If you asked me to draw a picture of an apple, I’d probably whip out something that looks a lot like the logo for Apple computers. From an objective viewpoint, the logo really doesn’t look like an apple. It’s flat, usually colorless; a gross simplification of the real thing. Like eyes in the paintings by ancient Egyptians or the modern smiley face, it’s more symbol than reproduction, an easily recognized and processed shorthand that, by itself, conveys a simple idea and then gets out of the way. These sorts of symbols play to our assumptions (no matter what color Apple’s logo, we all know apples are red) and work as a very convenient shorthand in our day-to-day lives.
When my mom paints apples, they look like this:
You don’t need to look closely to realize these are some really messed up apples. They’re a dozen different colors at once: red, yes, and green, but also blue, grey, purple, violet, various shades of yellow and gold and even white. What the heck is wrong with my mother’s eyes?!?
My mother’s eyes don’t just see what is assumed, but what is actually there. Take an apple and really look at it. Don’t just let your mind process “apple” and then speed off to the next thing. See it. See how the skin retains hints of every color it’s ever had as it matured from bud to fruit. Notice how it reflects the light and with it the colors of things near it. See how even the red is actually a complex mottling of various colors, nearly pointilist.
My mother doesn’t paint apples as we expect them to be. My mother paints apples as they really are, with the parts we miss in our daily lives highlighted, brought into focus and shoved in front of our faces, where we can no longer ignore all that we gloss over in our headlong rush to towards five minutes from now.
That’s not something all artists do, but it’s something that many good artists do. This is exactly what people mean when they talk about art giving us new eyes to see the world with, of helping us see and appreciate what’s always been right in front of us.
It’s something Zak does. When Zak decides to make a gaming book and asks, “How can I make the cover useful?” or wonders, “What else can we do with dice when we roll them beyond just seeing what number is on top?” he’s doing the same thing my mother does when she paints apples. I love getting into things with Zak because I know he’ll see what I miss. He doesn’t gloss over the things I just assume. Zak takes ideas to the next level and asks questions like, “What does it mean that Tiamat has five heads?” and “How can we convey the important stuff about our settings in a way that the DM will actually remember and use at the table?” or even how avoiding immersion is part of the fun in our immersive fantasy games.
Perhaps most importantly, Zak calls me on my bullshit. (Oddysey is also indispensable for this.) You need people to do that to keep you out of deep, stifling, and creatively barren ruts. Of course, some people love wallowing in such ruts and hate being prodded out of them.
Nobody has asked Zak to drink hemlock. Not yet. But folks have gotten grumbly. The world, as seen through the eyes of an artist who sees things as they are, lacks the comfortable assumptions that most of us need to get through the day. Some people simply cannot endure what the eyes of such an artist see. Sometimes, they’ll lash out bitterly at those who knock over or ridicule the illusionary worlds they’ve built for themselves.
They’ll also lash out at you when you accidentally bump up against the set-dressing you can’t even see because you don’t share their illusions. Just something to keep in mind.