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November 21, 2005

The Source of Inspiration

Finding Neverland

I'm always rather interested in the source of inspiration, whether it be for films, books, or games, or really any creative endeavor. Finding Neverland explores the relationship between author J. M. Barrie and a widow and her sons. The film excellently portrays the invention of Peter Pan, attempting to visually capture the genesis of an idea, directly overlaying fantasy and reality using techniques similar to Big Fish, or a Terry Gilliam film. We see Barrie enjoying himself amongst children and feeling uncomfortable around adults (most notably, his wife), and we come to feel someone who seems out of touch with society's mores, while at the same time knowing that this same man will produce a work that has touched the lives of millions and millions over the last hundred or so years. We watch him watching boys jump about on their beds having a pillow fight, and see him make the leap to them being transported in flight. He portrays a pirate and they defeat him. And in these things we see the birth of a story we all know and love.

Learning about such sources of inspiration is wonderfully compelling to me, whether dramatized as in Neverland or in reality. I was similarly touched by seeing a feature on the Spirited Away disk which revealed the origin of the cleansing of the river spirit as a real event in Miyazaki's life. Apparently, Miyazaki and some neighbors had spent a Saturday cleaning the river near where they lived, including removing a rusted old bicycle from the muck, an object which appears from the muck-encrusted body of the river spirit in the film. It's a tender moment which is even further enriched by our knowledge of how it came to be; we share, for a moment, the eyes and mind of Miyazaki. Watching this scene is now enriched for me by an understanding of how it came to be -- I suspect I won't soon see another production of Peter Pan, but you can be assured that when I next view it I will be thinking about how such scenes came to be.

I feel the same way on learning a little bit about the genesis of Mario¹. Simple idea -- how about a guy who jumps around, against a background like the sky? But he's too big, so how about we shrink him, oh, and what if he could get big again? Talk about your happy accidents. From a simple idea and a very few fundamental mechanics a great game is born, and an industry is relaunched.

Sometimes the source of inspiration is pretty damned obvious... and you wish you had thought of it first. I've been playing a fair amount of Guitar Hero the last week or so, and the inspiration is so clearly that moment where you first rocked out on your air guitar. They took that great feeling, made a simple game of skill, and suddenly, a game where you come away feeling like a performer is born². Terrific stuff.

More commonly, I suspect, other games are the sources of our inspiration. I know that was the case of the Star Wars games I worked on for years. With Starfighter, we started off wanting to create a sim along the lines of TIE Fighter, and having seen Rogue Squadron and decided to switch to consoles, we tried to steer a more middle ground. Republic Commando was born from a tense few hours of playing Ghost Recon cooperatively, and wanting to achieve that same feel from a single-player game. Most of what we see on the shelves falls into this paradigm. I think it's a persuasive argument for designers to get out and do things other than playing games.

Sometimes, though, it's still just a bolt from the blue, whether it's a story or a game or a movie. Keita Takahashi, the man behind Katamari Damacy and its recent sequel³, describes the moment of inspiration as something "I just basically came up with". Ah, well, sometimes inspiration is too great to be tracked down.

Anyone out there care to share the inspirations for what they've done, or perhaps point me in the direction of some other great quotes? I love this stuff.

Well, join me next time for some discussion of disease transmission, sparked by Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. It should be up around Friday.

¹Full disclosure: Super Mario Bros. is one of those games I see played again and again -- by my sons, so it's often on my mind though I rarely get a chance to play it any more. And, of course, I'm a self-admitted Nintendo fanboy. I'd say self-confessed, but that would suggest I feel some sort of shame... (back)
²I'll come back to Guitar Hero in the not too distant future. (back)
³Both soon to be on my playlist... (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at November 21, 2005 11:16 PM


I love Finding Neverland for numerous reasons,among which the ones you write about. It's also a movie that successfully plays with its audience without being pedant - i.e. a good movie that is even better when you get the subtle hints and references.

And it has heart. It's not so much about how to create but about what it feels like, good and bad, how it changes you.

Reading on the subject I recommend: I was very interested by the contrast between Richard Garfield's and James Ernest's design processes in "Rules of Play".

Posted by: Stephane Bura at November 22, 2005 05:29 PM

Thanks for the comment, Stephane, and welcome. I've been meaning to pick up a copy of Rules of Play, so now I guess I have to. Thanks for the pointer.

Posted by: Brett Douville at November 23, 2005 11:53 AM

hello, long time no see: since José Saramago, remember? i've seen Neverland and i thought that film is inspiring and absorbing. why? because we see the genesis of a world, of a mind. i felt the same in the book i'm reading, The Phantom Whisper, from Boris Cyrulnik. outstanding how he speaks about Hans Christian Andersen's childhood and the origin of his work. as you say is quite interesting to see where all that came. the fountain that becames a river: our life, our moments and all that embraces us as the wind. even in creating games. well i think that's enough... :-$ i spoke too much. i greet you farewell and recomend another book, this time from a italian guy: Italo Calvino's Six Memos For The Next Millenium(http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0679742379/qid=1132844975/sr=1-4/ref=sr_1_4/104-8957296-5256753?v=glance&s=books)

Posted by: Rui at November 24, 2005 10:11 AM

Hi, welcome back, Rui, of course I remember you. I'm actually reading The Cave right now, as you can see in the side bar, and it's every bit as awe-inspiring as his others.

I'm pretty familiar with Italo Calvino's works; back in grad school, I attempted to get an online reading group going, and the first book we read was "If on a winter's night a traveler" -- I actually tried to track my essay on that down via the internet for a little bit but without much luck, I'm afraid. I went on to read a couple others and my sister actually even read from "Invisible Cities" at my wedding. :)

I was unaware of this particular work, though, thanks for pointing it out. I'll be sure to check that out, as well as the Cyrulnik. Your translation is more poetic than his translator's, by the way, here in English it appears as "The Whispering of Ghosts".

Posted by: Brett Douville at November 25, 2005 10:44 PM