There was an article on Eurogamer recently, their ‘Game Of The Week’ pick. The writer poses a question; if you had to choose, really had to choose, would you pick originality or raw quality?
It’s been a few days since I read that question, and I still can’t decide. I love originality, but raw quality will win me over the majority of the time. In terms of the games the article references–Shadows of the Damned and F.3.A.R–I have no interest in F.3.A.R and quite a bit of interest in Shadows of the Damned, which would seem to suggest that I’m in the ‘originality’ camp. (The fact that it’s a new Suda/Mikami/Grasshopper game has something to do with that also; no matter what else you get in a Grasshopper game, you know you’re going to get some really weird and interesting stuff.) Actually, I think for games I’d pick originality, simply because I’ve played so very many games. These days most games don’t appeal to me at all, because I’ve played them before. With that said, a truly competent game will always capture my interest regardless of originality–Just Cause 2 comes to mind, there are a few new ideas in it but mostly it’s the same old stuff (run around as a god in a sandbox, shoot stuff, stuff explodes) except the execution is so good and it’s so much fun that it really doesn’t matter. Of course, sometimes you DO get both originality and quality (Portal 2 would be a recent example) but that’s incredibly rare.
As far as my own writing goes, I don’t think of the books I have out as being particularly original, just unique. There’s something that Ricky Gervais said in ‘Talking Funny’ that has not just stuck with me, it’s grown stronger the more I’ve thought about it. He said, and I paraphrase, “I don’t want to say something that just anyone could say. I want to say something that no one else can say.” In one of the reviews for Imogen Shroud ‘quirkiness’ is mentioned, which made me happy–when someone reads one of my books I want them to get something that they can’t get anywhere else. I don’t want to be the next Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams or William Goldman, I want to be the first Ben White. What I write about may not be original–pirates, superheroes, zombies–but I always strive for originality in the way I write. Some of the greatest fun I have comes from exploring tropes and clichés, figuring out why they’re tropes and clichés and keeping/expanding on what’s necessary and true and discarding what’s extraneous or false.
So I suppose my answer to the question, as far as my own work goes, would be to cheat. I’d say that I strive for quality first and always, to write the best books I can regardless of originality–but in striving for quality there’s no other path than original thinking, original concepts, new takes on old ideas, tropes, clichés, and always, without compromise, done my way. The way I look at writing, quality IS originality, if not in concept then in execution–and maybe every story has already been told and there is no such thing as an original plot, but the ways in which stories can be told are as many as there are writers, and individual expressions of plot and character and style are infinite.