Minimalism in Games
If there’s one thing video games are lacking right now, it’s a notion of restraint. If you weren’t aware, Call of Duty: Ghosts released this week, and that’s about as over-the-top as a video game can get. Grand Theft Auto V, which is the biggest game this year (possibly ever) is sprawling with more gameplay features than you can shake a stick at. Assassin’s Creed IV does the same, swamping the player in collectibles and side-quests. Developers are caught up in an endless race to outdo each other by throwing in as much content as they can into their products. Games are less about being an expression, and more about being a time-sink.
So many games are throwing in multiplayer, an XP system, and trying to be open world. The biggest games this year, whether it’s Tomb Raider or Batman: Arkham Origins, don’t have a trace of inspired game design. Rather than making a game with a distinct vision, developers are throwing every previously established idea at a wall and seeing what sticks. There’s value in minimalism that few games seem to embrace.
When I say minimalism don’t confuse it with simplicity (though this mistake is common). Simplicity, in terms of video games, is intuitive game design. Simpler games are easier to understand and easier to learn. The best example of simplicity in games is Tetris (it’s about as simple as a game can get). Minimalism, however, is a game that uses as little features as possible for maximum effect. The reason minimal game design is rare is it gives a game less to sell itself on. Minimalist games are marketed on either their story, or an interesting game mechanic (sometimes both) but even then it’s a tough sell.
What makes minimalism effective is its purity. Nothing in the game is wasted, so everything that remains has a greater impact on the player. Games like Assassin’s Creed 3, or any of the Grand Theft Auto games have little atmosphere despite boasting with loads of content. These games give little for the player to focus on, it’s like a child with ADD trying to tell a story. Compare the numerous plot-twists in the Call of Duty games to the one twist in Portal. The latter is effective because the player is a lot more likely to focus on the story when they don’t have a thousand things distracting them.
Think of the story in Limbo or in Ico. These games give the player next-to-nothing to go on, however there’s little else to focus on. The player is motivated to find out what’s going on and will examine every detail, catching all the clues and hints and piecing the story together themselves. This is the most effective way for the video game medium to tell a story because it is using the interactive elements of the game to expose the narrative. Rather than shoving the narrative down the player’s throat.
Minimalism also improves gameplay. This is practically a mandatory requirement in puzzle games as any wasted objects are likely to distract a player from the solution. Portal, Ico and Limbo give the player just enough the pass each puzzle and are all of these games are minimalist in design.
Minimalism is one of the most underrated qualities in video gaming and it’s used even less. The advent of the indie game is a positive trend for minimalism, there’s only so much money that can be put into video games before the inevitable law of diminishing returns kicks in.