What makes "beautiful games" so beautiful?

In writing, for clarification. I have heard of some beautiful games, such as Photopia, and played them. What makes these games - ones that talk about the meaning of life, that study death and fearsome moments, that are deemed “beautiful” - what makes them beautiful? Do you have any games, or excerpts from games, that prove this? Especially ones that try studying this from a very alternative or really odd angle.


This is a huge area of fascination for the Gothic. I’m very tired and quite ill at the moment, but for some independent study leads, you’d probably be interested in reading up on the term the sublime in relation to Gothic literature: in short, the sensation of both overwhelming pleasurable thrill and paralyzing fear that is evoked in response to some stimulus beyond human comprehension: terrific, both in our current use of the word as a synonym for good, and terror-inspiring.

The Gothic often deals with things on a grandiose, sweeping scale: the fall of the aristocracy, the unstoppable force of pre-destined fate, centuries of hatred manifesting as spirits from beyond the grave hellbent on revenge on unlucky descendants. The sublime is a really great showcase of that: it renders these huge, sort of vague concepts, into very concrete, bodily sensations in the reader reflecting the emotional turmoil of the characters. Lots of emphasis on physical oriented detail, lush prose, and so on.


I’m not sure: Do you talk only about dark beautiful games or do light beautiful games count, too?

The first game that comes to my mind when thinking about “beautiful” is Anchorhead. And that’s dark, isn’t it? I think the location descriptions are very beautiful.


Sort of the sad beautiful: I wouldn’t necessarily count Anchorhead. I sort of mean more like stuff that questions reality, that pulls on heartstrings. I haven’t properly played Anchorhead, though, so maybe.

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I think Anchorhead indeed doesn’t fit in there. But the reason why such games are beautiful is very personal. They touch something in your soul, but what is it? Big emotions? Widening the horizon? Pholosophical insights? I don’t know. And I think not everybody has the same reasons.

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This is an odd question, because different people find different things beautiful. Poetry that one person finds beautiful and moving will leave another person cold. Not everyone loved Photopia. A lot of people hate Wallace Stevens, or even Shakespeare.

You will never be able to write in a way that pleases everyone, or that everyone thinks is beautiful. And there’s a significant proportion of IF players who don’t appreciate a lot of story at all-- they’re only in it for the puzzles and might consider a tersely written game with well-designed puzzles “beautiful.”

Eye of the beholder and all that.


on goth, I just discovered by serendipidity that not only a Jekyll (named Edward, as the infamous alter ego…) was live and active in 1850s Britannia, but was worst that a doctor:

a capitain of the Grenadier Guards.
That is, an officier of these big honking red-clad guys with tall bearskin cap entrusted of the safety of the Sovereign named Edward Jekyll at the height of the Victorian Era, really too nearby Her Majesty: I fear that is a case, perhaps a major one, for Miss Scrooge…

(reference on the singular historical detail available on request…)
Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.


I’ve thought about this a little more, and what I consider “beautiful” in writing (and in all art) is tension. Assuming the writing is well-constructed.

Consider some short poems.

Here is a very famous Yeats poem that is widely considered very beautiful:

Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

I personally don’t care much for this poem, because there’s no tension it. The language itself is absolutely gorgeous, but it falls kind of flat with me because it’s just pretty.

Now consider this really short one by Margaret Atwood:

[you fit into me]

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

I love this poem. It’s great. The language isn’t at all florid; it’s stripped down, but it is beautiful because of the crazy tension it-- starting with the well known saying about hooks and eyes, which is homey and old-fashioned, and then making it startling and vividly weird.

I’m not going to love anything that’s purely beautiful. Those things may be fine examples of craft, but they’re not really art.


I do think what you’re talking about isn’t really a function of interactivity or format or approach - though games that lean more open-ended may have a slightly harder impact time creating the kind of emotional trajectory that helps individual moments add up to a profound impact, there’s a wide window where these goals are achievable. Like, I’d definitely also include Photopia in this list, but also something like January, whose only interactivity is choosing which order the read the different sections.

For me at least, the key thing is just literary quality - well, “just.” But IMO it’s all the stuff about writing evocative prose and engaging characters and fresh structure that static fiction authors deal with; if an author is good at that, figuring out the game-y, interactivity aspect is the easy part.


I’m not a seeker of fine art in anything really. Beautiful prose is a nebulous concept to me; I find serenity in cerebral, big idea stories. Amanda is spot on with her take on beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I recently played John Ayliff’s Industrial Accident and the connection of clicking on targets and things going so horribly wrong felt like I was an AI with faulty programming. Even with benign intentions, I was powerless to the effects of my interactions. The muzzle flash of every click was both disconnected and very relevant, and it spoke very deeply to me about how we must restrict the autonomy AI has in our world. Though I haven’t given the idea of “beauty” in writing much thought, I’d say…

Beauty is what touches you in a profound way. It reaches an almost spiritual level. You know it when you feel it, but you can’t describe it in any objective manner. It’s a complex symphony of neurons firing in a near perfect pattern that brings clarity to what you seek most in that moment; whatever that may be.


I def personally resonate there with you about tension and beauty.

Just felt like adding – I mean for this, I feel that it’s not really just pretty. I think there isn’t no tension – I don’t know the popular analyses for that poem, but I feel that there is some in those lines. That is just my reading though.

Like you said earlier, I also agree about eye of the beholder and all that^^


Just to underscore Amanda’s point, my favorite poet of all time is A. C. Swinburne, who writes the most beautiful (to me) descriptions but doesn’t have much of the tension she admires. (At least, not if I’m understanding her point correctly.) The Garden of Proserpine, my favorite of his works, is twelve stanzas of flowery description and beautiful imagery without much progression or contrast. The Triumph of Time, which Facebook recommended to me because I ended a long-term relationship five years ago today (thanks technology!), is forty-nine stanzas describing heartbreak with a similar tenor from start to end.

Everyone’s tastes are different. For me, beauty is in vivid descriptions and intricately-crafted words. I love wordplay and seeing what people can do with language, with rhyme and meter and zeugma and asyndeton and all the other tricks of the trade.


My two favorite “beautiful” games are for pretty different reasons:

  1. For a Change's beauty is more derived from its atmosphere. The game uses its own language for nouns, with descriptions being evocative and simultaneously vague. It leaves a lot up to your imagination, but it was a very pleasant time.
  2. I was uncharacteristically giddy about Pytho’s Mask. You are a noblewoman attending a royal celebration and, among other things, can size up the various men and androgynes around to see how fit they would be as a potential dance partner. You can flirt, kiss, they will compliment you on your appearance and such. The people you meet are all very proper and attractive. It makes you as a player feel pretty good too.

I’ve always felt “beautiful”/sublime games are the kind of stuff that unlocks a lot of ideas and concepts with a few words.

Stephen Granade’s Will Not Let Me Go takes on some hard-hitting subject matter while Porpentine’s With Those We Love Alive evokes a kind of fantastical, ephemeral imagery through cleverly picked sentences and interactions.

I guess my conception of beauty is a kind of austere minimalism that speaks to some larger idea. It wows me and creates a sense of wonder, like a speckle of dust turning out to be a microcosm of galaxies or something. That magic is hard to emulate, but it’s what I thrive for.