When Not to Turn It to 11

“The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and…”

“Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?”


“Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder?”

“Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?”

“I don’t know.”

“Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?”

“Put it up to eleven.”

“Eleven. Exactly. One louder.”

“Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?”

“[pause] These go to eleven.”

This Is Spinal Tap

As a civilization we are preoccupied with going to 11. We first like to rank things (dining experiences; movies; potential sex partners) using some set of real numbers like 1-10 (inclusive); we then seek cases where the object in question is so illustrious as to exceed the arbitrary scale we just invented, perhaps due to outstanding salt prawns or because she hails from ‘Elevenessee’. Our species invented the ‘five-alarm chilli’, then the six-alarm chilli, and then, conceived in the darkest reaches of Flavour Mordor, the insidious eight-alarm chilli. (How much spicier is it? Three alarms.)

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is ‘not doing it’ and 10 is ‘just doing it’ I suspect Nike is currently holding somewhere around 12 or 13, which constitutes a year-over-year growth of 1.2 just do its.

I once read an article about how id Software’s publisher wanted them to fill their games with as many ’11 moments’ as possible. Always be turning it up to 11! More awesomewatts per second! Crank that funometer all the way up, and then crank it even more up! One gets the impression that as game designers we want the minds of our players to be exploding violently on some kind of perpetual basis.

Poster for Daikatana reading "John Romero's about to make you his bitch."

John Romero turns it up to 11

The joke, on a structural level, is that this line of thinking misapplies the concept of upper and lower-bounded scales to a problem better suited to the more general ideas of greater and lesser. A guitar amplifier has a minimum gain (off) and a maximum gain (the loudest it will let you go), which is to say it has a range, yet the members of Spinal Tap have identified a critical deficiency in this device’s design: Over time, our ears become numb to the intensity of anything played at the same consistent volume. When something first gets loud it seems pretty loud, but if we listen to it for three minutes straight it will at some point stop seeming ‘loud’ and start seeming ‘the same’. To be musical, therefore, it is necessary to let go of the absolute measure of volume and start dealing instead in ‘getting louder’ and ‘getting quieter’, employing something performers call dynamics (which is another word for ‘change’). This is why we characterize the passages of a song not by their decibel rating (our sensory apparatus is actually totally incapable of measuring that reliably anyway), but instead by when the song gets louder, when it gets quieter, and how much its volume changes relative to how loud it used to be.

In a certain sense, this principle is applicable to all signals in all artistic media; it’s not about the maximum volume, but how and when that volume changes. Melodies are defined by variations in audio frequency over time (playing the same 256 Hz tone for 3 minutes is not in most cases considered musical). Paintings are defined by the relative changes in the spectral power distribution of emitted light (that is to say, color) across the canvas’ surface. Horror movies deal in changes of tension, whether it is rising gradually and then discharging through a scare shot or else ratcheting up a little at a time throughout the entirety the film (Hitchcock is well-known for doing the latter). The composition of any object, from rock music to photographs to interactive experiences, is defined not by how much 11 there is but instead by how carefully it chooses its 11s to successfully impact the audience.

You have to earn your 11s. They must be contextualized, led up to and away from with care; orchestrated. If you neglect to do so, you are creating shapeless noise rather than anything resembling art.

A Color Wheel showing complementary colors

In the disciplines of painting and graphic design, there are things called ‘complementary colors’. These are colors that, due to various mysterious biological and cultural reasons, seem to harmonize with one another by virtue of being exact opposites in terms of how our eyes perceive hue. Complement, and various other relationships like it, form the basis of what painters call ‘color palettes’, which are systems of colour designed to create interesting visual compositions through the strategic use of contrast (some people refer to these visual compositions as ‘paintings’).

Portrait of Vincent Van Vogh

Van Gogh

Unsurprisingly, composition requires finesse. You don’t, as a general rule, want to just grab red and green and slather them in equal measure across the canvas; you want to use nuance, perhaps taking a lot of faded green and then throwing in a bit of intense red right at the most interesting part of the image (like one of your subject’s eyes). One color might dominate, occupying the majority of the image in various patterns of intensity and texture, while its complement may appear only sparingly as a point of contrast. A lot of green makes that bit of red look even redder; a little red makes that wide swath of green look greener. Use contrast to direct attention, to create shape, to give context, and ultimately to establish relationships. Use it to create dynamics! Dynamics are what you want.

If you were instead to ‘turn it up to 11’ and paint the entire canvas green, you’d be left with a uniform, featureless block of color equivalent to holding one note for eight minutes. Unless you’re going for something ‘high concept’ (and really, even if you are), this is a bad idea.

A solid blue image

Van Gogh TURNED UP TO 11!

Like colors and musical notes, game aesthetics have complements too. ‘challenge’ is a very popular thing in video games, right? Don’t we want the player to exist in a perpetual state of ‘flow’, her mastery of the game rising synchronously with challenge so that she learns at an optimal rate and her brain feeds her all of those delicious endorphins? Well, perhaps not. The above scrawlings have three important implications for challenge in video games:

  1. The player will only detect challenge when it is changing relative to her abilities (the game either seems to be getting harder or seems to be getting easier)
  2. In order to create an interesting composition, designers should think carefully about how and when to make the player feel these changes.
  3. Don’t try to just turn everything to 11 all the time.

Is it really the case, then, that we want video games to be consistently challenging at all times, throughout the entire duration of the exerience? I doubt it. As with all things, a lack of dynamics produces a lack of contrast, and that means no context, no direction, no shape, and no journey. Remember the last segment of Half-Life 2, with the super-charged gravity gun that lets you grab opponents off the ground and fling them wantonly into bottomless pits? This segment is not ‘challenging’ in any regard; it is instead illustrative of ‘mastery’, an aesthetic complement of challenge. The player begins HL2 in a weakened and vulnerable state, led around by the tip of a cattle prod, yet ends the game as a wrecking ball. The experience has dynamics, and that is part of what makes it work.

Now, as a counter-example, think about The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s rather questionable level scaling mechanics. Because enemy stats are increased precisely in step with the player’s, the goblins people fight in the early game are, by design, more or less exactly as difficult as the goblins they fight in the late game. (Similarly, those monsters you would expect to be very intimidating, your Daedra and liches and such, tend to remain equally lukewarm no matter how strong you or they are supposed to be.) The results, in my experience at least, were absurd. When it is impossible to feel overwhelmed (or to be overwhelming), no satisfying sense of challenge can possibly exist. The experience is shapeless, one single colour, one single note. In attempting to make every encounter balanced and appropriately ‘challenging’, Bethesda made the mistake of trying to keep the dial at 11. And so our senses grew numb.

There are aesthetics other than challenge as well, each with complements of their own. In a game about exploration, one should sometimes feel lost and other times feel like Carmen Sandiego. In a game about puzzles, one should sometimes feel stupid and other times feel like a genius. In a game about survival, one should transition at various rates between insane desperation and inundation with wealth. The composition of these different aesthetics is what defines the game. Give it careful thought.


  1. Pingback: Games as Histories | Brendan Vance

  2. Matt says:

    I really love this exposition. I loved that Half-Life 2 experience for exactly the reasons you write about: I had earned the right to be a beast at that stage in the game.

    I always felt that Thief had that same reward for getting better–the game put you in more difficult situations, but your skills tangibly increased and the same guard was easier to deal with as you mastered your own abilities.

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