Contemplation

The beauty of still images (paintings, photographs) is that the viewer has time to look at them. They have time to absorb details, time to reflect, time to search, choose their own pace. Time-based media (film, music), on the other hand, necessarily „rush“ the viewer, remove their ability to choose their own pace. I feel that this makes still images overall more subtle and more mysterious than, say, movies because everything is in plain view all the time, yet might still be puzzling.

Games are interesting in this respect because they can be both, a time-based medium and a still medium. Many games let players choose their own pace, enable them to absorb and reflect if they decide to do so. „Walking simulators“ and some puzzle games are an obvious example but also e. g. your typical open world game. For example, in many open world games the game world follows a strict loop with a day/night cycle, characters that follow paths, and a story that doesn’t progress unless the player chooses to do so. Although in these games not “everything is in plain view all the time“ they share the potential for contemplation with paintings or photographs. My feeling is that the success of photo modes in modern games can partially be attributed to this aspect.

I think contemplation – in general and in games in particular – is related to but not identical to the infamous topic of flow. Flow has been regarded as a valuable goal of game design, not least by prominent game creators such as Jenova Chen at thatgamecompany. The theory says that in terms of challenge or difficulty you want to hit the sweet spot between over- and underload, that is to not demand too much from the player but also to not demand too little. Among other things, this enables the player to play subconsciously and frees up resources to absorb and reflect the game.

The main difference between between flow and what I describe as contemplation might be one of engagement. I need to actively play the game to get into a flow state but contemplation are phases that happen any time when you think about the game – before playing it, while playing it, while pausing it, after playing it. In particular, contemplation is possible even when the game „stands still“ such as when you just look around in an open world using the aforementioned photo mode.

Another aspect which I think supports both contemplation and flow is „continuous game design“ where the game constantly evolves while playing, for example where there are no individual levels, no loading screens, no camera cuts, no discreet decisions, only continuity. Like the albums of The Avalanches where one track flows into the other and where all the samples and vocals blend in and out of the music like sun and clouds and rain and snow do on a wild day in April. A game that „flows“ and that invites the player to „flow“ with it.

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