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What do we mean by "elegance" in games?
by Lewis Pulsipher on 01/29/12 08:04:00 pm   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


When someone says a game is "elegant", what do they mean?  I'm not sure, so I've done a bit of investigating.

Is it used much?  In my Info Select database, which includes my own notes about game design and teaching, and material that I've scraped off the Internet about those same topics in the past seven years, there are 84 notes containing the word "elegant" and another 34 containing "elegance".  Clearly the term is used a lot in conversations and writing.

What about dictionary definitions of the word?
el·e·gant   adjective
1. tastefully fine or luxurious in dress, style, design, etc.: elegant furnishings.
2. gracefully refined and dignified, as in tastes, habits, or literary style: an elegant young gentleman; an elegant prosodist.
3. graceful in form or movement: an elegant wave of the hand.  [my emphasis]
4. appropriate to refined taste: a man devoted to elegant pursuits.
5. excellent; fine; superior: an absolutely elegant wine.
Synonyms:  1. See fine. 2.  polished, courtly. [my emphasis]

World English Dictionary
elegant — adj
1.     tasteful in dress, style, or design
2.     dignified and graceful in appearance, behaviour, etc
3.     cleverly simple; ingenious: an elegant solution to a problem [my emphasis]

Elegance is a synonym for beauty that has come to acquire the additional connotations of unusual effectiveness and simplicity. It is frequently used as a standard of tastefulness particularly in the areas of visual design, decoration, the sciences, and the esthetics of mathematics. Elegant things exhibit refined grace and dignified propriety. [my emphasis]

So could we say, for games:  "A solution to a design problem that is seen as ingenious or cleverly simple, polished, and effective?"

At some point I wondered what the difference is between "elegant" and "clever"?  For me, something can be clever without being worth doing; something that is elegant is likely worth doing.  So I might see a game and say "that's a clever juxtaposition of mechanics", and still not think the game was worth bothering with.   I would tend to think of games that model something in interesting or intriguing ways as elegant, whereas games that don't model something may only be clever.

So one man's clever may be another man's elegant.
adjective, -er, -est.
1. mentally bright; having sharp or quick intelligence; able.
2. superficially skillful, witty, or original in character or construction; facile: It was an amusing, clever play, but of no lasting value.
3. showing inventiveness or originality; ingenious: His clever device was the first to solve the problem.
4. adroit with the hands or body; dexterous or nimble.
ingenious, talented, quick-witted; smart, gifted; apt, expert.

There is no Wikipedia entry for the word "clever".

A last expression of the idea of elegance, from the point of view of design:
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." --Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery
When you achieve this "perfection", you also achieve elegance.

So what do you mean when (if) you describe a game, or part of a game, as "elegant"?

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Luis Guimaraes
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"So what do you mean when (if) you describe a game, or part of a game, as 'elegant'?"

A design is a solution for a given set of problems. An elegant solution is one that solves as many problems as possible, in the simplest way possible, without creating new ones.

Tynan Sylvester
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Elegance means efficiency. It means doing a lot with little.

In sciences, it's a simple theory that explains many complex observations.

In games, it's a simple mechanic (or game) that creates many rich, varied experiences.

Jason Pineo
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Elegance defies fully elegant description.

Bart Stewart
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Elegance carries connotations of both high effectiveness and high comprehensibility (which is not the same thing as simplicity).

E=mc^2 is elegant. It captures an extraordinarily powerful fact of universal physics in a form that virtually anyone can understand. The math leading up to that final expression may have been hairy, but the expression itself is highly elegant.

This concept comes up in programming. Because there are often a lot of ways that a high-level feature can be implemented, there's opportunity for a wide range of quality in solutions. An AI problem, for example, could be solved with a pile of brute force code, or with a short recursive function -- the latter has a chance of possessing the quality of elegance, but the former does not.

The distinction between elegance and cleverness comes up in programming as well. Cleverness is on full display in Obfuscated C, for example -- people come up with code that does amazing things, but is so incomprehensibly unreadable that no sane person would ever use them in production code.

An example of this -- or maybe an edge case -- would be Duff's Device. ( This gimmick relies on a little-known way to interleave if-then and case functions, creating code that is very short (usually a necessary condition for elegance) but that the average programmer may find hard to understand and debug. Is this clever? Yes. But is it elegant?

John Edward Tumang
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I am not an expert in these terms, but I did encounter this word, ironically not in a communication class, but in a computer class. The instructor taught us that elegance is solving a problem with the least possible amount of steps to do.

Garrick Williams
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Tynan Sylvester said it well. Jesse Schell explains it pretty well in his book Art of Game Design: Book of Lenses.

Something is "elegant" if it's simple in structure but has highly effective/complex consequences.

The control sheme for the original Sonic the Hedgehog games is an excellent example. Genesis controllers have 6 to 8 buttons. However, Sonic the Hedgehog gave the player an incredible amount of control despite only using the D-pad and one button.