An Incomplete Game Feel Reader

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 2.34.41 pm.png

There is a nebula of essays and talks that circle the concept that we reluctantly call ‘game feel’. (No one likes this term, but it’s what we’ve got. Personally, I would like it if we borrowed from music and called it timbre or, at the very least, just talked about ‘how a game feels’ rather than ‘a game’s game feel’, but whatever). Across a range of talks and essays (some directed to designers and execution, some to players and analysis) is an emergent idea of the experience of videogames not being centrally one of engaging with mechanics but, rather, of encouraged affective states. Of some sort of fusing of meaty flesh with audiovisual signs and plastic buttons.

Historically there’s been a reluctance to talk about this because it’s soft, ambiguous, and wishy-washy. Talking about a videogame being tight or crunchy or sluggish or sticky feels like it is at odds with the hardcoded and definitive code and programming logic and on/off switches that videogames are made out of. We have historically intellectualised videogames as hard configurative systems while downplaying the fact that the reason we really play a videogame is because it feels real good within our soft meaty body. Videogames are a carnal pleasure.

This has lead to both creative and critical tensions over the past decade with the rise of genres that put aside an interest in intellectualised and complex systems in place of invoking particular emotions. Walking simulators and twine games are at the forefront of this push. Essentially, any videogame that has people frustratedly asking “But what do you do?”. Women and queer videogame creators working from the margins have been fundamental to this shift, too, as they create videogames of increasing visibility that challenge norms and conventions we of the status quo taken for granted for decades. Historically, too, it is women and queer critics and scholars that have denounced hyper-rationalist and intellectualising manners of understanding art to instead make a space for appreciating the embodied, carnal pleasures of ‘low’ art as in itself valid (Susan Sontag, Donna Haraway, N Katherine Hayles, Vivian Sobchack, Laura Marks, to name a few).

Something I say often to my students: Mario hasn’t stood the test of time because we all really care about this plumber and his mushroom kingdom. It has stood the test of time because Super Mario Bros feels really good. If you’ve played it, you’re remembering what it feels like right now. The sluggishness and inertia and floatiness. These sensations that are in your fingers are fundamental to what Super Mario Bros ‘is’ as a creative work. All the interesting mechanical systems would mean nothing if it didn’t feel good. Mechanics are the skeleton. ‘Polish’ or ‘feel’ or ‘juice’ is the meat.

This post is my attempt to group together a bit more formally a body of literature that tries to tackle this idea, trying to grasp a language to talk about this aspect of videogame experience that is corporeal and avoids easy conceptualising. Like trying to explain the taste of chocolate or the colour red. It’s something that’s come around again and again in videogame discourses over the years, circled around rather than pinned down. It feels particularly in vogue lately, however, due to the rise in prominence of the above mentioned marginal genres/creators, and the slow deterioration of the blockbuster industry’s monopoly on determining videogame aesthetic values.

It’s tangibly noticeable as a teacher, too, that students are thinking about game feel more than they used to. Listen to some of the talks linked below and note how speakers shift from “I was playing student games and they were unpolished” to “Student games are increasingly polished”. What this means, I think, is that videogames as fundamentally being about corporeal, affective states is becoming increasingly accepted. Mechanics are the means to an end, not the end themselves.

So this is an inexhaustive collection of literature on this topic. It is not, to stress, everything ever written about videogames and embodiment. It is not even everything ever written about game feel. Rather, I see it as a collection of approaches and interventions and resistances against thinking about videogames in a mechanistic framework which remains pervasive. The first half is those talks and essays that propose new methods and vocabularies, and the second half are some examples of writing that talk about specific videogames or genres and which serve more as an example of this analytical model.

Suggestions of articles to include are welcome; though, I don’t want this to become an overwhelming list of everything.

Conceptualising Game Feel

In 1983, phenomenologist, sociologist, and jazz musician David Sudnow released the book Pilgrim in the Microworld (pdf), which details his experience with becoming competent at Breakout. Sudnow’s focus is on his body’s ability to adapt to and incorporate the lights and sounds and input device that constitute the videogame. It’s full of beautiful and expressive prose, such as:

The full sequencing, calibrating, caressing potentials of human hands now create sights, sounds, and movements. And the eyes are free to watch, wonder, and direct from above, free to witness the spectacle and help the hands along without looking down. A keyboard for painters, a canvas for pianists. With lots of programs to choose from, lots of ways to instantaneously vary and organize the tunings and makeup of the palette. All the customary boundaries get blurred when you’re painting paragraphs, performing etchings, sketching movies, and graphing music.

It’s a staggeringly good book that doesn’t propose a counter to mechanistic analyses of videogames because those analyses don’t exist yet! Before people were analysing games as ‘mechanical’ or ‘interactive’ (which, really, was primarily a project of distinguishing videogames as a unique and legitimate creative form), Sudnow was describing how videogames feel with a confidence and elegance still rarely found in videogame writing. The book is now out of print, but a pdf without page numbers is still in circulation online. The link above goes to this version hosted on Anna Anthropy’s archive. I have previously compiled some of my favourite quotes here.

In 2005, Kyle Gray, Kyle Gabler, Shalin Shodhan, and Matt Kucic wrote a Gamasutra feature titled “How to Prototype a Game in Under 7 Days”. While this covers much more than simply producing game feel, it is generally held up as one of the first places that the term ‘juice’ came into prominent game design terminology. Adding ‘juice’ to a game was to use audiovisual aspects to enhance the core mechanics. Emily Short refers to this essay in a short post on making Interactive Fiction juicy, and it was further solidified in the popular talk by Martin Jonasson and Petri Purho called “Juice it or Lose it” (uploaded to Youtube in 2012 but I’m not sure when the actual talk was given). Jesper Juul also refers to juiciness at length in his 2010 book A Casual Revolution, in relation to the excessive juiciness of casual games.

Still the bible for game feel is Steve Swink’s 2008 book Game Feel. As far as I know, this book is responsible for the term ‘game feel’ (though, I assume people were using it within studios beforehand), and the fact we still use ‘game feel’ as the most common term for this stuff is a testament to its significance. Swink’s book is the most formalised and dedicated attempt to date to find a clear terminology to identify these aspects in a videogame’s design, and to design them deliberately. It’s not without its problems, however. Most fatally is its prescriptivism. The book spends a significant amount of time defining what game feel ‘is’ and determining which games do and do not possess game feel. This is a self-defeating task that sadly limits much of the book’s theoretical power, but the book’s lessons remain invaluable all the same. It just requires a mental shift from the reader: instead of considering whether a game ‘has game feel’, it should be considered ‘how does this game feel?’. Swink’s books provides a toolkit to do this all the same and, with these caveats, is fundamental reading for any junior game designer or critic.

In 2013, Vlambeer designer Jan Willem Nijman presented his talk “The Art of Screenshake” which covers much of the same ground as “Juice it or Lose It” and Game Feel. This remains the version I share with students as a great balance of being comprehensive and accessible.

A criticism of many of the above talks and books is that they suggest a certain level of prescriptivism. There’s a sense across them that ‘juice’ or ‘game feel’ is something you add to a game. If your game isn’t good, you just add more juice. There’s a risk here of suggesting that more is always better which, in turn, risks turning ‘game feel’ into as useless a concept as ‘gameplay’, where games are evaluated on how much game feel they possess rather than on how they feel. Lisa Brown’s intervention here in her 2016 talk “The Nuance of Juice” is critical, as it shifts the conversation from ‘what’ juice is to how to use juice to produce particular experiences.

Elsewhere, one of the most important voices for considering how a videogame feels to play from an analytical perspective is Tim Rogers. His 2010 Kotaku essay “In Praise of Sticky Friction” offers few clear dot-point lessons (even as it tries to provide a terminology of different types of friction), but grasps at the notion of game feel in a compelling manner all the same. Rogers’s critical writing (much of which is tragically lost in a 404 black hole) was always divisive due to its length, self-indulgence, and seemingly absurd metaphors. For those that enjoyed it, Rogers writing provided a unique insight into someone trying to grasp with words exactly what isn’t graspable with words in the experience of videogame play; namely, how they feel. This is boiled down to a fine broth in Rogers’s review of God Hand, which is nothing but a series of seemingly random metaphors that actually make sense. The point here: to describe ‘feel’ in words is always dependent on metaphors and a call to—a trust in—some shared human experience we can never actually know is shared. How can you know that what you think ‘sour’ entails is the same for someone else? You can’t. Metaphors act as a security here. Lemons are sour like limes. We might have different ideas of ‘sour’ but if we can connect these two tangible experiences then we can find a commonality. Metaphors have long been held up by phenomenologists as crucial to describing the embodied experience, and this is what Rogers’s writing does, even when the metaphors are absurd.

Across these years, musician and developer David Kanaga wrote a range of essays that interrogated how we consider videogames on an ontological level. Kanaga poses the hypothesis that videogames and music share a commonality as things that are played by bodies, and extends this hypothesis to make a range of enticing claims about how videogames work affectively through rhythms, timbre, and as ‘possibility spaces’. Kanaga’s writing is eclectic and difficult to dive into, but of incredible importance to the body of literature detailed here. Of particular relevance here I recommend “Elements of Music as Elements of Games”, “Music and Games as Shifting Possibility Spaces”, and “Played Meaning (Concerning the Spiritual in Games)”. But hands down the most important thing Kanaga has produced on this topic and which I truly to believe to be as important as the above developer talks is his IGF 2014 presentation “Music Object Substance Organism”. It’s a stunning, beautiful performance worth watching multiple times. I have previously provided a short reader on David Kanaga’s writing here. His recent game Oikospiel Book 1 is also an execution of many of his hypotheses.

Game Feel is something developer and academic Doug Wilson has been thinking about for years, largely for similar reasons as myself: because of what it says about what videogames fundamentally are as both media and game. Like me, Wilson sees this aspect of videogames as fundamental in how it differentiates videogames from non-digital games, and is frustrated at its under-consideration in the academic context. In late October he presented “A Tale of Two Jousts: Multimedia, Game Feel, and Imagination” at Stanford University. This talk is actually what inspired me to put together this reader as it serves as a great summary of the game feel literature to date, and made me want to make a more concrete version of that.

In his talk, Wilson refers to my PhD thesis “A Play of Bodies: A Phenomenology of Videogame Experience”. I consider this thesis to essentially be “Game Feel, but for game studies rather than for game design”. Chapters 3 and 4 in particular are concerned primarily with the concept of game feel as audio/visual/input design.

In 2015 artist and developer merrit k ran the Soft Chambers project. While not explicitly about ‘game feel’, the early manifestos (scroll to the beginning of the archive) highlight ‘cozy digital spaces’. “soft chambers’ ideal method of playing super metroid is to advance to brinstar and curl up into a morph ball in the downy, mossy embrace of an underground jungle.”

merrit k also put together the anthology Videogames for Humans, a collection of twine authors in conversation. k’s introduction to this book is one of the few places I can think of that explicitly highlights the importance of queer and women creators in returning our analytical focus on videogames back to the bodies that engage with them:

More generally, a lot of the work in this book challenges digital games’ traditional elision of the body and emotions. Whereas in most mainstream games, protagonists have unfailing, untiring machine bodies and exhibit little to no emotional expression, the characters and roles in the games in this book have physical and psychic weight. Twine has occasionally been mocked for the number of games about physical or mental ailments that it’s been used to produce. But these works exist in the context of a medium that historically hasn’t made any space for explorations of weakness, hurt, or struggle. And far from being simple excursions in empathy tourism, many Twine games use interactivity to explore complex issues around embodiment and affect in wildly divergent ways.

In this book, the chapters on Eva Problems’s SABBAT (Imogen Binnie) and Tom McHenry’s Horse Master (Naomi Clark) in particular are all about the messy, wet, carnal experience of bodies and technology and ritual.

A central contention of game feel literature: there is a tangibility of virtual objects that is communicated through eyes, ears, and muscles, and this tangibility is fundamental to the meaning of videogame engagements. Several essays have prodded this idea. David Surman’s “Pleasure, Spectacle, and Reward in Capcom’s Street Fighter Series” from the incredibly good anthology Videogame, Player, Text, suggests a mingling of embodied and textual modes of meaning in videogames. Torben Grodal’s “Stories for Eye, Ear, and Muscles: Video Games, Media, and Embodied Experience” from The Video Game Theory Reader does what it says in the title. Becky Davnall discusses the idea of tangibility through Kingdom Hearts in “Touch, Naturalism, and Kingdom Hearts.”

An under-considered aspect of game feel is the virtual camera that frames action—with the exception of screenshake, anyway. Shaun Inman’s study of the Super Mario World camera is a notable exception. Most important is Itay Keren’s extensive taxonomy of different strategies of cameras in 2D games. The Gamasutra essay (the talk was originally given at GDC and can be found on the GDC Vault) provides a huge number of gifs and descriptions and is an essential reference for any junior developer. The clearest sign of an unpolished game, I tell my students, is one where the character is always in the centre of the screen. Not specifically about cameras, but Robert Yang’s essay on Stephen Lavelle’s Universal History of Light is an important discussion of ‘screen space’ and the material light energy perceived by a situated body that is fundamental to almost all videogame play.

Game feel literature suggests other modes of satisfaction and meaning in videogames beyond overcoming challenges. They suggest that the feeling of emotions is itself the goal. A consequence of this is the ability to consider emotions in videogame play that might be considered ‘bad’ in a design sense to actually be a significant aspect of videogame play. Bennett Foddy’s essay “Eleven Flavors of Frustration” is interesting for both taking these emotions seriously and for considering them as ‘tastes’. A similar consideration of videogame feeling can be seen in Foddy’s GDC talk on “Designing with Physics”.

Examples of Writing About Game Feel

Here is an incomplete list of other talks and essays that exemplify a focus on ‘game feel’ broadly defined while not necessarily being about game feel.

  • Wot I Think: Slave of God” – Cara Ellison. Stephen Lavelle’s Slave of God is perhaps the single most important videogame to play when considering non-mechanistic approaches to videogame aesthetics. Ellison’s consideration of how the game captures a particular sensation is stellar: “Slave of God is wonderful at capturing the way music muffles and meanders in the brain when you are drunk under flashing lights; it’s a sort of little prayer to a one-off experience, something halfway from a nightmare to a delirious hallucination in the mind of someone who has been abandoned. The music weaves in and out and changes to adapt your environment down corridors and by the DJ stand. Better still, Slave of God’s eye-searing art stylings are angular bright primary colours, burning themselves onto the back of your pupils like laser on camera film. Your view, controlled by your mouse hand, is constructed so that it gives a lazy fisheye vision that could only ask you to feel inebriated. Things pulse and flicker and the dancers on the dancefloor strobe oblivious.”
  • Ellison’s now finished S.EXE series at Rock Paper Shotgun was all about the carnal side of videogames.
  • Vanquish: A Retrospective” – Adam Saltsman. This comparison of Platinum’s Vanquish and the Wachowski Sisters’ Speed Racer is the best Tim Rogers article not written by Tim Rogers. “VANQUISH is less about finding the path of least resistance, and more about ballet dancing across a chessboard in more-than-real time, while the pieces, and even the chess board itself, linked by visible and comprehensible logic, shift under the player’s feet until the dance is over.”
  • A Game Design Vocabulary – Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clark. Admittedly I haven’t read this, but I am told it covers videogame design from a perspective that takes seriously the affective and emotional aspect of videogame experience. Knowing the authors, this doesn’t surprise me. Chapter 6 on “Resistance” looks particularly relevant.
  • ZZT – Anna Anthropy. One of the best single books about videogames. Again, not ‘about’ game feel per se but such a remarkable job of capturing the affective/social/material/historical aspects of a single game and threading them together without a call to some sort of core mechanistic approach.
  • List of Games with some Thematically Appropriate Mechanics” – Claire Hosking. A series of small vignettes that describe how different games feel in relation to their mechanics.
  • Thumper review – Garrett Martin. “It’s heavily percussive, but these aren’t really beats you can dance to; they’re complex, prog-like rhythms with heavy, pounding, foreboding drums. Each beat has a weight to it, like it’s reverberating through a canyon, and when overlaid with drones and ambient sheets of noise it adds up to a soundtrack as cold and brutal as the game itself. “
  • DOOMguy Knows How You Feel” – Ajay Singh Chaudhary. “Games are confusing commodities and confusing art in just this context: in a society demanding ever more time from the underemployed and the hyperemployed alike, games stubbornly insist on, if nothing else, a schedule out-of-whack with those priorities. This can be maddening for the games industry and the cultural critic alike. Yet a purely cynical “culture industry,” or more Bourdieuan ‘cultural capital’ argument, misses the most interesting aspects of what is happening in a game like DOOM. Games are so often touted as a marvel of ‘agency’ that even many critics miss that the joy in games — they are, after all, play — is found in the visceral pleasures of feeling and sensation.”