Less Is More?
Modern gaming is often plagued by the lure of feature creep, with gamers and publishers alike frequently expecting or demanding that a feature list as long as your arm (or, possibly, your leg) appears on the back of a game’s box. Over time, we have been conditioned to expect an online component with virtually every game for example and, in fairness, at £40+ per title it’s not unreasonable to expect value for money. ‘Value for money’ and good game design are not necessarily one and the same however, and just because you can include an extra element in your title, doesn’t mean that you always should.
This topic was recently brought to my mind upon realising that many of the games I’ve had most enjoyment from of late have been wonderfully single minded of vision and mechanic; titles that only attempt to do one or two things, but to do them extremely well and as a result avoid getting bogged down in the needlessly complex or distracted by side-quests or secondary goals. Put more simply, they resist the urge to pad out their experiences, confidently walking their own path towards clearly defined goals, finding genius not by adding more but by focussing on delivering less.
Here are a few prime examples of titles that do so much, with seemingly so little:
The Impossible Game (iOS/Android/Xbox 360/PSN/PC)
As with a number of the other games featured in this list, The Impossible Game is played with single finger. Visually, the game barely even exists (some squares, some triangles, some blocks, a line) and the gameplay can be summarised with ‘tap to jump, hold to keep jumping, avoid obstacles’. By rights, it should be considered rudimentary, basic and underdeveloped, but in practice The Impossible Game is fiendishly difficult, addictive, challenging and strangely hypnotic.
Groove Coaster (iOS)
Over time, the rhythm-action genre has got more and more complex, with this evolution coming to a peak with Harmonic’s Rock Band 3, since which the rhythm-action gravy train has ground to something of a halt. Taito’s Groove Coaster goes back to basics, reducing player interaction to a series of taps, holds and swipes of the touchscreen, and this minimalist approach allows the player to focus on …or, more correctly…get lost in the rhythm of the game’s wonderful soundtrack. Combine this with its dizzying pace and psychedelic visuals , and Groove Coaster effortlessly reminds you of what made rhythm-action so appealing in the first place.
Dear Esther (PC)
I recently attempted to extol the wonders of thechineseroom’s Dear Esther to my mother but quickly realised that my description was destined to fall horribly short of capturing what makes the game so engaging. ‘Dear Esther is great’, I said. ‘You walk around this really beautiful island and a narrator tells you a story’. This is not something a publisher would want to splash over its promotional material…
Glancing at a few screenshot, Dear Esther looks like the prettiest first person shooter ever made (or, arguably, one of the most beautiful games ever made, period) but don’t be fooled. There are no guns, no interactions and – beyond being able to walk and turn – no special abilities for you to get to grips with. And yet, it manages to craft one of the most memorable gaming experiences you’ll ever have, wringing feelings of dread, isolation, sadness, awe, fear and many more besides out the player by committing wholeheartedly to its core concept and avoiding the temptation of diluting it with collectibles, fetch quests or other standard gaming tropes.
Journey (PlayStation 3)
Though mechanically more complex, thatgamecompany’s PSN hit Journey shares a lot in common with Dear Esther, similarly managing to be equal parts game and pure experience. Starting at point A (a nameless desert), your mysterious, unnamed character is gently nudged towards point B – a shining mountain far in the distance. In terms of actual gameplay, very little really happens in between – there’s a little bit of sliding down sand-dunes, the odd period of floating about and a smattering of collecting flapping bits of cloth. There is virtually no skill involved (beyond being able to manipulate an analogue stick and press a button) and no fail-state.
It’s as if Nintendo crafted a Zelda title with one quest and only a couple of characters, and also forgot to add any plot exposition or subtitles. And yet…even without these things, Journey is utterly engaging and genuinely memorable, rewarding repeated playthroughs not through increases in difficulty or by arbitrarily flinging new bells and whistles your way, but by simply creating a world that is a pleasure to inhabit. Additionally, its lack of exposition and overall feeling of ambiguity allows the player to project there own meaning onto events; though it can be considered an adventure in the most traditional sense of the word, the minimalism of its design gives it the purity of a mirror that reflects right back at the player.
The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character(PlayStation 3/PSP/PS Vita)
He’s rendered in two dimensions. He rotates. And he’s an octopus. Simples (as they say in insurance adverts nowadays). In this lovely PlayStation Mini from Dakko Dakko, the titular character constantly rolls around retro-styled two dimension world while attempting to collect all the baby octopi scattered throughout the levels. The player’s input demands two buttons – one sending octopus character flying across the screen at right angles to the surface on which he’s stuck and the other changing direction. The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character is a fine example of design-driven gamelay that’s accessible, elegent and surprisingly deep. Not bad for an out of control, two dimensional cephalopod…
Shadow of the Colossus (PlayStation 2/PlayStation 3)
Of all the titles listed in this feature, Shadow of the Colossus is arguably the most mainstream/traditional – and yet, even amongst its AAA, blockbuster peers, the simplicity of Team Ico’s game provides a striking contrast. A criticism that has often been levelled at Shadow of the Colossus is that it is nothing more than sixteen boss fights, interspersed by a lot of travelling around on a horse. At its most rudimentary level, this statement is actually not that far off the mark. It is, however, entirely missing the point.
Jonathan Blow (creator of cult favourite ‘Braid’) commented that game designers who ‘[don’t] trust that players will find the playing of a game to be rewarding enough […] add baubles and unlocks to keep the player playing’. Shadow of the Colossus (and Ico, for that matter) is the antithesis of this. Rather than stuffing the impressively large world with side quests, collectibles, non-player characters and other such distractions, Team Ico has ensured that the focus is always on Wanda, his horse Aggro (to whom it is almost inevitable that you will become attached) and the sixteen colossi that must be hunted down and slain. This was an incredibly brave design decision, and one that has paid off in facilitating a game of breathtaking intimacy that contrasts beautifully with the epic production values, in turn evoking feelings that are not normally associated with interactive entertainment.
So there you have it; a small collection of games that achieve so much by doing so little and ensuring to do it well. From rhythm action to quirky arcade romps to the beautifully epic to the quietly introspective, all demonstrate that trimming off the fat does not automatically equate to dumbing down and that lean game design can in fact make for more impactful experiences. This is obviously just one way to create engaging and enjoyable titles, but publishers forcing developers to ram unnecessary features into their titles should take note and remember that, sometimes, less really is more.
This feature appears courtesy of www.gametaroo.com
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