Ten Player Motives #11
Wait, eleven? You said there were ten player motives! Actually, although there are ten player motives that are commercially important, there are many other motives to play games - they're just not as important to the industry making and selling play. This 'eleventh motive', which I call 'the aesthetic motive' does not drive sales quite like the others, but it encapsulates everything that makes games such an intriguing, creative medium. As such, even if this isn't your best bet for making money at making games, you really have no excuse not to support those auteurs who are finding ways to satisfy our aesthetic desires for creative originality and unexpected experiences.
2005 was a banner year for the aesthetic motive in games, as it was the year that various voices began to consider what it might mean for videogames to be artworks. It was the year of Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern's stage-play inspired Façade, and it was also the year of Tale of Tales astonishing debut The Endless Forest. Dubbed a 'massively multiplayer screensaver' by the impish genius of its creators, Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, the game would go on to influence the hugely popular Journey by thatgamecompany, with its incredible conceit of encounter, a theme that recurs in Tale of Tales brilliant but under-appreciated Bientôt L’été (Almost Summer).
There followed a glorious explosion of aesthetic exploration of what games could be. Jason Roher's Passage in 2007, Dear Esther's deconstruction of gameplay to the thinnest play imaginable in 2012, and 2013's Proteus by Ed Key and David Kanaga, which I consider the most beautiful videogame ever made. However, another strong contender for this title is Tale of Tales final game, Sunset in 2015, an utterly astonishing game that, while flailing slightly in its narrative, manages to play with light, shade, and colour in a way that transcends almost anything I can think of in any medium.
Yet this way of telling the tale of the aesthetic motive is misleading, as it makes it seem as if it all happened in 2005. But this was really the rediscovery of something that game developers had in some sense always known: that videogames were a creative, artistic medium, capable of being much more than entertainment. Mel Croucher's Deus Ex Machina in 1984 served as a mind-bending refusal to accept the player practices of the arcade, showing for perhaps the first time the tremendous possibilities inherent in a medium that was capable of creating unique artworks but had largely settled with satisfied itself through 'mere' awesome entertainments.
I have mentioned before the utter lack of investment in indie games that blights the games industry. Small scale publishers do not feel they need to put money into making smaller games, as a lively wellspring of 'bedroom coders and artists' are making games in their own time and then selling them to the publishers. But the aesthetic motive is a reminder that however commercially logical this strategy might be, it sells the medium of videogames quite short of what it is capable of achieving. The Endless Forest would never have come about without investment from the Belgian arts council, and nothing that thatgamescompany made between Flow and Journey could have happened without EA first funding Jenova Chen's student project Cloud, and Sony deciding to invest in aesthetically interesting games.
Movie studios understand that as well as making big-budget movies that garner equally gigantic returns on investment, they have a creative obligation to invest in smaller, more creative films - so-called 'art house cinema' - that nourishes both the sources of creativity, and the creative people at work in their industry. Videogames continues to deny this necessity. When your corporation is earning billions of dollars from its games, what possible excuse could there be for refusing to invest a few hundred thousand in creative experiments on the side...? The games industry wants all the glory of being declared an artistic medium without being willing to put its money where its mouthpiece is. Until the industry as a whole invests in artistic games at all scales of development, there is a certain hypocrisy to the cries of our artistry.
Throughout these short reflections on our motivations for playing games, I have focussed on the ten most commercially significant motives players have for engaging with the games they love. Yet while videogames may be a mature industry in terms of revenue, we are still all but destitute when it comes to the aesthetic potential of our medium. There might be no better way we can shed our terrible yet deserved reputation of being little more than monetised violence and compulsion porn than finally resolving that yes, games are artworks, and any culture that praises art must have patrons that invest in bringing it about. Until we do, we will never come close to fulfilling the incredible aesthetic potential of games.