for-art’s sake decides that it owns the whole domain and that the entire pre-modern history of art can be consigned to irrelevance. Some pretty noxious pathologies develop out of that, as I’ve previously discussed in Terrorism Becomes Bad Art and Deadly Genius and the Back-to-Zero Problem.
So, on the whole, I’m quite happy that Battle For Wesnoth is a functionally appealing pile of cliches, and quite willing to let my artistic ya yas out by pastiching Tolkien and Dunsany and Howard with the occasional flash of restrained creativity. The truth is I’d rather be part of that conversation than the one the art-for-art’s-sake aesthetes are having; the latter doesn’t seem to lead anywhere good.