Raph Koster writes profusely about the different sorts of ways people feel good, and one of these that struck my fancy was “sensawunda,” or aesthetic appreciation. Unlike many games, in which various sorts of “fun” makes us feel good, sensawunda is a delight in awe, mystery, and harmony. It’s looking at a beautiful painting or sharing a smile with a stranger you pass in the stairwell.
With the sort of arty flash games Professor Mark “Sample Reality” Sample has been having us play, I couldn’t help but think of a number of video games that accomplish this. A recent favorite of mine is Small Worlds, a fairly short (maybe 10-15 minutes) game crated by David Shute in which the player explores, well… small worlds.
At first, the game seems extremely pixelated, but as the player explores the map, it continues to zoom out and reveal a bigger picture. In the end, the game makes a subtle statement about society which I’ll leave for you to discover. Beautiful music accomplanies the gameplay, so I’d suggest making sure your speaker volume is at a good level.
The crux of the “sensawunda” in Small Worlds is that while the player is technically playing the game, there is no way to win, lose, die, or gain points. It’s more of an experience than a true “game” in the traditional sense of the word. The “fun” in Small Worlds for the player doesn’t come from earning power-ups or killing enemies, but from revealing the game world and taking in the beautiful imagery (along with the music).
The “are video games art?” argument is futile. Games aren’t categorized as “art” or “not art.” It’s a spectrum. On one end is “games,” such as Monopoly and baseball. On the other end is “art,” such as books and movies. Video games all fall on different places in this spectrum. Small Worlds is much closer to the “art” end–while retaining elements of games, it’s in no way a game like Pac-Man is a game. And that’s not a bad thing. We need more independent game developers to create pieces like Small World that take advantage of the medium to actually say something about the world around us.