"Graphics don't matter." What a load of shit. And yet, I've heard it time and time again, and I'm sure you've heard it too. As you may have guessed, I have a big problem with that statement. The thing is, graphics matter a lot more than people generally believe. Well, okay, maybe it's not quite that clear cut, but "Why 'Graphics' Matter" was way catchier than the alternative title. I was a little fraudulent, so sue me. The concepts I'm really dealing with here are "aesthetics" and the related "kinaesthetics," not graphics, per se. Those of you who read my other article "Why Smashin' Feels so Great" will already be familiar with the concept of kinaesthetics. Those of you who didn't... well now I have to go through all of it again, so since you insisted...
Kinaesthetics, a topic brought to my ears by the webseries Errant Signal, is essentially the "sensation" of games, what they "feel" like to play. It's that fragile, wimpy feeling you get from being thrown around in Shadow of the Colossus, it's the smooth, velvet feeling you get from gliding through the air in Journey, and it's, as I mentioned before (seriously, I want people to read my crap), the strong, cathartic feeling you get from successfully landing a powerful blow in Super Smash Bros. Kinaesthetics come from, as with just about every other feeling, our senses. In the case of the video games, that's primarily sight and sound, so what we see and what we hear when we perform a given in-game action.
And kinaesthetics are important because, well, how about I just toss out some examples and see if you're convinced. If Super Meat Boy's controls didn't respond perfectly to your input, would the game be anywhere near as good? If Sonic The Hedgehog never felt fast and you never got the sense of control over his momentum that the actually good games give you, would they even be worth playing? If Super Smash Bros. weren't so intensely satisfying and visceral, would it still be so much better than PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale? And if Journey didn't control so goddamn fluidly (I'm serious, it's like you're actually holding silk), would it be able to maintain its fantastic ambiance as well as it does?
If your answer to any of those questions was "no," then I can probably -- okay -- hopefully, assume that you agree with me when I say, "Kinaesthetics are a pretty big deal." They play a pretty significant part in your mood while playing a game. If a game's controls are "clunky" (I'll bet that's a kinaesthetically descriptive word you've been using without knowing it), then you get a sense of desperation and stress. On the other hand, if a game controls "tightly" (haha! Blew your mind again, didn't I... I'm sorry), then you feel in control of the situation. It's no accident that new players often call Shadow of the Colossus "unwieldy."
So now we can finally get to the thing I actually meant for this article to be about. But, yep I lied, before we can do that, I have to make sure a particular question is in your head: "How do you make good kinaesthetics?" Well, and here's the part where I actually get to the point, good kinaesthetics are, as implied before, brought about by, there's nothing in this appositive, a game's aesthetics.
As I said before, kinaesthetics are based on our senses, and the senses video games primarily tap into are sight and sound. And, well, that's basically what aesthetics are all about. At least the way I'm using the word, aesthetics are just "what we perceive." What we perceive in a game drastically changes how they "feel." Now, that covers everything from the color palette, to the animations, to the lighting, and to all the other "art words" I don't actually know because I'm not an artist. In fact, I'd wager you can count sound as a part of aesthetics as well.
So now we've established both sound and sight as the factors making up the kinaesthetics of a game, and the sounds and sights of a game as constituting a game's aesthetic. So I figure you can probably make the connection on your own, but by that logic, aesthetics define kinaesthetics. The way a thing looks and sounds, its aesthetics, are causally related to the way the thing feels. That quick "SPLAT" and the the red "juice" that flies off when you slide across a wall in Super Meat Boy are there to create the sensation you feel when you attach yourself to the walls of the level. Likewise, the sound of waving fabric that your character's robes let off as they smoothly curl about create the velvety and delicate sensation of gliding through the air in Journey.
And, to explain why that is so damn important, I'm going to expand on that last example I just gave, Journey. But (yep) first, you're probably all familiar with the concept of "immersion," even if you're one of those aggravating specimens who thinks it's "just a buzz word" and that it doesn't actually mean anything. Well, I'm about to use it, probably a lot. So here's what it means, when I say it:
"Immersion (in games): A state of constant engagement, wherein the player generally forgets they are using an input device, but rather feel like they are directly inputting their commands into the game. Immersion is accompanied with that feeling you get where the screen is all you see, and the edges of the screen seem to just sort of 'blur' into the objects behind it." -- Barry Herbers, off the top of his head
Keyword: "constant," as in, if something's pulling you out of your engagement every so often, you'll never really get immersed in it. And one thing that can constantly pull you out of an experience is unsatisfactory kinaesthetics, a.k.a., when "stuff just doesn't feel right." We've all felt it. You smack your enemy with a wooden stick but you feel like you're stabbing the guy with cotton candy, or maybe you uppercut your foe but then he recoils with the same recycled animation he used when you kicked him. And experiences like that are terribly jarring, so suddenly you're wondering what your dog would taste like if you licked it (or, you know, maybe a different thing). Immersion, broken. So kinaesthetics are crucial to making a game immersive.
Now we'll look at the thing I actually said I was going to examine a second ago: Journey, a game which very well displays the benefits of great kinaesthetics as well as how they're achieved through great aesthetics. Journey is a very "fluid-feeling" game, and that fluidity is very important to making Journey work as well as it does. Sliding down a hill is made more exciting and beautiful because of how perfectly smooth your character's animations and swerves are on the slope. In Journey, even jumping from one boulder to another feels soft and ambient, and that's achieved, again, through the game's animations. Your first thrust into the air is a firm but gentle push off the ground, and, from there, each subsequent boost is animated as an elegant flap of your cloak. The game's soft lighting and, obviously, cloth-based art assets also complement its velvety feel. All of the aspects of Journey's aesthetic work together to form its fantastic kinaesthetics, and the game is much better for it.
Obviously, aesthetics are also important because, frankly, don't you prefer to look at a pretty game to an ugly one? But that's not exactly a nuanced idea, and Extra Credits already pretty soundly covered it in their episode "Graphics vs. Aesthetics," so that's why this article is about their effect on kinaesthetics instead. Not necessarily graphics, but rather aesthetics, play a crucial role in making games "feel" right. And, subsequently, when a game feels right it's more satisfying to play and allows you to get more immersed in it. So to all the naysayers who think "game play is all that matters," the way a game looks makes a huge difference to the way it plays, or rather, feels to play.
This article is the first entry in a column series known as Virtual Microscope. Virtual Microscope is a series of analytical articles which take an in-depth approach to discussing a specific topic. The accompanying podcast, Virtual Telescope Podcast, takes a more cursory approach and applies it to a number of different topics throughout a given episode. The podcast, hosted by myself -- Barry Herbers -- and Joshua Hitz, can be found here: "Virtual Telescope Podcast"