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Returning Beauty or Taking Life? – An Essay on Game Design

Giving or growing life in games as an objective is far less common than taking it. Why is this so? A number of games have focused on the creation of beauty but are still a minority, not an equal portion. Thoughts?

Jose Joao Proenca, Blogger

August 29, 2009

5 Min Read

If you play video games, you understand killing. Well, at least in terms of destroying virtual adversaries – not the real kind (and I’m glad for it too). Games are quite eloquent in the many ways they allow you to tear apart, explode, maim and otherwise obliterate anything standing between you and the Ultimate ____ of ____.

I guess (and can understand) that a lot of it comes down to ease of development. It seems the universal axiom applies: it’s easier to destroy than to create. Take low resolution 2D – components of structures (pixels) can hardly be identifiable as anything more than dots of color on their own; once organized in a structure, however, they make sense, and we see our Mario, Pac-Man, Space Invaders. It’s fascinating to watch a pixel art piece build up bit by bit, but you’ve got little to tell you what’s being built unless you know what you’re looking for. And so, the effect of watching something grow or be born, has little definition and detail and is because of this much less powerful.

Blow a chunk of pixels into smaller chunks, though, and that’s a whole different story. Watch it go boom! We instinctively understand destruction, I think, because it’s inescapable in our everyday lives – we watch entities be split into component parts all the time, both physically and metaphorically. And so, I argue, it’s easier to destroy, and more effective at communicating to the player’s emotions, than it is to grow or give life.

Then you get 3D, with a lot more detail and mass to support your image. I’ll take an admittedly easy example to make my point: destroy something with firepower in a game and watch it explode. One of the simplest tricks in games is to hide changes in effects like clouds of smoke, so the player can’t see an intact wall being replaced with a crumbled rock, and hunks of road awkwardly spawned and tossed out from a point in mid-air.

How would you do the same for re-building the wall in front of your eyes? Blowing it up in reverse? Hiding the appearance of rocks and pieces with glittery clouds of magic? Ideally, you’d animate everything coming out of the ground itself or surroundings, smoothly (or not) flying in, right? That needs to be animated, and isn’t usually something handled well by physics engines – unlike shopping a rocket at a fragile wall and watching it blow.

So, those are pragmatic reasons. But what about the emotional impact, what about (oh no! he’s gonna say it!) the art? What about the beauty of creating or returning beauty, rather than taking it? We’ve seen so much destruction and doom in our games – I praise the ones with the balls to step out in the sun with their happy faces, and kick just as much ass as their steel-jawed power-armor cousins.

(By the way, I’d like to shake your hand for reading this far – that’s a chore even for myself. But hold on tight, biggest paragraph still to come.)

Pandemic’s upcoming game, The Saboteur, uses what seems a wonderful dynamic to represent the liberation of oppressed WWII Paris: returning color, sound and motion into the areas you galvanize with your drunken Irish antics. I love it, it’s inspired.

Blood Will Tell by WOW Entertainment for the PS2 started with everything in black and white – until you got your missing eye at the end of the first level (the discussion of the search for components is a whole new blog post), returning color to your screen. It made the experience so much more rewarding.

Bit.Trip Beat by Gaijin Games gives you more visuals, more sound as you make chains – and takes them away when you miss your little pixel enemies.

And Rez, magnificent Rez by Q Entertainment (maybe not the perfect example, but any excuse to talk about Rez is a good one) – how the levels filled out as you progressed through them, the rhythmic waving and pumping of the landscape more and more dramatic as you approach each area’s boss. And the end level itself – an epic story of the birth of life, from the eyes of a virus killing computer probe-avatar-thing.

Okami by Clover Studios tells a beautiful, touching story of returning life to a cursed land. Each conquest, accompanied by flowing flowers and greenery and celebratory music, feels like a true victory. It is this vision that satisfies, and far more than the success in the preceding boss fights or puzzles (at least for me).

Space Invaders Infinity Gene on the iPhone is designed around the concept of evolution, and takes the player on a very literal journey of gameplay evolution, a world increasing in detail and complexity as you progress. You’re laying waste to hordes of enemies – but birthing an evolved world in the process.

There are many more… but not as many as I’d hope.

There’s a common feeling of healthy happiness and wholesome satisfaction in experiencing this kind of dynamic; an exhilaration different from the adrenalin rush of destruction, which is a far more selfish and mischievous impulse.

And I’m not saying I don’t want more destruction done artfully… give me my Ninja Gaiden, God of War, Gears, Mercenaries, Red Faction, Worms… I’d just like to have at least an equal dose of games that try to do something differently, and go for the greater and more subtle challenge of communicating the deeply rooted and long term joys of creation vs. the immediate and crude thrill of the kill.

What do you think? What other games can you think of that deal with this duality? Do you agree or think I’m full of it?

Thanks for your time, and reading this verbose essay. That’s how I roll, I guess – I talk a lot.

So, to be short…


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