Aesthetics is, simply put, studying beauty. How do we make something affecting?
I am playing a game called Darkest Dungeons. It’s a roguelike game. This has many meanings but for now, it means a game you can lose. Most games investing in your being able to finish but not this. It’s hard and frustrating and I’m not even sure I’m liking it.
But I’m sticking around because it’s a tour de force of creepy aesthetics.
You are called in by a relative to examine your ancestral seat. The uncle dude, of a bored and ‘imperious’ family, dug beneath the house and found a door to somewhere terrible. All in a shifting, historical uncertain zone. Now, beneath the manor, gribblies lurk. That’s the set-up to a thousand games. Tellingly, this is communicated to you by the most Gothic literary technique of all: framing story.
And Gothic this is.
Contributing superior writing. For some, purple, but for any fan of Old Weird like Ashton-Smith, you’ll like it. If you’ve ever read any Gothic literature, either you prose that way or you’re putting the book down.
Game writing, my day job, is often to first thing to disintegrate in dev processes. Fair enough too, it’s easy to redo and cheap.
But writing is a primary method of generating an aesthetic.
‘Screw you, dickbag!’ screams one game.
‘Damn your eyes, you knave!’
Same meaning, the aesthetic difference is obvious.
‘The 3.22 mili pulse rifle shoots flechette mercury tipped tracer at a velocity of mach 2.’
‘This gun is rad!’
Writing will take you partway. But this game has a clever, insidious design technique that absolutely reinforces the fine writing.
Your hired squad of plague doctors, highwaymen, religious zealots, knights and occultists… they can’t always shake off what they’ve seen. Caught in darkness, you can go mad. Take too much damage, become afraid. Healing isn’t so simple as other games and you’ll find yourself hard pressed to keep up with damage.
It doesn’t feel like an adventure. It feels like what it’s supposed to be, dangerous. And it feels like how your characters would experience it*. Harrowing, stressful, sometimes even oppressively grim. Now and again, your characters are simply beyond saving and you feel dread as death ticks ever closer.
It’s… quite a remarkable achievement for an indie game made for 300K. Which is ok, but still budget. The art assets and lack of music are noticeable and I’d have chose a slightly less cartoony style.
If you are interested in how to create an emotional, -artist-, experience in gaming, if you are interested in unity of effect** and how to create an aesthetic… play this.
Enclicken to purchase and enrich indie confraternity!
*The gulf between what your experience and your character experiences is something games seem to be getting interested in.
** Unity of effect is something Poe talked about, significantly.