Tag Archives: Aesthetics

GAME AESTHETICS: THEME VS. MECHANICS

Theme [theem] (Noun)

  1. a unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc., as in a work of art.

Mechanics [muhkan-iks] (Noun)

  1. the technical aspect or working part; mechanism; structure.

I chose these definitions carefully, to delineate the difference between the overarching aesthetic experience versus the underlying game engine that makes gameplay possible. Normally, theme and mechanics work together to provide a complete gameplay experience, especially where licensed properties, like Firefly or Doctor Who, are concerned. But this is not strictly the case in every instance.

There are, for example, games in which the accurate depiction of the theme is the main source of interest for the player, and the mechanics are really only there as a means to reinforce the theme rather than provide ludic interest. The purest form of this (Theme 4, if you will) would be a game of ‘pretend’ like the childhood games of Cops & Robbers or Doctor’s & Daleks, where there are no mechanical underpinnings to the games at all, and play proceeds based upon whatever the group agrees will reinforce the illusion of being a masked bandit, or genocidal cyborg with a plunger and egg whisk for arms.

Too. Darned. Cute…

 

On the other hand, there are games in which the interesting interplay of game mechanics, and the skill at handling those mechanics determines the ‘fun’ level of the game. In some cases, the mechanics define the gameplay experience so thoroughly that any theme laid over them is only so much window dressing. The pure form of this (again, off the end of our scale at Mechanics 4), would be building a car. Unless the mechanics function in perfect alignment, car no go! And the joy of driving is entirely predicated on the mechanical quality of the car and the driver interaction with it.

A Chevy Nova. It literally “No Go…”

Let’s look at a few examples, one that exemplifies Theme over Mechanics, one at the opposite end of that scale, and one that represents a good balance between the two.

THEME 3: THE TIME LORD RPG (1991)

Back in the very early nineties, two years after the original series had bowed out, Ian Marsh and Virgin Publishing released a Doctor Who role-playing game: Time Lord – Create Your Own Adventures in Time and Space.

This was the second such attempt at an RPG based upon the series, and it couldn’t have been more different from its predecessor in design. Whereas the first RPG was simply a restatement of the generic set of RPG rules used in FASA’s previous game, Star Trek, with a Doctor Who make-over, Time Lord was built from the ground up to mechanically reflect the realities of the Doctor Who television series.

Almost every rule reinforced the theme, with little care as to how things worked outside of television reality. Genre Tropes of the series were given mechanical life, like the Screaming special ability, which allowed a companion to cry out for help (and be heard) across any distance, through miles of tunnels and labyrinths, or even across the gulfs of space (someone luckily left a communicator open, or something), so that the Doctor could come to their aid. It could even be used as a weapon, in some cases (as it was in the episode Fury from the Deep). Silly? Possibly, but very in character for the television series.

Another good example existed within the combat system. As long as a character is moving or behind cover, it is exceedingly hard to hit them with gunfire. Even when they are one area away! Again, silly? Not if you take into account the fact that, due to the restrictive size of the studio spaces the production team had to work with, almost all the firefights on the show took place within scant yards of each other, but few people got hit (unless a group of enemies concentrated their fire on a single target, like an extra or tragic supporting character, which is also covered in the rules).

Add extensive rules for scientific research (including an in-game time segment known as the Research Turn), cutting through doors and walls (a common way to create tension in the series), and creating MacGuffins (pseudoscientific devices or solutions that resolve the story), and you can see that Time Lord is an excellent example of a game that can easily be rated Theme 3.

T♎M: FIREFLY – THE BOARDGAME

Like a lot of folks, Firefly really pressed all the right aesthetic buttons for me, and I was a might irritated when it was cancelled due to corporate shenanigans at Fox. So when Gale Force 9 released a licensed board game, I was right in line to get a copy.

The issue with licensed properties, from my perspective, is trying to strike that balance between theme and mechanics. I want the game to reflect the goings on in that particular fictional universe, but at the same time, I don’t want Candyland with Browncoats and images from the show instead of gingerbread men and candy themed aesthetics (“Damn! I’m stuck in the Reaver Swamps of Miranda again!”)

The Firefly Board Game, however, manages to hit both sides of the equation pretty equally. The objectives and overall aesthetics do a great job of capturing the theme of the series (“Get a ship, get a crew, keep flying”), but also presents a variety of interesting mechanical twists that keep the game interesting and challenging from a ludic perspective.

One of the key ways I think you can judge the balance of a game like this is to consider how well the mechanics function with a stylistically similar theme. For example, the Firefly mechanics could also, with very few tweaks, be suitable for a game of 18th century piracy on the high seas, or maybe even a mob family type game. They are too linked to the thematic essence of small time transport/smuggling missions and operations to be useful for, say, a global conquest or economics game (not without a great deal of modification, at any rate), but within that limited thematic scheme, you could reskin the game fairly easily.

MECHANICS 3: MONOPOLY

Monopoly is the board game boogeyman for many folks, and for certain ludologists, it is the perfect example of how not to design a game. I tend to find this opinion over-exaggerated, especially since very few people have ever actually played the game according to its actual rules, relying instead on the oral tradition passed down for generations: the erroneous Free Parking rule alone can be said to account for much of its reputation as an extremely long and frustrating game. And yet, even with that reputation, it is still one of the best selling and most well known board games in the world, having spawned hundreds, if not thousands of variations.

But, just how different, mechanically speaking, are those variations?

For the most part, that answer is: not at all. No matter what version of Monopoly you are playing, whether it’s Star Wars Monopoly, Harry Potter-opoly, or Dallas Cowboys-opoly, you still roll two dice, move your pawn in a clockwise direction around a board separated into exactly the same number of squares, buy, rent or sell property, or draw cards. It doesn’t matter whether the game’s currency is in dollars, Galleons, or Imperial Galactic Credits, you still get 200 of them when you pass “Go,” and the most expensive property on the board, whether it be Hogwarts, the Death Star, or Dallas Cowboy Stadium (which, funnily enough, many of us here in Texas also call the Death Star), is still to the right of that space.

So as you can see, the theme of the game is pretty much inconsequential to the gameplay, itself. There might be minor mechanical variations to an individual version of the game (like Doctor Who’s 60 minute speed play variation), but it is extremely rare for those to make enough of a difference to change the basic play of the game, which is recognizably Monopoly, and is of little mechanical use for anything else. Aesthetically speaking, you don’t ‘feel’ like a wizard/jedi/Dallas Cowboy when playing, and nothing about the buying and selling of property to try and bankrupt your opponents fits particularly well with any of the above, thematically speaking. This makes Monopoly an iconic example of Mechanics 3.

COMING NEXT…

If you have any comments or suggestions on the material covered here, feel free to sound off in the comments section. I’m always open to new points of view on what is, after all, a very complex subject. I’ve already had one commentator on Facebook provide me with some insight that actually changed my perspective on the subject of the next post: Simplicity vs. Complexity, which is actually a much more complex and deep subject than you might imagine…

GAME AESTHETICS: INTRODUCTION…

So, school is out for the summer, and my attention is now (partially) freed up to work on some of my extant projects. I’ve been putting the finishing touches on the second draft of my Donjons & Dragoons RPG experiment, getting prepared to iron out Defensive schemes for my (soon to be done done) Quarterback Blitz boardgame, and am finally ready to continue regular blog updates, starting with this one, the first part of a series on my ever evolving theory of Game Aesthetics.

WHY?

Well, that is the real question, isn’t it? Aesthetics is all about understanding the principles behind taste and the perception of beauty, and to do that we have to ask ‘why?’ Why do I like this? Why do I hate that? Why do I feel meh about the other?

Why should you care about this? Because understanding the ‘why’ of your aesthetics helps you to make more rational decisions about how you allocate your time and resources. And when it comes to the finer (i.e. more expensive) things in life, this is an invaluable skill.

But to be able to intelligently ask that question, one not only has to understand themselves, but the qualities of the thing that they are passing aesthetic judgement on. “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” is a valid argument only in so much as it defines what turns you off and on, but does nothing to help you understand how one type of artifact is perfectly acceptable to you but another, seemingly similar one, is not. Furthermore, when you lack understanding of the subject, it hampers your ability when it comes to creating a similar artifact of your own, and tailoring it for specific demographics.

DUDE, WHAT HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH GAMES?

Games, like paintings, or sculpture, or music, or wine, or any other art form, have measurable qualities. Now, the measure of these qualities is subjective, to be sure, and what is slightly nasty to one person might be extremely nasty to another, and heaven on earth to yet another.

However, within some set variation, we can create a basis from which we can more easily estimate whether or not a game might appeal more to player A or player B, and target our design towards one or both.

So, in the end, applying the study of aesthetics towards games is not only good for helping you to become a more informed consumer (think of all the Kickstarter money you could save), it can also make you a better, and more focused, designer (think of all the Kickstarter money you could earn).

BUT FIRST…

One of the big questions that almost every academic in game theory seems obsessed with is the definition of what, exactly, a game is. Seriously, the pursuit for the Ultimate Answer™ to this question seems to spark more unnecessary debate than Gamergate, and several folks are pursuing it as though finding the answer will somehow enlighten humanity as to the true meaning of life, the universe, and everything (or, at least, prove how much smarter they are than everyone else).

And I couldn’t care less.

For the record, the only qualifier for the title ‘game’ that seems to hold up to any kind of prolonged scrutiny or argument is that it needs to be ‘interactive,’ in the sense that you ‘play’ it. Everything else just seems like excessive harping over lingual minutia and general philosophical twaddle. Folks can argue that point all they want, but for me, the pursuit of this Holy Grail of a definition seems to be about the most boring (and ultimately pointless) thing in game theory.

So what I prefer to do is move the conversation away from that and onto the more interesting question of why we play games, and to facilitate that discussion, I’m just going to assume that we all know what a ‘game’ is, in the broadest sense.

STRUCTURE

When I first started thinking about game aesthetics and trying to isolate some common qualities that could be universally understood as aesthetic in relation to gameplay, it quickly became apparent that many of these qualities existed in opposition to each other. For example, a game can give a player many options for how to proceed during play (agency), but if many of those options are ‘false choices,’ obvious decisions between something obviously good and something glaringly stupid, and/or the results of all of those choices leads you to only a one or two possible endgames/outcomes, isn’t the game actually very linear, with only the illusion of true agency?

This led to my construction of dyadic sets of aesthetics, based on a sliding scale of 1-3 towards one side or the other, with a ♎ indicating both aspects were in balance (I originally used a 0, but that was often misinterpreted as meaning neither quality existed!). This scale presumes that there is one more step beyond each end, that represents some non-game variation on the quality. For example, in an Agency vs. Linearity measurement, Agency 4 would represent endless choices, factors of influence, and endgames beyond the ability of modern game mechanics to properly represent. Linearity 4, however, would represent the total lack of ability to affect the outcome, as one would find in a standard novel.

And again, these ratings are all very subjective: subject to personal opinion, the possible permutations of complex gameplay mechanics, and so on, but that is actually a strength. A game like Rising Sun might be designed with only a few true randomized elements, but the complexity of the system interactions, and the chaos unleashed across the board by certain moves or events, can often make it seem highly indeterminate and hostile to long-term strategy, which might make it extremely unpopular with the Eurogame crowd (and elicit laughter when people try to relate it to Diplomacy). But, despite this skewing of perception by personal experience, there is an average opinion that can be extrapolated from all of this, which can serve as some sort of clue as to how a game ‘feels,’ and that information can be very useful.

THE DYADS

I have identified six aesthetic dyads that seem to hold true for most games (or at least all the ones I have every played). They are:

Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player Skill vs. Mechanical Skill

I’ll discuss the first one in my next post on the subject…