[-empyre-] The Playsthetics of Experimental Digital Games: Week 2 subto

Matthew Wells mattwells.j at gmail.com
Tue Mar 11 23:04:29 EST 2014

Hi all,

This has been a great series so far.  Thanks to Sandra for the invite!

I'm going to take each of my questions in turn.  Apologies if this is too
linear for a discussion on experimental games :)

In terms of the historical evolution of games, I think we need to recognize
that we're not that far removed from a period when a huge proportion of
mainstream games - perhaps even the majority - were in one way or another
experimental.  The side scroller was an experimental genre in its earliest
years.  Super Mario Bros., in fact, not only mainstreamed the format, but
also made game completion, as opposed to high scores, the ultimate goal for
the player.  Even a genre as workaday as the sports game went through
massive varieties of differing mechanics before settling into the cookie
cutter presentations offered by EA Sports and the like.  But part of the
fun of retro gaming is discovering the oddball titles - beyond the Marios
and other hit series - that offer mechanics that range from the wildly
experimental to the totally bizarre.  Of course you get a lot of
copycatting when a particular genre is successful, but even in the case of
something like the aforementioned side scroller, aspects such as tile art,
camera perspective, and player affordances can vary greatly in the early

If I were to go exploring for a break point, however - that is, a place or
time where mass market and experimental gaming began to diverge - I think I
would find it in the early years of PC 3D gaming.  I say "PC" because
pioneering games such as Wolfenstein 3D and Doom were computer games first
before being ported to consoles.  Of course they moved quickly into the
console market, and, well, I probably don't need to provide the entire
narrative of how 3D engines grew to power the vast majority of big bruising
AAA games that we all know and love/hate.  This is the standard now for
mass market titles, and it looks like it will be that way for a long while.

Long story short, then, this splitting of the industry comes down largely
to production costs.  To put it mildly, there is a galaxy of difference
with respect to the overhead required to make a 2D game as compared to 3D.
 Since 3D games dominate the marketplace, however, 2D programmers (and some
3D, such as TGC) find themselves in an interesting position.  3D AAA game
developers are under pressure to make games that they know will appeal to
the Call of Duty crowd, so avenues for innovation are extremely limited.
 Even as a series as acclaimed as Grand Theft Auto strives for familiarity
- beyond improved graphics and more complex storylines, there is a
significant degree of sameness between each iteration.  Indie and
experimental developers, however, have to make their products conspicuous
in order to attract attention.  Straight-up retro platformers are a dime a
dozen, but a game like Fez that radically alters platformer aesthetics gets

Not all games are intended to be sold, of course.  But just to generate any
kind of attention in our hyper-webbed world requires a hook of some kind.
 The name "Depression Quest" alone, to take one example, is provocative
enough to be something of an advert.  Most game developers I believe are
interested in generating as wide-ranging an audience as possible, revenue
or no revenue.

To get on to the second question, I think I can just pick up on this same
thread.  I find it interesting how so many experimental and indie games
live this double life.  On the one hand, they strive for the enabling of
new gaming experiences, while on the other, they often employ what are
downright old-fashioned mechanics.  So DQ is an interactive story, Braid is
a platformer, while so many serious games borrow from the sim/strategy game
format.  This is just an observation, I should add...I'm not knocking any of
these games at all (obviously I enjoy retro mechanics!)

If we're speaking the language of discourse, however, I think that many of
these games are using retro mechanics as a way to connect with the player.
 If Braid or Fez or a similar game could speak, it might say, "hey there,
I'm a lot like those games you used to love so much as a kid, before
gaming's soul was crushed under the weight of the American mass
entertainment juggernaut.  But I also throw in a few twists, so that I also
engage you intellectually and emotionally.  I'm the whole package."  In all
seriousness, I think there is a nostalgic callback in many of these games
in order to connect with the player on a more intimate level than what you
get with AAA.  It helps that so many of them honestly engage the player in
this way: when games are developed by individuals or small teams, there is
in fact a more intimate connection.  Or at least I would argue that there
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