Kinaesthesia

Wassily Kandinsky joined the Bauhaus in 1922. There, he hung a poster, with a square, circle, and triangle. The poster asked passing students “what is the correct colour of each shape?”. Of course, there is no objectively correct answer, but it does raise the idea that for each person who looks at these primitive shapes, a particular colour makes more sense than any other (for me, Blue Square, Green Circle, Yellow Triangle. Don’t ask me why. Changes depending on my mood!).

For Kandinsky, this idea of subjectivity correct art started to bleed into other senses: what’s the correct shape for this sound? How does this colour taste? While some people suffer from acute hallucinations due to this sensory crossover (synaesthesia), everyone has at least a little inate ability to find a subjectively appropriate shape for a sound, a gender for a letter etc.

And perhaps, if that’s true, a motion can trigger an emotion?

Miyamoto’s oft cited first rule of game design is “design around the interface*”. This has always been my friend, even when it’s brought me into conflict with other designers and developers: the controller you use is the bedrock of interaction in any given design. It’s as much a solid, immovable creative constraint as a computer’s power, a project’s budget or schedule. It’s hard to ignore as a limiting factor, but more importantly, such a horrible waste not to embrace.

In the worst case scenarios, ignoring the natural affordances of a controller allows for top heavy designs, demanding that a billion verbs must fit on the interface, occupying every button and every inelegant chord combination, just to make sure that the feature set is keeping up with the Joneses.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the controls are barely factored into the design: acting as nothing more than a “continue” button for a grandiose, writerly story.That the player’s agency is so curbed is telling. The developer puts their audience in the place of the “other”: the ones that would only stomp on their finely crafted story, given any freedom. They do not allow the possibility that the player could contribute to the piece in a positive way, because their story is too fragile to be manipulated without shattering. I totally digress. I apologise.

Miyamoto is endorsing an affordance led approach to game development. Consider the controller as the seed of the design, growing outwards in directions that come naturally to its abilities (take a moment to ponder the futility of designing for multiple interfaces with this approach). Consider the player’s interactions like stones thrown into a still pond: ripples which the game mechanics can surf upon, or a jazz band riffing off each other’s solos.

Imagine, like Kandinsky might have, that every physical interaction has a subjectively correct complementary form of sound, animation, shape and colour. What if the physical interaction has an emotional echo in the mood of the piece? I like to call this echo from physical interaction into to the other sensory mediums “Kinaesthesia”. (Sorry for misappropriating existing words again.)

Close your eyes. (No, wait. Open them so you can read this…) Clear your mind. Forget every game you’ve ever played. Hold an interface in your hands – Joystick, touch screen, mouse, whatever. Consider its affordances. Toy with it. Consider ergonomics: Notice what feels nice to do with your hands. Notice what’s uncomfortable**. . Notice that it starts to whisper ideas to you.

With your mind open, form, shapes and motions may start to appear. Perhaps pulling an XBox trigger makes you think of objects tightening around you, or breathing in. Perhaps slamming the trigger in, as opposed to squeezing it feels like a tug, rather than a sustained pull on a rope. Maybe a playstation’s trigger causes a subtly different feeling, like pushing your feet down into a trampoline. Rolling the thumb stick in a circle may create spirals in your mind, or you may find it feels like a pestle and mortar as you grind around the restrictive gates of the stick. Moving the stick with precision inside its own limits gives you a different feel: perhaps one of care: picking a lock, steering a bird through branches in a dense forest.

You start to see that the buttons we use on controllers are more than just switches which we hang verbs onto, or “continue buttons” on a prescribed story. They have an expressive range in of themselves. And even controls without any real analogue bandwidth, like a digital button, still have a breadth of expression in their history: have you been tapping the button rapidly, or do you let it rest a while before triggering its effects? When you press, do you hold it a while before release, or immediately let go, like you were touching a hot plate? Does the cramping of your hand as you hold the button down make you feel like your character should also feel pinned down by your thumbs? On release, what do you expect to happen? Perhaps a discharge of stored up energy, an unwinding of a pent-up throw, or a simply returning to a previous, unimpeded movement state?

When you start to open yourself to kinaesthesia, you hear the desires of your controller. It’s almost as if you don’t have to design anything. You merely shepherd the game along, correcting course when necessary, listening to what makes sense to the interface. But, in practical day-to-day job terms, you are unlikely to ever be in a position to let that happen. You will have to turn the strengths and weaknesses of kinaesthetics to the game at hand. Still, you should learn the rules before you break them: know why you make your kinaesthetic choices, rather than risk them coming into conflict with the goals of the rest of the game.

Good games writers/designers/developers understand that kinaesthetics are a bit-part of their creative toolkit – they are an extra axis of expression sitting along-side narrative, character design, level design/mis-en-scene, audio design, system/game mechanics etc. Each of these axes, including kinaesthetics, can be mastered to help express whatever central idea the game is trying to get across. None of them need to be in conflict if they attempt to express same core idea in their own unique ways.

* In my experience, this approach is rarely fostered in the mainstream, and one can understand why: Market forces tend to demand hit games, which demand ever increasing budgets, which require a risk averse approach to design, meaning re-use of well established mechanics and control schemes from any proven source, which means never going back to the root of why those control schemes have been successful with players. Copies of copies of copies result in companies creating games without truly understanding, from first principles, how the game they’re copying works. This is why I find it so important to start control schemes from scratch, even if I’m working in a very tropey genre. This is why I really dislike adding features when you can possibly remove them.

** Who knows? You might want to ask people to do uncomfortable things in your game, when it’s appropriate.

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