[Hi there! I'm a long-time Gamasutra follower, and I've decided this year I would contribute more to this community by sharing my insights in game design and culture rather than stoking another flamewar. I have been developing a very personal, very strange project called In Extremis, and this article is a bit of a summation of everything I learned so far. It has been crossposted in my devlog, of course, which also contains several other articles about the project's development]
Videogames are curious in the way that they were products before being considered art; even nowadays, where videogames are the unquestionable largest entertainment industry, it’s not hard to find doubters, people who still regard games as mere pastimes, incapable of leaving lasting impressions on its players. This stems from this historical peculiarity; since the current ideals of what videogames are, and what they should do to be good videogames, are often shaped by the most successful games of that time (even today, in a post-indie world, this is still very much true), we end up with numerous definitions that serve very little beside generating noisy internet discussions.
This has very little to do with debacles regarding “this is a game and this is not”; I mean, this debates have very little merit since not only so called “notgames”, like first-person exploration and interactive narrative titles oftentimes have more space for player agency than lots of triple-A ones (like action-adventure games that only allow scripted actions certain points), but some developers and supporters of untraditional games prefer to adopt a snobbish posturing, overvaluing their titles supposed innovations (games of exploration, without violent conflict, defined goals or failure states have been in videogames since the early days of gaming).
This brings up the topical, ever-changing nature of what is demanded (by the public, by the market, by the critics) of videogames. This is cruel in nature, as it create an inherent disparity in the understanding of the medium, as if the success of a game could be measured of how much it comes close to the Platonic Ideal of Videogames of a certain point in time. But the evolution of the medium cannot be mediated by the insularity of the twittersphere intelligentsia; all videogames have value, all games have an indivisible spark in them that is common in them all. Yup, all of them. The Flappy Bird clones, the cheap cash-ins 16-bit platformers, the walking simulators, the visual novels, the arm-wrestling arcade machines, the incomprehensibly pretentious arty messes, the slash-fanfic-porn RPG Maker games, the latest Assassin's Creed, and even Air Control. All of them are art; all of them have value.
Videogames have been analyzed in a variety of lenses; how well they play, how beautiful they look, how polished they are, how meaningful the attempt to be, and even by how much people like whoever made the game. But should you include all games that ever were side-by-side, how can one use one single criteria to analyze them all? Current videogames criticism seems to focus on the ethereal concept of gameplay, but sometimes a game with repetitive flow and dull game situations still gets good reviews by virtue of good audiovisual chemistry, giving rewarding, meaty screenshakes, particle effects and sounds. Likewise, sometimes, games that are conceptually vapid and proposing the same thing for the umpteenth time get buzz by having nice, charming art – which would explain the deluge of pixel-art-crating-roguelike-permadeath-platformer-rpgs that domain the indie spotlight nowadays (which also has a lot to do with the insidiousness of marketing as the driving force in the indie circle – but that’s a subject for another text).
No, to truly understand what videogames are, and what unites all videogames as a unified media, is a concept even more ethereal, and perhaps even more controversial than gameplay; interactivity.
Now, interactivity in itself is pretty easy to define; as I mentioned before, the book Game Feel does a great job in dissecting the pieces that compose interactivity in a kinetic, tactile level. But one of my frustrations in this book is that it also treats interactivity as a product, as if you could procedurally assemble “good” interactivity (I went through the gonzo concepts of “friction” and “juice” and proposing a sort of sensible hedonism, as if just something that feels good is an ultimate goal). And here is the thing; in games, interactivity is a subjective thing, processed not only with our senses, but also with our memories, feelings and peculiarities. Interactivity should not be judge merely on how *good* they feel, but on its complexity and richness and beauty. In short, we need to define the aesthetics of interaction.
Surprisingly, there is very little to read onto this subject, but this is due how hard it is to perceive and them judge this invisible element. There is no shortage of subjective, smart game reviews around, perhaps now more than ever, there is not a lot of thought in on understanding that essence (also, most of contemporary videogames bloggers seem to be transfixed on the superficial). One exception is this marvelous article (which sadly I forgot to link in the three-parter detailing the history of INX), which takes a more holistic approach in the understanding of games, while also using art theory to ground it.
Following those ideas, I do believe that there is plenty of space to analyze games under the light of classic and modern philosophy (hell, it has been done, and beautifully so), but that is not my goal here. With the introductory baggage out of the way, let’s take a look in what constitutes, for me as a designer, the aesthetics of interaction, and how I applied those ideas to In Extremis.
As I said, I try to understand a game in a more synesthetic level, digesting all of its elements at the same time; also, trying to derive an impression from the act of play itself, moreso than the act of remembering playing it. The aesthetic of interaction is something fleeting, and one could observe the powerful contemporary wave of nostalgia as an attempt to recapture a more pure, unfiltered aesthetic. Which is sad, since games being made nowadays oftentimes have aesthetics which are far more richer than many of the overeferenciated classics (I love Zelda, but at this point, seriously, fuck Zelda; there are more interesting takes on videogame than to try to replicate the years-old achievements of that series).
An aesthetic of interaction, so, is derived from the purest essence of playing a game, no matter for how long, and which parts of it; some games are iterations on the same basic mechanics, while others change constantly. Some games have very little interaction to speak of, or even none, drowning players with cutcenes or text, or even *being* only cutcenes and text; but those sections of passivity informs and project into the sections of interaction. Some games do need more time to be made sense of, even though games do not need to be fully completed to have their aesthetics comprehended.
Also, the comprehension of the aesthetics of interaction overrides authorial intent; despite the designer intention to ascribe meaning to a narrative, to make a mechanic into a metaphor, or use intertextuality to allude to other works, those elements are not the aesthetic per se. Not to say that a game narrative context has no impact, but, as said before, those elements project meaning in the experience of the game. An initial cutcene, a sample dialogue, a notable sound effect and even the the silhouette of a game object frames the experience, and in consequence, the aesthetic. But no matter how hard the designer tries, it is impossible to cage that beast (this video being forever a sobering reminder of that).
That happens because the aesthetic is comprehended internally, in a subconscious level. Which is why I’m fond of the use of symbolism and elliptical storytelling in videogames, because even if the player does not get it in a superficial level, he “gets” it in his subconscious.
Of course, that can be utterly terrifying; what good can be had by working to impair meaning in video games, if the message can always be lost to the player? Well, that isn’t a bad thing at all. Hell, this is why videogames are so cool in the first place. Videogames are a space of interaction, after all, and are at their most interesting when broken, misunderstood and taken out of their desired contexts. By being essentially an open art, they can have multiple meanings and approaches, and multiplicity is their id. It’s not uncommon for games with aggressive exteriors to be surprisingly calming experiences, or supposedly cutesy games to be tense and nerve-wracking, and well as games promoted as deep and meaningful and filled with Serious Adult Themes to be devoid of anything actually meaningful.
This also taps in one of the main criticism of contemporary videogames, the “all-you-do-in-modern-videogames-is-to-shoot-and-kill”: different games have different aesthetics approaches of that act, be it in their mechanical tension, the hold-and-release of its use in the game context, or how it’s visual and aural effects give different tactile sensations in use. That same act of shooting in a game can be brutal, methodical, cathartic or protective, depending on the context it creates. This criticism is perversely superficial, as it reflects an idea create by the observation of the medium, not the engagement of it. And as it is with so many others, it works as to impose a limitating view of what videogames can express.
Games regarded as “good” according to the current zeitgeist are sometimes tremendously manipulative, constraining their sensescapes as to extract from every player the same emotional reaction, as if the aesthetics of interaction could be boxed and reproduction; but expressive games should allow, nay, ensure, that players find their own meaning, project their own emotions, look into the void and find their own beauty.
(An aside; one might argue that the popularity of Youtubers, which make their reactions to games their product, has a positive influence in game design, as the games that tend to be popular with casters are open to expressiveness and a variety of approaches and reactions; but I would argue not, as the games popularized in this medium are often the ones that are interesting to watch, and that provoke visceral reactions; and the essence of a game can only be reached by playing it. More introspective game experiences – truly introspective, not superficially gentle-piano-music-blue-backdrops-bad-poetry-on-screen introspective – , experiences that require focus from a caster, tend to make poor viewing experiences.)
Finally, all games have their own universal aesthetics; I enjoy playing incomplete, alpha-staged game, or gonzo-weirdo stuff, as sometimes they already have fully-formed aesthetics jumping out of them (the “truth”, as Jonathan Blow would put it). It can be contained in the perception of simple game loop, in a peculiarly arrange soundscape of weird audio effects, or even in tactile feel of playing. Aesthetics are democratic; every single game have them, and even the most simple, dumb, seemingly-insincere stuff can have several hidden depths in them.
Games are art. Games have always been art. And all games are art. Even the ones you don’t like.
In Extremis is a project that has been in development for a bit more than a year and a half, but is an idea that’s been brewing in the back of my mind since 2007. Because of that, it has been evolving together with my own perception of game design, and is very much a product of those described ideas.
As previously detailed, INX is a shmup because of that genre being the most mechanically accessible, and also being ripe for experimentation. Despite every level being based on different ideas, values and styles, it is always subject to the same (very simple) set of rules, and it works as a traditional score-focused game. I wanted to make these mechanics aspects not to be hidden, but to incorporate them in the aesthetic bundle of the game; as I think these formative elements of videogames are not relics of the past, but simply new words to speak with the player.
INX has a total of twelve “aspects” (they are intentionally not called “weapons”, as their role varies with each stage context); some of them are based on a simple mechanical purpose, born of a want to refine particular mechanics of shmup design; other bring elements of other genres to the game, or subvert the mechanics of the shmup genre entirely. And while all of them are functional, some are better to some situations than other; damage output is quite balanced between them, but some players might find some functionally useless.
I don’t think that this is a huge problem, as every aspect is less of a tool, and more of a verb to interact with each stage. Some were modeled in feelings, other in musical instruments, some in abstract ideas of tactile interaction. Instead of every single one being a one-note poetical representation of a simple idea, as it was the initial plan, they are ever-shifting metaphors, whose interplay in the stages define their meaning.
And the stages; there are eleven of them, each one being very different form the other, in terms of visual representations, soundtrack, rhythm, and use of mechanics. While initial tests show that some are more successful than other in expressing their ideas, that unbalance serves a higher purpose; as the intent behind the game is not for it to be some definitive statement, but a chaotic collage of possibilities.
Thus, the planned aesthetic behind In Extremis is derived from the interplay between stages and aspects; though some combination of aspects are indeed better for particular stages, I opted out of the “magic bullet” design (as tempting as it was). The game uses narrative elements sparingly, as to not interfere with the player agency and expressivity, though that risks the project to be hermetic and appear pretentious. But hey, games are not meant to be understood; they are meant to be played, right?
Videogames do not happen at the busy intersections, but at the subtle spaces; the essence of videogames are not the things that can be easily pointed at, thinkpieced or hashtagged; to praise them for anything less than the sum of all of their parts is profoundly dishonest. Rather than to appease to the ideological demands of the day, game makers should aspire to reach for the unknown, for it is the only way to push the medium forward. Like a trick of the light in the corner of the eye, the essence of videogames is fleeting; what makes the search for it all the more important.
Thanks for reading!