Monday, May 9, 2011

the state of the industry, Part II: Aesthetic

The more I read what I've written, the more I realize how incomplete some of these ideas are. So incomplete. I should go back and resolve some of these issues soon.

The last post was about Narrative. It brought up three main contentions about game narratives and I did my best to present some reasonable assumptions as to why these arguments are either unfounded or arbitrary. The point was to elucidate the problem in an attempt to solve it. Really, the whole purpose of my thinking about these things is to solve the perceived problems of the media that is video games. Given the fact that video games have become an increasingly popular avenue by which people are attempting to transmit their ideas, I think it's important to take a step back for a moment and really think about them before things get really far along. I mean like, REALLY.

So in my discussion about narrative what I wanted to conclude with was that narrative is largely unnecessary. Not because it's difficult to implement or inappropriate, but because it's kind of already there. It's "in" the game. It's in every game. Games are narratives because games are people doing things with other people (or by themselves. Games are, by virtue of their mode of experience (that is, -active- participation), a form of emergent media unrivaled by more traditional forms. The closest thing to it are the old "choose your own adventure books" or your own real life. Other types of media can't do that. Ergo, games always contain narrative and therefore do not need narrative, ergo any arguments made against the narrative of a game may as well be an argument against the game itself.

I guess if I broke it down into a syllogism it would be this : Games are narratives. If you don't like the narrative, you don't like the game. If you like the game, then you like the narrative.

The major distinction was between the intrinsic and extrinsic narratives, which I mentioned. The intrinsic narrative is the one named in the syllogism. I don't care much for extrinsic narratives.

Now, on to point Number Two:
  • Narrative
  • Aesthetic
  • Authenticity
  • Design
  • Piracy 
So what is Aesthetic? According to our best friend in the whole internet, Aesthetic is a term that is very nearly synonymous with the word "beauty".  It's actually Aesthetics, but since I'm such an amateur, I'm allowed to make mistakes. It concerns the aspects of visual design, "art", and "taste". The sudden appearance of all these quotes should tip you off to the fact that elements like these are largely subjective. And when I say largely, I mean L A R G E L Y.

Aesthetics are subjective, so what's the point in discussing the problems people have with them? After all, if it's all opinion, there won't be much else to say except "well that's just YOUR opinion. And your opinion is stupid!" Okay, well, I'm not that mean. Also, I'm not that skeptical. I believe there is a certain objectivity that can be claimed on Aesthetics. If you think about it, take a little pen and paper and start writing or drawing out something or somewhere find something to imprint something on and think about it, you find something rather peculiar. What may begin as a simple doodle or a short sentence may seem incomplete at first. It's only a feeling really, a rather fleeting one, but that sense is there. It's not done. It's not perfect. There is a drive and a desire to make whatever it is you've doodled or written into something appealing, at least to yourself. There is a universal need for beauty, and beauty found in situ as well as in domicile (I made that up. I'll explain later) satisfies that need. It follows that there must be something objective, something universal, about the things that satisfy it.

Alright, so don't get smart with me and say things like "well, obviously the only thing that they have in common is that they satisfy the need for beauty." I refuse to believe something so solipsistic. There is something concrete and real about these things that are inherent in all of them.

Let's start with the issues.
  1. The graphics are crappy.  "Graphics" is a nebulous term used to describe the visual aspect of any media (whether or not the visual portion of that media is its key vehicle, i.e. the graphics of a novel). In video games especially, this term has come to refer to, well, practically everything. If the player sees it, it's graphics. And to most players, graphics are everything. So when the graphics are crappy, it usually follows that the game is crappy. "Crappy" here means visually displeasing or lacking in appeal. This may be due to "jaggies" or low-resolution visuals, faded colors, or a muted look. It can also refer to a lack of uniformity of style (things don't "fit together"), or a lack of artistic direction (1950s meets 2070s plus sweatbands and cocaine trips). The complaint generally boils down to the phrase "I'm just not feeling it."
  2. The visual style doesn't match the gameplay. This complaint borders on pure subjectivism. It's obvious Plain English meaning belies the myriad objective questions though.Those questions of course being things like "how much screen space do my characters take up? how much screen space do my character outfits take up? how many hud elements should there be? how many colors should be used in the hud? on the character? on the weapon?" etc. etc. etc. The answers to these questions leads to the style which is then used hopefully enhance the gameplay experience. If enough of these questions are answered incorrectly, this results in the given complaint.
My personal opinion about the matter is that aesthetics really don't count for much without gameplay. A game looking fantastic has very little to do with how the game plays. And vice versa. Minimalistic art doesn't necessarily equate with minimalistic gameplay. Like the wonderful game Fez linked above, and the equally well-crafted Samorost 2 and Machinarium, sometimes the aesthetic is the game. And I have no problem with that.

The complaints here are, once again, largely lodged within the psyche of the lowest-common-denominator gamer. The gamer who judges games based on everything but gameplay. Asking a game to be art the way a painting is art is asking for nonsense, and nonsense you will get. But if you ask a game to be art the way a game is art, because a game is a form of art, then you will be better served. Much the way narrative emerges from any given game, the aesthetic does the same. The game Minecraft certainly attests to this truth. As games are asked to move further from their nature (that is, to be "more like movies" or other such nonsense) then we shouldn't be surprised that they feel less and less like games. And as a result fail to satisfy that gaming desire some of us happen to have.

Instead, focus on the gameplay. If the game's aesthetic gets in the way, then you'll be able to spot where the developer has placed priority in developing this game. They may have wanted to shoehorn this particular style or look into the game as much as possible; it'll be noticeable.

Otherwise, play the game because you enjoy it. Problem Solved.

Next week: part three