Back when I was in high school, I studied a poem by William Butler Yeats called “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”, which was primarily about the Irish airman’s love for the thrill of flight. I was always puzzled by this – how can a physical sensation like the thrill of flying carry so much meaning to someone? Isn’t the Irish airman just a shallow hedonist, no better than a sex addict?
Now that I’m much older, I still think some of the critique still stands, but I now have a better appreciation for the simple physical pleasures in life like a thirst-quenching drink or the smooth touch of a dog’s fur. I did not however, expect to find myself playing not just one but two videogames purely centered on such simple joys.
Mirror’s Edge and the Joy of Running
To be fair, Mirror’s Edge is not merely about the joy running, but rather high-speed-and-very-dangerous-running. The danger factor brings out the adrenaline, and possibly disqualifies it as a “simple joy”. Same reason why folks don’t consider parkour or extreme sports as “simple joys”.
But Mirror’s Edge is still noteworthy because it centers the enjoyment of the whole game around the thrill of a single physical sensation. Sure, the game has a narrative, there are combat sequences and the aesthetic design is very nice, but that’s not what anybody remembers about their experience with Mirror’s Edge. Instead, they will remember the crazy jump in the opening mission (screenshot above). They will remember the blurring of the vision and Faith’s gasping for air when she starts sprinting really fast. They will remember the FEEL and the THRILL of running. Despite the game’s flaws (of which there were quite a few), credit must be given for the game’s creators for accomplishing what (to my knowledge) has not been done before: to successfully simulate the thrill of a physical sensation.
de Blob 2 and the Joy of Seeing Colours
Perhaps more unexpectedly, I had great joy playing de Blob 2. Not because the mechanics of the platforming was fun (it was okay), but because the aesthetic design, in particular the use of bright colors, just brought me so much joy. Just like with Mirror’s Edge, the game designers center the game around the concept of colours – even the narrative and mechanics of the game was about colours. Just like Mirror’s Edge, they were centering the game around a physical sensation – the ability to perceive and enjoy the beauty of bright and vibrant colours. I don’t think it worked for everyone, but it certainly worked for me, to the point where I think this game has given me a new-found appreciation of the importance of aesthetic design in games.
But I digress. This article is about simple joys, such as the thrill of running, or the joy in seeing beautiful colours. And while it is surprising that videogame designers choose to center their games around these simple joys, perhaps it is more surprising that we can gain joy out of such simple sensory experiences in the first place. In Popologetics, Ted Ternau describes his simple joy in the smell of cooking onions, and he asks a profound question: what possible explanation could there be that I should have this sense of joy in the smell of cooking onions, other than I was created by an extremely loving God?
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?
(Psalm 8:3-4, ESV)
Indeed. While some may argue that color perception may be an evolutionary trait which helps us to survive on to pass our genes – what can we say about the enjoyment of colour? I think Ternau is right – only a wonderfully loving God would make us creatures with the ability to perceive pleasure. For the greatest gift God can give to us is Himself, and in His great love for us, he has made us capable of enjoying Him. The small joys and pleasures of life, be it the Irish airman’s thrill of flying, or the joy or parkour, or the beauty of bright colors; these all point towards the infinite joy and pleasure we will one day receive when we are finally at home together with Him.