Kandinsky and Game Design

Music is brilliant at poignancy. Take, for instance, this gorgeous, gorgeous cover of ‘The Blower’s Daughter’ by Scala, with which I have lately been mildly obsessed. No really, go and listen to it – even if you cannot directly relate to the song (and, I’m sure, at some point we all can), it is hauntingly beautiful nevertheless. It could be any kind of music, from pop to beautiful walls of noise. My own examples aside, no doubt there are plenty of songs which make you feel this way.

It seems trite to say, but music is good at the kind of emotions that we want games to evoke. I wrote earlier this year about games which express the human condition, or more specifically, about the process of designing such games. Designing games which elicit genuine, deep, emotional response is the goal of many-a-game designer (“Can a gaem maek u cry?” aside).

Perhaps, for help with how we can do this, we can turn to father of abstract art, the Russian painter Kandinsky, and his essay Concerning the Spiritual in Art.

“A [game designer], who finds no satisfaction in mere representation, however artistic, in his longing to express his inner life, cannot but envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own [game]. And from this results that modern desire for rhythm in [games] , for mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated notes of colour, for setting colour in motion.

This borrowing of method by one art from another, can only be truly successful when the application of the borrowed methods is not superficial but fundamental. One art must learn first how another uses its methods, so that the methods may afterwards be applied to the borrower’s art from the beginning, and suitably. The artist must not forget that in him lies the power of true application of every method, but that that power must be developed.”

The astute amongst you may have deduced that this is not entirely Kandinsky’s original text, but instead, in the bracketed instances, I have replaced “painter” with “game designer” and “painting” with “game. Also, the emphasis is my own. However, you will notice how this does in large part, if not entirely, make a lot of sense.

Basically, Kandinsky asserts that designers (er, “painters”) who are interested in deeply expressing themselves cannot be satisfied by making games (“paintings”) which are just “mere representations” (in the case of games, simulations?), and must envy the way that music can do this so effortlessly.

We can even read back through the paragraph, replacing “music” with “film”; in fact, in the case of video games, that is perhaps a more accurate summation of what actually happens. Too often, making games designed to elicit emotion, or express some component of the human condition, involves mimicking movies – sadly, as Kandinsky warns, if the borrowing is “superficial” rather than “fundamental”, it falls flat. (For example, a focus on improving graphics, and so on may be superficial – perhaps borrowing structure and form from film is fundamental?)

It is more interesting to me, however, to go back and think about games borrowing from music; I love synesthetic video games – but are these often an example of “superficial” borrowing, or “fundamental” borrowing? After all, other than creating synesthetic feedback loops, they do not arguably convey the same kind of emotional response as music. We do not have a Blower’s Daughter of video games.

Kandinsky's Composition VI
Kandinsky's Composition VI

Kandinsky has been criticised for not being able to sufficiently fulfil or demonstrate his own theories about art himself. Regardless, he is considered the father of abstract art nonetheless. His own works were synesthetic in nature – one of my favourite pieces is the above. Kandinsky focused one’s “inner necessity”; the term itself merits much discussion of its own which I won’t venture into here, too deeply, except that it is about the expression of one’s own emotional perceptions.

I feel this insight, which I jotted down from an unattributed speaker at some conference earlier this year, is useful:

“Good art is unique and irreplaceable, and cannot be reduced to a message.”

Good art is about saying something you cannot otherwise say; if it can be summarised satisfactorily as a message, then there is no point, perhaps, in creating the piece.

Kandinsky’s compositions were the culmination of his efforts to create a “pure painting” that would provide the same emotional power as a musical composition. If we concede that painting reached this goal – that Kandinsky and his peers and successors saw to it that painting can indeed effortlessly elicit the type of emotion we are seeking to elicit from games – then we can ask, what is it that abstract art achieves that we also want games to achieve? What is it about the “methods” of abstract art that game design can learn? By doing so, we can, as Kandinsky suggests, make sure that “one art learns how another uses its methods”, and not in a “superficial”, but a “fundamental” way.

If we look again at the Kandinsky piece above; while one may appreciate it aesthetically, this is perhaps not enough – we must consider it intellectually; Composition VI is also known as ‘The Deluge’; it depicts the world ending in a beautiful tumultuous crash, much like a symphony. The emotional power of Kandinsky’s work – and indeed, of abstract art in general – arises by observing and engaging with the piece, and forming an intellectual response to the piece first. The intellectual response gives rise to a deeper emotional response. This is one thing that games may aim to do; this is a “method” that games may seek to borrow from abstract art. The question is, how may games, as systems, give rise to an intellectual response.

Skinner Boxes and Intellectual Response

One of the prevalent topics of discussion within the games industry this year is the dichotomy between “social games” and “traditional games”. (This is particularly interesting to me since, as some of you know, I’m working on a location-based social gamey-sort-of-thing myself – more information in due course. However, Leigh Alexander’s excellent editorial on social/traditional games is perhaps my favourite.)

One recent article on this subject features Brenda Brathwaite, Brian Reynolds, and Steve Meretzky, and while all three industry veterans make valid claims about social games and their possible merit, I would, however, like to draw particular attention to Meretzky’s assertions in this piece. He says:

“I don’t want to hear that Facebook games are Skinner boxes… You know, when you come down to it, basically all games are Skinner boxes — meaningless activities where you’re not getting anything out of it other than enjoyment. But in traditional or more complex videogames, the Skinner box core is more buried under a lot of sizzle. In Facebook games, just because they are so stripped down to their simplest, barest elements, the Skinner Box skeleton is just more visible.”

I do agree with this in large part; some mechanism of trial-and-error-and-subsequent-reward does exists currently in most games. Of course, the main criticism of “games as Skinner boxes” is that what makes games good and “well-designed” is the scope for mastery. The fun of games being mastery is advocated by many game designers, including Raph Koster in his excellent book ‘A Theory of Fun for Game Design’. However, this process of trial-and-error-then-mastery is still all about a feedback mechanism. Being so, all such games are good at eliciting shallow emotional responses from players, to varying degrees.

The range of experiences from which players receive feedback varies from Cow Clicker to Ikaruga. Yes, there are differences between the intensity of the sense of achievement between making some ‘mooney’ and clearing a previously-unbeatable chapter in Ikaruga, and there are even differences in the type of enjoyment that arises out of these. However, the point is, perhaps, that both these sorts of games – social and otherwise, if there is such a dichotomy – all reward the player.

There are, then, varying degrees of shallow emotional response which comes with feedback and mastery, rather than an intellectual response. Arugably, it is eliciting an intellectual response first that leads to a more significant emotional experience, like the kind Kandinsky sought to elicit from his art.

If we want to make games that allow us, in Kandinsky’s terms, to express our emotional perceptions – our “inner necessity” to do so, then perhaps true artistic expression involves a lack of reward for the player. Perhaps it is about shunning player-centred design, and instead embracing designer-centred design. After all, the concept of the “inner necessity” to express one’s emotional perceptions is by nature somewhat self-obsessed and individualistic.

So then, what if games were not to reward you? Games which have incomplete feedback loops, perhaps on purpose. Such games would not be Skinner boxes, but they would also not be “good”, “well-designed” games, if “good” equates to fun. However, games need not be fun. They need not be satisfying. By eliminating the shallow emotional responses in search of an intellectual response, then, by definition, are such games bad?

Following on, do the shallow emotional responses elicited from feedback in all “good” games preclude the possibility of an intellectual response? How then, do designers solve this problem, in order to garner “the kind of emotional power of a musical composition”, as Kandinsky sought to achieve through his art.

Of course, an explicit rejection of the structure of games is, I suppose, what we already label ‘interactive art’, and, indeed, there is Tale of Tales’ concept of ‘notgames’. Although I appreciate The Path et al, these things do ‘feel like’ broken games.

The philosopher Nigel Warburton has said that “Everything is art. However, there is good art, and there is bad art.” Quality is the only difference. Similarly, perhaps we can apply this to games. Games mean an increasingly broad range of things, this is akin to Will Wright’s ‘Cambrian Explosion’ concept, which I wholeheartedly advocate. however, even though all of these things are games, there are still ‘good games’, and ‘bad games’.

Lack of feedback may necessarily lead to bad games. However, it may be argued that many ‘interactive art experiences’ may still be representational; after all, this is what Kandinsky suggested that an artist may “find no satisfaction” in. A lack of rewards and feedback may, then, not be enough. Perhaps abstract games are necessary? Whatever this may mean.

If you made it this far you won’t mind if I again plug my very broken self-directed-5-hr-plane-game-jam game, which I mentioned last time. I made Collide, you could say, out of “inner necessity”, if we are to use Kandinsky’s grandiose terms (though it feels silly and cumbersome to do so when talking about my own work). Basically, it was an attempt at something like an abstract game, albeit an early-and-not-very-good one.

Perhaps something like Trent Polack’s “Broken“, or hermitgames’ Leave Home are closer to, and a far better implementation of, the kind of thing I mean by “abstract games”; although I love these both stylistically and thematically, it remains that the focus of both of these are primarily on its ‘gaminess’. Of course, perhaps this is not a bad thing either.

Overall, like Kandinsky suggests, though, it is an iterative process, and one that game designers must go through together. They must learn, through practice, how to make games which can help them express their “inner life”. The only way to get to this is to keep making games.