In this article, I intend to discuss aesthetic style in video gaming as a fundamental design choice, and especially its impact on the entire game experience. I do not intend to put across a particular argument or attempt to persuade you of a particular point of view, but instead just to raise an idea, to make you think, perhaps, about some of the design decisions in games to which you otherwise might not have given any thought. Gaming is clearly an enormously complex medium, a multi-faceted experience in which every distinct element must come together simultaneously in its composition to craft the overall experience. I believe that aesthetic design of any game not only brings the world to life, in the more obvious sense, setting the ideas of the writer into physical space, but also is an incredibly important tool for setting the entire tone of the game and shaping one’s experience from a very early stage.
Let’s examine this concept with a more concrete example, from a game that should be mostly familiar to all readers – the Super Mario games. Mario, perhaps more so than any other individual in the entirety of video gaming, has become an international gaming icon, a figure recognisable across multiple generations and demographics. Even just the design of his character, from the distinctive outfit to his friendly facial expression and moustache, sets a very specific and deliberate tone for the Nintendo games. Consider, for example, the opening to Super Mario Galaxy. You are immediately presented with the game’s customarily brief exposition, expressed in a fairy-tale-esque storybook, and with the calming accompaniment of one of the game’s simplest, but also most pleasing, soundtracks. The sequence in the Mushroom Kingdom that follows, with upbeat music and dancing Toads (that is, mushroom kingdom citizens), is a decidedly jolly one, a celebratory one, and in-keeping with the Super Mario look and feel. The Mario aesthetic is, overall, a very cartoonish one, filled with very bright colours and glittery visual stimuli. Even the physicality of Mario’s body, caricaturish in its proportions, with an overly large head and near-perfectly spherical tummy, contributes, along with the various others examples of design, towards a very specific tone. It’s unrealistic, very obviously so, but so is everything in the Super Mario world. It’s a deliberate decision to break away from any semblance of reality– it sets up a game with a fun, easy-going feel, a children’s-tale style narrative, no great feeling of emotional weight or moral agenda and no great cerebral requirement – in short, a game not trying to be anything more than a good few hours of fun.
Another fantastic game that demonstrates just how effectively aesthetic style can inform tone is The Unfinished Swan, a personal favourite of mine, and a game I would heartily recommend to all reading. The Unfinished Swan is about many things – creativity, childhood, colour (in a really quite literal way) – but it’s also one of the most interesting, if not the most interesting, game to actually look at. In this game, you join young orphan Monroe in his bizarre journey through the world inside a painting, a world that at first seems completely bare, a white screen with only a small circular reticule. The world, however, is animated as you splatter the surrounding environment with black paint, colouring in the path as you walk. It’s a short, simple game, but also stunningly beautiful. The world of The Unfinished Swan is a world of wooden bridges, paths, little ponds, gates, beautiful castles – it has a sort of unflinching elegance to it, a fairy-tale charm. The game is trying to set up, right from the very start, a narrative based upon a child’s bedtime story, and the aesthetic style reflects that. As pictured above, the world around you, once painted, resembles an abstract painting somewhat, drawn with ink pen upon a creamy canvas. It looks as it’s supposed to feel – contemplative, elegant and able to proceed at its own pace. As with Mario, the bright colour palette and cartoonish style informs a particular tone and conveys that effectively to the player from the very first frame. In that respect, as a sort of visual shorthand, the aesthetic design has done its job.
There is a multitude of games that I could discuss now, each with their distinct aesthetic style and tonal objectives. Undertale, for example, with its retro aesthetic and 8-bit music, would perfectly serve as an example. Or Manifold Garden, a game based around the manipulation of geometrical space, with its isometric, Euclidian, M.C. Escher-inspired aesthetic. Really, though, the entire point of this article is to illustrate that every game must, at some point in its creation, decide what sort of game it wants to be, what sort of tone to set, what sort of identity it wants to have – and how best to convey that. For every The Last Of Us, with gritty visuals matching a gritty, hard-hitting narrative, there’s a lighter, less serious game, with cartoonish visuals setting up a more easy-going tone. Next time you turn on your PC and boot up Steam, consider what sort of tone is trying to be set up, and how the aesthetic style contributes.