Inspiration originally was one of those religious words – people don’t often know this, but it stems from the Latin spiro, meaning ‘to breathe’. That’s where we get similar words like ‘respiratory’, as in the respiratory system, and ‘spirit’. Our common words for breath and the soul derive from the same source – and historically, their meanings were related. ‘Inspiration’ was the inbreathing of the Holy Spirit. If you were ‘inspired’, then you had received the Spirit of God. That’s why people talk about the Bible being written under divine inspiration – the idea is that God’s spirit or breath was taken in by these various writers, and that their spirits became aligned with the divine will. Then you get the Romantics, who moved towards inspiration more as an expression of creative genius. It’s not from anywhere external – there are just some very special people in the world who have this inner wellspring from which they can manifest brilliance. They are inspired people – inspiration is their special interior possession. Today we have a third, more mundane meaning of ‘inspired’ as well – we use it in a cause-and-effect kind of way, to explain where we get our ideas. I was inspired to write this story by my cousin, who choked on a raisin. It’s not drawn from some divine being or some inner spring of creative energy, it’s just psychology. It’s just how brains work – we draw connections between things.
I’m offering this potted history of three different meanings of the word by way of introduction to 2019’s Eastshade. In this game, you play an artist, and you walk around and paint things. You look at different views, different vistas, and decide which views are pretty enough to become paintings. As we discussed last week, it creates this whole fascinating dynamic where the player has to reassess the 3D objective-driven game space as a 2D flat surface – it’s a whole great little system, and it makes you really stop to appreciate the aesthetics. Of course, you can’t just paint forever. One of the key mechanics controlling your art is ‘inspiration’ – you have to feel inspired before you can paint things. You gain inspiration points by exploring and discovering new things, and each time you paint, you deplete your stock of inspiration.
In terms of those three types of inspiration, then, Eastshade probably leans most towards the second one. Inspiration sits as this mysterious interior well that you can replenish or exhaust through your actions. A case could be made for the third one, for inspiration as simple cause and effect, although the floating nature of inspiration as a value makes it unlikely. If inspiration was tied to player experience in a cause and effect way, then you would expect a stronger association between each moment of inspiration and the generative experience. That is, certain encounters or experiences will give you inspiration points – for example when you see the big tree in the forest, you receive a couple inspiration points. If we were really working off a strict cause and effect model, you should only be able to use those inspiration points to paint that tree. But that’s not the case. The points go into a generic ‘inspiration bank’, which you can use to paint anything that you choose. It’s less cause and effect, and more a general uplifting of your creative soul, a filling of your cup, such that creativity brims over out of your being and into your art. That’s much more aligned with the second type of inspiration. Plus, you know, all the forest and nature shit is classic Romantics – it’s in the tradition of Thoreau’s Walden, or Lyrical Ballads, things like that.
And yet of course the irony of Eastshade is that you’re not wandering around in nature. You’re not returning to the natural world, to the ebb and flow of wind through trees – no, you’re sitting in your pants in a dark room on the computer. The nature that we experience in this game is a constructed nature, an artificial artistic representation. That’s not a bad thing, per se – nature is similarly represented and constructed in Lyrical Ballads or any other text. That’s what texts are – they represent things to us. More specifically, what’s interesting is that the classic Romantic texts showed us authors going off and getting inspired by nature and then writing about it. The eighth chapter of Walden is about Thoreau’s bean garden: “and as I turned to my hoeing again I was filled with an inexpressible confidence, and pursued my labour cheerfully with a calm trust in the future.” It’s a recounting of the artist’s experience of nature. Eastshade goes a level deeper – it’s a fictional world where the main character is doing what the Romantic poets did. It’s a story about someone walking around being inspired by nature and then creating art about it. What changes is the status of nature. In the first, it’s artists inspired by nature in the real world. In the second, it’s artists inspired by nature in the game. Nature in Eastshade is constructed twice – first by the game developers, and second by you as the player as you paint your pictures.
This doubled construction is explored by a writer you meet early in the game. He’s sitting under a tree, reading, and he tells you “My favourite books are the ones that inspire me to write myself. How about you?” The answer, of course, is that you are the same. You engage with art, with the game, you collect inspiration, and then you use that inspiration to create new art, nested inside the art of Eastshade. This nesting explains one of the game’s curious choices – I was going to write a whole piece about this, originally – for all that it’s about art and painting and so on, Eastshade doesn’t put much weight behind the question of technique. Your so-called painting is actually much closer to photography – you pick a site, look in your chosen direction, and then translate a screenshot of what you’re looking at onto the canvas. You have a little option to crop what you’re looking at, to only take part of the screen – it’s the white border in the second image in the gallery below. You can also see the instruction on the screen: “Drag to adjust cropping”. At that point, it’s not really best understood as painting. There’s no concern for the mode of representation – you know, compare something like Monet’s Water Lilies, where there’s a very clear set of painterly techniques used to evoke and suggest. Your major creative decisions, by contrast, are around framing and composition of an already-existing or found environment. It’s closest to nature photography.
Again, that’s not really a criticism, per se. I think it fits in with the broader motif of doubled construction. Your art is nested within the art of Eastshade – it’s drawn entirely from within the bounds of its depicted world. You don’t transform the environment through painterly technique – you capture it exactly as you see it. Your material is the game world as it is given to you by the developers. It’s a game that inspires you to take up its world and exercise your point of view, creating a nested, twice-constructed art through the simple act of seeing.