I noticed recently that a surprising number of people are vocally offended by Tenderfoot's art style and so I tweeted about it, asking people to help me think through why this is.

Here's the tweet bringing the takeaways back but there's a lot of good stuff in the quoted thread: [link] (feel free not to click through, I'm going to cover what I find relevant anyway)

As an artist who wants to develop my eye, the only real takeaway for me is that it feels ungrounded and disorienting in a way that is somewhat unpleasant and hostile for people not used to looking at it. I think I'm so used to how it looks, and also so familiar with shape and color abstraction in art, that it doesn't bother me, but I think this is actually somewhere I could improve, rather than a strength.

BUT there are a bunch of other takeaways that turned into interesting conversations about audience etc. (So this post is actually going to be about THAT.)

aesthetics as ideology

Firstly, the look of the game is rare for the genre audience it's being presented to. Especially since I sourced the criticism from a genre subreddit, this is probably a huge part of it. Just by standing out, it's implicitly asking people to make a judgement on it, and it's natural that people who don't think of themselves as people who play games that look like this would be somewhat likely to make a snap judgement in the negative direction.

This ties into something Pol Clarissou said in the thread:

"aesthetic sense is just a form of ideology"

"artistic sensibility is built through a set of social values and signifiers and is very much a form of language, with vastly different frameworks for looking at things, and varying depths of literacy (most learned, not innate)"

"confronting ppl with something that falls outside of the framework that they've built to engage with this stuff can trigger unexpected responses just bc they don't really have means to parse it"

I think a lot of it is this, too! I live in my own aesthetic framework that I've built through my life by being very interested in art and painting and color, experimenting a lot on my own, going to galleries and museums, following other artists who are pushing in similar directions. And this milieu makes certain things feel natural and comfortable to me that feel strange and hostile to other people who don't have the same background.

There's another way to read this, too. Things that 'look like this' (abstract, colorful, surreal, rough) have a certain place in our culture. They tend to be associated with the more cosmopolitan, more elitist, and also with the more experimental, more counter-cultural, more punk or queer, so like both with low and high culture worlds of the political left of our world. So there's a lot of baggage, even unspoken, and I think that this kind of thing can feel alienating to someone who doesn't feel happy or comfortable in those worlds. Even if they aren't thinking about it. Possibly there's something 'virtue signal'y about making art that looks like this.

(Related reading: "Artistic craft beyond rebellion" by Marina Kittaka )

The 'tactical RPG' genre is fairly narrow, and lately full of games where you play as a cop, either literally or in some sort of disguise. They're also full of wargames, and especially with XCOM dominating the genre in recent memory, have a sort of xenophobia, valorization of global shadow government, defense of the homeland, or 'cool black ops' thing going on. I haven't actually played XCOM but that's what it's about right? I just hate the gameplay haha. And then in the latest XCOM spinoff game you're literally a cop yeah? But anyway the point I'm getting at is that these are all contexts that lean right, lean pro-authority, pro-war, and away from the cultural baggage that comes with abstraction and the surreal.

SO: did we scare off our genre audience by looking this way? Was it a mistake? I don't think so! I think tactical RPGs, the kind I care about, basically all trace back to Final Fantasy Tactics. FFT is unapologetically, loudly, anti-authoritarian, anarchist, counter-cultural. I think the genre has lost track of where it came from, and I think there are a lot of people like me who have been ignored by the genre over the last 20 years.

come for the ___, stay for the ___

I went for a long walk with Nick Kaman of Aggro Crab and Galen Drew of Very Very Spaceship last night and we talked about this a lot. Nick has this concept of 'the peanut butter vs the pill' (like you'd give a dog) and some concerns about whether their style for Going Under was too loudly medicinal (like it communicated that it was satire too outwardly) in a way that might have scared off a section of the audience that would've liked it as a game and might've been more open to the political 'pill' of Going Under's satire if it had been disguised in some more familiar 'peanut butter' with the art direction.

I think that a benefit of being smaller creators, of not trying to build our games at the scale of cost and distribution that AAA does, is that we don't need to speak to everyone all at once. Given that I don't need or want to speak to everyone, the question is how to speak to the right people

I think that the section of the audience that is so hostile to our aesthetic-ideology that they dismiss it out of hand and never purchase, are people who would be even angrier if they found out that gender doesn't exist in Tenderfoot, or if they were told outright that Tenderfoot is anti-authoritarian, etc. These are people who would be making my life way worse right now, tanking our reviews, filling up my limited emotional space. There are benefits to pushing certain people away in subtle ways, so that you can speak directly to the people who will actually listen. We don't need every single person in the world to be on our side, and we need to be able to reach the right people, who (I think) are still the majority of people out there.

I do however think there is something real about the peanut butter. The people you want to talk to aren't the people who hate your guts, but you also don't want to just be preaching to the choir. You want to find the section of people who might not have heard what you have to say, with whom your work has the capacity to really strike a chord. Those aren't the people who already agree with you, and many of those people will fall into the category of sort of general normie "this looks weird to me and I don't like weird" (especially if they're young and just haven't been exposed to a lot of the world yet). So I think there's a benefit to making sure your work is approachable and appealing in a broad sense for people who aren't from the same background as you, who are mostly familiar with our monolithic central cultural current of 'sweaty realism' or whatever you want to call the Unreal aesthetic.

This stuff gets close to thinking of your own art as propaganda, which seems unhealthyish and isn't how I want to think about my practice personally. But it's also part of an important question that artists are shyer about than I think they ought to be: who are you making this for?

It's important to me that the way I spend my life contributes to a broader world outside of me, and hopefully makes it marginally better. For that to work out, it's important that my work is accessible, and for it to be accessible it has to be accessible *to* someone, and I have to know who that someone is, roughly, and what sorts of things would make it harder for them to get at what's good about my work. Sometimes, maybe, the thing making my work inaccessible, to certain people, is just the style scaring them off.

where im headed

For the next game I'm hoping to play a lot more with light and texture. Largely this is because those are areas where I think I have room to grow, and I think it'll make the work more satisfying and enriching for me as a craftsman. But I also hope to use light and texture to build an aesthetic that feels more familiar, less hostile, to people who don't have an interest in fine arts or design, one that's more grounded.

We also plan on staying in the somewhat cartoonish, stylized, colorful world, that I realize carries baggage of ... comfort with the childlike, comfort with femininity, appreciation of nature, etc. I think I don't want or need to speak to the devoted 'dark gritty fantasy realism' subsection of the audience, because I think there's a large, and largely ignored audience, even in this small genre, that very few games are speaking to at all. Maybe that's too prescriptive. I think the next game will still speak to like 98% of people who like 'sweaty realism', while subtly pushing away the 2% who like 'sweaty realism' and are also cops.

December 6, 2020