I would like to take it upon myself to introduce you to a few things in gaming that you may have noticed, but may not have necessarily delved into. I am talking about The Other Design Elements (patent pending). These are the least observed elements of game design. Not just by the players, but sometimes by the developers as well. Aspects like soundtrack, aesthetic concept, and user interface take understandingly small roles in game design, but the potential they carry can elevate a game to a higher level of quality. Now, a game does not need to have a stellar soundtrack or aesthetic to be of quality. While some games get away with not prioritizing these aspects, others give special attention to them. These design aspects can be seen not just as an add-on, but as a part of the overall game experience as well. There are several examples of how these elements can be developed to benefit a game in terms of narrative, overall gameplay and experience.
One example of how these elements can be used is Spliter Cell: Chaos Theory, with its original soundtrack. Chaos Theory did something special. Not necessarily unique, but it was executed so well that it deserves attention. Ubisoft Montreal wanted to have the soundtrack respond to the player’s actions; intensifying during action-oriented moments and calm during stealth scenarios. Ubisoft Montreal outsourced the soundtrack duties to DJ extraordinaire Amon Tobin. Tobin worked closely with the developers to get a feel for the atmosphere of each level. He proceeded by assembling musicians from around the world to help him compose live music for each of the levels. The end product is a score that ties the atmosphere of each level to the action at hand. While Tobin made each song specific to its respective level, the feel of the track is familiar throughout the game. This lack of disconnect in the soundtrack was very successful, and definitely made an impact on the majority of players. Ubisoft was so pleased and confident that they released the soundtrack months ahead of the release of the actual game. This is a great example of how a dynamic soundtrack that takes the responsibility of being more than background music, can affect the gameplay experience.
A game which nails the design element of aesthetics is Psychonauts. It has been a cult hit since its 2005 release, and there is a reason for that. The game is super unique and has solid writing. It also uses aesthetic storytelling to support its mind “diving” concept. In the game, the player goes into the minds of others to solve the mystery of the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. Every time the protagonist, Razputin “Raz” Aquato, dives into another character’s mind, the game’s aesthetic changes to reflect that person’s mental state and personality. While the game’s aesthetic doesn’t drastically change per se, different color palettes, scale, models, and game mechanics are used to further explain that particular character’s personality and state of mind. It’s a great design strategy that supports the concept behind the game and drives the story telling along. Take for example, The Lungfishopolis level, where the scale is an altar and you resemble Godzilla, symbolizing the perspective the lungfish has towards the main character. The Milkman level is another good example, wherein the platforming is greatly twisted and resembles an innocent suburban neighborhood to reflect the twisted paranoia and fake normality of the character the player dives into. This game demonstrates that supporting concept through aesthetics and allowing it to take a more driving role can be deeply rewarding. It also makes for a very memorable gaming experience.
Two games, Bastion and Transistor, are important examples of the power of narrative soundtracks. Both games by Supergiant have received a lot of praise for being fun with a meaningful, well-illustrated story. The soundtracks for the games also earn a lot of well-deserved praise, but what is interesting about the soundtracks are how crucial they are to the story. Both Bastion and Transistor have used their soundtrack to either world build, as in the case of Bastion, or develop characters, as in the case of Transistor. As the game unravels, we are introduced to new scores that drive the narrative parallel to the gameplay. Transistor tends to rely on this more than its predecessor, because it is a far more personal story. The soundtracks are so narratively-focused that when they were released with the game, the developer advised the players to play the games first since the soundtracks could be considered a spoiler. That statement alone is a great example of how these two games rely on music to tell their respective stories.
Splinter Cell: Conviction shows the strength of User Interface atmosphere. While many critics felt that Conviction was a departure from the heavy stealth elements of its predecessors, it caused an appeal to a greater audience and more efficient storytelling. In Conviction, the character Sam Fisher finds himself on his own, without the support of the agency to supply him with transportation, gadgets, or a fancy stealth suit. The developers saw the opportunity to stress that point in creative ways. Instead of using the “high tech” User Interface and Heads up display of past games, the developers opted into a more minimalistic “bare bones” approach. Riffing off the elements of light versus dark stealth mechanism, the developers used light projections into the game environment in real time to tell the player what his objective was, including action indicators. This was a way to contrast the “high tech” displays of past games, to further push the desperate “bare bones” situation Sam Fisher finds himself in. This gives the game a unique sense of identity, especially when compared to other games in the series. This also strengthens the setting and narrative of being a disowned agent on the run.
Memorable games such as The Witcher, Halo, and Mass Effect are perfect examples of games that have an entire experience designed as a whole, rather than one specific element that stands out unconventionally. These games push their concepts forward by making sure all elements are on the same level, whether those elements are gameplay, soundtrack, aesthetic, or UI. They deliver an unforgettable experience. However, this tends to cause stagnation in the industry of game design. Game studios fear risk more than in previous generations, which causes a desire for something different and daring in individual players. Overall, this is the primary importance behind the use of The Other Design Elements in games — they add variety and singularity to games.