Aesthetics and Imagination

I am playing Amanita Design’s Machinarium, and I am smiling. I am smiling because, finally, I have found a beautiful game.

It has been aeons since this last happened. There have been many visually impressive games of late–Assassin’s Creed II, Uncharted 2 and Darksiders, f’rexample–but precious few have been beautiful.

Do I really mean this? Surely major releases can be relied upon to get the graphics right, even if they fail at everything else? Well it depends what we mean by graphics. The term is a little fuzzy, and I would prefer to speak of aesthetics–of the nature of beauty.

Picture the scenario: I am exploring a lush rainforest canyon in the latest blockbuster FPS, lauded by the gaming press for its cutting edge visuals. A waterfall splutters over bump mapped terrain in the distance. Fully animated foliage sways in the breeze, bending and giving way as I brush past. Looking at the grizzled faces of my squad mates I can see individual pores and freckles in their battle worn skin. This virtual world is dutifully (perhaps even sycophantically) realistic, as we are wont to say.

Big games are good at this brand of realism. They recreate, they simulate, with an obsessive focus on detail, and they should be justly praised for it. But there is more to aesthetics than fervent model making. For a game to be beautiful it must also be imaginative.

This is where our mega-bucks FPS falls flat. From the burly, gravel voiced marines under my command to the sub-Gigger aliens I have been tasked to blast back to hell with my suspiciously over sized assault rifle, every element here is depressingly familiar.

And so it is with so many games. They can reconstruct vegetation, architecture, military equipment with astounding fidelity, but as soon as it comes to being creative they fall back upon lazy adolescent cliché. It is as if the industry is breeding not artists but autistic set designers who, lacking any true imagination, fashion ever more intricate reproductions of those phallic totems of juvenile masculinity the world over: automatic weapons, giant swords, tanks and rocket ships. This says much about their insecurities (look at Cliff Bleszinski holding that Lancer and mouth the word “compensatory”), but very little about beauty.

Not that I wish to imply there are no beautiful games, for there are many. The hand drawn, idiosyncratic Machinarium I have already mentioned. Others stretch across most genres, platforms and eras of gaming: Ico & Shadows of the Colossus, Super Mario Bros., Space Invaders, the remake of A Boy and His Blob, Wind Waker. All are, in their own special ways, wonders to behold.

Yet in the aesthetics of these games there is a power at work deeper than mere shading algorithms and anisotropic filtering; a power utilising technology but not in its thrall. It is a power that drills into my skull, pierces through my cynical, misanthropic frontal lobes and burrows to the gurgling, ever-thrilled inner child at my core: it is the power of imagination.

So where does imagination come from? Well, that might be slightly out of the scope of this article, but suffice it to say its roots are dark and mysterious. It is a gift from God, the creative force of the universe itself. And to find it the artist need only look inside herself, to a void that is at once unknowable and yet also curiously the very ground of her being. This description is unavoidably vague, but the essence is actually simple: imagination comes from within, and can be set free providing the artist is willing to tell the truth.

Books and films understand this. The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs is an hallucinatory slog through depravity and bodily fluids, the warped and debased dream of a lonely and guilt ridden dope addict. It is also staggeringly beautiful, because Burroughs tells the truth. Similarly, the films of David Lynch–however terrifying and unnerving in their other worldliness–possess a captivating power because of their inner truth.

I do not see anyone as honest as these two artists in our industry. In the girls that game designers scheme up–with the breasts and the armoured thongs and the flaming swords–and in the macho muscle men they invent to save them, I see only derivative hack work, pointing not to reality but to a desire for reality. And while this may engorge egos and fill bank accounts, it sure isn’t beautiful.

But of course hack work sells, and it is unfair to challenge the big name developers for not being imaginative when they are clearly in the business of making money. It is for this reason that–as is the case with other media–we are increasingly seeing the most aesthetically pleasing games coming from smaller scale, independent companies (See: Machinarium, Lost Winds, Canabalt, PixelJunk Eden, etc). Unburdened of pressure from publishers to be commercial, and lacking the million dollar-plus budgets of the major studios, indies search for more intriguing ways to attract us to them. Without hope of modeling worlds in photorealistic detail, they instead focus on beguiling characters, expressive animations and original art styles; in short they work to be more creative–and so more beautiful.

Another important factor in the success of indie aesthetics is what might be termed the Power of Emptiness. When game graphics do not recreate, but rather represent, they become symbolic and so open a passage to the rich inner world of the player’s mind that symbols lead to. A 10,000 poly model of a battlecruiser may be an arresting image, but in striving for perfection it entreats the analytical left brain functions, and so draws attention to its inescapable limitations. It is the old Uncanny Valley syndrome–the more advanced the simulation, the more critically the brain judges it. If, on the other hand, a few artistically placed lines simply hint at the existence of a spaceship, then the player recognises it as a symbol and fills in the gaps with their imaginative right brain functions. With just a touch of finesse, therefore, designers can lump the bulk of rendering work onto the players themselves, with satisfying results for all involved.

(This trick worked for old games as well. Look at the elegant symbolism of Elite, or Pac-Man, or, well, pretty much anything from those distant halcyon days. Graphics back then had class.)

I am not implying, of course, that all games should be minimalist 2D black and white affairs, but visual elements should at least have to prove their worth to the deeper emotional core of the production, or risk being expunged.

I love Half Life 2, and its commitment to visual veracity was second to none upon its release; but it was the vision of its designers, not their hubris, which demanded such an authentically modeled world. The gravity gun, the physics based puzzles, those tragically emotive facial expressions–all were essential to the success of the game, and all required heavy processing power (at the time) to achieve.

Similarly, the attraction of Grand Theft Auto has always been the sense of freedom being let loose upon its virtual cityscape engenders, and this freedom only increases as the city becomes more believable.

Yet are we to say the heart stopping panic felt as Baby Mario floats away in Yoshi’s Island, or the exhilaration of realising you can shut down that warehouse however you want in Deus Ex, are lesser moments in gaming because the graphics which depict them are more basic?

Half Life 2 is more complex than Yoshi’s Island in the same way an epic novel is more complex than a short story. But is For Whom the Bell Tolls better than The Old Man and the Sea because it is more complex? No; the two simply offer different experiences. The rich tapestry of Hemingway’s masterful Spanish Civil War novel provides an aching, poignant depth in its interlacing stories. Conversely, his taut account of a weathered, humble old man’s solitary fishing expedition would have been swallowed up and its power dissipated had he sought to stretch its length past the novella. The work demands the form, not the other way round.

But too often we forget this, and it is we players who bear the responsibility as heavily as the designers. After all, they are simply catering for a profitable audience. They may serve up a glut of gaudy visual junk food but it is we who feast upon it, we who pass over innovative gameplay experiences in favour of crass techno-porn.

Nowhere is this fetish for technology more apparent than in the PS3 vs. 360 vs. PC comparison videos that flood the internet with every high profile new release. “Which anti-aliasing algorithm is most effective? Which lighting models yield the best results? And on which screens? With which brightness settings?” Developers are unlikely to cease acting like autistic set designers (and let’s be clear: I have no problem with autistic set designers, but I don’t feel they should necessarily lead artistic productions) until we stop pouring over the visual minutiae of their output with such neurotic compulsion.

There is a place for technical prowess. If you’ve deemed it important for your character to have, say, freckles–maybe she is self conscious of them, or they make her attractive to her love interest, or perhaps she cannot spend too long in the sun because of her complexion, even–then by all means put extra development time into ultra realistic facial texturing.

But if you’re asking me to step into the boots of cybertronically enhanced space marine Max Gruffstock as he battles lumbering insectoid xenomorphs through the canyons of Beige-Derra IV, don’t expect me to fall at your feet in frothing admiration just because you modeled the scorch marks on Max’s SX-450 combat rifle in exhaustive detail.

Because technology on its own is not enough. Game designers need to learn to play with (and play on) their audience’s minds the way a poet or an artist does–to find a way into players’ imaginations, and the dark spaces that lie there. For in this darkness untold worlds lie, ready to be brought to light, ready to be explored. They are more magical than anything a Quad Core processor could ever dream up, and they are true.



Filed under Ramblings

4 responses to “Aesthetics and Imagination

  1. will

    Another awesome read!

    You made me think about Psychonauts; a game I really need to pick up again one day… After buying it in a sale on Steam I very nearly got hooked, but Steam had a falling out with my computer and deleted everything. That event clashed with the release of Assassins Creed and I was lured away by the ability throw a grumpy voice actor from 300 foot tall buildings into haystacks.

    Also, I’ve never played Deus Ex… I might have to fix that too.

    • Rob

      I got Psychonauts in the Steam sale last week for £1! Utter madness. Deus Ex is worth playing but I’m not sure how well it’s aged. The sense of freedom it engenders is still liberating but the core mechanics feel a bit clunky nowadays (stealth is basic, gun play awkward, AI a bit suspect, etc). I didn’t believe in any of the environments either, they didn’t feel like they really existed in a world. Maybe the decade of hindsight makes such judgments unfair though. Have you played Beyond Good and Evil? Another excellent game that sold all of twelve copies, now available for pittance on Steam.

      • will

        No, I’m aware of it though. It can go in my list of games to play!

        I’m really looking forward to Heavy Rain at the moment too. I had a play at that Eurogamer expo, but someone started filming me and I panicked. I think – once you’ve gotten used to moving the characters around like you’d drive a tank – it could be a really interesting game/story/interactive cutscene.

  2. Ruairi

    Hi Rob,
    I really enjoyed this article – you give a real insider’s view without resorting to cliche’s, jargon or overly technical descriptions.
    I like your points about what makes a good game and why you won’t find many coming out of the big players – but good-small has its place too.
    I look forward to your next piece.

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