Locating Aesthetics Between Various Game Appeals

John Rose recently wrote an article for Gamasutra titled “Fewer Mechanics, Better Game,” a look at what makes games not just enjoyable, but objectively identified as good. I found the article thoughtful and interesting. I also (almost) completely disagree with it. It fits neatly into the recent posts I’ve been doing on game narratives, appeals, and play styles, so I thought I’d take a moment to analyze another person’s perspective and explain how our opinions differ.

John begins by suggesting that a game’s play mechanics are its main source of aesthetic achievement:

Interactive media even have their own distinct form, the play aesthetic. This is the overall feel and character of the gameplay, and it too must seem cohesive. Where painters use their brushes to create a unified composition, designers use gameplay. Where artists need to generate a harmonious color palette, game developers should engineer a set of congruous mechanics.

I haven’t even gotten to John’s major argument yet, but I need to stop here because this is at the root of why I disagree with him, and why I think most narrative games aren’t achieving what they could.

Narrative games are a hybrid form, kind of like comic books or film. They have more than one aesthetic consideration to deal with. “Artists need to generate a harmonious color palette,” but when that artwork happens to be the illustrations for a comic book or the shots for a movie, it’s not enough to just have pretty colors. You need to also make sure those visual decisions work in concert with the story being told. You might even have other considerations, like music and acting. I would contend, then, that the argument presented here is based on a reductionist understanding of what videogames should and could be.

Based on this understanding of game aesthetics, John offers his main argument: that videogames today offer players too many mechanics. This leads to wasted time (because most players will never use a substantial number of the game’s mechanics) and confusion (because most players won’t know what to do with the many choices before them).

A recent trend in games is the ability of players to “play their own way.” It’s a design choice that includes more mechanics than any particular player will explore in a single playthrough. While superficially this seems like the Holy Grail of game design, the idea merely passes on the entertainment responsibility to the player. […]

Most players will only experience the game’s core concepts, and everything else is effectively useless. We simply can’t afford to pander to the few when the mainstream is unsatisfied.

When applied to game mechanics, this fact supports the inclusion of only strong ones. Any mechanic that is underutilized by most players is a waste of developer and player time.

He doesn’t seem to realize it, but what John is suggesting here is that videogames in general need to be more like so-called “casual games,” such as free Flash games on the internet. These are games that focus on very few gameplay elements at a time, distilling the gaming experience into something very simple and approachable. And, that said, I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that “the mainstream is unsatisfied” with so much survey data coming out every month about the huge numbers of adults who play games.

Here’s the tricky thing, though: Most of those “casual games” have no further artistic pretensions. They exist for amusement, which is a great thing, but not exactly what John’s really arguing games are capable of. You do see a few very simple games with artistic aims, like Passage and (so I hear) Braid, but games with different ambitious—such as in terms of storytelling—are trying to find their way onto consoles.

Let’s go back for a moment, then, to John’s contention that letting players “play their own way” is an example of “too many mechanics,” a move that “merely” puts the role of entertaining into the player’s hands. I’m not sure what “merely” is supposed to mean here: I’d say this move is groundbreaking. A lot of players want that, and that is why Mass Effect and Bioshock were so well received by players and critics alike.

What that mixture of mechanics and abundance of choices provides is the illusion of player agency. This adds a whole new dimension to storytelling that other media simply can’t offer. The trick to making an impressive game, I think, is to recognize that different aesthetic elements—storyline, graphics, music, challenges—can actually complement one another. Arguably, having a bunch of content in Bioshock or Mass Effect that the player never gets to is not a waste so long as those choices along the way strengthen the illusion that the player got to choose how the game progressed, which can have strong implications for how one reacts to the plot and characters.

When I started this post, I made sure to put the word “almost” before the words “completely disagree.” That’s because there are a couple points on which John and I see eye to eye, or at least close to it. At one point, we actually suggest pretty much the same thing:

Multiplayer functionality is a great example of a risky feature whose inclusion or exclusion should be obvious from the start. Titles like Halo 3 really benefit from both single-player and multi-player modes; their mechanics are built around it. But Half-Life 2, while an excellent single-player experience, simply can’t compete with other multi-player titles.

Compare this to my suggestion (in the penultimate paragraph) that some games might profit from being specifically designed as multiplayer or single player experiences rather than trying to shoehorn both into one interface.

I think there’s a difference, though, between arguing that games should focus on one cohesive experience and arguing that that experience should focus above all else on one channel of aesthetic engagement. While I agree with John that such simplification would invite “the mainstream” to play games, I disagree that that’s what good games are necessarily like.

As we’ve discussed here already, people play games for a variety of reasons, and sometimes game designers overdo things a little by trying to appeal to players in too many ways with a single game. Simplifying the game to just one or two mechanics is one way to deal with this, but other ways might involve focusing game design more on other sorts of appeals. Fewer mechanics might be appealing to players like John, who believe that “Fun is in the learning, and the payoff is in our influence over these systems”—what we’ve previously called the appeal of “mastery”—but for those who are looking for other sorts of gameplay experiences, that may not be a “better” game.

5 thoughts on “Locating Aesthetics Between Various Game Appeals

  1. I think it is interesting to contrast this with a school of thought in general software development, that trying to do to much within an application is one of the surest ways to ensure a horrible user experience.

    The classic example of this is Word, a very powerful tool, that is a nightmare from a user interface experience. Contrast this with something like OmniOutliner, which is, at its heart, a single purpose application (it does outlines, though there is greater functionality hidden in there for advanced users who want to dig), but has a wonderful design interface that’s fairly intuitive.

    My personal feeling is that any software package that requires an instruction manual, especially for core tasks, is flawed. And that a “perfect” application will do what the user expects in the way that the user expects it to do so. Of course, this perfection is possibly unattainable, but it is something to be strived for.

    I’d say a similar approach could be taken with games. I know personally, as a casual gamer, I played Halo once at a friend’s house for about 10 minutes before deciding that the interface was way to cumbersome for me to want to play it any longer. While Halo is the worst example I’ve run into, I’ve run into this with other games as well. It is hard to get into the narrative of a game when you’re spending all of your time fighting with the controls.

    There has to be some kind of middle ground that allows users to play the game in a fairly intuitive manner that doesn’t limit the narrative experience.

  2. Agreed. As much as I love Mass Effect, and as much as the interface was a huge improvement over their earlier, similar title, Knights of the Old Republic, there was just too much going on with the controller and interfaces. It took me a good long time into my first playthrough to learn how to install weapon and ammo upgrades; it wasn’t until my second playthrough that I discovered that my vehicle could zoom in on targets and that it had a second weapon (which drastically changed the game experience).

    I feel like any game with this many controls needs to have at least an optional tutorial to walk you through everything. There’s something very pleasing, though, about particularly straightforward game interfaces, like Portal‘s.

  3. This argument gets used in software user interface design, and again here in game design. Simple is better. Intuitive is better. Exposed is better.

    These are certainly worthwhile goals with visible if hard to measure qualities, but I don’t think they should always be ideals for design. For players that dedicate themselves to a game, a complex and opaque interface to a practically unlearnable set of mechanics can be a lot of fun. Second language learning can be such a game, and I see no reason why software games need to be any different.

    Some of the best games have simple rules/mechanics that produce interesting emergent behavior. But the fun of rule-learning is often best done in a game that is hard to understand.

    One consistent need in both situation though is for consistency. Being able to make generalizations (whether you’re playing to discover them, or playing to utilize them) is key to successful gaming.

  4. I think, Jacob has a good point. I’d say that a game interface (as opposed to a business application) can contribute greatly to maintaining a world (imagine, for example, acquiring a gun from an alien in a first person shooter and having to figure out how to operate it.) if it is designed to. The real problem is people are to willing to look at what was done before and simply add on it (which can make life easier/more comfortable for the user, but doesn’t really add to the game’s narrative in a way that it could.).

    Anyhow, I know Jason doesn’t like Word 2007’s interface, but I was curious if anyone else had used it recently–in part because my job involves me teaching how to use Word 2007 to new users and I’ve been using in for almost a year now. And like all schemas for interaction, I’ve gotten used to it and can now use it as well as I ever was able to use 2003.

    Just thoughts.


  5. Now might be a good time to recall that while Mass Effect‘s interface was overwhelming, actually learning that interface (rather than just ignoring/omitting certain elements) made the game tons more fun. My first time through, I had no idea that your vehicle had a second (and much more useful) weapon, or that it could zoom in on distant targets. I suppose I could have just continued to ignore these elements to simplify my game experience (and the designers could have omitted them for the same purpose), but actually having multiple modes of interaction really did make it more fun for me.

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