Collect a coin, and a delighted glockenspiel sounds. Move from navigating a level above ground to one below ground, and the eager French chromaticism of the score changes to a spare, beat-driven minimal texture. Hit a star, and suddenly the score does a metric modulation. All of these things come to bear in a later musical education; I’m positive I understand how augmented chords change an emotional texture because of Nintendo music. These are private musical revelations that happened in the manic, parched late-night of a sleepover, but then came to bear later in the context of actual chamber music.
I was reminded of Clive James’ discussion of “mechanisms of influence” in writers:
Mechanisms of influence are hard to trace. Writers tend to think that the way they write was influenced by literature, and of course scholars make a living by following that same assumption. But a writer’s ideal of a properly built sentence might just as well have been formed when he was still in short pants and watched someone make an unusually neat sandcastle. He might have got his ideals of composition, colour and clean finish from a bigger boy who made a better model aeroplane. To the extent that I can examine my own case of such inadvertently assimilated education, I learned a lot about writing from watching an older friend sanding down the freshly dried paint on his motorbike so that he could give it another coat: he was after the deep, rich, pure glow. But for the way I thought prose should move I learned a lot from jazz. From the moment I learned to hear them in music, syncopation and rhythm were what I wanted to get into my writing. And to stave off the double threat of brittle chatter and chesty verve, I also wanted the measured, disconsolate tread of the blue reverie.
Years ago, tracing into the past threads of accidental influences which now inform my aesthetic sensibilities, my creative thought, even my personality, I reflected on how the happenstance technological limitations of old video game systems had shaped my sense of space and motion:
In the games of my childhood there was a sense of space: the vacuum of blackness behind the last drawn sprite was the end of the world, an abyss beyond the range of your bouncing character. Some squared hills, a pixelated building and what seemed to be clouds: these delimited the universe. Infinity of depth coupled with extreme finitude of motion…
In all games there was this loneliness: one’s range of motion stops, one ceases advancing the storyline, and one hurls fireballs at walls that don’t destruct, or jumps endlessly for a platform out of reach, or respawns again and again on a multiplayer map without anyone else… after a while, death is all that is left. Simple games leave us with only extreme options.
A story carries us forward and so long as it does, sketched castles suffice as background. But when the narrative momentum is arrested, when we step off course, the flatness of a videographic topography is the saddest, loneliest thing imaginable: a universe of ultimate inflexibility. [Even] modern games retain this quality: there is a place you can go that is the edge of the world; nothing can be experienced beyond it…
No matter how engaging a story is, a game’s paucity of meaningful freedom -particularly experiential freedom- means that one will resort to oblivion above boredom. Violence is integral to video games because only acts in extremis can distract us from the finitude of these virtualized worlds; while enabling limits can draw out creativity, they can only be abided for so long before we experience the urge to destroy.
It is a myth that after childhood our experiences stop being “formative”; even now, I can sense how my prose, my speech, my mood are shaped by the changing contours of my mental world: as though influences warp psychological spaces, as though thoughts adhere to points of interest and to one another, forming dense cognitive and emotional clusters which exert gravitational force on the creative processes making their way through our minds. One can be judicious in what one allows as an influence and how one manages influences, but one cannot predict with accuracy how different influences will shape one’s future work, and I imagine that this is one of the qualities that makes creativity cognitively irreducible, an indeterminate phenomenon we cannot simulate.