Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bedazzled by Bejeweled

I'm only half joking when I say that, after an hour or so of playing any game, I start to filter out a game's aesthetic layers. If you could somehow record a real-time feed of my brain, you'd see what looks like a high-level Quake player's view: wire frames, textureless polygons, and the sound of silence. I tend to place heavy emphasis on a game's systems, so this isn't anything surprising. However, every once in a while I discover (in the most recent case, re-discover) a game that reminds me just how important video game aesthetics can be. All this is just an overly-elaborate way of saying that I love Bejeweled.

This all started when I found an HTML5 version of Bejeweled in the Chrome store. I apologize to those of you who clicked that link; I hope you enjoyed your productivity while it lased. At its core Bejeweled isn't that different from its great granddaddy, Shariki: Like all match-three games, it taps into that primal urge to group similar things. Bejeweled is special because of its production values. Does it need its slick animation, crisp sound effects, and ridiculous Mortal Kombat-esque announcer? It depends on what you think the essence of Bejeweled is. Strip away all of its slick style and you'd still have the same basic game systems, but you would lose Bejeweled's personality.

As silly as it sounds and as tired as the word is, I can't help but describe Bejeweled as "epic." It's flashy animation and dramatic music build a magnificent facade around its very simple rule set. It's hard to describe something so intangible, but the fact remains that Bejeweled aesthetic compels me to revisit it whenever I need my match-three fix. There is something aesthetically pleasing about the way the gems shatter, how the lighting pieces crackle, and how huge combos seem to line up with crescendos in the game's frantic soundtrack. I want to succeed not only to achieve a high score, but to embark upon mini match-three journeys, one minute at a time. Without, all the flamboyant effects, I simply wouldn't care as much.

For mechanics-focused folks like myself, it's important to remember that aesthetics are often powerful enough to affect the way we interact with game systems. The way the camera subtly zooms and bobs during a swan dive in Assassin's Creed still elicits a tingly feeling in my stomach. The drive to seek out this feeling is as powerful a motivator to climb the game's many towers as any of the strategic gains such actions grant me. Similarly, in Flower, picking up petals in specific sequences yields pleasant musical tones. Even though this doesn't add to any kind of "high score," the experience affects the way I play the game. I learn how to navigate more precisely, testing the limits of the control system and my reflexes not only to collect the petals, but to hear the music they make. It's an aesthetic cue that leads to a aesthetic reward, but serves to deepen my knowledge of the game's systems.

Trite as it may be to say, there's a reason we call them "video" games. Were it no so ungainly, we would more accurately call them "audio/video games". When searching for the essential features of a video game, its powerful multimedia aspects shouldn't be ignored.

Speaking powerful, the irresistible force that is Bejeweled beckons. If the podcast doesn't go up this week, send help.

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