Design Aesthetics: Or, Be a Fancy Pants, Damn it!

Bear with me. I promise this sincerely outlines the principles which underlie my approach to writing and designing – which is as much to say, the principles which underlie my understanding of aesthetics and the world-at-large. This is the framework by which I work.

The aesthetic umbrella

Allow me to introduce one of my great friends: Marsilio Ficino, a Neoplatonist scholar from the 15th century. In his Three Books on Life, Ficino lays out a system of the universe wherein everything has a cosmic sympathy – or, to put it another way, a universe where everything finds itself under an umbrella with like-things. For example, melancholy is under the umbrella called Saturn. As such, all aspects of melancholy are in sympathy with Saturn – such as colors, dark and drab; and sounds, sad and yearning; and tastes, rich and dour. Taken all together, one could say it forms part of the Saturnine aesthetic.

This is a gross oversimplification of a complex philosophy, of course. But it highlights something interesting. In our modern day, we still recognize these sympathies: we use them as shorthand to illustrate physical, moral, and intellectual characteristics. As a case in point, consider goths. We all have an image of a goth, their interests, even aspects of their character. Ficino might say that their aesthetic is unified in Saturn; that aspects which are sympathetic to Saturn are manifested and expressed through them. Even if we have different models of why these things all fit together, we still recognize that something unifies their aesthetic.

And this recognition is fascinating to me. We recognize that something unifies all these aspects into a whole; that somehow, these aspects are sympathetic to each other, that they belong (or at least work) together.

a complete work of art

Now carry this consideration into games. In my estimation, games are complete works of art , or Gesamtkunstwerk. Within games, one finds all arts unified into a whole: fashion, architecture, sound design, music, writing, programming, cinematography, and everything else there is. All of these discrete arts form an aesthetic whole. And to form a whole, they must exist in sympathetic union; lest the game be an incoherent mess.

Everything from the choices your player will be making; to how they'll mechanically make them; to why they’ll make them; to the levels where they'll be making them; to what avatar they'll use to make them – to all of that and more, consideration must be given as to what unifies them into a single experience and how.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. We’ll start with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It is, in the classical sense now, Gothic. Everything from the level and character design, the music and sound design, all re-enforce this aesthetic. The artists brought things of the same kind together. It is a sumptuous experience, rich in every detail, sympathetic in every aspect. And with a set of solid, fun mechanics, it’s a classic. A masterpiece.

Consider as well Octodad. Everything in the setting is intensely normal, suburban – though not realistic, but cartoonish. This plays to the mechanics (which is as much to say, the player character – the two are indistinguishable) extraordinarily well. Your goal is to control this Totally Normal Human, whose physics resists normality. The game knows what it wants to be – a funny, physics-based romp, where you're an octopus pretending to be human – and everything within the title works in tandem to be just that.

the sum

This, for me, is the crux of designing and writing – not only for games but for anything at all. I believe that ideas – or Inspirations, if you want to refer to my previous post on the matter – all have inherent aspects to them. To develop the Inspiration is as much about finding what fits as it is what doesn’t fit. It is about creating an aesthetic experience where all things are sympathetic.

Naturally, you can intentionally break your aesthetic. You can add aspects of your game which are weird, which are meant to be bizarre and unsympathetic. But again, to have the best chance of doing this well, you must do it intentionally: you must have the framework of what fits, first, before you can know what doesn’t fit - and thus, how you can make that which doesn't fit, fit.

The exercise of creation is an exercise of sympathy. It is about understanding the kind of thing you wish to make, what the aspects of that thing are, and how best to translate that into an experience. Art is the cultivation of an aesthetic experience; aesthetic experiences are collections of sympathetic aspects. Understanding this sympathy, for me at least, is the key to it all.