“Limitations” are a good thing, and you should embrace them

I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of an image of the perfect work that should ideally strive to be as “ambitious as possible” in every single aspect, and because of that, whenever a “restriction” — like, say, a budgetary or technological one — is lifted on your creative work, it’s all too easy to think “Wow! I don’t have that thing holding me back anymore! Now that I don’t have this restriction, I should make use of my newfound freedom that I couldn’t make use of before!” So you then try to take advantage of it and break all the boundaries you had before, since those “restrictions” you had earlier only served to restrain your work and keep you from achieving your real creative vision, right?

A lot of the time, this just leads to the work in question becoming more unfocused and mediocre. Surprisingly, limitations are often a good thing, and I’d even say that they’re often very helpful to the point where actively putting a restriction on yourself can help your work.

If you play video games, I think one way to put it is in terms of how you would do stat allocation. You have a limited number of stat points total, and you have to pick what build to do. Most people who know how to do meta builds will tell you that it’s a really bad idea to try to spread them evenly across all of the possible stats; you just end up with everything being mediocre. It’s better to hold off on certain stats in favor of picking a certain build, and playing in a way that build suits best (for instance, dumping a lot of points into attack, accepting that defense will have to be weaker in exchange, and playing in a way such that using that low defense won’t be as necessary). Makes sense, right?

It’d be nice if we had infinite time, resources, money, or even mental energy when making something, but the truth is that we don’t. After a certain point, you’re going to have to think of everything you have as being part of a resource allocation game. If you have to prioritize something, what should you prioritize? You’ll be much better off having a project with proper priorities instead of trying to overstretch yourself into everything but ending up with something that’s kind of okay in most aspects.

Even if you did somehow have infinite time, resources, money, or mental energy, though, there’s still a lot of advantages to deliberately placing restrictions on your work instead of aspiring to “closest to perfection” in every aspect. This was something that I felt really hit deeply when I was having extensive discussions with Touya during our development on Artoria, when he was talking to me about pixel art and game dev theory while I was talking about music. Pretty much every discussion we were having boiled down to the benefits of having limitations in some form:

  • A lot of the video games we found ourselves complaining about were ones that had been released at the very beginning of a new console generation, meaning that it was very likely the devs saw all of the new things they could do with updated technology, saw it as a lifting of those pesky “restrictions” that had “held them back”, and tried to do anything and everything they could do now — only for the final product to feel unfocused and somewhat unsatisfying, whereas in prior games, they’d pushed everything to the existing limitations and managed to break creative ground in getting around them. As it turned out, those limitations had actually been very helpful for the atmosphere and presentation for those past games, and now those were gone.
  • According to Touya (who’s much better at this whole visual art thing than I am), pixel art needs to have a limited palette, for reasons that go beyond hardware limitations — in his words, “pixel art with no palette is just worse normal art.” It makes sense; pixel art is in itself a limited form of art, so the full range of colors and shading wouldn’t work well as something that meshes with visual expectations in that framework.
  • When we were planning out what kind of music would fit the game best, we figured that using “realistic” virtual instrument patches would lead to something incongruous with his pixel game based on earlier console generations, so I deliberately decided to restrict myself to an SC-88 Pro emulator. I firmly believe that this decision vastly improved the final product. Part of it was that I cut out what would have been several unproductive hours going through my huge library of patches testing out things to see what worked (or, in other words, cut out a ton of choice paralysis by getting me in the mood of “I’m limited to this subset anyway, so it doesn’t matter”), and part of it was that I had a better idea of what “scope” I’d be working with because I already expected there to be a certain synth texture in the final product, so having a good idea of what to expect from the very early stages helped me visualize my goals better. On top of that, because it had to sound a bit like it was on limited hardware, I deliberately held back on how many tracks I used, and I ultimately felt that the final product was much more cohesive than certain past projects where I’d gotten so obsessed with having tons of tracks that I’d made it overcluttered.
  • For similar reasons, I had an experience with one of my songs where I’d deliberately placed a restriction on myself that I was only allowed to use one chord progression for the entire song. This got me into the mindset of pushing myself to find creative ways to change up the composition in spite of that restriction, and I personally think that I pulled off a lot of things I wouldn’t have otherwise thanks to it.
  • In my discussions with Touya, I named several of my favorite games and media works in general, and one thing I noticed was that many of them were “biased”; that is to say, they were really unpolished in certain aspects and would often get very critical reviews — perhaps deservedly so, even — for those issues, yet had other aspects that they knocked out of the park so well that they left a lasting impression on me. Conversely, there were some “balanced” works that did nearly everything well, and I was impressed with them, but I finished them thinking “well, that was a great job!” and then generally forgot about them for the most part. It made me think about a metaphor I’d heard once that if you tried to please everyone at a party with only one type of pizza, you’ll inevitably only ever be getting the generic cheese pizza. I think, to make a truly “outstanding” work that sticks in people’s memory, you may have to accept the possibility of sacrificing one aspect for another, even if it means not being able to please everyone, for the sake of a more focused product and more focused target audience.
  • I believe that having something a bit “rough around the edges” actually adds a little humanity to the art; something that’s a little too perfect in executing everything sometimes comes off as a bit uncanny to me, and I also think that something that didn’t go all the way in one aspect but knocked another aspect out of the park will make that latter aspect shine even brighter, because you can tell that the creator(s) really cared about that part in particular.

I don’t think the fundamental principle is particularly different from having a concept of “scope” and having a better idea of what you’re working with. It’s like being an artist working with a set canvas, or just taking on a job with set guidelines in general. The more you know beforehand, the better! This “more is better” philosophy being applied to everything is a bit frustrating for me; I get why it’s happening, and it’s a tantalizing mindset to fall into, but is “more polygons” or “higher word count” or “longer song” really that much better if it ends in the product being less cohesive and its key points sticking out not as well? Personally, I’ve noticed my own compositions are “neater” and more cohesive when I don’t drag them out; when I get the point out immediately, I’ve made my point, and I leave it there. Or when I’m working on a smaller project, I can be more “hands-on” with even the smaller details, especially with collaborative work; smaller projects mean I have an easier time communicating with all of the participants one-on-one.

My recommendation to others is that the next time they try something (within reasonable allowances, I know things like commissions or doing something for work make it harder), try deliberately putting restrictions on yourself! Make it into a challenge. If you’re an artist, put limitations on your palette or canvas, or if you’re a writer, put limitations on your word count or certain things you’re not allowed to put in there, or if you’re a musician like me, put limitations on your length, chord progressions, or tracks…and you’ll find it might be more fun, more engaging, and even easier to flex your creative skills in the little things.

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