Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Holistic Design

"Holistic" has a bunch of new-agey connotations I don't like, but I can't think of any other words that mean the same thing. So, before I start, this has nothing to do with holistic health or medicine or any of that, all of which I think is crap. But, of course, this may be crap too.

There's a strong duality in the mind of many game designers. A feeling that the rules and the aesthetics/narrative are two distinct entities that come together to make a game. I don't believe this. I believe they can be separated and even recombined, but it's not an ideal or "natural" practice. I've been thinking about how to show this.

Katamari Damacy. You could theoretically separate out the aesthetics and replace them with anything. Earlier I used the example of organic proteins. Which would be a pretty boring aesthetic at first glance, but let's consider it.

The idea of rolling around and sticking things to your ever-growing sticky ball can theoretically be decoupled from the fact that you're rolling over toys and squids and people and planets. But those decoupled mechanics have very little value.

Mating them up with a different aesthetic sounds like it should be simple and translate well. But any new aesthetic/narrative you define would be better served by other rules. The same fundamental mechanic might serve in both situations, but the specifics would have to be redone to make it fit with the new aesthetic.

For example, a Katamari Damacy where you roll up music notes and motes of light would certainly be possible, but it wouldn't make much sense for it to be rolling around on an open-map world with wild terrain. That would feel wrong. Instead, I'd move the Katamari to a tube-track like something from a Jeff Minter (Yak) game. The patterns created by moving forward in a spottily-floored tube give the otherwise unintriguing dots and notes an intriguing air.

Even though this is the same fundamental roll-over-stuff-and-get-bigger/bounce-off-larger-stuff, it isn't the same game. A twisty donut arrangement and much higher maximum speeds are better for this kind of aesthetic.

I could make the aesthetic the aforementioned proteins, which come in radically different sizes. Again, it would make no sense to have the same kind of world design as the original. Organic proteins are interesting because (A) they are on a radically different scale and (B) they are chemically interactive.

Perhaps a "swimming" Katamari would be the right idea, with proteins all floating around in patterns. Instead of a ball of souls, something like a squid of souls. Calamari Damacy. The camera would need to be different, obviously.

Another option might be that the level is made of the protein strands, and you race along them absorbing free electrons and sucking off atoms. That would be fun because you would change the nature of the level as you do this. For example, sucking off a hydrogen atom might result in the strand you're on fusing with a nearby strand.

The aesthetic is not separate from the gameplay. It appears that way at first glance, but it's like saying that the paint is separate from the painting, and that you could use that same paint to paint a different painting. Maybe, but the quantities would be weird and you'd be laying it down in radically different patterns.

What do you think?


Adrian Lopez said...

I find it useful to separate mechanics and aesthetics in the mind in the same way a scientist might find it useful to dissect an insect to focus on a particular aspect of its anatomy. It's not that the insect can function without its vital organs, but rather that it's useful to look at those vital organs in detail while ignoring the rest of the animal.

Thus, when in your previous post I have discussed aesthetics separately from mechanics it's only because the mind is able to separate them and because I find it useful to make the distinction in particular contexts. It's not that a game divorced of its aesthetics would be the same game, but that mechanically it would behave the same and could, in fact, be played the same way.

Craig Perko said...

It could not be played the same way. That's what I'm saying.

If you replaced all the toys and fish and cars with featureless boxes, it would not play the same. It would feel entirely different, and I guarantee that users would follow different paths and play for different amounts of time.

The rules indicate that it could be played the same way, but that's a dangerous illusion.

Olick said...

Its a difficult idea though. Quake gamers have, for a long time, replaced their textures with like.. bright greens and flat colors that are easy to see and hit, for multiplayer. Multiplayer quake plays fairly similarly like that, possibly because the interaction with another player is not changed.

On the other hand, I think Fallout 3 would be nothing without its good narrative/aesthetic. It would be a bad shooter with flat rpg elements and an uninteresting exploration element.

I think there's no right answer with this. I know gamers who would say that the lack of interest if you strip away the context and narrative of Fallout 3 makes it an awful game, and I know others who say that the narrative guides the mechanics and affects gamers so much that it is more important than mechanics.

Craig Perko said...

Ah, but by removing the textures and models from quake, those players are actively changing the way the game is played, to make for a different (and more competitive) experience!

The issue is that people think that the mechanics are what the game is, but that's simply not the case. It's always the player's experience, and the player's experience isn't just mechanics any more than a painting is just paint.

Name: James Gonzalez said...

I agree and disagree.

I agree that separating mechanics from aesthetics would change the game and it will not play the same mainly, because as you have stated, the game is the players experience.

Where I disagree is that separating the two will change the game completely. Following your example on Katamari Damacy, I've played games where the mechanic - rolling over (consuming) other entities will make you bigger - such as Flow and Osmos (http://www.hemispheregames.com/osmos/) remind me of games like Katamari , meaning that somewhere a long the line the game's are similar.

So to add on to what you've said, the two aspects of design and narrative/aesthetics are in fact the entire thing that make the game and having the same design with a different art style will change the game BUT be in fact similar to the original.

People separate the two only after they decided where to go with it. I'm sure the people at Namco knew that they wanted a stylized cutesy game along with a unique game design and developed the two simultaneously as opposed to one after another.

Craig Perko said...

Uh, what part of that was disagreeing with me? I never said it would change completely. It's pretty clear that you can have similar games with different aesthetics.

But even inside a strict genre like FPS, the specific implementations change to serve the aesthetic. So, no, not radically different. But different.

Adrian Lopez said...

It could not be played the same way.

That's just plain not true. The game could be played the same way for the simple fact that the game responds the same way to the same inputs regardless of what the dressing looks like. That the player is likely to provide different inputs is an important point but ultimately irrelevant to what I'm saying.

I've already admitted it's important to recognize the fact that dressing affects how the player responds to and interacts with the game, but I can't agree with any argument that treats aesthetics and mechanics as inseparable even in concept.

Craig Perko said...

If the player's likely actions and responses are irrelevant to your point, then I am happy to concede it, since it's not a point I care about.

Similarly, yes, in theory you can separate gameplay and aesthetics. But, in doing so, you stop talking about how people play the game. So what's the point?

Adrian Lopez said...

It's irrelevant with regard to the specific point that it's possible to look at mechanics separately from aesthetics. That the "look and feel" of a game is significant was not, I believe, ever in dispute. Instead, I think it's more of a question of degrees.

The discussion that started this thread was all about "tidbits", a name that itself suggests relative insignificance. Perhaps my mistake is to have allowed that to color my early replies to you.

At this point I'm only trying to justify the claim that mechanics and aesthetics can be thought of separately, even if ultimately it's a serious mistake to neglect aesthetics in thinking a game is all about the mechanics (a claim I have never made).

Craig Perko said...

Hm, it sounds like we're just jousting over a point of semantics. It's certainly possible to think of mechanics separately. After all, that's what everyone tends to do.

It's just a dangerous oversimplification that radically limits a game designer.