Guest Post: Aesthetic in Food and Games

By Hannah Flynn, February 5, 2016 · Things We Like

A guest blog from game designer Nic Tringali, of Sun Dogs.

Cooking and game design share a lot of practices, but I think about one a lot over others: aesthetic. The aesthetic of food is perhaps everything you experience that is not the ‘taste’ of the food. A game’s aesthetic is everything not ‘gameplay’ (or sometimes called ‘mechanics’, both words that I dislike and aren’t well defined). Ostensibly, the aesthetic is unnecessary: if a game plays well or food tastes good, who cares? It is equally important, or perhaps more so, for the cook or designer to control the aesthetic. Without it, everything will fall apart.

This is obvious when it comes to food, as everyone reading this is an expert at eating. The experience of eating food is more than the molecules that interact with your tongue. Your tongue doesn’t even do most of the work, as your nose affects much of the perceived taste. This is noticeable when a head cold dulls your sense of taste. Taste is also temperature, as cold molecules interact less than hot ones. Texture is highly important. But it’s also your company, posture, the size of the plate, the perceived quality or skill of the chef and restaurant, and an infinite amount of other factors.

It’s less obvious when it comes to games, but no less important. Many people separate ‘mechanics’ from ‘art’ from ‘sound’ from ‘interface’, and so on. These are not separate. If I can be willfully obtuse, designers don’t simply dream up number systems and rulesets to present to a player. Everything in a game affects everything else, to some extent. Here is an oversimplified example: take chess, and replace every piece with the same size cube. We haven’t changed the rules, but of course it’s completely unplayable.

Another example is how certain games play well on a couch, or standing up at an arcade, or better with friends. Elite Dangerous with a joystick is a world of difference against a keyboard, even if the game itself is exactly the same. It just feels better.

The larger point I’m reaching for is that we understand the taste of food relies on a lot of external factors. Games get broken down, each element treated independently. Both games and food exceed the sum of their parts, but so much of discussion around design bases itself on analyzing specific elements, and not the interconnected relations.

To come back to cooking and the many factors into the quality of food, consider one element: cookware. The surfaces you use to transfer heat into your food have different, noticeable effects. Stainless, non-stick, ceramic, cast-iron are used to make anything you like, but each has the qualities that can suit what you’re looking for. Another example: I enjoy making homemade pizza dough. My current favorite recipe calls for an oven that heats up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, while my oven maxes out at 500 degrees. There’s simply no way I can make that delicious blackened and crispy pizza dough in four minutes as the recipe says it should, and I can’t escape that reality.

When you’re playing or making a game, or eating or cooking food, pause and consider the interconnected elements of the experience. Games are not just art and sound and input mashed together, just as much as food is not raw ingredients tossed together and heated up. Except soup, of course.

Bonus recipe: Tomato pasta sauce

This is my basic tomato sauce. Cook it as described below over ravioli, or add in mushrooms, olives, or whatever else you like to make it interesting. Apologies for my imperial measurements, I’m sure you’ll get the gist of it.

1 can of whole peeled tomatoes, either San Marzano style or not
-or –
4 to 6 fresh whole tomatoes, quartered

1 cup of preferred broth (I use vegetable)
1/2 or whole chopped onion, depending on oniony preference
2ish cloves of garlic, smashed
2 tablespoons of butter (safely disregard if vegan)
olive oil
fresh basil, chopped roughly
salt, oregano, crushed red pepper, sugar

Heat up the olive oil, onions, salt, oregano, and red pepper in a saucepan on medium heat. As the onion begins to turn transluscent, add in the garlic. After a few more minutes, add in the tomatoes and broth. Stir this around a few times, then cover and let simmer for thirty minutes, stirring occasionally.

Uncover, and add in sugar and butter. Begin crushing the tomatoes, and letting it reduce. Crush the chunks of garlic, if you find them. Anywhere from twenty to forty minutes later, the tomatoes will have disintegrated into the sauce, but overall it should still be runny. Pour the sauce over slightly undercooked pasta, and cook for another few minutes minutes. Turn off the heat, and stir in the fresh basil.

One Comment

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Frarf Mar 10, 10:43am

While I can't speak for the sauce, the analogy was delicious. I feel that a sense of the gestalt is often missing in current game discussion and criticism; to make use of your analogy, it's not considered enough to comment on the "taste" without dissecting the ingredients - even at the expense of losing sight of what made it good to begin with. Failbetter team: Looking forward to more fantastic guest posts in the future!