Tuesday, June 28

On Unique Aesthetics

Aesthetics is, in a simplified definition, dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty.  It’s the reason we like the colours in fireworks, even when they’re not celebrating anything, or why we like he look of interestingly designed buildings when we’re not architects.  The appreciation of aesthetic beauty is important to games, movies, comics, basically all art with a visual need.  There some games whose claim to fame is a visual aesthetic alone.  The best naturally are well-designed as well, but because that’s much harder for people to recognize on sight, the aesthetic becomes the most important.
Look at that.  How are you not
playing it right now?
Let’s look at one game you’d better have heard of: OkamiOkami is, in some ways, very reminiscent of games like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but its visual aesthetic was something so new and refreshing that people bought it on that merit alone.  Apart from it being a very well designed game with a great push for cultural learning, it got some people to realize the difference between high-end graphics and high-end aesthetic.
Okami is unique in the look of the world, and brings an uncommon character to play, Amaterasu, a wolf-god/sun-god/all-mother, which was great for players as well.  You see, aesthetics most certainly does not only extend to visual design.  Gameplay can have a great aesthetic as well, where it just feels good (a horribly subjective thing to say, I know).  God of War does this well, making the combat visceral and almost graceful, allowing players to feel fancy as much as they feel like a badass.  There is importance in selecting the right characters to support the aesthetic.
I’d like to go off a bit from just general aesthetics, since this article is titled “Unique Aesthetics,” and I’d like to introduce the Triangle of Weirdness.  Many of you probably know of the Triangle of Production, which states that when planning an event you may have two of three of the following: Cost, Time, and Quality.  Here’s an example of how it works: You can have a birthday party that has low cost and is high quality, but it will take a long time to organize; you can have a party that takes little time and has little cost, but it will be low quality; and you can have a party that is high quality and is ready quickly, but it will cost a lot.  Similarly, the Triangle of Weirdness has the points of Characters, World, and Activities and as a designer, you are allowed to choose one.  This exists to allow for interesting variations on types of worlds and gameplay styles while also ensuring players enough familiarity that they are not overwhelmed by the experience.  So, you can designer a strange, topsy-turvy world, like something in Zeno Clash, You can have odd characters, Grim Fandango (or nearly any of Shafer’s work), or you can have strange activities, like Portal.  Players will eventually understand and recognize what the pieces are about, at least if you’ve created a good and intuitive game.  The portal mechanic was a great creation that could be confusing at first, but became second nature by endgame.
I don't care what you think, the
Fonz does not belong in your game.
As you surely know by this point, games design is not level design, is not character design, is not world design, is not art design.  It is all that and more.  As a game designer, you must make sure that all these parts of a game, as well sound/music, writing, enemy design, etc., form into a cohesive group.  Obviously this becomes harder and harder to do the bigger the teams you work with and the bigger the budgets you get, but consistency is always, always important.  To go back to a game I mentioned before, Zeno Clash is a first-person brawler/shooter that takes place in a pseudo-tribal world with primitive weapons, grenades made from skulls, vicious animals, giant insects, and a soundtrack riddled with heavy, dark, drumbeats.  It understands itself and shows this with a unified aesthetic.  The world is weird, and while the characters are visually strange, they are not strange in what they do, how they talk, or how they act (save the Corwids, but I have limited time here.  Play the game).  You’ll never run across a character wearing a black leather jacket imitating the Fonz, and you’ll never see someone driving about in a jeep.  The creators kept their vision constant throughout the entire experience.  Even still, Zeno Clash does have varying environments and situations, they just all fit together.  Some other games with a great unified aesthetic: Shadow of the Colossus, Katamari Damacy, Silent Hill 2, New Super Mario Bros., Psychonauts, Bioshock, Myst, Plants VS. Zombies, etc.
Now, I only glanced over this earlier, but the key of the Triangle of Weirdness is keeping the experience familiar enough to your player to keep them engaged.  A game that’s too strange will through off players almost right away, if only because they can’t understand what’s going on.  It doesn’t matter how important the artistic statement you’re making is if no one stays around long enough to experience it, and yes, I truly, truly believe that.  By “keeping it familiar” I don’t mean bland or samey.  Innovation always has its place, the key is to present the control systems and world physics intuitively enough that they game is still playable.  I know people who have quit Minecraft because they weren’t really taught how to play the game.  I know, keep your hat on, Minecraft is great, I’ve played it way more than I should, but you can see how this is a detriment for the game and the potential players.  So design your game well, design your tutorial well, and if you do it right, you’ll design a tutorial no ever notices, and they can enter into your strange worlds more fascinated than discouraged, more interested than bored, and open to all the artistic statements you can make.

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