The Big Triangle
I’m currently preparating a lecture for a class on “Sensation” aesthetics for game design (i.e. the ways in which games evoke sense-pleasure through images, music and movement). In doing so I’ve been thinking about Scott McCloud’s Big Triangle. For those unfamiliar with it (and if this is you, you should go read Understanding Comics right now), it is a depiction of the continuum of artistic styles between realistic, iconic and abstract art.
Most game designers are familiar with McCloud’s work so I won’t go over the details here. Other’s have already dealt with the implications for game art, but it occurs to me the the same triangle could be drawn for game mechanics.
In the bottom left are the “Simulation” games that try to mimic a real-world activity as realistically as possible. Fligth sims are possibly the most heavily tweaked “realistic” games and players put great stock in how correctly a game simulaties the layout and handling of a particular aircraft.
As we progress along the bottom we move from simulation games to representational games. There is still a “real” activity being portrayed, but the mechanics are more iconic than realistic. Guns lack recoil. Jumping is stylised. The laws of physics are drastically simplified. The ultimate representation occurs when we move to interactive fiction games and entire activities like are reduced to a single command, like “fight troll”.
As we move up the triangle, we begin to abandon a the idea of having a “real world” referrent for our game. Mechanics are no longer trying to simulate or represent something else, they merely exist for their own sake. The most abstract games, like Tetris, mean nothing more than themselves.
It’s no coincidence, I think, that the graphical interfaces for games tend to lie in the same part of the triangle as their mechanics. It is natural for a realistic simulator to have realistic graphics or and abstract game to use abstract images. The imagery creates expectations for the simulation. If we have photo-realistic graphics in a game then we naturally expect the interaction to also be realistic. We are more comfortable with cartoon-physics if it is portayed with cartoon graphics. When the mechanics and the representation do not match, then the player experiences a kind of dissonance. Whether or not this is a bad thing depends on what the designer is aiming to achieve.
Addendum: I’ve also been thinking about the Big Triangle for sound. It is curious that we have far different expectations for audio that for visual art. We are quite comfortable with music being almost completely abstract and non-representational, but abstract paintings still struggle against the popular expectation that the are meant to be “a picture of something”.
Games include both representational and abstract sounds. There are ‘diegetic’ sounds that represent events in the game world as well as non-diegetic environmental sounds and background music. Everyday shooter by Jonathan Mak is an interesting case. It blurs the usually distinct lines between diegetic “game sounds” and background music. All the game-event sounds (shooting, explosions, etc) are musical and harmonise with the backing track in a way which makes the whole experience feel like playing an unsual musical instrument as much as playing a game.