Composition

Posted: 8th May 2016 by Christian in Blog

I’ve gotten a bit interested in this. Regard last post.

Poe wrote a remarkable bit of criticism in 1848 called The Philosophy of Composition. Good piece and if you’re a writer or a critic, yes, even a game journo, you’d be well-served reading it.

But talking about aesthetics of game, there’s a few of Poe’s points to focus on.

Firstly, the ending. Know it and work towards it. I live by this rule. Stories don’t need a point to them but if they do, the ending is the whole of one. In games, this means all art, all systems, all of that, needs to really hone in on those final minutes of gameplay. Something like Mass Effect 3 falls apart at the end because of a gimmicky finale. Something like KOTOR works because you’ll need game-taught skills to beat that jawless bastard. As a narrative, one pulls nonsense out of it’s arse, one is a showdown with a man who’s jealousy and fear of you turned him mental.

Which is more dramatic?

“the choice of impression” is another important one. What are you trying to do with this game? In Darkest Dungeon, it’s about creating a game where the heroic tropes of a fantastic adventure are ignored for psychological realism. It’s hugely great so far. Dishonoured is a mediocre cover shooter but it’s also hugely fun because they didn’t let anything get in the way of being an old-fashioned Men’s Own adventure with escapes and chases.

Dragon Age II sells itself as being an emotional rollercoaster but… ‘my brother died!’ never really affects the lead. It’s just a… let me check Robert McKee, an Inciting Incident.

Finally, tone. Quake was a technical triumph but it’s tone is ‘here are horrifying monsters from beyond space and time. But they’re easy to kill, so don’t sweat it’. But Half-Life, the first one, it positions you as a regular Joe. You don’t load up on space guns. You never feel awesomely powerful.

This is the reason Survival Horror is so good and Fatal Frame may be the scariest game ever. Any, any, break in tone in a game like that and it’s over. Movies break up scares with laughs because you simply can’t be tense for two whole hours. Games you move in and out. If it gets too scary you pop out for a smoke. Drop tension too long and you’re back at square one.

But something like Sunless Sea is tense because you don’t know what’s coming but you know it’ll be creepy. But at the same time it’s Gaiman-esque NeoVictoriana. Charm and quirk are built in. Two effects, one tone.

Now, I didn’t rate Amenesia that highly because it breaks tone all the time. Trapped in a vast madhouse, haunted by creatures you can’t appreciably fight. And they scream lurid sexual threats at you.
It’s a totally different kind of fear. No one wants to be bummed by a jawless ghoul but that’s an entire set of worries. If you gave a Xenomorph a chainsaw, it would be stupid, not scary.

Monstrum is you locked in a ship with a beastie after you. The ship is a maze. You can’t fight the beastie. One of them can lock doors with it’s mind. Herd you. It is terrifying and exactly the point I stopped playing Monstrum.

It’s not even that visually scary. But what it means for you as a player? Gah.

Part of why games can be frustrating for a writer is because games go through dozens and dozens of revisions. Too many. And they can be constructed after the fact. ‘We liked the bit with the wolves, but we’ve changed the setting to an irradiated desert. But keep the wolves.’

But wolves are creatures of ice, of winter. The cultural myth is surrounded in the snow. Stalked through woods. The tone of the encounters is different.

And while SF and fantasy can blend seamlessly, I’m never one for robots and wizards on the same screen. They don’t complement each other. They raise two different sets of generic expectation in competition with each other.
So keeping in mind, endings with meaning, success that’s measured by how well a game hit it’s own bar, and tone, how do games you like look now?

Alls I know is, Planescape: Torment is still number 1!!!1!