Most of the games that I’ve ever played—and I’d venture to say most of the games we’ve ever created—are lacking in emotional depth. Many people have made this observation, and it’s coming to border on cliché. You probably don’t want to hear it any more. But if we want to make better games we’ve got to try and address these clichéd complaints that keep hitting us in the face, rather than just point out how clichéd they are. Over the last couple of months I’ve played two games that have impressed me with their emotional landscapes, so I thought I’d take some time to reflect on them. One of the games I think is great, and both, I believe, are important, for what they try to be and do.
The Games in Question
The games in question are A Boy and His Blob, by WayForward Technologies, and Lucidity, by the LucasArts Workshop. Each game offers some variation on puzzle-based, platformesque gameplay, and each presents a luscious, hand-painted graphical style, central to its charm. Just take a look at these screenshots:
You can tell from the screenshots that each of these games is attempting to explore the picturebook world of a child, and that is one of the things I find most refreshing about them. We have been doing guns and monsters and exploding intestines for so long, that it’s incredibly nice to sit down at my computer or console and enter an imaginary world from days gone by.
Of course, the screenshots will also make you nervous. They will make you nervous because they look too nice. Screenshots like those indicate that a lot of time and thought and effort—and thus, inevitably, money—went into each game’s art direction. One has to wonder what percentage of each game’s budget was dedicated to painting pretty pictures, and what percentage was left over for little things like, oh, crafting the gameplay—the heart of the medium, and all that.
This question of balancing audio-visual style with gameplay is what makes these games difficult to discuss in a room full of Craig Sterns. Because I think Mr. Stern has a point when it comes to obsessing over aesthetics: it’s possible to do. Making a holistic judgment of a game based on a screenshot is a terrible mistake to make.
And yet I cannot escape the fact that the audio-visual components of Blob and Lucidity are the main draw the games have on me. I love the way the games make me feel, I love the sensation of wandering through a classic children’s picture book, I love the memories, the pleasures, and the pains they make me recollect. And I cannot deny that most of that draw stems from each game’s artwork and sound design, rather than it’s mechanics of play—a thought that makes me terribly nervous. Picture books are undeniably awesome, but we already have those; do these games present anything unique?
The Real Crux
Oh, but you’ve read my reviews of Full Throttle and Photopia, and you know that I’m going to say that Blob and Lucidity are different from picture books, and that’s the real crux of the matter. If we’re going to say that something’s no better than a pretty picture, than we always, always have to ask ourselves if that’s really true. You could make a great picture book from either of these games, and I would read it. But that picture book would not be the same as the game it was derived from. It would be over more quickly, the presentation would be different (pictures on paper that fit in my lap, versus animated images on my fairly large TV), and it would have its own unique chemically-gluey-inky-woody-plasticky-cardboardy-boxy smell, that video games just can’t pull off.
Fine then, the games aren’t quite like picture books, but they sound an awful lot like the animated films that picture books inspire. Are they any different from those?
Well, a film would bridge the presentation difference to a point—animated images on a TV screen, yada yada. But in some ways we’d only be getting further away from what these games add to the picture book experience, which is some small feeling of influence or efficacy between the pages. In a film we see a character walk from point A to point B, and we have no direct catalyzing involvement in that occurrence; we are only assimilating information. In a picture book, by contrast, we see a picture of the character at point A, and then another picture of them at point B, with nothing in between: the space in the middle is filled in by our imagination, and there may even be a tiny feeling of agency as we turn the page (the story cannot go on without us physically doing so). Now take a video game like A Boy and His Blob: the story may be almost as linear as a picture book’s or a film’s, but when the player sees Boy at point A, it is up to that player to both imagine Boy at point B, and to invoke the necessary action to actually get him there. In this way the interactive component of the video game (even if it is slight or derivative) is enough to make it stand apart from its non-interactive counterparts: there is an inherent difference in the way we encounter it.
What we are left with is a feeling that yes, we have had this experience before (of reading a great picture book, or watching an excellent children’s animation), but it was not quite the same as this. That here we are having it again, but it is somehow in a different form: there are feelings shared, and feelings new. And for anyone who’s ever loved a picture book, that is exactly what’s so delightful about the experience of playing A Boy and His Blob or Lucidity.
The Real, Real Crux?
So basically what I’ve said so far is:
A) These games draw me in with their aesthetic, more than with their gameplay.
B) However, playing them is not quite the same as reading a book or watching a film.
But I’ve completely neglected to discuss how the games actually play. Surely there is a question of how well each game employs its interactive component, beyond simply the fact that it has said component?
Why One Game is Great
This is where A Boy and His Blob parts company with Lucidity. Because its gameplay actually deserves a lot more love than “it doesn’t draw me in like the aesthetic does.” Blob is a fine example of why gameplay should not be considered separately from a game’s aesthetic, but rather as part of the same.
In A Boy and His Blob I am a boy with a blob, on a journey of the imagination. I walk, I run, I jump and meander. I call to Blob to catch up (he has a personality, you know). I traverse through various worlds inhabited by various kinds of friendly and unfriendliness, and little creatures that live in the grass. I come up against obstacles, and I have to find a way through, because that’s what you do when you’re on a journey. And of course Blob must help me, because that’s what companions are for. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could slap a hole on the ground like a sticker, so I could go where I can’t, or make a ladder out of nothing, to climb to a high place? But what are blobs for, if not to transform? Let’s ride a rocket through this world; let’s jump high on a trampoline; let’s make ourselves invincible inside a giant bubble!
This is how Blob plays. The interactivity is not revolutionary, but it is well formed around the game’s soul, and its execution is smooth, and mostly seamless, which is what it should be. I said earlier that it is Blob’s aesthetic, not its gameplay that keeps me coming back, but failed to note that its gameplay is part of the aesthetic I so enjoy. It is not revolutionary, it is not overly complex, it is not brain-numbingly challenging, it is not staggeringly open-ended, it is not on the cutting edge of anything… but it does not need to be any of that to serve this particular game’s mode of being.
Blob’s gameplay, in short, does not draw attention to itself, over against its aesthetic, and every game should take a lesson from its example. Because we always think of gameplay and aesthetic separately, almost in opposition to each other, it’s easy to make the mistake of calling Blob’s aesthetic good, but its gameplay ho-hum, when we should simply be calling its aesthetic good. Period. Because the game is formally unified, and its aesthetic includes its gameplay.
Why the Other is Not
Wait, didn’t I say it impressed me, before? I did, and it does, and I’ll get back to that later. But just because it impressed me, doesn’t mean it’s a good game. Everything that Blob does right with its gameplay—namely, incorporate it as a central pillar of its aesthetic—Lucidity does wrong. Lucidity starts out in the same place as Blob: attempting to make a “heartwarming… and friendly game accessible by a wide audience,” a game that draws on picture book inspiration and attempts to create a particular kind of emotional space. And its art direction, like Blob’s, succeeds wonderfully.
Instead of supporting the game’s essence, though, Lucidity’s gameplay does everything it can to tear it down. Here we do not control the game’s protagonist (Sofi) directly, as in Blob, but rather watch as she casually walks along her way from one side of each gorgeous level to the other. A promising start, as this steady, unbreakable rhythm would seem to mesh well with the mood the game sets. Disaster strikes with a double meaning, though, when Sofi comes upon some spikes in the road, or a canyon to pass. Here we must help her out in the tradition of Lemmings, by placing some aid before her: a bridge, a spring, steps, or a catapult.
So far this doesn’t sound like a bad premise, and it might not have been, but for the terribly frustrating and inadequate controls. The game’s canvas is in the hands of a tyrant grid, and dragging your mouse across it feels like fighting a battle you’re going to lose. And you do. Because try as you might you will not be able to click at the right time, on the right spot, and Sofi will die again and again, and the level will start again and again, and the bile in your limbic system will rise, despite the pretty pictures and wonderful music.
Lucidity is exactly the kind of game that promotes the whole dichotomy between aesthetics and gameplay that we so badly need to get rid of. We say, “wow, great aesthetic,” but, “Gad, it plays terribly.” For some other games we say the opposite (Dwarf Fortress, anyone?). While these statements are understandable, they’re not helping us out: we’re confusing ourselves and diluting our understanding of the medium. Great artwork is integrated, unified, whole, and that’s what aesthetic is all about. That’s what it has always been about, and if we want to talk about games in the context of established art forms, we need to understand that.
With Lucidity there was the potential for a hypnotic, streamlined experience of interactive picture book bliss, but the LucasArts Workshop found a way to greatly retard it (note that I don’t say destroy it: the vision is still captivating enough to make me want to play the game for fifteen minutes at a time). The problem with the game is that its developer’s notion of aesthetic did not include gameplay as an inherent component.
Why Both Games Are Important (Conclusion)
So why then, did I start this article by saying that Lucidity, as well as Blob, impressed me? Because it is a game about feeling, about creating an emotional landscape we’ve rarely tried to create with our games. Because the LucasArts Workshop, when they set out to make Lucidity, set out to make a game that captured a mood, a style, an evasive kind of charm—rather than a game of challenge, or strategy, or sport. They may have had an inadequate conception of what aesthetic means for games, and they may have failed to achieve what they were aiming for, but the aim itself is important.
Do not misread me as saying that games of challenge, strategy, or sport are unimportant, or even less important than games that seek to explore an emotional space (my last article was on the greatness of Civ, for crying out loud). But we’ve done well at creating those former kinds of games, and poorly at creating the later.
Which is why one of the great challenges facing us today in the world of game design is finding ways to open up the emotional spaces explored by our games; and the first step towards facing that challenge is trying to face it. Most games made today, just like the arcade classics of yore, are about challenge/skill, first and foremost. Oh, we’ve gotten a lot better at incorporating popular themes, and broadening the types of challenges we throw at players to accommodate a wide range of people—but in terms of emotional landscape, most of our games are still very shallow, and still very limited in what they explore.
Think of a game you enjoy, and ask yourself, why do I play that game? I think most of us can agree with Yan Zhang when he says in his Exit Fate article that, “I personally justify playing most games because they exercise some skill, be it reflexes, tactical thinking, or pattern recognition. As I am both easily amused and easily pleased, this is enough reason for me to pour entire days of my life into Garou: Rise of the Wolves or Rise of Nations, much like we would justify playing chess, poker, or baseball.”
Which, as I’ve already said, is great. But we also need games to play for other reasons: in order to feel a certain way, to find a certain truth, to understand ourselves better. I want games that exercise my reflexes and tactical thinking, but like Chris Crawford, I also want games about the mature love of a husband and wife of decades, games about a man facing truth on a dusty street at high noon, games about a prostitute with a heart of gold. And not just games about those things, but games that embody those things in meaningful ways.
Offerings like A Boy and His Blob and Lucidity, which set out to make something heartwarming, accessible, and centered on emotional landscape and mood, are baby steps towards that goal, and that’s what makes them important. They are not the first games that have set out to explore emotion, mood, and aesthetic over against strategy, skill, or point scoring; nor are they about those first things to the exclusion of the others. But they’ve impressed me with their vision, and with what they’ve managed to achieve—Lucidity’s failures notwithstanding. They are rare examples of games I sit down to play, and enjoy, for reasons that don’t involve “getting better” at anything, or shooting time in the head. I play them for their emotional landscapes, for their beauty, their innocence, the way they make me feel. That may be a baby step, but we’re babies, and that’s something.
As some of you undoubtedly know, A Boy and His Blob is actually a remake of a game from 1989 called A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia. I've played the original a bit, and it is wonderful, though as Michael Abbott noted it tends to remind one "how punishing many of those old games could be, and often needlessly so." In any case, the game is available from various abandonware sites, for DOS and NES, which you should take advantage of, as it is no longer possible to purchase it new (as far as I know).