Aesthetics of Play

I re-watched Extra Credits’ episode “Aesthetics of Play” recently. In it, they talk about how some of the genres we use – like FPS – are kind of… unhelpful. For example: does it really tell you about the games to call both Portal and Borderlands FPSes? Instead, they suggest one alternative way of grouping up games: according to their AESTHETICS, as described in a paper called “Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics”. (Which I STILL have not read, but really should!)

As they talked about these aesthetics, I thought about whether or not Mysterious Space appealed to them, and whether it should. Keep in mind that while many games touch on many or most of these aesthetics, most games really only adopt two or three as CORE aesthetics. Trying to focus on too many would probably result in a mess (although when you look at games like Minecraft, it’s clear that it’s not impossible!)

Sense Pleasure

Games that are fun to play just for their sights and sounds.

In the Extra Credits episode they mentioned Rez, and… YES: I used to play that game once every month or so, when some part of me would say “hey, Ben: you know what’d be great? Rez? it’s so cool how it goes with the music! it’s just so fun!”

Whoa: and I just realized: with that vibrating adapter they made for the PS2 (which I, sadly, never owned), Rez was accomplishing “sense pleasure” in ways I had not previously considered >_>

DDR and Wii Fit are other great examples of games appealing to sense pleasure.

But Mysterious Space? Not so much 😛

It’s hard to imagine Mysterious Space ever incorporating sense pleasure as a CORE aesthetic. Sure, all games want to look and sound good, and Mysterious Space is no exception, but again, think of DDR and Rez… Mysterious Space is not that kind of game. And that’s okay 🙂


Games you play in order to experience a life that is not your own. It could be a war hero, a football player for a famous team, a skilled hunter, or a rock star.

I like all of these examples, because they’re largely games that lack a strong narrative, which I would have expected to be necessary in order to allow you to convincingly play a role. But think of Rock Band: clearly a game that also cares about Sense Pleasure, but Rock Band (unlike, say, DDR) ALSO attempts to put you in the shoes of a rock band as it rises to fame, initially playing for small venues, but eventually touring the world. It may seem silly, but this is why you might play Rock Band over DDR, or why you might play Call of Duty over Unreal Tournament.

It’s just as hard to say “Mysterious Space lets you really enjoy the role of a trans-human space fighter pilot” as it is to say “Super Mario Brothers lets you really enjoy the role of a heroic plumber” 😛 Again, this is not an aesthetic that Mysterious Space aims to deliver on.


These are games you play for their STORIES.

I’ve recently been playing Life is Strange, and that game is a GREAT example. Gone Home is perhaps a “purer” example, where narrative is almost the ONLY strong aesthetic. The Final Fantasy games, Mass Effect, and other RPGs are also obvious narrative-driven games. Perhaps less-obviously, and therefore more-interestingly, games like The Sims and Dwarf Fortress also attract players for their narrative, but rather than being about delivering a narrative to you, they’re about allowing you to create your own!

While this is not a core aesthetic for Mysterious Space, it is something I’d like to explore with the game. Mysterious Space already features those Logs/Journals, which give us a glimpse into its universe, and the stories of the people living there; it’s something I’d like to bring into greater focus in the future. How much would people want to play Mysterious Space for its story, though? Probably not so much 😛


These are games you play for a challenge! As Extra Credits described it, these are “games as obstacle courses”.

And at last: something Mysterious Space appeals to! (And rogue-likes as a whole!)

Ikaruga, Tetris, the Mario games – even Peggle (it doesn’t have to be a HARD game) – are other examples of “obstacle course” games.


A game you play in order to work together to achieve something.

This is an interesting to one to me, because lots of games that might not otherwise be fellowship games can become fellowship games with the addition of a co-op mode! Borderlands, for example, I greatly enjoyed as a game to play with my friend. Yeah, it’s also a game about challenge, and POSSIBLY narrative, but we only played when we hung out together. We built our characters to complement one another. We each looked out for gear that would help the other person (“ooh, this vending machine is selling a class mod you might like!”) It was very much about the fellowship.

On the other hand, some games are BUILT for fellowship: MOBAs – like League of Legends – are about fellowship and competition (see below!) Really, any team sport – soccer, basketball, football – focuses on these aspects.

This is something I’m currently working on adding to Mysterious Space. From my experience playing Borderlands, you might have an idea of the reasons I like fellowship in games. Honestly, Mysterious Space isn’t there yet. I said “lots of games that might not otherwise be fellowship games can become fellowship games with the addition of a co-op mode”, but it’s not as simple as dropping in that option! While testing out Mysterious Space’s co-op mode I’ve noticed problems: there isn’t much incentive to work together, fight monsters together, or even be in the same area of the map! If Mysterious Space is REALLY going to feature fellowship as a core aesthetic, these problems need to be addressed, and it will probably require changing some very basic/low-level things about the game, rather than just tacking on a couple new mechanics.


A game you play in order to be better than others.

While team sports cover fellowship AND competition, it’s easy to take fellowship out of the picture, resulting in everything from Tennis to Magic the Gathering.

But these are very DIRECT methods of competition. Rogue-likes often feature competition in a sort of indirect way: through high score tables, and also achievements (game-verified, or not). For example: “I beat the game without using ANY potions” might be something to brag about on the forums; proof to yourself of your mastery; proof that YOU can do something OTHERS can’t.

Like the rogue-likes before it, Mysterious Space features a high score table. Someday, I might also make a GLOBAL high score table, so you can see how you do compared to people around the world. But could Mysterious Space – or ANY rogue-like – ever feature DIRECT competition?

I am thinking, after I get local co-op in, of adding a sort of quick 1v1 battle mode, just to duke it out with a friend, but I’m also intending this to just be a fun add-on; not necessarily something you come to the game for. But who knows: maybe it’ll be something that really appeals to some players *shrugs*


Games you play to learn new things; discover new spaces!

Magic the Gathering is another interesting example they gave in the Extra Credits, or at least one that would not have been intuitive to me, but really tells you what this aesthetic is about. A big part of Magic is the deck-building… taking some new cards, thinking about how they works, realizing that this one card’s mechanics might work with this OTHER card’s; realizing you could build a whole deck around it! That kind of discovery is really interesting, and Wizards of the Coast specifically appeals to players who want to do this; they call them “Johnny”s, and they make sure that every set has some cards that will appeal to Johnny players. They’ve identified two other common play styles as well – which they call Timmy and Spike – and it’s interesting to see where these overlap with the aesthetics, although there is definitely a focus on competition throughout, which makes sense; that is ultimately Magic’s core-est of core aesthetics.

Games featuring procedurally-generated content will almost automatically appeal somewhat to players looking for discovery: every game is different; there’s the potential to find yourself in a situation you’ve never been in before.

Hidden recipes are another mechanic that lends itself to this aesthetic. When you walk up to a crafting table in Terraria, and there’s some totally-new crazy item you can make from something you happened to pick up while you were out fighting monsters… that’s also an excitement from discovery.

Mysterious Space definitely plays with discovery. Besides the procedurally-generated sector, planets, and equipment, there’s also unlockable ships, secret paths, and logs to find. I wouldn’t say it’s a CORE aesthetic of the game, but it is there, and it’s definitely something that will continue receive attention as the game develops.


Games that let you express yourself creatively.

Even when a game doesn’t let you express yourself, players who really enjoy this aesthetic will find a way. Cosplay, fanfiction… humans love to create.

And so we have everything from building structures in Minecraft, to naming your Rock Band band, and designing and dressing its members. Even MMOs let you customize your character, although some allow you to do so more than others: the customization of City of Heroes, for example, was an important aspect for its players.

There’s also expression in HOW you play a game, though. My grandma, for example, plays video games (yes: she is an awesome grandma), and has even played Skyrim, and World of Warcraft, and in these games, she always – always – stays true to her real-life ideals. She is honest, honorable, and good, and that is how she plays her characters.

A player who chooses in-game powers, items, or whatever, based NOT on their in-game effects, but instead on how these powers, items, etc will be presented – both to that player, and to people that observe that player – is playing to express themselves.

Mysterious Space scratches this surface so lightly, I think it hardly counts. And again, that’s fine. Trying to appeal to EVERY aesthetic would be crazy.


Games you play to relax/zone out/unwind.

This is casual games in a nutshell. There’s usually some challenge, but think Tetris, Peggle, puzzle games, or even grinding in an MMO. You don’t necessarily play because you want to super-focus, or accomplish something awesome, but because you just want to chill out and play a little game.

Rez, actually, is also great for this.

And thinking of Rez again, it’s interesting to see how combining different aesthetics results in different, but usefully-comparable games.

Rez and grinding in an MMO both appeal to abnegation – so if you’re looking for that, these might both satisfy that need, despite seeming so different on the surface. Why do they seem so different, though? For one, most MMOs don’t deliver on sense pleasure, and Rez doesn’t deliver on fellowship.

And what about Mysterious Space? I would never have thought of it as appealing to players for its abnegation aesthetic, but in an old review, shortly after the 7DRL, a player noted how easy it was to just jump in, play for a few minutes, and be done; this was something he specifically identified and enjoyed in Mysterious Space!

It was never something I intended, but since it’s there, I’m glad to have it. Now that’s been recognized for what it is, is it something I should continue to focus on? I think so! I have a desire to make an approachable, easy-to-understand, and easy-to-play game; but I would never want to do so at the EXPENSE of challenge and depth. It’s a tricky line to walk, but it’s one I’d like to attempt.

The Final Score

This was an exciting (and much longer than I expected) adventure in game design, but where does all of this leave Mysterious Space?

  • Sense Pleasure – no
  • Fantasy – no
  • Narrative – kind of. a little. may expand on later.
  • Challenge – VERY YES
  • Fellowship – almost. current co-op is lacking, but this is definitely an aesthetic I want to focus on.
  • Competition – only kind of. we have high score tables, and I may make a quick 1v1 mode for fun, but it’s not really a core mechanic for Mysterious Space.
  • Discovery – sure; yeah. I think some games deliver on this aesthetic better than Mysterious Space does, but Mysterious Space definitely has some of this, and it will continue to do so.
  • Expression – nah, not really
  • Abnegation – apparently!

I hope this lets you know what you’re getting into with Mysterious Space, but more than that, gives you a new way of looking at games in general; identifying the things you like about games, and don’t like!

Have fun! 🙂

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