In music, unity is Tom Waits’s gravelly voice, singing about grit and death and life. In writing, unity is Cormac McCarthy’s mix of the harsh and beautiful, to capture a blood-drenched Old West. Unity is similar in other genres as it is games, though there are differences.
There’s a less-than-obvious systems layer. It’s probably best described by Ian Bogost, with one of those onerous automated telephone systems. You know, “press 5 to get another set of options, which may or may not include speaking to a human being.” Games are like any other art, but there’s a navigable system underneath. We try to make them more engaging than an automated telephone system. Not always with success.
Games literacy is more than just knowing that the underlying systems exist. Robert Frost once wrote that, "No poem is intelligible except in light of all the other poems, and the poems that were ever written. So you better get about them, circulating among them." Part of a being literate means knowing how weird or unique or common systems worked in other games. Today’s indie games poke fun at staples like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario, partly because their mechanics (jumping, collecting coins) are so simple.
Matching up the systems with everything else – the visual aesthetics, writing, and subject matter – that takes literacy. Pulling it off gives a unified experience, but flying in the face of it can be just as good, if done well. “Press 1 for a transcendental experience.”
One of my best examples of Unity – a strongly-designed link between the system and its aesthetic experience – is a game about spaceships and death. In Brendon Chung’s Flotilla, you’re put in charge of a flotilla of spacefaring warships and told you have seven months to live. Healthy combination. As you travel through space, you will sometimes come across Rastafarian cats, or celestial phenomena which forcibly remove your pants. Sometimes one must battle insane space hippos, or fowl space pirates.
You’re given a three-dimensional version of a chessboard, in which you can move your ships like pawns and rooks. Then you hit, “Go,” wait for thirty seconds, and listen as Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude plays. Beautiful piece, by the way. Very soothing, in a 2001: A Space Odyssey kind of way. Hopefully that didn’t really make sense, on the first read through. Because those are the aesthetics of the experience, and they are wonderfully strange. While cavalier on its face, at its core the game is tragic. Occasionally, while the ships are moving, your battleship will be cut to shreds by enemy beam weapons, sending sizzling chunks of its carcass into the dreadnoughts and fighters that you won in fondly-remembered vodkahol-fueled karaoke contests, and by spelunking into ghost-infested ships.
But now they’re gone, blown to pieces.
And all you can do is watch.
For thirty whole seconds. A lifetime, in the world of twitchy Counter-Strikes and immersive Baldur’s Gates. In being a participant, drawn into that system, there’s a very certain experience to be had. I really don’t know if Chung intended it, with his game, but at a certain point I got it. Everything clicked. There was the flotilla captain’s impending death, the devil-may-care silliness of the story, and the fragility of your ships, accentuated by an elegant piano sonata.
And then there was the system, the process. Once you set your ships to move, you could only wait. Only watch. You had to let go. Where so many games are about inflicting your will on a system, Flotilla was about letting go. Everything in the game reflected it, all in Chung’s quirky personal style. Flotilla was the first game I ever saw with true unity.
It’s one of a handful I’d consider truly beautiful.
And you’ll never understand why, without procedural literacy.