Variety is – Part I

July 27, 2014

Let us take a moment to appreciate that the URL for this post shall forever be “Variety is Part I,” no dividing punctuation.

Variety is more than “the very spice of life” (per William Cowper). Variety is the fundamental substrate of human experience. And, from there, it should come as no surprise that variety in art style or movie visuals or videogame content is important for “spice.”

So let me give you a “generalization alert” here: I’m about to draw parallels between things that people already know. In this case, I’m comparing storytelling and art to the basic human experience. Can you handle such mind-boggling generalizations?

Consider vision science, i.e., sensation and perception, i.e., that part of psychology concerned with how your visual system works (among other senses, depending on focus). It’s not enough to ask “How do we see things?” because the very question makes an assumption: that “things” are what we see. It’s more accurate to say we derive the existence of “things” after more basic calculations. At the most basic level . . . we are change detectors.

Change is information. Turn your screen black for a moment and look at your blurry reflection. If you needed to summarize what you saw, how would you do it? State “There’s an inch of horizontal forehead, then two more inches, then another two-and-a-half”? No, that’s a waste of breath. More effective is to note “Here’s a line; on one side of the line it’s my skin color, while on the other side it’s my hair color,” and suddenly both hair and forehead are understood. Pick another line and you get the edge of an eye, for instance.

It is these edges, these changes from one state to another, that define what we see. Conveniently, basic eye anatomy is designed to detect edges. Look it up online or take my sensation and perception class if you need more explanation: it’s a fact of the eye that we seek and emphasize change. Not just change across space but also change across time, as, of course, the motion of an object is also part of perceiving the “thing.”

Now consider the people who take advantage of the powers of vision: artists. I enjoy reading webcomics, and as I’ve taken my daily fill I’ve heard artists using the phrase “visual interest.” For all I know, it’s official art terminology as taught in schools — for all I know, it’s an arbitrary yet convenient phrase picked out of linguistics.

What does it mean? I don’t know, but it’s admired in places like Calvin & Hobbes: the comics are “interesting” because the characters don’t just stand around and talk. Not only are Calvin and Hobbes off dashing down a hill when it’s relevant to the story, but they’re walking along logs and clambering over rocks when it has nothing to do with the matter. Something happens: poses vary, camera angles vary, scenes vary, everything varies; especially in this comic, famous for varying basic panel format not to mention content.

Thus does the webcomic artist, say, speak of how a character design could use another detail here or there for visual interest, but people in many domains use this same idea. I remember stepping into a college dorm and hearing the phrase “you need to put posters on the wall or something” over and over again. The posters themselves didn’t have to be good, and, in some rooms, wow were they not; but people seemed to expect something in the blank space, here and later in life. Your porch looks better with a potted plant; the walls look better with a painting; the floor looks better with a rug; something to “break up” the flat expanse. To form an edge and make a change, else it’s all the same everywhere and therefore, by definition, nondescript.

It seems variety is just to be expected in art as in life. What about in videogames? Next time I will discuss it in game design using a few examples — with level of interest to be varied.

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