The Aesthetics of Play

Back in my discussion about JRPGs, I mentioned this little tidbit called aesthetics. Now, I only mentioned—and briefly—discussed about a few aesthetics in the Mindshare, and it served to broaden the discussion a lot more, but I thought it was high time to discuss them further.

This discussion really started with the 2 Chimps on a Davenport podcast. During Dan and John’s time at E3 2013, Josh Kowbel talked about how excited he was about Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts 3 (I nearly lost it when they announced KH3), and then John, displaying his ignorance and ineptitude for the matter, said this:

“What does Final Fantasy mean? Final Fantasy means nothing anymore, because the shit that they showed is not turn-based.”

I think that was him just using confirmation bias to support his claim, and I don’t think he’s ever read the M.D.A. in game design before. This is a topic I’ve really wanted to talk about for a while, because it helps in understanding the process of designing a game, as well as the fundamental desires that players have when they play a specific genre or game. It also shows us that we’re looking at game genres wrong. If you want to read up on it, here’s the link to the original paper. So, let’s get started.

If this is what people think when they play a JRPG, or an RPG in general, we’ve got some serious problems to address… Source: Extra Credits

If this is what people think when they play a JRPG, or an RPG in general, we’ve got some serious problems to address…

Source: Extra Credits

Back in the early 2000s, there was a paper written by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek called Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics. It was an early attempt to formulize game design theory, and it’s important in looking at game genres. In this discussion, I will be giving a highly expanded view on the discussion within the first section of that paper, specifically the portion about the aesthetics of play.

A lot of people in this day and age seem to define a genre based on surface elements. This game is an RPG, because it has a leveling system. This game is an FPS, because it involves shooting in a first person camera. That game is a platformer, because it involves jumping from one ledge to another. This is a misleading step to take when defining a game or genre. What we really need to look at is the dissected parts of the game’s design.

So what are these three points in design? Well, not surprisingly, they’re already mentioned in the paper: Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics. The mechanics are defined as “the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms.” This is represented by the code-base for the game’s design, like the math for how shooting works in an FPS, or the input lag between the time that a button is pressed, and when the action tied to that button is triggered in the game.

Dynamics are defined as “the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others’ outputs over time.” This is where a lot of people mistake the dynamics of a game with the aesthetics, which I’ll get to shortly. Dynamics can be defined, in the game, as specific actions and the mindset that you conceive when playing, like the run-and-gun gameplay in that FPS, or the slow, methodical strategies in a JRPG.

And finally, we have the final aspect to define: Aesthetics. The aesthetics are “the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when (s)he interacts with the game system.” Aesthetics are the underlying, emotive reasons why you come to a specific genre or game in the first place. For example, the challenge, or the fantasy of being a Marine in an FPS, or the dramatic narrative in a JRPG; those are some examples of aesthetics you can experience in a game. The mechanics create the dynamics of the game, which all come together to shape the overall aesthetic.

One of the key insights mentioned in the M.D.A. paper, is that both designers and players will approach the spectrum from the opposite direction. Players will most viscerally experience the aesthetics of the game, the broad reasons why they’re playing it. But designers, due to the nature of production, have to start with the mechanics, and work their way up. Unfortunately, they can be so focused on the mechanics that they forget what the aesthetics for their game will be; or, worse, they think that specific mechanics always deliver specific aesthetics, which never works. For example, leveling up in a game like Borderlands serves a completely different aesthetic than leveling up in Call of Duty multiplayer. A lot of terrible clones were made when they thought that specific mechanics would create specific aesthetics.

Designers and players have a different perspective on how they approach games. Source: NorthWestern University

Designers and players have a different perspective on how they approach games.

Source: NorthWestern University

Simply defining a genre based on the mechanics and the dynamics is the absolute definition of going the wrong way, and both consumers and designers fall pray to it all the time. In fact, you can probably see it in today’s games. Some developer will see a successful game and try to recreate it using similar mechanics. They create a game that appears, on the surface, to be similar to that game, but it still manages to fall flat. It may share mechanics from that same game, but it just doesn’t seem the same as its doppelgänger. The reason why it fails is because they conflated the techniques used to create that game with the more important task of understanding why the player plays that game.

Now, before we start talking about what these aesthetics are, I need to talk about genres. This is going to take up a little bit of the discussion, but bear with me. When you pick up a romance novel, you’re reading that novel for fundamentally different reasons than you would if you picked up a comedy or a dramatic novel. This is the same for movies as well. When you’re watching an action flic featuring Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone, you’re watching them for completely different reasons than a comedy featuring Shannon Elizabeth or Jason Biggs.

By itself, movie genres aren’t defined by specific editing styles or different types of cinematography, or literary novels by formulaic plot tropes. Sure, you may see different genres utilizing those same camera angles or story conventions, but those don’t define the genre. Genres, in all things, are defined by what the audience desires the most out of the experience from those forms of media. Saying you watch movies for the editing, or playing a game for the mechanics, is like saying you read Maxim for the articles—and we all know that’s not why people read Maxim or Playboy.

 When was the last time you read an issue of Playboy for the articles? Source: Amazon

 When was the last time you read an issue of Playboy for the articles?

Source: Amazon

 Let me ask you: Why do we call Mass Effect an RPG, even though its combat centers on third-person shooting? Why are we so confident in giving Call of Duty the FPS label, even though it has a leveling system in the multiplayer? It’s because we’re defining them not by surface mechanics or camera perspectives, but because of the human desires, emotions and interests that the game delivers on, the underlying reasons we play a video game. Take the FPS genre. We’ve defined a genre based on the fact that it takes place in the first person perspective, and involves shooting. That’s ridiculous. What if we defined film genres that way? Fear Induced Scream. Close Up Kissing. Silly Boisterous Laughter. We always seem to break this term all the time. We may not be able to articulate why, but we all know that Portal and Fallout don’t fit well inside the FPS genre. Both take place in the first person perspective. They both involve shooting. They perfectly reach the requirements of being an FPS, but we all know they are not First Person Shooters. Why? Because they fulfill different desires. They may share mechanics from one another, but they could serve completely different aesthetics.

So now that that’s out of the way, what are these aesthetics? Well they’re all easy to define, and, in fact, are all written down in the paper. The paper has eight aesthetics defined properly throughout. Since then, developers have been able to add a few more, but we’ll be focusing on the main ones listed instead, and maybe one aesthetic that isn’t listed in there. But before we start talking about these aesthetics, we have to keep in mind the core aesthetics, the fundamental reasons you play, because you’ll find that a lot of games share elements of all the aesthetics, but that doesn’t give us enough information. The useful information comes from defining the core aesthetics that the game tries to evoke. Sure, Mario games have a narrative, but you’re not playing them for the deep, interpersonal drama between Mario, Peach, and Bowser, so that’s not a core aesthetic. When looking at a game, you have to ask yourself these questions: “Is __________ an element of this game?”, followed by, “Is __________ the reason I play this game?” This is an easy place for young designers to get lost.

Ok. Now we can begin discussing about those aesthetics. The first aesthetic is the simplest one to define, but also the weakest of these, and that is Sensation. This is defined as game as sense-pleasure. These are games that stimulate your senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell). So, if it’s a game you come back time and time again for the visuals, or the music, that game uses Sensation as a core aesthetic. Games like Child of Eden, Rez, El Shaddai, Okami, DDR, and Crysis deliver on Sensation as a core aesthetic.

As I mentioned earlier, Sensation is the weakest of these aesthetics, mainly because of two factors: the limitations of the hardware, and the game’s age—both of which are intertwined together. Today, the hardware for the 360 and the PS3 are so old, and the graphical limits have since exploded outside of those consoles, the games coming out on the current-gen consoles are not as visually amazing as they were midway through the console’s lifecycle. And this is especially true for older systems, like the original PlayStation, the N64, etc. For example, remember the first time Mario transformed from being an 8-bit sprite to a 3D character in Super Mario 64? That was amazing at the time. Today… not so much. The thing about Sensation is that, as technology advances, what we consider to be visually amazing becomes outdated very quickly, to the point that it’s shadowed by something far superior to it. A game like Assassin’s Creed, Final Fantasy XIII, or Crysis, right now, have absolutely gorgeous visuals, but what about ten years from now? It’s probably going to be swallowed by something bigger and better than them. We’re seeing this with the next generation of games like Destiny, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Watch Dogs, and Battlefield 4, all promising to show off the new hardware for the PS4 and/or the Xbox One.

As for the music, that’s a different matter. Considering how much YouTube and iTunes have exploded since the 2000s, we’re seeing less and less games focusing on Sensation in terms of music. I mean, when was the last time you came back to a game just for the music? Why bother, when you could just search for the soundtrack of that game on YouTube or listen to it on your iPhone? I mean, maybe it would work better in conjunction with the level it’s associated with, but it’s all moot when you consider that music is not, for the most part, holistic to the experience.

These games may have amazing visuals, but what does the future hold for us? Left: Guru3D. Right: ScrewAttack.

These games may have amazing visuals, but what does the future hold for us?

Left: Guru3D. Right: ScrewAttack.

The second is Fantasy. Fantasy is game as make-believe. And no, it doesn’t refer to orcs, elves, or the game’s setting. Fantasy is the ability to step into the shoes of an individual you could never partake in everyday life. When you totally feel like a badass marine, or a heroic knight, or a hardcore rock-n-roll god, that’s is Fantasy at its best. They take that idea, boil it to its essence and deliver it in a steady, successive drip. Games like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Guitar Hero, NFL Blitz, God of War, and Halo deliver on Fantasy as a core aesthetic.

Fantasy is another weak aesthetic to use, but it can make for great experiences—if done right. When I say “if done right”, it usually means that Fantasy is backed up with another aesthetic, such as Expression, where the player can truly create the character they want to fantasize about. Many WRPGs focus on Fantasy, along with the role-playing nature of the games, because it allows the player to become the role, instead of being “someone”.

Become the God of Rock-n-Roll, brotha! Source: ShareCovers

Become the God of Rock-n-Roll, brotha!

Source: ShareCovers

The third is Narrative. This is game as drama. It’s all about the stories and the human drama you witness, rather than the fantasy you live through. Games that focus on Narrative as a core aesthetic try to evoke emotion from the characters to the player. Games like Final Fantasy, The Sims, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Infamous, Half-Life, Kingdom Hearts, and The Walking Dead all try to evoke emotion from its narrative.

This is yet another aesthetic that doesn’t hold up as well today, especially when you look at games like Mass Effect, Infamous, The Walking Dead, and Bioshock etc., where you are given choices for how the story unfolds. Now compare them to games like Final Fantasy, Half-Life, or Kingdom Hearts, where it’s just a straightforward progression of the story, regardless of how many conventions you take to try and change the story. Games that focus on Narrative as a core aesthetic are subjected to a lack of replay ability if there’s no sense of choice in creating a unique story to ones own liking.

Now, that doesn’t mean all narrative-based games need to have branching storylines. Sometimes, it can be a unique approach to storytelling, a completely novel way for the writers to create a story with the mechanics and the dynamics that are given to them. For example, have you ever noticed how in most JRPGs the main protagonist isn’t usually YOU? It’s multiple people with their own personalities, goals, and desires; and you’re more of a puppet master, directing their movements, actions and the actions of those around them. That division between the player and the characters is done by the writers to tell a very carefully crafted story, while freeing them from the constraints of a single, focused perspective. In short, if done right, Narrative can be a powerful aesthetic that will really make the experience that much more enriching.

At least Josh Kowbel understands why he plays a Final Fantasy game, John. Source: ZeroChan

At least Josh Kowbel understands why he plays a Final Fantasy game, John.

Source: ZeroChan

The fourth is Challenge. It’s defined as game as obstacle course. In games, you find this in engaging to overcome arbitrary obstacles. You’ll find this aesthetic at the heart of any Mario game, Call of Duty, Ikaruga, Angry Birds, Trials, Super Meat Boy, and Dark Souls. This is the hardest aesthetic to define for many people, because many designers define Challenge as “difficulty.” Now, difficulty can be a dynamic that might help deliver on Challenge, but it is not the same thing. For example, XCOM uses Challenge as a core aesthetic, especially in Enemy Unknown. The game is all about strategizing and outsmarting the enemy. Now, there are difficulty settings to help deliver that aesthetic, but even on the easiest difficulty, Enemy Unknown is still a challenging game regardless of what difficulty you’re playing on. Oh, and have fun with Ironman mode.

Not surprisingly, this avenue is rarely pursued by designers, because of the explosion of costs for developing games, and how much money goes into making these games. When you look at Call of Duty, they just reuse already existing assets, which in turn means that they aren’t spending as much money on developing it as they are just using what they already have. However, there is one caveat that many designers and publishers think is true: they believe that easy games sell more than challenging ones. This is 100% false. In fact, it’s so not true it’s to the point of it being silly. Making a game as easy as the recent Prince of Persia is NOT going to sell as well as something like The Elder Scrolls or Portal. Why? Because they know that their game needs to be challenging enough to satisfy the audience that love a challenge, and those who just want to play.

The simplest, yet most challenging game you’ll ever play. Source: Angry Birds wikia

The simplest, yet most challenging game you’ll ever play.

Source: Angry Birds wikia

The fifth is Fellowship. This is defined as game as social framework. These are games that give you the ability to work together to achieve a goal. Games that let you play in a pack or a group, that feeling of comradery, is used as a framework for Fellowship. Games like World of Warcraft, Team Fortress, Borderlands, Journey, and Dark Souls deliver on Fellowship as a core aesthetic.

In comparison to the next aesthetic below, Fellowship is a very, VERY powerful aesthetic to utilize, especially with the advent of the Internet. Fellowship can be a great way to experience a game with others. In the case of Borderlands, Team Fortress, World of Warcraft, Journey, and Dark Souls, where Fellowship is paired with another aesthetic to give the experience longevity, you can have a game with limitless replay ability.

We’re also seeing games for the next generation of consoles utilizing what may end up being the Fellowship aesthetic, like Destiny, The Division, The Crew, and possibly Watch Dogs, where they’re pushing online play with other aesthetics, some of which are discussed below.

There ain’t no rest for the wicked. Now bring some friends. Source: BioGamerGirl

There ain’t no rest for the wicked. Now bring some friends.

Source: BioGamerGirl

The sixth is Competition. Professional designers heavily argue about this, but I’m including this in here. In the M.D.A. paper, they mentioned Competition, but don’t formally define it. Many people define this as game as expression of dominance, bringing us together by dividing us against one another. There’s something evolutionary and innate inside all of us, something that demands us to express our competence and dominance to other members of our species. Games that let us express this use Competition as a core aesthetic. Games like Team Fortress, Street Fighter, League of Legends, StarCraft, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo, Demon’s Souls, and World of Warcraft all fit in this criteria.

Ever since the explosion that was Call of Duty 4, games have started incorporating multiplayer to compete against the titan—even if most of the ones that tried failed miserably. In this day and age, single-player only games have seen a dramatic decline ever since Modern Warfare 1 and, to a lesser extent, Halo 2 took off with multiplayer paving the way for the future of gaming. But, as mentioned above, many of these games fall flat, because they try to create a Call of Duty clone, in the same way that most MMORPGs try to create a WoW clone.

We’ve seen the numbers before, but single-player completion rates have fallen ever since multiplayer went big. But as sad as that sounds, I think we’ll see a unique approach to blending single-player and multiplayer into one. We’ve already this with Demon’s Souls, and how revolutionary that became with creating a multiplayer experience within the single-player, rather than just placing a tab in the menu saying, “Multiplayer”.

Prove who is the best amongst everyone! Source: Gamegrin

Prove who is the best amongst everyone!

Source: Gamegrin

The seventh is Discovery. This is game as uncharted territory. It’s all about uncovering the new. If you’re coming back time and time again to discover what’s left to find, that game uses Discovery as a core aesthetic. This can range from discovering new territory in The Elder Scrolls or World of Warcraft, recipes in MineCraft, discovering a new, shiny item in Diablo or Borderlands, or even discovering new systems, like new and emergent threats in Dwarf Fortress.

This is absolutely huge for games of tomorrow, especially with the next generation of consoles coming up. Discovery is 100% guaranteed to keep the player coming back for days, months, and even years on end. In this sense, we’ll be seeing a lot of games using Discovery as a core aesthetic, because it’s the most promising way to create a game that’s replayable, other than shoehorning multiplayer into the mix. Most games these days are always super linear and don’t offer much to replay it again. This was a big part of what happened to Remember Me.

A lot of designers believe that in order to create a game with tons of replay value, they have to create an MMO-like game, in essence, have it never end. In order to do this, they do things like creating procedurally generated loot, open-world environments, create an online experience for others to enjoy, etc. We’re seeing this with not only next-gen games like Destiny, Watch Dogs, The Crew, and The Division, but also current-gen games like Saints Row IV, GTA V, Lightning Returns, and Dark Souls 2. Every game I mentioned now are all open-world in some regard, with Dark Souls 2 being an exception.

One location down, another bazillion locations left. Source: ElderScrollsWikia

One location down, another bazillion locations left.

Source: ElderScrollsWikia

The eighth one is Expression. This is game as self-discovery. As human beings, we the innate desire to express ourselves. This is reflected in what clothes we wear, to the fact that we create art. Games can be a power tool for this. If it’s a game that allows you to express a small part of yourself, you’re fulfilling that need. Games like MineCraft, The Elder Scrolls, Deus Ex, Scribblenauts, Team Fortress, Fallout, and Mass Effect use Expression as a core aesthetic.

Another heavy hitting aesthetic, Expression is what many RPGs use to put the “role” in Role-Playing Game. Things like skill trees, the ability to respec your abilities, customization of gear, etc. are all vital to any RPG using Expression as a core aesthetic. But, it’s not just limited to RPGs. It can also be a part of other games too, like creating monuments or statues in MineCraft. That’s totally an expression of self, right there. Or customizing the way your character looks and plays, either to create a gameplay style that’s unique to you, or to make your character look the way you want them to look, is absolutely essential in creating an experience that gives players the tools needed to create something that they want to make.

You can build anything your heart desires. Source: DigieX

You can build anything your heart desires.

Source: DigieX

And finally, the ninth aesthetic: Submission. For the sake of brevity, let’s change this to Abnegation, because Submission is a really strange term to define this aesthetic. This is defined as game as past time. Have you ever had one of those days where you came home from a long day of school or work and you just slumped down on the couch and watched a re-run of an old, junk food TV series, or read a lame fantasy novel, because it was easy and didn’t require much from you? Or you look at your game collection and pop in that old RPG again, just to finish a quest or two. You’re in the middle of a great game, but you feel it would require too much from you and you’d rather grind a few levels. That’s the root desire known as Abnegation. In games, you find this in grinding; you find this in any Skinner Box game. Games like World of Warcraft, endless mode in Bejeweled, MineCraft, Final Fantasy, and Angry Birds use Abnegation as a core aesthetic.

This is a primary aesthetic used in any and all MMORPGs to prevent players from leaving the game and moving on to a new, shiny game. Combine that with the monthly subscription and/or microtransactions and you’ll have players paying you by the billions, as evidenced by WoW. They generally increase the amount of time needed to acquire a new, shiny piece of gear or drastically increase the amount of experience needed to level up once. It’s to keep them playing, while still making money from the people who are still playing their game.

But it’s not excluded to just MMORPGs. It’s also in games like Angry Birds, where you can just pull out your phone and just play to pass the time. For instance, you could be in a friend’s car and you could be playing Angry Birds while your friend drives. Or you could be on a lunch break and you could start playing it right there. It’s a great way to pass the time, and it doesn’t require much from you.

Wait. What time is it? Source: FanPop

Wait. What time is it?

Source: FanPop

So, now that that’s out of the way, what does all this mean, and what does this have to do with genres? Well, if you really think about it, you’ll find that almost every game can be defined by two, three, maybe four of these aesthetics. However, there are some games that can deliver on more; games that are so massive, they figuratively have multiple games bundled into one executable. For example, MineCraft can easily deliver on more than four aesthetics, and it’s one of the main reasons why it’s been such a great success. Sensation. Challenge. Expression. Fellowship. Discovery. Abnegation. All of these are core aesthetics of MineCraft. But there are multiple games inside MineCraft. The people playing in Creative mode are playing an entirely different game from the people playing in Survival mode.

And it’s important to realize that aesthetics aren’t there to articulate why we come to a genre or a game, but also in understanding what the game’s genre is. It’s the subconscious guide and reasoning that tells us that Portal is more of a puzzle game than a shooter. It’s what tells us that Final Fantasy is more focused on delivering a strong narrative than on the gameplay or the role-playing aspects. It’s what helps us describe why we play a certain game or genre in the first place, and I think we should talk about it more often, because when we start defining a genre based on mechanics, all sorts of bad game design will come out of that.

See you, Space Cowboys.


-Max Gruber

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