Towards a Cutie Aesthetic (◡ ‿ ◡ ✿)

Here is the transcript of the first talk I ever gave, at the Lost Levels unconference in Yerba Buena park behind GDC 2013.  I wrote on my cellphone in the hour before I gave it. I improvised some stuff and said um a lot so you won’t get the full experience here, but I hope it captures the gist of it.

I think games should be cuter.

Do you think games should be cute I think games should be cute!

We should have games by cuties for cuties. 

But we don’t.

AAA games are obsessed with looking real. Their reality is brown, and bald, and it has a lot of guns. When people are shot they shoot out lots of blood. Or sometimes you shoot blood at someone until they drop guns. Then you pick up those guns and shoot until they drop more blood and guns.

What I want is are games in which it is possible to do something else. 

I know you’ve heard something like this before and probably already feel the same way as me or you wouldn’t be here.So here’s something new: be cute. I want games that are cure because I want to be cute. And I’m pretty fucking Kawaii. 

Cute graphics are the only aesthetic that can truly free you from the tyranny of reality.

The reality you see in games is a powerful machine engineered by  mammon that is intended to be so real in so few specific ways that it is not real at all. The truth can be a powerful lie. When the only voices and people and things that are rendered with “reality” are guns and metal and soldiers and dust then reality will be strangled. The intention of realistic graphics is not to represent reality but to overtake reality. They are a vision of reality that only continues to stay true as long as we support and accept and believe that it is reality.

So I don’t even want to hear about reality. I don’t want reality. Reality will only ever be exclusionary. There is too money tied up in realistic graphics and its vision is inherently limiting.

So why not be cute? Cute graphics don’t take much money, and don’t take the same amount of sheer dedication. But more than that, cute is subversive. It alters and distorts and makes fun of reality. It’s dedicated not to visual fidelity but to emotional fidelity. Because every human vision will be personal, limited view, the only way to find a place for everyone is to give as many voices as possible a way to speak. The easiest way for us to find a way to speak is to speak by altering and mocking the voices that are already there. In order to destroy what is called “reality” it needs to be destroyed or altered or abstracted. And cute graphics can do this very well. They allow us a low budget way to subvert the expectations of audiences. They allow us a vehicle to destroy genre and cliche and tear down what the games industry tells us is “reality”. We can show them what reality can look like if it was done by cuties for cuties, by people who don’t fit into the hypermasculine balding wasteland on the showroom floor over there.

I want lots of bubbles and crystals. I want soft colors that let me feel warm. I want games about comforting and I want games about satire. I want games that don’t themselves so fucking seriously. I want a game that has a heartbeat, not a meticulously designed reality that deliberately excludes us. A cute aesthetic give us a power far grater than any of those millions of dollars can bring. 

Together, we cuties can destroy reality and remake it in our adorable image.

It wasn't a very well written speech, so I want to revisit it and maybe explain in detail why I think cuteness is so important.

I don’t like saying “AAA” or “indie” but no one has come up with better terms yet so I guess I’ll just stick with them. What AAA games devote an extreme portion of their budgets to is looking “realistic.” This is pretty much the exact same reason billions gets spent on big budget hollywood movies.

Of course, AAA games can’t render reality precisely or completely. They have to make a conscious decision on what they want to bring to life and what they don’t care about. So certain actions, like picking up ammo, like the individual movements of the human fingers, like the physical presence of a human body in the gameworld (most game protagonists are a bodiless 360 camera with a hitbox) are omitted to streamline the experience. Obviously this is the correct decision: picking up ammo manually doesn’t necessarily add anything of value to an experience that is meant to evoke a blockbuster film, in which it would be common for guns to shoot wildly incorrect numbers of bullets or suddenly appear in a hero’s hands between cuts.

However, when you choose parts of the human experience to render in the video game world, you are also choosing what to exclude, and you are making claims about what is important to the human experience, whether you want to make these claims or not and whether you intend to make those claims or not. Certainly, no simulations of complex economic systems or virtuoso painting are needed for a AAA FPS. Since your development cycles are limited, why not also cut other unessential elements from your game, like women?

This is not neutral. Intentional or not, whether you want to or not, you have created a world without women and must then examine what claims you are making by creating a world with graphical and physical realism, advertise as the closest games will get to reality. You can’t claim that you are not saying anything by doing this. “Realistic” graphics are not neutral. Games are made by humans; of course they aren’t neutral. They are what a billion dollar corporations believes the majority of people will find even more appealing than reality. The claims AAA games make, from gameplay to graphics, are designed to appeal to a very limited worldview and human experience.

So far so I’ve-already-heard-this before. The response I think a lot of us have to this narrow vision of “reality” is to push for inclusion. If queers and women and minorities get to join in the AAA space, we can become accepted and real as well.

This goal is probably worth fighting for, but I want to suggest an optional alternate goal to either include alongside that or make your primary goal if you feel like it and it’s: ignore AAA altogether.

I am speaking for myself, but I do not actually feel represented or included any time I see even a character that superficially represents me paraded by a new AAA game’s marketing department as a step forward, revolutionary, whatever. I mean it’s nice to see. But honestly, every character in every AAA game is so flat, so emotionally hollow, so flawlessly idealized that there is very little I can take away from them. We talk about wanting games to have characters that we can identify with; I can’t identify with a paper doll, even one that looks exactly like me or exactly how I want to be.

Oh, that doesn’t mean I don’t find that valuable too. Sometimes those paper dolls are beautiful and I think they’re wonderful and I love saving fanart of them. I would like to see more cuties dash punching robots at 60fps, please, that would be excellent.

However, I think that the goals of a AAA game are just completely removed from anything resembling a personal, human story that, while I think pushing AAA games to increasingly suck less is a good goal, there were over 80 games made last weekend in the #PPHSjam that contained more human stories rendered more delicately and tenderly than anything that game out in the last forty years on a console. There is a game that eroticizes clipart in there. These games are cute and they are human and about humans.

AAA is trying to appeal to as many people as possible. They might try to be accepting, but only in the most idealized way, and almost always only in stereotypes. This is common in every single industry that exists; you will not find someone who looks weird or cute or sissy or fat or whatever, basically, because they don’t just want to appeal to the most people, they are heavily invested in forcing conformity to a commodified human experience. Corporations would like you to buy a thing but they would not like you to feel a thing other than the need to buy a thing.

I said I was going to talk about cuties but I’m going to just Quote Patricia Hernandez instead:

“What is your interpretation of cutie theory philosophy?

At first it was this kind of amusing thing like, oh hey, there’s a new meme in my friends circle. And then it was like, hey, if everyone is calling everyone else a cutie I can do the same and maybe they won’t catch on that I have a major crush on them WE’RE JUST ALL CUTIES, HAHA. And THEN, somehow, it became kind of like an identification thing? Like, oh, yeah IDK how to define my gender/identity but sure I will be cool with cutie this can Be A Thing.

Which is huge since I hate(d) being called cute before. I guess it was seen as a kind of weakness?

So, the cutie philosophy has been a p great for me I gotta say. It’s weird to say that for something that seems so silly.”

So the idea is you don’t have to identify your gender or identity or body type: you can just be cute. Cute is a vague word and it’s used to describe a variety of attractive traits, and that’s important because usually to complement someone you tell them how much they look like whatever gender you’re assigning them. What if they don’t want to look like that? Everyone wants to be loved, but they want to be loved for who they are or what they want to be. Not that you can’t make yourself look attractive in a way others will appreciate but that you yourself loathe, because you’re really desperate for others to love you for any reason at all. That happens all the time, it’s just fucked up.

So cutie is way to say “you’re attractive to me and others in a way that our language doesn’t have precise wording for because it deliberately excludes and shames and punishes people for looking like you do, but I value you and think you’re neat!”

(Everyone will ignore this next part): this is of course my personal philosophy of what cute means and isn’t everyone’s definition and doesn’t need to be everyone’s definition and certainly there are other great and valid ways of using the word cute. And not everything that people call “cute” is subversive in this way. This is just mine.

But this is the reason why I believe a cute aesthetic is uniquely primed to disassemble ingrained notions of attractiveness. What AAA “realist” games are interested in is inclusion in a space that I don’t think I want a part in. If you’re hot, basically, you can hang out in the cool kid’s club. I never ever want to be hot. I never want to look like the protagonist of a AAA game. Being included in the AAA space means I get to have my identity as long as I look and act like some bald space dude and I just don’t want to! I want to fucking look cute, is that reallllly so much to ask?  Yes, because it fundamentally challenges all sorts of values about our culture. It goes way deeper than anything a AAA game would be willing to include for the sake of appearing diverse (except maybe Saint’s Row).

But the priorities of AAA are just too invested in a fundamentally exclusive system. They might let us hang out there but they wouldn’t let us be ourselves. So why invest so much in breaking through to a system that drip feeds us to keep us buying $60 games when we could find over 80 times the humanity in a weekend game jam?