The Aesthetic Redundancy of Synaesthesia


Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was an acquired taste for me. I instantly liked what I heard—the beats were lush, and Big Boi and Andre 3000 both used their vocal cadences to perfectly match not only the percussion, but the melodies of the synthesisers and samples as well; not to mention the intricate lyrics that were a perfect blend of Southern rap themes and the more technical aspects of East Coast rap—but I just couldn’t get passed the unbelievably strong flavour and texture of the music which could be best described as half-crumbled, half-melted shortbread biscuits soaked in the tartest; sweetest lemon butter jam.

These biscuits filled my mouth while I listened, and a faint red, gaseous haze would settle just in front of my nose; visible but odourless, and terribly distracting. Of course, now that I’ve got used to such sensations, I am able to appreciate them just as much as the aural experience, and Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik may just be my favourite Outkast album; each Outkast album has its own flavour—most so strong that I have to get used to each album before enjoying it completely.

It may sound bizarre, but to me it is bizarre to imagine anyone listening to Outkast without being able to experience their flavour; it would be like listening to them without hearing the full range of audio frequencies—an unpleasant experience that anyone can easily simulate through the power of laptop speakers. But, by the same token, what I have described is surely not quite as fantastical as most descriptions of synaesthesia: some romantic notion of on the edge musicians seeing the colours in the music, man as if on an acid binge—ah, acid. If you were not born with synaesthesia then it is one of the two easy ways that one might experience synaesthesia, or something close to it.

The second is—contrary to popular belief—not videogames, but brain damage. Desperate to experience genuine synaesthesia? Instead of playing Rez, why not have someone hit you over the head with a baseball bat? Why not try being hit by lightning? The odds are that the resulting brain damage you may receive probably won’t allow you to experience synaesthesia, but the sound of the baseball bat crunching against your skull as you feel its impact; the black, sickening vision as you lose consciousness, is just as synaesthetic as Rez!

Which is to say that it’s not very synaesthetic at all. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not criticising the game, but I am criticising the concept behind Rez and a long list of independent videogames that critics love to encourage by falsely referring to the experience that they provide as being synaesthetic. Well, technically they are—if you have synaesthesia!

I could tell you a thing or two about how the metallic ting of highlighting a hook feels (a cool, but pleasant sensation on my teeth, gums and the insides of my cheeks) in Dyad, but the overriding feeling is one of sensory overload. Indeed, the very aesthetic-base of Dyad is sensory overload: the technicolour disco ball look of the game with hooks constantly flying towards you as the backgrounds shift; the sometimes high contrasts between the backgrounds of the tubes and the hooks placed on them; the music that can reach deafening, drone-like heights. It batters the senses. Yes, it is beautiful, but it is also vulgar and violent. Its intentions are to overwhelm or, at the very least, that is the aesthetic that it creates. It is an excellent aesthetic.

Through this aesthetic it attempts to confuse the senses into experiencing what is not reality, thus misinterpreting the etymology of synaesthesia and relying on its aesthetic association with psychadelica and acid, but at least there is some logic behind its design. Even so, it fails to successfully simulate synaesthesia any better than an irksome jackhammer on the road outside which confuses your hearing to the point where you mistake an errant vibration for a knock on the front door.

But not all games that have been described as synaesthetic could be more accurately described with the term sensory overload. Some are incredibly relaxing experiences; minimalistic even. But do not fear fellow videogame journalists and critics alike, such games that intend to be a mostly aesthetic experience (and may not focus on more than one sense) can still be adequately described without using the term synaesthetic. Sensuous can describe an experience that is deeply rooted in the senses, just as sensual can also; no sexual connotations need be automatically assumed by the reader with either term.

So with so many viable alternatives (several is a lot for the average videogame journalist or critic’s vocabulary) why do we still find synaesthetic being used so erroneously? It occurs not only in videogames, but film, music and even book reviews as well. But we’re talking about videogames, so we need not worry about other mediums yet. The games in question often market themselves as being experiences that link the visual, aural and gameplay experiences together; as if a melding of the senses is inherently synaesthetic, but this is not only a redundant statement in terms of aesthetics, but one true of almost any experience.

Let us first consider aesthetics: listen carefully to the music in a film, and you will find that it follows not only the visual and narrative tone of the film, but the editing as well; and this applies not only to something that may be popularly described as synaesthetic, but to the likes of The Lord of the Rings too. The only difference is that The Lord of the Rings doesn’t market itself as some window into another mind state of being. But let’s not stop there; what about dinner?

Imagine you are eating a nice roasted pork chop, mashed potatoes and apple sauce. You hold the knife in one hand; the fork in the other. The metal is cold, but both the knife and the fork are warming up not only from the heat of your fingers, but the heat from the sweet smelling steam that rises warmly into your face as you cut up the pork chop, the grain of the meat almost felt through the tips of your fingers as the knife glides gracefully through it; the fork stabs it bluntly, your thumb jarring as the prongs of the fork collide with the china of the plate. You can hear the apple sauce almost splash as you raise the piece of pork chop that you have cut away and then skewered with your fork before you feel the weight of the mashed potatoes—white and fluffy—resting on top of the brownish-white meat of the pork; the almost golden apple sauce dripping onto the plate below as you open your mouth: the delectable smell of all ingredients not only filling your nostrils, but settling on your tongue and your lips as an appetiser for the food you are about to taste.

And as you place the fork on your tongue—your lips gliding wetly across the metal and the apple sauce dribbling moistly down the sides of your tongue, and the mashed potato sticking dryly to the roof of your mouth; the pork chop not yet tasted, but anxiously awaiting your teeth—you not only feel the textures of the ingredients, but the differences in temperature as well. Your teeth slice through the pork chop, making the sweet, moistening mixture in your mouth salty; though the pork fat is sweet too, and you can feel the grain of the meat catching between your teeth as you chew, and then as you swallow you feel the food pass through your throat; while still tasting the greasy remnants of it in your mouth—all senses enjoying the meal which you are presently eating.  And you haven’t even tried the red wine yet!

The above is a synaesthetic experience if ever there was one! And yet both sensual and sensuous are far more accurate descriptors; but unfortunately they do not have quite the same air of pretention and the esoteric that synaesthesia entails: how many articles that use the term must spend a paragraph or two describing just what synaesthesia is, then desperately try to link it to the game in question? Initially, at least, almost every single one of them! But everyone knows what sensuous means; what sensual means, sexual connotations aside.

Yet, there are other ways that one might attempt to experience synaesthesia that are a whole lot safer than acid, and not a whole lot less accurate: the effects that drugs create are inherently synthetic and false; the very fact that you are entering an altered mind state make them so, which is not to discourage anyone from taking acid. But if one would like a safer way to experience what it might be like to have synaesthesia, then read a good novel and really let yourself be immersed in it and feel what the writing is depicting.

Novels are an inherently abstract experience, their words managing to awaken the senses in the reader through little more than association and composition; the only visual output involved in a novel (that isn’t illustrated) is entirely unrelated to what the reader experiences. In that sense, as an aesthetic, one could almost describe writing as synaesthetic—one would still be wrong, but not quite so wrong as when describing a game in the same way.

Easier still is association; once again being closer to—though still not an accurate representation of—synaesthesia. Play a game while listening to the same song over and over again; now listen to the song without playing the game. There is a good chance you will experience flashes of the game you were playing, and if you are to play the game again by itself, then there is an equal chance you will experience flashes of the song you listened to. Think of it as posttraumatic stress disorder, but minus the trauma; minus the stress; and minus the disorder. Or in other words: think of it as synaesthesia.