"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?