Movies, books, and other narrative artworks have a well-established critical lexicon; while critics might not agree about any given example, they largely concur on how criticism of these forms should proceed. But what are the ways a game can manifest aesthetic flaws, and how does this relate to classical art forms?
My basis for this enquiry are the three Rules of Game Worlds that I discussed in my blog-letter to Dan Cook last year. These were intended to be guidelines for creating game worlds – that is, principles for how the fictional world of a game (where its narratives will be set) connect with its mathematical systems (where its mechanics operate). However, I sense that these rules may have some formal depth to them, and indeed might have more general forms that could include other artworks. For now, let us accept them as descriptive ‘rules’, so they can guide an investigation into how games produce aesthetic flaws of kinds that other artworks simply do not.
The three Rules of Game Worlds are as follows:
Each of these can be used to reveal a specific kind of aesthetic flaw unique to games – and indeed, can reveal a schism between different aesthetic values for play that lead to different kinds of aesthetic flaw. This is key to what follows, for we must appreciate that ‘aesthetic flaw’ is not an absolute claim, nor is it ‘merely subjective’: an aesthetic flaw occurs between a game and its player as a direct result of a difference in values.
The first kind of flaw that can occur in the aesthetics of play is the one that has produced the most heat and least light in discussions of games. It is intimately tied up with the First Rule, that ‘setting and mechanics must accord’, or as I might equivalently say, in line with Jesper Juul, that the fiction and the rules must accord. Why does this constitute a rule?
The crucial point to understand is that the rules of a game, its mechanics and systems, are representations of a very particular kind – namely mathematical representations. This is important to appreciate, because we do not often acknowledge that numbers and formulae are at heart representative, despite this being well-established in broad strokes. The number 'three' is a representation of cardinality: every collection of three objects, like the three rules of game worlds, is thus represented by the number three. Similarly, the bell curve ‘shape’ we depict by graphing the Gaussian function of (say) two six-sided dice represents the distribution of results from such a roll. It is precisely because mathematics can and must represent that the sciences that deploy equations (such as physics) are able to derive formulae that represent phenomena like gravity and electrical flow.
But of course, every game is also a representation in the same way that other artworks are: using Kendall Walton’s terms, they are sensory depictions, like paintings, sculpture, and music, or narrations, like books, poetry and radio plays, or hybrids of the two, such as television, comics, and films. This is precisely where the trouble starts! Because whenever there are multiple forms of representation working together, there is the possibility of different aesthetic values about those kinds of representations clashing. This is precisely the problem at the root of the old narratology vs. ludology skirmish, and in contemporary fights over what is confusingly termed ‘formalism’ but which seems broadly equivalent to what is usually called ludology or ludocentrism or some other ludo-prefixed neologism.
A rupture occurs when a player is experiencing a game in one aesthetic mode, but their imaginary experience is interrupted by an intrusion in another mode – and there are two common examples. The first occurs for any player whose aesthetic values have formed around the mathematical representations of a game (broadly, the ludology position). Such players resent the inclusion of animated film clips (cut scenes or cinematics) in games since these elements do not form part of their aesthetic experience, per se. They cause a rupture in the mathematically-structured world they are enjoying by ‘forcing’ the player to operate in a narrative mode. Equivalently, a player whose experience was primarily within a depictive or narrative mode will experience a rupture whenever the mechanical system bluntly forces its way into awareness, for instance, by encouraging the player to make a decision with mechanical benefits that does not fit the imaginary world they were playing within.
Note that the same game could produce a rupture in opposing modes for different players, and that what constitutes an aesthetic flaw for someone coming from a ludology-style position could be an aesthetic strength for others: despite the interruption of the mechanical play, Final Fantasy games from VII onwards are enjoyed by many players precisely because of the extensive use of narrative cut scene rewards that heighten the sense of connection to the world for some players but that can rupture the game experience for others.
The second way that games can manifest aesthetic flaws relates to the Second Rule of Game Worlds, that every mechanical ‘sub-world’ must also align with the fictional world of the game. The point here is that for most games there is not simply one mechanical system feeding into the fictional experiences but rather many. As an extreme example, consider Cooking Mama with its disparate, mechanically unrelated cooking mini-games that are still united within a fictional narrative of cooking such-and-such a meal. Similarly, the classic Access Software games Beach Head and Raid Over Moscow, from 1983 and 84 respectively, consist of a linear sequence of self-contained sub-games with only the number of soldiers remaining carrying on from one stage to another. The component games do merge with a common fictional world - but this once-popular structure tends to feel uncomfortably clanky by contemporary standards.
Inelegance is perceived by players preferring the mathematical mode as a direct consequence of any discontinuity between sub-worlds, including but not restricted to the kind of examples already mentioned. When the systems themselves are the elements of primary importance to creating the fictional world of play, elegance is experienced if the core mechanics conspire to effortlessly deliver that world, to produce more from less. Many strategy games are afforded this praise, although the original Super Mario Bros. is an interesting example of elegance that does not primarily rest upon decision making. A design can be said to ‘lack elegance’, which is to say, expressive simplicity, whenever contrary conditions hold, which to be honest is the norm and not the exception in contemporary games.
Inelegance is thus the awareness of tension in the mechanical supports to a fictional game world, a sense that the pieces do not fit together like well-oiled cogs. There does not appear to be an equivalent problem for those experiencing a game in a narrative or depictive mode, although the excess of unrelated mechanics characterising inelegance is likely to cause a rupture in such a case, and inelegance may be experienced along with the rupture if the player has sufficient appreciation for mechanics. [Since writing this, Raph Koster has pointed out that there is indeed an obvious parallel for narrative inelegance, namely "dangling plot threads, confusing symbols, and other writerly issues". He's not only correct, but I also overlooked the equivalent case that occurs for depictive inelegance - CB]
The final kind of aesthetic flaw I want to draw attention to here is of a slightly different nature, and relates to the Third Rule: no-one plays alone. The essence of this rule is that an artefactual reading of games, treating them as isolated objects, is an incomplete reading of a game, because every game that has ever been made, or ever will be made, is situated in a network of player practices that prepare the player for that experience. The clearest example is with the first person shooter, the control scheme for which is so ingrained among the majority of contemporary players that games using a modified form of this scheme can generate aesthetic displeasure. This is what I am calling perplexity, the experience of re-learning what has already been learned differently, or learning under conditions of insufficient information e.g. a bad tutorial.
It is perhaps worth recognizing that many of the mathematical aesthetic persuasion are also lovers of puzzle-solving, the enjoyment of which occurs within the imagined world and not to any significant degree in the mechanics. The classic text adventure was enjoyed by many of the same players who enjoy complex strategy games. Such players will enjoy picking up a game and learning to play it without instruction because they possess what I term confusion endurance (see "Empirical Game Aesthetics", in the IEEE Handbook of Digital Games). However, such experiences are not what I am calling perplexity, and neither is being stuck on a puzzle usually an example of perplexity (unless the player knows what to do, but cannot comprehend how the game expects them to implement the required action).
Perplexity occurs because two sets of player practices – those of the player, and those of the game’s creators – have collided instead of aligning. The most typical example occurs when the people who make the game insufficiently address the monumental problem of teaching others to play (which is also the pragmatic reason that most mainstream videogames have very similar control schemes). An interesting case is Metroid Prime, which has a control scheme utterly different from other first person shooting games. Players who give up while learning the new scheme have experienced perplexity in my sense; those that master the practice required by this control scheme, on the other hand, are likely to appreciate its uniqueness.
These three aesthetic flaws – rupture, inelegance, and perplexity – are by no means a complete list of the ways in which a game and a player could be aesthetically misaligned. However, they serve to illustrate why certain arguments about games operate unproductively because they proceed from different aesthetic presumptions – typically a focus on the mathematical systems of the game, versus a focus upon the depictive or narrative aspects of its fictional world. There is no coherent argument for claiming superiority or even 'home field advantage' to these modes, because games operate uniquely from other media whichever aesthetic mode we consider. I hope this brief enquiry will provide some illumination on a subject that too often lapses into dogma, and illustrate once again the core principle of all my work in games, whether as researcher, philosopher, or game designer: play is a diverse activity, and its aesthetic appreciation can never be entirely collapsed into simple master principles.
Cross-posted from ihobo.com.