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Matt McLean, Blogger

December 14, 2009

14 Min Read

I’ve noticed that as time passes and I grow older each year, I’m drawn more and more to games of some abstract nature. It could be a smartly-executed minimalist art style or a deceptively simple game mechanic; regardless, the abstract as an experience pulls my attention fully away from other games.

My fascination seems to have a starting point in 2006, when I played a game called flOw created by a couple of University of Southern California students. The concept was so simple – eat, or be eaten – and the visuals so smooth and fresh. It made no attempt to actually look like some primordial pool in which these creatures would evolve; it took the idea of the pool and gave it a distinctive visual style communicating something about the world you were meant to navigate.

It was easy for me to consider myself to be the abstract creature on the screen. As Scott McCloud has pointed out to great effect, the more abstract a drawn face, the more people it could be said to describe. The idea is that you can project yourself and your emotions much more easily on an abstract character than one that is sharply defined.

More recently, I bought Lilt Line for my iPod Touch, and found it just as easy to think of myself at the head of the white line racing through a graduated, multi-colored track. The ability to make someone believe that ‘that thing’ is the same thing as ‘me’ is a powerful game design tool, and it’s part of what makes these games attractive to me: I appreciate the simplicity and the fact there is nothing in the way of projecting myself.

Additionally, if ‘that thing’ is ‘me,’ I have a much easier time connecting to a space or character emotionally. I often get much stronger emotional reactions to simple, abstract environments and the way they are presented than I do with games that go to great lengths to appear real. This, in turn, allows me to project my own stories onto abstract spaces and characters.

Rez HD is a great example: the framework of a story is there, supported by stunning visuals and great ramped-up moments, and the rest is up to you. The concept of this character breaking further into an abstract virtual system, with the avatar changing as it goes, has a lot to do with the Hero’s Journey, a good formula by which to examine many adventure stories.

Interestingly, I usually lose the details of a complex story until reminded (that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great story, just that it was difficult to retain in its entirety; Mass Effect is one of my favorite games, but I certainly don’t remember all the details). Shorter play experiences, or vignettes, seem to stick with me a little better – I can remember, in a very visual and auditory way, how I managed to ‘be the biggest’ in Osmos. Its simple, gradually-introduced mechanics and polished feedback to player actions (and, in this case, reactions), allowed me to generate a narrative and embrace the idea of “less is more.”

Realism, on the other hand, can be exhausting. My brain knows that what it’s seeing is still not real life, and so it constantly compares the details of the two on a subconscious level (though often on a conscious level as well). However, as Carl Sagan once said, “The brain has its own language for testing the structure and consistency of the world.”

Because this comes naturally to humans, it’s easy for us to make it a process that runs in the background of the mind; but this also means the process is using mental resources. Perhaps that’s one reason why I find realistic games to be a little less stimulating; but overall as I get older my idea of an entertaining escape is changing.

That’s partly because abstract games can introduce us to a world unlike that of which we see every day. This enables us to use our imaginations, gives us a framework for doing so, for creating characters and narratives on interesting not-quite-blank slates. We often lament the loss of extraordinary childhood imaginations as we grow older. We were capable of creating fantastic imaginary worlds as kids with ease. Abstract games provide the means to let our mature, practical, reasonable minds play, too.

I believe that as humans we all carry some kind of synesthesia on a basic, instinctual level. A co-worker introduced the following idea to a room of game designers a few months ago:

Imagine you have two shapes:

One is named “booboo” and the other is named “kiki.”

Which one do you think is “booboo” and which do you think is “kiki?”

The people in the room overwhelmingly chose “kiki,” which has the harsh “k” noise, to describe the pointy shape, and “booboo” with its soft sounds, to describe the cloudy shape.

Abstraction taps into this basic association between senses (in this case, between sound and vision). Lilt Line and Rez are great examples of games that aren’t necessarily synesthesia simulators, but capitalize on a solid association between senses. This is helped by the fact that we are fascinated by the phenomenon of synesthesia, if only because it seems so foreign to us.

Still, while it may feel foreign, it’s more familiar than we think – I frequently assign colors to sounds and words even though I do not see those colors visually when I hear or read them. In a way, these associations can help us organize our perception of a world, making it areally effective lens for game design.

Certainly, the things I’ve talked about are not limited only to abstract games. Many games benefit from minimalism and abstraction in lots of respects; and definitely some games that try to be realistic can also be abstract. In the same vein, abstraction doesn’t just suddenly become more interesting once you’re older – anyone can like it. Rather, the idea is that abstract games are an effective vehicle for us to use our imaginations and get excited about a virtual space as we age.

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