Though a shout-out on its own is not really this column’s style, there’s a lot to be learned from the many sources of insight and information out there on the expansive and noisy internet. This is a bit of a departure from the usual, but I’d like to touch upon one general game design concept (Core Aesthetics) that a weekly webseries titled Extra Credits has covered quite well with their own experiences and examples.
If you’ve not already heard of them, you can read up about Extra Credits’ background here, their site here, or just go have a look at the show here (it’s 6-10 minutes per episode, but be warned – the backlog is deep). They’ve got a great no-rant, not-a-review, example-based, progressive-thinking style that resonates with my own feelings and writings on the subject of game design, and it’s both humbling and exciting to find gems like this (I know I learned plenty). The series is also pretty funny, which is a bonus.
I often get really specific about game mechanics in this column, because I think that level of detail is necessary to advance game design. However, only paying attention to the minutia and losing sight of broader aspects of a game, like the relationship between the game mechanics and the player’s experience, can only be a detriment to game design in the long run.
While Extra Credits are not the final word on the concepts they present, it is certainly a good place to start (or a place to remind yourself succinctly of the relevant points, if you’ve already spent some time thinking about it). You don’t need to follow the links to relevant episodes in this article, but I still think it’s worth it to do so when you’ve got some time.
Also, this is just the barest of introductions to a deep rabbit hole of game design theory. From here, draw your own conclusions, use your own experience, or go out and just try some stuff. Better yet, share all that with us here in the comments.
The Core of the Matter
The term Core Aesthetics is inspired by an academic paper called MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research (or at least that paper comes around the time of the concept’s earliest formalisation) and is summarised in Aesthetics of Play. The name ‘aesthetics’ might initially suggest something related to the art or visuals of a game, but this isn’t really the case (though, as with everything in game design, it can be related).
Core aesthetics are a smallish group of categories describing the feeling or ‘fun’ of playing a given game. There are roughly ten such categories in all, depending on which list you look at – see the paper or video linked above for a treatment of a complete list. The categories (things like ‘Fellowship’ for the feeling of cooperation with others or ‘Fantasy’ for the feeling of taking on a role which we could not in real life) are not mutually exclusive and have room to be built upon, but are a surprisingly accurate way of succinctly describing a game and how the player relates to it.
For example, a game like World of Warcraft or Pandemic might have Fellowship as a core aesthetic, while games like Skyrim or Call of Duty have Fantasy as a core aesthetic (and remember that games often have more than one, but less than around four). Super Mario 64 might have a loose plot, but you probably wouldn’t consider Narrative as one of its core aesthetics.
As you can hopefully see, core aesthetics attempt to get at the heart of why we play a given game. This is obviously useful information for game design, but it is also interesting when applied to the idea of game genres.
If a genre is trying to communicate to a prospective player what kind of experience they will be getting, then perhaps core aesthetics are exactly what is needed (as opposed to the mechanics-driven descriptions often used now, like ‘first-person shooter’). Maybe you remember when I deconstructed at length how Deus Ex: Human Revolution easily falls into something like four or five genres. With the language provided by core aesthetics, I can now say that it manages this while maintaining a strong identity by using many mechanical elements in concert to deliver on a few core aesthetics (Narrative and Fantasy primary among them, just off the top of my head).
Extra Credits explores this more deeply, especially as it relates to the difference between western and Japanese RPGs (in a three parter). Here they point out the core aesthetic of JRPGs as the biggest differing factor between them and Western RPGs.
When I discussed what to expect from a JRPG in the context of WIHILA Xenoblade Chronicles, the crowning piece to the discussion could certainly be ‘It is a genre focused on delivering Narrative as a core experience’. Many of the common trends, mechanics and precedents of JRPGs revolve around this focus. Digging a bit deeper, the idea of Abnegation as a core aesthetic, or play for the sake of tuning out, can illuminate something like ‘grinding’ as a feature rather than a painful trend, and help decide when to avoid it or include it in a game.
This even extends to the discussion to my recent series comparing expectations of Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn and Elder Scrolls Online, but that took 4 parts in the first place and doesn’t need to get longer (for now at least).
Tip of the Iceberg
I could go on, touching upon Extra Credits’ well-thought-out perspective on narrative through gameplay, the role of games in society, the games industry as a whole and… Wait, that’s enough. Go check them out if you’re interested.
This column may have seemed like a departure from form, but in my eyes it’s another step along the same path trod by the posts before and to come. I aim not only to design games, but to improve game design. First, of course, this must happen on a personal level, but beyond that I would like to share this growth with other game designers, potential game designers, or simply the audience of players out there who ultimately give all these games a context.
Extra Credits has reminded me that I’m not alone in this. You’re here, of course, but, in addition to you, me and anybody else reading this, there are other great resources out there. I think it’s definitely worth the time to share these resources with you all. If you liked this post, let me know and I’ll consider doing something similar again in the future.
Thanks for reading.