Apr 15, 2016

The Beauty in Games

Any good story needs a good story teller, otherwise it is merely a simple account of successive facts. In the visual arts, a story teller (or narrator, if you will) takes various shapes and forms.

The narration can be expressed through images, through concepts and ideas, through music – all which can coexist in harmony or battle in contrasts. Yet, what brings the beauty in games?

A few days ago, my brother walked into my room and saw that I was playing “Homesick”, a very nice little game which I recently got from a friend. Mihai looked at my screen and couldn’t help exclaiming: “Wow, that is a beautiful game!”

Inspired by his comment, I took a screenshot and thus this article was born.

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Traditional Beauty

It is quite difficult to define what is beautiful and what is not. Even in Doctor Who, a show thought out for kids, the main character – The Doctor – often shouts “Oh, aren’t you beautiful?” when he looks at some fearsome alien… and he really means it, he really does find the monsters beautiful, intriguing, amazing, despite their role as antagonists.

So, how can we try to define beauty, when a kids show could challenge any type of definition we could muster?

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“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” some say, meaning that what is beautiful for me, can be terrible for you. I recall how on several occasions I was playing games, such as Silent Hill 2, where the design danced around the idea of death and decay.

My mother would often say that it looks terrible and she genuinely does not understand what I could see in such a design. At the same time, she watches “House M.D.” – a show about very rare diseases and a doctor that heals the almost-dying patients – which I never found appealing.

Both treat the same subjects, of death and drama, of sadness and despair, yet something in their presentation attracts different kinds of people. I’m sure there are hundreds and hundreds of essays on the subject, but we don’t have enough time get into that. Instead, let’s talk about ugliness.

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The Aesthetics of Ugliness

I remember this phrase being taught to me in the 5th grade. A Romanian poet, Tudor Arghezi, wrote a poem that was really sad and contained elements that most people would consider ugly (jail cell, mould, death etc.) Despite this, everybody praised his poem. I never quite understood why until much, much later.

Life and Death, Creation and Destruction, Eros and Thanatos are both parts of ourselves. We, as beings, can create or destroy, can do amazing things (both benevolent and terrible). So why the attraction towards one side or the other? Or better yet, why different levels of attraction towards one side?

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Is it perhaps our desire to let out some steam, so to speak? What drives us towards ugliness? Is it the fun part? If you think about it, crushing a sand castle is a lot more entertaining that spending hours building it. Still, perhaps, it is none of that.

Maybe we don’t really like to see death and decay, but rather we appreciate the artistic vision of it. Family guy, an adult show focused on comedy and shock value, depicted death as a humorous character. Is that artistic? Maybe, I mean, who’s to say it isn’t? It is an interpretation of one of life’s biggest mysteries.

So then, if we take the ugliness and give it meaning, offer an interpretation and a context, does that make it less ugly? Or does it merely emphasize our human need of a “sense in life”?

Or perhaps, once more, it’s none of that.

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When I was a kid, I picked up a book. “Dream meanings,” it said on it and it was filled with symbols and explanations. I showed it to my mother who smiled and told me that it is just a silly book. Dreams are not that easy to understand, she said.

“If ten people dream about oranges, for each and every one of them the meaning will be different.”

Our personal experiences shape our lives and the way we react to events, to objects, to people. In the same way, when someone plays a game, the entire experience is filtered through his own Personal History.

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The style in which the game tells a story is decided and created by someone (or a team of “someones”) who went through his own happy times, sad times, difficult moments and incredible events.

So then, when we like the beauty in a game, we are probably just connecting to another human’s experience. We find things that relate to us, that resonate within us and with which we can take the journey/story presented in the game.

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Inexistent Beauty

Of course, this is all theoretical, but even so… it does bring up the questions: are game reviews influenced by this? If it’s all about resonating, how can a game review written by someone be in any way helpful to me?

Yes, game mechanics can be an objective review point, as well as loading times and the general gameplay elements… but the presentation, the story-wrapping, how can we be sure we’re not missing something that could speak volumes to us, while it didn’t whisper a sound to an online reviewer?

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The beauty is not really found in games – the games are simply a way to convey parts of ourselves. So, in a way, when you really, really love the aesthetics of a game, you are doing much more than that… you are loving the creative spark of another.

And that is beautiful.

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