I keep wondering what it is that I love about games. When I was a kid, it was about the wonder of playing my own cartoon, that strange sense of wonder at mastering the game but not fully comprehending the limits of the world. Even mercilessly linear games like Mega Man and Super Mario Bros. didn’t just feel like, but were worlds rife with potential, that could yield anything if I just explored them. I didn’t know the medium, so I assumed the illusion was infinite and that there were even more secrets beyond the ones I’d uncovered.
As I grew older and got more accustomed to games, I started dreaming about the possible rather than actual content, looking for dragons in the Alik’r desert (it was empty) and attempting to unravel the complex web of characters and factions in the Wasteland (it didn’t exist). I tried not to notice the limitations of these barely simulated worlds, but eventually they all succumbed to pattern recognition and mental modelling.
Robbed of this safety, of these mechanical wombs only limited by my capacity for wonder, I did the only sensible thing: I developed a robust, romantic love affair with the medium’s potential. I could never see enough progress, because enough of it would allow games to truly turn into the mirages I had believed so dearly in my childhood and adolescence. This hope successfully fuelled my years of games writing, but as I played and wrote about dozens, hundreds of games and tried to understand what and why they were, I was slowly sapped of this thirst for change.
I understood that it must be hard to make games, since they all stuck to the same principles and limitations, even making similar mistakes. I eventually decided that this was precisely because so many games insisted on chasing the dragon of structured narrative, attempting to tell the hero stories familiar from other mediums without addressing the incoherence of the overarching fiction in relation to the possibility space of the simulation.
So I rejected stories as well, seeking refuge in the mechanical clarity of tightly defined shoot’em-ups that played only to the medium’s strengths, eschewing storytelling but fully defining and exploiting their mechanics. I felt that they offered pure play without any illusions, and that this was a very valuable aesthetic. I imagined that all other games would benefit from the same narrowness, failing to realize that my intimate and habitual understanding of the relationship between mechanism and illusion was rare – maybe even undesirable to many players.
Now I’m a game developer, and my concern with ideals has turned into a search for aesthetics. Not visual aesthetics, since I’m not an artist (although I make graphics), or the aesthetics of well-formed systems architecture, since I’m not a programmer (although I produce code). As a designer, my concern is the user experience – those drab two words that refer to the fantastic shaping of perception, consciousness and skill that result from player immersion in games. But what gives rise to the user experience? What aesthetic provokes this complex response?
At their hearts, most games are systems. I struggle to call them simulations, since that implies recreation rather than synthesis – instead, I see them as collections of mechanisms that act in concert to give the appearance of fluidity, of life, although they’re really machines whose gears just turn so quickly you can barely sense their shape.
A game, then – as Frank Lantz recently said, beating me to the punch – is the aesthetic of an interactive system. Calling them games suddenly feels slightly silly, as that implies challenge and competition where none is necessary, but to avoid nomenclatural meltdown I’ll keep calling them that. But that line explains nothing by itself – what constitutes the aesthetic? What lifts games from being just intricate mechanisms to being truly beautiful?
I want to say coherence, but Jonatan Söderström has demonstrated time and time again that incoherence and systemic fragility – more noise than signal – can be a very valid and interesting aesthetic. No, I find myself agreeing with Randy Smith that systemic granularity, the extent to which mechanics map the possibilities laid out by the conceptual form of the system, is the aesthetic. At least they are to me, as a designer. Players, artists, coders, writers and businessmen may obviously feel differently.
To illustrate, I’ll talk about the design of our next game, Heidegger. The next entry can be found here.