Just as there are arguments for and against the importance of story in video games, there is also an ongoing argument about how much a game should focus on the aesthetics. Art-focused games (AFGs), as I like to call them, are becoming abundantly popular.
You’ve seen these games before: relatively short games that feature a distinctive and unique art style but minimal interactive “gameplay.” With simple gameplay mechanics or infrequent instances of gameplay, the game allows players to focus on the art of the game, particularly the environment. Games like this include Journey, The Unfinished Swan, and Life is Strange. Each holds its own ground in certain aspects, but I’ve heard many seasoned gamers argue that these “games” are just barely games, if at all, due to the lack of consistent traditional gameplay.
To provide a means and motive for players to experience the environment uninterrupted, these AFGs heavily utilize storytelling. Game designers and writers work together to compensate for the lack of standard gameplay by including increased emphasis of discovery. There are secret passages to be located, items to collect, and lore to find. Discovery compensates for infrequent gameplay and maintains the amount of interaction many gamers usually enjoy within their games. Simultaneously, the player gets to enjoy the art of the game undistracted by overly-demanding gameplay. You could almost think of these specific types of games as interactive pieces of art.
“When a game no longer has engaging gameplay to serve as a backbone, every other aspect becomes that much more important.”
The catch is that everything must work together flawlessly to produce that magnum opus-quality game. When a game no longer has engaging gameplay to serve as a backbone, every other aspect becomes that much more important. The aesthetics must be unique, eye-catching, praiseworthy. The story, whether simple or complex, must be engaging. Most importantly, the aesthetics and the story within must work together seamlessly to create a cohesive experience. Without this, the game becomes an artistic idea and a story plot frankensteined together; it ceases to be a true game.
Spectacle and Apocrypha
One such instance of an AFG that struggled with linking the story and art style is El Shaddai: The Ascension of the Metatron. This game follows Enoch, a figure from Jewish religious writings, as he sets out on a quest to stop a group of seven fallen angels from causing a flood that will destroy mankind.
Visually, the game is stunning. Each individual level features its own artistic theme. El Shaddai also features more extensive gameplay mechanics including substantial combat and platforming sections. Even so, these sections are structured in a way that allows for the player to enjoy the environment and aesthetics, even while focusing on progressing to the next level.
Where El Shaddai struggles is in the delivery of the story. Early on, the game commits one of the sins of game writing: the info dump. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to tell the story through the environment, the game instead pours a mountain of story explanation on the player during a loading screen. Granted, many games take advantage of the negative space during loading screens to convey information to their players. The problem was the disconnect between the story that is hurriedly told during loading screens and the visuals of the game itself. While beautiful, a majority of the levels feel empty and do nothing to reinforce the story that is supposed to be going on at the same time. Combine this with time skips and references to places and people only those familiar with the religious Book of Enoch would understand, and you have a huge disconnect between art style and story.
Storybook Come to Life
However, when art and story come together in harmony, marvelous things can happen. This is the case in The Unfinished Swan. This indie game was released in 2012 on the heels of the wildly successful AFG, Journey. The Unfinished Swan tells the story of Monroe, a young boy who chases a painting of an unfinished swan into a magical world.
The Unfinished Swan makes quite an entrance. The introduction cut scene is narrated and illustrated like a classic children’s picture book. The sentences are concise and light-hearted. Everything the player needs to know about the story is conveyed in under one minute. Then, the real magic happens. The player is dropped into an utterly white screen. No prompts are shown, so it is up to the player to figure out what to do (the first instance of discovery in the game!) Some players will walk around in an attempt to see if anything comes into view. Some players will instead press buttons and be shocked when a ball of black paint shoots out and lands in front of them. Very quickly, players will figure out not only how to navigate around this white world, but also to reveal the world using the paint. They also discover that, like perfume, less is more. Using minimal paint keeps from turning the whole world black, which would get the player lost yet again.
Already the story of a magical painted swan and the gameplay of flinging paint in order to reveal an unfinished world are working in harmony to create a unique gameplay experience. The player wants to discover what the world is hiding, prompting the use of a simple game mechanic that focuses on the aesthetic of the world. This is a great example of an AFG.
More to Come?
I am excited to see if more of these games spring up during the course of 2016. Maybe, with game development becoming more accessible to independent studios and one-man teams, people will find different, more exciting ways to mingle art and story within the boundaries of the game world.
We shall see!