Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time
Your Job Is to Fall In Love

Colin Rowsell | 12 Jan 2010 13:17
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Love - or its absence - always communicates. The job of a creator or storyteller in any medium is to first fall in love with what they're doing, then use their craft to send that spark out to others. The love, rather than the craft, is what separates it all from bunk. It creates the touchstone moments that spur whole new generations of kids into creative pursuits.

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The Muppets embody that spirit. It's there in every Fozzie Bear joke, every Gonzo stunt and every "hi-YAAA" from Miss Piggy as she punishes Kermit for insufficient swine worship. Jim Henson found a way to communicate love to his team. They, in turn, produced a show that spread it to millions of people. Among those people were many wide-eyed kids who felt a giant "click" and realized: I want to make stuff too.

A classic example in visual FX is Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion creatures. Everyone remembers the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts, but there's also the cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Look carefully at it. It's surrounded by some remarkable techniques of animation and compositing, but at the core it's a lump of clay, completely lifeless. Except that this lump of clay was loved. Someone cared very deeply about making it the best clay monster it could possibly be, and that feeling comes through in every frame the cyclops is on film. In creating myriad beasts over his 40-plus year career, Harryhausen and his team were incapable of phoning in their work. His creatures display the same loved quality of every great movie monster ever made. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, James Cameron, Dennis Muren, Peter Jackson and others saw this, got excited and set out to make stuff.

Me, I was a Muppet lover as a kid, like everyone else, and also had a thing for Asterix the Gaul. But my version of the cyclops lay in 1980s computer games, particularly one called Castle Adventure written by a guy named Kevin Bales.

Castle Adventure is crude even by the standards of the time. You're an adventurer. You're stuck in a castle. You have to explore, kill monsters, find treasure, evade traps and escape. The whole thing is done in ASCII graphics with the occasional onboard PC speaker "BEEP" for sound. Compared to contemporary titles like Rogue or Zork, Castle Adventure is tiny and easy. But you can tell that someone loved this world. Someone pored long and hard over where the mad demon was going to lurk and what the secret punctuation mark would do to the vampire. Someone lived in this castle and believed in it utterly. As a child, this reached out to me. I had access to more advanced games, but that little dungeon, with all its limitations, drew me in.

My cyclops list goes forward through a number of well-known titles: Starflight, Hero's Quest, The Colonel's Bequest, Xenon 2, Ultima 6 & 7, heading into Doom and TIE Fighter. Some had brutal flaws. Many were cheesy as hell. But it took John Stevenson raving about his obsession with Kermit and the cyclops to make me re-realize the inherent love in those games that grabbed me and took hold of me. Many others of the time, especially those made by the growing teams at larger studios or as movie tie-ins, just didn't have that quality. It's why Space Quest 3, for example, still has fansites dedicated to it but the PC adaptation of Terminator 2 doesn't - and why today more than ever there's a split between games made for paychecks and games whose creators have had the opportunity to get really, truly, goofily excited about them.

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