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Impressionism and Games

This is a short blog post, that I hope may illuminate to some people why I prefer some games over others.

The objectivity and academic study involved in game design exists. It's respectable, definitely, however I can't help but feel that from these objective outlooks, something is lost. I also can't help but feel these objective outlooks are designed purely to get the most bang for your buck. Not every game needs to get the most bang for your book- and in this article I hope to elaborate on impressionism and how it relates to games and their game feel.

One of my favourite games as of recently would have to be Teleglitch. I learnt about it some time ago watching Israel Blargh. It's a truly fascinating procedurally generated game, where the layouts are random, but the modules are pieced together. I tried to explore what makes it good through my clone of it: Quiver. Naturally, what makes it good is a hard to describe emotion and constant feeling of being cornered, low on ammunition and with a very low liklihood of survival. A classic "You are all alone and fucked" scenario.

Now impressionism, is a genre of Music that isn't focused on the specific chord progressions or melodies of the music, but rather focuses more on the feeling of music. Clair De Lune is one such example of this music, and it nails a hollow sort of lonely feeling. Impressionis, doesn't just apply to Music though, there have been impressionistc classical art pieces where the use of colours and shapes have been used to convey a specific emotion.

Now, when I play games, or consume any art for that matter; one of the most important elements is that it can strum the strings of emotion. One of the common emotions felt in games is feeling badass and to be fair, this is common because so many games give out a power fantasy. This is usually easily achieved with mechanics that feel good, with extra polish to make the reward pay off. Of course, this has it's pitfalls as the wrong fantasies can be indulged- fantasies of finance by Greed often promoted in modern games. I don't blame the Developers for this, it's an appreciable artform itself psychologically manipulating a person to feel specific emotions. I also don't blame the players, psychological manipulation is incredibly strong, especially against willing participants. Now I say psychological manipulation and that's because it's used for good and for bad. The bad is covered in far too much detail by the far too many failings of modern AAA game developers(to some extent I think it's a coping mechanism created by a huge team. Huge risks multiply across the development team, and bread comes first). Of course the good is that a game can capture a specific feeling or emotion(and in some cases, multiple of them, multiplying the effect of the game).

Two common examples of games that do this well are Cave Story and Undertale. Their emotional content is plucked from well-woven mechanics and narrative storytelling.

I'll give a few more examples, Space Beast Terror Fright, a game that almost perfectly captures the feeling of being doomed with all odds against you like in the movie "Aliens" is one such example of indulging both the power fantasy and fear. You don't know quite what you're going up against, but when you beat it, you feel incredible.

I'll tie this back around. A lot of the greatest games are simple, as they have a specific emotion they seek to capture, and an audience that is perceptive to that emotion will enjoy it thoroughly if it does it well. RPG Players enjoy strings of emotions by mechanics woven with narratives. Boomer Shooter players enjoy feeling like a badass, with a light sprinkling of flavour emotions. Roguelite players like the random roll of badass and crushing defeat(this is pretty varying depending on how much variation exists in the power curve. Teleglitch has very little, Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon have a lot). Portal is also much like the RPGs where it mixes narrative and mechanical storytelling.

So I'll leave this with what I think should be done in most games. There's often the claim of polish being said. Now I would take that a step further and say that polish should be prioritised. General polish doesn't matter as much(it will be experienced, but it won't be as distinct), but polish in the areas of greatest emotion will go a long way. You need to make the rewards and punishments truly distinct and aligned properly with the emotions of your game. It's also for this reason I would say you should focus on achieving one or two emotions really well. Stringing them together is non-trivial and requires a lot of storytelling(as is the case in one-hit wonders like Undertale and Cave Story). Also there's a huge variety of emotions, and a lot are mostly untapped. Confusion and comedy are 2 examples that aren't tapped very much, the former best demonstrated in dream-like games such as Yume Nikki, and the latter best demonstrated in games like The Stanley Parable.

Hope this short article about impressionism in games was of help to some people. As usual, these are my opinions, yours are wrong, but mail me if you have some anyway.

Published on 2021/03/01

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