The Skeletal Concept

So, I was recently having a discussion about this unfortunate series of events with my favorite gal in the world, and it got me thinking about something that I’d like to just get down in “writing.” Regardless of how I might feel about the author in question (and his completely ignorant lawsuit >.>), I looked as in-depth as I could into his work without prying open one of the books, and even at a base level, I feel while there may be a similarity or two in certain small aspects between the two concepts, they themselves are very much their own ideas, with their own explicitly different plots.

There are so many silly claims in the suit that it makes me think the author only has cursory (and incorrect) knowledge of the series he’s suing Ubisoft over, along with an extremely ignorant mentality that they were the first ever to think up such things. I could be suffering from the same problem I claim the author has, not knowing enough about the other side’s material, but having spent a while looking at his work, and hearing his complaints, many of them seem to either dig at the bottom of the barrel, or are just downright absurd, like how using the same words of “assassin” and “synchronization” (even though AC’s use of Synchronization is is used in an entirely different way, it would seem) somehow shows that they knowingly copied his work.

The Animus chair looks like the Link chair? It also looks like the chair Aki used to record her dreams in The Spirits Within (2001), or the chair from Total Recall (1990) and We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (1966), or any number of other sci-fi laz-e-boys used for more than a mid-afternoon nap. The chairs in the Matrix (1999) worked similarly as well, sending consciousness to another place.

Characters in Assassin’s Creed experience significant historical moments, just like characters in Link? I’ve seen plenty of period pieces (or time travel epics) that oft-times place their heroes in the vicinity of historical events or figures. Indiana Jones got his dad’s journal signed by Hitler (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)). Marty McFly gave Chuck Barry “the sound he was looking for” by inadvertently playing his own future song to him (Back to the Future (1985)). L’engle’s Time Quartet, specifically A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), had characters traveling through time, and even influencing historical events by taking control of people in the past to stop a nuclear war. Quantum Leap (1989) had Sam jumping into other peoples’ bodies in different time periods to solve their troubles, and sometimes even influence major events of the time. The Rocketeer (1991) gave us an explosive reason as to why the Hollywood sign lost “land.” Anything set in ancient Egypt has some trope about how the Sphinx’s nose came off. Want me to go on…? Character’s influencing past events is not a new thing, not even how they manage to do so.

Link depicts a battle of good versus evil in the form of the Search group against corrupt governments and other companies. Assassin’s Creed depicts a battle of good versus evil in the form of the Assassins against the Templar-controlled Abstergo company. Oh noes~ Final Fantasy VII (1997) depicts the battle between the rebel group Avalanche against the evil Shin-Ra Electric Power Company. I don’t really need to go any further in this one, do I? It’s good versus evil. No one owns that concept.


Anyway, enough about dismantling some old fogy’s attempt to raise awareness for his irrelevant books. This got me thinking about something that I have thought about before, especially when talking to others about how “X rips off Y” and the like. It’s the idea of the Skeletal Concept. It means that there are plenty of ideas out there, some unique, some old, and some done to death. However, the main point of a skeletal concept is that it’s built around a concept that might already exist, but is made into its very own being by fleshing it out and dressing it up. The more fleshed out and dressed up it is, the less likely you are to notice that same ol’ skeleton.

As an example, I have a concept in the works that at its core is the “bodyguard and their charge fall in love” trope. It hasn’t quite been done to death yet, but it’s a cliche at least. I know this, and yet I don’t let it discourage me, because while the skeleton might be cliche, how I’ve fleshed it out makes it entirely unique. From the setting it takes place in, to the character’s backgrounds, and how things play out to the end, it’s my unique idea, built around an existing skeletal concept. I also use this theory when it comes to myself reading a book, watching a movie, or playing a game. I’m not going to immediately let that overused skeleton ruin my enjoyment of the flesh and dress, which are (usually) way more important to the narrative.

This also applies to when two developed ideas might be similar to one another. Ideas are not totally unique to us, and sometimes it’s entirely possible that while you might come up with your very own concept, based off of your own experiences, someone could come up with an eerily similar concept from an entirely different angle, or even from similar experiences, even though the two of you have never had contact with each other, or ever heard of one another’s ideas.

Now, does this mean whoever thought their idea up second is a dirty little copycat? Not really. Your idea is still yours, born from your experiences. Same with that other person’s. Theirs just happened to turn out similarly. You own your idea, but not that other person’s just because you thought yours up first, or because of the similarities the ideas might have. In the end, your skeletons might be the same, but the flesh might be different. Even if the flesh is somewhat the same, it’s ignorant to think your idea was stolen, and that you are owed compensation or their work should be devalued, because they happened to devise a similar idea all on their own.

This all isn’t to say that there are no cases for copyright infringement. They do exist. If it was proven that some guy totally stole your recipe for french fry sandwiches and started selling his own after he experienced your flavorsplosive foodgasm, there’s reasonable cause for concern. However, just because your idea is out there to the public doesn’t necessarily mean that people stole it as their own, if they happened to create something like yours. Not when so many share a similar love of fries and sandwiches.

To go back to the Link vs Assassin’s Creed thing, you can’t own an idea or concept. You can definitely own an Intellectual Property, but you own the exact configuration of components using those ideas which make up the IP, not the ideas themselves. Berserk doesn’t own the idea of a swordsman using massive sword, but it owns Guts and his Dragonslayer. Back to the Future doesn’t own the idea of time travel, but it owns the Delorean Time Machine and Marty’s specific adventure in the ’50s. The Legend of Zelda doesn’t own the courageous swordsman with the magical blade saving the princess, but it owns Link’s adventure to get the Master Sword, and save Zelda from Ganon.

I think a huge problem we’re going to start facing more and more is people claiming that “X ripped off Y,” and therefore should be less relevant than the material it is claimed to have ripped off. People are way too critical these days, often annoyingly so, and when any new thing is brought to light, we pick it apart. We tear off the dress and flesh, and cry foul when we see a familiar skeleton. However, what people don’t realize is that there is a lot of stuff everyone claims to be “the original” that just happens to be extremely well fleshed out and dressed up. People don’t even think to look at the skeleton of their sacred cow, so they don’t even realize how old the concept actually is. Something might totally popularize a concept that was used before in some irrelevant way, like Assassin’s Creed popularizing  “relive an ancestor’s life in the past” over Link, specifically because it was just way more appealing to the entertainment-seeking masses. Yes, I’m saying it now: while the two might have a similar idea, Assassin’s Creed just happened to do it in a way that’s actually worth experiencing. Them’s the breaks, kids.

Joseph Campbell came up with a theory very similar to my Skeletal Concept, called the “monomyth,” which essentially theorizes that (almost) every single story can be traced back to a single narrative when stripped down to the barest of its essentials. It’s very interesting. Oddly enough, I hadn’t even heard of the monomyth until a few months ago, but I had my idea for the skeletal concept for years. Perfect example of two similar ideas reached through similar experiences, but no prior interaction.

If I ever find out that one of my ideas is similar to another existing one, I make sure to do my research on it, and see just how similar they really are. It’s already happened once or twice when I hear the same devised word, or some small plot contrivance, but I am still able to breathe a sigh of relief the farther away our ideas deviate the more I learn about it, and it prevents me from specifically having to abandon a concept I might hold dear to my heart. Although, I have laid to rest my fair share of fledgling ideas, especially when mine pales in comparison to another, better version.

In the end, with all of my babble, I think what I’m really trying to get at with the Skeletal Concept is that we can’t let the similarities in our ideas stifle our creative liberties, our creativity in general, or even just our enjoyment of something. It’s not about saying that everyone should go ahead and start lifting concepts from existing material, just that we shouldn’t feel so constrained by what might already be out there. Explore wherever an idea might take you! You never know – the idea might end up being silly or worthless, or maybe you just don’t have the right take on the skeletal concept, so let someone else have a stab at it. You can still learn from your mistakes, and from others.

A skeleton has a lot of potential, and I’d hate to see a grand idea cut short because someone is focusing way too much on the bone, instead of the meat and cloth over it all.

Edit (June 2nd 2012): According to several news outlets, the suit against Ubisoft by the writer of Link has been dismissed, and then Ubisoft is filing a complain to make sure it never happens again. Justice pretty much served.

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