Aesthetics considered harmful

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Why hello there! I just got back from travels to Japan and New Zealand and so I’m trying to get back in the saddle of writing a few times a week. It’s an uncomfortable and unforgiving saddle on an unpleasant, mean-spirited, and violent horse, so we’ll see how it goes.

Anyway, the other day I was thinking about how the aesthetics of a game (or probably any other creative work or, perhaps, anything at all) can really paint (ha ha) you into a corner in terms of other elements of a project. Specifically, before leaving I’d been working on a project called It is as if you were doing work as a kind of follow up/semi-sequel to It is as if you were playing chess, where the idea is to look like you’re working rather than playing chess.

I used the spirit of the aesthetic of the previous game as a starting point, so had these very minimalist buttons and checkboxes and so on set against a dark grey background. In the interest of simplicity and minimalism I even went to far as to remove language altogether so that you had these kinds of alien shapes instead of something intelligible – pure interface. It looked quite good.

The problem is, it looked quite good in a way that utterly diverted me from the actual point of the game I was initially trying to make. And there’s the rub (apparently that expression derives from bowls, who knew?) – when you set an aesthetic you’re setting a kind of emotional tone for the overall project which, in turn, seeps out into all the other parts, notably the design of the actual interactive bits, the dynamics, etc. So by having established (and fallen a bit in love with) a minimalist/anti-meaning aesthetic, I was driven to think about the game itself as minimalist and anti-meaning. The problem with that being that that wasn’t what I wanted to make.

The idea behind It is as if you were doing work was all about creating (somehow) the sensation of “working” as a kind of game. So it was to focus on that sense of mini-achievement you have when you do some little work unit like closing a dialog box or clicking a button, and by building up lots of these it was going to allow you to sort of look like you were working (ala the “Boss Key” in a game like Leisure Suit Larry) but also feel like you were being “productive” in this essentially empty way.

In order to create those sorts of feelings, though, you really need to evoke familiar tropes of work and the kinds of “content” that work has. It’s hard to represent those tropes in a futuristic-looking minimalist environment, particularly if you’re foregoing the use of intelligible language. And so what happened is I spent quite a while unable to make progress – the aesthetics of the interface I’d create didn’t want to be the game I wanted to make, and I couldn’t see that for quite a while.

Finally, after setting the game aside for quite a while, I had the sudden zennish realisation that I needed to rework how the game looked in order to be able to actually work out how it would behave. By reskinning it to look more like Windows 95 and with text in English, it was suddenly possible to see how the game could move forward, and in fact a bunch of ideas occurred to me and progress was made.

So, be careful with aesthetics, my friends – they sure as hell aren’t some sort of skin on top of the ‘real game’, and in fact they can completely dominate your process without you quite knowing it.

You’ve been warned.

31 May 2017
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