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Opinion: The 'Kitchen Sink' Attitude To Visual Design For Games

In this opinion piece, game commentator Chris Dahlen examines the benefits of throwing 'everything plus the kitchen sink' into a game's visual design, referencing frantic indie titles from Noitu Love 2: Devolution to Jets 'N' Guns GOLD along

Chris Dahlen

May 8, 2008

5 Min Read

[In this opinion piece, game commentator Chris Dahlen examines the benefits of throwing 'everything plus the kitchen sink' into a game's visual design, referencing frantic indie titles from Noitu Love 2: Devolution to Jets 'N' Guns GOLD along the way.] Just a few minutes into PC indie title Noitu Love 2: Devolution, I knew what it was. I knew by the way I'd traveled from high-tech alien shoot-downs to a 19th century music hall and gothic clock towers, and the next minute, to a Japan of blossom trees and samurai bots. Later settings - a western train chase, a frozen secret base - confirmed what I'd already deduced: Noitu Love 2 was a stylistic pastiche, a conceptual collage, and in other words, a mess. And I knew I was in love. I’ve been calling Noitu Love 2 my Jets 'N' Guns GOLD of 2008 - referring to another PC indie game with another dysfunctional attention span, another kettle into which some indie hacker had thrown everything they could on the basis of one principle: "It would be so awesome if ... ." Zombies, metalheads, mice in hats, pirates, cows, and homicidal beer - it all had a place in Jets 'N' Guns GOLD, making it not just a shoot-em-up action game but - speaking purely of style - the kind of thing you'd otherwise get if you threw your ten pulpiest comics in a shredder and, with instinct and wisdom, taped the strips together. It's not random, but it has a fantastically random energy. This approach to game making - to throw everything plus the kitchen sink into the visual design - is not new. Since the '80s and titles like Super Mario Bros., we've understood that you've got the desert level and the underwater level, the sky dungeon and the fire dungeon, and so on. Sometimes there's a rubric behind it – say, the four elements, or a time travel conceit - and sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason at all. The variety complements the consistent gameplay elements, while making room for new ideas that surprise the player. This is such a common tactic that by now, games that are too samey - for example, first-person shooters that run you through one dark, metallic, enemy-filled corridor after another - bore us pantsless. But there's more to this than "variety." In other forms of entertainment, chucking so many different environments at the audience would be cause for alarm. A James Bond movie has to set up some excuse for taking its hero from Africa to Latin America to the moon. In music, some artists hop genres - but we're still getting used to it. It still strikes us as odd when rockers try to rap, or rappers use acoustic guitars, or a jazz guitarist sits in with a bluegrass band, or Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood scores for an orchestra. The artists often expect the styles to collide and to surprise the audience. That's part of why they do it. And of course, in a game like Noitu Love 2, styles don't just collide: they rush into each other at top speed, never staying on the same idea for more than a couple of beats, always striving to leave the player breathless. Same for Jets 'N' Guns GOLD: the designers weren't trying to find a fusion and a harmony between the disparate elements, so much as knock your head back again and again. john_zorn.jpg I first discovered pastiche through the works of composer and improviser John Zorn. (Though I’m not sure he likes the term). Zorn came up in the late-'70s/early-'80s downtown New York City scene, improvising on saxophone and writing and directing music that could change from country to funk to death metal skronk in a heartbeat. Some of his music sounds like Carl Stalling's zany scores for early Warner Brothers cartoons; some of it sounds like spinning the dial on a radio back and forth, back and forth. (For example, dig this performance of Naked City’s “Speed Freaks”.) There are plenty of high-brow reasons to make pastiche. In music, it’s a reaction to an era when the average teenager has thousands of mp3's on his or her hard drive, when early Brazilian music and pre-war gospel 78s can reach you as easily as the new American Idol star, when time and even context don't seem to matter much in our daily listening lives. In games, you could read it the same way – what does the context matter so long as the beat’s good? That also makes it a condemnation. Mashing so many styles together with so little rhyme or reason is a way of saying that the content of almost any game is just a pretty wrapper around the action – that it doesn’t matter if Mario’s swimming underwater or drifting through a haunted house, because the kids are just here to jump. So you might as well take your content and put it in hyperdrive, like a three-year-old getting sick of a book he can't read and abruptly tearing the pages out of it. But that three-year-old is still having a blast, which I think is the real reason so many designers take this approach - and why I enjoy it so rabidly. When Noitu Love 2 sticks a giant eel, a blue-skinned cyborg and a runaway homicidal steam engine in the same hour-long game, it evokes the restless energy and immature joy of taking everything that gives us pleasure and chewing through it as quickly as possible. Zorn had his own artistic agendas, but he's also a guy who had a gigantor record collection. I suspect the same is true of Noitu Love 2's Joakim Sandberg, or any number of other designers, musicians, writers and filmmakers who at one time or another have to sit on their hands to keep still. And whether their impulsiveness produces a wry satire or statement or it's just hella fun, I can't get enough of it. [Chris Dahlen reviews games for The Onion AV Club, writes about music and technology for Pitchforkmedia.com, and blogs at savetherobot.wordpress.com.]

About the Author(s)

Chris Dahlen


Chris Dahlen is a freelance writer who covers gaming, music, technology, and pop culture. He regularly contributes to Paste magazine, The Onion AV Club, and GameSetWatch, and since 2002 has been on staff at Pitchforkmedia.com. He lives in Portsmouth, NH with his wife and son.

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