I am going to see Jacques Ranciere later today, so I don’t have time to make a well thought-out post, but I did happen to see this fascinating interview with Ken Levine that Kill Screen posted the other day.
I recommend reading the entire thing, especially because it is pretty short, but the highlight for me is the first question, which broaches the question of the role that aesthetics have in video games:
There’s an increased emphasis today on player agency and ownership over the story that evolves into these incredibly complex, self-authored branching narratives. Do you think this has changed Irrational’s relationship to the rest of the industry over the years?
I think what’s different about our games is we’re very focused on place-environments like Rapture in Bioshock, the Van Braun in System Shock 2, even a place like The City for Thief. That’s the biggest tool you have to tell a story unless you want to do cutscenes, and I never really liked doing cutscenes. Coming up with a consistent aesthetic is how you tell your story, right? Imagine Bioshock not in an underwater city. A Call of Duty story could be put in a lot of different kinds of places- whether it’s in Afghanistan or in Baghdad. I’m not diminishing it, because it’s a more universal story they’re telling. But we tend to tell very particular stories. Place is usually where we start, even before character.
I fully believe that creating aesthetic standards is the key way that our experience of reality is constructed, with the good and the bad that comes with that, and I am glad to see that Levine feels the same way.
That said, I would also count the audio elements of the game as a way of establishing an aesthetic space and experience, which Levine doesn’t go into. The first step to creating a great, immersive fiction is to engage in some phenomenological trickery, and all of the senses are involved with that.