A few weeks ago, I complained about the casual game Home Sweet Home that it wasn’t a very entertaining game, being asked to decorate a house to client specifications. (I ragged even more on the “construction” part of the game, which manages to be easy and annoying at the same time, and to bear little or no resemblance to the real-life activity that it is supposed to be simulating.) Other people evidently liked the game more than I did.
Since then, though, I’ve been thinking about this question: how do you design a puzzle or goal-oriented interaction in which the player’s job is to make aesthetic judgments?
I’ve seen a number of different gestures towards this kind of puzzle in recent games.
The obvious challenge here is that, the more you challenge the player to make aesthetic choices, the less possible it is to apply any kind of objective scoring, grading, or standard. So you can either remove the concept of goal-oriented play entirely and allow the player to romp in an aesthetic sandbox (which I think is what Home Sweet Home is trying to do, except that I didn’t find the elements very enjoyable); or you can impose some external standard, curtailing the player’s effective freedom.
Chocolatier 2 allows the player to assemble ingredients together to come up with new recipes, a feature that I thought considerably improved it over the original game; but ultimately the player only succeeds by concocting one of the game’s numerous pre-set recipes. So this barely counts, in the sense that the player is not designing anything novel. At most, we’re using our aesthetic sensibilities to guess what the game designers also thought sounded like a delicious chocolate recipe. (There are other ways to approach the strategy of this level, though; if you don’t want to think about cooking, you can take a Mastermind-esque strategy, laying out ingredients in groups and disqualifying useless ones until you’ve narrowed in on the remaining possibilities.)
JoJo’s Fashion Show takes a different tack. The player’s task is to assemble outfits from an assortment of tops, skirts, pants, shoes, etc., in order to match certain general “looks”, like “hippie”, “rock and roll”, or “summer”. Many different qualities of a piece — the color, material, texture, cut, and decoration — all help determine which styles it best fits; so game play is mostly about learning to recognize the potential associations of a given article of clothing, and assemble outfits rapidly. As far as I can tell from the hour of demo play, the game is not concerned with whether two pieces go with each other well — for instance, if you’ve got two patterned garments, you can use them both in a fall outfit even if the patterns clash horribly. And, of course, there are all kinds of aspects of couture design that don’t come into play; we’re never allowed to meddle with hemlines directly, for instance, but only to pick and choose between pre-created articles of clothing.
Still, I found this reasonably entertaining, as a puzzle in optimizing the outfits I could make out of the pieces available to me. Making outfits that I also found aesthetically appealing was a side bonus, something I couldn’t always achieve with the available materials. But there was considerably more freedom of invention for the player than in the Chocolatier recipe-making scenario.
Some people have noted that JoJo’s Fashion Show can be optimized as a numbers game. There are certain powerups that allow you to see, numerically, how many points a given outfit contributes to a given look; so in theory, if you are thorough enough and work fast enough and memorize point values, you can get an optimal outcome all the time without exercising any kind of subjective aesthetic sense at all. But the thing is, that wouldn’t be a very entertaining way to play, and the structure of the game discourages it, through time limits and restricted access to the point value information.
(This is good. There are other games whose structure encourages boring play — IF doesn’t do this as much as some game styles, but there are still IF puzzles that can be more reliably brute-forced than solved “properly”, and so people do play them that way. See: mazes, combination locks with small combinations, conversations with few but important options, and randomized but UNDO-able combat.)
So I think JoJo’s Fashion Show is on to a good idea here. Roughly, the idea is: what we think is a subjective assessment is really not as subjective as all that; rather it’s an intuitive simultaneous application of a large number of fuzzy rules, in which any given object can be significant in a variety of different ways. The computer can afford to explicitly model these rules, but they are too complicated for people to solve quickly.
This suggests other odd possibilities. What about a photography composition game, where you manipulate lighting and camera settings and select and frame a shot, which is then judged by a large number of internal criteria? And how do we decide what the internal criteria should be? I think for best results you’d probably want something less simple than JoJo’s Fashion Show; I think you’d probably want to start the computer off with some general rules, like the idea of the rule of threes, and then do some AI-training stuff, where the computer collected a lot of feedback from human viewers in order to adjust the relative weights given to these rules. But we’re now wandering far from the realm of my expertise into a shadowy grove of things I know about only from occasional reading in the computer section of Barnes and Noble.
Do any of these possibilities plug back into IF in any interesting way? That I’m also not sure about. It’s hard to envision a text game that meaningly assessed the player’s visual aesthetic ability. And literary aesthetics? Wow, are we not even close to being able to judge that algorithmically. It’s amusing to imagine a game in which the player makes progress by submitting poetry to his NPC Roxane, only to be rejected again and again until he learns to write– but how implausible.
But what about a game of symbolic magic, in which you accomplished things by juxtaposing significant items? What if a spell wasn’t done with a magic word or even (as so beautifully in the case of Suveh Nux) by a magic sentence, or by waving a magic wand or using an amulet, or by sympathetic magic as in Savoir-Faire, but simply by setting together a collection of ordinary game-world objects and performing some sort of activation?
Given the right prompting and feedback, I think the player might be able to develop an aesthetic sense of meaning and potency, rather than a precise set of rules.