How Abstraction Breeds Empathy

Jonny Bråten
Apr 3 · 11 min read

As a young person, I remember always having difficulty understanding abstract art when I recognized it. I’d come across a painting or a drawing consisting of shapes that to me resembled and meant nothing, and for the lack of any other way to interpret these images I’d find myself wondering what the artist behind the picture could have been thinking. Now, this failure in interpreting the art most likely came from my own ignorance at the time, but having said that I do believe there is something in the callowness of youth — perhaps in its worldly illiteracy — that does not always lend itself well to appreciating abstract art, and that at times makes us dismiss it, planting the seeds of an unfair appraisal that might live with us into adulthood, outliving the youth in which it was born.

But of course the art of abstraction is not one to be dismissed, and it remains a part of our lives whether we acknowledge it or not, whether it’s in art, in technology (e.g. abstract programming), or in the way our minds simplify everyday tasks and objects to prevent ourselves from crumpling beneath the complexities of the real world. Perhaps abstract art in specific has a way of being looked down upon by some due to the very word “abstract” becoming synonymous with “something I do not understand and is too vague for me to interpret.”

In video games, interestingly, abstraction was the aesthetic point of origin, not so much out of an artistic choice but rather by necessity. Pong (1972) could with no doubt have been made to look differently than what it did, but given the technology and tools available at the time, there’s a limit to how much more visual fidelity it could have attained in any feasible way. The venture into unexplored artistic territory — although that was not what it was considered at the time — with limited tools tailored for their purpose was not entirely unique of course, and what I say of the first video games may also be said for the cave paintings of early humans. Importantly though, Pong was not the first video game to ever be created. In fact, Computer Space had by then already had a commercial release the year before, yet had failed to reach the commercial success it was aiming for, with complexity often being the reason cited for its lackluster performance, both by audiences and by one of the game’s creators. This complexity might in large parts have come from its controls, but I think it’s worth noting how visually simplistic pong looks in comparison: the ball a simple square, the rackets mere rectangles. But even as I say this I’m leveraging the game’s abstraction; what ball, what rackets? I’m letting the game’s given name shape my visual interpretation of it, but it can just as well be the representation of a tennis match, or of two friends passing the time by throwing a frisbee back and forth in the local park.

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Left: Computer Space; right: Pong.

One of the major pleasures I find in reading books is its inclination for the abstract. I’d never deny the potential of one image alone to speak a thousand words, but more is not always better, and brevity can also be a virtue. As opposed to something like a live action movie, where almost everything within a given shot, by nature of photography, is already clearly and crisply defined in one of the most visually concrete ways possible (even the characters being real life people in costumes), the page of a book contains only symbols, and even then more than half of the page is left white. Painters too must actively choose what they put on their canvas, but should the artist choose to paint one end of a bridge at the edge of their canvas and the other end in the edge opposite, the bridge itself must more often than not either be depicted between the two points or actively obscured. The freedom of writing allows for more disjointed aesthetic brush strokes; the writer may put down any detail they deem fit, and anything not contained therewithin may remain unmentioned, invisible, nonexistent.

Except it does exist of course, even if it’s both invisible and unmentioned. Like the painter could use the law of closure to suggest the bridge just enough to where a viewer would project the remaining shapes onto the canvas, so may — must — the writer do with words. When the writer only describes each sides of the bridge, we do not assume there to be nothing in between. When the writer depicts a character by describing their hair and sweater, the reader does not (generally) assume the character is naked from the waist down (or taking it even further, that the character has no body beneath what is described at all). The unmentioned is created and exists in the mind of the reader, and in being asked to create what the author has yet to specify — and here’s what I’m trying to get at — the reader does so using their own experiences, their own thoughts, their own building blocks from life, if you would. We bring ourselves to art. We shape art, and art in turn shapes us.

Perhaps this sounds blatantly obvious to you, but it’s important to keep this in mind and acknowledge it, both to see it in broader context and if you’d ever wish to apply it. Stephen King brings this up in his On Writing A Memoir of the Craft as well. As he puts it:

“If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school student with bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, you can do the rest can’t you?… We all remember one or more high school losers after all; if I describe mine, it freezes out yours, and I lose a little bit of the bond of understanding I want to forge between us.”

Essentially: learn the art of describing the feeling and texture of the thing, place, or person you’re describing rather than physical details; let the reader fill those in for themselves.

Video games falls into a somewhat unique position here. With enough technological ingenuity, they often have the same limitations and freedoms as the painter, but with the added aspect of having to create a world that does not just seem real, but a world that a player can in fact move around in — one in which they can to some degree get their bearings.

The Zelda series (and to some degree Nintendo in general) has been known to focus on distinct visual styles rather than photorealism. Twilight Princess (middle) was perhaps the series’ farthest move away from this, but the series has since returned to more stylized and simplistic looks. From the left: Ocarina of Time (1998), Twilight Princess (2006), Breath of The Wild (2017).

I’ve argued this before, but I truly do believe something was lost — or at least buried — in video games’ progression to high-fidelity visuals. I don’t mean to say visuals should have stayed the same; as of this writing, modern games have reached a level of detail that at times border on the photo-realistic, which is stunning in and of itself, but it does leave a lot less open to the imagination. Once game visuals reached a certain point of visual detail, scenes from both 2D and 3D games could, with a little effort, be related to that of our own. If you’re anything like me, you never imagined, say, a low-poly 3D character from the 90s to be as plain as they were really depicted. Doing so would probably have offered some difficulties in terms of creating a believable image of said character in your mind. After all, most of these older character models has such hard and sharp edges, bumping into their shoulder looks like it’s apt to slice you open. Not all games are or were equal in how well they depicted what they were trying to, but a lot of games gave you a world, characters, objects, and shapes, and let you adorn them with details.

Ōkami (2006) has a visual style inspired by ink wash painting, a style of East Asian brush painting used in calligraphy, among other things.

The 2000s saw a transition in games that veered away from stylized humans and anthropomorphized animal characters. Crash Bandicoot turned into Jak & Daxter, turned into Nathan Drake; Sly Cooper lost his place to Infamous’s Cole; Spyro and Ratchet and Clank were replaced by Resistance: Fall of Man. Noteworthy exceptions like The Wind Waker and Ōkami tried to create unique visual styles rather than recreations. It’s notable how much better the visuals of the latter two have held up in the years that has followed. I say this also partly to acknowledge that while visual realism is now the norm rather than the exceptions, stylized and simplified looks are in no means dead, especially among 2D games and in the indie scene. That said, these specific art styles are now rarely made out of technical limitations, and in that way, video game artists have less things these days forcing them to create distinct visual styles. As opposed to before, developers must now actively choose whether to create a stylized visual look or to go down the road of photorealism, regardless of how far down that road they get. (I don’t do a good job of keeping up on movie releases, but I’m under the impression that this transition from distinct styles to visual imitations of real life might also not be too foreign for those having followed Disney’s animation from the 90s up until the recent live action adaptions of the same movies).

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Video game visuals evolved with a clear desire to express a technical prowess, but there’s also the insecure air of a medium and an industry that wished to be taken more seriously and deal with more serious subject matters, and perhaps worrying how the not-so-gruff visuals and protagonists of old might give off the wrong image.

Hopefully, you might have realized now that the reason I’m stressing this issue is not because I have some highly refined aesthetic taste that simply cannot be satiated by the likes of games aiming for photorealism; I’m sure I find the visual feats of modern games as impressive as the next person, and what I’m trying to get at is far more important than having something be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. The purpose of art, I think, is to be helpful to people, and one of the ways it does that is by connecting them together in ways that simply being together in the same room cannot. Art can make us have deep connections and realizations because it lets us share thoughts and feelings and experiences that we can personally relate to in ways metaphorical rather than direct. Contradictory, we can relate and convey these things more clearly by abstracting them or knowing what parts of them to share and which ones might simply be clutter. I’ve tried to be careful with my use of the term “realism” for this reason as well, for there are of course many things in real life that are abstract (e.g. religion, markets, societies, consciousness), and a lot of the things art can make us feel are often more “real” than the depictions contained within them in the first place. In some ways these feelings are echoes of those given by the renowned abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky in relation to painting. Kandinsky thought realism and abstraction were not opposed, but conjoined — that there were real, important things that could not be seen, but perhaps they could still be painted.

Kentucky Route Zero (2013–2020)

I’d be amiss not to also at least mention the pleasure of simplicity in itself, even when one does not provide more details oneself. Pretty recent games like Absolute Drift: Zen Edition and Lonely Mountains: Downhill are great examples of this. Downhill sticks to hard-edged, low-poly models that suggests more than enough about the world and your character without introducing too much detail unrelated to the experience it’s trying to convey. Where driving and racing games have been known for their attention to extreme detail and painstaking recreation of real-life cars and at times tracks, Zen Drift goes out of its way to keep its world uncluttered and painted with just a few, simple colors with even fewer shades. These are games that can be so easy to lose yourself in, going into the titular Zen mode, not because of their richly detailed worlds but because of these worlds’ focus. Their visual styles are pretty, but they’re also very functional, providing you with just the right visual input you need to connect with what’s going on in the world of the game and plan your next move. Thumper, while it has more colors and things going on at the same time, is another recent game that comes to mind that leverages its visuals to achieve this.

Left: Lonely Mountains: Downhill; right: Absolute Drift: Zen Edition.

I believe we need to see the value in both types of visual styles in games, as we might do in other mediums. I believe distinct styles and photorealism can and should be able to coexist much like live action and animated movies do, even though the history of games and their visual development might make it harder to distinguish “more detailed” from “better looking”. There are games that at times can look life real life photographs, games that look like reality with a hint of distortion, and games that looks like a cartoon or a painting, and each has their place.

Dishonored 2, while retaining some of its predecessor’s painterly look, makes a great case for the use of its details: art within art. Some its’ world’s sculptures and paintings can be viewed in great detail, and they’re the kind of art you could imagine appreciating by themselves had they existed in our world.

These days I find that the average level of abstraction within a given medium heavily impacts both my partiality to it and in what sort of mood I’m most willing to engage with it. They also serve as a good indication of what art might be interesting to revisit; one of the joys and frustration with more abstract art is that they might mean an entirely different thing to you at one point than what they initially did. I also realized somewhere down the road that the reason abstractness did not appeal to me the same way when I was younger, was that, as a young and more inexperienced person, I simply did not have as much to bring to it as I now do. The more experiences you have, the easier those gaps left by the artist tends to fill.

Children can be great at filling gaps as well of course — the best, in some cases. We just tend to do it unconsciously, and most likely not considering that we are shaping the art we’re interacting with at all. One of the things that have brought this point home to me is going back to books I read or games I played in my younger years, realizing just how much of what I remembered came from me, rather than the art. For games, a typical result of this is loading up the childhood game in question only to find yourself saying “wait a minute, this isn’t what it looked like at all,” at least until you familiarize yourself with it again, and make it your own. If you don’t do this much yourself, I urge you to try and discover this for yourself. As Neil Gaiman wrote in his speech The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography:

“I don’t know if any of you have ever had the experience of returning to a beloved childhood book. A book that you remember a scene from so vividly, something that was etched onto the back of your eyeballs when you read it, and you remember the rain whipping down, you remember the way the trees blew in the wind, you remember the whinnies and the stamps of the horses as they fled through the forest to the castle, and the jangle of the bits, and every noise. And you go back and you read that book as an adult and you discover a sentence that says something like ‘”What a jolly awful night this would be,” he said as they rode their horses through the forest. “I hope we get there soon,”’ and you realize you did it all. You built it. You made it.”

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (2011)

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