Aesthetics in Motion: What do we mean by “aesthetic”?
Does this mean anything to you?
To some it’s a meaningless jumble of numbers and letters. To others, it’s an ideological battleground. Those numbers become a way to quantify the quality of a piece of artwork, and the competence of the artists who created it.
These numbers are the measurements, or some would say standards, for frame rate and resolution in the modern age. No doubt, there is a ridiculous, antagonistic culture around what a certain part of the audience believes is the ideal number that everything should measure up to. It shouldn’t really matter what resolution or frame rate a game targets, as long as the game works, right?
Well, no, but also yes? Frame rate and resolution matter, but not in the ways you might think they do.
Frame rate and resolution can both influence a game’s aesthetic a lot, and alter the way we interact with the art. But that doesn’t always mean that higher is always better. In fact, there might be situations where intentionally using lower resolutions, or slower frame rates can achieve a different effect. But before we can dig into that, we need a few definitions.
Elements of Art
First, I’m going to use the terms videogames, games, artwork, and piece, as in art piece, interchangeably here. If we want to talk about games as art, and describe them using artistic terms, it helps that we talk about them in the same way.
Next, I’ll be using common art terms like “form”, “movement”, “space”, “texture”, and others to refer to elements of art. A lot of these overlap with common games terminology, though their colloquial meaning differs from the formal art definition. For example, within the broader art world “texture” refers to the visual representation how something might feel when touched, while in games we use the same term to talk about the literal images pasted onto objects to give them the appearance of texture. For the most part, I’ll be using the formal art definitions and talking with the assumption that you’re familiar with them, but if you’re unclear on a specific term or need a refresher there’s a quick link in the show notes.
And now the big one: what do we mean by “A E S T H E T I C”?
By its basic definition, aesthetics describe both the philosophical study of beauty and art, but also a collection of qualities that are subject to that study.
So when we describe something as having an impressionistic “aesthetic” we generally mean that a piece aims to be representational — acting as a stand in or symbol of an actual object — but eschews strict accuracy to communicate the feeling of a scene rather than replicate it. Literally, it gives the impression of it. This can be used to describe not only for the full composition, but the way brushstrokes appear, and the particular short, small motions they create.
Similar types of descriptors can be used to describe the qualities of visual art, music, space and even motion.
Motion in particular is important to how we understand the aesthetics of videogames, because it is a medium of movement. Not only in the way that images are framed and animated, but in the relationships between our physical actions and the way each piece responds to us.
I’ll be using the term “kinaesthetics” to describe the aesthetics of movement, or the way that a game “feels” in other words. Outside of games kinaesthetics, and by extension, kinaesthesia refers to our self awareness of body movement and motor control. This is slightly different than the way I’m going to be using it here, but close enough for our purposes.
For videogames, a piece’s aesthetic is made up of work from several different media, and how those all come together to create a singular feeling. Despite what the entrenched language around games might tell you, it’s artistically useless to judge games into split metrics of Visuals, Sound, Story and Gameplay. Each of these is part of the aesthetic, and the aesthetic is created by them. I mean, we wouldn’t judge a comic book by its manuscript, and we’d have a different experience of a film without its sound.
While there are useful reads that take these elements in isolation, especially with regards to the topic of accessibility, when taken holistically, as a piece is presented, the experience these combined elements create ultimately defines the work aesthetically.
O~KAY. So that opens this up to a million different issues and topics, but with that out of the way, we can hopefully talk about some of them from the same framework.
So let’s start with a big one: frame rate.