The Problem of Measuring Aesthetic Content in Games
Generally speaking, video games are quite good at measuring success. From the classic coin-op games of the ‘70s and ‘80s and their various point systems (which rewarded a player with their initials atop a high score board), to the later development of the more detailed Xbox Live score boards, games have offered a way for players to count their victories and have motivated players to measure their personal successes.
Even the stronger narratives and intense cinematic cutscenes that entered gaming with graphical improvements attempt to give players a measure of success as they motivate the player to finish a game and mark a clear end goal that allows players a sense of completing its narrative.
However, what games have been somewhat limited in doing is measuring less quantifiable concepts like style and creativity. Numerical attempts have been largely the means of attempting such measurement to greater and lesser success. The style of a combo in a fighting game, for example, is recognized with textual pats on the back like “Awesome!” and “Great!” as the game ticks off the sheer amount of connected hits in a row a player is able to pull off against an opponent. But, whether or not your Ken or Ryu really has shown the athletic grace of a Hong Kong martial arts master from something like House of Flying Daggers or that you simply managed to pull off of the same 40-plus low kicks over and over again against daffy computer A.I., your “Awesome!” largely amounts to the same thing.
Similar problems arise with games involving creative activities like dance or song. While Harmonix rates your ability to sing in their game Karaoke Revolution, your actual talent and how good your voice actually sounds is really not what is quantified—simply your ability to match pitch with an expected way a song should be sung. Improvisation and soul will possibly get you booed off stage in such a game.
Personally, I have been running into this problem more and more in gaming as more customizable appearances and more creative gameplay mechanics have entered gaming. I spend hours designing the look of superheroes with my City of Heroes account and getting the right look for my sims and urbz in simulation games with no tangible reward beyond my own pleasure at fashioning an outstanding looking toon. While the aesthetics of my character is perhaps largely something I need only concern myself with, nevertheless, similar aesthetic issues came up in a sim like Cyberlore’s Playboy: The Mansion with—in my estimation—some deleterious effects on gameplay. Taking photos in that game is one of the main components and, while a player might spend hours getting original and unique cover and centerfold shots, the quality of the shot was based exclusively on a quantifiable relationship between the photographer and the model, not on any actual aesthetic criteria like contrast, perspective, etc.
Of course, aesthetics are a difficult notion to quantify, perhaps, than linear successfulness, which brings me to Graffiti Kingdom and Taito’s efforts to approach this problem from a slightly different angle.
Graffiti Kingdom is a role-playing game in the traditional sense—indeed, its plotlines and gameplay mechanics and storyline are so traditional as to simply be deemed stale within the genre—whose premise, though, and whose dominant gameplay mechanism is fairly unique. You take the role of Prince Pixel, a sassy and smart-alecky young nobleman who has accidentally released a terrible evil on the Canvas Kingdom. Joined by an equally sassy and cute (but demonic) creature who serves as guide and mentor, Pixel sets forth on a quest to rectify his earlier error.
This less than unusual plotline is framed by fairly conventional action RPG gameplay with Pixel whacking hordes of monsters while leveling up and improving his own skills and powers.
It is the nature of Pixel’s powers that is the main gimmick of Graffiti Kingdom; with a magical brush, Pixel is able to draw new forms that he can take on in order to battle his foes.
The interesting thing about Kingdom is its effort to make drawing and creativity count, not by quantifying it as games in the past have done, but by wedding functionality to creative form. The way that you draw the various creatures that Pixel will transform into actually has some bearing on their functionality.
In other words, the style of your drawing actually alters gameplay. For instance, the width and length of arms and legs determine the speed and power of their attack. Long, narrow arms strike rapidly but with little force; stumpy, broader arms strike slowly but pack a wallop.
This coupling of form and functionality seems great on paper, though, in gameplay terms it leaves a bit to be desired. Firstly, the game really favors rapid striking power over more powerful attacks. It favors that stylistic choice then with no real alternatives. Secondly (and related to this first problem), the drawing that actually looks great may become completely unworkable in the game itself.
My 10-year-old daughter, who probably spent more hours playing with Graffiti Kingdom‘s drawing pad than I did, became incredibly adept at creating truly creative characters.
Her first really cool creation was a plump, cute cow with swirly, black markings that really fit the cartoony flavor of the game world. Unfortunately, an early effort at the cow revealed some flaws in the functionality of assigning functions to various limbs and parts of the drawing. The cow looked marvelous in design, but as soon as Pixel transformed himself into it, the poor thing crawled around on its two front legs while it dragged its body pathetically behind itself. Anything beyond a biped was tricky to create. To make matters worse its short, stumpy legs made it near useless in a fight. While her cow looked gorgeous, my scribble of a leggy, noir dame trounced enemies with its twisted and unnatural limbs flailing stupidly but ultimately deadly.
Her next effort, a fairy with butterflies swirling about, fared better in terms of natural looking movement and locomotion, but, again, despite its skillful design, its usefulness in combat and coping with enemies were woefully unmatched by comparison to my silly, pitiful scratchings.
Taito’s efforts here are laudable and the creative portions of the game are accessible and interesting (another wedding of gameplay and creativity sees certain artistic functions—line tools, copying abilities, etc.—emerge as abilities as the character levels up—quite appropriate for an artistic role-playing game). But, it seems that the problem of aesthetic design is not imminently resolved by their new approach to creative and stylistic gameplay elements. Additionally, the game might be more enjoyable if some time were spent creating a plot and characters that were actually interesting to wrap around this gimmicky title; while my daughter spent hours with the drawing stylus, she had little interest in actually getting through the game and its humdrum plotting—especially because her meticulously designed characters were no fun to play.
If functionality is to be the measure of form, a little substance would sure go a long way to making a stylish game like this one feel really fun.