Aesthetics and Mechanics and the Grand Unified Theory

By Alex Kierkegaard / May 30, 2017

Videogame Culture: Volume II

Let's finally take care of this debacle that's been giving everyone so much trouble for over a decade now, but its solution is a subtle, delicate one, on top of being extremely long, so do me a favor and pay close attention and, hopefully, you'll get it.
   My 2007 essay Arcade Culture was the first that brought the concepts of difficulty and mechanics to the fore of videogame theory and criticism, and subsequent essays such as On Complexity, Depth and Skill cemented the dominance of these concepts in the minds of the hardcore, at precisely the same time that journalists and pseudo-academics were going in the exact opposite direction with their cheerleading support of the Wii, casual games with no complexity and modes that play the game and finish it while the player sits back and watches. Considering the orgy of shitty, stupid articles (and even books, chief among them Jesper Juul's Casual Revolution) that were being furiously scribbled at the time to justify what would be later clearly seen to have been a mere fad, the warmth with which the hardcore spread my essays and adopted all my concepts, as summarized a while ago by a reader in an STG forum [ > ], shouldn't have been surprising.

"You know, just last night I realized that the whole 'complexity' thing (and also 'depth versus complexity', even though no one seems to be sure of what the distinction between the two is) is a really popular discussion on pretty much every gaming forum I know of.
   Anyway, it got me thinking. Before icycalm, was there anyone who even wrote any theories regarding videogame complexity? I'd never heard terms like 'possibility space' and 'meaningful complexity' before icy. He was also the first person I know of to state that videogame complexity could be mathematically calculated. Even if you are of the opinion that icy's ideas are stupid and your own theories about complexity are superior, it seems no one would even have their own theories if not for icy's 'errors and drivel'. Regardless of who 'likes' him and who doesn't, it seems pretty hard to deny his impact."

   There was, however, a misunderstanding. Actually, there were several of them, but chief among them was the notion that my criticism and theory championed mechanics above all. In fact, they champion complexity above all (and even that as merely a means to immersion, and not for its own sake); but that's where a further misunderstanding occurred, closely related to the first: the notion that by complexity I meant mechanical complexity only, whereas — as any careful reader of my large body of criticism should have figured — I mean mechanical and aesthetic complexity combined. Already in such early essays as 2006's PS3 and 360: Not Nearly As Powerful As They Should Be I am clamoring for hardware capable of photorealism — how could this have been missed and my writings lumped with the pathetic scribblings of autists who think that wireframe graphics settings are preferable to full detail because "they make you" a "better player" (lol), or that tapping on a keyboard or clicking a mouse should be considered a sport?
   Nevertheless, I will admit that, in the early theory essays — the essays, not the reviews, mind you, which are another matter — I do appear to come down overwhelmingly on the side of mechanics, but that was only because you guys are retards and wouldn't have got the message any other way. When a stick is bent, you must bend it the other way by at least an equal amount in order to straighten it out, after all. That was the guiding pedagogical principle I employed in those early essays. And anyway, I couldn't say all I had to say at once, not least because all I had to say was several hundred pages long, on top of which I hadn't clearly articulated all of it in my own mind yet, let alone arrived at the required conceptual clarity to write it down and communicate it. I had to take it slowly, one subject at a time (always a tough proposition, since all subjects are ultimately related to and connected with all others), and when that subject was "arcade games" — which were being woefully misunderstood at the time and written off as "shallow quarter-munchers" — the chief concept to be employed against that gross misunderstanding was "difficulty", with the concomitant ones of "no continuing" and "one-credit completion". So of course that essay would apotheosize difficulty and 1CCing! — but only in the context of arcade gaming, for christsake! At no point am I saying or even implying that every type of game on every type of platform ever should be designed in a similar manner! Nor am I saying that arcade games are inherently superior to console ones, as was for years — and still sometimes is — believed to have been my stance. All I was saying, if you read the text properly instead of merely skimming it and plugging the gaps with your imagination, was that, on average, arcade games are superior to console ones — and that remains true today as always; but there could still of course be plenty of console games that are superior to plenty of arcade ones, and even to all of arcade ones (as can be seen by my top 10 game list, for example, which doesn't contain arcade games at all [ > ]), without the average budging much due to the mountain of trash that's simultaneously being released on consoles every other day (Xbox 360 "indie" section, anyone?) that would never in a billion years make the cut to be released in an arcade, or survive on an arcade floor past a day if it somehow miraculously made it there. The goal of the arcade essay was to stomp all over the pitiful opinions that were being spouted about them at the time and help you see the magic of arcade gaming, and by Crom that's exactly what it accomplished, and by the end of it anyone could see it as long as they weren't completely fucking blind, and even many of those who were. "I can write with letters that make even the blind see", said Nietzsche, and that's precisely what I can do too, as evidenced by the countless people whom that essay has helped over the years to understand and respect arcade games, even when they themselves don't really enjoy or play them much (which meant they were effectively blind to them, which is why they had so readily adopted the "shallow quarter-munchers" theory that the journalists had been peddling).
   But as the essay's influence spread, so did the misunderstandings, which I've been fighting ever since, all the way to my monumental 2012 scoring essay, in which I finally explain that difficulty is by no means the number one quality I look for in a game, especially when this difficulty comes in such an autistic and aesthetically-destructive form as it does in modern games with scoring systems, or, worse still, in games with leaderboards and competitive scenes situated outside the game — all the while carefully building in the background, in essay after essay after essay, the idea that there is an order of rank of genres, sorted according to immersion (which is itself determined by each genre's ceiling for complexity: mechanical and aesthetic complexity combined), and that the rules of optimal game design radically alter as one moves up or down the scale. That's why scoring systems are absolutely essential in such primitive, low-immersion games as Asteroids and Galaga, yet annoying and borderline superfluous in mid-immersion games like R-Type and Street Fighter, while being completely fucking retarded in high-immersion games like Shenmue and GTA, never mind in the brain-jacking virtual reality games of the future.
   But all this will be analyzed and explained in detail in further essays. What I would like to do in this one, in the meantime, is focus on the aesthetics/mechanics distinction, and nail down once and for all how this works and how we should think about it and analyze it.
   The first, and hardest, task we have before us, then, is to finally settle the question of their relative importance. Are mechanics more important than aesthetics, or is it the other way around? In my "Narrative Delusions" essay I seem to imply — indeed I explicitly state — that mechanics trump aesthetics because they are the new thing that videogames bring to the artistic table and therefore they should trump them, but that's me merely bending the stick the opposite way again, to help rid people of their "narrative delusions", while the fuller, deeper answer is far more complicated than that, subsuming the partial answer I gave in that essay (as it subsumes all the answers I've ever given on any topic in every essay — which is what a grand unified theory is supposed to do, after all) without cancelling it out and falsifying it. And what is that fuller, deeper answer, you might ask? You should have figured it out by now: it is that the relative importance of aesthetics and mechanics alters as we move up or down the order of rank of genres, which is to say the order of rank of their capacity for immersion. The lower a genre's ceiling for immersion, the more crucial and dominant its mechanical aspect is and should be (which is why primitive genres thrive on scoring systems and high difficulties), while the higher a genre's immersion ceiling the more the aesthetic aspect should come to the fore and dominate (which is why in future brain-jacking VR games there'll be no scoring systems and it'll be impossible to "lose" in them, and even, ideally, to replay them, just as it is in life, which is precisely the Great Game: i.e. the most immersive game ever).
   And what about QTE games like Dragon's Lair, which are extremely primitive, low-immersion games but with simplistic mechanics and full aesthetic focus? Don't examples like that falsify my theory? No, because games like Dragon's Lair were shitty games, which focused so much on their aesthetics precisely because they had such shitty mechanics that, if the aesthetics hadn't been stellar, no one would have bothered playing them. I mean Dragon's Lair came out at a time when many flight-sim-type games still had wireframe-level graphics; can you imagine anyone playing Dragon's Lair if it had had that type of graphics? I mean, press a key at the exact right time to see a scene made out of a dozen squares and triangles? Who would have bothered? While lots of people bothered grappling with thousands of far more complex and tougher games at the time, though the aesthetic payoff in all those games was far below Dragon's Lair's standards, and that's why Dragon's Lair's genre contains barely a couple of examples (Space Ace being the only other one that comes readily to mind), while the genres of the other games contain untold thousands.
   At the same time, the casuals, the "indies" and the artfags will be delighted at my intimation that in the future all games will focus on aesthetics above all and feature minimal-to-zero difficulty; they'll even go as far as to claim that their lame, ugly abortions of non-games paved the way for them! But they'll be demonstrably full of shit again because, according to my theory, you only get to justifiably focus on your game's aesthetic aspect and feature zero difficulty if your game belongs to a high-immersion genre! But not even Shenmue and GTA3 were immersive enough to shortchange their mechanics and do away with difficulty altogether, so doing so for the type of minimal immersion dreck that casual devs, "indie" devs and artfags make would be retarded. So Jason Rohrer entirely removed difficulty from a platformer, in his Passage, and that's why no one bothered playing that game and why no one knows it today. Or other "indies" removed all existing mechanical conventions from their games and focused on aesthetics to such an extent that the software they produced amounted to glorified screensavers. But did anyone "play" that software? Did anyone use it at all — even as just screensavers? (They were bad even as screensavers, nota bene.) And does anyone besides me (and I don't count because I am a scholar) remember it now? So the public and its tastes and preferences adhere to my theory just fine, because I have designed my theory precisely by abstracting it from my own and the public's tastes and preferences! It is only complete social outcasts and assorted marginalized miscreants like hardcore autists and the pseudo-intellectual journaloacademic complex that seems to fall outside my theory — and I say "seems" because if you look closely enough my theory accounts for their preferences too just fine: even the most hardcore Counter-Strike aspie would balk at really playing CS with genuine wireframe graphics, while the entire journaloacademic complex, when observed carefully, will be seen to spend far more time on the high-budget "corporashionalized" mega-games that they trash than on the "quirky", "independent", "meaningful" rubbish that they waste entire careers evangelizing. It's just that the former group (the autists) have very rudimentary senses, while the latter (the pseudo-intellectual fag complex) have tiny brains that struggle with any significant degree of complexity and difficulty, so they both generally stay away from games that feature these respective qualities, and therefore tend to trash and revile them. But even the world's top autist has at least SOME degree of aesthetic sensitivity — he's not blind and deaf for christsake! — and even the world's dumbest, most limp-wristed pseudo-intellectual fffffffagot has a brain, however tiny and ridiculous and wretched, and rudimentary motor-neurone skills, so they both can and do appreciate games that require and exercise these faculties — but only up to these people's very low aptitude ceilings for them. Everything that rises above those extremely low ceilings, however — which is precisely what the dreaded "mane streem" prefers and plays — is completely lost on these people and that's how laughable tripe like Passage or autism simulators like Counter-Strike also get their adherents and advocates.
   So, you see, my theory accounts for everyone perfectly fine, thankyouverymuch, while of course ultimately focusing its spotlight on its author and his tastes — as all theories in the end must — which is to say on me. The autists and the fags can write their own theories if they like and focus on themselves and their own tastes and preferences instead — and good luck getting anyone to read them and pay attention to them, or even so much as understand them, what with their theories being illegible, incoherent dribble that no one can make any sense of much less agree with and put to actual use.
   In short, the purpose of my theory is to lay down the rules which, if followed, will result in better games; it doesn't deny the existence of bad games, which are bad precisely because they failed to follow those rules, like Dragon's Lair and Passage. And if you would retort to this that my theory didn't exist when Dragon's Lair and Passage were being made, and that good games were being made just fine before my theory appeared, I will reply "indeed", and that's because the people who made all these good games were following my rules nevertheless, having arrived at them unconsciously by years and years of trial and error, to the extent that it would never even have occurred to them to flout those rules — those dreaded hateful "conventions" — by for example making a platformer with zero difficulty or a "game" with the interactivity level of a screensaver. But then the "indies" and the artfags arrived on the scene — belatedly, as they always do, when the barriers to entry had been lowered so much that even they could clear them — and what happened then, and why, has already been fully explained in my Genealogy, so I won't be getting into it here. All that needs to be said for the moment is that "the most valuable insights are the last to be arrived at" (Nietzsche); "but the most valuable insights are methods", i.e. theories, and that's why my theory is arriving today, after five decades of videogame design, as opposed to at the start of the whole debacle. Otherwise, how would I have arrived at it in 1978, before there were even any games around from which to abstract it? And that's why Darwin's theory of evolution arrived several billion years after that evolution had got started; but once the theory had arrived it sped things up, because that evolution henceforth had this theory to guide it, instead of proceeding randomly, in the dark, as before, via brute force and sheer trial and error. Even Baudrillard — the sworn enemy of performance — could see that the whole point of theory is "to speed things up" — i.e. to improve performance — and that's precisely what my theory will accomplish, by articulating and neatly codifying all the unconscious and barely conscious rules and guidelines that the world's best game designers — who always have the best instincts, otherwise they wouldn't have become the best — have been employing for decades, and then extrapolating from those the principles they'll need to employ to create the masterpieces of the future. And even middling developers — who have middling instincts, and are thus more prone to error than the masters — will benefit by studying my theory, thereby avoiding committing many mistakes they would have otherwise committed due to their middling instincts.
   So now that all the above has been cleared up, and we've realized that the relationship between aesthetics and mechanics is much too complex to allow us to make simplistic blanket judgements as to which of them is more important in all genres and under all circumstances, it remains to determine precisely why, as I contend, mechanics are more important in low-immersion games and genres, while aesthetics dominate in higher-immersion ones. For I have merely stated this relationship, and at most provided examples of it; I haven't explained it yet, and this is what I'll do now.
   And I will do this with the help of an analogy. Imagine sitting on a beach in some paradisaical tropical island. The sun is shining brightly on your skin, giving you a fuzzy warm feeling all over; the onshore breeze is lightly toying with your hair and filling your ears and nose with pleasant ocean sounds and smells; all the while your gaze is lost in lazy contemplation of infinite horizon, fluffy clouds and ever-shifting waves and groups of tribal surfers. All this is aesthetics, and most people would happily sit there immobile and take it all in for hours on end, and perhaps, with breaks, even for days.
   And now imagine that the breeze dies, the sounds and smells and sunlight warming you disappear, the clouds and waves and surfers vanish, and the entire ocean is rendered with a single shade of blue, and the beach with a single shade of yellow. We've demade reality to an 8-bit 1975 videogame standard, in other words. How long could you spend sitting on that "beach" now, and staring at the half-blue/half-yellow "distance"? Since there is no longer anything to smell or hear or feel, since we've removed all the olfactory, aural and tactile dimensions from the scene, and barely even anything worth seeing — since we've essentially reduced the visible dimension to two solid colors — "sitting" on that "beach" for any length of time now would be unbearable. Being forced to do so would almost amount to torture! And the only way to remedy this situation, while leaving the aesthetics at that wretchedly primitive level, would be for us to give you something to do there, some sort of activity to perform and occupy yourself with, or, ideally, a game (since games tend to be some of the funnest activities around, and therefore the most distracting from the boring simplicity and blandness of the environment you would have found yourself in). And that's where mechanics come in. At the bottom end of aesthetic complexity mechanics dominate quite simply because... we are the bottom end of aesthetic complexity, and there aren't enough aesthetic elements to dominate, duh! And obviously, as the aesthetic complexity begins rising, it comes to occupy more and more of our attention — and therefore the attention of the devs making the game, who are creating all this complexity, nota bene — for the simple reason that perception is an active process that requires energy expenditure. The more complex the aesthetics therefore get, the more energy we must expend to perceive them, and therefore the less energy we have left to spend on mechanical tasks, because a person's energy capacity isn't infinite!
   Does that mean that, at the opposite end of the scale, when aesthetic complexity is maxed out, the player is frozen on the spot for the entire duration of the game, since the aesthetics have become so complex by then that he has to expend all his available energy merely so as to perceive them?
   In a way, yes, it does! That's precisely where my theory leads us, if faithfully followed to its astonishing conclusion!
   And yet that conclusion no longer seems so astonishing when considered in the light of science fiction works such as e.g. The Matrix, where all the humans are immobile in life-support capsules without even realizing it, while the "reality" the matrix spins and feeds directly to their brains occupies the full capacity of their powers of cognition. If the humans were aware of the state of their real bodies (which would be a requirement for them controlling those bodies), the matrix's reality would instantly lose the greater part of its appeal — and thus its capacity for complete immersion. So we see that it is precisely by completely losing control of their real bodies — even to the extent of knowledge of those bodies' mere existence! — that the humans' virtual ones acquire full force of reality, and the world which they inhabit reaches its maximum level of immersion.
   This is no mere pseudo-intellectual's or journalist's blundering, laughable attempts at a theory that you are reading, dear reader: the scope of my understanding of these concepts and the terrifying, laser-like precision with which I define all of my terms and relate them to each other mean that my theory works for everything: from Spacewar to Far Cry 2 to The Matrix, and even beyond, to the innermost reaches of the brain: to pure will, and to the rest of the universe outside of it, and everywhere in-between, as we'll be seeing shortly, to an extent, and ultimately in the last chapter of my philosophical work, Orgy of the Will, in which the full scope of my theory will be revealed at last for the benefit of the two or three people who possess the required intelligence to grasp it.

"I've been banned from his site twice. He's a grammer-stalinist and is incredibly judgmental (although he is usually pretty accurate with his judgements) but absolutely brilliant. I completely believe that in a few decades some of his theories are going to get huge: like biographies being written about him huge. There's no backtracking, opinion-changing, or trend-seeking in his writing. He's had the same concepts for over a decade and continues to build on them which is why his stuff has so much depth. A normal journalist only explores something when it is trendy and then never discusses it again, jumping to the next trend. I sort of felt guilty after getting banned."

To be continued...

Videogame Culture: Volume I


Men of Great Genius

The Stupidest Word in Videogames
Arcade Culture
In the Name of Consistency
Reviewing Ports and Compilations
Sequel: The Videogame
No More "Parodies"
On "Values" for "Monies"
Can Games "be Art?", and other Childish Nonsense
Message my Ass
On Role-playing Games
The RPG Conundrum
The Nuts and Bolts are as Important as the Ones and Zeros
The Videogame News Racket
Does Anyone Hate Anything Anymore?
Non-games are for Non-gamers
Casual Reviews are for Casual Gamers
Mini-games are for Mini-gamers
On Complexity, Depth and Skill
The Second Stupidest Word in Videogames
On New Games Journalism
Leave Ranking to the Experts
Beyond the Videogame News Racket
How Good Exactly is Perfect?
Cocksucking Videogameland
Basic Instincts
On "Emergent" Game Behavior and other Miracles
On Insects and their Laws
The Simulacrum is True
A Gamer's Guide to the Internet: Prologue
Hardware Porn: Prologue
A Brief History of Cutscenes
On Action and Reaction
On "Pluralism"
The Myth of Independence
On Mane Streems and Niches
On Why I Am The Best Videogame Player In The World
On Why Scoring Sucks And Those Who Defend It Are Aspies
On the Relative Irrelevance of "Balance"
Bad Try, So No Cigar
Reviewing Textures
On Narrative Delusions


On the Genealogy of "Art Games": A Polemic


Historia abscondita

First Essay: The Absurd Circularity of the Pseudo-Art Game
Second Essay: The Evolving Artforms and their Parasites
Third Essay: The Message of the Medium


Videogame Culture: Volume II

There Can Be Only One

Following Nietzsche

On Set Theory and the Bastardization Process
Against the "Metagame"
On Meta- and Mini-gaming
R.I.P., Nintendo: An Introduction to the Tree of Gaming
Why Versus Multiplayer Games Are Worse Games Than JRPGs
The Downside to Playing Games with Icy and His Friends
On Why Bigger Has Always Been Better, And Why It Always Will Be
Real Virtuality, or On the Whole Murky Affair of the Emotions
The Motion-Sensing Dead End
What Is Wrong With Sports Games
Aesthetics and Mechanics and the Grand Unified Theory
On Genre and the Tree of Gaming
On Difficulty, Fun, and the Impossibility of Playing to Lose
On Journalism's Irrelevance
On the Worthlessness of Game Academics
On "Indies" and "Dependies", or The "Indie" Game Conundrum
An Insomniac's Guide to Great Games
Dungeon Crawling
Notes on the Arcade Culture
Shooting Love
Defining Cutscenes
To Save, or not to Save, That is the Question
Why Old-timers Hate Handhelds
On Grinding
The Truth About Emulation
On Videogame Forums
A Matter of Tradition
How Hard is your Core? (or, The New Casuals)
The Third Stupidest Word in Videogames
Industry, Shmindustry
On Game Guides
Retrogression & Decadence
The Fourth Stupidest Word in Videogames
The Console and the End of Videogame Hardware
Who Really Killed Adventure Games
Western Videogame Art Design and the Cult of the Grotesque
Designing An MMORPG That Doesn't Suck
The Myth of Accessibility
The Myth of Innovation
Videogames & Simulation
Responsibility my Ass
Medium, Shmedium
Pressing Buttons
The Cinematic Videogame
Acquiring Taste
A History of Violence
The Mise-en-Jeu
The New Games Criticism
Confessions of a Game Reviewer

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See Also

Videogame Art