Unleashing Creativity: A Brief Overview of Constraints and Why They’re Helpful

Embracing constraints to fuel creativity

Unleashing Creativity: A Brief Overview of Constraints and Why They’re Helpful

Last week, I wrote an article delving into how imposed time limits in gaming improve players' focus. It was fascinating to explore how this not only heightens the game's challenge but also enhances players' concentration and strategic thinking.

It was fun to write, examining the factors that influence players' experiences in games, and it seems others enjoyed it too, judging by the positive feedback on Twitter.

We established that constraints, often seen as the shackles hindering our freedom, paradoxically serve as the catalysts for creative thinking and creative play.

Game Mechanics: How Time Constraints Drive Power and Purpose
Time is a great motivator

But what about constraints in other forms of media? What about constraints outside of just time? Are there any?


Something as simple as Super Mario Bros would be a different experience without careful consideration of level design. Power-ups such as mushrooms and fire flowers are strategically placed to reward exploration and provide players with tools to overcome obstacles.

Super Mario Bros. | NES | Games | Nintendo
My first gaming experience. Consider how everything was carefully designed for a great player experience. Source: Nintendo

What about movies?

Well, a movie without constraints is like an unbridled journey, lacking the challenges that often lead to inventive storytelling. Filmmakers navigate limitations to craft memorable cinematic experiences.

Without constraints, there's no focal point to guide a viewer through the story. It just becomes an exploration in experimentation.

So constraints are important then.

Constraints Are Everywhere

At first glance, constraints might seem like the antagonists in the story of creation.

But that's not accurate. They're the underappreciated heroes, helping creators (and teams of creators) avoid mistakes and leading them toward creative brilliance.

Whether it's a budget, time frame, or technological limitation, constraints provide the framework within which creativity flourishes.

Alfred Hitchcock's Rope — Something Different - The American Society of  Cinematographers (en-US)
Rope. Source: asc.com

For instance, in filmmaking, directors faced with budgetary constraints often devise ingenious ways to tell compelling stories without breaking the bank. Consider Alfred Hitchcock's minimalist masterpiece Rope, shot in a few long takes to save on film costs.

The effect is done so well that Rope is often mistaken for a film shot in just one take, but that's not true.

"The length of the takes and the alternation of the cuts were consequences of technical constraints, which were determined by the camera and the projection systems used to record and exhibit the movie when it was made. The camera on which Hitchcock shot Rope could hold a little over ten minutes’ worth of film, thus establishing a strict maximum take-length." - lisathatcher.com

Creativity can thrive under pressure, and constraints act as the crucible where raw ideas are forged into ingenious solutions. When faced with limitations, the human mind is forced to think divergently, exploring unconventional paths and uncovering novel approaches.

The Enemy of Art Is the Absence of Limitations - Orson Wells

In the world of advertising, creatives are often tasked with delivering impactful messages within brief time slots.

Apple's 'Get a Mac.' The Long, Strange Trip to a Comedy Classic | Muse by  Clio
Love it or loathe it, advertising agencies know they're under multiple constraints, as they need to craft something short and snappy that will stick in the public consciousness. Source: Apple

This pressure births memorable campaigns like Apple's "Get a Mac" series, where simplicity and wit condensed complex messages into unforgettable 30-second spots.

Further Constraints in Gaming

What other limitations do we find in gaming? Well, there are quite a few.

These include everything from managing resources to narrative restrictions. These constraints serve various purposes, but mainly, they aim to create a fun and fair gaming experience.

While this isn't an exhaustive list, it's a good starting point for some of the more obvious constraints within gaming.

Resource Constraints in Strategy Games
Strategy games like Age of Empires or StarCraft present players with limited resources. Imagine if it didn't? Where would be the fun in that?

The challenge often isn't just conquering opponents but doing so with finite gold, wood, or minerals.

The constraint of scarcity pushes players to strategise efficiently, fostering creative solutions like resourceful economies and unexpected military manoeuvres.

Age of Empires IV Wants to Teach You a Lesson | WIRED UK
Age of Empires IV. Source: Microsoft

Speedrunning: A Symphony of Constraints
Speedrunning, an art form in the gaming community, epitomizes the marriage of constraints and creativity.

Players set out to complete games in record time, navigating constraints such as glitches, time limits, and specific rule sets. This has birthed an entire subculture of innovative gameplay, where exploiting game mechanics and thinking outside the developer's intentions become the norm.

13 Best YouTube Channels about Speedrunning – Favoree Blog
Super Mario Bros is a popular title in which players impose their own rules and speedrun sections to completion. Source: Favoree Blog

Puzzle Games: Constraints in Every Block
Puzzle games are a testament to constraints in their purest form.

Take Tetris, a gaming icon. The player confronts the relentless descent of blocks with limited space and increasing speed. The simplicity of the constraint – fitting differently shaped blocks together – sparks an intricate interplay of strategy and quick thinking.

DOS Game: Tetris (1986 AcademySoft) - YouTube
Tetris on DOS.

Role-Playing Games: Narrative Constraints
In role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, constraints are not merely gameplay mechanics; they are intricately integrated into the storytelling framework.

Players encounter challenges or puzzles within the confines of the game's storyline, forcing them to think creatively about overcoming obstacles. The constraints of the virtual world drive imaginative problem-solving and storytelling.

New Dungeons & Dragons video game in development from renamed studio behind  Dark Alliance | Dicebreaker
Dungeons and Dragons

Constraints are the unsung champions of creativity, thriving in the crucible of limitations. Whether in filmmaking, advertising, or in gaming, constraints sculpt the creative process, shaping raw ideas into masterpieces.

In gaming in particular, these limitations aren't hindrances but the very essence of thrilling adventures and ingenious gameplay.

Embracing constraints isn't surrendering to limitations; it's unleashing the power to innovate, adapt, and redefine what's possible in terms of creativity.

Remember: constraints aren't just hurdles for those enjoying media, but they're also beneficial for creators. So, don't let them discourage you, and get creative, whatever you may be working on.